Queer Women History Forgot: Heather Lewis

A writer whose work challenged the publishing industry gone too soon.

For Women’s History Month, GO is celebrating LGBTQ women we wish we could have learned about in high school history class. 

Heather Lewis‘s novels were a marriage of memoir and fiction, borrowing directly from her life experiences, which were often tragic, dangerous and violent. Her writing was dark but deeply affecting, and her characters were unapologetic in the way they moved through the world, even when their circumstances were less than desirable, which they often were.

photo courtesy Heather Lewis Tribute Site

Lewis was an out lesbian who was born in Bedford, NY and studied at Sarah Lawrence. Her debut novel “House Rules” won her the Ferro-Grumley Award for LGBT Fiction in 1994, but she had trouble getting her second novel, “Notice,” published because of its subject matter, succinctly described by New York magazine as such: “a nameless young woman turns tricks for drugs until she falls in love with the wife of one of her johns, a rich sadist who molested and killed his own daughter and uses the protagonist to re-enact his crime night after night—struck industry readers as unbelievable or, even more discomfiting, too close to their notions of the author’s actual experience.” She put it aside to publish the mystery thriller “The Second Suspect” in 1998, which was well-reviewed, and contributed short pieces to anthologies like “Best Lesbian Erotica,” “Once Upon a Time: Erotic Fairy Tales for Women” and “A Woman Like That: Lesbian and Bisexual Writers Tell Their Coming Out Stories.” She also taught classes at The Writer’s Voice in New York City.

In 2002, after returning to New York City following a year spent living in Arizona, Lewis took her own life. “Notice” was finally published posthumously two years later, and is now available from Emily Books. Both the literary and queer communities lost a brilliant, talented and boundary-pushing writer who was ahead of her time in some ways, with the publishing world unsure of what to do with her rawness, and the way she expertly detailed the lives of queer women who grappled with sexual violence, addiction and sadism.

The Heather Lewis Papers are now a part of the collection at The Fales Library through New York University. It includes manuscripts, journals, photographs, and personal correspondence. More information on Lewis’s life and career can be found at this tribute site.