The Writer's Code 

Joan Opyr on the intersections of life and literature

"Oh, thank god," exclaimed Moscow writer Joan Opyr when we met and I informed her I had forgotten my camera. "No matter what I do, I always look like I just escaped from prison."

Nevertheless, Opyr's photo on the back of her first novel, Idaho Code, released in March of this year by Bywater Books, shows a very normal-looking woman with short hair and tousled bangs, a composed smile, straight white teeth and a tasteful little nose stud. Her scrunched-up shoulders, however, give away that the camera-shy author took this photo herself.

Opyr's photo phobia is puzzling, considering that a few minutes after we met, she offered to show me her gallbladder surgery scar, still fairly new. It's the kind of thing that her novel's heroine, Bil, might do to her latest crush after a few too many margaritas at Fiesta Jack's and then regret all the next day.

"Everyone knows that Idaho is full of crackpots," says the blurb on the back of Idaho Code. "The big secret is that not all of them belong to right-wing militias. Some are lesbian separatists, some are ex-hippies and some are members of Wilhelmina 'Bil' Hardy's immediate family."

Bil isn't a crackpot, and she's not a lesbian separatist--not a separatist yet, anyway. She's slunk back home in 1994 to Cowslip, Idaho (a fictionalized Moscow), from Seattle to forget her ex-girlfriend and apply herself to her studies. Although Bil's not exactly in the closet, she's not exactly out of it either--more like standing in it with the door cracked open, hoping that her loose cannon of a liberal mother will notice but not take it up as a political cause.

But the Hardys are dealing with other issues that make Bil's eventual "outing" no big deal. Mainly, her terminally ill brother lands in jail on a petty charge and then becomes a murder suspect when his cell mate ends up dead. And it looks as though Bil's mother herself was involved in a related murder long ago.

Bil falls in love with the murder victim's daughter, which doesn't leave her a lot of time for studying, especially when the two of them decide to start sleuthing. And while Bil and her mother are dealing with life and death, Bil's gay and lesbian friends are mounting a campaign against Idaho's anti-gay initiative Proposition One (which was voted down in real life in 1994).

It's a complex set of plots but deftly handled. The narrative reads like Opyr talks: razor sharp, wise-assed, unpretentious, but with an undercurrent of deep feeling undisguised by her intellect. As a frequent mystery reader myself, I must report that I read much later into the night than I should have, just to find out what happened. I couldn't even come close to guessing whodunit, when, why or how. Yet it all came together seamlessly in the end.

The book has at least one big name recommending it: author Val McDermid, who says, "Joan Opyr is the most entertaining new voice in lesbian mystery." Such praise means a lot to Opyr, who hopes that she'll be able to make the transition from lesbian fiction to mainstream fiction, like McDermid, Fannie Flagg, Rita Mae Brown, Emma Donoghue and Sarah Waters.

"I don't do lesbian genre fiction. Both my publisher and I are aiming for the mainstream," Opyr said. "I do books about life on the Palouse here in Idaho that feature all kinds of characters: gay, straight, native, white, black. I'm interested in family relations and dynamics."

Idaho Code came out in March, and in April, Opyr's grandmother and great aunt got their copies. Opyr was a little nervous about their reactions but didn't have to worry long.

"My grandmother hasn't read a book since the 1970s," Opyr said. "All she said was, 'I just hope you make it clear to people you didn't learn those swear words from me!' And my great aunt Wilhelmina is phoning libraries all over asking if they've got it, even though the book will shock her Baptist friends."

Opyr's family isn't shocked. They're used to providing material for Opyr's work, and although Opyr was raised in the South, her writing has never been what you'd call genteel. Besides writing fiction, Opyr, a.k.a. "Auntie Establishment," writes a humorous monthly column for the Moscow Food Co-op Community News. She is also the Northern Idaho editor for New West Magazine, a regular contributor to Stonewall News Northwest, and co-host of "The Auntie Establishment & Brother Carl Show," airing Sundays from 2 to 4 p.m. (PST) on KRFP 92.5 FM. Her Web site, www.auntie-establishment.com, declares that she's been "serving Idaho's liberal elite since 1993."

"When I write my columns, they're often about my family," Opyr said. "They'll read them and say, 'That's not how I remember it,' or sometimes they'll laugh. I'm not like Augusten Burroughs, revealing his family's whole sordid life. I would never reveal any evil secrets, and besides, I have a really good, very funny family. My mother-in-law dreams of the day when I write a book about her. I remind her that when I write novels, it's fiction--'My characters do what I want them to do, but you never do!'"

Opyr has developed a code of her own about truth-telling. Although she'll say just about anything about herself, and gleefully (but lovingly) describe her aging grandmother or her two younger sisters, she never writes about her partner, Melynda, or their kids, a boy, 6, and a girl, 11.

"I'm a public figure, but they're not. Melynda and I are activists for GLBT [gay, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual] issues, but our kids didn't sign on for that. We turn down photo ops for the 'happy family' thing all the time. They're not props," Opyr said.

Nevertheless, while Idaho Code is fiction, parts of it are based on reality. Most notably, it was Melynda's brother Ben who suffered and died from lupus while still in his 20s--but not before getting into plenty of trouble with the law in Latah County.

"We came out to be with him in 1993. I was expecting a Brian's Song kind of experience with bedside weeping, but instead I was at the courthouse bailing people out, attending trials, offering up testimony that he wasn't so bad, really," Opyr recalled. "He wanted to go out with a bang. You'll see a lot of that experience in the book."

Nearing age 40, Opyr has a wealth of autobiographical material from which to draw. She grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina, and earned bachelor's and master's degrees in creative writing from North Carolina State University. She wrote asbestos testing manuals for Westinghouse, then wedding and engagement page announcements at the Raleigh News and Observer, which led to writing book reviews under the editorial direction of Michael Skube, a Pulitzer-winning journalist.

Opyr met Melynda, an English professor, in 1990 at North Carolina State. They hope to get legally married in Canada later this year.

"We started dating in 1992, if you can call what lesbians do 'dating,'" Opyr said. "She invited me to a highbrow German expressionist film, and my response was to take her to a Durham Bulls baseball game, where she threw up so we had to leave."

They moved to Ohio, where Opyr completed her coursework for a Ph.D. in Anglo-Saxon literature, specializing in Beowulf. She admits she'll never write her dissertation--although as a result, she still loves the poem. And then they chucked their plans and came back to Moscow, where they've been ever since. They live in a rambling house just outside of Moscow with their children, pets and Melynda's parents. The extended-family arrangement works well for Opyr, since when she's writing, she's doing nothing else, including eating, parenting or sleeping.

"I had visited the Palouse twice and had started a novel based on loose ideas about how easy it would be to lose a body out here," Opyr said. When she finally left her University of Idaho library job a few years later to concentrate on writing, she finished the novel within two months and found an agent within four.

This past year, she attended the proudWORDS literary festival in Newcastle, England, and the Saints and Sinners Festival in New Orleans, had gallbladder surgery and suffered a breast cancer scare. She's currently working to defeat HJR2, a newly proposed amendment to the Idaho Constitution defining marriage as between a man and a woman. In between, she's written a sequel to Idaho Code and put down roots in Idaho for good. Opyr seems to have found her strong, clear voice in northern Idaho, where the "crazy live-and-let-live survivalist" mentality suits her just fine.

"For years I've been telling people I'm from North Carolina, but I've stopped doing that. I taught some workshops in England, and they called me Idaho Joan, and I realized that I'm an Idahoan to me now," Opyr said. "I've made up my mind--this is home for me."

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