Unconventional Romance: a Chat with Claudie Arsenault about Baker Thief
Claudie Arsenault is an asexual and aromantic-spectrum writer hailing from the very-French Quebec City. A founding member of The Kraken Collective, she’s well-known for her involvement in solarpunk, her database of aro and ace characters, and her unending love of squids. Claudie’s latest release is Baker Thief, the start of a new series that examines and reframes various tropes of romantic fiction using aromantic characters.
I took some time to chat with her about Baker Thief, her focus on aro/ace characters in romantic fiction, worldbuilding, and more. Let’s take a look!
Note: The interview below has been lightly edited for length, flow, and clarity.
So, for those who are unfamiliar with Baker Thief or with your work in general, can you describe what it’s about?
I am a fantasy writer who sometimes dabbles in science-fiction and is particularly fond of platonic relationships —family, friendships, and queerplatonic partnerships. Baker Thief is an example of this. It’s fantasy that directly interrogates romantic tropes (enemies-to-lovers in this case) by reframing them around non-romantic relationships. I tend to write stories with hard moments but hopeful vibes and endings, and a lot of more fun, quirky things (croissants, hot air balloons, etc.).
I don’t read much romance myself, so it’s interesting to hear you talk about deconstructing the friends-to-lovers trope in a non-romantic context. Was that one of your main goals when you started writing?
Not quite. I started writing an actual romance! Aromantic characters tend to sneak back into my work on their own now, and I had only a fraction of my draft written when I decided I wanted to do something that could read like a romance, but wasn’t one. Romance does amazing things, but most of them could totally translate to so many other relationships, and I really needed to explore other ways to that HEA (Happily Ever After).
So Claude/Claire snuck in of their own accord? How very appropriate! What was that like?
I guess… kind of natural? This happens a lot with my first drafts. I plot some very basic plot points and character traits, but so much of it emerges naturally over the course of writing. I’m very much of a “first draft is telling yourself the story” kind of person, so I expect things like that.
At the time I hadn’t written a lot of aromantic characters yet, either, but I was questioning the label for myself, and writing an out and proud aro MC was such a great way to explore and affirm myself.
What was the inspiration behind making Claude/Claire genderfluid? Is this idea in conversation with certain other works or characters you’re familiar with?
It stems from several elements at once: a general desire to write several enby characters, a lack of bi-gender characters in stories I was picking up, and a random encounter of a gifset of Cybersix, a show I’d watched quite a lot as a kid, in which a masked woman passes as a male literature teacher during the day, and it kinda gets gay with his male chemist teacher friend? It’s an awesome show, but Cybersix doesn’t directly define its MC as genderfluid, so I thought… why not? It’s an interesting reversal of superhero tropes and trans-as-liars narratives that both of Claire’s identities are real.
In Baker Thief, many characters to state what pronouns they use when they introduce themselves to each other. I think the fact that it’s such a common social convention in your story says a lot about your setting. Can you talk about that aspect from a worldbuilding perspective?
When I build new worlds, one of my first question is often how accepted several queer identities are, and in what state the related normative systems (heteronormativity, cisnormativity, allonormativity, etc.) were. I wanted Baker Thief’s world to be one where various queer identities are well known and accepted, because I really wanted stories where those wouldn’t be the source of their problems. Yet I was also aiming to remodel romance tropes on platonic relationships, and that was easier without disassembling these normative structures, since many only exist within their boundaries. So that’s how I have a world in which people regularly introduce themselves with their pronouns, yet most narrators clearly gender those they encounter unless the presentation is erroneous. Similarly, monogamous romantic partners are still people’s first expectations. I’ve mostly erased the pushback against deviations, not the norm itself, but it’s been very interesting to note how big a difference that already makes for people.
I get the sense that your book was affirming to a lot of other people, judging by the acknowledgements section at the end.
I have received a lot of DMs, e-mails, and other messages of people who’d never felt that represented by an aromantic character before. So yeah, I think it resonated in others too, and that’s one of my favourite reader reactions. 🙂
What would you say were some of the challenges of writing a book that examines a lot of romance fiction tropes through the lens of an aromantic character?
The biggest challenge comes from choosing a queerplatonic relationship. People immediately think of it as “romance lite” and reviewers have called Baker Thief a romance. Making it clear that these characters were both deeply connected and yet *not* in a romantic relationship was … difficult, and I think somewhat impossible.
The other interesting challenge is that you cannot rely on romantic shortcuts. Your readers will follow them to their romantic conclusion.
There is a lot of unsaid things in relationships that need to become explicit when you write this kind of closeness with aromantic characters.
Speaking as someone who is allocishet, yeah, I found I had to consciously reprogram my brain in some parts. Because physical attraction, romantic attraction, and taking comfort in another person’s presence are all different things. Did you find that mixing in SF/F elements, like the witches and the exocores, was another way to indicate that your book’s goals were different?
There’s the taking comfort and all that, but also all the domestic aspects? Romantic relationships in romance novels often have very specific shape — living together, having sex, etc. With Claude/Claire and Adèle, I was pushed into reviewing all the assumptions we make about what the relationship will look like, and that was really interesting. And, in general, no, I don’t think the mixing does any of that. The romance I do read tends to be science-fiction and fantasy too.
So in my mind romance and fantasy overlap a lot. It’s just the focus that slides depending on the “main” genre.
Yeah. Do you have any recommendations for such overlapping works that you like?
Moon-Bright Tides by RoAnna Sylver is a fantasy novelette with an F/F witch/mermaid romance that I adore. Cheerleaders from Planet X by Lyssa Chiavari is a new-adult alien invasion story that centers the relationship between two girls. Help Wanted by J. Emery is a magical college romance novella with a gender-questioning protagonist.
Oh, and In Memoriam by ‘Nathan Burgoine was an amazing M/M story with second chances, time travel, and really dark but perfect humour. There’s just… a lot of them out there!
Also, full disclosure I guess, but two of these (the two first) are part of the Kraken Collective, my little alliance of indie authors. 🙂
One of the things I want to explore more in discussing Baker Thief is the idea of witches. They’re an underclass hated and feared for their abilities, yet also ruthlessly exploited because of them. Was that an element you included in your story from the beginning?
Yeah, right from the start. I rather love Soylent-Green-like tropes, and I think we collectively do not pay enough attention to whose labour and exploitation is needed for our society to function. We just prefer not to know, not to see, not to care.
When I think of contemporary SF/F examining those ideas, the one I think of right away is N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, especially the final volume.
Oh yeah, definitely! It’s much more central to Jemisin’s work than it is in mine, which makes a lot of sense. As a black woman she’s much better placed to speak of this cycle of exploitation than I could ever be, and did so masterfully. The Broken Earth series is just so powerful in that regard.
Is the exploitation of witches something that happens mostly in the home setting of Baker Thief, or does it happen elsewhere in the world the story is set in?
It’s happening in Val-de-mer and the country as a whole, but hasn’t spread everywhere. A lot of it stems from the fear-mongering that followed Val-de-mer’s magic-powered reactor and the destruction it caused, so it’s more powerful in this city than elsewhere.
What parts of Val-de-mer’s worldbuilding are you fondest of? Are there any secrets or Easter eggs that you know about that new readers don’t?
I love the way the city is split into quartiers and am really looking forward to the day I can make their yearly snow race tournament a part of a story. These are directly inspired from Siena in Italy, which I was lucky enough to visit.
Some of the streets and quartiers are directly inspired from Quebec City locations, too, and the way the different populations distributed themselves when the British conquered the territories.
Yes, one of the things I liked was that it wasn’t your typical pseudo-British fantasy setting.
Yeah, I tend to try and avoid going too close to that? Because then people expect a lot more … “accuracy”. (I put quotes around that word because somehow racial diversity is supposed to be inaccurate.) So you’ll catch flack for having potatoes, never mind that you’re in a completely different universe.
It was also just plain fun to have so much of my hometown in there.
I got a real sense of home-longing in your descriptions.
I’m glad! I love my city. Val-de-mer is a sort of magical, improved version of it. I would live there, for sure!
There’s a lot of joy built into certain descriptions/actions in the story, especially when it comes to food or other indicators of home/comfort. Is baking/cooking something you like to do personally? If not, are there other pastimes that have made their imprint on your work?
I love baking. It’s worth noting that I started after writing my first Baker Thief draft, but I sure haven’t been able to stop since. It’s an incredibly simple process, yet the slightest change in it has huge impact on your final bread, so it’s also incredibly hard to master. I have a lot of great memories of comfort around bread from my grandfather’s, but also in general with food and family. It shows in Adèle most of all, and everything that surrounds the Duclos family and their tourtière.
Do you think there will be any other stories set in the same universe?
Absolutely. I have the big lines of Baker Thief 2 planned already, and couldn’t resist writing 900 words of it. The next story will focus on Emmanuelle and Livia, friendship, science and magic. I love this universe and can’t see myself setting it aside anytime soon, but I do have a few other WIPs I want to finish before I seriously dive back into it. So, one day, yes, but it’s hard to know exactly when. In the meantime, though, there’s my Patreon where patrons get to vote on which short fiction they want to read, and Baker Thief is in the options on a regular basis.
And that’s that! I hope you enjoyed this taste of Arsenault’s work. You can check out her official website to learn more.