For Author Ashley Herring Blake, Sapphic Love Should Come With a Happily Ever After
Ashley Herring Blake’s literary career has always highlighted the importance of being true to one’s self, a theme perfect for her roots in children’s literature as well as her pivot to adult romance. This month, Blake prepares to bid farewell to the beloved characters of her sapphic Bright Falls series with the third and final installment, “Iris Kelly Doesn’t Date.”
Fans of the Bright Falls series were first introduced to delightfully chaotic bisexual Iris Kelly in 2020 in the series opener, “Delilah Green Doesn’t Date.” In the first novel, Blake establishes Iris as a member of a close-knit group of queer friends, one of whom quickly falls for quick-witted New York City artist and outsider Delilah Green. Blake’s adult romance debut was a result of feeling like she’d said all she’d needed to say to younger audiences for the moment, and the pandemic allowed her to explore her desire to write about adult relationships. Thus, Delilah Green, and subsequently, Astrid Parker and Iris Kelly, were born.
Ahead of the series closer’s publication, Blake discussed writing a series centering a group of queer women, the publishing industry’s lackluster pace in highlighting sapphic relationships, the joys of displaying queer sex on the page, and why sapphic happily ever afters are absolutely necessary. Read it all ahead.
POPSUGAR: Can you share a bit about your experience growing up and looking for sapphic representation? Can you remember any books that featured sapphic relationships?
Ashley Herring Blake: I wasn’t reading fiction as much in college. I was a little bit in high school, but it was more like classics and things like that. So I definitely didn’t really see it in classics, unless I had just accidentally stumbled upon Colette or something, which is very gay. But I didn’t stumble upon her then.
I had a religious background that kept me from seeing a lot of truths, or even looking for them for myself. I’m bisexual, so it was kind of easy to be like, well, I like guys too, so I can just ignore this part that I don’t know how it fits into my Christian upbringing. And therefore, I didn’t even really explore it, I didn’t look for it.
“I was going to write a queer book no matter what.”
I dropped that veil, because I don’t have that anymore. And I’m not religious at all. Then I started looking. I was 36 when I read a book for the first time that had a bisexual character in it, which is quite old to see that for the first time. They definitely existed; there was “Annie on My Mind” and “Rubyfruit Jungle.” There were definitely books out there that [explored queerness], but I didn’t really know to look for them.
PS: What was it like entering the adult romance space? Were you aware of the differences in representation in comparison to the children’s literature space?
AHB: I was going to write a queer book no matter what. I was definitely not the first to do it, but I felt like during 2017 through 2019, that’s where things really started exploding and getting so much growth in terms of diversity and books in kid lit. And I felt like adult was way behind. And I mean, they still are, but obviously a lot better. I think kid lit kind of led the charge on. And so, I knew that there were definitely queer adult romances on the shelves in 2020, but Berkeley, my imprint that I ended up with, had just released their first-ever F/F [female on female] trade paperback, which was “Something to Talk About” by Meryl Wilsner.
I was pitching it in 2020; now it’s 2023. We’ve seen so much more just in those three years. At the time, I wasn’t worried that it wouldn’t sell, because that was the very beginning, where publishers were kind of starting to be like, “Oh, there’s a queer readership.” I feel like with publishers, it takes them some time to realize what readers have known for a long time. I knew that there was space for it and there was hunger for it.
PS: Each book of the Bright Falls series features queer women – Delilah Green is a lesbian, Astrid is a questioning bisexual, Iris is also bisexual. Why was it important to feature different identities queer women can hold?
AHB: It was important to me to have a main bisexual character in every book. That would be Claire [Delilah’s love interest], then Astrid, even though it’s new to her, and then Iris. [Other characters such as] Jordan, Delilah, and Stevie, they would definitely probably say they’re lesbians. But I think that the way that I wanted to showcase those identities was just even if the three bisexual women do share that identity, the way they present themselves, and the way they walk through the world, and the way they experience that identity is very different. We say very often that this group of people, whoever it might be, this race, ethnicity, sexuality, is not a monolith. We all have varying experiences that we bring to it. We have different ways we have come out. We have different ways we have figured it out.
PS: Some of Iris’s insecurities stem from the idea that because she’s a sexually liberated woman, she can also be perceived as “promiscuous,” a stereotype around bisexuality. Why did you want to confront that stereotype?
“You want to imbue the sex scenes with something that actually moves them along as a couple.”
AHB: The way we see our sexual health, sexual identities, how we even view sex, whether even we want it or not how much we want, it is really complicated. I think that no matter how confident you are, in what you like, and what you don’t like, what you want . . . I think that there’s always going to be room in the world that we live in for insecurities to creep in. Iris likes sex; she’s always gonna like sex. She has no qualms about that and owning that, but at the same time, two things can be true at once. At the same time, she sees elements in that preference of hers, and in those passions of hers that have made her feel unlovable, or not enough to love, just to have sex with. And while sometimes that’s all she wants, there have been times in her life where that’s not all she wanted. I think that it’s just carrying those ghosts with us.
PS: Romance is notorious for its spicy on-page sex scenes. Can you talk about your own process for writing sex scenes?
AHB: Well, it’s super fun! I love doing it. I saw Kennedy Ryan on a panel about writing sex, and one thing she said about it was that she never wants to write a sex scene that the reader feels like they can just skip, and then pick up on the other side, and nothing has changed. I was like, that is very true. You want to imbue the sex scenes with something that actually moves them along as a couple or possibly moves them further apart as a couple depending on where they are emotionally.
Writing two women-identifying characters, it’s fun, but it’s also just something that I want to showcase a lot. F/F has been kept on the backburner for so long, and there’s a lot of complicated reasons. When I’m writing a sex scene, I’m writing something that feels true to the story. That’s what I’m going to do first. But at the same time, I want to put out there that sapphic sex is hot and powerful and worthy of being read by anyone, not just people who are queer. Then, just from a logistical standpoint, I want to keep it fresh, too. And there’s just so many fun ways people with vaginas can have sex. It’s lots of fun and different ways. I like to experiment with all the different ways that people can experience sex like that.
PS: How does it feel to be bidding the Bright Falls universe farewell?
“I love filling the pages with queer characters.”
AHB: It’s bittersweet. I’ve never been with characters for that long. It was really fun every time I started a new book to dive back into people that I knew so well already. But at the same time, getting to create someone new as well, like with Stevie. By the time people are usually asking these questions, I’ve already kind of processed, because I’ve got to move on. But “Delilah Green Doesn’t Care” really changed my life in terms of readership and what I’m able to do now in my writing career. It will always be a really special book and a really special series. And for Iris, I was really happy with what my brain came up with for how to end it. It felt like a good ending. It felt like a good way to say goodbye, and I hope readers feel the same.
PS: Why is it important to see queer women receiving their happily ever afters?
AHB: It’s so integral and important, because everybody deserves a happy ending or happily for now, or whatever they want at that moment. When writing my books, queerness is definitely a part of their lives. It’s an inescapable part of all of these characters. I love filling the pages with queer characters and showing that, yes, their queerness is inextricable from who they are in their daily life. Because I think that that’s real, and that’s how I feel about my own life. But also they struggle with friendships, and they struggle with career choices, and families and parents, and because they are people.
These stories are important to showcase, and I think that society and publishing is learning now that queer stories don’t have to be this traumatic coming out. They don’t have to be full of constant trauma or prejudice or discrimination. I also just want stories where all my peers are happy, and they’re just being people, and they’re just loving and falling in love and getting their heart broken and having terrible sex and good sex and struggling with friendships and where they fit in the world. Just like everybody would be. Is it a little different because they’re queer? Yeah. And it should be. But we’re still all just people.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.