Our Dirty Little Secret –
A discussion with Savannah Smythe on the release of her new work – Dirty Little Secret and a few other topics that cropped up…
SA Collins: So when do you think you can recall when you found yourself bit by the whole writing bug? Was there some impetus that got you into writing?
Savvy Smythe: I’ve always loved weaving stories, even from a very young age, probably to get me out of some kind of trouble, I guess. But I never thought of writing anything down until after my first child was born. I think it was boredom more than anything else. I was hitting the treadmill at the gym and my daughter was in daycare, and my first character just kind of popped into my head and said “Hello.”
Actually, that’s a lie. He said something like “Hey, bitch, I want a woman and a decent story. Get to it.” He can be rude like that…
SA Collins: Yeah, that’s usually a hallmark of a writer: our characters really sort of control us – dictate when things need to get done.
Savvy Smythe: Absolutely. I think all writers with fiction should identify with this, and sometimes you need to go with the flow and see what comes out. It can surprise you. It sure as hell surprised me!
SA Collins: Did your writing always have the erotic slant it has now? If so, why do you think that is? If not, how did it evolve into that?
Savvy Smythe: It certainly didn’t start out as erotica, although I’ve never shied away from portraying sexual scenes between my characters. How the erotica thing started was simple. I couldn’t get the damned book published so I sliced, diced and spiced it as an experiment, because sex sells, right? I knew I had a juicy story, but it needed a lot more juice to interest the erotica market.
To answer your other question, I guess I’ve always been interested in, not the ins and outs of sex per se, but the interplay between characters, the growing intensity of feelings and setting moods where sensual happenings can take place
SA Collins: So, given that, did you find that your sales changed when your writing did? Or was it a slow evolving process? Do you still see your work as erotica? Because, here’s my take on it: I really don’t think that sexual situations make it erotica. Sex is a part of the human condition. I think what erotica is is a piece written to titillate and inflame, sometimes at the expense of a real story, but when woven into a real bona fide tale, then I think it crosses back over to adult fiction. I think you can have a sexually active and sex positive character without it being erotica. Do you know what I am getting at here?
Savvy Smythe: Yes, I do, and I agree on the whole. There are different levels of erotica though. In my mainstream contemporary fiction books, the sex is used as a potent way of luring two characters together and making them want each other, and when they do, it’s fireworks. But in my role as an erotica writer, the sex is definitely the most important thing. I wrote straight erotica for Virgin Books for five years, and sales were good enough that they kept renewing my contract, which was great. But after a while it became slightly boring to be honest because the sex was the main event (as it has to be in an erotica book, obviously.) The challenge was to make it interesting. Actually, I nearly got my editor fired because my attempt at making it interesting contravened several decency laws – oops!
So yes, there is a big difference between the role that sex plays in erotica and “mainstream” fiction. And this goes back to what I was saying about different forms of erotica. There are the one-handed reads, and books with characters that people can actually get involved with. Three dimensional characters with stories that don’t insult the intelligence of the person reading them. And that’s what I tried to do.
SA Collins: Fair enough. The reason I bring it up is that when I started I first listed myself as an erotic writer but after Angels fully took form it was clear that while sex was present, the sexual situations psychologically advanced the characters (more than just bringing them together) in that my shy boy became increasingly more assertive in his life – every facet of his life – which said to me that the sex, while erotic in nature, really was a different device altogether. I get the whole differing degrees of erotica writing – and I am not disparaging it as a whole genre, but I often wonder if we’re too motivated to label it as such when maybe we aren’t seeing the greys in those erotic levels as something else altogether. You know?
Savvy Smythe: Yes, and a lot of it comes down to marketing and being honest about the genre the book is for. And that isn’t necessarily the market you assume it is for when you write it, if you assume anything at all. Black Lace (Virgin Books) was obviously erotica, aimed at women, and that was easy because I knew my genre. Since then, I haven’t written any erotica until this year, when I began What You Wish For, which eventually turned into Dirty Little Secret. I wrote the book, knowing I was writing erotica, but I hadn’t given any thought about who it was aimed at, I was just writing the story. Because once you start getting hung up on markets, etc., your creativity can go out the window. In a way, this is what happened with What You Wish For, which is why it eventually became DLS.
And sex is obviously a great selling point, but just because there is a lot of it in a book, doesn’t make it erotica, necessarily. I’m saying that sometimes, erotica isn’t always there to give a thrill, but to engender all kinds of emotions in the reader. As well as giving a thrill!
SA Collins: So you mentioned Dirty Little Secret, which is your recent release, right? How did that happen – it started out as a straight erotica piece, right?
Savvy Smythe: It did, and I guess it was aimed at women because that’s the erotica market I’ve always written for. Straight men on the whole don’t read a lot of erotica. They like to see the T and A before their eyes.
SA Collins: True enough – men are very visual.
Savvy Smythe: But then a strange thing happened. My two male characters fell in love before my eyes. It was a natural process and I can honestly say I didn’t force the issue. It just came about. So I went with it, again not thinking about the marketing issue, although I wanted to publish the story in three parts. But when I had finished the story and had three parts, one of straight erotica and two of gay erotica, I immediately saw I had a problem. Maybe this is an assumption here, but I guessed that gay men wouldn’t be interested in straight erotica featuring women, but I wasn’t so sure about women wanting to read gay erotica. So I did some digging and began to read gay erotica. Actually, I had been reading gay erotica as soon as I knew I was going to write it, to find out what I was up against.
SA Collins: Is it something you find interesting to write about? Or was this a one off “walk in a different park” sort of thing?
Savvy Smythe: I feel very comfortable writing about men, either in sexual situations or in burgeoning relationships, but I’m aware that I have a lot to learn. I didn’t want to insult people by just swapping women for men and writing “dick lit” because men and women’s motivations are totally different.
SA Collins: Now you’ve hit upon one of the things that sticks in my craw about the M/M genre as it stands now. As a gay man/author I have collected a number of these writings and what truly astounds me is how very little it has to do with what our lives are like. I mean, I am all for the fantasy of a good yarn, but some of the emotive qualities are completely off the mark of how men feel – and often gay men at that. I think it stems from women not really getting that as a gay man you always, whether you can play off the straight male thing in society or not, are looking over your shoulder, sometimes swapping pronouns to make people around you comfortable. Yet the works in the genre never really reflect that. So while it’s “gay” it really is with air quotes completely implied. Do you think that the genre needs some evolving in that manner? Or do you think it is what it is…? I know it’s one of the reasons why I refuse to ally myself with that sort of market as my main market. Because my work will not follow those sort of entrenched guidelines..
Savvy Smythe: I think that every genre is evolving, mostly thanks to the ebook market. People have access (should they choose to accept it) to almost any fiction they please. But yes, to answer your last question, the gay erotica I read, written by women is very different to that written by men. It seems to be either fantasy (wolf/biker/shapeshifter) or the other stereotypes (soldier, cop, mechanic) and I think that says a lot more about what the writer finds erotic than what her audience will. Not that there is anything wrong with that but don’t mistake it for bona fide erotica aimed at gay men.
The erotica I’ve read by men is a lot more meaty, with more of their senses being used – which is surprising to me but very enlightening. Also, every book I’ve read reflects the “over the shoulder” situation you described, where as a lot of women tend to write about being gay and proud of it, or being completely and happily segregated from “normal” society. So in order to write erotica for the gay market, I want to learn to write more like a man, and that is something which I find really exciting. I’m not degenerating women’s writing AT ALL. There are some really gritty women writers out there. I want to be one of them. Dirty Little Secret is a bit of fun, a toe in the water, but I’ve learned a lot since then.
SA Collins: I sort of liken it to me writing about a young black woman – I might be able to imagine it, I might even be in the midst of the community, but there is something intrinsically truthful about the work when it comes from the source. I don’t blame women writing M/M erotica for their own pleasure but what I find sort of bewildering is all of the rainbow cons that really don’t seem to have very much to do with what we are working towards. To me its more about women who love the hell out of men (as do gay men) but write about them in gay situations as they would like to fantasize about men but the ‘gayness’ of them really isn’t much in play here other than its homosexual in nature. I think the genre as a whole needs to do a little soul searching and more gay male voices need to rise to the top and write about us as we really are. Only then will the genre as a whole evolve. Otherwise I think it will just be women fantasizing about men as they want to see them rather than what we truly are… does that make sense?
Savvy Smythe: Yeah, it does, although I would say that it isn’t the role of erotica to reflect the angst going on in real life. One of the big no-nos in straight erotica are characters with kids. No-one wants to read about child-care arrangements before the fucking starts. They don’t want to hear about women with problems juggling their lives, or non-consensual sex (another rule I broke – I’m all about breaking rules) or any of the other issues that people in “normal” life experience. It is a fantasy after all.
But, this also begs the question about what motivates women to write gay erotica. Yes, a lot of it is a fantasy about what gay men are like in bed. And I think some women do it because they feel SAFER writing about gay men.
SA Collins: Why? Because they think gay men aren’t reading it to say – hey, wait a minute there —where am I in all of this? What do you mean by safer?
Savvy Smythe: Because they can have their kicks writing and reading about it without feeling they have to compete. In erotica books, the heroine is mostly beautiful, or has some quality that makes her irresistible to the hero. Some women feel threatened by that and think, “I would never be like that. I don’t want to hear about some bitch with perfect tits getting banged by Mr. Hardjaw.” But put Mr. Hardjaw with Mr. Sexyabs and hell, yes!
SA Collins: That sort of seems rather simplistic in a way. I mean you’ve read a bit of my book… right?
Savvy Smythe: I’m reading it now, but as you said, your book isn’t erotica, it’s a character study. Erotica is there mainly for one purpose, and that is to get off, right? DLS is erotica. I want to make it intelligent but to be honest, I wanted to turn people on first. And THAT is the prime purpose of erotica
SA Collins: True enough but let’s talk character for a second. I think that in erotica (or hell, even mainstream lit fic) women make a very interesting mistake in my mind when writing male characters. I think because in their own lives they hear the brevity of how we communicate and make an assumption that things go on like that in our heads. That we think in bits and bytes and not strung together long trained thoughts. In Angels almost 70 percent of it is Elliot’s (my protag) inner monologue. Men do think quite intensely and prolonged as we analyze our world around us – the difference is we don’t talk a lot about it. Gay men more than our hetero counterparts to a degree, but even so – gay men have short hand talking that does the same brevity communication that our straight brothers do. Most female writers miss the boat on that. I found that to be rather telling. It was one of the reasons why Elliot’s part of my series is so inside his head. It was far more interesting for me to express him internally (thus, the character study) yet, walk you through what he feels and thinks while he’s having hot man-on-man action…
Savvy Smythe: Men are from Mars, women are from Venus?
SA Collins: The inner monologue men go through isn’t as developed as I think it can be. I think it is simplistic for most (definitely not all) female writers to assume that how the men in their world act are how we really are. I think the inner monologues are not as complex as we sometimes can be.
Savvy Smythe: Yeah, I get that.
SA Collins: Sure. I mean I turned you onto John Rechy’s work… you said that you found his voice to be very powerful and you were getting some of that from him, right? Did it surprise you to read his take on male sexuality?
Savvy Smythe: I think we women make the assumption that men are simple souls, because to be honest, men have told us that for long enough. Perhaps to stop us over-thinking things we have no hope of understanding? It wasn’t a surprise to read John Rechy’s take but it was enlightening, because I, like a lot of women have always thought that men are more visual than anything else.
SA Collins: True enough. I mean my daughter is on match.com looking for potential boyfriend material and one guy got playful with her and started to talk about the big trucks and tractors he drives around at work (like a big boy would). She got all over analytical about it and I stopped her in her tracks and said – “Sweetie, sometimes a tractor or a truck is just that. He’s being playfui, don’t make it a political statement.”
So I get we can be forthright in our statements and they get over-analyzed to the point of absurdity (in most men’s opinions).
Savvy Smythe: I think women are always looking for the hidden message. It’s a defense mechanism to stop them from getting hurt. It doesn’t work though.
SA Collins: When I read Rechy’s work as a gay teen (this was the late 70’s mind you) it was truly enlightening that all of the things I was questioning about myself as a man (let alone a gay one) were right there in his pages.
Savvy Smythe: A comparative work for women would be The Women’s Room, by Marilyn French.
SA Collins: All of the textures and the senses that we as men go through. This is what I often find missing in M/M erotica… the assumptions are never analyzed by the author – simply taken as hard cold fact about us and not inquired or asked about. I know some men won’t cough up the goods or admit to what really goes on in our heads. In fact, I spend more time talking to my straight friends about their emotional shit that would truly astound their wives and girlfriends. I often laugh that straight women and straight men don’t really get what a great ally gay men are to them. They assume that our sex is so perverse that they can’t possibly be of any help to them. But I know I’ve helped my straight co-workers on a number of occasions because I gave them some insight on why their ladies might be feeling the way they were or expressing themselves how they were. The dialog is changing but I always sort of laugh on how much of our POV on their own relationships go unasked. I always tell my daughter – I may be gay, but honey, I know my sex…
Savvy Smythe: I think straight women get the gay ally thing. Most women yearn for a GBF. (Sex and the City, anyone?) BUT, I think it’s become a bit like a status symbol, rather like a designer handbag. I’d be willing to bet that the women wanting a GBF want him so they can give some insight into men and make them feel good about themselves. Actually, if you examine that dynamic, it looks a bit one-sided. Are the women with GBFs any wiser about how gay men think, feel, function day to day? This is a genuine question because I haven’t a clue! Would be interesting to find out though.
It seems as if we are all shouting at each other over a divide the size of the Grand Canyon. Can women ever really understand what is going on in men’s heads, whether they are gay or not?
More on this discussion coming soon – in the interim I highly suggest you check out Savannah’s brilliant and provocative works via the following channels:
So the hubby sent me an article that proved to be a bit enlightening (and informative from a historical standpoint).
Read it here…
It gave me pause for thought. While I have my first novel in the can (so to speak – still working out the kinks in edits), it did make me think about what I was doing with Angels of Mercy – Volume One. There is quite a bit of sex in that book. Big time gay sex at that. But since they are 18 year old boys – sex is fairly constant on the brain at that point. If you have two boys who are very into each other it will color the dynamics of that relationship.
For my story, Marco and Elliot are very into each other, sometimes to the point where they ignore what’s happening around them. It’s that insular bubble that will eventually allow harm to come too close to Elliot. But the sex, while aplenty in the first novel (it is sub-titled – Elliot’s Summer of Love, after all), there is precious little of it further in the series. The series gets quite dark. Hannibal Lecter dark. So the scintillating factor is all fairly front loaded. Not that there won’t be any in the other two books I’ve planned for the series. But when you’ve got a character that has some recuperating to do coupled with revenge killings going on around them – sex seems to take a back seat, of sorts.
Which brings me back to the article I’ve cited. The author of the New Yorker piece (yeah, I was just as surprised as you might be about where it appeared), it was more of a historical study of where gay sex in literature has been and how it has evolved over time, ultimately came up with the following summation: as much as the story needs to tell the story.
So while I may have been on pins and needles throughout the process and now through the edits. I am feeling a bit better because my 18 year old boys are fairly sexual with one another. Angels is hot and very, very intense. Being sexually active boys, it’s also very messy. And Marco and Elliot wouldn’t have it any other way.
Indeed, there are times when I don’t think it is a novel at all, more of a character study as you’re in Elliot’s head throughout the book. Elliot waffles. He’s strong. Then he wavers and collapses. Only to have Marco sweep in (I wanted the Jock to be the solid one in the relationship rather than be the one who has doubts) and obliterate the darkness that Elliot has devolved into – bodily throwing himself in bringing so much light to Elliot’s fragile world.
In short, Elliot’s a mess.
But, in truth, most gay boys are. It’s the nature of how we learn to come into our own. I am sure our straight counterparts have some shit they have to deal with at that age BUT what they don’t have to deal with, what sets the gayboys and girls apart is, that they don’t have to deal with the whole ‘I need to hide what I am’ or ‘if I am open about who and what I am I’ve got extra shit piled on top from narrow minded fucktards’ that other teens don’t. Which is, sadly, why some of us don’t make it.
Wow, that last line still gets to me every time I think about how just contemplating teens who feel like they have no other recourse but suicide just tears me up. To the point of being quite angry about it. These are our fellow human beings. Not some random trash to be tossed out. Just thinking about it makes me want to bring them in and give them shelter, love and support that they often don’t get at home.
Heck, if I ever make it big – and given that I am writing to a very small market I doubt that would happen, but IF I do make big, I’d like to create a half-way home for displaced gay youth. Giving back to brothers and sisters who need someone to champion them into the next phase of their lives. That would be my wish. To give back to kids who didn’t have the leg up from positive reinforcing parents or family members like I had.
A lofty dream, but if I don’t dream about something, then what’s all this for (aside from whole artist expression thing)?