Sex and Fantasy From Best-Selling Authors Jacqueline Carey and Larissa Ione
What happens when you simultaneously interview two New York Times best-selling authors, one of fantasy fiction and the other of paranormal romance? A scintillating conversation between Larissa Ione, whose latest book is Lethal Rider, the third entry in the riveting Lords of Deliverance series, and Jacqueline Carey, the author of the best-selling Kushiel’s Legacy series of historical fantasy novels, the Sundering epic fantasy duology, and the postmodern fables Santa Olivia and her latest, Saints Astray. Carey lives in western Michigan, while Ione, a former meteorologist and EMT worker as well as an Air Force veteran, lives in Wisconsin.
The Advocate: How did you enter your genres? How did you begin in fantasy and paranormal romance, respectively?
Carey: I have always loved fantasy; I think probably stepping through the wardrobe with Lucy in C.S. Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles was my first exposure when I was really little. But how I actually began writing is a story that teachers love. I started in high school when I was really bored in a class, which had to do with overlapping curriculum; it was not the teacher’s fault. I started a novel in the back of a notebook, and it was great because it looked like I was taking notes. And I just, I kept it up, it was sort of fantasy, it was part soap opera. It was utterly dreadful, but that’s how I got hooked.
Ione: I started because when I was old enough to start choosing what I wanted to read I chose horror. And my favorite creatures were always vampires. So when I first started writing as a teenager, just kind of doodling, most of my stories were paranormal. And so when I started reading romance there wasn’t a whole lot of paranormal romance at the time. So the romance I was reading was mainly romantic suspense, and when I started trying to get published I was writing contemporary romance, usually with a medical slant because I’ve always been interested in medicine. And one day I was watching an episode of Angel, which was a Buffy the Vampire Slayer spin-off, and Angel was injured really badly and he needed a hospital but he couldn’t go because he was a vampire. And it all clicked right then that I could blend the two: I could get back to the paranormal roots I loved while still writing the kind of contemporary medical stuff. So my Underworld General series was born and that’s how it started.
Because of the sometimes risqué or socially unconventional themes introduced in your works (same-sex love, explicit romance), what does “fringe” mean to each of you?
Carey: This is an interesting question, and I can’t really come up with a satisfactory definition in my mind. I don’t really consider my work on the whole “fringe” in my own mind; science fiction and fantasy have been pretty solidly in the mainstream for a while. But the Kushiel series in particular, because of more than anything I would say the BDSM elements, had a sort of stealthy, under-the-radar fringe element to it within something that came out as very much a mainstream publication.
Ione: I’m with you on that — I can’t really come up with a definition of “fringe.” Back when I first started, my first stories were erotic, especially my Sydney Croft series, which I write with New York Times best-selling author Stephanie Tyler. Those kind of push some boundaries, and it was probably considered more fringe back then. Now erotic romance has become so popular I don’t see it as being really on the fringe. Gay romance is really booming too, so I don’t think it’s as fringey as it used to be. It’s really become more mainstream. For example, when we first started writing the Sydney Croft series, we made the head of our organization in the series bisexual, and our editor kind of gave us a “Do you really want to do this?” kind of thing. And admittedly, we got some backlash from readers from that first book back in 2007 when it came out, but the majority of readers loved him and by the end of the series he became one of the most popular characters. So I think things that were kind of fringey when we started are less so now.
Carey: I agree. I think it begs the question of what is “fringe.”
What are the differences or similarities between writing gay and straight love scenes?
Carey: I would have to say in my experience there isn’t really a difference other than the plumbing, as it were. For me, making a scene erotic has to do with really connecting with the emotional and psychological place the characters are coming from. Obviously the technical details are important too, but that’s where the real charge comes from. And I’ve had a lot of readers tell me, “You know, I went back and reread your Kushiel’s Dart, and a lot of the scenes I thought were incredibly graphic weren’t actually as graphic as I thought.” I’m trying to get the reader to do the work in their own imagination. But the one thing I have not written is a really graphic, erotic male-male sex scene. And I think in part that’s because my one male protagonist stayed kind of stubbornly heterosexual and I didn’t want to shoehorn that in there just for the sake of doing it. But I think that when we talk about writing sex scenes, that’s one of the most intimate human experiences. And a male-male sex scene is one where I don’t have anything to bring to the table in terms of that experience other than friends who insist on telling me about their prostates and things. But I don’t have the visceral experience of that. At least in a heterosexual love scene, you know, I’ve been half of that.
Do you think that if you were to write a man-on-man love scene, the emotional charge you spoke of would play the same kind of role as between two women?
Carey: Oh, absolutely. And I did write a male-male romance in a novella, but I didn’t get as graphic and detailed as I have in the longer works. But definitely the emotion and psychology is always where it’s going to be at for me, for the real charge.
Ione: I agree with that. I think that there’s often a difference in the scenes depending on if you’re writing for a gay audience versus a straight one that’s reading it just because they want to read an erotic romance. Like, I’ve never written two women together, but I’ve written men. And for me, the way they have sex in the books I’ve written has been a little rougher even when it’s tender, because in my case these are two alphas going at it, two guys who don’t want to let down those walls and who were probably raised to hide their emotions. So the love scenes tend to be rougher, a little more about the physical than the emotional, at least until the relationship breaks down those walls. Emotion is what you’re going for, but they tend to be a little more hidden behind the physical for a while.
Jacqueline, share some topics you've gotten some reader response on.
Carey: There were a few different scenes that came up, and when I wrote that initially I was thinking of mail I received over the years and that sort of thing and then I thought, Oh, why not ask my peeps on Facebook since they’re a really articulate and responsive group. I asked, “Books that contain sexual content that pushes the boundaries of what’s considered mainstream: Do you think that’s important and why, and is it of personal significance to you?” And the first response was “Those parts helped reaffirm for me what I thought to be a beautiful thing and not something hateful.” That was a theme a lot of readers echoed. Someone posted, “I started reading the books at 14, which you probably think is too young, but was something I needed to see. That’s when biology kicks in, and reading the book was a healthy way to think about who I was.” This is something every 14-year-old needs to grow into a healthy adult.
Ione: And I think it depends on the 14-year-old. I was mature enough to read stuff like that. I wouldn’t want my son to, but he’s still stuck in grade school, basically. Yeah, I don’t think that’s too young.
Carey: I usually recommend 16 or over. What do you say when you’re asked?
Ione: I generally do say 18 and older because I’m always horrified when a 14 year old emails and says, “Oh, my gosh, I loved your Sydney Croft books!” I’m always like, “Oh, my parents would have had a cow about that.” They really didn’t censor my reading, but the Sydney Croft books especially are really erotic, so I always kind of cringe, but who’s to say they’re not mature enough to handle it?
Carey: I’ll have readers in their late teens and early 20s approach me at book signings and say, “I started out when I was 14.” And I’m like, “You turned out OK, right?”
Ione: What other responses did you get?
Carey: Another theme was we need literature like this to open our culture to talking about sex in all its forms, both the ecstatic and healthy and the dark and disturbing, because taboos about speaking about it interfere with our society’s abilities to make decisions. And the idea that dialogue about sexuality is so incredibly repressed in this country was echoed quite a bit. Sexy books give you an opening to talk about it.
Ione: Good point. I had somebody say that they love it because it’s so real, and I am absolutely on board with that. Because one thing I’ve found is that books that push boundaries about sex or plots or characters tend to have readers who are more open-minded about other things, and that allows for us as an author to write a grittier read that can be more realistic and frank with the language and the sex and you don’t have to be quite so politically correct with the phrasing. And it’s nice as a reader to read that, and it’s just real.
Carey: When I started really writing fantasy one of the things I noticed was a real absence of sexuality in the genre at all. And it’s such a profound part of the human experience that it’s a really big thing to leave out.
Ione: I agree. That’s one of the things I bring up whenever people criticize the genre. You’ve never had sex? You don’t like sex? You’ve never dated and had romance? It’s why we live, really. I really like that books like that cover all bases, and everything’s just real. And one of the things that really hit home for me with that was not too long ago I got an email from a reader. She cc’ed my agent and my publisher and she said, “I really wish that I would’ve liked your book but by page 8 I was so disgusted I’m taking it back for a refund. I couldn’t get past the word 'goddamn.'” She was like, “I don’t know what religion you are, but you just insulted a million Christians and I’m going to find authors that are more respectful of their readers.” And my response was basically, “OK, here’s the deal. I’m writing what’s real. I’m not going to water down my writing, whether it’s sex or language or whatever. I’m going to offend someone anyway, and that’s a word that is offensive to people, I understand that. But people use it. It’s real. We’re talking an apocalyptic situation and a soldier said it in an apocalypse, and he’s not going to say 'golly gee.'”
Carey: I can imagine an apocalyptic society might have stronger language. I guess they were expecting the Left Behind books or something?
Ione: I didn’t even think of that [laughs]. When you choose to write erotic material, it opens the door for you to be able to write real stuff in all aspects of the book even if you’re writing dragons or demons or whatever.
Do you think that’s true across the board, gay or straight?
Ione: Absolutely. If you’ve got readers who are reading gay romance, you’re going to have more open-mindedness, I think, when it comes to the erotic content or violent content or whatever.
Carey: One of my favorite love scenes I’ve ever written is in Santa Olivia, between two teenage girls. And it includes the word scampered, and I just love that about it. It works in context, but there’s a little bit of whimsy there. And that’s a book where I’ve had young lesbians writing to me going, “Thank you, I don’t see characters who reflect me in so much fiction, and the issue of visibility is a huge one. ”