Writing a Queer and Neurodivergent Main Character: A Conversation with Madeleine Nakamura
By Lizzy Young
Since June is National Pride Month, we are highlighting Red Hen queer authors and books with queer main characters on the blog. Cursebreakers by Madeleine Nakamura fits in the latter category with a gay protagonist in Adrien Desfourneaux. Also, since National Mental Health Awareness Month just ended, we wanted to continue the conversation because Adrien is bipolar/neurodivergent.
Adrien Desfourneaux, professor of magic and disgraced ex-physician, has discovered a conspiracy. Someone is inflicting magical comas on the inhabitants of the massive city of Astrum, and no one knows how or why. Caught between a faction of scheming magical academics and an explosive schism in the ranks of the Astrum’s power-hungry military, Adrien is swallowed by the growing chaos. Alongside Gennady, an unruly, damaged young soldier, and Malise, a brilliant healer and Adrien’s best friend, Adrien searches for a way to stop the spreading curse before the city implodes. He must survive his own bipolar disorder, his self-destructive tendencies, and his entanglement with the man who doesn’t love him back.
Cursebreakers is forthcoming this fall, but you can preorder it now!
Madeleine was gracious enough to give an interview about her forthcoming novel, main character, and writing process.
Lizzy Young: How did you come up with the idea for Cursebreakers?
Madeleine Nakamura: I run tabletop roleplaying games for my friends, like Dungeons & Dragons, and one of those games was set in the world of Cursebreakers. All the characters in the book are characters I included in the tabletop world for my players to interact with. Adrien’s concept was improvised on the spot during one session (I even picked his name randomly from a list I’d compiled), after which he gradually developed into a full personality. At some point, I decided to write a pair of short stories featuring a few of my characters for my own amusement, and the idea for the book grew from one of those stories. “What if Adrien Desfourneaux and Gennady Richter interacted? What a disaster that would be.” Everything else just naturally appeared.
LY: What was the hardest part of building your magical world?
MN: The hardest part of worldbuilding is knowing when to stop worrying over details that don’t ultimately matter and commit to finishing the actual story. The second hardest part is accepting that the slightly silly placeholder names you’ve given to many things — names you never intended to stick around — have now embedded themselves into the story and become permanent.
LY: What authors or works of literature influenced Cursebreakers?
MN: Sarah Monette/Katherine Addison and Philip Pullman come most immediately to mind. There’s a certain aesthetic flavor in some of their books (I hope that doesn’t sound demeaning) that I’ve borrowed from a lot.
LY: Your main character, Adrien, is a gay man; how do you hope your work affects the literary landscape of books with queer main characters?
MN: I think queer fantasy as a genre is too fixated on youth, as if people de-queer at thirty; everyone I know is terrified of aging. I wrote Cursebreakers in college and was already feeling a sense of bewilderment that many of my peers seemed so averse to stories about adults. Queer YA fantasy is wonderful, but sometimes it feels very much like we’re all living in Logan’s Run. A common dismissal of adult fiction goes, “Well, who wants to read about yet another unhappy middle-aged professor?” As if that’s all there is. Joke’s on me, because Cursebreakers actually is about another unhappy middle-aged professor — but since he’s gay and can throw lightning bolts, I hope to wiggle out from under that criticism.
LY: What are some of your favorite LGBTQ+ books or authors?
LY: With your main character being neurodivergent/bipolar, how do you hope your work helps dismantle ableist attitudes in literature?
MN: People with “movie monster” mental illnesses like bipolar are generally expected to know their place in a narrative. Maybe you get to commit a murder-suicide to move the plot forward, for instance. At best, you’re there to emotionally torment your loved one, the protagonist (they care about you so much, but you’re unfortunately just so crazy). The story is definitely not about you. I hope this book pulls in the opposite direction.
Second, a common comment on Cursebreakers I’ve heard, which I want to differ with, is that people find Adrien too coherent and self-aware. They find this unconvincing. He’s too aware of his mental illness, too able to analyze himself, and too able to speak in full sentences. A high level of self-awareness and control isn’t universal in people with serious mental illnesses, but neither is it so unimaginable. A large part of the book is about the despair of knowing exactly what’s wrong with you and what must be done about it, and still not succeeding in overcoming yourself. It’s why I chose to use the philosophical term akrasia as a ‘fantasy’ term for mental illness in the book’s world, despite akrasia having a wildly different definition in actuality. I chose akrasia for its resonance with how Adrien, specifically, interprets his symptoms. Whether or not that will rightly annoy any philosophy buffs, I don’t know, but I thought about it a lot. That experience of mental illness isn’t the right one or the only one, but it’s real, and I’d like more people to know that.
Madeleine Nakamura is a writer, editor, and lifelong fantasy devotee. She began writing her first novel the day she realized a computer science degree wasn’t happening. She graduated from Mills College in Oakland with a degree in creative writing. She is based in Los Angeles, California.