Wow, it’s been a while since I did one of these, but today I’m interviewing Claudie Arseneault to talk about her upcoming new superhero NA story centring aromantic characters and non-romantic relationships, Baker Thief. It’ll release on June 26th, 2018, so that’s not too long a wait now. It’s delightful!
Disclaimer: I edited Baker Thief and am biased not just because Claudie is a dear friend but because I edited the book. I just love it bits and bits and I can’t wait for you all to meet Claire, Adèle and everyone else. Baker Thief has been one of my favourite books of 2017, and I couldn’t talk about it, and I fully expect it to be one of my favourite books this year as well, and now I can talk about it. WHOOT!
So, without further ado, let me give you the description and we’ll hop on over to the interview.
Adèle has only one goal: catch the purple-haired thief who broke into her home and stole her exocore, thus proving herself to her new police team. Little does she know, her thief is also the local baker.
Claire owns the Croissant-toi, but while her days are filled with pastries and customers, her nights are dedicated to stealing exocores. These new red gems are heralded as the energy of the future, but she knows the truth: they are made of witches’ souls.
When her twin—a powerful witch and prime exocore material—disappears, Claire redoubles in her efforts to investigate. She keeps running into Adèle, however, and whether or not she can save her sister might depend on their conflicted, unstable, but deepening relationship.
BAKER THIEF is the first in a fantasy series meant to reframe romance tropes within non-romantic relationship and centering aromantic characters. Those who love enemies-to-lovers and superheroes should enjoy the story!
LEO: In the description of Baker Thief, you talk about the book reframing romance tropes with non-romantic relationships. I know that, as an aromantic author, this is incredibly important to you, so can you tell us a little about your experiences reframing the tropes?
CA: A lot of romance tropes are about relationship dynamics. Second Chances, Enemies to Lovers, Mutual Pinning… these tell of a type of story, a narrative progression romance readers have seen in various shapes and forms, that they can recognize and enjoy. And romance, really, is about characters finding a Happily Ever After (or, at least, a Happy For Now) through a romantic relationship. When romance readers defend their genre, they’ll often point to the rarity of HEAs for marginalized characters and to stories in which characters have depth and evolve a lot. But ironically… neither of these things are intrinsically tied to romance at all. In fact, the idea that one can only get their HEA through romance is incredibly toxic, especially to aromantic people, many of whom don’t want one and end up feeling broken and certain they’ll end their lives lonely and miserable. So, yes, romance is doing a great job of providing HEAs to marginalized people. It’s also pushing a very specific idea of what HEA means and, yes, profiting from it. And… I know this all sounds like I’m dissing romance, but I actually like the genre. It’s just… it’s actively hostile to my existence in many ways, and reading it demands a lot more energy than most other books.
That’s why it’s important to me to write what is, in a way, romance without the romance. My community shouldn’t be barred from these delightful tropes because many of us don’t do romance, nor should we require only aros who do want a romantic relationships be allowed into the stories. Writing Baker Thief though… allowing myself to take my favourite tropes, to make them my own and reframe them on non-romantic relationship… gosh, it’s been such an experience. First of all, it has allowed me to recognize that yes, I was on the aromantic spectrum. That’s already huge! But it also validated so much of how I perceived and built relationships, what I centered in them. You can spend weeks screaming every day that friendships are just as important as romance, that there are no “just friends”, but when you actively center your stories around something else than romance? When you allow these other relationships to take the stage and use these tropes? It’s so much more concrete. It’s real, and it feels wonderful.
LEO: It really does feel amazing. <3 Claire owns a bakery and uses baking to deal with the stresses in her life. How did Baker Thief influence your own baking experiences?
CA: I didn’t even bake before this novel. Then my boyfriend came home with a recipe for croissants, and we tried a few times until we got … okayish with them? And I got really into that, let’s be honest, especially chocolatines. Ironically, he was gifted bakery recipe books last Christmas, and when we received that… well, I dove right in. I don’t think I would have been half as interested without Baker Thief, though. I’ve always loved bread, but I’d been watching videos and reading for research, and suddenly I had all I needed to try. Turns out, it was fun and delicious and, yeah, kind of relaxing? I find activities where I create stuff—to eat or to wear or to read—to be really good for me.
LEO: Croissants! I really ought to have found a way to work croissants into the question, since they’re also so important to the images in the book. What’s your favourite pun in Baker Thief, though? Insofar as you can answer without offering any accidental spoilers.
CA: Now that has the meanest questions of them all.
LEO: *preens* I know. I would apologise, but I’m not sorry. Anyway, please continue.
CA: Barring the one that’s kind of… the heart of the novel and the pun that really started it all… I think it’s Chapter 20’s title? So I named all my chapters in French, right? And I came upon this chapter where a character creates a codename for herself, and she chooses Spying Paddlefish, because she’s ridiculous and lovely like that. For me that codename is kind of iconic, and it was a good way to symbolize the chapter and what happens without spoiling what’s inside. But … that meant I had to translate the name. “Paddlefish” is “poisson spatule” in French, and “spy” is “espion”. So I ended up smashing words together into “Espoisson Spatule” and it looks absolutely ridiculous and I love it. Totally in character, even in French!
LEO: That is awesome! Zita is amazing and I adore Spying Paddlefish for, um, Reasons readers will just have to go forth and learn for themselves, but that pun is amazing and… I don’t know, I kind of feel like the French pun is even more like Zita? I love it! So… Seguing from that into a related topic… How did your bilingualism influence writing Baker Thief?
CA: I want to be cheeky and say “in every possible way” and isn’t that always the case? I strongly believe that the languages you speak and the words one has to describe the world shape how we perceive and experience it. But with Baker Thief specifically it’s a lot more obvious. The characters speak French, even though I’ve written it in English. I’ve used French expressions both untranslated (“à la une” for front page), or literally translated word by word (“hitting nails” for “cogner des clous”, meaning nodding off). I’ve played with sentence structures at times to stick with a more French way to say things, I’ve used a French gender neutral pronoun into English sentences (ol). Normally, I work hard to curb the French out of my writing. This time, I let it shine wherever I could. That, too, has been a lot of fun.
LEO: *grins* It really has been and I can’t wait for people to read it. It was SO much fun to read. 😀 Aside from weaving French into the fabric of your narrative, you also included queer terms like ‘demisexual’ and ‘aromantic’ explicitly in the narrative. I’m sure you’re aware of the pushback some readers have against the terms in certain types of fiction as being ‘too modern’, so did you find it as hard as that pushback would suggest?
CA: Not difficult at all? I mean. What’s ‘too modern’ in a world that exists outside of our time, with a city that isn’t meant to represent one specific era, and with a novel that’s already switching between two languages and uses very ‘modern’ expression? While there are great reasons not to use labels (you’re writing from a different culture that has different words, frex, or you’re writing historical with a historical style, or you’re writing an ownvoice story with a complex relationship to labels), a lot of the hesitation I see is more… not wanting to deal with the pushback. But you know what I’ve received way more than comments saying the use of neopronouns or current labels? Heartfelt thanks for them.
These words matter to a lot of people (see also the bit above about how the words we have shape how we perceive the world). Ask yourself who you’re writing for. Because these words, well, you can build them into your story. Using them becomes a part of your worldbuilding, an indication of progress vs heteronormativity. I’ve read worlds pretending to be in a future where most anti-queerness was gone, yet it wouldn’t use the word aromantic…and what’s that supposed to tell me? So I’m not even careful how or when I throw the words around. I just do. Readers will have to accept early on this is the kind of universe and stories where these things, words, and communities just are.
LEO: I admit I was trying to angle that question to elicit exactly this response because you’re so right about everything you say here and I really hope it’ll help people be less afraid of using these words in their fiction.
I’d say we’re moving to a lighter issue regarding representation, but we’re actually not. I’d love to talk about Emmanuelle specifically. She’s Adèle’s sister and an important secondary character. I adore the differences between both of them, and especially the fact that, as a STEM-oriented person, Emmanuelle gets to be the sister interested in fashion and make-up. Was that a conscious choice?
CA: Yes and no? It was absolutely, 100 % conscious choice to give Emmanuelle those tastes, but giving STEM girls a character who was brilliant and loved make-up and dresses and was beautiful wasn’t my first motivation. My first goal was to give fat people that. Gosh I am so tired of seeing fat people represented in a negative light. Emmanuelle is fat, she’s a genius engineer with a stellar reputation, she’s funny and courageous… she’s just all around great, you know? And while there’s certainly room for more nuanced fat characters, there’s plenty of fat writers that can do that a million times better than me. I’d rather write fat characters that will rock your boat—just like so many fat people do in my life, every goddamn day.
I realized quickly I was subverting some STEM stereotypes too, and that just made me even more happy to do it. I remember fairly early on, I had a reader comment on a line that said Adèle was always in pants and dirt, and Emmanuelle had the pretty dress, with “… not the other way around?” (I think that might even have been you), and at first I was confused. In a “why do you expect the police woman to love dresses?” before I understood the gearhead in a dress was what had prompted the question. I guess being in a STEM field with lots of women myself, I’ve seen enough of them be the dress-and-makeup types (and the “judge on people’s appearance” types too) that it didn’t feel that weird.
LEO: It was me, I think. It’s not so much that it was weird to see a woman in a STEM field love dresses and makeup, but more that it was unexpected to see that reflected in fiction, if that makes sense? I’ve met too many people in a STEM field who are the dress-and-makeup type to count, but fictional characters? I need but one hand even if I count generously and I’ll still have fingers to spare.
Anyway, Baker Thief’s world is strongly based on French-Canada, but its city setting means we only get to see brief glimpses of the wider worldbuilding. What are some of the ways in which our world influences the setting of Baker Thief?
CA: It’s important to keep in mind that it’s not just French-Canada in general, but specifically Quebec City. Elements of the city’s layout are the same—it’s a fortified city on a cliff, which sprawled out of the walls and formed new neighbourhoods below the cliff. I kept the British Conquest, too, which means one of the major ways is in how wealth is structured within Val-de-mer itself. The rich neighbourhoods have “English” names on their streets and landmarks, for example, and the mairesse listens to “French” singers worried about the loss of their language. The influence isn’t in the wider setting so much as in the details, and the hints of what’s beyond.
LEO: One of the most important lines in Baker Thief is “Je crois en toi” [“I believe in you”], because it connects to every theme the book has. How important are those words to you?
CA: Very, although not in the same way they are to Claire and Adèle. I’m not a very religious person by nature, but faith to me goes to other people. To friends, to family, even to strangers. It’s important for me to believe most people try to be their best selves, and it’s important to believe they can achieve that, that they can get their dreams. In a way, to me these words are wrapped into hope. And I think that believing in others this way is an incredibly important form of love, one that isn’t necessarily romantic in nature, so it’s a natural heart for Baker Thief.
LEO: Witches’ magic in Baker Thief works somewhat similar to superpowers in that everyone has varying abilities and varying strengths. If you could have magic, what would you want your ability to be and why that one?
CA: Teleportation, no questions asked. I mean, sure, ice magic like Livia’s would be amazingly cool looking, but how handy is teleportation? Especially in this day and age, where so many of my friends live across mountains and oceans? I could just text—hey, want to chill tonight?—and then pop, here I am! Not to mention stuff like attending conventions and going on vacations to cool place. So. Teleportation, especially if I’m strong enough to bring others along.
LEO: Oooooooh. That is a fantastic way to look at it. 😀 Me, I think I’d like flight. It’s not as handy as teleportation, but I love wind and the idea of soaring through the sky on my own strength. I’d probably end up getting myself in trouble, though. Oops?
Claudie Arseneault is an asexual and aromantic-spectrum writer hailing from the very-French Québec City. her long studies in biochemistry and immunology often sneak back into her science-fiction, and her love for sprawling casts invariably turns her novels into multi-storylined wonders. Claudie is well-known for her involvement in solarpunk, her database of aro-ace characters in spec fic, and her unending love of octopi. Find out more on her website!
And that concludes the interview. Just a reminder to everyone: Baker Thief releases on June 26th, 2018 and you can preorder it now. Preordering will also mean that you get access to a lovely cookbook with several delicious recipes. Check out the details.