Thursday, December 22, 2011

INTERVIEW: Heidi Belleau & Violetta Vane (authors of Saturnalia)

It is my great pleasure to once again welcome the amazing folks over at Storm Moon Press to my little Bibrary Book Lust blog! Joining us today is the brand spanking new author duo of Heidi Belleau & Violetta Vane, authors of Saturnalia.

Violetta Vane grew up a drifter and a third culture kid who eventually put down roots in the Southeast US, although her heart lives somewhere along the Pacific coast of Mexico. She's worked in restaurants, strip clubs, academia and the corporate world and studied everything from the philosophy of science to queer theory to medieval Spanish literature. She homeschools her eldest son and has a passion for political activism.

Heidi Belleau was born and raised in small town New Brunswick, Canada. She now lives in the rugged oil-patch frontier of Northern BC with her husband, an Irish ex-pat whose long work hours in the trades leave her plenty of quiet time to write. She has a degree in History from Simon Fraser University with a concentration in British and Irish studies; much of her work centred on popular culture, oral folklore, and sexuality, but she was known to perplex her professors with unironic papers on the historical roots of modern romance novel tropes. (Ask her about Highlanders!) When not writing, you might catch her trying to explain British television to her newborn daughter or standing in line at the local coffee shop, waiting on her caramel macchiato.

Before we get into their interview, let's take a quick look at Saturnalia:

Troy Khoury is serving a life sentence in Westgate prison for a robbery gone wrong. He just wants to keep his head down and do his time, but he runs afoul of an old-timer named Franchetti. Franchetti offers Troy a simple choice: kill fellow inmate Daniel Amato by Christmas in exchange for protection, or be tortured and raped to death by Franchetti's heavy, Pliers. Troy's no killer, though, and Daniel is as gentle and calm as can be. But a prison is a small place, and time is running out. Troy must decide how much he's willing to sacrifice before the choice is taken from him.


♥ For those who may be new to your writing, and who haven't yet checked out your latest release, please tell us a little about yourself.

Heidi: I’m a Canadian SAHM with a degree in Irish and British history. I like Highlander romances and British TV, and you could even say I’m a bit of a Whovian. I talk with my hands and have a really self-deprecating sense of humour. I have a baby daughter who loves to blow raspberries.

Violetta: I rose like an irritable phoenix from the ashes of a decade in the corporate world. Before that, I was in academia, and before that, I messed around and got in trouble a lot. I’m the mother of two wonderful sons, and I homeschool the eldest.

♥ The journey from 'aspiring' to 'accomplished' can be a long one, even in the era of small presses and digital publishing. When did you begin writing, and how did you feel when you first saw your work in print?

Heidi: I’ve been writing since as long as I can remember, honestly. Since childhood, definitely. It’s been a long journey from there! I’ve had a couple of dramatic breakups with writing when I felt like I would never be good enough and never finish anything, and a lot of wasted time writing what I thought other people wanted me to write rather than what I enjoyed and cared about. Seeing my work published makes it feel like all that struggle and angst has been worth it. I feel like I’ve been legitimized finally. Of course, the work doesn’t stop at the acceptance letter, but damn do I feel good!

Violetta: Unlike Heidi, I came to writing late in life. I’ve wanted to write my own stories for decades, but I always felt inadequate because I couldn’t understand how I’d ever reach the level of the writers I most admired. The key for me was starting out slow, studying writing, working hard, and keeping high standards. Writing has turned into a source of huge fulfillment in my life, because I’m succeeding at the goal I set for myself: to write what I love as well as I possibly can. Publication feels like an external validation of that feeling of success. I also love how it’s such a cooperative endeavor.

♥ How does your past influence your writing? Are you conscious of relating the story to your own experiences?

Heidi: I think parts of ourselves always creep into our writing, whether we intend them to or not. My love of history and how overwhelmed I feel by the past seeps into a lot of what I do, but there are other things—things that are too personal for me to share—that also sneak in, although I’d never draw attention to them publicly. But yes, there are definitely parts of me in there, even if it’s just sensory impressions.

Violetta: All the time, and absolutely yes, even when I write characters that are completely opposite to myself. For example, for “The Saturnalia Effect”, I’ve never been shot down by the police, and then sent to a maximum-security prison, thank goodness, but I have had times in my life when I’ve felt completely trapped and hopeless, and I drew on bits and pieces of those experiences and filtered them through the character.

♥ For some authors, it's coming up with a title, and for others it's writing that first paragraph - what do you find is the most difficult aspect of writing?

Heidi: Transition scenes! I want everything in a novel to be pivotal and compelling and nothing to be a boring workhorse. Of course, stringing together a bunch of scenes with no connective tissue isn’t exactly the best idea when you’re trying to tell a story and have people actually understand it, but oh man I don’t like doing it. Luckily I have Violetta to kick me in the ass.

Violetta: Titles and certain figures of speech. I can’t write a title to save my life. I either use a song lyric or cling to Heidi. I tend to obsess about using too many or too few metaphors or similes to the point that I get hung up on style even though the story is flowing smoothly. “The Saturnalia Effect” is Heidi’s title, by the way, and it sums up the book beautifully by the end.

♥ Is there a favourite quote or scene from your work that you feel particularly fond of? Something that reminds you of why writing is important to you?

Heidi: On pure personal enjoyment factor, there’s a scene in “The Saturnalia Effect”—well, a couple of scenes—where the main character Troy is being threatened by a nasty enforcer who goes by the name “Pliers”. I love writing dialogue for horrible wicked evil people. Cold, hateful dialogue. I’m such a bubbly optimistic person by nature that being able to wear that skin and speak in that voice for a scene feels cleansing but also makes me feel like I actually have the chops to do this.

Violetta: My favorite scene is the one in the prison shower that culminates in the experience depicted in the cover art. The character is pushed to such an extreme point that he’s actually taking off all his clothes and walking into a confined space filled with sexual predators. We needed it to be intense, disturbing, not too exploitative, terrifying, and then hopeful. Pulling off that scene—rereading and deciding that yes, it was exactly what the story needed—was an inspirational reminder that writing can take you to the worst places and the best ones.

♥ Sometimes, characters can take on a life of their own, pulling the story in directions you hadn't originally anticipated. Has a twist or turn in your writing ever surprised you, or really challenged your original plans?

Heidi: Violetta and I spend a lot of time planning, but sometimes a bit of character backstory will reveal itself and totally change our perception of a character. Like a character in our big fantasy novel that’s out on submissions right now—it wasn’t until after we’d finished writing that book that we realized that story hadn’t been that character’s first brush with magic or the gods. It didn’t change the book that we’d written, but it will definitely come into play if we write a sequel!

Violetta: We often welcome these twists and turns, especially when they crop up in the planning stage and make the story much richer. For example, I had the idea of making the lead character of Arab descent as a homage to the recent prison movie Un Proph├Ęte. But when Heidi and I translated the setting from France to New York, we needed a character who rose organically out of the new setting. So we decided our man Troy Khoury would be a Lebanese-American, Christian (as most Lebanese-Americans are), and born and raised in South Brooklyn. We delved deeply into Troy’s worldview, and upbringing, and times of happiness and sadness, and decided that he’d have a pretty special and complicated relationship with Christmas, the time the story takes place.

♥ Is there a particular author who has influenced or inspired your writing? Somebody who either made you want to write in the first place, or who refreshes your literary batteries?

Heidi: Everyone in the M/M genre! When I was a teenager, I wrote a lot of stories centering on gay men and their relationships, but I felt like they’d never be published or find an audience. Who would read them? What publisher would buy them? And when they were written by a woman, no less? So I tried to force myself to give up those characters and those plotlines, thinking that I was just wasting my time and energy. Of course, here I am an adult, now, and there’s a whole genre of amazing people writing and reading these same types of stories I thought would never find their place in the romance genre. People of different genders, sexualities... After growing up a bisexual teenage girl in a small conservative town and always feeling so lonely, my writing being only one facet of that basic sense of isolation, being a part of this community and writing books here, knowing there are other people who will read them and appreciate them, feels absolutely amazing.

Violetta: Samuel R. Delany, a ground-breaking science fiction writer. Although I doubt I’ll ever write as widely or deeply as Delany, his stories and his hyperarticulate talk about stories have always inspired me. Beginning in the early 1960s, he wrote in a very dense, poetic style that didn’t seem to fit with his chosen genre of science fiction. He also writes gender and sexuality in completely unique ways, including strong women characters and radical feminist theory, and as a gay black man, he faced a lot of adversity in his career. One of the most chilling stories Delany ever related took place on the night he was awarded his second Nebula Prize—right as he was walking to the podium, Isaac Asimov made a supposedly friendly joke about how he was only given the prize because he was black! I’ve learned a lot from reading Delany over the years: how to analyze and expose racism and prejudice, which is important to me because I’m a woman of color who has faced a lot of sexism and racism in my life (although I’m not LGBTQ)... the need to write about all subjects, not just the polite and ordinary ones, and bring them out of silence into language.

♥ When writing, do you ever consider how a reader or reviewer will react, or do you write solely for your own satisfaction?

Violetta: For me, it’s always a mix. Everything I write has at least three audiences. First, myself. Second, a limited audience of my co-writer and other writers. Third, a broad audience of everyone who might ever read the story. I might start getting carried away with a strand of backstory, but then when I step back, I remember that a general reader has no reason to care about it, so I need to cut it off. Working with a co-writer like Heidi makes this balance a lot easier, because we can creatively filter as we write each sentence. I believe that writing without any personal satisfaction results in lifeless stories, but at the other extreme, I don’t see much point in writing only for yourself when the goal is publication.

Heidi: Definitely both. I mean, loving what I write and being interested in telling a particular story is a big component of staying motivated; that’s just a fact. Just think about every essay or project you’ve ever written about a topic you couldn’t care less about, and then multiply that by a full length novel. And then you’ve got to promote the thing! No thank you! On the other hand, I’m always aware that literature is a two-way street. Readers put as much into a book as authors do, so you have to remember them as part of the equation. Mostly that just means making sure that you write in a way that isn’t impossible for them to understand/interpret, or if you are a bit abstract, allow for the fact that they’re going to come up with interpretations that might not fit your exact intentions. I think it’s just important in general to respect your audience: respect their intelligence, respect their need for a story they can connect with on some level, respect that they have feelings and emotions and you should keep those in mind when you’re writing, and not write things that are potentially hurtful or harmful or offensive without good justification. So I guess, yes, I do worry about their reactions, but not to the point where I only write what I think other people would want to read.

♥ Is there a particular theme or message you're expecting readers to take away from your work?

Heidi: I try not to put a “lesson” into my writing, because I don’t think readers really appreciate being explicitly preached to, or reading a story for entertainment only to get pounded with a moral message. Are there topics and issues I care about that crop up in my writing? Absolutely. I think the fact that we wrote a love story about two prisoners and asked readers to sympathise with them even though they’re both guilty of crimes is making a statement in and of itself. There’s no point in the story where I set about saying “convicts are people too,” or teach a lesson about the American prison system or illuminate you on the issues of prisoners’ rights. Because the point of the story isn’t to convince you of a political standpoint—it’s to entertain you, make you feel suspense and sadness and happiness and arousal—but that doesn’t mean those sensibilities aren’t still there.

Writing m/m (or f/f, or m/m/m or m/m/f or f/f/m, etc.) as a genre in and of itself in this climate automatically makes a political statement: that love for LGBTQ people is legitimate and real and worthy of stories and fantasies and respect. If you’re writing a story without that belief in your heart, even if it’s not the “message” of the book, I have to wonder why you’re in the genre at all!

Violetta: Agreed. Fiction relies on ambiguity for its full effect, so it’s not the best medium for persuasion. But it’s never completely divorced from real life, either. For “The Saturnalia Effect,” one concern we had was not to diminish the very serious issue of prison rape. It’s a constant looming danger in the book and a major plot point. I often asked myself, “are we treating this in an exploitative manner?” To some degree, I think it’s inescapable, simply because as writers and readers we’re attracted to the extremes of human emotion and the extremes of suffering. From the Stone Age onwards, we like stories where horrible forces threaten characters—monsters, cancer, war—partly because it makes us feel better that we’re safely outside the story, away from the danger.

But we also didn’t want to contribute in any way to having prison rape being treated lightly, or as a punchline, as it so often is. People will say, “So-and-so is a monster; he’ll find out how his victims feel when he gets raped in prison,” but the reality doesn’t reflect that. Prisoners in danger of rape tend to be: 1) gay 2) transgender 3) ethnic/racial minorities in the prison environment 4) physically weaker/disabled 5) women (a lot of prison rape is, in fact, committed by male guards against women prisoners). I believe there is no “acceptable level” of prison rape, and the fact that someone deserves imprisonment does not mean they deserve to be raped. Although this “message of the day” isn’t sledgehammered inside “The Saturnalia Effect,” I’ll give it right here: please don’t make jokes that treat prison rape lightly. And to support an excellent organization that fights it, visit Just Detention International.

♥ What can we look forward to from you next? Is there a project on the horizon that you're really excited about?

Heidi: Well, barring any sudden publication announcements, my next work coming out is a solo short story called “Bookended”, with Dreamspinner press. It’s an M/M/M erotica with just a dash of cheeky romance. It’s much lighter than “The Saturnalia Effect” and a lot of the work I co-write with Violetta, but I think it’s a lot of fun. It’s just a quick little smut story, with a dose of filthy and funny dialogue and an unexpected romantic center. Definitely a story you could take into the tub with you or read with a glass of wine just before bed.

Violetta: I beta-ed “Bookended,” and it’s an awesome read. The style is quite different from our co-written stuff, in large part because it’s in present tense, which I’ve never mastered, although I think it works brilliantly for short stories.

Our magnum opus of the moment is an epic novel tentatively titled The Hollow Hill. It’s set mostly in modern-day Ireland, with detours to other worlds and times as magic entangles our characters. We took a maximalist approach to make sure this story had everything: a passionate love story, high stakes and real suspense, an approach to magic folklore that’s both authentic and imaginative. The world is so rich that ideas for prequels and sequels keep sprouting in our heads, but we’re trying to keep a lid on things until we get some definitive publication news. In the meantime, you might want to check out our free short story “Out of the Tombs, Exceedingly Fierce,” a tight little horror-style prequel which introduces a main character, Cormac Kelly, through the eyes of someone who enters his world only briefly.

We’re also more than three-quarters finished on a novella with a style I can only call Hawaiian Gothic. Like most of our stories, it has a strong multicultural element. The two characters are men who were childhood friends, both born in Hawaii. One of them is Hawaiian (as in native); the other is of Filipino descent. One stays in Hawaii; the other, devastated by his inability to declare his love, joins the Army and gets sent to Iraq, only to return when... well, I won’t give more of it away, but it’s a tragically beautiful story and I’ve found myself crying onto the keyboard at several scenes.


Thanks so much to Heidi and Violetta for stopping by - you can find them at:

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