Windsor author's debut novel brings LGBTQ representation to superhero tale

A.E. Clarke's book 'Grayscale' is about a superhero in Toronto who happens to also be gay.

'I knew that I wanted to write a gay man who represented me'

A.E. Clarke's debut novel is about a superhero in Toronto who also happens to be gay. (Stacey Janzer/CBC)

When A.E. Clarke sat down to write a novel, Grayscale, he knew he wanted it to be about superheroes, something he's loved for as long as he can remember.

He wanted it set in Toronto, where he was living at the time, and he wanted his lead character to be gay.

"I'm a gay man, so it was very, very important for me," said Clarke. "I know that any book that I ever write will always have some sort of LGBTQ character in it for sure."

Representation matters — sometimes LGBTQ characters are portrayed with a lack of depth, he said.

"I knew that I wanted to write a gay man who represented me," said Clarke. "He's not super stereotypical, and he is kind of an idiot sometimes, but he's human and him being gay isn't the entirety of his character, which is unfortunately the case with a lot of representation right now."

One of the subplots involves the main character Jesse's sister, Holly, finding out he's gay part way through the novel.

"I knew that I also didn't want it to be the entirety of Jesse's character arc, and so it was difficult riding that line and making sure that was still important while not being the only important thing about him," said Clarke.

He started writing the book about 10 years ago during National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). In November, people can sign up to try to write at least 50,000 words of a novel before the month is over. He completed it on Dec. 6.

"I think literally the next day I started editing it," he said. "The first draft of a novel, especially during NaNoWriMo, is garbage."

A.E. Clarke reads an excerpt from Grayscale

Author A.E. Clarke reads from his debut novel Grayscale

9 months ago
When A.E. Clarke sat down to write a novel, Grayscale he knew he wanted it to be about superheroes, something he's loved for as long as he can remember. 0:44

That first edit wasn't the end, Clarke said. His book changed as he began to grow himself.

"Within about two or three years, my own experiences with social activism had improved and I looked at it and went, 'There is one female character in this novel and her character is bland and not exactly a good person,'" he said.

Originally, Jesse had a brother Gary, not a sister Holly. After changing and improving parts of the story with about 14 or 15 edits in five to six years, he gave up. But a few years later, Clarke picked it back up again and started to send it out. 

"I probably sent it to four dozen agents and at least two dozen publishers," he said.

But there wasn't much interest in Grayscale. Then, after speaking with a roommate, Clarke decided to send the book out again but to smaller publishers, specifically LGBTQ ones. That's when he got an email asking for the full manuscript from Beaten Track Publishing in the United Kingdom.

Grayscale is A.E. Clarke's debut novel. (Provided by A.E. Clarke)

"Two days later, she sent me back the first three chapters already edited because she loved it that much and then said, 'Please let us have this,'" Clarke said. 

Clarke said he had to read the email three to four times before he believed it.

"I nearly fainted; it was lot," he said. "Something that I had always dreamed about and had wondered if it would ever actually happen, because a lot of others never actually get to that point."

Ten years to the day after he finished the book the first time, he's released it. 

"I am super excited and I am super nervous," Clarke said. "Everybody who's read it so far has loved it"