The Big Idea: Laura Lam

Sometimes, in the telling of the life of a character, it’s not just what the author reveals that’s important, but also the when — that is, when in the life of the character the author focuses her attention. So Laura Lam learned while considering the main character of her novel, Pantomime. She’s here now to give you the fuller picture.



A caveat: I hmmed and haad for a time on the subject of the post, wondering whether or not to discuss the “twist” of the story or hedge around it. I could discuss my fascination with the many interests that fed Pantomime and its world—the circus, the Victorian era, a dying empire, the line between technology and magic—but the world was not the initial “Big Idea” that led to writing Pantomime. It was the character of Micah Grey and his story. So instead of skirting around it, I’m going in: HERE BE SPOILERS (of something found out 25% into the novel).

The character of Micah Grey appeared first, in around 2007, and the world of Ellada and the Archipelago grew around him. I was apprehensive and scared that I wouldn’t be able to do the character justice: I didn’t know much about the experience of being intersex.

If you’re unfamiliar with the term, intersex encompasses a spectrum of sexual development conditions. Some call these Disorders of Sexual Development/Differentiation (DSDs). There are more than a dozen types of these “disorders,” and some say that it is about as common as red hair (source: The BBC documentary Me, My Sex, and I). People who are intersex should not be called hermaphrodites, as it is considered a politically incorrect and misleading term.

For quite a while, I didn’t write about Micah Grey. I wrote some other stories and some poems. But I kept thinking about him, niggling at his background, hopes, and dreams like a loose tooth. I researched a lot, from the history of intersex people in the Victorian era to the present. I watched documentaries and I read interviews. After a year, I knew he wasn’t going to go away and his was the story I needed to tell, so I tried.

But I didn’t start with Pantomime.

I started with Micah Grey as a 27-year-old, and I have about 80,000 words of a manuscript with a more mature, world-weary person that I will re-visit one day.  I was 19 at the time, and kept struggling to tap into his voice. In December 2009, when working in a very boring filing job after I’d graduated university (I’d studied creative writing after all; it was all I could get), I started thinking about Micah’s backstory as a teenager. I decided to write a short story about Micah Grey before he was Micah: when he was the daughter of a noble family named Iphigenia (Gene) Laurus, and how he would leave that life behind to become Micah Grey, the newest aerialist of the circus.

As you might have guessed, it didn’t stay a short story.  As soon as I started writing 16-year-old Gene/Micah, it all clicked into place. That’s not to say that the first draft of Pantomime was perfect—it was far from it—but I had found both sides of Micah Grey: both his and her voice. Micah was a teenager trying to find himself, walking the tightrope between childhood and adulthood and between genders.

Initially, I wrote the book chronologically, but during a rewrite I split the narrative. In spring, Gene’s life of afternoon tea parties and debutante balls is contrasted against  Micah Grey’s rougher life in summer as the newest member of the circus, where everyone is hiding a secret or three.

Pantomime is set in a fantasy world, with a pseudo-Victorian setting and advanced technology left behind by a long-vanished civilization, called the Alder. The Alder and the mythical beings they created called Chimaera are long gone, or are meant to be. Pantomime is set in a circus with aerialists, fire eaters, equestriennes, a ringmaster, and a freakshow with a four-legged woman and a strongman who reads philosophy.

While Pantomime is set in this world, the big idea is that every character in my book at some point feels like an outsider, or a freak, but they can also find a place they call home, if they can find the courage to take it.


Pantomime: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Follow the author on Twitter.

18 Comments on “The Big Idea: Laura Lam”

  1. To paraphrase mintwitch, most fantasy books (or coming-of-age stories, for that matter) don’t interest me, but this one sounds intriguing. I really like that you built the world around the character(s), and wish more authors would follow the example.

    So, not to be ageist, but you’re like 23/24 and you’re writing stories this interesting? I don’t know that much about the career trajectory of most authors, but from what little I do, that sounds unusual and impressive. No pressure :-)

  2. Definitely interested. Like most times when an outsider talks/creates media about people from marginalized groups, there’s a “this could go so wrong” factor, but I’m tentatively hopeful and look forward to reading this.

  3. Ms. Lam:
    I was unaware that “hermaphrodite” had become politically incorrect (why?) and misleading (how so?). I teach college and high school English, and the noun seems perfectly fine to me in proper contexts. What in popular culture has passed me by here? Your novel sounds intriguing.

  4. I second the recommendation of Middlesex, via Anne. Terrific book. I finished it in one marathon read, on a business flight, then flipped back to the first page and immediately began to reread.

  5. @Alyssa – Thank you!

    @Gulliver – Hah, yes, I wrote Pantomime when I was 21-22 & revised heavily when I was 23. Glad you think it sounds interesting!

    @Anne & @Mintwitch – I read Middlesex and really enjoyed it. There’s also Annabel by Kathleen Winters which features an intersex character set in Labrador, Canada and the fantasy book Ilario by Mary Gentle.

    @sojournerstrange – Yes, that’s why I put off writing it for quite a long time, because I was so afraid of getting it wrong. In the end, though, the character wouldn’t let me go. I tried my best to approach the topic with sensitivity and respect.

    @Gary – It’s all a bit complicated, really. The term is outdated now and intersex can encompass many different conditions–many intersex people do not have equal male and female characteristics but are on a wide spectrum. It’s also biologically impossible to be completely both male and female, hence why it is misleading. It gets fuzzy, though, because people who have both testicular and ovarian tissue (about 4% of intersex people if I remember correctly) can be called “true hermaphrodites” which is a valid medical term still in use. Micah is one of these, and there’s a myth of a being/demi-god called a Kedi in my world, which is a being both fully male and female.

  6. I’m glad I was linked here! I loved Pantomime, so it’s nice to hear more about how it came about. And I hope you do keep writing until you reach that older, more world weary Micah.

  7. @Gary: I highly recommend Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, though she deals only here and there with intersex issues. She does not have kind words for Middlesex author Jeffrey Eugenides, whom she describes as “know[ing] just enough to be dangerous.”

    I think one reason “hermaphrodite” is out of favor is that it is a noun, which inherently purports to sum up a whole person in one word. It’s like saying “a black” or “a homosexual” rather than using those words as adjectives. It’s also a bit misleading scientifically as “hermaphrodite” is used for plants and animals that ordinarily function as either sex, rather than it being an unusual situation. The Intersex Society of North America objects to the term “true hermaphrodite” as well, saying that it is not useful to set up an artificial hierarchy of intersex conditions.

  8. Right, when I hear “hermaphrodite” I think of species in which every individual is reproductively both male and female, like snails and earthworms. Not the same thing.

  9. @HelenS – Yes, exactly. The terms “pseudo-hermaphrodite” and “true hermaphrodite” etc are still used often in the medical community but some are offended by it and think they should be changed. They originated in the Victorian era and they’re still clinging to those terms.

    A book I read for research was Hermaphrodites and the Medical Invention of Sex by Alice Domurat Dreger, which explained how the terms came about in the Victorian era. It’s also a sad read, as some patients were not treated well at all.

  10. I would very much like to read this book; it sounds fascinating. However, my local library will not purchase books for which they cannot find professional reviews. The acquisitions folks said that this one fell into that category, but that they’re not infallible and are open to having a review they’ve missed pointed out to them. Are there any out there, or are there any in the works?

  11. @Other Becky: The book has been sent to many places that do professional reviews but unfortunately not many have come through yet. There have been a couple, though–SciFiNow magazine ran a review (you can see a photo of it here:, and there’s also been a review through the British Fantasy Society here:

    Hopefully some more will trickle through, as I know a lot of librarians use the likes of Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, and School Library Journal to make their bookbuying decisions.

  12. I had forgotten or didn’t read the spoilers of your big Idea. I loved the story, and am waiting for the next step on Micah’s journey.