Interview with Claudie Arseneault

I’m so excited to share this in-depth interview with Claudie Arseneault, the author of Baker Thief, a book that just blew me away. This interview was a joy to do, and I’m so glad to be able to offer such deep background to this amazing novel.

A Bit About Claudie

Claudie_AuthorPic_MediumClaudie Arseneault is an asexual and aromantic spectrum writer hailfing from Quebec City. Her love for sprawling casts invariably turns her novels into multi-storylined wonders centered on aromantic and asexual characters. Her high fantasy series, City of Spires, started in February 2017. Her next book, Baker Thief, features a bigender aromantic baker and is full of delicious bread, French puns, and magic.

Claudie is a founding member of The Kraken Collective and is well-known for her involvement in solarpunk, her database of aro and ace characters in speculative fiction, and her unending love of squids. Find out more on her website!

An Interview with Claudie

Corey: How would you describe yourself to a new reader just discovering your work?

Claudie: I’m a fantasy writer first and foremost, with a tendency towards large queer casts, a focus on platonic relationships, and an increasing interest in mixing fast-paced storylines with slice-of-life elements. I also tend to write stories with dark elements that are threaded with hope and that end mostly well. As an aromantic and asexual writer, these two identities tend to be showcased more heavily than others in my work, and I’m most enjoying myself when I explore them.

Corey: If you have one, tell me about a book crush, book squish, or book friend?

Claudie: I don’t, not really. I mean, there are many characters that I utterly love, but the concept of book friend/squish/crush utterly eludes me. It’s like … for friendship at least, that implies a relationship? A two-way street? But the only characters who could ever be considered reacting to me are my own. And I barely ever squish or crush on real people, let alone characters.

One of my favourite queer characters out there is Jude, from Stake Sauce. I’ve always loved the stubborn, lawful types, the ones who lack a bit of social skills and can be a stickler for rules but love so deeply and loyally that they can move mountains with it. Jude is like that, and he’s also a disabled trans man who chose his name after the patron saint of lost causes, and how could I not love him to pieces?

Corey:  What sparked Baker Thief for you? What made you want to write this particular story?

Claudie: Two things happened almost simultaneously, and they kind of collided into Baker Thief. The first was Lexa’s death on The 100, and the wave of protests that followed about lesbians dying on mainstream television, and many discussions with Shira Glassman about wanting sapphic girls to have adventures. I know I went to nap after one such talk and woke up with whole sequences of action for Adèle and Claire, and some of their dynamic clearly formed.

The second was the Aromantic Awareness Week when I stopped ignoring my own aromantic questioning. There had been a recent article trashing romance again, and the usual pushback happened, erasing aromanticism and reinforcing once more that the Happily Ever After everyone deserved needed to be romantic in nature. I was on the verge of drafting a romance, its thread and characters so clear and exciting to me, and I grew frustrated—because I looked at my embryo of a story, and I saw no reason the same tropes, the same focus on character and happiness, couldn’t be applied to platonic relationships.

Baker Thief is both of these, though through brainstorm it turned from f/f to bigender/f, and from romance to queerplatonic relationship. And my own fantasy loves came back in full force, too, and since I was on the path to indulging myself, why not through my culture and language into it, too?

Corey:  It’s clear that one of the core things you wanted to do in Baker Thief was to reframe romance tropes with non-romantic relationships. Can you tell me about why that’s important to you and your process for doing that?

Claudie: I have a very conflicted relationship with romance. I love what people get out of romance. It can bring so much self-love and hope to the table and it has a knack for engrossing, awesome characters. It’s a genre I would probably drown myself into if it wasn’t so often deeply antagonistic to my existence. Romance’s popularity is built directly upon amatonormativity (the idea that a central, romantic relationship is the norm all humans experience and should be aimed for)—a key element of aromantic oppression.

But how does one push against that while still preserving the good parts of it? It’s not like character-focused HEA stories should really be the exclusivity of romance, no? So that’s what I went for. I looked at common tropes and storylines, starting with those I loved and knew best, and I looked at how they could be reshaped around platonic relationships and aromantic characters. I carved a space for us in that world, because we need and deserve it too.

And, wow, that is by far one of the most empowering experiences of my life. Even in fantasy with large ensemble casts, romantic plotlines frequently take over the “important relationship” part of a story, crammed in forcefully for market demands. To so suddenly have a story entirely revolving around a character who never felt comfortable with “I love you”, who finds his own word and gets his own beautiful relationship? It felt amazing.

Corey: Baker Thief has a glorious fat superhero on the cover, which I love so much, especially as it’s such a rarity still, to have fat MCs depicted as fat on covers. Tell me about writing fat characters in Baker Thief, and why it’s important to you.

Claudie: I’m so glad everyone loves the cover. I tend to prefer covers without characters, but I knew the importance in this case, and genre conventions kind of demanded one, so I went for it and asked my cover artist, Laya Rose, to have Claire front and centre.

I’ll admit I was very stressed at first. I’m always stressed when I step out of my lane, especially with major characters. Baker Thief is when I really started paying attention to the diversity in body shapes in my work, and I have many fat activists to thank for it (you included). I had been listening for a while, but now I had this new project, with new characters, and damn if I wasn’t going to do my best to be inclusive on that front, too. I gave fat bodies to characters I adored, I purposefully wrote to go against tropes, I researched and picked words describing them carefully and hired a sensitivity reader to help me see what I otherwise couldn’t.

When you build a secondary world, you choose what parts of the world you want to mirror, and who you choose to include is an incredibly important statement about who matters. And while I can’t speak in depth about it, there’s an intersection between fatness and aromanticism that’s particularly crucial when we look at who society thinks deserved to be loved (in all the facets of the term) and to be happy.

Corey: I loved how we got to see different aspects of Claude/Claire’s experience and history as an aro character, not just through POV and what the character said, but also through references to relationships: learning about aromanticism from an older friend of the family, trying a relationship with Zita and it not working and that evolving into a deep friendship, supporting Livia in thinking about her aro identity. It was lovely to get that depth and complexity, and it felt like this rare and precious gift with an aro character, specifically. How do you build characterization?

Claudie: One of the things that draw me to adult over YA is how much of a past the characters have, and how deeply that can impact who they are today. Our relationships with our identities can be sinuous, marked with several milestones, and the longer you live on, that more of them can pop up. Plus there are more of the world’s events to consider in relationship to your characters.

I knew that with Claude/Claire, I wanted a character that was confident in their identities, and I needed to think about how they would get there. When I decide two characters have a history, I tend to spend a lot of time imagining the specifics of it, the way their relationship has changed over time, etc. I love doing that! I also layer a lot of these things through revisions. It’s like every pass I add a little more details, or connect new things together for added complexity and depth. My first drafts are sketches to be inked, coloured, shadowed, filtered, and on and on.

Corey: I really appreciated the demisexual representation in the story; it resonated for me, and felt very real. Can you talk a bit about Adèle and your other ace spec characters?

Claudie: Adèle is a police investigator with a knack for digging where she isn’t supposed to, which in her previous position had gotten her relegated to a desk job in a mouldy office—something that definitely worsened her asthma. As Baker Thief starts, she has just moved into a new city after being transferred into a different unit that is meant to dig where they aren’t supposed to. With Adèle I wanted to write an acespec character that was sexually active and understood her identity. It’s established very early on that she gets romantic crushes long before she experiences sexual attraction, and that she’s not averse to exploring them.

That was something I wanted to write because demisexual characters tend not to be on board with a relationship until they experience sexual attraction, reinforcing the idea that it’s necessary? There’s this latent idea for all acespec alloromantic characters that the right person is the one for which they’ll experience both attractions. So that was one layer I wanted to play with, and even by the end of Baker Thief, Adèle’s desire is presented more as emotional proximity and a sense of urgency than as the kind of look-and-lust dynamic I’ve so often read.

I spent a lot less time on the other acespec characters, in good parts because of room and limited narrators (I am not used to having only two!), but also because there is a marked tendency for aro & ace characters to have their aceness discussed, and their aromanticism completely set aside and forgotten. So for characters like Denise Jalbert and Livia, who are both aro and ace? I focused on the aromanticism. Denise Jalbert is an old whisky-drinking mayor who reclaimed the idea that women without husbands and children are untrustworthy spinsters, and it was thrilling to have a sort of out-and-proud, unrelenting aroace model for people in this universe to look up to.

Corey: The genderfluid representation resonated with my own experience. I especially appreciated that you showed both feelings of gender euphoria and experiences of choosing to present as a gender that wasn’t where the character actually was at, for safety reasons. The moment near the end when Claude decides that it’s both intolerable and too exhausting to present differently from the gender he is right then was so resonant for me. What motivated you to write that particular moment in the story?

Claudie: It sounds cheeky, but I guess it just felt right? One of the first things I knew is that while Claude had an established routine of “male baker/female thief”, I wanted it clear that this was something of a patchwork solution that didn’t always fit—that sometimes his presentation didn’t fit his gender. It happens early on, too, and he uses small touches of femininity to ground himself despite presenting male.

As the story progresses, though, injuries and emotional challenges take their toll, and I had been very clear about how exhausted he felt, so it seemed like the toll of presenting as the wrong gender would be too much, at a point where he’s reached a certain level of trust that makes taking the risk easier. It was important for me to illustrate that he can’t switch between man and woman as he wishes, that a dissonance between the two comes with a price, one he could no longer pay.

Corey: I loved the way consent works in this book, and how the characters negotiate their relationship with regard to Claire/Claude’s aromanticism and Adèle’s demisexuality all the way through the story, and especially the conversation at the end; it’s rare to see that on the page. Can you tell me more about consent in your writing, and how you navigate the complexities of it?

Claudie: Relationships come with an enormous amount of unsaid rules and steps that, to me as an aromantic and asexual person, have always felt confusing and difficult to navigate. You’re supposed to do things in a certain order (meet, date, sex, romance, move in/wedding, kids, etc.), and I find that it is often very assumed that everyone’s needs and desires will evolve in that general pattern, and characters move from one step to another barely discussing them. There’s something called the elevator theory of relationship that discusses this in great detail.

I do not like the elevator theory. Baker Thief as a story and as a series is all about throwing the idea of romantic partnership as the ideal out the window. What is ideal depends on who is involved. So first of all, I made sure some key moment were consented to by both partners. When they first kiss? One asks for it, the other does it.

Then they sit down and talk about the relationship. And, look—small aside, but if you look at romance books with an aromantic main, you will always find reviewers who go “how does that even work??” and that baffles me. It works by talking about it! And while I’m uncomfortable with calling it romance if the conclusion is that the relationship isn’t romantic in nature, that’s still it. You have your characters talk about what they expect and love and want!

That scene at the end was one of the hardest to write. I wanted to get into the specifics of what Claude and Adèle wanted without giving the impression that what they chose would work for everyone. Consent in this particular story was making sure everyone was fully aware of what every step meant, and aware they could change it again at any later point, should it not work out as expected.

Corey: I really appreciated the disability representation in the story, especially Adèle, and the way her experience of asthma was woven into her daily life. Can you talk a bit about creating a police team with two disabled characters, and writing an MC with asthma?

Claudie: I knew early on I wanted the special police unit to be diverse, and because their work tends to be physical, it felt especially important for physical disabilities to be present and accounted for.

When I first decided to have a character with asthma, I wasn’t sure who. And my first reflex was to reach for a side character that doesn’t do so much running, almost like… like it’d be less in the way, I guess? It’s important as creators that we question our first impulses when it comes to representation, because I had to force myself not to understate the impact asthma could have on someone’s life. I also made that decision after the first draft, and it was interesting because I’d inadvertently put Adèle in the way of a lot of smoke, which really forced me to think her routines and medication through. I researched various inhalers through time, compared to what was given today, thought through how her personality would influence what she’d prefer (you just know the stubborn woman in need to prove herself might use the quick fix more than the long-term reparative medications), and one of the biggest revisions was to integrate it all properly.

I have to partially credit playing so much Metal Gear Solid for this, especially for Koyani and her red prosthetic arm, and if I’m not mistaken, I had also read the amazing Ascension by Jacqueline Koyanagi, which also features a disabled (ship) captain. So it was less “I want to do this with rep” and more “this would be cool”, and it wasn’t something I had written before, either.

Corey: One of the things I loved most about the story was the way the queer and trans characters were in a world filled with other queer and trans characters. Can you tell me about why writing stories that center queer and trans characters who are connected to each other and in community together is important to you?

Claudie: The importance for me is both on a personal level and for its wider implications. Personal because so much of my self-discovery has happened by talking with other queer people with whom I shared identities, and I wouldn’t be anywhere near where I am today without these conversations, this comparing of notes and reassuring each other, this celebration of similarities and difference. Being in relation with other queer people of my identities and of the rest of the spectrum has been instrumental to my growth and to my awareness of others’ struggles. I like to give my characters that support, and it feels more realistic to do so.

On a wider scale, it also avoids the traps of One Narrative. Often, narratives will imply universal experiences about some identities and all it would take to break that is a side character with the same identity but a difference experience of it. So having more than one helps that, but having them talk about these differences and explore them? It’s so interesting and validating, and it makes room for so many more people.

Corey: One of the things that I adored about this book was how hopeful it was, and so much of that stemmed from people working together. I loved that so much of what drove the story and made it work involved relationships among friends, coworkers and family members. Can you tell me about your process for writing that aspect of the story?

Claudie: That is perhaps part of what is most natural for me, and kind of integral to how I approach stories. Community, hope, kindness, and platonic relationships are my fictional heart, all usually coated in a cool layer of magic. We can accomplish so much by working together. I love stories that rely on more than one hero to solve their problem, that demand that people combine skills and strengths and tactics to change their world for the better. When I write these, I stop to consider what each character can bring to the table, and what their particular story arc is like. I try not to leave anyone behind.

Corey: What’s next on the horizon for you, and for this series?

Claudie: For me, it’s back to Isandor. I need to finish my political fantasy trilogy! It’s a story better told in one chunk, despite how long it is, so I’m looking forward to have all of it out there. After that, though … I have two main goals: draft and start publishing Undying Loyalty, a fantasy epic/slice-of-life (yeah you read that right!) with a first-person-looking-back narration style I’ve never really used before. It promises to be fun!

The second is the next Baker Thief book! I am so eager to write more in this universe! The story will pick up not long after the first one and focus on the budding friendship between Livia and Emmanuelle as they try to figure out what to do with exocores (to phrase it with as little spoilers as I can). I think it’ll be incredibly interesting, both because they have very different experiences of aromanticism (Livia is grayro and lithromantic while Em is demiro) and because Em is a demigirl, an identity I’m increasingly comfortable claiming as my own. Writing Baker Thief and Claude was instrumental in learning how exactly I related to aromanticism; I’m really looking forward to exploring demigirl with Emmanuelle.

There are other projects, too—anthologies for short fiction, my own and others, that I’ll be putting out in the next few years. I don’t think I’ll ever run out of things to do!

More About Baker Thief

Baker Thief_coverAdèle 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 which centers non-romantic relationships and stars a bigender aromantic protagonist. Those who love enemies-to-“lovers” and superheroes will love this story!

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