Monday, July 15, 2024

Creator Corner: A Conversation with Writer and the Melsi Rare Pair Creator ‘Z’

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One of the most difficult aspects of being in queer fandom is the dearth of canon ships. That’s why so many of us flock to fanfiction—we want to see ourselves represented and if canon won’t give it to us, we make it ourselves. Given the popularity of Game of Thrones, it’s unsurprising that there are many popular femslash ships, most of which never make it onto our screens. For this edition of Creator Corner, in honor of season 8, I sat down with the creator of a fascinating rare pair from the show and books: Cersei and Melisandre (Melsi). So join me as I talk with Z about writing fanfic, queer coded Melisandre, and what she’d like to see in queer female representation!

Gretchen: So let’s start at the beginning, how long have you been writing?

Z: I’ve always despised writing, but as a literary and cultural theory student turned therapist, it was crucial to my life. I am an analytical rather than creative person, so I always panicked about any creative writing assignment and never had any desire to write fiction of any kind. Until 2017 all of my writing was academic work, but then I had a personal story I felt I needed to talk about so badly that if I didn’t write it, I would explode. Because it was about a facet of mental illness, I felt needed more public discussion so I wrote it. It turned out I had a connection through my book club, so I pitched it to an editor at Bust magazine and it was published. So my first freelance piece, which was about how the music of Lana Del Rey helped me to gain self-awareness around having a mentally-ill partner and process the heartbreak that happened when we split up, was published in October 2017. It’s still the thing I’m most proud of having written.

That kicked off a writing spark in me. I started getting ideas about topics I felt needed more public discussion or de-stigmatizing and was publishing other personal essays and critical pieces with sites like Demystified (a site my friend created), Bust, and finally a piece commemorating the 40th anniversary of Kate Bush’s The Kick Inside for Stereogum. I haven’t published any freelance work since then. Then, after an initial spurt of about 10 pieces published fairly quickly on everything from emotional abuse in Phantom Thread to the concept of pretty privilege, I got burnt out after doing the emotional labor for no pay. Maybe if I get another freelance idea I feel needs to be in the world that’ll change.

However, one of the pieces I published was about Cersei’s psychology and is closely related to my Melsi writing.

“Cersei and Melisandre WIP” by Chihyro.

G: I know you from the A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF) fandom. Did you get your start writing in that fandom or elsewhere?

Z: I never read or wrote fanfiction until two years ago, and even now I don’t really read much or feel “connected” to a fandom. I’m not sure exactly how creating the Melsi ship happened, but I always just thought they’d be a good pair because of their energies. I would text with my best friend, also an ASOIAF fan, about how I thought they’d interact and what their story would be like. We’d also text about headcanons for other characters we read as queer such as Brynden Tully and Jon.

Somehow, I ended up going from constantly tweeting about how much I’d love them to be a couple to making mini-fic tweets with images of them paired to look like they’re together or interacting. My first Melsi mini-fic tweet is dated November 6, 2017 (you can find a thread of all the mini-fics here), so I guess that’s when the madness began. At first, no one paid much attention to them, but then people did start seeing the tweets and asking if there were any Melsi fics available.

I always said I was happy with just my mini-fic tweets. Then, suddenly, I felt compelled to flesh out my concept of Melisandre earning Cersei’s trust by literally reviving Cersei’s hair from the dead into a full story, and it came flowing out of me. Then more ideas and more. I didn’t start posting them on Archive of Our Own (AO3) until last March, though I had written them long before. After all my hard work, I wanted it to not be pointless labor and have more people see it.

My fics aren’t popular at all and don’t have many hits/reads, especially my Melsi ones— my Cersei/Dany one is my most popular because more people search for Dany’s name than Mel’s—but I’m ok with that because I started writing them out of my own needs. Their bond is something I kind of want for myself and find fulfilling to write. There were no Melsi fic on AO3 for me to read, plus my fics describe specific things that turn me on that I couldn’t find in other work. Still, the mini-fic tweets are just as important to me because they collectively piece together their story and dynamic, and I work really hard on finding photos that match together. It’d be nice to have the work recognized more, but it’s for my own amusement more than anything. At the same time, I would really like more people to be into the ship and read the work because I think it promotes a kind of woman loving woman (WLW) narrative we don’t see often enough: women helping one another heal or empower one another to be their best selves. I apologize for the long-winded answer to how I started writing fic but it was an odd and long-winded process!

G: No need to apologize at all! In fact, let’s talk more specific details. What is it about Melsi that you find compelling?

Z: First I want to address the elephant in the room, which is that yes, I know I spell the ship name incorrectly and that it should be “M-e-l-s-e-I” not “M-e-l-s-i,” but at 7:32 pm on November 6, 2017 I just wasn’t thinking and made a tweet with the hashtag for the first time and kept going, so I can’t change the ship hashtag or tag now without losing all my ship content. But anyway…

When I started watching the show, they were my two favorite characters, and shared things that I felt made them a good romantic and sexual pair. I felt that even more so after reading ASOIAF. I picked up on many textual parallels between them in the books (like this, this, and this), many of which relate to being driven by passion, misperceived by others, and both having a void of loneliness and pain that Cersei fills with “rage,” Melisandre with religious fanaticism. Both of them are women who have to put on a facade to deal with others around them and present great strength. I feel like only with one another can they let that drop and be vulnerable, and that Melisandre, as the only woman perceived by others in a way as intimidatingly as Cersei is, would be able to pierce Cersei’s armor.

They’re both obvious tops, so the dynamic of them negotiating power during sex seemed fun as well. But Cersei will always be Cersei, so my modern AU Melsi fics have her curse all the time and still be acerbic, just with someone to temper her cruelty and call out her bullshit. Both are seen by others, especially men, as being almost like foreign species, so I love the concept of them being fully human with one another. One reader told me that she appreciated seeing women who are usually written as closed off and manipulative written as vulnerable and living on their own terms as opposed to men’s terms—like Cersei geting to have a birth experience that’s pleasant on her own terms.

To me, Melsi is about love and fun being built from trust, which we don’t see in ASOIAF often and especially not in the show Game of Thrones (GOT), where women are pitted against one another needlessly. This trust helps Cersei work through her internalized misogyny and helps Mel to allow someone into her heart after experiencing the childhood trauma of slavery that makes her “fear to dream” and distance herself not only from others but from seemingly being human to most who meet her. The ability for Cersei to love another woman (and to give pleasure to someone else and not only receive pleasure, which is what happens in “And Hair Grows Back”) represents character growth that she probably can’t and won’t achieve in canon, especially given that she’s canonically bi but rationalizes her same-sex attraction as a desire to be a man due to internalized misogyny. Although they have many differences—Mel has positive motivations carried out badly; Cersei is mainly driven by paranoia and rage— they share a similarity in “scary” energy because they have to work hard to present themselves in a certain way to others to be respected.

I also ship them because they represent ice and fire, and how only the fire priestess can melt the ice queen’s heart . Plus, Carice van Houten herself ships it and has said multiple times that she most wants Mel to meet Cersei, so I’m onto something! In a recent interview, she said, “They’re not that different, they’re both loners”  and that “It would be really interesting to see that they [Cersei and Melisandre] got on as women as opposed to just fighting,” which is EXACTLY what I think makes them fit together.

In my modern AU Melsi fics, one of the things I love most to do is give Cersei a space where she can fully explore not just her sexuality but her womanhood in a way that she can’t in ASOIAF. She can be more than the “dutiful daughter, blushing bride” she’s had to be her whole life. In GOT, Tywin says to Arya, “You remind me of my daughter,” and that’s always stuck out to me because deep down, Cersei has the same drive to be a bit less feminine that Arya has. Although I have seen people write modern AU Cersei with a Megyn Kelly-vibe to her—the very femme, posh princess—I write her as more futch. Leather jackets, ripped jeans. She “needs a storm to match her rage” in the books, so I give her that. She gets to be wild, angry, and unconstrained by society, which is something I want for Cersei but she doesn’t get to have in the books or on the show.

G: So, queer coded Melisandre (LOVE IT)—not everyone’s go-to when they think of potentially queer women in ASOIAF! Tell our readers what it is about Melisandre that spoke to you as a queer woman.

Modeling shot of Z as Melisandre. Credit to Jackson Grey Studio.

Z: Oh dear R’hllor, where do I even begin. I identify very strongly with Melisandre because of being someone who learned what the word intimidating meant at age 8 when one of my classmates’ mother described me as such. Like Mel, I’m really obsessive about the things I love (Kate Bush is to me what R’hllor is to Mel) and have often been misperceived in ways similar to the ways in Melisandre is misperceived by others. I model part-time and I’ve actually been asked to do a few shoots as Mel, which has been fun, and get approached by random creepy men on the street all the time telling me they think I remind them of her, although I don’t look anything like the amazing Carice van Houten. All that to say, it’s easy to assume I’m projecting with queer coded Melisandre, but it’s not that at all!

I watched the show before I read the books and when I watched the show I didn’t read her as queer coded, though I did see her interactions with men as being completely artificial. Really, it was through the books that I thought of her as queer coded. She talks about how the wall is a “queer place” and that her powers are stronger there. I mean, like, hello!

It’s actually kind of hard to describe why I see her as a lesbian. It’s gaydar; if you’re gay, you see it. Part of it is that the way she interacts with men is very performative and always to get something. A counter argument could be that everything about the way she acts is artificial, even her physical appearance is a facade. However, part of it is also that I’ve been a sex worker and I know what it’s like to interact with men in this kind of performative way. In fact, it was after doing sex work that I started to read her as queer because the way she interacted with men was a lot like the way I was interacting with men as a queer woman. (Not least of which was because I would have men ask me to perform Melisandre for them at the strip club where I worked. Not even kidding! They would tell me I looked like, “the witch from Game of Thrones” and ask me to do the whole “the night is dark and full of terrors” thing.)

So back to Melisandre, another thing I noticed is that when she talks about men, she shows no interest in them. It’s all about her religion. And that doesn’t even mean she’s specifically lesbian, I think you could also read her as not sexual at all outside of religious duty. So it wasn’t so much that she specifically expresses interest in women (she hasn’t), but that she never expresses any genuine interest in men. Stannis and Mel have had sex a couple of times—and I think only those couple of times because I read him as asexual—but she doesn’t really seem interested in him as a man. Her interest in him stems from him being Azor Ahai, so it’s really a spiritual thing for her. For me, the idea of having sex with him comes from the desire for unison with god. (I think of the Nine Inch Nails song “Closer.”) She’s essentially doing her duty.  Even her sexual interest in Jon seems to be more about her wanting to figure out what she’s seeing in her flames and reach a kind of spiritual transcendence or accomplish her mission from R’hllor.

When it boils down to it, I like to read her as queer because it broadens the perception of what being queer or being a lesbian looks like. For example, Brienne, who does get discussed as being queer or queer coded, has expressed sexual and romantic interest in multiple men in canon. Melisandre hasn’t expressed true interest in men in canon, but she’s feminine, she shows cleavage, therefore “she must be straight” according to some folks. It just shows how limited people’s ideas of what being a woman are firstly; just because Brienne is masculine doesn’t make her less of a woman or inherently queer. But also it shows how limited people’s ideas are of what it means to be a queer woman.

I relate to Melisandre on multiple levels, and I’m a queer woman, so I can recognize that there are women out there who look and present like Melisandre and I. We’re both 90s lesbians. You know, the woman at Lilith Fair selling potions, into Wicca or other ‘pagan’ religions, more of a dark feminine or goth femme presentation. Melisandre is the ultimate goth, and I lean that way, so I think of her as the archetypal dark queer femme that we’re missing in lesbian representation.

G: Are your stories more book-focused or show-focused? Why did you choose to write fanfiction based on one over the other?

Z: It changes depending on the fic. I have two strains of fic: one I call ‘canon-based’ and the other is modern au. For the canon based ones, what’s interesting is that I’m very much a book purist. If I ever talk about the characters, I’m referring to the book characters. For the show characters, I will say show!Dany or show!Cersei. Part of the reason I started writing fic was my dissatisfaction with the show, I thought it provided more holes to fill. The books are good! There’s not as much I would change about them to be frank. The only way I can see Melsi happening in the books is if we went back in time to the Battle of the Blackwater and Stannis won. I have this idea that they would have found a way to take Cersei captive and some kind of love affair or sex could have happened between them that way. But in terms of book canon, I find fewer openings for them to interact. Whereas in the show at the end of S7, Jaime has left King’s Landing and Melisandre has said she’s going to Volantis, but the way I write it, she’s going to convert the queen to R’hllorism.

My canon based fics are very much based on the show as a way to correct the show, if that makes sense. They’re a way to make it more of what I would like to see on the show that is missing from it, like positive relationships between women they aren’t just fighting each other and women having sex that isn’t just serving an agenda. My canon based fics are basically an alternate season 8 for Cersei and Melisandre than we’re going to get on our screens. One that I think is more empowering and healing to women, to queer women, and to these specific characters.

For my modern au fics, they actually tend to be more based on the books. They’re more fun spirited, an adaptation of what the book characters would be like if they were current high school or college students. I’m more likely to include specific plot details that are based entirely on the books in my modern aus. For example, the bracelet Melisandre uses on Rattleshirt, I have her use that on Cersei at one point. I try to write their voices as authentic to the books as possible, even if the setting is modern. When I’m writing Cersei, I immerse myself in A Feast for Crows so that I really get her right.

“They Love Tricks~ Cersei and Melisandre” by Giovana Milanezi.

G: That’s fascinating! I think people’s impression would be that modern aus are more ‘non-canonical’ than a story that uses the book’s setting and worldbuilding, but for you, your aus are actually more like their book characters and the setting is just that, a different setting.

Z: Pretty much. The one major difference would be that my modern aus give Cersei more space to explore certain parts of herself that are repressed in the books, but overall, she’s still Cersei being Cersei!

G: Do you have any other ships you like from the show or other fandoms? Is there any kind of unifying theme to the ship dynamics you find most interesting?

Z: I’m a hardcore Jaime/Cersei shipper, which is pretty taboo in the fandom, although I prefer her with Melisandre. They are two toxic and unhealthy people (especially possessive, jealousy-driven book!Jaime, rather than softer show!Jaime) in a toxic and unhealthy relationship, who are too toxic and damaged to be with anyone but one another. I believe that shipping them because their relationship is the most psychologically complex and therefore engaging doesn’t mean you think incest is ok. I’m a twin myself and a therapist who has worked with incest survivors, so I’m disgusted by people romanticizing incest in the fandom. I ship them because I am fascinated by the literary and psychological dimensions of their relationship, and want them to be (and die) together because they are too intertwined with one another to be (or die) with anyone else. The relationship shows what happens to two people who cannot love others unless that other is some form of extension of them, a doomed romance that takes the idea that one’s romantic partner should be their “other half” to the greatest extreme. It’s almost a critique of that societal standard by showing how codependency leads to the inability to differentiate self from other or create a sense of independent identity in a healthy way.

Besides that, I basically ship anything gay, consensual, and age-appropriate, with the common link being characters who can help one another heal or grow psychologically. I love the concept of Dansa (Dany/Sansa), based on the book characters rather than show, for similar reasons as why I ship Melsi: both characters have similar imagery and energies and could help heal one another in some way. I wrote a Sansa/Meera fic because I think they’d complement one another and because both have done much unrecognized emotional labor. I’m also very into what I call Jelisandre–Jaime and Melisandre–despite headcanoning her as a lesbian. I think it would be hot since they’re hot, and because, as I wrote in this fic, he could be vulnerable with her in ways he can’t be with Cersei; that is one of the fics I’m proudest of and that has sadly been read the least! Jon is very bi in my eyes so I’m into Jon/Satin, Jon/Val, and Jon, Val, and Satin together, which I’ve written. Jon/Gendry on the show, show!Margaery and show!Brienne. But nothing incestuous besides Jaime/Cersei, and nothing that isn’t consensual. In my fic, characters usually ask one another for consent before doing anything physical; that’s important to me.

G: How would you describe your fanfic style? Are you more fluffy, smut, hurt/comfort, or somewhere in between?

Z: Definitely in between. I’d say my fic style changes with each story. It’s generally sweet and sexy, always with humor—especially from Cersei being Cersei—but there are certain ones that are more just downright dirty (this is pretty wild and might be my defining work, because it’s very R-Rated but still has heart) and others that are mainly about relationship-building, especially my high school au Melsi series The Witch and The Bitch. My favorite ones are the ones that others have said move them emotionally, and that I find emotionally moving. In a way, the high school au series is what I never got to have when I was younger and what many WLW didn’t get to have. That’s why I find them important and why they move me. In them, we see each character work through her problems to accept herself in a contemporary, relatable way, and being modern lets us see two “scary” women be more grounded in the real world.

There’s one thing about my fics I find unique: their intertextuality. I have a wide variety of passions, so my works are pretty intertextual and are stuffed with hidden references to other works I love that are easy to miss. For example, the title and final line of “Getting Hungry” is a reference to the final line of the movie Phantom Thread. “Getting Hungry” also has a line that references the 1981 movie Possession (Possession: “For me, God is a disease,” Cersei: “for her, any god was a disease”) and it has a dream/reality hybrid scene that is basically stolen from the 1966 movie Persona. These are references pretty far removed from ASOIAF and GOT, but I draw my inspiration from strange things.

I draw a lot on my love of music as well. The first story in my The Witch And The Bitch is about them bonding over Stevie Nicks, and that series includes music references throughout because I have a solid idea of what they’d be into, which helps with character-building; I envision Melisandre as a Cocteau Twins/Nico/divisive goth kind of girl, while Cersei would like angry girl music Hole and the first two PJ Harvey albums, all of which make cameos in my work. Most of these references are to amuse myself because all of this is to amuse myself, and if other people pick up on the easter eggs, that’s fantastic!

G: Fanfiction has its own set of tropes you don’t usually find in mainstream fiction.  Do you have any favorite tropes you like to use in your own writing or read in other people’s writing?

Z: No traditional trope comes to mind, but I do have the infamous Lannister gold (literally made of gold) strap on. It’s the Best Supporting Actress that recurs in a large chunk of my fics! The process of Cersei letting Mel use it signals a shift in their power dynamic and Cersei allowing herself to be vulnerable, so it isn’t just for laughs, although it, like most things I write, just came from something I found personally entertaining and sexy. There’s an AO3 tag that says “everyone is gay” and that’s my other main trope. I make everyone gay, even characters you might not expect. For example, in my high school au Melsi series, Vice Principal Barristan Selmy and swimming coach Brynden Tully are having a secret affair because why not? Gay of Thrones > Game of Thrones.

G: Outside of fanfic, do you have your own original writing that you’re working on, or want to work on if you don’t have time right now?

Z: I’ve never done creative writing outside of fic—I can’t imagine doing so, mostly because I’ve always hated creative writing that isn’t fic writing. At this point, there are a ton of concepts I want to write fics about, but once I sit down to write them, nothing comes out. I’m happy just living with the concepts, like modern au Mel as rich housewife Cersei’s private yoga instructor, who gives her release from a bad marriage to modern au Robert. Yet whenever I think I have no more stories in me, something comes out unexpectedly, like when I had a craving about a kink that got so strong I wrote it to purge the desire from my system, or like when I wrote “Only Skin” because the idea randomly struck me like lightning as I was listening to the titular song while reading A Dance with Dragons on the beach.

G: As a fellow queer woman and content creator, talk to me about representation. How do you see fanfiction as creating space for more or different kinds of representation than we get in ‘canon’ media?

Z: For me, Carice Van Houten saying “It would be really interesting to see that they [Cersei and Melisandre] got on as women as opposed to just fighting” hits the nail on the head for ASOIAF and especially GOT fanfic. Mel is kind of a secret softie using a facade to hide it, and after bringing that out in Cersei together, they can take down patriarchy in ways like using black magic to get revenge on Robert for raping Cersei. This is something that can only happen in fic because within ASOIAF and GOT, they’re living in a deeply patriarchal society. Fanfic is so important as a way to imagine a better world for women, LGBTQ people, and people of color—people traditionally excluded from or oppressed within traditional canon media. George R. R. Martin (GRRM) is definitely critical of patriarchy in some ways, such as showing how deeply it’s warped Cersei to the point of her hating her own womanhood, but perpetuates it in other ways such as his denial of sex workers’ humanity. In canon media, we rarely see “scary” or “unsympathetic” women get to liberate their defenses and neuroses through love and sex with one another. That’s what makes Melsi special to me.

Artist credit unavailable. The only available sources are here and here. If you find artist credit, please don’t hesitate to contact Gretchen so she can source appropriately.

G: What would you like to see when it comes to the representation of queer women characters and stories?

Z: I was pleased that GRRM was more explicit about characters being same-sex attracted in Fire and Blood, and would love to see more of that, but what I really want is content made by LGBTQ authors. That’s hard because people with the budgets to create are typically straight white dudes. Once when I was tweeting about Melsi, someone replied, “But would we want D and D writing their sex scenes?” No, I want lesbians to write them. Specifically me :). But we need the budgets!

I’d also like fewer WLW stories set in the past. I often feel as though society feels the need for WLW stories to be set in the past so they’re at a “safe” distance, plus this usually means the stories are about white women because people like to forget POC have always existed. I am craving more contemporary WLW movies and content. We exist, we’re out here! I would also like to see more butch/butch pairings in media, because I’m tired of seeing one woman in a suit and one in a dress in fake lesbian weddings. Despite being a femme who literally wrote my master’s thesis on femmephobia in queer communities, I’m perturbed by butch erasure in media. Many lesbians tend to distance themselves from butches for being a “stereotype,” so more butch/butch representation is needed, as opposed to just femme/andro or femme/femme.

G: Any advice for people out there who want to get into writing fanfiction or original fiction?

Z: Do it for you and no one else. And if you tag anything about asses or assplay on AO3 you’ll automatically get more hits for some reason.

G: Thanks for talking with me, Z!

Z: You’re so welcome! In the same way show!Dany always aggressively and assertively says about her dragons, “These are my children!” that’s me about fics and my melsi content in general: *Dany voice* THEY ARE MY CHILDREN, THE ONLY CHILDREN I WILL EVER HAVE! So I love to share them like a beauty pageant mother or something, and am grateful for the opportunity!

You can find all of Z’s various ASOIAF/GOT fic writing here and her Melsi fics here. You can also follow her on Twitter at @girl_hag.

Unless otherwise noted, images are courtesy of  Z. Links to fan art available in image captions.

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