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Alternatives to Romance: Nicole Kornher-Stace on writing platonic relationships in Archivist Wasp and Latchkey (& a Giveaway)

Hello everybody and happy Thursday! As you may recall, a few years ago Ana read and loved Archivist Wasp by Nicole Kornher-Stace. There is now a sequel out – Latchkey and we are delighted to welcome Nicole to the blog to talk about writing the platonic relationships in the novel, along with hosting a giveaway.

In the three years since Archivist Wasp was published, there’s one thing about it that keeps coming up in reviews and reader comments/questions again and again. Which is fine by me, since I haven’t gotten tired of talking about it yet! (Hilariously, after signing up to write this post, I got put on a Readercon panel on the same topic. They said: Tell us why you should be on this panel. I said: I never shut up about this topic. Ever. It is the soapbox I will die on. And they gave me the panel! Readercon = BEST CON.)

And so, without further ado! The full, entire, possibly long story of why I write all my close relationships as friendships instead of romances, the pros and cons of same, and how I wish more books/movies/shows/etc would do so. (I do. So much. Universe, take note.)

First, I have to go way way back to when I was 12 or 13 years old and saw the movie Aliens for the first time. (This will make sense in a second, I swear.) I freakin’ loved that movie. It’s one of my all-time favorites. But the thing I was struck maybe most by is the extremely understated relationship between Vasquez and Drake. They have so few lines together, so little screen time in general, and yet you come away from that with this very solid sense that you’re just seeing the tip of an extensive backstory iceberg. In that scene where he dies and she has to be bodily restrained from going after him, I remember thinking (at impressionable 12 or 13, remember, and a compulsive reader in a house of movie fans, so by this point absolutely saturated with storytelling in its various forms) oh, ok, I guess they must have been in love. And then I sat with that for a few minutes and had this lightbulb moment where I realized I’d assumed that just because of what had been previously presented to me in the media I consumed. And I’m not talking about specifically romance-oriented books or movies, because that’s never been my jam personally. I mean everywhere. I realized I liked the Vasquez/Drake backstory about a billion times more if it has them being space marine buddies with a lot of history together. But I still remember the moment where I had, and then examined, this kneejerk reaction of: if a woman in a movie is willing to die to save a man, or vice versa, that’s shorthand for They’re In Love.

Over the next few years I saw a lot more war movies (SFF and historical alike) and had a secondary realization: men die for each other in movies all the time and nobody assumes the motivations are romantic/sexual. (Although in some cases I’m sure they are!) Even now I can think of very few fictional examples of man/woman fictional relationships along these lines. There’s Naomi and Amos in The Expanse (although he straight-up says he’d bang her if she let him). There’s Mako Mori and whatshisname in Pacific Rim, and I almost started yelling in the middle of the theatre when they didn’t actually end up kissing in that last shot. (Although I kinda feel like they were about to?) There’s Rita and *cringe* Cage in Edge of Tomorrow, although in All You Need is Kill, the source material, they do end up sleeping together (and that dude’s name is not Cage but that’s a whole different story). I haven’t read the other two in the trilogy YET but maaaybe Cheris and Jedao in Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire books? (FINGERS CROSSED FOREVER.) There are probably others I’m blanking on right now, but they’ve always been few and far between, and tend to come with that pesky qualifier although. (I am always on the lookout for recommendations along these lines, so please please please let me know if you have a good one!)

Tangentially, there are a number of band-of-sisters stories cropping up (Rat Queens and Lumberjanes are two of my favorite recent examples of this) and while it’s a nice addition to the band-of-brothers theme shown in literally every war movie ever, it seems that as soon as you have a mixed bag of men and women in the same story, nine-point-nine times out of ten there’s gonna be romance, or sex, or at the very least relentless sexual tension. This struck me immediately and viscerally as a double-standard that I needed to fight in some way. It’s stuck with me ever since.

Because here’s the thing about preteen- and teenage-me. I didn’t give a shit about romance. I still don’t. It’s just not who I am. And being completely surrounded by it on all media fronts, growing up, I started to get this little voice in the back of my head, like, is something wrong with me that I just don’t see the point of this thing that’s allegedly all-important? I was a loner kid, spending all my free time reading, playing video games, watching movies. Cramming my head full of stories. (To this day I learn as much about plotting and pacing and framing and structure from movies and TV as I do from books.) And yet all the thousands of books and movies I consumed didn’t provide me any frame of reference for when one person is super into another person but has zero interest in getting into their pants. I pretty much literally never saw that represented. I needed examples of strong platonic friendships that could have turned into romantic/sexual relationships and didn’t. And they were — and are — really, really hard to find.

It’s a large part of why I started writing my own SFF short stories around that age, say 13 or so. I sat there with my self-addressed stamped envelopes and my mail-requested guidelines and my 1996 or whatever edition of Writer’s Market and subbed them. They all got rejected, of course. But in those stories I was already up on this soapbox — many of my characters had very intense, nonromantic, nonsexual, male/female relationships. They’d kill for each other and die for each other, but it was always platonic. And even at the time I suspected that’d be difficult for readers to relate to, just given the preponderance of the alternative in the media I knew. I didn’t care. It was who I was and what I had to write, and that was enough.

Fast forward until 2012 or so, when I first went on an agent hunt for my YA debut Archivist Wasp. In short, it was disastrous. I got lots of rejections due to how “impossible” it would have been for “teens to relate to” the story and the characters’ motivations and relationships. A few that were more specific basically said, look, this is YA, you need romance. Love triangles are especially popular, but romance is key to sell YA. We really like this otherwise, so hit us up if you happen to rewrite it to fit our needs. And I did what I always do in situations like this, namely: armor myself in toddler-level stubbornness. No, I’m not going to write romance into this book. I will give it away for free on my shitty website before I write romance into this book. And for a while, that was that. I got rejected by every agent I approached, and the vast majority of the rejections were strikingly similar. I pretty much resigned myself to figuring out how to self-publish, because in AW I had written the exact relationship I would have needed to see as a YA-age reader, and if I walked that back for an offer I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself, full stop.

Then, by some miracle, I met Ysabeau Wilce (go forth and read her stuff, it’s amazing) at a Readercon (I’m telling you: BEST CON) and she expressed interest in reading the draft of AW. I was already a big fan of her stuff, so I was thrilled she wanted to check out this weird draft of this weird book by this weird nobody. What I didn’t know is that she also talked it up to Gavin at Small Beer Press, a publishing house I’ve also long been a fan of. I got an email out of nowhere from him a while later saying they’d love to publish it. And — astoundingly — not once did they ask me to include romance. Ever. At all. Almost everyone who’d read the draft of the manuscript was highly skeptical that the book could sell as YA, but Small Beer never doubted it. I don’t know why they were so confident, only that I needed it to be YA so that other teens like teen-me could find it, and they, for whatever reason, agreed.

And then something amazing happened. This weird little book found its readers. It found a lot of them. And they started saying these wonderful things about how this was the exact book they needed, the lack of romance is so refreshing, they wished they had this book when they were younger, etc. Early readers of Latchkey, the sequel, are starting to say the same things about the relationships in it. (Spoiler: still nontraditional! Still complicated! Still intense!) On a School Library Journal award blog post, they wrote that in AW “there was no romance and yet this is the deepest love story I’ve ever read.” Over at Lightspeed, Amal El-Mohtar wrote: “It was also keenly refreshing — especially in something that’s ostensibly YA, where the Love Triangle of Doom is so annoyingly pervasive — to find a book in which all of the strongest, primary relationships are friendships; where friendship has the narrative, motive force usually reserved for sexualized romance.”

And I was like, this right here? This is why I stuck to my guns, and why I will keep on doing so forever. Whether or not my books are hard to sell, or don’t sell well, or don’t make me rich and famous. I don’t care. I’m writing the relationships I needed to see as a teen, and if they’re the ones that other teens need to see too, that’s really all I want. If the books somehow eventually become well-known enough that I can do my tiny part to normalize strong nonromantic/nonsexual platonic relationships as an Accepted Thing — especially in YA media — then that’s pretty much all I could possibly have hoped for.

Nicole Kornher-Stace was born in Philadelphia in 1983, moved from the East Coast to the West Coast and back again by the time she was five, and currently lives in New Paltz, NY, with two humans, three ferrets, and more books than strictly necessary.

Her short fiction and poetry has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Best American Fantasy, Clockwork Phoenix 3 & 4, The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women, Apex, and Fantasy Magazine. Her poem “The Changeling Always Wins” placed 2nd in the 2010 short form Rhysling Award, and her short fiction has been longlisted for the British Fantasy Awards and nominated for the Pushcart Prize.

She is the author of Desideria, Demon Lovers and Other Difficulties, The Winter Triptych, and Archivist Wasp.

You can find her on Facebook or on Twitter @wirewalking.

The Giveaway

Courtesy of the author, we are giving away one paperback copy of Lathckey – the giveaway is open to all. Please use the form below to enter and good luck!

a Rafflecopter giveaway


  • Tammy @ Books, Bones & Buffy
    July 12, 2018 at 8:23 am

    Lovely guest post, I’m all about friendships in fiction as well! I’ve heard nothing but wonderful things about both books, thanks for the giveaway?

  • Jenny @ Reading the End
    July 12, 2018 at 8:38 am

    I cannot WAIT to read this! Archivist Wasp was such a strange and interesting book and I LOVED it, and I had no idea a sequel was in the works until about a month ago. So this is v. exciting for me!

  • kim
    July 12, 2018 at 9:15 am

    Sounds like a good read.

  • Stephanie
    July 12, 2018 at 9:20 am

    Before I learned the term aromantic, I used to tell people I was allergic to romance in my own life. Don’t mind it in books, sometimes love it in books, but don’t see a lot of books without it.

    Now that I’ve read this about the relationships in Archivist Wasp, I’ve got to read the book!

    One trilogy I love that doesn’t have romance in it is the Deed of Paksenarrion by Elizabeth Moon. The main character has deep, deep friendships forged in battle, but she doesn’t want romantic love–this is discussed a few of times in the series. The series also has a really well-written look at deep depression, though for that reason I have a hard time re-reading the second book in the trilogy at times.

  • Penny Olson
    July 12, 2018 at 10:52 am

    It’s absolutely refreshing to read stories where the strong relationship is not a romance. Thanks.

  • Daniella Bohill
    July 12, 2018 at 11:35 am

    I am beyond excited that this book exists. Loved Archivist Wasp so much.

  • Mervi
    July 12, 2018 at 3:11 pm

    I’m also not a romance reader so this book, and all your stories, sounds very interesting.

  • Anita Yancey
    July 12, 2018 at 5:46 pm

    It sounds like a fascinating book, one I would really enjoy reading.

  • Lexi
    July 12, 2018 at 7:08 pm

    I am excited to read the next book as I am always interested in books with potentially ace characters. The series that starts with Vicious by VE Schwab has confirmed that one of its characters will be canonically Ace in the next book.

  • Katrina
    July 12, 2018 at 7:50 pm

    I sobbed when I read Archivist Wasp. I loved it and tried to recommend it to many many people, only to discover that it’s a very difficult book to explain without going on and on in way too much detail. I’m so happy that there’s a sequel!

  • Hannah
    July 13, 2018 at 12:26 am

    Archivist Wasp was wonderful, and I was very happy to see a friendship at the center of the novel. I have seen a few mixed gender “I will die for you” platonic relationships in books before, but they’re almost always between siblings. Idk, I’m usually more interested in fictional friendships than fictional romances (especially the dreaded love triangle) in books that have a lot of other things going on. Books that are primarily romance are usually great with me though! I think the difference is that often, especially in young adult novels, the romance feels tacked on, and as it inevitably takes a lot of page time, I start to feel like it gets in the way of the plot instead of enhancing it. I have to wonder how many other authors faced pressure, both from within and without, to put romance at the center of their books, and what stories we could have had without it.

  • Gerd Duerner
    July 13, 2018 at 3:20 pm

    I must admit the only time this truly struck me was in the movie Stealth where they, for reason know probably only to themselves, forced in a romatic interest between Jessica Biel and the guy (who’s name I can’t remember) who ends up going to save her … I’m mean this was a movie about soldiers, so camaraderie wasn’t deemed a strong enough incentive?

  • Pixel Scroll 7/13/18 It Was The Time Of The Pixel In The Year Of Scroll One | File 770
    July 13, 2018 at 10:58 pm

    […] (4) WITH NO CLINCHES. The author of Archivist Wasp explains it all to you at The Book Smugglers: “Alternatives to Romance: Nicole Kornher-Stace on writing platonic relationships in Archivist …. […]

  • Ken Richards
    July 14, 2018 at 3:49 am

    I was very impressed with Archivist Wasp when I read it a couple of years ago. Thanks to the author for this post with its perspective on relationshiops in fiction and film in general. Good to see authors unwilling to take the easy way out

  • Sabrina
    July 15, 2018 at 4:44 pm

    I loved Archivist Wasp when it first came out, and I can’t wait to read the sequel. Thank you for the giveaway!

  • Vicente L Ruiz (@VicenteLRuiz)
    July 17, 2018 at 6:09 am

    This made me remember I never got around to buy and read book 1! So, make that two books now (but I’ll wait for Latchkey with fingers crossed)!

  • Debbie Gascoyne
    July 17, 2018 at 4:25 pm

    I am so excited for Latchkey! Archivist Wasp was one of my top favourite books the year I read it, and I’ve been proselytizing for it ever since. Thanks for the giveaway opportunity!

  • Artwor
    July 19, 2018 at 7:57 pm

    In the middle of the 18th century, according on the standards of Witt Ruwee in “Suggestions about imitation of Greek works in building, sculpture and painting”,
    Winckelmann criticized the trendy decoration and
    said, “Since Witt Ruwee compliantly blamed the fallen decoration, in modern times it really is even worse. The contemporary discourages clutter and for that reason results in a clean and polished look. And in 1631, the King of Spain – Philip IV also awarded him the knight title.

  • Sarah Montgomery
    July 19, 2018 at 10:42 pm

    Gosh, I loved Archivist Wasp when I read it. It was so fresh and original.

    I would suggest maybe Ancillary Justice for deeply intense relationships that are not romantic, although gender doesn’t really enter into it.

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