Welcome, Ariel, and thank you for being here. I’m eager to dig in and talk to you about the work you’ve co-authored with Nicki Bennett—including your recent release, Under the Skin. Before we get started with that, I’d like to talk a bit more about you as a writer and some thoughts on writing.
Q: Your bio tells us you’ve traveled quite a bit. I’ve read before about your love of all things French, and your fluency in that language, but I hadn’t heard about your travels to India. Perhaps you’d be willing to share a bit about your relationship with those two countries, and in particular a sense of how that and your other travels influence you as a writer.
A: Hi, Lou. First of all, thank you very much for having me. It’s always a pleasure to visit the blogs of fellow authors. My relationship with France, as I’ve said before, is very much at the center of my life, and it’s something that started very early: when I was in seventh grade. My fascination with India and all things Indian (which, while I don’t speak the language, rivals my love of France in all other respects) came as a result of meeting my husband, a native of Kerala, and choosing to build a life with him. My love of France and my experiences living there gave me a cultural sensitivity that carried over to this new relationship, because anyone who tells you that you can have a relationship with a man and not have one with his family has never been in a relationship with an Indian, that’s for sure! It was important for me to fit in with his family: to eat Indian food with my fingers like a native, to be able to wear a sari and put it on by myself (which still continues to amaze a number of Indian women I meet whose American-raised daughters can’t do it), to follow their traditions of removing my shoes when I’m in their houses, etc. I’ve only traveled to India once, in 2003, but we had an amazing experience and I left with a profound respect for a country where I could find beauty even among the squalor and where I was welcomed as warmly (sometimes even more warmly) as my husband everywhere we went because I was willing to fit in as much as my very fair skin and red hair will ever allow.
Q: How did you come to write M/M Romance?
A: I discovered M/M Romance about eight years ago in the frenzy of fandom and fan fiction that surrounded the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I’ve always been a writer, but when I started reading fan fiction, I found far more stories centered around Aragorn and Legolas or Aragorn and Boromir than around Aragorn and Arwen. I’ve always been an adventurous reader so I took a gamble and opened one to see what it was like. I haven’t looked back. One of the joys of fan fiction is that there are amazing stories mixed in with not so amazing ones. There’s a place in fan fiction for beginning writers and for experienced ones. That community allowed me to begin to explore the dynamics of M/M relationships in a non-judgmental arena. It didn’t take me long to outgrow the limits of what I could do with my chosen characters and I quickly branched out into “AU” (alternate universe) stories that were essentially original stories with familiar faces.
Q: Can you give us an idea of how many book-length titles you’ve authored or co-authored in that Genre?
A: I have nineteen novel-length titles published or in the process of being published, with another four in the process of being written (and who knows how many sitting in the wings) as well as one more-than-novel-length piece of fan fiction that will never be published because it is too wrapped up in the canon of Lord of the Rings to be transformed away from those familiar faces to original fiction.
Q: Over time, do you think the genre has changed in a general sense? If so, in what way? How do you see the future of M/M Romance? Is it becoming more mainstream? Popular among more types of readers?
A: This is a really interesting series of questions. Until Dreamspinner started four years ago, I was only peripherally aware of M/M Romance as an actual, professional publishing category. I had a couple of acquaintances from fandom who were published, and one who was seriously taken advantage of, and so while I’d always dreamed of being published, I was leery of taking that step. At the urging of that same friend, I took a gamble on Dreamspinner, submitting Healing in His Wings to the Size Matters: Short Stories Long Enough to Satisfy anthology, which is now out of print, although my novella has been released as a stand-alone. What I discovered as I started marketing myself, and eventually started doing marketing for Dreamspinner, is that there was a huge, untapped market out there. The growth in production at Dreamspinner over four years is a result of demand, both from our readers and from our authors. Even with all the manuscripts we turn down (new authors to us have about a 10% acceptance rate), we are already filling our calendar into second quarter of next year. The other thing I’ve discovered is that there are two distinct classes of readers: straight women who get a visceral thrill from M/M relationships and gay men who are finally getting the love stories they were denied for so long by a publishing industry that chose only to tell tales of AIDS and woe and death and misery. I do think M/M Romance is becoming more mainstream, although I think there’s a long way to go still. A friend of mine who helped me extensively with Overdrive keeps checking for it on the shelves of bookstores he visits without any luck, an indicator of how far we still have to go before we’re represented on the shelves of the average bookstore, but we used to have a hard time getting review sites to accept our books. Now I send out an average of ten review copies a day of Dreamspinner’s titles, and often far more than that.
Q: Your recent release, Under the Skin was co-authored with Nicki Bennett. If there is anything you’d like to (or can) share on Nicki’s behalf—in terms of bio or writing background while respecting her privacy, please do.
A: Nicki is a bit of a hermit, so she doesn’t do a lot of interviews, but here’s her official bio.
Growing up in Chicago, Nicki Bennett spent every Saturday at the central library, losing herself in the world of books. A voracious reader, she eventually found it difficult to find enough of the kind of stories she liked to read and decided to start writing them herself.
And a bit more information about our friendship. We met through fandom when she commented on a story I was writing, a very detailed explanation of how I’d blown the ending of the most recent section I’d shared. I went back and read what I’d written and realized she was right. So I rewrote it (one of the joys of fan fiction instead of professional fiction), sent it to her to see if I’d fixed the problem, and reposted it. In the intervening seven years, she’s seen everything I’ve written before anyone else unless I was writing for her. A few months after we met, I convinced her to try her hand at writing, and the rest is history.
Q: I’d like to know about your own experience co-writing. Different authors approach it in different ways—in Under the Skin specifically, how did you and Nicki organize or divide the process, and how did co-writing affect the end product?
A: Nicki and I write together in real-time. We brainstorm a story and decide on the general plot, some of the details, and the basics of the characters. Then we each pick a character. From that point forward, everything our chosen characters say, do, think, and feel, comes from each of us. I may make a suggestion for her character or she might make one for mine, but ultimately the decisions for my character are mine and the same for hers. Once we’ve completed a scene, we’ll go back through it together, looking for editing issues: typos, repeated words, jarring transitions, etc, and in that stage, we’re far more likely to “write over” each other’s things, but after seven years of writing together, we’ve developed a combined style that works very well for us and flows very naturally so there’s generally very little smoothing to be done in terms of making it feel like a cohesive piece of work. I am of the opinion, and have been since we first collaborated, that we bring out the best in each other, and while Checkmate will always hold a special place in my heart, I’m pretty sure Under the Skin is the best thing we’ve written yet.
Q: Let’s talk more about Under the Skin. Both of your main characters are strong, bold men. They have very different agendas, at least in the beginning. Assuming (since this is romance) that there’s a ‘happy ever after’, how difficult was it to bring them together for more than simply sex?
A: Incredibly difficult. Nicki and I actually started this four years ago, just before my son was born, and set it aside because we couldn’t write the ending. We sort of knew what had to happen, but we weren’t willing to write it. About a year ago, we finally decided to stop messing around and simply do it. We had two issues with Patrick and Alexei. The first was the demands placed on them by their respective jobs. Let’s face it. If anyone found out about them, Patrick would lose his job, even if he didn’t go to jail, and Alexei would probably be killed, both because Patrick is a cop and because he’s male. The reality, though, is they couldn’t keep their hands to themselves or their dicks in their pants, so they ended up in this, to use Patrick’s words, “fucked-up whatever this is.” The second challenge was getting them to admit they wanted more than sex. Part of that was the whole job thing, but the rest of it was their inability to envision their own happily ever after and so to open themselves up to the risk of having that fail.
Q: How did you get the idea to use Eastern European Mafiya as the crime element in Under the Skin? Do you, or does Nicki, have a background in law enforcement or criminal justice, or was “research, research, research” that enabled you to make a realistic environment and plot? Have you written much crime drama, in general? Do you find it more or less difficult to incorporate romance into that framework, as opposed to other less violent or dangerous scenarios?
A: Neither of us has a law enforcement or criminal justice background, but we do have a good, mutual friend who is in law enforcement and was willing to tell us when Patrick veered away from believability. We have another good friend who is Russian and was willing to help us make sure Alexei was believable, not so much as a vor but as a Russian man. Several times, she e-mailed back after we’d sent her a scene and said, “yes, but no Russian man would ever say that or do that.” So we’d go back to the drawing board and fix it. In terms of the hierarchy and traditions of the vory v zakone, it’s amazing what you can find on the Internet if you look hard enough.
I wrote one mystery before now, A Summer Place, which was my first novel published by Dreamspinner, but I wouldn’t say either of us is an expert in the genre. I have some favorite mystery romances or romantic suspense novels, but the majority of my and our ideas don’t seem to run along those lines. This one did, and the danger and violence added aspects to the relationship we couldn’t have gotten any other way. That crucible formed their relationship as surely as the experiences leading up to their first meeting formed Patrick and Alexei.
Q: The other excerpt we’re featuring today is from Hot Cargo, also co-authored with Nicki Bennett. On the surface, this is a book that couldn’t be more different than Under the Skin. So that readers can get familiar with the scenario—and perhaps see what I’m referring to as far as the difference, I’m going to post the blurb here. I’m interested in knowing, whether sci-fi—space opera, in this case—is a genre you’ve been writing in previously, and in whatever you can share about how you came to write this, what you found especially challenging or especially enjoyable.
Captured and accused of piracy, privateer Blaise Risner, captain of the Golden Stallion, finds himself in a clinch—literally—with Confederation Admiral Peter Keller, who promises to see justice done by way of hard labor. But when the chemistry between them rivals the heat of the twin Talixin suns, the dominant admiral decides he wants to handle the rehabilitation of the provocative pirate himself. After their first close encounter, Blaise figures that serving Keller in such a personal capacity won’t be such a terrible sentence.
Keller dispenses his own forms of painful justice and sensual discipline, which usually involve a not-so-resistant Blaise on his knees bound and determined to give as good as he gets. The privateer can’t deny that suffering the handsome admiral’s punishments makes him burn like the fires of the Horsehead Nebula. Serving in the roles of prisoner and captor defines their ‘relationship’, but no power can stop a shooting star… the star of startling passion that flares every time they touch.
Just when Blaise thinks he can navigate the treacherous asteroid field of emotion to find common ground with Keller, an interstellar war tears them apart. Through it all, Blaise’s desire for his captor stands as tall and strong as the monoliths of Maraven, and he’ll go to the very edge of the galaxy and back if that's what it takes to crack the ice around the admiral’s heart.
A: This story started as a birthday present for Madeleine Urban who loves sci-fi and space opera. We’ve both always been multi-genre readers, and science fiction has always been a huge part of that. Star Wars, Star Trek, Anne McCaffrey, to name a few, were staples on my bookshelves as a teenager, while Nicki read different authors but similar tales, so rising to the challenge of creating something sci-fi for Madeleine wasn’t beyond our reach. Then we wrote another snippet of the story for a get-well present when Madeleine was under the weather. And then it was her birthday again. And suddenly Nicki and I looked at each other and said, “If we keep going, we’re going to have to develop a plot for this thing.” So we took a step back from the combative relationship between Blaise and Peter and started trying to shape the rest of the universe. Once that was done, then we kept going, and I will say that I didn’t know until the last chapter if Blaise and Peter would kill each other or end up together. Even more than in Under the Skin, where I never doubted Alexei’s and Patrick’s feelings, just the situation they were in, with Hot Cargo, I truly didn’t know if the men could make a relationship work.
Q: Time for my favorite question! In your own mind, who’s the sexiest? Patrick or Alexei? Blaise or Peter? This is not multiple choice, you don’t get to just put an X in the box. Essay question: why and how? Also, no fair saying they’re all sexy in their own way. Might be true, maybe you can fudge a little, but we’d like a clear choice!
A: For Patrick and Alexei, that’s an easy answer for me. Alexei. Nicki might disagree with me, but I always fall in love alongside my characters, and since I wrote Patrick, I fell in love with Alexei. He is the ultimate in strong, silent type, the diamond in the rough with so many hidden layers I’m still not convinced we’ve discovered them all. He’s also the one who ultimately has to change the most in order for their relationship to have a chance, and that conflict in him, that moment when he finally makes the choices he’s spent the whole book trying to avoid, resonates so deeply with me. I was already pretty much in love with him, but there’s a scene toward the end when Alexei lays it all on the line and asks Patrick to trust him, where every vulnerability is laid out for Patrick to see and a negative response would destroy him… that’s the ultimate in sexy to me.
For Blaise and Peter, the answer is a little bit harder. Peter is an Admiral. He’s all about the rules. Blaise is a pirate—excuse me, a privateer—and he’s all about breaking the rules. He’s in a difficult situation, given the choice of hard labor or serving time on Peter’s ship with the tacit understanding that at least part of his duties will be as Peter’s fuck toy (and Peter isn’t kind or gentle about it at first.) Once again, we’re left with two men who have no reason to trust each other and so pretend all they’re doing is having sex, and once again, it’s the subtlety of the way they interact on that level that shows the reader how their relationship is changing, but they refuse to acknowledge that until circumstances beyond their control force them apart. Then they have to decide what they’re willing to give to fight their way back together again. You’re about to tell me I haven’t answered the question, and I haven’t. I think this is probably the one case in all the things Nicki and I have written together where I would identify my own character, Blaise, as the sexier of the two, and I think part of that is his bad-boy persona, and part of it is his ability to adapt to the situation he’s in and ultimately he’s the one who fights for them, who refuses to let silence or distance or anything else keep them apart.
Q: Ariel, what can your readers look for in the future? Will either of the stories we’ve talked about today have sequels or spinoffs? Anything else in the making with co-author Nicki Bennett—or on your own?
A: Hot Cargo already has two spin-offs: Healing in His Wings, which I wrote by myself, and Something About Harry, which Nicki and I published in January. At the moment, we don’t have a sequel or spin-off planned for Under the Skin, but who’s to say what the future will hold? We didn’t plan on writing Something About Harry either. In terms of what Nicki and I are working on now, we’re about halfway through All for Love, the third installment in our historical series that began with Checkmate and continued in All for One. All for Love will be the story of Raúl and Gerrard, who were secondary characters in the first two books. On my own, I have Reluctant Partnerships, the sixth volume in the Partnership in Blood universe, coming out in October, and I recently got acceptance of Stolen Moments, a contemporary romantic drama set in small-town Alabama, with a tentative date of late December for publication. I’m working on three other projects, but no deadlines on those yet.
Thanks, Ariel, for agreeing to be featured on the blog. It’s been a delight having you and I hope you’ll visit in the future.
Thank you, Lou, for having me and for asking interesting, challenging questions. I’d love to come back and chat with you and your readers again!