Welcome to the blog Zahra! I’m looking forward to seeing what kind of things a fellow Aquarian might have up her sleeve, and also to having the chance just to chat about you and your work. Let’s start, if you don’t mind, with a few questions about who you are and what makes you write.
Thank you for having me!
Q: Your bio mentions that you were born in Europe, to non-English speaking parents. Of course that little bit of info raises a number of new questions. I’ll stick to just the basics. Where were you born? What was your parent’s native tongue? What part of the world is now your home? How do these factors of location and language affect how you write or what you write?
A: I was born and raised in the North of Belgium where we speak Flemish (a ‘softer’ form of Dutch). The best way to compare Flemish and Dutch is to compare British and American English. There are some different words or the same words with slightly different meanings and our pronunciation is quite different, but we understand each other without too much difficulty, despite the differences in culture.
I still live around the corner from where I was raised and I still use Flemish in my every day work life and in my family life or with most of my friends. I was raised bilingually though, through my mother who worked in the International School circuit, and I have parents who are anglophiles. My real life first names are English, which raised a few eyebrows when I was born.
It’s hard for me to imagine exactly how this effects my writing, since I don’t know what it’s like to actually be raised in say, the U.S., but I do know my vocabulary is a mix of all sorts of English and my beta’s most used remark is probably “We don’t say it like that” when I use a word or sentence I borrowed from England, or Australia even. Also, I’ve travelled extensively all over the world and this does give me a larger perspective on all sorts of things, from politics to culture in general.
Q: Your works are prolific. Do you write full time? If not how do you juggle?
A: Oh no, I work fulltime and write when I can. I wish I could write full time, but I can’t afford that and it will take a long time before I can start dreaming about it too, since I work in a country where taxes are sky-high. But I’m single and I have no children, so I just have myself to look after. That certainly helps.
Q: How did you come to write in the romance genre, and M/M specifically? You said you were non-conformist, did that play a part, or were you inspired by people you knew, or …? Have you written in other genres, and if not, do you think you will?
A: Like a lot of writers in our genre, I started in fanfiction. It’s a great place to start. You get instant feedback, you learn to write on your feet and you easily find out what people like and what they don’t. It’s also great practice to write within the constraints of a world you didn’t build yourself, but that you love, and to work with characters that are well known to your readers. After a while, though, you want to break free of the constraints and make your own characters and worlds.
I like my boys/men so M/M romance is my weapon of choice. When the story calls for it, I will write a het scene or a menage scene involving a woman, but I don’t see myself writing a het novel. There are a few M/M/F bunnies tugging at my fingers, but even then the main couple will always be M/M.
Venturing outside the contemporary romance genre is something I’m doing right now. I’ve found myself a writing partner who works in the sci-fi/paranormal realm and he’s dragging me along. If the novella we’ve submitted is accepted, you’re sure to hear more about this!
Why M/M is probably the question I get asked most, especially by people not familiar with the genre. I guess my best answer is that I write what I like to read. A lot of friends I made through fanfiction have made it into publishing and I’ve always read their writing and still support them now their writing is no longer free. I’ve also encountered a lot of other great writers through my publishing press and my love of the genre has only grown.
In my personal life I’ve always had gay friends and I admit I’m drawn to them. I do try to keep them out of my books, though!
Q: Going through your list of titles at Dreamspinner Press (which readers can find at Zahra Owens’ author page), your M/M titles come in a number of subgenres. These latest two are in the Western tradition. Do you see your future titles continuing in this vein? The Western seems to be particularly popular among M/M romance readers (and writers). Can you speculate as to why that might be, and whether that will continue?
A: The contemporary western is certainly popular and I think this is because of the mixture of rugged, manly men and the traditionally homophobic environment they live in. Also, it’s such an American tradition. Cowboys made America, at least for a while.
I’m stuck in the western for the time being. My next novel, Floods and Drought, is also part of the Clouds and Rain series and I think I have one more story up my sleeve after that. I’ve already told a few people I’ll try to make that my NaNoWriMo effort for this year, so I better hold myself to that.
After that, who knows? Probably no more cowboys, although I do love those shapely asses in a saddle 😉 Maybe I should tackle that other M/M staple and write a Navy Seal novel? Or maybe I’ll return to the traditional contemporary romance. We’ll see where the (numerous) bunnies take me.
Q: About Earth and Sky—your latest release—a couple of general questions. It seems from your excerpt that this novel has a large and complex cast of characters—after the manner of a saga. Do you feel that’s true? If so, perhaps you can tell us a bit about how such a large cohort came into being and how you manage them.
A: My two characters in Earth and Sky do come with families attached and I honestly don’t know how that happened. I tend to write very self-contained couples and have been called on that by reviewers. Clouds and Rain has very little going on outside of the two men the story is about, and I did want to expand a bit on that with this new couple. Hunter lives on a family-run ranch, so it was necessary to show that. Without giving away too much plot, Grant’s family is also a major part of the whole story, so it became quite a busy group to write about. I also like the idea of a big, rowdy family, made up from a few sets of parents and their children, all sharing the same roof. I think the western genre lends itself to that quite easily. Maybe I idealize this a bit too, since I come from a very small family with no siblings or uncles and aunts.
Q: From reading the excerpts, at the heart of Earth and Sky story are two mysteries—what’s happening to the horses, and (more of a tease, to my mind as a reader) what happened the night Gable was injured? In Clouds and Rain it seems the same question is being asked—what happened to Gable? But CAR came first; does EAS actually reach beyond CAS for backstory? If so, is that the way it was planned?
The stories are romance, but within that, do you see them as mysteries? In your mind, how much of a role do those mysteries play in the novels?
A: Yes, it was definitely planned that the mystery of what happened when Gable was injured was set in CAR and only resolved in EAS. There was no way to resolve it in CAR because the whole story of what happened to Gable is seen through Gable’s eyes and he only knows part of the story. He doesn’t know why Grant left that day and doesn’t find out until much later. As I was writing CAR, I realized I’d need the whole of EAS to explain it.
I’d also set myself to write a baddy (in Gable’s eyes) and then show the readers what I believe to be true: that no-one is all bad (or all good), it’s just a matter of perspective. A lot of readers ‘got’ that. Some didn’t and were stuck in the opinion they’d formed of Grant from CAR, which isn’t really fair, because Grant never got a say in CAR.
I don’t see the stories as mysteries. The mysteries are plot devices. To me these stories are still about the romance between two men and how the way to love is riddled with a lot of potholes.
Q: I just have to ask… One character is named Gable, as in the actor Clark, and another character is named Grant, as in the actor of similar era, Cary. Coincidence? Several of your characters have similar names. Confusing? How do you go about naming your characters?
A: You know, you’re the first person who’s dared to ask. LOL! You’re right. There’s also (Errol) Flynn and (Tab) Hunter, who was a popular actor from the fifties who came out as gay in later life. Even Bill Haines (the vet and one of my straight characters) is named after William Haines, an actor from the twenties who was gay.
With my main characters, I’ve only slipped once so far: Tim, who gets his own story told in my third CAR novel is just Tim, but he was named before I realized he had more to say and I couldn’t go back and change it. His better half is Rory McCown, though, and that name is the real name of one of cinema’s best known cowboys, Rory Calhoun (who’s real first name was Francis Timothy – are you still following me?). In the fourth novel, I’m back on track with two names from classic cinema, but you’ll have to wait for those (tease that I am).
I don’t see the names as being confusing, but that’s just inside my head. My editors are sure to call me on that (they have on other occasions).
Q: You introduce your second excerpt to Earth and Sky with an explanation ending: “This kind of runs out of hand.” This brings up in my mind a problem that seems to plague many writers. How often do you feel your characters sort of hijack your intended story line? If that does happen for you, do you fight it? Go with it? How do you strike a balance?
A: My characters hijack their stories all the time and the harder I fight them, the harder the writing becomes. I try to reason with them sometimes, but if they want things a certain way (and most of my characters do want things to go their own way), there’s no fighting them. They’re usually right, too, but it does mean that I need to chuck bits of plot sometimes. I write a lot more than ends up in the finished novel.
Q: Lou’s favorite question time: In the mind of Zahra Owens, who is sexier, Hunter or Grant? Gable or Flynn? Smudging the lines a bit is fair, but cheating isn’t—you can’t just say “both.” Explanations required—no one-word answers, please!
A: To me Gable is sexier than Flynn. Gable is a bit older, more rugged and more damaged and I do love my men with a chip in their armor. The disability is also a selling point (my non-conformist side, I suppose, or my background as a nurse, who knows?). He’s also moody and bad-tempered a lot, while Flynn is a lot more soothing and easy-going. One can’t live without the other, but I’ll take Gable any time.
In contrast, I think Hunter is more sexy than Grant and the reason sort of contradicts the reason I gave for choosing Gable over Flynn. Hunter is innocent in some ways and I find that very endearing. He’s never been with a man before Grant and is genuinely awestruck when he finds out he likes Grant more than any woman he’s ever had in his bed.
Q: About those covers! My, but they are beautiful. Anne Cain does some fabulous work, and these are no exception. How involved were you in terms of giving input on elements to be included, overall style, and perhaps the look of the men? When you first saw the cover for Clouds and Rain, what was your reaction? What about Earth and Sky?
A: The covers just blow me away. I love Anne Cain’s work and I’m already looking forward to cover three (although the novel isn’t even finished yet). I write quite extensive cover specs and Clouds and Rain came back exactly as I’d described, right down to the horses, the sunset, the rain and the way the characters looked.
Earth and Sky was a bit different. Most of the story takes place in the snow (the stories are set in Idaho, so winter means mounds of snow) and I’d asked for muted greys, blues and whites, and then it came back all orange and red… Also, both my characters are in their late thirties, early forties, so the character photos felt too young for me. The front character would do (you have to admit he’s gorgeous and since that was Hunter, I felt he could pass for young-looking mid-thirties), but I asked to change the back character to a more rugged man, which Anne did. They wouldn’t compromise on the color, though, since they wanted it to stand out. It certainly does that! (and wouldn’t have it it had been more muted)
Q: I mentioned briefly above that you have quite a number of publications with Dreamspinner Press. Do you have any other published work? Other than CAR and EAS, can you pick out one or two published pieces that are among your personal favorites, perhaps tell us a little about the pieces and how they came into being?
A: I’m exclusively published by Dreamspinner Press, but earlier this year I became a part of a British Anthology when I joined a UK meet of authors. British Flash is a free anthology of flash fiction (about a thousand words per story) available at Smashwords (http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/65264). Tea And Crumpets (http://ukmeet.weebly.com/tea–crumpet.html) was published by JMS Books and proceeds of that will go to future UK meets. I contributed to both anthologies.
At Dreamspinner Press I have some other favorites as well.
My first novel Diplomacy will always be my baby. It is set mostly in my country and is a romance between a U.S. Ambassador to Belgium and a liaison from the British Embassy. When the story sets out both are involved with women, but for one of them it is definitely a relationship out of convenience.
Among my shorter work I have a soft spot for “You Can’t Choose Your Family” to such an extent that I wrote a prequel for it. The already published story is about an established couple of twenty years and the acceptance they feel from one side of the family in contrast to the absolute denial they get from the other side. The prequel “You Can Choose Your Friends” tells the story of how they got together in the first place. Both stories where inspired by Dan Savage and Terry Miller’s It Gets Better video and I decided to donate the proceeds of the sale of the prequel to their organisation. The prequel will be out in January 2012 at Dreampinner Press.
Note to the reader: Zahra is slated to come back for a visit to sylvre.com in January to celebrate that release, maybe talk a bit about the It Gets Better Project, and who knows? I hope you’ll watch for it and stop in.
Q: What’s coming up for your readers, Zahra? Will there be more of these ranches and, more importantly, ranchers? Something else in the mix?
A: As I said before: yes, more ranchers/ranch hands for the next novel for sure and if NaNoWriMo goes as planned there will be one more cowboy novel after that. I’m a slow writer, though. The novel tentatively slated for the spring of 2012 was my 2010 NaNoWriMo project!
January sees the prequel to “You Can’t Choose Your Family” called “You Can Choose Your Friends” and hopefully my collaboration with my writing partner will be accepted, so with a little luck, I’ll have something a little out of the ordinary to offer as well.
If I meet my deadline (and the story is accepted) the third CAR novel will be out somewhere in the spring.
After that I’m not sure yet. My writing partner and I have another story plotted, but we’ll need to find time to write it. We don’t live close to each other, but more or less in the same time zone, so hooray for the internet!
Zahra, I’m very glad you allowed me to feature you on sylvre.com. I’ve enjoyed getting to ask the questions and I love the answers! I’m looking forward to your next visit. Thank you!
Thank you for having me. It was a real pleasure!