Monday, February 9, 2015

"The Erotic Writer's Thesaurus" new Facebook page

Information about the soon-to-be-published, one-of-a-kind e-book, plus the occasional bit of philological fun and foolery:

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Revisiting the Realm of Janos: An Interview with Andre SanThomas

The four books to date in Andre SanThomas' Realm of Janos series may well be among the most original and highly imaginative works of erotic genre fiction to appear in the last forty years. In my March 2012 review of Ielle (the series opener), I remarked with no small enthusiasm: 

At her glorious best--certainly in the first three chapters of this novel-- SanThomas achieves a seemingly effortless fluidity; a luminous web of language that enthralls and delights. She has a certain gift for description, occasionally approaching the ingenious; a few words chosen with exquisite economy conjure powerful images; the similes subtly integrated so as not to interrupt narrative momentum with clunky "this thing was like that thing" digressions. Writing such as this is a pleasure to read in any genre, and ought to be celebrated.

My excitement was tempered to a degree by what I perceived as structural issues in the novel--though, in the subsequent context of the series,  I have come to regard these more or less as "teething problems", almost all subsequently overcome. Here is what I wrote in 2012: 

The narrative takes a long time to pick up steam--other than in the bedroom. Until some real drama began to unfold--well past halfway through the book--I kept sensing missed opportunities for action and conflict. Character development was fairly superficial--possibly OK in a shorter erotic story, not quite as acceptable in Fantasy, and certainly not in anything claiming to be a novel. 

And yet, one of the real joys of this series over time has been to observe the author's growing maturity and command of her craft. The writing is lovely, spare, and increasingly more direct. Having established the rules by which her paracosm is governed, SanThomas has begun to play with the possibilities within those boundaries, and the results are wonderfully entertaining. Where, in some of the earlier books, I occasionally got the sense of an author too rigidly constrained by her own pre-established conventions, often missing opportunities for drama and conflict; certainly by the fourth book, Mayia, SanThomas had begun to take her place as a genuinely original creative force, recognizing what great artists have always known, that infinite possibilities are found within a well-conceived set of limitations.

Like Pauline Reage's classic The Story of O, SanThomas' Ielle may be seen, in part, as a novel of erotic education; but this, by itself, would have proven deadly dull, and the story progressed no further. The series succeeds because of the fascinating way SanThomas combines elements of classic High Fantasy and palace intrigue with steamy BDSM romance. Some of her early influences were readily discernible:

I was reminded of other classic books, often pleasantly; sometimes jarringly; [The Story of O, of course], along with John Norman's Chronicles of Gor series (though in all fairness, SanThomas writes rings around Norman even at his best); The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty by A.N. Roquelaire (Anne Rice), and George R.R. Martin's A Game of Thrones (*). Not bad company at all; it suggests enormous talent and potential, even as there is clearly some polishing to be done.

(*) In a subsequent live on-line discussion/interview (Gorean Palaces), SanThomas noted my comparison, while stating that she had actually not read any of Martin's books at that time. I still think it's an apt comparison, even if the GoT books were not, strictly speaking, an "influence."

I was impressed, in reading Ovia, the second installment in the series, by what I regarded as SanThomas' growing maturity and confidence:

. . . bringing more depth, color and texture to the story-telling; honing and refining her already considerable gifts for beautiful flowing language and vivid, near-cinematic description.

Here the characters and the world around them begin to take on more depth and dimensionality. We are given a fascinating glimpse into the mythology and religion of this realm; something of the philosophy governing society and the harmonious relationship of the sexes. Much of the action centers on the preparations for and execution of an elaborate religious festival and pageant; the story animated by luminous images of erotic dance; swirling masses of bodies swathed in variegated diaphanous fabric. Particularly impressive is the author's eye for the way those fabrics move in harmony with the dancers, her descriptions often assuming the potency of an aphrodisiac. The rituals themselves are unapologetically pagan and overtly, explicitly, magnificently sexual. This makes a most refreshing departure from the tired, chaste dualism of so much contemporary fantasy writing.

The private sex scenes are glorious. SanThomas has imbued her characters with sophisticated inner lives, feelings, conflicts. Her women are not one-dimensional pornographic "objects," but valiant, living, breathing beings with strong wills and deep reservoirs of gumption. Her men, often outwardly macho, are still capable of deep sensitivity and the capacity for change. This is what erotica is supposed to be! Beyond the mere physical descriptions of intimate domination and submission, the author gifts her readers with profound insight into this often-misunderstood form of sex play; what is it to submit to the will of another and at the same time become one with them, yet still retain one's identity as an individual? The certainty of knowing one's place without becoming a mindless sex slave or a faceless drone can in itself become a form of liberation.

My only quibble concerned something I felt the author had left out of the narrative:

 We are told often that Ovia was chosen before her training was complete--but it is never explained why this was the case. This potentially fascinating and genuinely important aspect of the backstory is glossed over, if not ignored altogether; a serious missed opportunity, not to mention an irritating disappointment. It would have explained much while adding even greater depth to the story--and, let's face it; enquiring minds want to know about this kind of stuff! It is a measure of SanThomas' skill that we are compelled to care so deeply.

From my 2012 review of Eanna:

. . . fans of the first two books will find much to like here, both familiar and fascinatingly new. To those readers as yet uninitiated into the pleasures of this series, I would strongly recommend starting at the beginning with Ielle and then Ovia as the story-line is cumulative and each new tale increasingly referential to characters and events in the previous books. Eanna draws its essential backstory from Ovia, while offering readers a deeper, more detailed picture of the customs and rituals of SanThomas' magnificently sensual fantasy-verse.

Princess Eanna holds an exalted position in the religious life of her world, Handmaiden to the Crown of Harmony, she serves the "manly needs" of the Council of Oblates. Chosen out of many for her surpassing grace, skill, discipline, centeredness--"so regal, so cool, so adored . . . so alone"--yet her bodily submission to these old men is not emotionally involved. In fact, she has been little more than a glorified scratching post--a sacred hole, as it were--and while such a position is considered the highest of hallowed honors in her world, it has not prepared her for the very different life that awaits when time comes for her to step down with the choosing of a successor

Much of the action in Eanna centers on two elaborate series of contests; the first to determine the new Handmaiden, the second to find a champion worthy to claim the former princess as his owned property--the normal custom of civilized people in this world. Both competitions are elaborate, highly theatrical undertakings, rigorous and demanding, reminiscent of the trials and contests so familiar from reality television, yet filtered through a very original High Fantasy lens, titillating and thought-provoking both at once.

With this installment the storytelling has become more streamlined, the language seems simpler, more stripped down and direct. In this passage, we see Eanna performing a sacred dance for a gathered assembly:

"Eanna held the crown high above her head, twirling below it, letting it capture the light and reflect off the walls. Her dress swirled around her, a glimmering soft pink sheer that billowed about her in a circle from her shoulders to her thighs. She ran gracefully across the room, then leaped into the air, legs wide apart, toes pointed sharply, the Crown held high. She landed like a feather, full of sunshine and light and sky. Eanna bent to the floor with it, bringing it ever so close but not touching the ground with it. She held it in one hand, high over her head. She twirled on one foot, the other held aloft, floating, the Crown shimmering in her hand.

The Crown rolled over her skin. She moved it behind her back, then to the front again. She set it reverently on the floor and danced around it, dropping to her knees and leaning back in a deep arch. She pulled herself up again, moving gracefully, fluidly, arms waving and fingers cupping the air. Bent double, she carefully balanced the crown at the small of her back. She clasped her hands behind her ankles, carefully turning in a full circle without causing it to fall. She took it from her back, then tossed it skywards while she twirled. Those watching gasped as it flew upwards. She sank to the floor and rolled twice before catching it just a breath from the ground. Applause broke out throughout the room. Yes, there was always applause when she did the dance. She practiced so many hours to get just the right sense of drama. She knew she executed it perfectly. She had never once dropped the Crown. She did not fail."

This is very good--but even better is the author's exploration of her heroine's inner life. For all the outward sensual wonder of this tale, Eanna seems to have been imagined from the inside out, giving us a degree of emotional truth that seldom finds its way into erotic storytelling. More difficult than the physical trials to be endured are the emotional obstacles to be overcome; the casting off of arrogance and pride; the search for her own inner light which can be kindled only when she accepts her own ordinariness; the challenge of bringing that light to her eyes, shining only for the man who will claim her.

Above all, this story is a paen to the beauty of monogamous belonging, so famously celebrated in the ancient sacred erotic texts of our own world--the "Kama Sutra," the "Ananga Ranga;" a truth, often repeated, extolling the virtues of the most accomplished lovers, adept in the art of pleasing one partner over the course of a lifetime as opposed to one who takes many partners and satisfies none; for it is in knowing and understanding one's true place that genuine satisfaction and bliss are found. Ultimately it takes more talent, wisdom and imagination to keep the fires burning high in the long-shared life of two, and "it is the superior man who can so learn his lover as to cause her nightly fainting."

I included Mayia on EFTBB's Best of 2012 list, and with good reason. What was especially compelling about this fourth title, read in the context of the series, is how SanThomas so skillfully managed to break some of the very rules she had spent so much time establishing in the first three outings. Mayia is nothing if not a bad girl, and bad girls always seem to be more fun. They are certainly a lot of fun to read about. The story featured SanThomas' familiar blend of High Fantasy and BDSM epic, here spiced with heart-stopping heist caper and pagan erotic romance. 

From my review:

After her failed coup attempt in Ielle, Mayia has hit rock bottom, "discarded" by the owner she betrayed, publicly humiliated in a month-long ritual of deprivation, and finally sold at auction to a brutal "rental-master." Mayia is not exactly a prostitute with a heart of gold, though gold is constantly on her mind. Unbowed in spite of her ordeals, pathologically prideful, single-mindedly ambitious, everything she does is calculated to her own advantage, premeditated in terms of escape to a higher station in life, one more suited to her unbridled delusions of grandeur and fevered dreams of revenge. Among the ranks of bad girls, Mayia is extraordinary, and it takes an extraordinarily bad boy to recognize her unique gifts and bring her into her own.

With Mayia Andre SanThomas has given her readers an unforgettable, entertaining, fast-paced character-driven very-sexy story, and that is a literary feat in and of itself. 

* * *

Recently, I had the great pleasure to interview Andre SanThomas for this post. It is fitting in no small way that the very first author-interview feature to appear on EFTBB should be with Ms. SanThomas, as it was she--recognizing that good reviews of erotica are hard to find, and good reviewers even rarer-- who strongly encouraged me to start this blog back in the summer of 2012.

TAS: Was Ielle your first published work?

ASnT: Yes.  [It was published] December 31, 2011. 

It came about because I joined a critique group for erotica writers.  People would send through chapters and short stories for comment.  Many of them were in the sci-fi, paranormal and steampunk ranges.  Over and over I found myself starting my critiques with the phrase "This isn't my genre, but ..."  With the exception of Star Trek and Babylon 5, I'm really not that much into sci-fi and the most paranormal I get is Bewitched!

I started toying with the idea of maybe trying something down one of those veins, just as a challenge to myself but didn't actually do it.  A couple weeks later, the monthly theme was “sci-fi and BDSM” and it seemed a divine message.  I started writing Ielle and got a lot of positive response.  The rest is history.

It was never my intent to make Ielle a series either.  But one of my beta readers begged me for more on Bylar and that got me off and running.  What I discovered was that taking my setting to a completely new planet worked to free my characters from our society and culture, negative associations with the non-politically correct gender roles, and today's conventions.

How did your experience with NaNoWriMo (National Novel-Writing Month) affect your work on the Janos and Sensual Submission series?

ASnT: I credit NaNoWriMo 100% for everything.  I've toyed with the idea of writing a book since I was a kid.  Even started a couple but never got very far with it. One day, someone in an online mom's group I belong to mentioned NaNoWriMo.  I looked it up, found out what it was all about and saw that it was about to start.  I decided to see if I could pound something out.  80,000 words later, I had a novel.

It was exciting to find that I could complete one, but I didn't know if it was any good or not.

I then went in search of critique groups and found that the resources for erotica are pretty limited, but lo and behold, a search on "erotica" and "critique" turned up the Erotica Readers and Writers Association.  Through that and a couple other resources I got a few people to wade through the whole 80,000 words. Results were pretty favorable, but a couple people noted that the main male character came off shallow and thus smarmy. That was the exact opposite of what I was going for!

After giving it some thought, I decided that there was a technical problem.  My point of view was so tight that we never get to know that guy.  I didn't feel I had the technical expertise to go with an omniscient approach that wouldn't come off scattered and schizophrenic, so I settled on what has now worked very well for me through all my novels; a tight point of view that alternates each chapter.  This brings up its own technical challenges, because of the need to align the right person with the right actions in the story, but I enjoy working that out.

So, although that first work has never been published because it would need a total re-write first, it is still the foundation that all the Sensual Submission books revolve around.  It is the story of Mari and Wes who fans may notice have tiny cameos in the other Sensual Submission books.

Pursuit is entirely a NaNoWriMo book.  It was written during the November time frame, edited and published by January.

So, my first novel ever was written in October of 2010 and my first three books were published together on December 31, 2011 (Ielle, Ovia and Driven).

TAS: Can you tell me something about the influence of Gorean cosplay and role-playing culture on the Janos series, and your work in general?

ASnT: I've always enjoyed the Gorean vibe and feel. Among other things, I like that it is unapologetic about a M/f dynamic.  But I hated the books. The writing is downright painful on the reader. I always thought that maybe I could do better, so when my self-imposed challenge came along, I decided to tackle something in that vein.  

With that said, however, I worked hard to create my own world from scratch. The true similarity is the M/f core, but I like to think that the Janos books have a lot more depth and insight and stories that focus on the dynamics between the masters and their submissives.

I can also say that Laura Antoniou has had a huge influence on me.  Both in that I have always enjoyed her work, but perhaps more importantly because she unknowingly gave me a tremendous insight into the possibilities for my books. I heard that she was soliciting fan fiction for an anthology related to her Marketplace series and it suddenly hit me I was totally in charge of what happened with my stories.  I did not have to write a three-book trilogy.  I could pick out a character from an existing book or create a new one.  I could go forward or backwards in time.  The possibilities are truly endless as long as there are stories to be told.

TAS: I know that you were sidelined by a back injury a few years ago.

ASnT: I've been rather derailed since a simple little herniated disc in September 2012 went bad and resulted in some complications.  This has had a dramatic impact on my ability to spit out book after book, but I'm hoping that I'll be able to get back to writing again soon.

TAS: Had you been planning more books in the Janos series when you were sidelined?

ASnT: Absolutely!  I have one book in progress, and ideas for many, many more, in both series.

TAS: That answers my next question, which is “Are you working on anything new?”

AST: See above!

TAS:  Finally—and this is a question that’s asked a lot, but I never get tired of hearing how different authors answer it—what advice would you offer aspiring authors of erotica?

AsnT: Write what you enjoy.  There's a huge range in what people like and what squicks them out.  Write something that works for you.  Odds are good that if it is something you'd like to read, someone else will enjoy reading it too.

Learn the technical aspects of writing.  Take a workshop or community college class if need be.  It is different than writing at your job.  Get someone to edit.  Pay someone, trade services with someone, whatever.  It is nearly impossible for most people to edit their own work.  Errors and technical problems pull the reader out of the story.  Your story should sweep them away.

Join a critique group.  A good group will tell you when your work sucks.  A great group will tell you WHY it sucks.  Try to get a diversity of opinions.  Sometimes a male will have a different view on it than a female or vice versa.  Don't take any criticism as personal.  If it upsets you to have your work critiqued, you're not ready to publish anything.  Readers will leave reviews and they won't be at all kind about problems so fix those before you put your work in front of them.

Try NaNoWriMo so that you can jump start the writing process.  The actual event is in November, but the site and message boards are there year round, so you can get great advice and support anytime.  

Find a couple trusted beta readers.  I've been amazingly lucky to have a couple people that I can kick ideas around with. We have great philosophical discussions about Janos and the characters that live there!

Determine who the customer of your particular book/series is.  Males, females, younger, older, people who have a cat?  Figuring out who will read your book allows you to target your efforts towards that person.

Embrace your genre.  If you hang out with other writers, publishers and editors, you'll find a fair amount of misconceptions and negativity towards erotica writing.  In reality, it is as hard or maybe harder than any other genre.  You're trying to create a mood that brings up our most primal emotions and responses.  Don't allow others to dismiss that effort.

Learn the business of writing.  Whether you end up self-publishing or go through someone else, there are business aspects involved and pros and cons to each strategy.  There are taxes and expenses involved, marketing plans, pricing, cover art decisions and a thousand other things that have to be considered if you want to sell your works.  Don't just wing it.  Learn about those things and then you can make wise decisions and see what works for your particular book.

Most of all (to borrow from the famous shoe-makers) just do it.  Write it.  What are you waiting for?