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July 01, 2019 at 04:25 PM EDT
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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Kate Davies’ debut novel, In at the Deep End, tells a type of queer story that’s not often seen. The Bridget Jones-esque rom-com follows Julia, a twentysomething whose ambivalence about dating men has crept into all corners of her life. But when she sleeps with a woman for the first time, it’s the missing piece to the life she wasn’t living. As she dives into her newfound queerness with excitement, she meets Sam, an intriguing artist who shows Julia the some of the ropes, if you will, of BDSM and polyamory. And while she falls fast and hard for Sam, Julia learns that her new girlfriend might not have the best intentions or be the right match for her.

EW talked to Davies about coming out later in life, representations of lesbian sex, and more.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I devoured In at the Deep End. How did the idea of the book come about?
KATE DAVIES: I came out in my mid-20s as a lesbian, so it was semi-autobiographical. And I got the idea an embarrassingly long time ago. In 2010, I was doing a screenwriting course and I was learning how to structure film, and I thought that this would be a really fun idea — a lesbian rom-com. I started writing it as a pure rom-com in 2010, but didn’t ever make it as a film because I realized that films very rarely get, made especially lesbian films with lots of sex in them. So I started writing it in 2011 as a novel, and the first draft was very Bridget Jones’s Diary. And then in 2014, I went to see Lena Dunham, who was in conversation with Caitlin Moran. She was talking about truth in comedy and how that’s often the funniest thing. In 2015, a new law was introduced in the U.K. which criminalized coercive or controlling behavior. And I realized that I wanted to write about that. I threw out the really rom-com version and started all over again in 2015.

I really connected to it because I just recently came out, and it’s nice reading about someone who is coming out later in life. Julia has this realization that she’s a lesbian and she’s just SO excited about it. Why was it important to you to tell her coming out in this way that doesn’t have a lot of the typical coming-out beats?
That’s what I wanted to achieve in it. I kind of saw that I might be queer when I was a teenager and then I had all my emo stuff. So I just ignored it through my late teens, early 20s. And then I kind of made it [through that period]. When I was 25, I was like, “This year I’m going to go out with women,” and I never looked back. For me, it was just like coming home, and I don’t feel like there’s enough representation of that. I love being queer, and I wanted to reflect that in the book. And to me it has a culture that is just so rich, and I’m so thrilled that all of this stuff — you know, I said in the book that RuPaul’s Drag Race, Dusty Springfield, all this brilliant stuff is my culture. We can have fun stories too without that being the drama or the sad element of the story.

I definitely got Bridget Jones from the book, but it has a lot of darker aspects as well. Why was it important for you to write a lesbian rom-com?
My favorite writer is Nora Ephron. If I’m watching a comfort film, that’s what I want to watch. And I just didn’t feel that there’s enough queer content like that — that’s just fun, heartwarming, uplifting, and romantic. I consume those sorts of books and films, so I love David Nicholls and Marian Keyes, and I wanted to write something in that tradition.

Why was it important for you to show the abuse between Sam and Julia? People seem to pretend that abuse doesn’t necessarily happen in queer relationships because they’re supposed to be seen like a safe haven. At first Sam seems incredible, and then it really devolves.
It’s tricky when you are a minority, isn’t it? When you are writing about minorities, I think the initial impulse is to represent minorities in a loving light. But that’s not true; not every lesbian is a hero. I hope we’ve come to the kind of critical mass where there’s enough out there that you can tell darker stories. When I came out, I definitely had this fantasy idea of what a queer relationship would look like — that it would be super-equal, there wouldn’t be a gender imbalance. Of course in every relationship, there is a difference in power between the couple. I wanted to write about that and to give voice to something that I hadn’t really seen represented.

Some of that inequality between Sam and Julia is that Sam is experienced, she’s been out. And that doesn’t even get into the polyamory or the BDSM of it all.
Yes, she’s older and she’s more experienced. She knows what she wants and she’s a controlling person. Julia, on the other hand, is very naive, and she doesn’t know what she’s getting herself into. She’s rejected heterosexuality, so she’s very open-minded. It’s not that she’s been forced into doing things at first, she doesn’t know what she wants. She doesn’t know that she won’t like polyamory, but then [once she tries it], she doesn’t like it. I don’t want people to think that it’s a kink-shaming book or or an anti-polyamory book; it’s a first-person novel about one woman who tried it and didn’t like it.

While obviously it’s not something for Julia, how did you go about making sure you’re portraying polyamory and BDSM with respect to those communities?
I try to show that there are poly characters in the book who aren’t the villains. I wanted to show people and her friends who are happy being poly. I did take care to bring in people who weren’t portrayed in a negative light. I hope that I did that and I’m sure that some people won’t like it, but I hope that most people understand where I’m coming from. One of the reasons I added that section at the end of the novel where Julia imagines what the novel might look like if Sam were telling the story was to highlight the subjective nature of the story. This is one person’s experience, it’s not a representation of an entire community, and I think that’s really important.

I don’t want to say that it’s shocking, but I don’t feel like I’ve read anything this detailed about lesbian sex before. Why was that important for you to do?
It was just what happened when I started writing it. I wanted to celebrate it. It’s pretty hard to find accurate representations of what women actually do. I wanted to record it and represent it in a way that I hadn’t seen before. And a lot of it is funny. I love Nora Ephron. I know Lena Dunham is a problematic cultural figure, but I like that [her and] Phoebe Waller-Bridge combination. That honesty is shocking. I love that when I see it in another work of art, and I wanted to write things that I would be ashamed or embarrassed to say out loud. So if you put it out there and people will feel seen, I think that’s such a fun thing to be able to do. One reason why it’s so direct is that I was reading this book Wetlands, by Charlotte Roche, and it’s a very graphic novel about, not just about sex, but bodily functions. I remember just sitting on the tube and laughing at how detailed it was. But I think it took a layer of embarrassment and shame from me. When I was reading through the first draft, my initial thought was like, “Well, maybe I have to take out all of the crazy sex.” Then I realized that it was some of the most powerful writing. And so I just thought, “Well, I’m just gonna leave it in and deal with the consequences.”

Those are always the funniest books to be reading on the train.
When they were going to publish in the U.K., everyone was calling it “the fisting book.”

What do you think happens with Julia next? Would you write another book about her?
I would love to. Honestly, I really love writing in her voice. I would do it in the future, but it depends. It’s been optioned for television, so I’m working on an adaptation.

How do you want to continue to tell queer stories?
I will always write things that are inspired by my life and by my friends’ lives because I think that’s where I can write best. I just want to keep writing about queer people because they are my people and I want to tell different kinds of stories. So my next book, I’m looking at how people in their mid-30s are thinking about having children. And it’s really interesting to my queer friends because it’s a lot more complicated. So that’s the story I’m telling in my next book. So it’s something else that I feel like everyone’s talking about and I haven’t had that much representation of, and that’s the reason I want to tell it.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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