"More vibes, less plot": Cat Sebastian talks Queer romance, historical fiction, and allyship

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Cat Sebastian — Photo courtesy of the author
Cat Sebastian — Photo courtesy of the author

For our next winter book club read, Cat Sebastian takes us back in time to a story set in a cozy 18th-century coffeehouse. The Queer Principles of Kitt Webb tells the love story of Kitt, a retired and cranky highwayman with a permanent disability due to his dangerous past, and Percy, the scorned son of a nobleman looking for revenge after the untimely death of his mother and hoping to save a dear childhood friend from a similar fate. Using his charm and good looks, Percy attempts to get Kitt to aid him in one final robbery, but soon the two find their hearts stolen by each other.

Sebastian sat down to talk with me about her book and the unique challenges of being an author of Queer historical fiction. If you're a fan of the genre, no doubt you've encountered Sebastian's work — The Queer Principles is her 14th published novel.

Despite her successful writing career, Sebastian never set out to become one of the world's leading authors of Queer historical fiction.

"I didn't write anything until I was in my mid-thirties," Sebastian said. "I had been reading a lot of historical romance novels, and I was kind of annoyed. After like, the hundredth one, you start to notice that there are no Queer people, no Brown people, no disabled people. So it started to get on my nerves. And this is back in 2013-ish, and I didn't have the social media connections that make it easy to get book recommendations as soon as you have an idea in your head for a book you want to read. So, I was like, I guess I'm just gonna have to write this book.

"I had never written a book. I had never written anything longer than an email, and so I just sat down and wrote a Queer historical romance novel."

Her first book, The Soldier's Scoundrel, hit the shelves in early 2016 and was a success. Sebastian never looked back, and for the last five years has generated novel after novel of Queer historical fiction.

"I think the appeal of historical fiction is that it's at a remove from your usual daily life," she said. "I know that's what it was for me when I was reading. It's because I cannot relate at all. I can read that, and it's like good escapism. I'm sure it's the same vibes as someone who wants to read about aliens or whatever."

Doing the research
Despite her love for the genre, Sebastian received pushback when she first decided to write Queer historical fiction, mainly from people who didn't think Queer people existed in historical periods.

"When it comes to Queer historical fiction, we have this tendency in culture to be like 'Queer people must not have existed because we don't see them in the historical record.' [But we] do see them in historical records, and when we don't, there are many good reasons for this. Queer people have been systematically erased from so many narratives that putting them back in, especially putting us back into settings where we have been deliberately kept absent from, is satisfying to me as a writer."

Writing historical fiction means having a deep love and understanding of history. Before she began writing The Queer Principles, she first had to research the time she planned to set the story in. "My first research was reading books that were written at the time and finding images of what taverns looked like, what coffeehouses looked like, what people's clothing looked like."

The next part was more difficult. She had to understand the lives of LGBTQ+ people in a time when any documentation could be evidence of a crime.

"My main challenge is writing Queer characters in historical settings when homosexuality [was] illegal... and the idea of being severely punished for this [was] always going to be on the mind, especially for Queer men," she said. "Even among people who [were] too powerful to have to worry about persecution, being ostracized [was] still a real possibility.

"I wanted to make sure that I was not making that candy-coated, but at the same time, I wanted to write a book where Queer people could read it and not be traumatized or triggered. I wanted it to be a safe, cozy, warm novel. So I want to make sure that those thoughts — those 'we have to be secret, we have to be safe' [thoughts] — are always back there in the characters' minds, but they're never actually in danger of being outed."

Allies throughout the ages
To create this warm and cozy yet realistic world, Sebastian likes to use allies in her books. "I try to make it that they're out to friends, that they all have somebody — besides their love interest — that they can be out to," she said, referring to Percy and Kitt being out to characters like Betty and Marian. "That's a real stage of outness that most Queer people go through."

Despite a lack of primary-source evidence about Queer people and their relationships in 18th-century Europe, Sebastian wants readers to understand that their lives were not always sad and lonely. As long as Queer people have existed, so too have allies.

"I think that especially straight people look back to the times when people couldn't be out to the world and think, well, the alternative must mean being closeted — like even your sister won't know, your roommate won't know.

"In reality, we have letters. We know that for some people, their close family members were supportive. That's how humans work. Even if a person's sister, for example, may not have any word for it — obviously there's no such thing as Gay rights — she may love her brother, so she's just not going to think about any of the rest of it, and she's going to support her brother, and that's the end of it. At a minimum, that's what I want all my characters to have."

While The Queer Principles follows many of the precedents Sebastian has set in her previous novels — strong allies, secret lovers, and historical accuracy — the novel was also her chance to break away from her tropes.

"Kitt Webb is my first book set that long ago. Most of my other ones are set in the Regency era, that 1810—1820 period, with a couple set in the 20th century. [So this is] the furthest back I've gone, which feels different," she said.

"When you don't have roads you can go fast on, it makes it much harder to get from one place to another," she added. "It makes highwaymen much more feasible. I think that the other difference is that this is a slightly plottier novel than most of mine. I usually go for more vibes, less plot. This one does have, at least, a nominal plot."

Other perspectives
Like most of her books, The Queer Principles centers around a cis male couple. However, Sebastian has branched out in the past to include women-loving women, Bi M/F couples, and even a romance with a nonbinary protagonist.

"That Trans people existed throughout history like this is amply documented," she said about her nonbinary romance novel Unmasked by the Marquess. "We have all these historical romance novels where a girl dresses up as a boy, and at the end of the day, she goes back to being a girl. What would happen if that experience of disguising yourself as a boy wound up being a transformative life experience?" she said of her 2018 novel.

Because Sebastian is cis, she says she does not think she would write another book from a Trans perspective, as that is not her own. However, she started this novel in 2015, when conversations about "own voices" hadn't circulated through the literature world quite as much.

"I'm not sure if 2021 me would feel like it's my job to write about the nonbinary experience. [Back then] I made sure I [talked] with my nonbinary friends and other Trans friends and [made] sure enough Trans people got their eyes on it to make sure I wasn't doing any harm."

Despite her modern hindsight, the book was well received by all audiences. Fans especially enjoyed the way Sebastian took a common trope and flipped it on its head.

When it comes to tropes, Sebastian can't get enough. "My favorite is forced proximity, and I love friends to lovers. Those are such soft tropes. Almost all of my books have one of those two tropes in them," she laughed.

As for Queer tropes, nothing can stop "and then they were roommates." "The Queer potential in that is just fantastic," Sebastian said.

What's next
Sebastian is very excited for the release of her next two books. "In January, I have a mystery romance coming out. It's set in postwar England; it's very much Gay Agatha Christie energy, and it's the second in a series that I have going on, with a spy and a doctor who get together and solve crimes and fall in love."

SGN Book Clubbers will also be excited to know that the companion novel to The Queer Principles will also be coming out in 2022. "In June I have the companion book coming out, about two side characters who do crimes, and they're disasters."

In the meantime, Sebastian plans on celebrating Christmas and awaiting the release of her next book with her family. She laughed as she told me her plans for the holiday: "We make a structurally unsound gingerbread house every year, and every year it collapses, and it's my fault, without a doubt." She has a new strategy for the house this year: "I'm leaving it up to my kids. I have a teenage boy and a 12-year-old, and I think between the two of them, they can engineer something that lasts longer than 20 minutes."

Sebastian also loves to show off her creative side to her family around the holidays. "We have an Advent calendar I made in a fit of lunacy when all my kids were tiny and in diapers. So this thing I take out every year and make everyone compliment me. That's it, that's the tradition," she laughed.

If you're wanting to cuddle up with a loved one and read a timeless Queer story, look no further than one of Sebastian's masterpieces. The Queer Principles of Kitt Webb will be featured on our Instagram book club this week, and all of Sebastian's novels can be found at the Seattle Public Library.

The Missing Page will be out in January 2022 and The Perfect Crimes of Marian Hayes, the companion novel to Kitt Webb, will be out in June 2022. You can always find our book club on Instagram at @sgn_books https://www.instagram.com/sgn_books/.