Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The post-Christian Grey world

A few weeks ago I ran into a very dear old friend of mine at a party.  It was good to catch up, but it was great to learn that she'd just published a pseudonymous erotic novel!  I devoured The Heartwood Box: A Fairy Tale
a day later; it's a great read, highly immersive and extremely well-written.  "Lilia Ford" was kind enough to answer some interview questions....

JMD: When I wrote The Explosionist, it was partly because I’d read Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy and Garth Nix’s Abhorsen books; I found myself haunting the Bank Street Bookstore and looking in vain for more books exactly like those, and when I realized there weren’t any I thought I had better write one myself.  What were your models, in that sense, for The Heartwood Box?

LF: I wrote the book I wanted to read but couldn’t find.  When you talk about erotica, it’s probably most helpful to distinguish between brows—high, low, middle.  We’ll forget high-brow—no one is going to read my book and think “it’s just like Anaïs Nin!”  Low-brow is porn or so incompetently edited that I feel like I’m grading an expos paper when I read it.  

That leaves the middle, where I’d place my own book.  Critics keep bashing Fifty Shades of Grey, but E. L. James might as well be the Henry James of this genre.  The number one book on the Kindle erotica list as I write this is Training Tessa: Hot Texas Bosses BDSM Erotica, about two brothers who try to one up each other spanking and humiliating their secretary—I highly recommend checking out the cover.  The brothers are billionaires, and Tessa desperately needs money to keep her mother in a special-care facility.  Over the course of the story, she starts to have feelings for one of the brothers, who also falls in love with her.  I read it in less than an hour and for the genre it’s not terrible—the author has a sense of humor, it’s properly edited, it only costs $.99. 

Romance is different: I think in some ways we’re going through the golden age of the romance and paranormal romance genres, with some very talented people working in it.  But those writers (or their publishers) adhere to some pretty hard limits on what they’ll depict.  They’ll dip a toe in the BDSM waters—it’s next to impossible to find a hero who is not portrayed as an “Alpha”—but it’s no more than a toe.  I’m interested in how differences in actual power, whether social, physical, financial, magical, play out in a relationship.  I think those conflicts are very erotically charged, and that’s what I want to read about (as opposed to things like nipple clamps).  But I also want characters who are not completely clichéd, a plot largely free of inane rom-com contrivances, clever dialogue, and a strong sense of the connection between the lovers—why they truly belong together, why their lives would be empty apart.  That’s the book I tried to write.

JMD: The Heartwood Box is such a striking and appealing title.  Did you have the title and/or the concept early, or did it come late in the game?

LF: They were both part of the original idea.  Every piece of fiction I’ve written has started the same way: I have a sudden idea which starts playing out in my head almost like a movie.  Either I type as fast as I can or I sketch it out as an outline, but either way, I have about fifteen pages of material that forms the core of the story.  The seed of Heartwood was the idea of a young woman who has desires that she is unaware of and wouldn’t accept if she were; then the idea of a magical box which could somehow sense and then expose those desires; and most disturbingly, a male who was very happy to take advantage.   
JMD: You’ve published this book under a pseudonym.  I like the novel very much and wonder how you can resist the temptation to get more glory from and for it!  I know it’s erotica, but do you see yourself in future integrating your private persona and the Lilia Ford author-persona, or do you guess you will prefer to keep them separate?

LF: I have two parts to this answer, which I’ll call before and after Christian Grey. 

There is nothing simple, mentally speaking, about writing under a pseudonym, and I have no doubt this issue alone will end up making my psychiatrist a lot of money over the next few years.  I initially chose to use a pseudonym because I have a YA novel that I spent years writing and I have been trying to get published.  I’d just had a set back, so I threw myself into Heartwood as a kind of escape.  Next thing I knew, I had an almost finished novel that I could publish myself, in a genre where that is not a disadvantage.  It just made sense to publish it.

But erotica is a tricky genre.  I read a lot of it, so the sex in my book doesn’t seem particularly extreme to me, but it shocked the first people I gave it to who never read that genre.  I’m proud of the book: I wrote the best book I could, but it’s still about a woman with three partners, with spanking and bondage and a lot of power play that does not necessarily reach a politically correct settlement.  As I got closer to publishing, I talked to my husband and teenaged son about it.  My whole family has been extremely supportive of my writing, and I felt like I owed it to them to take their views into account.  We all agreed about the benefits of publishing under a pseudonym. 

And all of this was before Fifty Shades of Grey.  The bottom line is that nothing will ever be the same with the genre.  I’m still glad I went with the pseudonym, but I quickly became much more lax about it. 

JMD: It’s inevitable, I fear, and probably a question you will grow very tired of: but what do you think of the Fifty Shades of Grey books?   Many of the usual literary pundits have read very little erotica and don’t have much context for the whole phenomenon.  Do you have any insights or observations on the basis of having read pretty widely in the field of contemporary American erotic fiction?

I have no problem at all talking about Fifty Shades of Grey—I only wish that someone close to me had read the damn book.  I find the punditry a lot more painful and stupefying than the book itself.  From what I can tell, it is impossible for a critic for The New York Times to write about a book like this without the most insufferable condescension to the book and the people who liked it.  You don’t have to admire or enjoy Fifty Shades of Grey, but talking down to people who do, privately or openly pitying their lack of taste or education, bemoaning whatever you think this says about American culture—all of that to me feels like a failure of imagination on the part of the critic.  It would be the same if I tried to write about NASCAR: I don’t get it, so I probably shouldn’t write about it. 

You work on the 18th century novel, so you are very aware that there is a long history of cultural leaders attempting to police popular writing through ideas of taste or morality—and excoriating the (usually female) readers who consume it.  I don’t want to make some kind of fancy academic point here—or even argue that I think the novel is “good.”  But when 20 million people love a book, I think critics need to stretch themselves to understand why. 

In purely selfish terms, I think the book is the best thing that could have happened to writers in this genre.  It’s more than just the attempts to coattail on its success.  The closet door on this kind of reading hasn’t just cracked opened—it’s been ripped off altogether.  E. L. James finished the job the Kindle started.  Arguments that the novel is politically regressive are beside the point: this is fantasy.  People should be able to indulge without feeling like they’re guilty of unmaking civilization.

JMD: What advice do you have for novelists considering digital self-publishing?  Is there a site or two that you’ve found especially useful?

I’ll probably be better able to answer that question when I figure out if I can make this work: self-publish a novel that finds its readers—those who like this genre. There is no question the publishing landscape is changing at a dizzying speed.  I wouldn’t put any weight on my own predictions of where it will be in ten years, except to say that those people who wax nostalgic about paper books sound a little like my husband when he talks about his vinyl collection.  I’ll throw out three things that I think are key. 

1.      Understand the genre you want to publish in.  Read a lot in it, buy a lot of books in it, read the reader reviews, have a sense of the upper and lower ranges of both success and quality (which in erotica are not necessarily the same).  Pay attention to how you make your buying decisions, why you think a book succeeds or fails, and what the general expectations of the readers are.

2.      The single most important thing will always be the quality of the book you write.  The great thing about digital self-publishing is that time is not the same issue that it was.  Your book will stay available—you’re not dependent on Barnes and Noble giving you some of their precious shelf space.  You will have the chance to find and grow your audience if that audience is out there.  But that will only work if you have a good book to begin with.

3.      For God’s sake edit it properly and hire a proofreader—please. 

As far as resources go, I’ll single out Lindsay Buroker’s blog.  She self-published a fantasy series called the Emperor’s Edge and blogs with remarkable candor about her experiences: advertizing, sales numbers, proofreading, kindle, Goodreads—you name it.  She’s extremely generous with her hard-won knowledge, and we can profit from it—and she wrote a great series also, which gives her opinions a lot more weight for me. 


  1. I am excited for the Fifty Shades of Grey movie. and i watch Christian Grey's work it is pretty awesome to see on the screen Christian Grey