It was my honor to meet Dharma for the first time at Noir at the Bar in Phoenix, AZ, during the Left Coast Crime conference. Dharma was friendly, funny, and knew more than a little about crime writing and motorcycles, two of this admin's favorite things. She joins us today to celebrate the launch of her book, Iron Goddess, A Shea Stevens Thriller, on June 28. Thanks for sharing your story with us today, Dharma!
Why I Write About Renegades, Outlaws, and Misfits
by Honored Guest Dharma Kelleher
Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, I was always the good kid. Always got good grades. Didn’t smoke or drink. Never borrowed the car without permission. Unlike my younger brother Jim who was frequently grounded for breaking the rules.
No, I was the nerd. Math team. School newspaper. Marching band. So I wasn’t invited to any wild parties and didn’t hang out with the cool crowd.
But during that time, I lived with a secret—one that I didn’t understand or even have language to describe until my mid-20s. I was transgender. A girl trapped in a boy’s body.
When I came out in 1992, my world collapsed. I lost my marriage, my family, my friends, my job, and, of course, my church. I went from being the reliable good kid to being a pariah. Outcast. A child rejected by her own mother.
The struggles of keeping my identity hidden for 25 years, followed by the trauma of being outcast drove me into a very dark place. I drank heavily as an attempt to deal with the soul-destroying depression. I hung out at bars and slept with men and women, sometimes for money, sometimes just to have a warm body. I was even homeless for periods of time.
For a few years, I was married to another alcoholic who was the abusive complement to my needy codependency. We were like two peas in an emotionally fucked-up pod.
A couple of suicide attempts pulled me out of my death spiral. I got sober. I left my abusive husband. I learned how to love myself. And eventually, I met a woman who loved and accepted me as I am and became my wife.
I started reading a lot of lesbian fiction, but soon became dissatisfied. Nearly all of the books were coming out stories, romances, erotica, and cozy mysteries. But there’s more to life as a lesbian than coming out, falling in love, having sex, and stumbling over dead bodies.
Ironically, there was a serious lack of diversity in lesbian fiction. The characters tended to be beautiful, white, educated, upper-middle class women. The stories always centered around the character’s sexuality. It was too vanilla and formulaic for my tastes.
I wanted stories that reflected the darker, grittier aspects of the community I lived in. I wanted stories that focused less on characters’ love lives and more on telling an exciting story that reflected the brutal realities of living in a violently homophobic, transphobic world. But I couldn’t find many books like this.
When I discovered National Novel Writing Month several years ago, I saw this as my opportunity to write the stories I wanted to read. I spent a few years learning the craft by taking classes, attending seminars, listening to podcasts, and participating in critique groups.
I had started riding motorcycles by this time and fell in love with biker culture. So after a few practice novels and several short stories, I set to work on Iron Goddess, a book about a female motorcycle builder whose family is a part of an outlaw motorcycle club.
This was the kind of story I had been wanting to read, one where the focus wasn’t on the main character’s sexuality, but on the challenges faced by outsiders and misfits. A world populated by people of color, gay people, trans people, junkies, outlaws. A world of corruption, violence, bigotry, and addiction.
And underneath all of that was an exploration of family in all its different manifestations and dysfunctions. Family of origin. Family of choice. The family of biker culture.
Because for all of our shortcomings, we renegades, outlaws, and misfits are human beings. And it is this humanity that I try to explore in my writing.
Dharma Kelleher writes gritty tales about outlaws, renegades, and misfits. Her hobbies include riding her motorcycle, picking locks, and getting inked.
Her debut novel IRON GODDESS will be published by Random House’s Alibi imprint on June 28, 2016. Learn more about her and her writing at dharmakelleher.com.