Lesfic author Shannon O’Brien discusses the inspiration for her shared universe–and why imaginary worlds free of homophobia matter in her new novel Lead Me Home.
Strictly speaking, Lead Me Home isn’t a sequel. It’s situated in what I like to call the “Jones University Extended Universe” along with my first lesfic novel Sing Me Home. The idea for this sapphic space, where an endless expanse of LGBTQ people can meet and fall in love without pressures from the outside world, sprang from my own four years of undergrad at Smith College.
My choice to attend an all-women’s college was a surprise to many, since I had just run the gauntlet of K-12 at an all-girls Catholic school. Many of my friends took the opportunity to flee to big state schools or liberal arts enclaves to experience the wonder of a co-ed college education. I remember being asked repeatedly by fellow students and even some of their parents why I was signing up for more of the same. The thing is it wasn’t–not even close.
Smith College is the only institution I have ever been a part of where I felt like women were first. Always. Every day in every way. After watching and experiencing the constant put-me-downs of Catholic school, it was refreshing to be lifted up in a community that cared about women at its core. To go from getting caught kissing my girlfriend in a darkened high school classroom and feeling nothing but shame to being surrounded by a supportive community rooted in lifting up our queer, trans, and nonbinary family. It was like a shock to my system, one I have never forgotten, but one I always strive to find again.
I realized that by writing love stories set in a world inspired by my time flourishing in a place like Smith College, others could see the truth behind the dream.
This is not to say that life at Smith was a perfect utopia. Of course not! No place can be perfect all the time. But the framework that Smith left behind in my psyche prepared me for a life spent in a far less female-friendly world. Sometimes when I tell post-college friends about my time at Smith it seems like I’m spinning a fairytale. It can all sound like a bit much – like how I lived in a house with 80 women that had tea time on the Sunday afternoons, or took courses called “LGBT History in the United States” and “Shamans, Shapeshifters, and The Magic If.” But, then again, my stories from Catholic school are sometimes received with just as much disbelief. (They often were at Smith, in fact!) After enough of these incredulous responses, I realized that by writing lesfic love stories set in a world inspired by my time flourishing in a place like Smith College, others could see the truth behind the dream.
So, back in 2016, when I found myself unemployed and adrift in a small and freezing cold basement apartment in Ireland, I reflected on a conversation with a fellow Smithie about our little utopia and crafted one of my own in the likes of Jones University – the setting for my lesfic novel Sing Me Home. I tried to infuse into Jones the feeling of support and success that I missed so much from my collegiate environment, something that was easy to do while I languished without a job and nothing else to focus on. I paid special attention to include the oddities and intricacies I remember best from Smith to color in the world. I included bits like coloring books parties and acapella rivalries, whiteboard messages and the feeling of found family.
I returned to Jones University more recently with Lead Me Home, expanding the campus and core of characters after a years-long and often demoralizing struggle with my work-life balance. I left the nearly finished manuscript to gather metaphorical dust for almost two years while I slogged through the work day as an underpaid (or unpaid) intern at various theatre companies. It wasn’t until I finally moved up a few rungs on the ladder and became my own boss as a department head at a small theatre that I was able to open the document without it striking the fear of failure into me.
In fact, it was at this point that the story and the setting of Jones became a refuge for me again. For so long I had been pinned down in my day job – long hours working at theatre gigs surrounded by overly-muscled men who commented on my looks instead of my work ethic or my wedding ring instead of my ability to hold my own on a Union call. My imaginary women struggled along with me. I crafted adversaries that they had to fend off with will and wit. I let them answer the question I often asked myself. Am I good enough? Are you really happy here? Did I choose the wrong path?
My Jones University Extended Universe is for the tenderhearted ones out there that never experienced such a reality for themselves.
It has always been my ultimate goal to make the fictional realm of Jones University a safe haven of lesfic for people like myself who ask those questions. I will never write stories about difficult coming outs or characters clinging to life in a hospital bed. I’d rather chase that ideal I witnessed in my day-to-day life at Smith. My Jones University Extended Universe is for the tenderhearted ones out there that never experienced such a reality for themselves. Maybe someone I went to high school with never had a chance to explore their sexuality fully. Maybe a woman I know quietly dove headfirst into fanfiction because her friends didn’t understand the depth of her passions. I always hope to craft stories that kindle within a reader the knowledge that they would be welcome in my world. Because when I was a Smithie I felt treasured, and at Jones you would be treasured too.