Cecilia Tan is “simply one of the most important writers, editors, and innovators in contemporary American erotic literature,” according to Susie Bright. Her BDSM romance novel Slow Surrender (Hachette/Forever, 2013) won the RT Reviewers Choice Award in Erotic Romance, and the third book in the trilogy, Slow Satisfaction, debuted this week. (Check out my previous post for an excerpt!) I got a chance to ask her a few questions about her writing, and here’s what she had to say.
I know you’ve been writing erotica for a long time, but what first inspired you to write in this genre?
If you go back in my old spiral-bound notebooks, all the way back into my childhood diary entries, I always wrote about sex. Even when I didn’t even know what exactly I was writing about. I have some wacky scenes from when I was 12 or 13 involving alien abduction, and then there are the erotic stories I wrote for friends in high school, where I’d pair them up with the famous celebrities they had crushes on. At the time I had no idea I’d still be writing erotic stories later, professionally! But all my attempts to write fiction or even science fiction without any sexual element pretty much fell flat. As soon as I accepted that my muse is an erotic one – back in 1992 – the stories have ben rolling smoothly out of my pen ever since.
When it comes to Romance with a capital R, though, I would have started writing it much, much earlier if romance had been ready to embrace either BDSM or fantasy and science fiction elements. In 1991-1992 when I was starting, at that point “paranormal romance” wasn’t yet a category and the only place I could really carve out a place for the erotica I wrote was within science fiction. (And even that was considered breaking the mold.) Novels of mine like The Velderet are romances, but they were published as erotic science fiction. In 2008, when ebooks were starting to explode, though, my agent encouraged me to try writing for a romance publisher. I dusted off an idea that had been sitting in my notebook for over 10 years waiting for an opportunity to come to light, and that became the book Mind Games. I was so nervous about whether people would like it! I had never been like that about a book before. But then reviews from romance bloggers and websites started to come in and they were raves! That convinced me, yes, I can and should write romance!
Your latest book is part of a trilogy that seems like it draws inevitable comparisons to 50 Shades of Grey. How do you feel about such comparisons, and how would you say your work differs from that of E.L. James?
I know almost anyone reading Slow Surrender read 50 Shades first, because so many people read that book. Knowing that, I very consciously took some similar elements to invite the comparison, and then went a different direction. The biggest departure is that from the similar starting place – rich dominant male and inexperienced female – I take it in what I felt was a more realistic direction. In 50 Shades, the BDSM is something Christian Grey is driven to do because of the demons in his past, and as love heals him, his need for kink diminishes until it’s gone. That’s the opposite of the way most real-life BDSM love matches go! Usually the more deeply in love the two people fall, the more trust they have between them, the MORE intense and frequent the BDSM play gets, not less. A reader said to me recently, “You make trust sexy. You write trust porn.” It’s true! I play with the line of consent and trust all the time, the same way an experienced dom does with a sub, to lead the scene to a satisfying conclusion.
Who are some of your favorite erotica writers or other literary inspirations?
It’s kind of funny. I didn’t really start reading erotica until after I started writing it. The only erotic book I remember finding hidden in my house when I was a kid was a bookclub edition of The Last Tango in Paris, and I remember my best friend and I trying to figure out what was going on in the infamous “butter” scene! We were too young and naïve to know, and there was no Internet to provide answers for curious minds then. Most of what I read growing up was science fiction and fantasy and I wanted to be Roger Zelazny when I grew up. After I started writing, I discovered the work of Pat Califia, whose book of BDSM short stories Macho Sluts was absolutely fantastic, and Angela Carter, whose erotic literary fairy tales felt like they came from a similar dreamscape as mine.
Describe your typical writing routine. Where do you usually write? How many words/pages per day? Do you keep set hours? What does your workspace look like?
“Usually” is not as usual as I would like. The closest thing I have to a routine is when I write between midnight and three AM. It’s the only time it’s quiet, even new emails aren’t coming in, and my brain is at its peak. On those nights, after dinner, I take a cup of hot tea upstairs to my office and all three of my cats come with me. We joke that it’s “cat office hours” because they will each get in a separate chair in my office. Me in mine, to do my work, and them in theirs to do theirs: which is to say groom and nap! When I’m on a deadline and need to put in more hours than that, I will often go to a coffee shop in the afternoon, too. Once a week I have lunch with a fellow writer and then we go to a coffee shop to put in 1-2 hours of writing time. But I’m writing this right now from the Starbucks in the Charlotte airport. To keep up my word counts I’ve learned to love writing on planes, on trains, in lobbies, in airport lounges, you name it. Anywhere I can put a laptop in my lap, I can work.
Do you have any favorite foods or beverages that help keep your creativity flowing?
I am a tea addict. Actually, I weaned myself off recently to prove that I could! But I love good hot tea. Everything from lightly roasted Chinese oolong to Japanese matcha to first flush Indian darjeeling. It’s great because I have to get up from the keyboard every hour to 90 minutes to brew a new pot and that is what cured my repetitive strain injury. The doctors kept saying I needed to take regular breaks. Tea prep forces me to! So that’s win-win.
Do you have any writing superstitions or rituals when starting a new book?
Every book is different. Some books want me to handwrite a lot of notes into a notebook or diary, some want me to leap right in before I know what I’m doing! I think starting a new book is like getting to know a new cat. You think you can predict how it’s going to go, but although there are similarities, it’s different every time. Each book has a personality and you learn to work with each one.
I do have one ritual for when I FINISH a book, though. I get a black feather tattooed on my arm each time. My arm is starting to get kind of crowded now.
What do you think makes for a good erotic story?
The best erotic stories make the reader feel like they’re there and it’s happening to them. If the reader isn’t sucked in and feeling that immediacy, then they’re just a voyeur. And that feels icky and weird. You want the reader to be so convinced by the point of view and the language and the action that even though what’s happening in the story might not be something the reader would have predicted would turn them on, it works anyway. I get a lot of fan mail of the “I never thought I would like _____ (fill in fetish, kink, or type of sex here), but I liked yours.”
What’s your favorite euphemism for genitalia?
In contemporary fiction try to stay away from euphemisms unless I’m writing a humorous story. Even within the context of a really hot story if a writer cracks out a metaphor or simile for private parts it can come out as a joke. And you can make almost ANYTHING into a euphemism for genitalia. Here, I’m in a Starbucks, let’s see what we could use for a genital euphemism that I can see from where I’m sitting: That guy over there is really working the sugar shaker. She’s got her hand on the cream Thermos. She just put a stir stick into her corn muffin. No really! I’m not making this up!
What I do sometimes when I’m writing a piece that has fantasy or science fiction elements is I go with something that is the slang of the world we’re in. The Prince’s Boy, for example, it’s a high fantasy set in a pastoral kingdom where I’ve established they have cattle. So there are a lot of “milk” terms used commonly in the sexual language of that culture.
I just discovered from reading your website that you also write a lot about baseball. Do you think there’s any relation or cross-inspiration between your baseball writing and your erotic writing? And should erotica authors embrace or discard the baseball analogy for sex?
Someone asked me recently what my “tag line” or “brand identity” is. Given that I write about so many things, I couldn’t come up with something as pointed or clever as, say, a vampire writer who says her books have “bite.” One suggestion I made was “Passionate about passions.” Sports fandom is one of the only totally acceptable passions we have in US culture, especially for men. I actually combined baseball and romance in one book that was re-released recently, The Hot Streak! But for the most part I keep those two worlds, my baseball non-fiction and my erotic fiction, separate. They satisfy very different needs. As for the baseball analogy, I would say unless someone wants to sound like they’re in middle school, drop it!