Welcome to my weekly Author Spotlight. I’ve asked a bunch of my author friends to answer a set of interview questions, and to share their latest work.
Today, Edie Montreux – Long ago, Edie named Freddie Mercury the Patron Saint of HIV tests. She made a promise to listen to every Queen album and join every LGBTQ+ movement, if only she could live. Now, she is HIV negative, a huge Queen fan, and a cis-demi-het ally supporting LGBTQ+ charities.
Thanks so much, Edie, for joining me!
J. Scott Coatsworth: If you could sit down with one other writer, living or dead, who would you choose, and what would you ask them?
Edie Montreux: I’d bring someone back from the dead (sorry, Genie).
Freddie Mercury, obviously. Yes, he wrote songs – I consider him a writer. I’d demand a nickname, since he gave his entourage nicknames. Elton John was Sharon, Brian May was Maggie (May), Mary Austin was Steve. I *think* mine would be Maurice, since I speak to the pompetus of love (don’t we all, as romance writers?).
JSC: Have you ever taken a trip to research a story? Tell me about it.
EM: When visiting my sister in southern California, we went to Shaw’s Cove. I’d written a scene there for a contemporary romance, and I had to know if I got it right. I revised it afterward with better descriptions of the tidepools. It’s so beautiful there, and not as crowded as Laguna or Malibu beaches. (I plan to shop this novel later this year, so stay tuned!)
JSC: Are there underrepresented groups or ideas featured if your book? If so, discuss them.
EM: In Spread Your Wings, Mustafa is Muslim. This is a point of contention with one of Sammy’s coworkers and in the Bosnian War as a whole. The Eastern Orthodox Serbs committed genocide, murdering at least 25,000 Bosniaks during the war. The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert (the focus of the novella) took place shortly after the war began, but Mustafa’s not stupid. He knows being Muslim and gay decrease his chances of surviving any skirmish with the Serbs. I also wanted to avoid the “American/white hero” stereotype. Mustafa and his friends save themselves. Sammy’s the reward at the end of it all, and he almost blows it.
JSC: Are you a full-time or part-time writer? How does that affect your writing?
EM: Part-time writer, here. I’m a web designer by day, which sometimes sucks all of my creative energy. Staying focused on deadlines and sticking to a daily word count feels very much like having two jobs. There are days when I’m lucky to hit 100 words, and there are workdays when I write over 2k. No matter what, I try to write every day. On the days when that’s not possible, I’m learning not to beat myself up about it. I get to work to support my writing habit. I love my coworkers and my job (most days), and I’m doing what I can to keep my writing dream alive.
JSC: How did you choose the topic for this book?
EM: I wrote Spread Your Wings for MLR Press’s submission call, “Rock On.” The only prerequisite for the story was the main character had to attend a concert. This made me daydream about concerts. I’ve only attended one concert in my life, a free outdoor concert, so of course I wanted to pick an outdoor venue. Why not Wembley Stadium? And not just any Queen concert. I didn’t choose Live Aid, though that would have been my third choice (Queen’s Magic Tour concert in Wembley – that’s the concert I’d time-travel to see). Sammy, the main character, also wanted to see the Magic Tour, and missed it because he’s in the US and a minor. Queen didn’t go on tour after that, so his next opportunity to see them in concert is to commemorate Freddie Mercury’s life. The hardest part of writing was watching the concert on video. I was a high school freshman when Freddie Mercury died, not really paying attention to what was happening in the world. When I researched related news in early 1992, the fall of Yugoslavia and the beginning of the Bosnian war were events I remembered, at least.
JSC: What question do you wish that someone would ask about your book, but nobody has? Write it out here, then answer it.
EM: What is your problem with Elton John and David Bowie? Sammy is overly critical of them!
First, my opinions are not those of my characters all the time. Granted, we agree on the core values, but depending on my mood, I can love and hate the same artist or song on any given day.
With that being said, I LOVE Sharon! I have been a fan of Sir Elton John since his revival in the 90’s, starting with the George Michael duet, “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me.” Say what you want about the live song. It’s one of my favorites, and my intro to his backlog (besides our oldies station’s favorite, “Crocodile Rock”). He’s also the first person I think of when I think, “Don’t meet your heroes.” He would find me tiresome, drab, and boring, so we won’t go there.
David Bowie…I mean, my first introduction was Labyrinth, and you must admit, he’s kinda creepy as the Goblin King. One of Freddie’s biographies talks about the concert, and how strange people thought it was for Bowie to kneel on stage and say The Lord’s Prayer. To be fair, I think he was just doing what he could with his spur-of-the-moment grief. George Michael also talked about performing at the Tribute Concert, all the while knowing his lover was home dying of AIDS. The tribute concert was a funeral of sorts. Bowie probably thought singing “Under Pressure” with Annie Lennox would be enough, but the spirit moved him in the moment. After watching the concert, I get it. I’m also really sad he’s gone so I won’t get a chance to ask him in person.
JSC: What was the first book that made you cry?
EM: Bridge to Terabithia. I’m sure there were others (I know I read Bambi fairly young, but I’d already seen the Disney movie), but this is the one that still makes me tear up to this day when I think about it. I relate to Leslie so much. My real name is often confused with a boy’s name, and I switched schools midway through my kindergarten year, so the kids never really knew what to think of me. (I spent all but one semester in that school system and I was still an outsider when we graduated. Small towns don’t make it easy.) I was grateful for the fantasy world in my head. It was safer – no rope swings.
JSC: Star Trek or Star Wars? Why?
EM: Star Wars. I married a Sand Trooper. I also love the idea of being my own rebel general.
JSC: Do you have any strange writing habits or superstitions?
EM: Coffee is a must. I used to only drink coffee Monday through Friday, but now that I’m writing on Saturday and Sunday, I make coffee when I wake up. My sister is into yoga and healing stones, so she’s gotten me into stones with creative powers: malachite and fluorite; and stones to defeat negativity: obsidian. I also like to write longhand when I have time. I’m more efficient when I can’t access social media, but it also takes a long time to transcribe (what does that scribble even say?!). I used to hate sharing an unfinished piece, but now I send partials to my writing buddy to see if she thinks it’s worth continuing. We all need a little push to keep writing sometimes, and my writing buddy gives me that push. I hope I also inspire her in the same way.
JSC: What are you working on now?
EM: I’m still waiting to hear back on two submissions to MLR, and I’m working on a third for them. Their open call due May 30 is about Selfies, something I don’t like doing myself. It’s taken me a moment to get into the mindset of someone who does take a ton of selfies and to develop a why for his character. In the process, I’ve also started an Instagram account so I could see what it’s all about. I am not impressed, but any media is good media, right? Does that still apply in today’s world?
And now for Edie’s new book: Spread Your Wings:
Spread Your Wings is the tale of Sammy Connelly’s first job as a CNN Correspondent in Sarajevo in February 1992. The job and rising tensions in Sarajevo do little to calm Sammy’s nerves before the biggest concert of his lifetime: The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert.
One of the hotel clerks, Mustafa, helps Sammy with a health scare and distracts him from the war. When Mustafa ends up in the hospital as a casualty of war, Sammy knows he’s got to get him to London, and home to Atlanta, if Mustafa will go.
Along the way, they experience the largest celebrity tribute concert of our time and find “Somebody to Love.”
Sammy stepped off the plane in Sarajevo feeling like an adult for the first time in his life. Twenty-two years old, and he’d never left the United States, had his own credit card, or owned a set of luggage. He’d borrowed his mom’s suitcases for summer camp and used a single duffel bag through college. He owed his mother everything, including his degree from Yale and his internship at CNN. CNN had turned into a career after graduation. He’d jumped at the chance for an international assignment. He loved his mom, but he wasn’t a baby anymore.
He’d even averted a fundamental life crisis without throwing a temper tantrum. Well…He’d yelled and hurled Gavin’s snuff-box of cocaine at the wall in a puff of white dust and broken a bong or two when Gavin had stolen his concert stash for drugs. Thankfully, CNN had given him an advance for the Sarajevo trip. His bank had helped him wire the funds to his friend Bex, another correspondent in London, so she could purchase the tickets the moment they went on sale. Otherwise, he would have had to trust shoddy overseas phone connections in the middle of the night. Good thing, too. Tickets had sold out within three hours. These tickets were not just any tickets. They were Queen tickets, for the final Queen concert of Sammy’s lifetime.
Sammy had missed his chance in July 1986, when he was fifteen. He’d had one foot out the door to take a taxi to the airport when his mom had stopped him. She’d paid the driver for the trouble and dragged Sammy back into their suburban home by his ear. “Where do you think you’re going, young man?”
“About that.” She had sighed. “I know Jeff meant well, giving you his sister’s address in London and offering to buy tickets.” Jeff had been his mom’s boyfriend, the first one who understood Sammy’s desire for independence.
“Mom, it’s my money! I’ll spend it how I want!” He’d saved every penny since his first paper route when he was ten. Then, he’d earned six dollars an hour busing tables at Roger’s Steak and Fries. He’d spent some of that money to buy a push mower, but that had more than paid for itself on his days off from Roger’s.
“How were you going to get to London?” she’d asked as she’d walked out of the living room, in the direction of her bedroom. He’d heard a familiar jingle, and his stomach churned. He’d tasted bile on the back of his tongue.
“You had the money, but you don’t have a passport!” His mom had dropped the large mason jar of Sammy’s life savings on the couch beside him. It had appeared untouched, despite his detailed instructions. Jeff had agreed to purchase a ticket for the Magic tour concert at Wembley stadium and a round-trip plane ticket to Heathrow.
“That traitor,” Sammy had said, his forehead scrunched so tight it hurt.
“That traitor,” his mother had agreed. “Jeff won’t be coming over any more. We both agreed he is a bad influence on you. A Queen concert, in London, by yourself. Sammy, you’re fifteen!”
“So? When Freddie Mercury was fifteen, he attended boarding school in India while his parents lived in Zanzibar. All I want to do is go to a concert.”
“Oh Sammy,” his mother had said, sitting down beside him. Her short nails had tickled his scalp as she’d ruffled his hair. “Why couldn’t you like local bands?”
Because they’re not bisexual, like Freddie, Sammy had thought. He hadn’t dared to say it aloud, not if he wanted his mother to allow a single Queen album in their house. He’d said nothing through the angry tears streaming down his face.
Freddie’s death in November 1991 had been a kick in Sammy’s gut. He had chosen to stay at Yale through the Thanksgiving holiday. He hadn’t called his mom on the holiday, afraid his bitterness would reach through the phone and strangle her. It had seemed fitting, with the same way she’d smothered him his entire life. He’d missed his only fucking chance to see Freddie Mercury alive, in concert. He loved his mother, he did, but he’d needed time to heal the renewed gash across his heart.
He’d graduated that December with honors. He’d already packed his bags for Sarajevo when Queen announced the tribute concert. Thankfully, his connections at CNN had come through for him, despite his careless boyfriend’s attempts to smoke and sniff his money.
Yes, Gavin was a careless asshole, but Sammy didn’t want to go to the concert alone. He’d wired the money for two concert tickets. He thanked Freddie and his lucky stars when Bex had called the next morning –evening for her–with the confirmation. After thanking her profusely, he’d given her the address in Sarajevo, to send the tickets. He planned to surprise Gavin with plane and concert tickets for his birthday in March. That gave him plenty of time to ask his boss for time off before the April Twentieth concert. The tickets would help Sammy repay Gavin for his absence on Valentine’s Day. Of all days to fly to Sarajevo, Sammy had picked the worst.
Now, on the ground in Sarajevo, the success of the ticket purchase still buzzed in his veins. Sammy felt on top of the world. He was wearing his favorite jacket, a bomber, black like Freddie’s. The jacket had an asymmetrical zipper and several zippered pockets, both outside and inside. The jacket looked sexy as fuck with Sammy’s Irish freckles and auburn hair, long on top and styled so it fell to one side. The haircut was unprofessional as hell for a news correspondent, but he would fit right in when he got to London. Besides, his appearance didn’t matter in Sarajevo. He was here to write, not to read the news in front of a camera.
He made his way through the dim exit ramp, stuck behind two haggard parents and four children. They were all linked together, holding hands. Inside the airport, he blinked to adjust to the sunlight through floor-to-ceiling windows.
Once he could focus, his gaze landed on a young man in a cheap tuxedo. The suit didn’t detract from the man’s gorgeous face as he lazed against the wall across the walkway from the gate. His close-shaved beard made him seem distinguished, and curly hair to his chin gave him model appeal. He held a large white sign with three red letters: CNN. Sammy rushed to the sign, his island in a sea of discord as other passengers milled past him.
“Hi. I’m Sammy Connelly.” He sounded breathless, and a little froggy after the dry air on the plane. Sammy noticed the nametag pinned to the man’s lapel, a Holiday Inn logo above the man’s name. It read more like a nickname to Sammy. “Mumu?”
“Hi,” he said, and nodded at the pronunciation. “Mumu. Wait here. We have two more.” Mumu held up two fingers.
Eight words, and already Sammy swooned from the accent. The combination of Turkish and Slavic made the Bosnian accent one of the sexiest in the world, in Sammy’s opinion. He’d sucked a Yugoslavian’s cock during his sophomore year at Yale. He still used the memory of the sexy dirty-talk in the bathroom stall when he jacked off before bed.
Not the time, his brain reminded his body as he adjusted his jeans. Besides, still have a boyfriend.
Right. Gavin, the unambitious stoner who would rather smoke money than make it. Gavin and Mumu were complete opposites, too. Sammy tried to remember how much he missed Gavin and his blond hair, blue-eyes, knowing smirk, expensive pageboy haircut, and trust fund. Sammy waited for the homesickness to hit him. It didn’t. He couldn’t stop checking out Mumu, with his high, delicate cheekbones, kind brown eyes, and black curls.
Sammy stepped off to the side to wait. Soon, a man carrying a camera case and a woman wearing an entire bottle of bronzer on her face made their way to Mumu’s sign. He took note of their names as they checked in. Harold Kinsey, the cameraman. Nicole Trubre, another junior correspondent. Mumu tucked the sign under his arm and shook hands with all of them, first Sammy, then Harold, and finally Nicole. Mumu’s easy smile widened to something akin to fright when he focused on Nicole’s face.
“Welcome to Sarajevo. You are reporters, staying at the Holiday Inn?”
“We are,” Nicole said.
“Baggage claim is this way.”
Sarajevo’s airport was like any other airport Sammy had seen in his life, even though it was half a world away. Shabby, but clean. The airport food smelled more enticing than the usual deli fare back home. He almost stopped at the gyro counter but kept walking when he realized he didn’t have the correct currency. Nor did he know the language. While Mumu spoke decent English, Sammy didn’t expect everyone to understand him.
Mumu led them to baggage claim and then disappeared. When they turned away from the revolving belt with their luggage, Mumu was leaning against the wall next to the gyro place. In his hands, he held three rolls of paper-wrapped goodness. “You looked hungry,” he said, handing one to each of them, but his gaze was on Sammy.
“Thank you,” Sammy said, greedily opening the paper and taking a bite. He bit into the fresh flat bread, which immediately stuck to the roof of his mouth. He closed his eyes and savored the spiced meat and fresh vegetables. “I love gyros.”
“This is kebab,” Mumu said.
Sammy unwrapped the kebab and separated the flat bread. “Where’s the skewer?”
Mumu’s smile faltered. “They take it out.”
Sammy tried to cover his cheeks with the paper as he took another bite. He could feel them burning. Thankfully, Mumu grabbed two of Nicole’s bags and spun toward the main entrance.
Sammy followed, carrying his backpack and towing a full-size bag on wheels.
Outside, the sky was an overcast gray. Mumu escorted them to the hotel’s fifteen-passenger van. The huge brown beast would require a chauffeur’s license in the United States. Mumu tossed their bags into the back and helped Nicole step up into the passenger seat of the van. Then, he opened the sliding door for Howard and Sammy. Once everyone was buckled in, he started the van and drove out of the parking lot.
Mumu drove for twenty minutes. Nicole filled the silence with questions about the city’s history and culture.
“What is your ethnicity?” she asked. “Serb?”
Mumu shuddered. “No.”
Mumu shook his head. “No. Bosniak.”
Nicole whipped her head in his direction, her gaze hardening. “Do you practice?”
Mumu hunched over the steering wheel. “I eat meat and drink once in a while, if that’s what you mean.”
“Are you Sunni or Shiite?”
“Non-denominational.” He said the word as though it was foreign on his tongue, though practiced.
Sammy empathized. As a Catholic, he’d spent most of his youth defending his religion against his Southern Baptist peers.
“Leave him alone, Nic,” Harold said, his deep voice the death knell on their conversation.
Sammy patted his jacket to feel his wallet, with a St. Christopher’s medal tucked inside. He had a five and three ones left from the twenty he’d broken at LaGuardia a lifetime ago. It seemed strange to begin a new chapter in his life with only eight dollars cash.
The van slowed to a stop, and Sammy looked up at the hideous yellow face of the Holiday Inn, Sarajevo.
“We’re here,” Mumu said. “Welcome to Holiday Inn.”
Mumu helped Nicole with her bags, fake smile in place. He opened the door and held it for her to walk through and placed her bags on a nearby bell cart. He offered to carry Harold’s camera, but Harold shook his head. He’d traveled light, with nothing more than a backpack and the camera case.
“Let me help you,” Mumu said. His inflection made it more a question than a statement. His gaze darted between Sammy and the bags stacked on the cart.
“Sure,” Sammy said, handing over the handle to the large suitcase. “Don’t I need to check in?” he asked, taking the backpack off his shoulder.
“Hey, Mohamed,” Nicole said, “Aren’t you going to take my bags to my room?”
Mumu whirled around with a hiss. “That’s not my name.”
“Is everything all right?” A tall blonde woman asked, crisp steps bringing her from the front desk to the bell cart loaded with Nicole’s bags. “I can help you with the cart,” she said with only a hint of accent. “Mumu is carrying this gentleman’s bag.”
To prove her right, Mumu tucked the rolling handle back into the suitcase and lifted it off the ground.
“Thank you,” Nicole said, her shoulders dropping from high-alert power suit levels.
Mumu motioned for Sammy to follow him to the front desk. They waited in line behind Harold, avoiding Nicole on the far side of the counter. Nicole and the blonde woman whispered back and forth.
“It’s Mustafa.” His voice was so low, Sammy almost missed it.
“Your name? Mustafa?”
He nodded. “Mumu’s just a nickname to avoid alarming the guests.”
“I still don’t get it,” Sammy said. “Why would they be alarmed? This isn’t Iran.”
Mustafa cocked his head to one side. “I wish I knew. Your friend seems upset.”
Sammy had to agree. A frown marred Nicole’s bronzed face. “Just met her,” Sammy told Mustafa. “You’re more my friend than she is. You bought me a kebab.”
Mustafa’s smile returned. “CNN bought the kebab. All I did was deliver it.”
Howard spun toward them, his room key in hand. “Man, I hate jetlag,” he said. “See you tomorrow.”
“Sure thing.” Sammy stepped up to the desk and checked in using his new credit card and passport. The desk clerk spoke to him in English but spoke to Mustafa in Bosnian. They conversed non-stop while processing Sammy’s transaction. Sammy found it unnerving, and a little rude, but said nothing. He didn’t want to sound as judgmental as Nicole.
“All set,” the desk clerk said, handing Mustafa the key. “Enjoy your stay.”
“Thanks,” Sammy said, following Mustafa to the elevators. Nicole was still arguing with the hostess in harsh whispers he willfully ignored. Nicole embodied everything other countries hated about Americans. She was also Sammy’s coworker. He would put up with her for his three-month assignment, and then they would be off to opposite sides of the world. He hoped, anyway.
Mustafa selected the fifth-floor button. They rode the elevator in silence. This close, in the confined space, Sammy caught a whiff of Mustafa’s cologne, something woodsy with a hint of musk. Sammy held his backpack in front of him like a shield, protecting him from what Mustafa’s scent did to him. Mustafa stood in the opposite corner, oblivious to Sammy’s internal struggle.
Still have a boyfriend.
As they walked down the hallway toward room 512, Sammy dug into his coat pocket. Wallet in hand, he removed the five-dollar bill. He traded Mustafa the bill for his bag.
“Thank you,” he stammered. He almost shut the door on Mustafa’s heel in his haste to be alone. He needed to relax. Jerking off to the thought of someone–Mustafa–swearing at him in a thick Bosnian accent was next on his Sarajevo checklist.
Long ago, Edie named Freddie Mercury the Patron Saint of HIV tests. She made a promise to listen to every Queen album and join every LGBTQ+ movement, if only she could live. Now, she is HIV negative, a huge Queen fan, and a cis-demi-het ally supporting LGBTQ+ charities. She writes LBGTQ fiction and M/M romance to stay sane. She/her.