Jes Battis (they/them), teacher and author of The Winter Knight, is joined by acquiring editor Jen Albert for an interview where they discuss neurodiverse romances, queer heroes, and what it means to write the book you needed as a teen.
Jen R. Albert: The Winter Knight is a modern Arthurian retelling, lively urban fantasy, and gripping murder mystery all at the same time. At the head of the spirited cast of characters is Wayne (the reincarnation of Sir Gawain), an autistic college student who’s trying to grapple with his mythological family’s mess and survive in a world that’s not very friendly to neurodivergent people. Where did the idea for this character come from, and how did you go about bringing him to life?
Jes Battis: I often teach the epic medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and I’m always struck by how awkward Sir Gawain is. He has a reputation as a famous “smooth-talking” knight, but he’s actually quite young, nervous, and inexperienced. I thought that would translate well into a protagonist who’s socially awkward but still brave and curious. There’s a lot of me in Wayne, though he’s also a lot more self-aware than I was at nineteen! It’s rare to see an autistic protagonist in a fantasy/science fiction novel, and I wanted Wayne to be flawed and complex. He doesn’t always do the right thing — he has his own ghosts to deal with — but he’s evolving and trying to figure things out. I also wanted to show how a neurodivergent college student might struggle within a university system that’s fundamentally ableist. Wayne actually asks for the help he deserves.
JRA: As a queer and neurodivergent person yourself, writing a cast of characters who share some of these traits and identities, how did your own life experience influence the writing process and the story and characters you built?
JB: I was really just describing my world — my friends and family and colleagues. I think queer, trans, and neurodivergent people sometimes act as magnets, pulling each other into community. Some of Wayne’s memories and experiences are close to my own, but they’re also stitched together from the experiences of many queer and neurodivergent people that I’ve known. The moments in which he struggles to speak, in particular, come from my own experience with selective mutism and silent meltdowns. I wish that I’d included a non-verbal autistic character (there’s one in my next book) since we still tend to privilege the stories of low-needs autistic characters who don’t have many issues with verbal communication. But Wayne’s description of words “log-jamming” in his head, being unable to get them out, was also a nod to autistic people who struggle with more traditional communication.
It was also really important to me to make Kai a nuanced character as a trans woman. I’m nonbinary, and there are parts of me that resonate deeply with Kai, but I don’t share her specific experience of moving through the world being trans femme. I drew on conversations I’ve had with trans women in my life, as well as writing by trans women — particularly Kai Cheng Thom, Jia Qing Wilson-Yang, and Casey Plett — and worked with sensitivity readers. I wanted to show that Kai deals with both racism and transmisogyny, but she’s also powerful, and she knows herself. She never becomes a sidekick or a foil or someone to teach Wayne a lesson — she has her own story. There are currently over three hundred anti-trans bills in the United States alone designed to effectively remove trans people from public life, and these genocidal tactics are spilling over into Canada, where supports for trans people remain fragile. I felt it was important to show both trans joy and trans power within the book, and there are multiple trans characters, not just Kai.
JRA: You are also a professor of medieval studies and no stranger to retellings. How did your professional background come into play in the process of crafting and writing this book? Was it difficult to balance the mythological elements for readers who may be less familiar with the source material?
JB: The difficulty was narrowing down all of those old stories! The Arthurian canon is such a rich body of work that goes back to the sixth century. But the versions that we hear often come from Thomas Malory, who was not a fan of moral complexity. He edited much of the diversity out of the older Latin, French, Welsh, and Dutch tales, including the queer knight Galehaut who dies of a broken heart, the African knight Moriaen, the Muslim knight Palamedes, and the disabled knight Bedivere (he’s one-handed in the Welsh stories). I wanted to put some of that back into The Winter Knight, and I was also inspired by recent adaptations like Once & Future by Amy Rose Capetta and Cory McCarthy (imagine the round table in space if Arthur were a Muslim girl). I tried to distill some of these characters into particular desires and anxieties that we see across various myths. Gale is forgotten and underestimated, like Galehaut. Morgan is mysterious and cunning but not entirely evil, at least not in a straightforward way. Arthur was the trickiest of all, but I based him on the hot-headed king in Sir Gawain and The Green Knight, who the fourteenth-century poet describes as “somewhat childish . . . always wanting to hear a tall tale.” I couldn’t include every variant, and I tried to convey just enough detail so that a reader unfamiliar with Arthurian stories could piece together who these people were. There are also easter eggs for readers who are more familiar or who decide to read some of the medieval stories (e.g., the fox is a familiar character in these stories, and near the end of the novel, when Gale mentions “the poet Marie,” he’s talking about the twelfth-century writer Marie de France, whose poem “Lanval” features one of the most fiery incarnations of Guinevere).
JRA: There’s a prominent gay romance at the heart of the story between Wayne and Bert, a.k.a. Bertilak, a.k.a. the Green Knight, whom Gawain encounters in the classic Arthurian poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. How did you build their connection for the book, and how did you play with the original story and its adaptations and interpretations?
JB: In the epic poem — as well as the recent film adaptation with Dev Patel — Gawain encounters a jolly and somewhat flirtatious host who trades him kisses for the various animals that he brings back while hunting. Gawain kisses the host’s wife (almost against his will, he’s so nervous) and has to “exchange” the kisses with Bertilak in what J.R.R. Tolkien described as “the kissing game.” It’s supposed to be more about trust and what not to do, but there’s an obvious queerness to what’s happening, particularly in the end, when Bertilak invites Gawain to come and live with him and Morgan le Fay in their magical castle. “I’ll be better to you than any other man,” he tells Gawain — which has always felt extraordinarily romantic to me. I wondered what would happen to that story if it kept repeating. Eventually, there would be some timeline where Gawain did choose Bertilak. That was the romance I wanted to write about — a more explicitly queer version of the poem, where the desire had room to evolve. I drew upon the poem’s suspense — we don’t know if Bertilak is truly a monster until the very end — as well as odd pacing since Gawain is under pressure to find the Green Knight. The poem also plays with time, letting him circle around the quest without fully completing it. There’s a green girdle in the poem that finds its way into the book as well, though in a different form. With Bert, I wanted to create a less common queer male character — a bearish guy who’s soft in all the right places. I also wanted someone who would support Wayne, even when he doesn’t always understand him. Bert helps Wayne deal with a meltdown in their first scene together. I wanted their relationship to be about care and community as much as it is about attraction. When they do have sex, I hope it’s a realistic sex scene, full of moments that are hot and awkward and funny, as sex should be.
JRA: We don’t get to see a lot of neurodivergent romantic leads in fiction. At one point, Bert asks Wayne about a “Neuro Queer” shirt he’s wearing, and Wayne becomes very nervous as he realizes he has to talk to his crush about being autistic. It’s a lovely moment in the end. Were there any challenges in writing a different sort of “coming out” scene like that one or in representing neurodiversity in romance in the book?
JB: I found that scene very challenging to get right. Coming out is always strange, and a lot of people have to come out in multiple ways. For me, coming out as queer is fairly easy since I work in a fairly liberal space, and a lot of my friends are academics. Coming out as nonbinary is a bit trickier, though people tend to respect this, even if they’re not always certain how to address it helpfully. Coming out as autistic is always weird because a lot of folks have no clear frame of reference when it comes to autistic people, aside from pop culture. I often think of Sarah Kurchak’s Hazlitt essay “Real Autism,” where she talks about finally coming out to her friends and co-workers, only to discover that nobody really believed her because she didn’t fit the exact traits they’d come to associate with autism. When I tell people I’m autistic, I get all kinds of responses: Are you sure? I think you’re exaggerating. You seem (almost) normal. When were you diagnosed? That’s weird — you have friends and can make eye contact. Don’t be so quick to label yourself. [silence]. Oh, sure, I could see that. Yeah, I kind of suspected . . . The interaction is rarely neutral, and people demand evidence in the same way they often want evidence from trans people (there are also a lot of trans autistic people).
With that scene, I wanted to convey the anxiety of telling someone you have a crush on and having no idea how they’ll respond. Bert’s response is, I think, a fairly ideal one and rare in real life — he listens, he doesn’t interject, and he says just enough to be positive. I also think it’s a very neurodivergent move to forget what shirt you have on. I wanted it to be a “Neuro Queer” shirt in particular because autistic writers like Nick Walker and M. Remi Yergeau have talked about this concept in really compelling ways — not just that your brain can be queer, but a lot of neurodivergent people are queer and trans, and this goes a step beyond the term “neurodiversity,” which has become commodified in a lot of ways (especially how it often erases autistic people with higher needs and people with cognitive disabilities). There’s also a moment later on in the book when Wayne is anxious, and Bert asks him what he needs — a really simple idea, but something we don’t see as often in queer romances where the emphasis is on drama and conflict. Wayne asks for a deep-pressure hug as a calming technique, and that’s what Bert gives him. I wanted to balance the more traditional romantic and sexy moments between them with these moments of care and communication. As a parallel, Hildie’s character is on the asexual spectrum, which is an experience that a number of neurodivergent people share as well. I wanted to create a non-traditional romance for her that didn’t revolve around sex but still contained many other forms of intimacy. She explicitly challenges the trope of you just haven’t met the right person yet, which is something that a lot of ace/aro people hear a lot. My own sexuality is probably somewhere on that spectrum, so I feel like I drew from some personal experiences when crafting Hildie.
JRA: What does it mean to you to write the representation you want to see? Do you have any recommendations for other books for people who love The Winter Knight?
JB: I’d love to go back in time, find my queer, autistic, fourteen-year-old self — who was not coping well with a world lacking in dragons — and hand them this book. We’re seeing more fantasy literature that embraces queer and trans characters, but it’s still quite rare to encounter neurodivergent and disabled characters as central protagonists. I think it’s fair to say that a lot of autistic and neurodivergent writers are interested in fantasy and science fiction, but they rarely see themselves represented within those genres. I’d recommend Corinne Duyvis’s sci-fi book On the Edge of Gone (features a generation ship with multiple disabled characters); Kai Cheng Thom’s fantasy novel Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars; Zabé Ellor’s YA novel May the Best Man Win (has both autistic and trans masc representation); Richard Ford Burley’s Mouse, which features a non-verbal autistic character dealing with magic; Hazel Jane Plante’s genre-defying book Any Other City, whose protagonist is a trans femme rockstar; Amber Dawn’s queer ghost story, Sodom Road Exit; and Métis writer Cherie Dimaline’s VenCo, which is full of queer, trans, and Indigenous witches.