Acceptance Issues and the Gay Romance Novel: An Interview with Author M. J. Pearson
M.J. Pearson is the author of two highly commended gay historical romance novels. Her debut novel, The Price of Temptation, came out in 2005 and was a finalist in the Romance category of the Lambda Literary Awards. Discreet Young Gentleman, her second novel, was declared a winner in the Published category of the Great Beginnings contest that is sponsored by the Utah chapter of the Romance Writers of America.
In an interview on November 12, M. J. Pearson spoke about her concerns as a writer.
When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?
I’ve wanted to be a writer my entire life. For years I just thought I didn’t have anything important to say. At the same time, I always told myself stories to get to sleep at night – serials that might run for months before they either hit a logical ending, or just faded away. Finally, as I approached my forties, it occurred to me that the stories that entertained me might entertain other people, so I started writing them down.
My main influence as a person is my mother, who tried to bring us up to care about other people and to look at life with an open mind. As a writer it’s Barbara Mertz, who writes romantic suspense and mystery under the names Barbara Michaels and Elizabeth Peters. Her books are consistently smart, funny and romantic — if someone could make the same claim about me once I have a body of work out there, I’d die happy.
What are your main concerns as a writer?
My main concern is telling a good story, and reaching as many people as I can with it. If I can open some minds along the way, even better.
How have your personal experiences influenced the direction of your writing?
I was maybe six or seven years old when my older cousin came out as a lesbian, so gay people have always been a normal part of my life, and as time went on included family members, teachers, co-workers, friends. That, and a certain flexibility in my own sexuality, makes writing gay romance as “normal” as writing anything else.
What would you say are the biggest challenges that you face?
There’s still a bit of an acceptance issue. When I first joined the Romance Writers of America, for instance, it was just as certain people began lobbying to exclude same-sex couples from the definition of “romance.” That battle should have been won when the RWA Board of Directors made it clear that, in their words, “any definition of romance should be broad and inclusive.” Unfortunately, there are members who won’t give up the fight.
But acceptance goes both ways. My publisher asked me to use my initials instead of my first name, since he thought there would be gay men who would be unwilling to read a gay romance written by a woman. So far, I’ve yet to see any of that in person – I’ve had great comments and fan mail from gay guys.
How do you deal with these?
I’m a bit of a fighter – when the RWA sent out the infamous survey asking the membership if they wanted to restrict “romance” to relationships between one man and one woman, I emailed all the members of the Board of Directors, and just last month had a letter to the editor published in the October Romance Writers Report (RWA’s magazine) in response to a woman who still insists the definition should exclude same-sex relationships. Fortunately, there were a whole bunch of letters objecting to this woman’s views, including many of the greats in the genre (Nora Roberts, Jenny Crusie). Maybe this time, the issue has been put to rest for good.
As to acceptance from the gay community – like I said, I’ve yet to have a direct problem. I hope it’s because my books speak for themselves.
How many books have you written so far?
So far, I’ve had two books published, The Price of Temptation and Discreet Young Gentleman, and have three others written in draft form (meaning they still need some work). And I’m working on a sixth right now.
Do you write every day?
Since last winter, I’ve been writing full time. I try to write every day, Monday through Friday, and leave the weekend for other things. Most of my productive time is in the morning, while in the afternoon I try to catch up on research and email. Right now, I’m doing NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, where the goal is to produce 50,000 words during the month of November), which has skewed this a bit — I find myself writing evenings and weekends to try to make my goal.
What is your latest novel about?
In my latest book, Discreet Young Gentleman, Dean Smith is set up by someone to be found with a male prostitute, which destroys his engagement to a wealthy heiress. He teams up with the prostitute, Rob, to travel to Bath and try to find out who was behind it – only to fall in love along the way.
How long did it take you to write it?
I wrote the bulk of it last winter, between January and the end of March. I sent the draft to my agent, who suggested some changes, and worked on the revisions for a month or so. Then, once it was sold to Seventh Window, Ken Harrison of SW had additional suggestions. So figure three months writing, and another two or three on revisions, for five or six months total.
When and where was it published?
My publisher is Seventh Window Publications, a gay press in Rhode Island. The official release date was October 31, 2006, but it takes some time after that to make its way to the distributors, and from there to bookstores.
Which aspects of the work that you put into the novel did you find most difficult?
The challenge of writing any romance is to introduce two people you know are perfect for each other, then keeping them apart until the end, without seeming too contrived. Pacing was at times difficult when I was writing Discreet Young Gentleman – is it too early for Dean to realize he’s attracted to Rob? Is there too much tension between them? Not enough? When should it be clear that they’re becoming friends, and then falling in love? Hard to nail.
Which did you enjoy most?
I’m a lifelong history buff, so the research is always a lot of fun for me. In this one, I incorporated several real-life ghost stories from the places Dean and Rob visit (as well as making up one or two to fit particular circumstances), and tried to use them to reflect the way the two men were feeling at the point in the story where they hear about the ghosts. I hope it makes it a more interesting read for people who pick up on what I’m doing, and I really love weaving stuff like that into my books.
What sets the novel apart from the others that you have written?
I’m more confident with my writing now, so in addition to telling a story, I can try to say more beneath the surface, if that makes sense. One example is what I mentioned above about using the ghost stories to reflect the main characters’ feelings.
Another is that there’s a subtext concerning the creation of identity: it’s perhaps most obvious with Rob, who deliberately chose his first name to honor a very romantic story someone once told him, and in doing so makes it clear that love is very important to him. Later, it turns out that Dean is also choosing to use a particular variation of his own name, and once readers understand Dean’s family history, they should be able to puzzle out why. There’s a little more to it, but I don’t want to give any more away.
In what way is it similar to the others?
I hope Discreet Young Gentleman is as romantic as The Price of Temptation was, and that I was able to inject enough humor for the occasional laugh. The two books are set in the same era (the English Regency), although Discreet Young Gentleman actually takes place a year before the action in The Price of Temptation.
What will your next book be about?
The one I’m working on for NaNoWriMo is about an English soldier who falls — hard — for a Frenchman who is (supposedly) working with the English army during the Napoleonic Wars. Then the Frenchman steals some important documents and flees to the other side… It’s got war. Intrigue. Betrayal. A little cross-dressing. And despite the circumstances, I promise — there will be a happy ending.
What would you say has been your most significant achievement as a writer?
It was a big day for me when I learned I’d made the finals in the romance category of the Lambda Literary Awards – and for my first book. That was a “Wow!” moment I’ll never forget.
How did you get there?
I learned to write first and foremost by being an avid reader for my entire life. Then I worked hard at creating the best book I could, and after that I credit my agent, Sharene Martin, and my publisher, Ken Harrison at Seventh Window, for believing in me and giving me a chance to get published. I couldn’t have done it without them.