Project Open Books was excited to sit down (virtually) with Liz Parker last fall to discuss her first novel, All Are Welcome. Three members of our team, Josh, Derek, and Sierra, read the book and enjoyed it so much that we couldn’t wait to talk to Liz about it. Liz answered all of our questions about her book, she told us a little bit about what we can expect next from her, and she shared with us her own experiences growing up in Connecticut and what her access was like to positive queer representation.
Project Open Books: Thank you for joining us today. We’re stoked to speak with you. If you wouldn’t mind starting off by telling us a little bit about you and your journey to becoming a writer?
Liz: Sure! So, me in a nutshell: I am a tried and true publishing industry veteran. My day job is to run the publishing department for a talent agency called Verve. I have been in publishing since I graduated from college in 2007. I like to also point out that I was not a celebrated writer growing up; I barely was allowed to write a creative thesis in college. I think that there’s so much pressure, especially for young writers to feel like, if you don’t have a book idea by the time you’re 25, you’ve somehow failed at something. And, that is just absolutely not the case. I’m 37 now, and I don’t think I wrote a page in my twenties. I was just in the grind of work and learning books. Learning the business of books also taught me the art of books, and as I had these different jobs within publishing I knew that there was a dearth of queer beach reads. I think for anyone who studies literature and then works with it, they think, “Well, I don’t want to work hard all the time when I’m reading,” and I found that there’s a lot of queer stories that focus on the coming-out story. Coming out is awesome, you have to do it, at some point, but then you’re out and you have your whole life, and much more interesting things can happen after that point. Finally a few years ago, I sat down and wrote an essay, and I honestly hadn’t written anything creatively in a decade, yet I wrote an essay that ended up being in The New York Times “Modern Love” column, and it was about my wife and I meeting. I know, it’s like such a ridiculous mic-drop – like, “Look what I wrote and it got there!” I swear that my life doesn’t work out in that way all the time, but it gave me pause, and I thought, wait a second, I think I’ve honed a craft here after years of being in the back seat, and that essay correlated with an idea I had: what if a lesbian wedding went awry, and there you have All Are Welcome.
Project Open Books: That is amazing. Before turning to your book, and we do want to start talking about All Are Welcome, we noticed a post on your Instagram that you shared a couple weeks before the publication of your book, and we really love the caption that you wrote. You said your “goal was to write a funny story with gay characters that anyone (anyone!) could relate to.” We’d like to know more about that goal, if that was your goal when you started writing the book, and how it may have changed and developed as you were writing. Do you feel you accomplished your goal and in what ways?
Liz: Great question! So, to answer that question I have to offer a little bit of my biography. I was born and raised in Connecticut, and I have a very supportive family now, but twenty years ago when the magic of the coming-out process started, that wasn’t necessarily the case. I was the first gay person that my parents really met – they knew like two older gay gentlemen – and the same went for all of my friends. I was the resident token-gay person for years, and I had to learn how to exist as a chameleon, as I think a lot of us do. It was an interesting dichotomy because I wasn’t in the closet – I was out – I was myself, it was just a different time. It is amazing what has changed in twenty years. But, I got really good at it – I call it expanding the envelope vs. pushing the envelope – I didn’t want to become estranged from the world that I recognized as mine, but I also didn’t want to not be me. So, I thought, how do I build the world so I can fit in it too, but so I don’t have to move and make all new friends and be the “get a rainbow flag and pin it to my shirt” type. I mean I did that, but I got really good at it, and I think part of All Are Welcome was looking at the family members and the friends that had to catch up because I was okay with me years before my world was okay with me. But, the other thing to think about is that life is long, and I talk about the spectrum of acceptance and how it can feel completely impossible and insurmountable at first, but it loosens up and evolves over time. So, the main goal with All Are Welcome was writing a non-coming-out story in which I could talk about that spectrum of acceptance without making anyone, except arguably Caroline and her parents, the villains of the story. I didn’t want to villainize Tiny’s parents because they were still catching up, and I didn’t want to make the main character into a person she wasn’t just because she was a token.
Project Open Books: Thank you for sharing that, and I think it brings us a little bit into the question that I have. As I was reading this, and looking at the title and the front cover – it’s a cute and beautiful little beachy book – I started thinking more about this title, and I thought, well clearly not everybody is welcome. Is this sort of a poke at society and how we say “all are welcome” when they’re not really welcome in certain spaces? And, then I was thinking about how relatable it is with certain characters and how we all have these funky family members, and we don’t want to villainize them for being where they’re at and catching up in the way that they are – so if you could tell us a little bit more about the title?
Liz: Sure. So, WASPs, a lovely demographic, which I know intimately and share blood with – they don’t know that they’re a closed-off group, so if you ask an average WASP, and say “Hey, are you an open-minded and accepting individual?” – they’ll be like, “You bet! Totally! I love people!” So, part of it was poking fun at that, for sure. I’ve been in many situations in which I am like, “All are not welcome here,” and you have to pass in so many ways, on so many levels, but I also thought, I wanted to poke fun at, well, there’s a section in the book where Caroline is talking about small talk and how WASPs can just drown in it, and it’s something that I actually love – small talk – I love the game of it, it’s about how intimate you can be while saying nothing that matters, but that was also part of the title because only someone who doesn’t welcome everyone would ever say “All are welcome.”
Project Open Books: We love the role that WASPs play in this novel, and not everyone knows what that term is. Could you explain, what is a WASP?
Liz: Of course. So, technically speaking, a WASP is a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. Culturally speaking, it is a cluster of families up and down the eastern seaboard. They congregate in places like Fairfield County, Nantucket, Northeast Harbor Maine, and then you’ve got the beltway of D.C., you’ve got a few WASPs in New Jersey, but it’s fewer and farther between, and they’re of a different brand. You have to feel proud that your family likely came over on the Mayflower. That’s a pretty important part, too. And, you can marry into WASPs, but you cannot buy into WASPs.
Project Open Books: Thank you so much for providing us with that definition. Next, we’d like to know a little bit more about the setting for this novel. The characters come from Connecticut, but then it takes place in Bermuda, which is not necessarily the most LGBTQIA+-friendly place in the world. So, we are curious to know more about this placement of setting in the book.
Liz: Okay, so this will poke fun at all of us studying literature. You know how when you’re studying literature and you start overanalyzing, and you write a paper and you’re like, “I think the author was going for this,” as you’re examining the themes of the book? I 100% felt like I had to have just one thing in there that could be studied, and it was 100% the Bermuda thing because you’re absolutely right, Bermuda is not a gay-friendly place; it’s also hysterically absurd that the McAllister family would be like, “I know where we’ll have the gay wedding: Bermuda! It’s beautiful there! Love the coral beach club!”
Also, I’d like to say about this book that everything is real but nothing is true. My family is not the McAllisters. We’re not as rich, but it was absolutely inspired by my entire childhood.
Project Open Books: Our next question is about Tiny. Could you tell us a little more about the name of this character? Obviously, Tiny is physically tiny, but her personality is anything but. We’re interested in learning more about the name selection.
Liz: It came to me as I was walking on the beach in St. Martin. Out of nowhere, the line “Tiny was actually tiny” just popped into my mind, and honestly that was it. I think that nicknames have a way of realizing themselves the longer you have it. I know that when I was seven, I named myself Wizpower. It was my superhero name, and I still call myself Wizpower when I need some strength. Like come on, Wiz, you can do this! Tiny was just a victim on the other side of that. Her mom is Bitty; they’re used to nicknames like that. It’s another really WASP-y thing when everyone gets a nickname. That’s just how we do it, but the longer you’re called Tiny, the tinier you become in the family.
Project Open Books: That pivots us in the direction of my next question, which is about the family and the characters. You talked about how they’re relatable and you mentioned a little bit about the inspiration for some of these things, but do you have personal experiences that sort of inspired these relationships or the personalities of these characters. They’re so multi-dimensional and deep and dark, and I’m just interested to know more behind what you may have experienced.
Liz: Not as bluntly, honestly. I think what I really wanted to do with this book and with this family was to bring them to the brink of disaster – these are horrible people – and then try to walk them back because I think it is so easy, especially in today’s world, to be misunderstood and misconstrued if you aren’t 100% up with the times. And, honestly, it’s funny because in the book Tiny is closer to my age now, but any overlap I have with Tiny is when I was fifteen years old; I outgrew Tiny a long, long time ago in terms of feeling like I couldn’t say something around my family members, or, like I said earlier, being tokenized – that kind of thing – but we are also a closer family, the Parkers, than the McAllisters. So, a lot of it was added drama.
Project Open Books: Thank you for sharing that. You mentioned earlier that in your career you became aware that there were more coming-out stories than other LGBTQIA+ stories.
When conducting research to see what there is for LGBTQIA+ representation in literature, it can often be a red flag to see stories that include LGBTQIA+ characters that either die in the end or face some kind of personal tragedy. This doesn’t seem to be the case in your book, but Tiny and Caroline call off their wedding in the end and, at least for me, this was quite devastating. I think as a member of the LGBTQIA+ community, I long for happy endings of such characters. Can you tell us a little bit more about your decision to end the book as you did?
Liz: All I will say is that I dated someone who I was absolutely crazy about and heartbroken by, many, many years ago, and I thought for sure that my life was over and my love life was over, then, a few months later, I was set up on a blind date and that woman is my wife now. So, part of the ending is the fact that I think this is the story that usually gets the spotlight with heterosexual relationships, but it happens to queer people, too. We have our head-fake forever relationships that pivot us into the forever relationship we’re ready for, and if I got to write a sequel for this we’d find Tiny in Austin and we’d find her finally living her biggest life, and with that also comes her biggest love. The thing with Caroline is that, even if Caroline matches Tiny in terms of background and what they’re looking for, Caroline wants to put Tiny in a box. It’s just a different box than her parents’ box, and I didn’t want Tiny to end in a box.
Project Open Books: Well now you’ve mentioned a sequel and something we like to ask all of our authors, because we love your books, is to hear what is coming in the future.
Liz: There is another book coming. I think it might be coming next summer, or maybe next winter. We’ll find out when I get my edits back from my publisher, and I can even give you a hint at what the next two books are. I wanted to write a trilogy of family stories. The first, All Are Welcome, is the nuclear family. The second – I’m going to leave it untitled, because I don’t know what the final title will be – but it’s a story about an extended family. And, the third is called “Chosen Family.”
Project Open Books: One thing we think a lot about at Project Open Books is self-reflection. What did access look like for us when you were in high school? What was your access like during the coming-of-age period and when you were coming to terms with your own sexuality? And, what does it feel like now to be an author in that space and fix this problem?
Liz: Absolutely. I was firmly closeted until probably the summer after senior year of high school and the access – you know it’s interesting and I wonder how many other people would relate to this – I feel like my access was so much more through music, and TV, and movies and actually, side note, my mind exploded, there was this movie from like 2000, But I’m a Cheerleader, which was a very important movie to me, and my mind exploded twenty years later when I became friends with the woman who produced that movie. For books, what I found was, and this definitely gets into what I’m trying to do now, it was so depressing out there, you know, I remember reading Written On the Body by Jeanette Winterson, which is a beautifully written book, but not joyful, and I thought, my life is going to be hard. Or, reading The Awakening by Kate Chopin, or Virginia Woolf – people who ended their lives, and I thought, this is going to be a really long row to hoe; I don’t know how I’m going to do this, and so that’s part of wanting to write stories that are lighter and also joyful and inspiring and new. It’s really cool that I get to do it as an author on a small level and then on a much bigger level as an agent.