When Werewolves Go Lit(erary) –
This is a continuing conversation I’ve been having with an author pal of mine – Jayne Lockwood (who also writes under the pseudonym of Savannah Smythe) and is based in the UK. We started this as a means of exchanging ideas, listening to each others gripes and fears, sorting out what we do and why we do it, and how we can possibly market the damned things we produce. They are captured via a chat session on Yahoo so they are a stream of consciousness at the moment they happen. We realize that since we aren’t really editing for perfection, that we may “step in it” from time to time. We embrace that. We know we may mis-speak, may say something out of turn without much thought going into it. It is ALL part of the dialog. We want to look back at some point and see where this journey has taken us as we write what we write.
Jayne Lockwood: Okay, so you’ve had a few trials and tribulations recently with your work and the definition of the word “literature.” How would you describe your writing? I’m talking about in general, not just Angels of Mercy (AoM) … and why?
SA Collins: I think actually that my recent release of the “fluff” piece I did was the most instructive on what kind of writer I am. I mean, it was supposed to be a “fluff” piece about werewolves. How much more fucking non-lit can you get, right? Yeah, well, it seems I can. I didn’t know my wolves would go all “lit” on me. It was quite the revelation. I think it is because I am wrapped up in their headspace (I tend to write first person), regardless of the work I do, with the human condition in it. I find the inner-monologue to be of vast interest. It is where the most grey in all of us reside (50 Shades of Crap aside…).
Jayne Lockwood: LOL, let’s not mention that…
SA Collins: Oh, can we? *shudders*
SA Collins: And in a real way the monsters in my werewolves really distilled that for me. I mean, it has always been the ultimate metaphor in literature (esp. in the gothic tropes) to use the monster as a representative of the monsters in all of us, whether we choose to let them out or not.
Jayne Lockwood: The examination of the human condition is a great one, but I don’t think it is just the premise of literature. What I’m trying to say is that examining the human condition can be done in lesser books …
SA Collins: Sure, but the transcendency of the work is what I think is the dividing line. It was what I was getting at in the summation of my last blog post. A lot of works examine the human condition but very few of them invite that deep dive into why they affect us so. Tom Sawyer gave us many more questions than Twain ever attempted to answer. That is what I think Literature does. And to be clear it isn’t the easy questions we come away with that I am speaking to – I mean it is the hard questions we often don’t want to look at.
Jayne Lockwood: True. And so did John Steinbeck. To write great literature, you have to produce something of lasting artistic merit. And it doesn’t have to be a very long book to do that.
SA Collins: I don’t think the artistry is necessarily the key factor here though it is the art of prose that does ultimately sway an audience. I think that literature itself sort of brings the artist out more in the use of words. And to your point, that was also what I said in my summation – length doesn’t have anything to do with it. The Old Man and the Sea, for example.
Jayne Lockwood: I’m thinking of Of Mice and Men as a case in point. A very slight book, but packs a powerful punch. So you’ve got your piece of literature. It’s beautiful, perfectly edited, superbly crafted. How do you market it in this modern age?
SA Collins: I used Look Homeward, Angel (LHA) on purpose as a point of comparison. Why? Because by many critics and literature scholars it is considered one of the greatest American literary works of all time – and it was one of the reasons why my husband drew the conclusion about my work in Angels. Because there was a segment of the literary circles that agreed LHA was a literary work but it rambled. It meandered. It didn’t do what it did concisely. It also took nearly a quarter of the book before you even got to the main character. So there was some give and take on how it was perceived. BUT what it did do was that it presented a complete picture of a complex family that showed all of the foibles and follies of humanity in it and it did it beautifully.
Jayne Lockwood: I’m thinking of a comparable work in James Joyce’s Ulysses.
SA Collins: Absolutely. To answer how I would approach AoM – or do you mean any modern work of literature today? Hmm, I’m not so sure what you’re probing at here …
Jayne Lockwood: I’m saying any form of literature.
SA Collins: Oh I get you … hmmm, that is a hard one. And here’s what I’ve learned from my own journey: when I wrote Angels I thought I was writing a bit of fluff, a simple M/M romance genre thing. The problem is while I was writing it – it was all I had in my head. I just heard Elliot’s voice (probably because he is so near to my own – even if he makes choices I never would). I didn’t say, “Oh, I am gonna write the gay Gone With The Wind now.” It’s just not how an author approaches something that becomes literature. That wasn’t my perspective. I just thought I had a cracking good story and I wanted to get it down before it left my little ol’ pea brain. That was the impetus to write what I did. I think most authors approach it that way. It is only when the work is completed can you look at it and go – well, fuck me, what did I just do there?
Jayne Lockwood: I totally agree.
SA Collins: I think that Wilde, Wolfe and the rest did what they did. It was for others to put that label on the work. I can totally see that now. I get that my work is “like” literature more than general genre fiction. Why? Because I do ramble. I let my characters ramble a bit – because we all do to varying degrees. That’s what makes it a character study body of work. I want it honest; I want it true. But I think most authors do – it is the depth of that character dive that I think that separates me from most general fiction writers. Think about it: if I wrote DaVinci Code (which I happen to have the movie on the TV right now), that book would be vastly different than the one that Brown released.
Jayne Lockwood: It might have been better… Although a lot of people dissed that book, I actually enjoyed it. People seemed to get sniffy because it was quite “light,” but that’s okay. I had to laugh when you said on your blog that you had given yourself a month to write AoM. I gave myself a year to write The Cloud Seeker (TCS)…
SA Collins: Aw, (regarding DaVinci) thanks for that! Well, that’s the funny part. When I dreamt it up I thought – oh, this is a simple little m/m romance thing with a bit of a thriller take on it. Simple enough.
Jayne Lockwood: Simple enough? HAH!
SA Collins: But you see, that’s where I was when it all began. Isn’t that fascinating to ponder a bit on? I had no idea (when I started) that Elliot was going to mentally and emotively vomit all over me. What happened very quickly was that all of those pent up things in my past started to pour out in the course of distilling them and reliving them. Elliot seemed to begin to lead me through his story. I’ve read the sample you sent me of TCS and I was really loving the prose you put there. Truly.
Jayne Lockwood: Thank you! That means a lot. I’ve been accused of being too “wordy” and “not literary.” But I think a true writer (controversy alert) cares deeply for their characters.
SA Collins: Sure they do. They are their creation. I would never assume that they don’t. But I think where I diverge from others is because of my theatrical training – as an actor I have to come up with why I would pick up that tea cup in a certain way and at a certain point in time (not just because the director said so – not good enough) … more of, was it because of an abusive grandmother who would slap my hands if I did it wrong? That sort of thing.
Jayne Lockwood: Got it. You self-analyse, so why wouldn’t your characters do the same?
SA Collins: Absolutely. Though I don’t think that your character question is controversial. I think it is germane to being a real writer. You have to care for the work and the characters in it. Just as in live performance, the audience will know the difference if you don’t (or as they say if you “phone it in”).
Jayne Lockwood: Absolutely. If you don’t care about your characters, why should anyone else?
SA Collins: Yes, it isn’t enough when the director tells you as an actor to cross to the left side of the stage on that particular line – you have to examine (or you should) why that moment in time evokes that response in your character. So it is those machinations and inner workings that I want to examine. I want to flesh that out for a reader in my works. I think this is the fertile ground for literature. The deep dive into the very essence of who and what we are as human beings.
Jayne Lockwood: I agree. If you want fluff, there is plenty of it around.
SA Collins: It is why Elliot revisits certain aspects in his life over and over in Angels of Mercy – to pulse check that he truly has the hottest guy on campus to call his own. To him it is beyond any hope he would ever have in life; therefore, it can’t be real. He has to keep mentally slapping it up on his emotive wall to see if the “experiment” he thinks it is will still hold true. He learns over time that Marco will never willingly stray from him. Marco is a fighter in their relationship. Elliot has never had that from anyone. Support, yes. Someone who will fight for his love? Not a chance (at least up until Marco enters his world).
Jayne Lockwood: It’s human nature to ask “why me” ?
SA Collins: I think it is, but I often ponder why more authors don’t really ask that question of their characters. Perhaps it is just me, but the “showing” gets rather banal after awhile. And let’s be honest, not many can actually do a good job of showing (which is why it is such an over wrought line used on newbie authors). As for my work, I couldn’t just leave it at that for the reader. I had to show by telling (through his inner-monologue) why Elliot felt that way. I had to lay it out for the reader why gayboys often deny themselves happiness outright.
Jayne Lockwood: Has the purpose of the book (AoM) morphed into an attempt to get people on the “outside” to understand the psychology of gay men?
SA Collins: To a very real degree, yes. I don’t think many authors tackle this (well, certainly not in the M/M Romance genre – it can be way too superficial for my tastes). There is so much speeding it along – and then, and then, and then. Jesus, why not explore why the “and then” exists in the first place and come away with a little more depth? For gay men, and I’ve spoken at length with my gay brothers on this topic many times over my half-century existence on this planet, it (happiness) is unusual for us. We don’t expect it. We can’t believe it when it is. We distrust it out of turn. Society has taught us this. We grow up like other children only to experience that when we feel differently then we are the broken ones. Elliot has to do this (poll whether he’s okay with everything when it happens or not) to protect himself. It is Marco who must obliterate that by example. Marco realizes very quickly that he has to man up and show (and tell) and demonstrate that he is unwavering. Every time Elliot doubts, Marco shows him how deep his feelings run for Elliot. And teens do this to a great degree – EVERYTHING is heightened, over-dramatic. Now add gay teenboy angst on top of it and there ya are = ELLIOT.
Jayne Lockwood: Because at its heart is a cracking good read.
SA Collins: I hope it is. The work took on a life of its own. I mean, my work will always be about giving a non-gay reader insight into facets of gay men as I create them. No superficial walks in my world. That is a very good question you pose there because I’ve only just recently come to the conclusion that Marco is not really gay at all. He is really pansexual. For him it is truly the person inside he falls in love with. But (and this is critical here to properly understand his character) he says “gay” for Elliot because he knows, in his heart of hearts, that anything other than that would hurt Elliot. Elliot wouldn’t be able to accept it and allow them to move forward. It would be too tenuous to him. That is a big part of the self-deprecation and denial that is often inherent in gay men. We’ve been taught that by society. It’s getting better and more men are accepting of who they are and that they DO deserve happiness. But there is a VERY long way to go. My work still has relevance in that regard. At least I think so.
Jayne Lockwood: I think you’re right. There is still a lot of homophobia out there as well. Define “pansexual.”
SA Collins: Pansexuals differentiate from bisexuals in that their attraction is inclusive of transsexuals – it is very pure in that it is the person inside that ignites and inflames – the sex/gender is almost irrespective of it all. I should add that there’s a lot of homophobia (self-hating) within the community believe it or not.
Jayne Lockwood: It isn’t a term I’ve heard before. Is it homophobia within the community, or snobbery?
SA Collins: No, there is an inherent homophobia (for lack of a better term) because they despise things within our own community, as if we’re all unclean. You only have to look at gays actively involved in the gay conversion therapy to see it. There is a gay friend of mine who is on FB (I am sure you know him or have seen him) but he holds himself up as a gay activist but he constantly berates others within the community that he thinks are unclean or not to the standard he holds for himself. I would say that it is snobbery but it transcends that because of the vehemence that he exhibits when he rants. There is a self-loathing if it doesn’t meet a certain degree of being perceived as normal or mainstream. And I find that troubling as a member of that community. As we strive for acceptance and equality, must we be so quick to cut others out or shame them into being like our heteronormative counterparts? I don’t think that is the way to go. We need to embrace all of it. The leather community, the people in the sex industry, whatever walk of life because let’s face it deary – those things exist in the straight community as well. In fact, the BDSM came from us and was adopted by the straight community (as we’ve seen – sometimes in the wrong way as with 50 Shades of Utter-Bullshit). But I digress. Getting back to your pansexual question, I think this is why Marco can have really deep seated feelings for Holly because it is who she is that he responds to – but when compared to Elliot, even she comes up short.
Jayne Lockwood: Which means, his love for Elliot is pure and true.
SA Collins: Yeah to your last about Marco and Els (Elliot). He comes to realize that it is truly who Elliot is that he can’t be without. I also think this is why Marco “lies” to Elliot about his being with a guy/girl at the same time in the first book. It isn’t true. He also isn’t wholly honest that the girl had no interest for him. We know in Marco’s book that isn’t true. He fucking loved being with Holly (literally, because he loved fucking her). It just wasn’t going to hold a candle to what he felt about Elliot. He knew he’d never be fully there for her in that way so he had to let her go. Elliot was more important to him. But his fear of rejection by Elliot (because he’s a jock) is what led Marco down a rocky road of questioning what his sexuality is all about. He gets his answer, and ultimately it doesn’t change his deep attraction and desire to bring Elliot to him.
Jayne Lockwood: To your last point, I have another author friend who says he isn’t popular with the gay community either because of what he used to do for a living. He’s such a lovely bloke. It’s a real shame.
SA Collins: What did he do for a living? Work with politicos who voted against us?
Jayne Lockwood: He did something that many would perceive as unseemly, just to make ends meet.
SA Collins: ‘Cause I gotta say that that is about the one thing that I have issue with – those who work against us. Other than that, not much else gets under my skin. If he isn’t working against us as a community then it won’t be an issue for me – tell him to look me up … not that I am looking to step out on the hubby – let’s be clear! *laughs*
Jayne Lockwood: I didn’t think for one moment!
SA Collins: I mean that I am very sex positive here. I have numerous friends who are IN the porn and sex industry (see Boomer Banks and Rocco Steele below – two prime examples of brilliant and dynamic men who have so much more going on for them – well beyond their porn star status), after all. I play fairly and respect (nearly – cause haters who are only about the hate don’t rate much in my book) everyone.
Jayne Lockwood: He’s happy with his partner. Everything has turned out ok so far. He’s an FB friend.
SA Collins: I treat them all as humans first and hope they love the crap outta me for it.
Jayne Lockwood: I don’t have a problem with anyone’s profession or sexuality either, as long as they’re not promoting hatred. Can’t be doing with that.
SA Collins: Totally on board with that. But yeah, to your point on literature, because it is our topic today, I think that when my werewolves started expounding or waxing on deeper psychological elements of what it meant to be a monster, then I knew I was using my Weres as something else altogether. I was actually calling back to what gothic horror really was – a proper examination of we humans.
Jayne Lockwood: Finally! At least someone is …
SA Collins: Actually it’s like the cable show Penny Dreadful (here in the States). I want my Weres to evolve to that sort of story. I think I’ve begun to lift it out of the fluff stuff and go after real gothic pathos here. Like right now, book two is actually from Hank’s father’s perspective. He has quite a bit on his mind, it seems about everything having to do with his son now in the pack. It’s taken on a different mantle. It’s become a deep dive into fatherhood, monsterhood, and husbandhood – his plate is pretty fucking full coming back home.
Jayne Lockwood: There’s definitely a market for more intelligent lycanthropic books (did I spell that right?)
SA Collins: Yeah you got it.
Jayne Lockwood: Which one are you thinking of carrying on from? Henry or Shrill? (Point of clarification – Amazon banned the original work HO’M,O – Henry O’Malley, Omega due to a dark thread in the plot so SA re-released a watered down version of the same story as The Shrill of Sparrows)
SA Collins: What I love about (John) Logan’s work in Penny Dreadful is that it is the monsters who can cope with the harsh realities of Victorian England. The humans are the ones who struggle and make epic mistakes. I sort of like that.
Jayne Lockwood: Because they are human.
SA Collins: Shrill will always be a standalone copy – the “werewolf-lite” version of it. So yeah, it is the human frailties that I think are really interesting to hold up to the monsters. I want my Sparrows series to examine that. I mean Cal is a father, a werewolf AND a husband whose wife has gone terribly long without her man giving her “what for …” in the bedroom.
Jayne Lockwood: So, in order not to descend into chaos or make bad choices, we need to be more like werewolves? I haven’t seen Penny Dreadful yet, so I might be talking out of my arse.
SA Collins: Cal’s a busy boy in Quarrel of Sparrows (the follow-up to HO’M,O/Shrill). And no, you’re not talking out your ass (sorry, it’s the Yank in me) re: Penny. It is very well done. Full-on balls to the wall honest-to-God pathos going on in that show. What is interesting in it is that Logan takes side trips that you start in with – what the bloody fuck is this about now? Only to find out that the way ’round trip you just took for an episode informs you on the entire arc you’re on with the whole thing.
Jayne Lockwood: Getting back to your Weres, it sounds like he has his work cut out (in Sparrows Hollow, West Virginia – where the story is set), but does he think like a human or a werewolf?
SA Collins: Cal is most definitely human throughout. But he is constantly at war with his inner wolf. The whole cast of boys are, actually. What I am doing that is drastically different – which book two will explain – is that I am introducing a new type of wolf into the genre.
Jayne Lockwood: Does he have any Were traits at all?
SA Collins: Oh yeah he will “wolf out” – no doubts there – mostly because he has to train his boy in what they are. They are the only two of their kind. In this, I introduce a new classification to the Were’s genre – a Gamma (as opposed to Alpha, Beta or Omega). It goes back to that spell that Ruth cast when she was pregnant with Hank that didn’t succeed in separating the wolf from Cal/Hank but redoubled and instead bound the magic to them.
Jayne Lockwood: THAT sounds like an interesting read. When do you think it will be finished?
SA Collins: I want it out by the time the blog tour starts in mid-March, so I can promote the release of book two while I am talking up book one.
Jayne Lockwood: So they (Father and son – Cal and Hank) are unique?
SA Collins: Yes, the Gammas are not beholden to any pack law. They can be destructive as all hell and can go completely off the rails (Ruth, Cal’s wife and Hank’s mother (who is a witch), is the one who comes up with the term because of her cosmology studies when she was in college). So Cal and Hank are Gammas – they have a way to use their wolf talents and strengths and can even imbue that magic for a time into their pack to strengthen them. But it comes at a cost, as they shall soon see. BUT there is a wrinkle in this because Cade, Cal’s former lover in his old pack, has been doing his magical homework and has sort of created something like it himself during the intervening years since Cal disappeared and Hank was growing up.
Jayne Lockwood: Got it. Where did this idea come from?
SA Collins: The idea came because I wanted to do something about the heteronormative perception that the “bottom” was the weak guy in the gay relationship – believe it or not.
Jayne Lockwood: You have to have a wrinkle …
SA Collins: That was the impetus for my Gamma
Jayne Lockwood: Aah, now I’m getting it
SA Collins: Omegas in the gay Weres trope are the soothers of the pack life. They often are physical (to some degree) with most of the members of the pack – they ensure pack cohesiveness and common interests. The Alpha and Betas rely on the abilities of an Omega as they augment their strength in a pack. But Ruthie’s little mishap gave birth to something else in Cal altogether. And since she was pregnant with Hank at the time he also has the same trait now.
Jayne Lockwood: So is he the ultimate power bottom? Although I hate labels.
SA Collins: Yeah, kinda sorta. But the bottoms aren’t the weak ones. Think about it. It takes a helluva lot of courage to be there for your man in that way. A real top (that isn’t just trying to be a prick but actually gets that it is a mutual thing/pairing they’re after) understands that he wouldn’t get what he wants if he didn’t have a man who was willing to go there for him. Just sayin’… The thing is, I want to use the sex as a way for these boys to remain rooted in their humanity through all the gross bloodshed that is going to come their way.
Jayne Lockwood: I think people expect sex as part of the deal with werewolves.
SA Collins: Perhaps, but in my world it is also how I will bind Hank to the boys emotively. He will assume the responsibility for each of them. Right now he doesn’t know how much that is part of the deal. He’s still reeling from the fact that he has eight boyfriends. Yeah, it’s very specific in my Weres world. And with Cal/Hank – it takes on a whole new meaning – remember Cade’s comment at the end of HO’M,O where he said that movin’ in that boy was like dippin’ his wick in a very powerful force? Or something like that, well magic is involved in their sex.
Jayne Lockwood: I just wanted to touch on book covers, whilst you’re here as well.
SA Collins: Sure. Fire away
Jayne Lockwood: How do you decide on what to put on a book cover? We had another discussion about the cover for Angels, in which I said it wasn’t about American football, but actually, it is, or the game dynamics that can be applied to real life. What makes a great book cover, one that “pops” on thumbnail and makes people want to click on it?
SA Collins: It was interesting for Angels because the whole series actually came from an image I think I’ve told you before, where I imagined a couple of boys on the Bixby Bridge (which is on my site) and cop cars on either side with lights flashing and the entire scene bathed in a heavy fog. There is another boy falling from the bridge with his arms outstretched and the fall has created a draft of “wings” behind him. That was the image I had in my head when it first came to me. I always thought that was the final book image. But now I am not so sure. I mean, it is a very indelible image in my mind about the books, but I don’t know if it would make a great cover. What was core for me was what will POP? What will stand out? And then I started to play with metaphors. The only one that mattered to me was football in and of itself – because all of the trauma these boys go through stem from that singular point. Just look at what’s happened with Michael Sam in the sport. So unfair on how he was not assessed because of his true talent, despite what the commentators say. But let’s say what if Marco was a painter, or a runner or some other damned thing, I don’t know it would be just as pointed.
Jayne Lockwood: Okay, but book one is from Elliot’s perspective, and he hates football …
SA Collins: Yeah so it was even more important to me that football be on that cover – weird, huh? But if you noticed I looked for a very specific image – that of a football player pointing to the reader, as if saying ”YOU.“ I’ll admit it isn’t everything I want in it, but it does the job. The color scheme is strong enough that it does standout against the other half-torsoed men on all the other covers. In a way – exactly – if someone thought I was being high browed from the get-go then I think they’d pass on it. Sad but true, that.
Jayne Lockwood: I get what you’re saying, and I LOVE the cover. It’s been around a while now and it’s what I associate with the book. If you changed it, I’d think WTF, but it got me thinking as to what the book is actually about. And someone else said on the blog that the book didn’t immediately say “literature” but is that a bad thing?
SA Collins: And can I stop and just say – do we HAVE to have half-naked men on EVERY cover – oh for fuck sake! But in this way I sort of straddle all of those tropes and cover ideas.
Jayne Lockwood: Ha ha! I do my eye-rolling thing when I see pecs and nips. Like, here we go again … So readers know from the get go they are getting something different?
SA Collins: It has an athletic male on it, it is colorful (even though it is rather monotoned), and more importantly (at least to my way of thinking), it isn’t what everyone else is doing. Well that is the hope – first get them to click on the damned thing because it does look different, then the write up is my gig – that’s where I better do my damned work to “elevator pitch” them to hell and gone to pick up the damned thing and BUY it.
Jayne Lockwood: I don’t do pecs and nips either … Just handsome men in suits. If they want pecs and nips, they have to READ THE FUCKING BOOK …
SA Collins: Yeah. And I appreciate that perspective of yours, believe it or not. In a very real way it gives balance to your erotic works inside. It’s very much the “less is more” or “let your imagination wander” sort of thing.
Jayne Lockwood: That’s it. The write up is crucial. I hate the write up ...
SA Collins: It’s funny because I’ve decided that self-pub is my plan B to get Angels out there. But if I really want it to succeed or have a real shot at it, I think I’ll have to really try traditional pub by going for a real literary agent. I think that it is the only real way I have a shot to get it out there. Given with the resistance I’ve experienced with HO’M,O and Shrill, I don’t think the promo- blog tour groups would be able to handle the violent homophobia that is at the core in Angels very well.
Jayne Lockwood: Yes, I’m with you on the self-pub/trad thing. You need backing. Some people make lots of money by self-pubbing, but they are in the minority.
SA Collins: I need deeper pockets and a bigger marketing team for this type of work. Perhaps that is one of the greatest deterrents to writing literature – because you really can’t self-pub or market it very well. Not on your own.
Jayne Lockwood: And from what I’ve seen (not that I’ve delved extensively) the blog tour thing seems to be the premise of romance. The deep pockets thing veers dangerously into “vanity” publishing – which I won’t do. People will either like my book or they won’t. The product is good, but spending ££££££ is not an option. Most people are scared rigid of Closer Than Blood when I’ve tried to pitch it … The trouble is, my books are too darned long (about 100,000 words) and it’s as if they are saying, “Oh, that’s so much time to spend on a book. Life is too short. Let’s buy a fluffy romance instead that I can read in a day …” Or as someone said, maybe my books just aren’t very good! Fuck that. They are!
SA Collins: No I think it is that there is so much shit out there (which was the nature of my emotive rant on my blog) that the good stuff is being lost in the mix.
Jayne Lockwood: So much shit. I agree. It’s hard to wade through it all …
SA Collins: I think this steady diet of fluff, and badly written fluff at that, that I think that the well-crafted work is just being missed.
Jayne Lockwood: The trouble is, no-one really sets out to write a crap book, but some don’t understand the time and effort needed to make it good. That might make me sound like an arrogant cow, but it’s true.
SA Collins: I don’t think it’s arrogant at all. But the thing is while self-pub has been a boon to new stories making their way out there, the problem is we have people who have no business pubbing doing so and really making it difficult for those of us who really can do what we do.
Jayne Lockwood: Yup
SA Collins: And I am not being snobby about that. I’ve a shit load of books I got through the first page and it went right into the “fuck it” pile on my e-reader.
Jayne Lockwood: Yeah, I have a few of those as well. I don’t review them because, well, it would be a bloodbath and it’s not up to me to squash anyone’s dreams. Some people think the same about my writing! Glass houses, anyone?
SA Collins: So many people don’t know how to craft a story or flesh a proper character out. Now I don’t toss something because it isn’t how I write. I mean, I’ve loved your stuff and Brad’s stuff and been totally fine with the characters and the plots in those just fine. So it doesn’t have to be anything like my work. But I do tend to write what I want to read. Don’t know if that’s how all authors write, but I know it’s what I do. There is one topic I did want to touch on briefly, if we can. Or we can hold off for a later time.
Jayne Lockwood: No, it’s cool. Shoot.
SA Collins: So when you decide on a story, what is the singular thing you fixate on? As a content creator I am always fascinated by what sparks another author to write about. Is it the character, an image, a situation you want to explore? All of the above?
Jayne Lockwood: It can be. With Lexington Black, it started out from another story I have in the pipeline, called Madison Blue. That hit the rails a bit, but I thought, why not do a series with those kind of titles? So I had the title, then I had to write the book! With The Cloud Seeker, I always wanted to write a novel around 9/11, but I wasn’t sure if I had the writing chops to do it justice. It took years for that to happen. In the end, it seemed obvious to base the novel around my village and weave the story through it. Sometimes it can be a picture, a single line of dialogue. Anything that creates a spark.
SA Collins: For me it is our human fears that I want to explore. It’s really interesting because let’s step away from my Angels or Weres for a moment and let’s look at Fae Wars – Fear the Feigr (which I’ve set aside while I wrote Angels). It is REALLY about male sexual insecurity. And I am using a trope to examine that with by using the Norse Feigr (which aren’t all that well-known in mainstream society (save for the eye candy Thor movie series of late)) and decided to really explore what makes human (straight) males afraid of their own sex and sexuality. My Feigr are massively scary to heterosexual human males because they challenge what it means to be a man on many levels.
Jayne Lockwood: This is where writers are very different. I don’t work like that, mainly because I’ve never had the schooling to think in that way. That came out all wrong. What I meant was I need physical triggers to create a story. Rather than emotional ones.
SA Collins: I see. That’s really interesting … For me it’s headspace.
SA Collins: I know you just went “duh” about what I said
Jayne Lockwood: Nope, I’m just thinking that maybe that is what literature is all about … no, that wasn’t what I mean! I was just thinking that literature is all about emotions, and my stuff isn’t.
SA Collins: It’s a fascinating thing when authors compare what they do and how they do it. It’s almost a cracking story in and of itself.
Paying It Forward – Love Letters to My Gay Brothers – Why I Write
A couple of weeks ago I made some comments from a question posed by an author pal of mine, Jayne Lockwood. We’ve been having an on-going conversation regarding the process of writing, why we write what we do, how it is perceived by others and the process we go through to create what we do. It’s a very rewarding conversation. Well, for me it is at any rate (I can’t speak for Jayne, but she seems to like it – at least so far she hasn’t told me to take a hike and shut the hell up so maybe it’s going good?).
The problem is I said somethings that many women writers took me to task about (both on my pal’s site and on Facebook). Being a father and a grandfather to two women of my own, when women express something vociferously I tend to really take in what they are saying and weigh it heavily. I do this because I fight just as vociferously for my daughter and granddaughter’s right to be equals and have whatever they want in life. Their gender shouldn’t ever play a role in what they do – other than bring their womanly experiences and points of view to any conversation which I certainly believe have merit and weight.
Anyway, one woman in particular really took umbrage with what I said. This despite my attempting to clarify what point of view I was after. Even after explaining myself she still thought my point was “asinine” (evidently in the extreme). Now, being a man, I wanted to do the knee jerk reactionary thing and bash back. It’s an inherently male trait that I am well aware of. It’s why men go to war, it’s why men wage war in the first place, I suppose. But, having the girls in the house I decided to temper that knee-jerk response and really weigh what she said to me. It was written this way:
I’m part of the community of authors who write gay fiction–regardless of what they do or do not have in their pants. I find the gender of the author to be irrelevant and I don’t consider myself to be a part of the ‘straight community’ or the ‘bisexual community’ or the ‘bisexual women married to men who also happens to gay MM fiction’ community. I’m a person before I’m anything else. I’ve read male authors who ‘feminized’ their characters to the point where they are crying every other page and had emotional conversations about love and other crap right after meeting a stranger, as well as women who write male fiction so well that men–gay men–have said they thought the author WAS a man. Fiction should be judged on its own merit–not based on the sexuality or gender of the author–and anything beyond that IS asinine. We need to stop dividing ourselves.
So I sat and thought about what she was saying to me. At first blush, like I said, I reacted strongly to her judgement of my POV being asinine. Then I realized why I was fixating on that word in particular and why I was taking umbrage with it. It occurred to me that it wasn’t the point she was making, because on the whole I agree with her 99%. Why the 1% hold out? Well, therein was my answer. And it was my fault entirely for not being accurate about my first response to Jayne’s query. A point I will come to in my summation below.
With regards to writing, there are various manners of writing. Technical writing, academic writing, literature (with varied genre and sub-genre classifications), etc. So first and foremost I am simply that – a writer. No different than any other. It is a community that I share with the commenter above and with all of the people who have responded on both sides of the discussion (and yes, I had some male writers approach me separately that didn’t want to voice their general agreement with me publicly – those were private and I will not be disclosing who said what – just know that there is still that prevailing difference of opinion out there). But as I say, I am a member of the community of writers. Yet in really examining my feelings on this issue I slowly started to see how I hadn’t clarified my own position or point of view to fully answer my writing buddy’s initial query.
Now to be fair, Jayne and I are doing what we’re doing because we want those surprises in our conversation. We both have bought into the “oh shit, I said that all wrong but fuck me, it’s out there in the heat of the moment and yeah, now I gotta eat crow so pass the damned salt cause this shit is gonna taste hella nasty.” (Sorry, ‘hella’ is a No. California expression that as I write about my teens in the area I live in I use to flavor my boys and girls of my stories – I am staying in the groove with them, so to speak). We wanted these moments in our on going dialog because as writers Jayne and I are all about the reveal. So we sort of know we’re gonna step in it from time to time. I accept that, and in a very real way I am giddy with glee that I did it. Why? Simple: it allowed me to examine where what I said in the heat of the moment came from and why it caused a bit of a shit storm response.
But as I said, I am a member of the community of writers. And it was in that that my answer lay in why I have the point of view I have. It is also where my most vocal critic’s argument runs afoul to my mind. It is the one percent on where I completely and whole-hardheartedly disagree with her and will NEVER give ground on it. You see, I am also a member of the LGBTQIA community. And more specifically, the gay community of brothers that while I rail within it about how badly we can cut and tear at each other when we’re amongst ourselves (bitchy twinky queen much?) I still love each and every one of them because they exist. With them, I don’t feel alone in expressing how I feel what I feel. And herein is why I am writing to finally clarify my point of view. It also serves to finally answer the question for myself on what I am doing here, and why I write.
As a gay man I share with my communal brothers the trials, tribulations, euphoric, insanely giddy moments of our community. It is something that we all share regardless of how we all came to the road we are on as gay men. As a matter of record, I have grown to become quite pissed at the “community” of gay men because we spend an inordinate amount of time not supporting each other as we should. Something our lesbian sisters have taught us time and again when they’ve nudged us (they were one of out greatest allies during the whole AIDS crisis in the 80’s and 90’s and continue to do so – for which I am grateful). But the work has to come from within. We, as gay men, must rise above the in-fighting and the bickering that permeates our own community and truly hold each other up. No one else will do it for us. Our allies commiserate with us on how our often our community is maligned and disparaged, but they are allies in the fight for dignity and equality. But they are not the community. That lies solely with my gay brothers and myself.
And herein is why I will never cede ground to my critic’s point on this 1% – where the 1% will always trump the 99%. I know this to be true because it happened to me.
When I was sixteen and dealing with the fullest meaning of what was going on inside of me – my budding emotional responses to the boys around me in school and in my day to day experiences – I felt utterly alone.
I wasn’t a member of the mainstream club.
Now to be clear, I had tons of friends, I had family members who knew about my burgeoning gay life as a young man taking up the reigns in what that meant for me going forward. So I was surrounded by people who loved and supported me in many ways. But let me be absolutely clear about this:
I was alone in a sea of people. People who were there for me in every way than could be save one – they weren’t like me.
I soon sorted out for myself that I craved another gay man’s voice. I needed to know there was a community of men who shared my passions (however varied they were) and also understood implicitly what that meant – from the inside as a man. I was hungry for their words, I wanted affirmation that what I was feeling meant I wasn’t alone. I had my parents and siblings unconditional love and support – for the 70’s/80’s this is rather astounding as there wasn’t much out there for parents to latch onto that what I was becoming was positive in any way. My parents, I suppose, just trusted that I was the same good boy they reared and as such I would apply myself to this new avenue in the journey that is my life. Despite all the love and support they had for me, they could never be what I needed most at this point in my life. I wanted to be amongst my own in the worst way. But I was sixteen. No way for a boy at that age to easily accomplish that.
But I could find a book to hear what they had to say.
So I began looking. I knew that what I wanted from it couldn’t readily be found in a library. Mostly because what I was curious about in my hormonally charged teen boy days, was the topic of sex and love between men. It took me several visits to the bookstores I’d disappear to in the local mall my parents would take my brother, sister and me to on occasion. It almost happened by coincidence. I found some books that were not in the right place on a shelf that was slightly above my eye level, I shifted them around and a book that would become one of my bibles was there – nearly glowing with angels singing it’s praises to me. That book was The Sexual Outlaw by John Rechy.
John’s book was transformative. It was gritty, unabashed writing that spoke to me in ways that no one else could. It was as if his words were for me and me alone. They were powerful, their imagery was stark and bold. I emerged a very different boy with that book. So here we’ve come to why I will never agree with my critic’s point of view. Because it is from my own community of writers: gay men writing about our worlds as we are. Those words I’ve said before but not in the context of how I truly meant them and why. As a boy I wanted that affirmation from my own kind and no amount of brilliant writing, witty and powerful prose from anyone outside of that sphere was going to satisfy. It just simply wasn’t. It never would. I wanted to hear it from the source – not some random author posing what they thought it might be like. I wanted other gay men’s voices in my head. I wanted to swim in them, I wanted to be immersed in their minds, in their worlds, in their lives. I needed to understand what being gay was all about.
John satiated my lustful thoughts. He colored them and gave them such a compelling narrative that I was living and breathing it every time I opened that book. But he didn’t have all my answers – I wanted more. So I sought out others as best I could and I happened again on another gay male author: Gordon Merrick. Merrick satiated my heart. He gave me the perspective of a gay man in matters of love and relationships between men. And you can bet your sweet ass, no woman’s perspective no matter how beautifully written was going to give me that. I wanted a definitive male perspective. And let me be abundantly clear about this – the nature of the writing, the quality of the characters, the style of prose didn’t matter. Not really. It was that I had another gay man’s voice in my head. That belonging to a group of men like myself was paramount — almost more than the work itself. And herein is a salient point I’d like to make to my straight women allies who write about us in the here and now, we may have M/M romance as it is today and many of my critics site that it came from the fanfic/slash fic of the 90’s and that it is from these straight women who have given birth to this genre – yet I say to you all, unless you were doing this in the early 70’s when this book broke and was on the NY Bestseller list, then no, Merrick was one of the first. And he did it at a time when no one else was doing it. I know because I was there. I lived through this period in time. And it could be argued that it existed before him – EM Forster’s Maurice was penned earlier in that century as no doubt there were a few others. These courageous men were the men I craved. Men I could admire, men I could aspire to and say to myself ‘I want a piece of that pie… I want me some of that.’
I know that the argument could be made that this was all before the advent of the internet, that now it’s easy to find them. And yes, you’d be right about that. BUT, herein is the subtle but profound difference, and herein is why I discovered why I write: I still require gay men’s voices. I still want to know why Zachary Quinto is taking umbrage within his own community in the here and now about his perception of how his fellow gay brothers have grown “lazy” with regards to protecting ourselves against HIV/AIDS when we have drugs like PreP out there (he is getting slammed for starting the conversation – I, for one, am THANKFUL that he took the time to pose the question in the first place). I still want to know from my gay brothers what stirs up our shit about things in general. And yes, that information isn’t as hidden as it was back in the day when I was struggling to find affirmation and confirmation that I wasn’t alone. It doesn’t matter – I still want more of my own. I want to know today why Perez Hilton goes off on a fucking tangent and makes an ass out of himself and fails epically, I want to know the struggles of Michael Sam as he tries to elevate us all by simply being and showing us how equal gay male athletes are in the larger sports context.
For me, and I think for a great many within my own community, gay men’s voices will ALWAYS trump another author from outside my community – no matter their intent, no matter the quality of their work, because they simply AREN’T a member of our community. They don’t live it day in and day out. They may write beautifully and profoundly but to my mind, there is still the inherent tick box that says – lovely work but not of our own. It is that nugget of living it that puts it over the edge for me. Not because of the quality of the writing – but that by their very existence they affirm that I am still not alone. I need them. I need them all. Good, bad or indifferent. I need them because together we still have a “community” (such as it is).
Does this mean I think others outside our community shouldn’t write as they do? Absolutely not. I’ve said so time and again even though most of my straight allies took me to task as if that is what I was saying. But in this my absolute truth began to emerge. I began to truly see what kind of writer I am. I’ve begun to define myself as a writer and the audience I am truly seeking. I’ve learned that my road won’t be an easy or profitable one.
I am a writer. Period.
But I write from my own rooted experiences. I write to my sixteen year old self – telling him about what I’ve learned along my varied and roller coaster past. And they are rooted in life, they are my own and my fellow gay brother’s shared experiences. We live them. The situations I put my characters through may be imaginary but they are deeply rooted in my own and my gay male brother’s experiences. Words we’ve shared amongst ourselves. Words that both soothe and harm one another. Love, anguish, hurt, coupled with friendship, camaraderie and bliss filled euphoria (as a sidebar my husband, a brilliant writer himself, rails against my using bliss and euphoria in the same sentence – he said to stop over stating – it’s redundant – I smirk at him and say that in my own way I am railing at convention and want to be over the top emphatic about my blissful euphoria – but this too is why I write). My stories will have strong romantic threads but they are definitely not romance novels. Not in the sense of that particular genre as it stands now. And herein I believe that the genre needs to grow beyond the limitations and restrictions or the genre will wither on the vine and it will grow stale from the same formula cranked out over and over again – merely swapping out vocations and locations to keep things fresh. That can only go on for so long. My men will fall in and out of love. Because that is how we are – but I won’t guarantee a HEA (happily ever after) or even an HFN (happy for now), because it doesn’t work that way in life. This I will not adhere to. That I think is ludicrous in the extreme. In that manner my straight women allies can have at it. It is not for me – but my stories will have strong elements of love and loss. To my way of thinking that makes them infinitely more compelling and powerful if you don’t have a guarantee. End it the way it is supposed to end – not because some prescribed “way it has been done before.” I rail against that too. But then again I come from a community that has had to fight tooth and nail for every inch of acceptance and happiness we can. Where simple expression of affection is ridiculed and denied us. That is a compelling dialog to write from. That is what I will explore and show how we as gay men struggle against that – culled from our own collective pasts.
This is what separates me from the straight women allies in the M/M genre (romantic or otherwise). I am not writing to them at all – and that was an amazing revelation for me. They are not my audience. They can certainly come to the party and I would welcome them with as much humility and humbleness I can muster for their wanting to see what I am all about.
But they are not the focus of my prose.
In that sense, I am a very different writer. I am not writing to become famous, I am not writing to make the all mighty dollar. I am not willing to write to a formula that sells. My stories are what they are. And you can believe that if there are gay characters then those points of view are coming straight from the community of gay men I surround myself with and delve into their pasts, carefully editing out names and distilling the shared experiences for future works. I cull from my own and my gay brother’s lives. So when I put a gay character down – I’ve walked through what makes him tick. I do this for that sixteen year old me and any others out there that are like me. They want that affirmation from another gay man. Because we are gay men.
Men are the object of my desire. Men are the object of my interest. Doesn’t mean I won’t write strong female characters in my stories (I have two very important women in my own immediate family that I must answer to so you bet your ass there will be very few weak women in my tales – I want my girls to know everything they can be as well – I am all about spreading the wealth). But in that, any women characters I create is more from a desire to express what I want my girls to take away from them. Doesn’t mean for one moment that I know what the hell I am writing about them from the inside – I am simply not a member of that community, and I don’t have the gender parts or psyche that make up the foundation for that community. I aspire to do it justice, just the same, but I must embrace that it will never be able to write from that intrinsic truth that comes from within. Are there shared human experiences between the sexes that I can speak to? Certainly. But I have to embrace that I am simply not a woman and being a happy well adjusted gay man – I can definitively say I wouldn’t want to. I am very comfortable in my skin and where it’s been in my life thus far.
But what I am doing is writing to my brothers – love letters of a sort. Words to add to the dialog amongst ourselves. I am putting my words out there in the odd chance that some gay man out there might find it and its contents to be of interest. I’ve come to embrace that it may be in vain. It may never be in demand. It may ultimately come to naught or may rise in popularity after I am long dead and gone. It wouldn’t be the first – EM Forster’s Maurice was only allowed to be published after his death. I am okay with this. I will write either way. Why? Because I am doing it as a matter of posterity. I want my work to be added to the annals of other men in my community, Gay men’s voices. For ourselves, to express what our journeys are to each other. Others external to us may pick them up, others may find them interesting and may even glean an understanding from them from inside the community and what it is like to live within it. This too, is welcomed – but not germane to my craft.
So in a way, I am glad for my critic’s words. They helped me define myself and what I am doing. I wish her nothing but luck with her own journey as well as any other writer out there. The stage is big enough for us all no matter why we do what we do.
What I want out of all of this is to urge my fellow brothers to step up and write about us – we need to define ourselves in a fictional literary sense that are rooted in who we are, as we live it. This is a call to action – to my own community. There are those of my kind out there doing just that. What I want is more of the same. I want to hear what my fellow brothers are experiencing, what their journeys have been thus far. Where have they stumbled, what have they achieved? I am inspired by them – by these men’s voices. They speak to me like no one else can. They enrich me.
Men like Jay Brannan (who I think is one of the most contemplative and imaginative men I have ever had the honor to meet).
Brannan’s work is my go-to. His words give me hope and such determination to aspire to his level of writing. I am enriched to know that as an older gay man, with this young out gay artist our story is in very, very capable hands. He is nothing short of a modern day bard. I have an on-going love affair with his prose. I admire his mind – the truly sexiest part of Brannan’s work. And his voice is like salve to the soul. It’s clarity and beauty is truly astounding. And he was gracious enough to allow me to quote his magnificent work within my own. One gay male artist supporting another. I am deeply humbled by his generosity and creative spirit.
Men like Steve Grand – who has taken his bold take on the mainstream country scene and through his profound presence and sheer will of the struggles of our loves and lives has garnered followers and fans from both within and external to our community. I admire his journey as a whole. It’s brilliant, it’s bright and all encompassing, and I am in awe of it taking off like it has. I haven’t had the pleasure of seeing him perform live but as a kickstarter supporter of his, I am already part of his conversation, if from a distance. I am still heartened by his journey.
Authors (in addition to EM Forster, John Rechy and Gordon Merrick) like Christopher Rice, TJ Klune, Gore Vidal, Larry Kramer, Felice Picano, Brad Vance, Eric Arvin and the like.
Men like Michael Sam, Jason Collins, and Tom Daley. Men like Dustin Lance Black, Shane Bitney Crone, Zachary Quinto (pictured below), Anderson Cooper, Greg Berlanti, Wentoworth Miller, Matt Zarley, Chris Salvatore, John Barrowman, Ryan Murphy and others – the list goes on. This includes gay men in the porn and sex industry – for many of them are my gay brothers too. Brilliant men who I admire for their minds as much as the work they do because they have productive lives outside of the industry (they are forward thinkers) – men like Colby Keller, Levi Michaels, Antonio Biaggi, Boomer Banks and Rocco Steele (pictured above) – such courageous and brilliant masculinity on display there. Even in this with them, I am inspired. What happens to them is of great interest to me – because it is reflective of my own in one way or another. Men who have to be weary of the world around us. A world where we are slowly seeing a rise in acceptance and tolerance (despite the occasional setback and fucktard conservative voice pushing back). In a real but absurd way, I am okay with the push back. It gives me a treasure trove to plunder for my characters to struggle against. And in that I also rail a bit at my critic’s sentiment above. She laments that we need to stop being so divisive amongst each other. Yet, I can’t help but think that while a lofty goal that may be, I don’t know that we’ll achieve it in what years I have left on this Earth. But again, it’s great fodder to write from certainly. We humans love our drama.
As my good fellow opera singer, Joseph, from my days in Opera once said, “No one wants to come see a happy Opera.” He’s right. Drama springs from life – it both reflects it and informs it. I am a writer of drama. More specifically, gay men’s drama. Might be limiting in scope but with the pathetically few books written by us rooted in our own collective experiences, I’ll stick to that course to add my own to my community’s slowly growing literary library.
I am a gay man who craves the voices of my own. It was that way when I was sixteen, it is that way now. I am thankful for those outside the community who want to write about us. I may even enjoy their work and praise them for what they do (I have done so with my carefully thought out reviews). But ultimately I am inspired and aspire to the men of my own world. I am enriched by their journeys and their experiences. I write to them. I write about them. I am informed by them. This is why I said what I said. I may not have clarified it as well as I should have but that was sort of the point with Jayne’s and my on-going conversation. In a very real way, this slight stumble has helped me define who I am and what kind of writer I am. For that, I can only be grateful.
So my fellow brothers, get out there. Write about us, write about our lives and our struggles, in a literature format. Root it in our lives, as they are or as you’d like them to be. Do it not for profit alone (though it certainly wouldn’t be frowned upon if you did), just do it to ensure our voices are present and accounted for – central to our experiences and our lives. Do it for posterity, do it so our thoughts in this point in time is captured in our own voice. Do it because we need to remind each other – both gently and, at times, purposefully – pressing against our own foibles, follies and prejudices. Teaching and enriching each other to aspire to be better with one another as much as we strive for equality in the greater mainstream community.
So, to my critic I say this – I agree with you up until we talk about my community from within. Then it is my own brother’s voices that hold sway, that have that nugget of truth, that sense of community that only they can speak to because they live it every damned day. It is our world – inherent to us because of the perceptions about us that we have to embolden or deride where they are true or are rooted in prejudice and bigotry. In this they will always hold my interest to a greater extent than any other voice out there. I may not agree with what they have to say but goddamn it, I will be thrilled that they are out there saying it – if anything just because it is still an affirmation that we matter, that our voices matter and should and need to be heard – from us – from the source itself. Only then, through our expression of our lives as they are, no matter the format of expression, will the narrative be central to our collective life’s experiences. I am tired of just sitting on the sidelines. What little years I may have left (I have recently reached my half centennial mark), I choose to be as forceful in presenting our world from our collected experiences as I can.
Others may claim that this is xenophobic in nature. It is not, I can assure you. I am being patriotic within my own community – there is a difference. I do not write against the mainstream heteronormative but rather try to embolden our own collective voices from within and champion them – doing what I can to promote and encourage them to do more and, at the same time, try to raise my voice — though not at the expense of others. And a word to those who would argue against that, they would be exercising the grandest form of bigotry.
If others, outside of our community, want to learn from my journey then great – I welcome them. But I write to my brothers. They are my love letters to them. I may not know them individually, I may not know their journeys or the road they walk in life, but if they stop and bother to tell me, I will always spare a moment to listen. That sixteen year old self is still hungry for their words, their thoughts, their minds. It is a hunger for which I never want satiated. When I take my last breath the only regret I want to have is that I’ll want more but be denied access in what is to come. That is what I will lament and rail against but know that it is for naught. Life just doesn’t work that way. I get that. But I lament the brilliant and colorful lives I will never know – lives to come that will be beyond my mortal reach. So I write from a fictional perspective to create those worlds that would explore what I crave from those voices as yet unheard.
Love letters to my gay brothers. I cherish each and every one of you. I admire your spirit, your courage and your minds. It is a love affair I am all to happy to be a part of. It is a love affair I never want to end.
I know no other way.