Gay romance fiction

Babes in Boyland Interview

(on Grown Men, Alpha Males, & More)

 by Damon Suede


This interview was originally posted at a blog called BABES IN BOYLAND which has gone it's included here for archival purposes.

"No one deserves to be punished for loving with an open heart." (Hot Head - D. Suede)

Tell us a little bit about Grown Men. (I'm sure) there are a lot of sci-fi fans out there who'd love to hear a little bit about the world that you've created.

Grown Men is the first “transmission” from the HardCell Universe.  The HardCell Company exists in a paranoid future in which massive corporations own and govern galaxies, advertising has replaced myth, art, or religion…and employees dread early “retirement” by commercial assassins.


In simplest terms Grown Men is about two offworld farmers trying to survive in a rugged tropical environment. And there’s a strong satirical element because it’s inspired by modern consumer culture and the things that keep us from connecting to each other. Rachel [Haimowitz, Riptide owner] kept send me these cackling tweets when she first read it because a lot of humor thrums between the two heroes.


I love angsty romance, and so I’m always looking for ways to give my heroes fascinating struggles that push their worst buttons. Happy Endings need to feel earned to feel satisfying. I inevitably want a story to take me somewhere I couldn’t go on my won, and so building a three-dimensional world is always the first step.


So science fiction buffs should expect a fully imagined universe with regard to technology, culture, and social structure…but it is NOT “hard” sci-fi. Grown Men is first and foremost a romance set in a primal environment. Readers who steer clear of sci-fi, can rest assured that there are no aliens, or robots, or spaceships. If you’re even slightly curious, check it out; you may be surprised at what it isn’t and what it is. J Rugged men, rugged environment, and rugged loving! LOL


People want to know what specific projects they can expect from you in the near future other than Grown Men so talk about one or two upcoming books that you're working on.


At present, I’m chippin' away at Spring Eternal, which is a steampunk zipper-ripper set in 19th century Manhattan. The story is a big sweeping adventure fantasy about dark intentions and wild inventions and a dastardly abduction that brings down an entire city. I spent about 3 months doing the prep and research for it, building out the slang and the city’s alternate history. Now the story is flooding out of me…and it’s this big florid seductive puzzlebox. VERY different in tone than Hot Head, Grown Men, or Seedy Business.  I’m taking some risks in it, but I have a feeling that folks will be pleased.


Then immediately following that,people have demanded more Head! And so I’m giving ‘em more Head. :P Fans of Hot Head have been clamoring for the sequel, Hard Head. Tommy has been increasingly aggressive and demonstrative. Even when I’m not supposed to be working on his story, he sometimes sneaks onto the page. He’s VERY different from Griff as a main character and damaged in ways that make him thrilling/tough to write. And of course, Griff and Dante will be back along with other folks from the first book; their relationship has shaken up the Red Hook community and may tear it apart. I can’t wait to visit the guys again and see where things have taken them.

You wrote that so far all of your characters have lived in very macho worlds. Sometimes M/M readers prefer macho alphas, but anyone who falls elsewhere on the gay spectrum gets relegated to supporting cast. As a male author writing in the genre, can you see yourself ever featuring less traditionally macho characters as a main character?

Funny thing: my first two books have featured very butch, alpha characters: men’s men in every sense of the word. I know why readers love those characters because as a reader I love them as well, but I also think there’s a trap to dwelling on a single archetype relentlessly: it erodes the power of the fantasy. The alpha additiciton of romance dates back to the days of bodice-ripping when most heroes were animals and many heroines wed their rapists. Gack. The world has cooled since then. Do alphas appeal? Yeah. Sure. Who doesn’t love a man who acts like a man? But being a dude is so much more than grunting and penetrating anything doesn’t penetrate you first.


I have written a lot of aggressively male characters up till now, but I didn’t plan that. Do I only want to write alphas? Not even slightly! My next novel, Spring Eternal, doesn’t feature “rugged” characters at all. LOL Both of my steampunk heroes have a fairytale politesse and a certain androgyny because of the period of the story and the kind of men they are. Not feminine per se, but definitely more restrained and refined. But they ARE men. In my eyes, the trick is to make sure that the inherent maleness of the character connects to the reader and drives the characters actions.


On that tip, I get very impatient with men not being written AS men (whether they’re written my men or women, btw). Even the most fragile, winsome cross-dressing male IS a man.  And even the most gruff, barbaric meathead has tenderness and delicacy in him. That isn’t a function of what KIND of man, but a measure of the author’s skill, craft, and talent. The familiar made new again. I believe that the paradoxes and refreshing surprises draw us in as readers. I could never ONLY write alpha characters because for me character and plot are the same thing.  A story like Hot Head demands a stoic, heroic character; a fragile boy-man couldn’t have existed as Griff, a passive androgyne would never have acted as Dante did. Griff and Dante were the plot and vice versa. The minute I have a plot/character that falls outside of alpha territory (like Spring Eternal) I trust my characters to lead me the right way.


The thing is, I don’t believe that readers NEED an alpha hero to connect. Any more than every meal needs to be your “favorite” food. Eating your favorite meal every day kills your taste buds and your appetite. That’s how children think of food: “Give me what I want in the ways with which I’m familiar.” I believe that what readers really want is a feeling of powerful authenticity. Darcy in Pride & Prejudice is arguably the greatest romantic hero of all time, and he isn’t “macho” in the least. However, he is supremely appealing, gifted, and potent in his own context. Context and specificity are the rubric.


So it’s not that all romance readers need grunting knuckle-draggers with cocks the size of waste-baskets. To my mind, what they truly want is any character that feels authentic.  Authenticity and believability are thin on the ground these days, and triply so in romance fiction. In gay romance especially we hear all the time about people who got tired of feeble, unbelievable female characters who drove them into the welcoming arms of homoerotic romance. It makes sense, what does gender matter if the character connects to us and we empathize in turn?


So for my part: I’ll write any story and the plot/character at the core of a story determines the course. Are alphas popular? Sure. But then so is Baywatch. LOL Every moment of entertainment doesn’t have to be Pamela Anderson running in slow motion. And every romantic hero doesn’t need to be a shaved ape.



Are there any sub-genres or story themes that you’re most interested in?

Worlds that are fresh, characters that are singular. Lateral recycling is one of the things that frustrates me most in genre fiction. I love almost every subgenre when they’re fresh and specific. My favorite books remain the ones that reinvent the rules and honor the form without resorting to formula.


As I get older, my pickiness deepens. If I can identify the DNA of your story, I’m going to spend half of my time comparing it to every other story in the breed, for good or ill. It stands to reason that in fictions that fall along a spectrum of tastes and tropes, certain things will rise to the surface: vampires will brood, shifters will mate, angsty cops will rush into certain danger to save what they love most. I get that! But that challenge makes for the best and worst of genre writing as readers and writers get stick in endless grooves that railroad narratives towards a destination with all the excitement of a golf cart marathon.


So as a reader and a writer, I’m endlessly searching-searching-searching for distinct voices and reinventions. Clichés are death, but reinvented clichés can push the world in startling directions. Whether you like them or loathe them, you can trace the chromosomal similarities that link Twilight to Underworld to Lestat to Dracula in all its reinventions. The strongest mutations are the ones that adapted to their environment, reflecting the space and the time of their creation. M/M has evolved drastically in the past 5 years, and (like any healthy species) will continue to do so to survive. :) 


How did you get into writing LGBT romance? What drew you to the genre?

I came to fiction by way of theatre and film, and I’ve written for as long as I have known what stories were. I love entertaining people and I grew up in showbusiness. I want to build worlds that people want to visit, and spend most of my life doing exactly that.


I came to gay romance almost backwards. I’ve been reading gay lit and by extension gay romance since the early 1980s (cf my demented Gordon Merrick paean at my website), but even as LGBT romance grew as a discreet entity, I enjoyed it as a fan. Then in Fall 2010 I was helping a friend break down the beats in an erotic romance she’d started and after about three days or conversations she pinned me with a glare and told me if I didn’t write a romance novel myself that I was (and I quote) “a lazy asshole.” At the time my boyfriend, who’s a forensic investigator, was out of town on a big case and I just plunked down and started writing what would become Hot Head.  And that was that.


Writing romance fiction turned out to be enormously liberating. Once I’d had a chance to explore and play I literally built it into my other writing work. In theatre and film, the structures and oversight can get a little stifling, but gay romance gave me a chance to take all these weird experimental risks. Even better, lessons I learned in the romance writing leaked over into my “dayjob” scripts. Win-win!


What is your favorite archetypal character type to write? What types of characters interest you as both reader and writer?

Characters that go against the grain, people that defy expectations…


I always want to know what makes the big, butch Alpha whimper like a puppy and when the most fragile twink becomes an aggressive, sadistic top. I’m always looking for the friction between what we expect and what we find. That endless rub (for me) generates every degree of the heat we seek in stories. As a consequence, my characters (and their emotions) tend to be larger than life. I can’t abide mushy, beige folks in my day-to-dy life so I’m certainly not going to go out of my way to eulogize them in print! LOL


Now, that habit of mine can get me into trouble, because television has bred unbelievably boring, homogenous ideas about human capacity into us. I refuse to capitulate to the prejudices of a bunch of suits in Burbank, dammit! Human relationships fascinate us because they are subtle, complicated, and distinct. Romance fiction (thank all the gods) gives authors a chance to play out big emotions and big ideas in ways that buck the status quo. Like opera and poetry, and modern dance, romance pushes the limits of human expression; it doesn’t “give us unrealistic expectations,” but rather teaches its readers to ask for MORE from the world around them. So mote it be!


What are your hopes/expectations for the growth for your work in the romance industry? Would you like to keep it small to moderate sized or work with larger publishers? 

Dreamspinner published my first novel Hot Head and they were and are wonderful to work with. At every step of the process, they bent over backwards to bring the book to market the right way. Elizabeth (North) has been amazing through all our work together. At the same time, as I started thinking about my next book, some of my upcoming projects didn’t “feel” like Dreamspinner books. Dunno. That was instinctive more than anything. As the romance genre has evolved the various houses have developed a kind of house flavor (and rightly so).


Bottom line: LGBT fiction continues to evolve at breakneck speed, and I think the readers' vision of the possibilities opens up all kinds of new terrain. The collective experience and intelligence stack the odds greatly in indie publisher's favor.  I’m very much looking forward to seeing the genre community diversify…


Have you co-authored anything? What do you think are the pros and cons of that scenario? Are you looking to co-author in the future?

I’ve co-written things in my other life as a screenwriter and playwright. And since Hot Head came out, I’ve had a few people approach me about co-writing projects and I’m sure I’ll wind up collaborating at some point. But on the whole, I think the process might prove difficult mainly because of my pace and my work style. I’ve always had a strong authorial voice and a very weird approach to artistic problems.


One of the things I love about fiction is the autonomy. Working at your desk gives you latitude for invention and rapid strategizing without having to consult producers, directors, etc. On the other hand, I LOVE collaborating with people on creative projects because of the unexpected insights and cross-pollination. SO call it a definite maybe… I’m curious to see how splitting a romance novel would affect the final outcome and it would depend on the project. As I say, several people have opened the door and I’m sure some of those will go somewhere.


The spark of minds rubbing together can change the world. That’s a lesson I’ve learned from the entertainment business: creative partnerships keep writers sane and solvent; like all partnerships, the longer they last and grow the greater the benefit to everyone.


Cover design is one of the big issues for many ebook publishers/authors. What direction are you going as far as cover design? Are there any major dos and don’ts?

Gay romance publishers have definitely begun to respect “branding” elements that identify a book as an LGBT love story but raising the bar on what covers need to be and how they operate in the marketplace. “Incredibly smart,” says me.


What’s impressed me most about the industry's approach is the goal of identifying fresh, fierce artists that will bring something new to the genre table. Very much in keeping with their ethos and mission statement… and I applaud their tenacity and vision. Gay romance covers have improved so dramatically in the past three years. That increased sophistication (and the simultaneous saturation) means the genre MUST keep pushing the envelope as far as artwork.


What constitutes a “good” or even “great” novel for you. What are you looking for in a story?

Specificity. The single most important factor that elevates a novel from a B to an A+ is the attention and effort required to invest a world with believable detail.


When readers complain about “cookie-cutter” romances, when critics bitch about formula and familiarity, when editors gripe about sloppy, underimagined prose… what they’re all lamenting is a lack of specificity in a story. As a reader or a reviewer, I can usually tell within a page if the author paid attention… Frankly THEY know it just as well. No one accidentally forgets to do substantive research or to eliminate clichés from their dialogue. Sloppiness is as much a choice as anything else but people don’t bother because they figure it doesn’t matter. That makes me nuts: EVERYTHING MATTERS! As my agent always says, “Good enough isn’t.” 


Gay romance continues to battle a tricky situation at present. Since it grew out of yaoi, and slash and other fanfictions, LGBT romance has friendly populist roots which are more forgiving about things like editorial scrutiny and fact checking. At the same time, LGBT romance has finally begun to inch towards the possibility of “mass-market” presence. I think that’s probably a couple decades out, but evolution doesn’t happen in an afternoon. In order to survive and thrive as a business rather than a hobby, gay romance has pulled on its big-boy pants and ACTED like a business. But in 2011, we exist in an odd Wild West mindset where fresh incursions from both sides of the conflict (passionate fandom vs. corporate competition) rock the boat often.


As far as heat levels what can the readers expect from your novels? Will there be less erotic/non erotic romances or should a certain level of explicitness be expected?

I pretty frank about things, sexuality especially. I like heat in my romance, but I also know the difference between erotic romance and flat-out erotica. Having said that, I also believe that some of the sexiest things you can write have nothing to do with tab-A, slot-B permutations. Sexiness and emotion can coexist and sometimes they even should. LOL In romance, the ways people connect, whether by genital or gentler intimacies present the greatest appeal of the genre. The old myth that men write sex and women write emotion is stereotyping hogwash.


Case in point: with Hot Head, I get almost as much turned-on fan-mail about the heroes’ first kiss as I do about the more overt boning, of which there is plenty though not how you might expect. Oddly enough, before the book even came out I got a couple very odd “pre-reviews” which described how prurient and detached the book was bound to be since I was *cue ominous chord* a MAN writing about PORN. (gasp! shock! horror!)  And of course when the book released, it was none of those things… though almost every reader commented on the “maleness” of the writing. Then again, Hot Head inhabits a very macho, blue-collar world… Grown Men has a similar testosteronal quality, but its diction differs like you wouldn’t believe because the men demanded it. The book I’m finishing now is wildly different tone and the sex likewise.


As in life, the world and the lovers dictate the shape of the lovemaking. What do they say about the way lions and rabbits mate? The predator pressure sets the pace. I’m sure my “maleness” factors in because that’s part of my voice, but in a different way than it did with Hot Head’s inarticulate firefighters or the brooding, paranoid terraformers in Grown Men. Sexiness will always inform any romance I’m writing, although the amount of literal sex will vary story to story, character to character.


For the future, will you be exclusively an M/M romance author, or are you planning on moving into either M/F, F/F, or even non-romance genres?

At the moment I’m all about the gay romance. The truth is, in the rest of my work life I write so much and at such lengths, that gay romance is a perfect creative escape. It stands to reason, I am a gay man! I love romances! The funny thing is that I read straight and lesbian romance for pleasure, but since I haven’t met any of my own characters that need to tell a story in those genre frameworks I’ll say No… for now, with the caveat that all it would take would be a story to which I couldn’t say no. I have had a couple publishers approach me about it and if the right story appeared I’d happily go there…


When talking about explicit love scenes, what makes a love scene ‘bad’ in your opinion? What makes it great?

Ummm, you know what I’m gonna say right? :)  Specificity great! Generality awful!


Bad love scenes fail because they rely on cliché or banality to convey the “sense” that something like love or sex is transpiring, when we know full well it ain’t. By definition, a cliché (and generality) is antithetical to friction. These sinkholes exist in language to elide and lubricate so that everything can go down easy, so no one gets ruffled, so nothing is too hard or to interesting. Sentimental platitudes and porno dialogue are EASY, and therefore they don’t produce imaginal friction for the reader, so in turn they don’t generate any heat either as literature or as titillation. Clichés sound silly and boring for a reason. Hell, even PORN sucks when it relies on clichés (“oh yeah…that’s hot… harder…pound me...” snore). Everything in life is improved by singular specificity. This is where bourgie television has mutilated our diction and crappy porn has bludgeoned our erotic selves into zombiehood.


You know what excites people, what readers remember, what gets people’s attention? Specifics. The easiest way to guarantee a great love scene is to find the friction between two people who are strong and singular who relate to each other in ways that only THEY can specifically. Friction is the source of all energy whether it’s in the powerplant or the bedroom. Which is why no one remembers anything from a crappy love scene, but the entire world can identify the source of “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” or the refrigerator scene from 9½  Weeks. Specificity.


Is there any one specific thing you want the readers to expect from romance publishers?

MORE! And also better. LOL


Too often in our genre, I hear people make excuses for shoddy work and half-assed solutions for whatever reason.


Writers deserve wider audiences. Readers deserve better books. Books deserve mindful handling. Publishers deserve success when they eschew following the trends to set them. We all should expect more from each other, readers, writers, publishers and the world beyond. Become the change! etc. etc. Good enough isn’t. The Wild West melee of e-publishing has begun to wane. Actually, publishing at large (and literacy besides) is molting and mutating as I type this.


Our offerings will only survive and thrive by adapting to the environment and getting better every day in every way we can possibly manage. Mind the current and keep your eyes on the horizon… :)

A professional development article for writers by M/M author Damon Suede

Copyright 2011. Damon Suede. All Rights Reserved

If you wish to republish this interview, just drop me a line.