The Way to Our Queer Ancestors

There is another aspect to historical research when you are talking about lesbians, and that is intuition.

The Minnesota-based podcast This Queer Book Saved My Life! debuted in June 2022. Each episode includes a conversation between an LGBTQ+ guest and the author of a book that “saved their life.” “Saved” means different things for different guests. For one guest, the book helped them process an abusive relationship. For another, it gave them the language to come out. And the list of cisgender and transgender women authors featured on the podcast is a who’s who of LGBTQ+ literature: Carmen Maria Machado, Alison Bechdel, Julia Serano, Jennifer Finney Boylan, April Daniels, and Miasha.

The ensuing conversation between guest Nicole Ollia, author Paula Martinac, and host J.P. Der Boghossian is excerpted from an episode that premiered January 10. Ollia, who sells vintage Sapphic and feminist works at the L-Spot Bookshop on Etsy, discusses her affinity for Martinac’s 1990 novel Out of Time.

Nicole Ollia: I actually discovered Out of Time [through] serendipity, like the protagonist in your book. As you know, [the main character] Susan ducks into an antique shop in the rain. I ducked into an antique shop on the internet and it was really funny to me, [because] it was called Lavender Path Antiques. It is not an LGBTQ+ store by any means, but it has a huge variety of different things, including a substantial used book collection. It was probably ten years ago that I discovered it. I didn’t know who you were. I didn’t know what [the book was] about. I purchased three books and I don’t remember what the other two were. I hadn’t really consumed a book in a long time. The living environment that I was in at the time really didn’t facilitate reading, but I was thrilled when Out of Time came because it was like a portal for me in a very timely period.

I had recently come out of a period of time where I had actually been married twice, to men. I gave them my best shot for sure. I really was lonely, and I am not a super social person. Books have always been my friends. They have been my windows and the places [that I would go to] when I was young.

Paula Martinac: Out of Time was published in 1990, so I was writing it in the late ’80s. It would be a historical novel now (laughs). But it wasn’t at the time. It was contemporary. [The main character] Susan Van Dine is a graduate student who is having trouble. She is not really finding much meaning in her graduate studies. She wanders into this antique store and finds this scrapbook. When she opens it, there are pictures of women from the 1920s who she intuits to be lesbians. It’s a group of four women in various configurations. These are, obviously, two couples.

Susan becomes really obsessed with the women and with finding out more about them. Her girlfriend is a historian who talks constantly about research and having proof and going to archives and things like that. But Susan feels like there is another aspect to historical research when you are talking about lesbians, and that is intuition. What can you intuit about what these women’s lives were like? The novel is her process of coming to terms with that research and intuition, and how they play a part.

How do we discover our queer ancestors who were hidden from history because of criminality, and secret things that we don’t always have access to through archives, libraries, and things like that? She actually becomes so obsessed that [she thinks] the women are speaking to her. She has sexual encounters with one of them. It is like a portal in time. It’s interesting that I never read A Wrinkle in Time when I was little. I didn’t like fantasy very much, but it is interesting to me that the first novel that I wrote was [fantastical]. I think [I did that because I wasn’t] able to know about these things. The past has been hidden.

NO: I had started a podcast, which became kind of a production company, which then years later morphed into the L-Spot Bookshop, which is still in existence. I think I was always scouring. It is the sense of this sort of “seeking” behavior. Trying to find meaning and trying to find connection. This might sound cliché, but I’m trying to find myself, you know? I’m trying to see myself. I think that is the draw to archives, especially as a marginalized community.

Find the full conversation and additional episodes thisqueerbook.com