Saturday, July 28, 2012

My Love Affair with France


My Love Affair with France

People ask me occasionally where I’m from.  They seem to have a hard time believing me when I tell them I was born in Lexington, Kentucky, and lived there until I was eighteen and went off to college (and to see the world).  “But your books are all set in France….”  It’s not a question, really.  More of an observation, but one that subtly requests an explanation.

So I should start by saying that not all my books are set in France.  Of my current published or contracted novels, only half of them are set in France.  Of course, of the other half, one is set in Spain, one is set in outer space, one is in the Caribbean, two are set in Australia, and one is in a complete alternate universe, so my ratio of France to US in settings isn’t quite as high.

That said, I have eleven current or upcoming books set in various parts of France. That’s enough to merit the observation and an explanation.  So why France?

I fell in love with the French language when I was twelve years old. I had an absolutely fabulous French teacher who made learning fun.  More than that, speaking French was like remembering something I’d forgotten.  (My sisters, in a fit of jealousy, decided I must have been Joan of Arc in a past life because nobody should have been able to learn another language as quickly and easily as I did French.)  I decided right then whatever else I did in my life, I was going to speak this language so well no one would even question my nationality when I went to France.

Ten years later, I reached that goal.

I went to France for the first time as a junior in college and had the good fortune to live with an incredible family who welcomed me in and still (20 years later) introduces me as their American daughter when I go back to visit.  I also had the good fortune to meet the man I later married.  (He’s from India, not France, but that’s a different story.)  The combination of the generosity of my adoptive family and the memories of falling in love made that semester the highlight of my college career.

Two years later, I had the opportunity to go back and teach in France for a year.  I jumped at the chance, and I swore by the time I left, no one would ever again say to me, “Oh, you speak French so well for an American.”  Everyone who said it intended it as a compliment.  I always knew that.  But if they said it, I’d said something wrong, and that was unacceptable.

I haven’t heard that sentence, except from people who know me and so know I’m American, since halfway through that year, and to this day, I only speak French with my children. They don’t always answer me in French, but they understand me perfectly.

That’s the history, the facts, but I was one of twenty students who went to France that semester, yet I seem to be the only one who fell in love.  So the question becomes what is it about France that captivates me so?
I’m not sure there’s an easy answer for that, but the simplest answer is another little anecdote.  I went back to France in June 2001 for a wedding after a very stressful school year.  Back in Dijon again, I visited old friends and wandered the city where I fell in love with France and with my husband.  Despite having moved back to the US six years earlier, I ran into people I knew in stores I had frequented and even on the street.  Talk about a small world!  In the week I was there, all the stress from the school year disappeared and I went from being miserable to feeling like I was home.

That sums it up for me in a way little else does.  France feels like home.  I love the cafĂ© culture.  I love the “bises” they give each other when they greet their friends. I love the fact that when I was in a grocery store, I overheard a woman complaining about some fresh produce smelling like it had been refrigerated.  She was used to getting things fresh from the farm two or three times a week at the local market.  I love the fact that there’s a different kind of cheese for every day of the year.  I love the fact that I never needed a car when I lived there because the public transportation was extensive enough and reliable enough that it was a viable option, not just for me but for the French as well. I love the fact that there’s another piece of history around every corner.  When I called home the first time after arriving in France, my mother asked me what I thought, and my reaction was that everything was so old.  Not run down, but ancient.  There are businesses in Dijon that predate Columbus’s discovery of the Americas.  Not just buildings. Businesses.
 
Even more than all of that, though, I love the people. I know the French have the reputation for being snobby or cold or reserved, but I have never been treated that way.  20 years later, I still keep in touch with that first family I lived with and their three daughters.  I attended all three of their weddings.  I still exchange letters with my former colleagues from when I taught there. I have friends all over the country who open their homes to me any time I come to visit.  In every town and city I visited, even Paris, people went out of their way to be helpful to me, whether I was by myself or with my husband and two kids. My son was nine months old the last time we went to France. Americans told us we were crazy. I told them we’d be fine, and we were.  Someone grabbed the other end of the stroller every time we encountered steps with no elevator or escalator.

So why are so many of my stories set in France? The answer is really quite simple.

I’m American by birth, but my heart belongs to France.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

A stunning review for Fallout

I promise I won't smother you with all the reviews I get for my books. There are too many of them, for one thing, and you're not here to read my reviews for another, but I had to share this one because it's a review that really made me think about my writing and the choices I make as a writer.

Here's the link, first of all.

Now for the thinking part...


I don't write my books lightly, even when the result is light romance. I choose my characters, my settings, my situations, with care, and that's something this reviewer really seems to get. When she talks about Derek, and especially about Sambit, she sees that the choices I made weren't random ones. It's no secret I love India, the country, the culture, the people. I married a man from there, so yeah, no surprise, but one of the things I love about it is the dichotomy between this incredibly advanced technological country and the old-fashioned patterns of behavior, food, etc, that are still everywhere. Sambit's line when he asks Derek if he can make sambar? My mother-in-law told me once she judges every Indian household or restaurant she goes to by the quality of its sambar. If the sambar isn't up to snuff, she doesn't go back if it's a restaurant or finds a way not to go at meal times if it's a household. The reaction of the Indian community to Derek coming to Diwali in a kurta pajama (Derek's is the gold one, Sambit's is the turquoise one) has been played out at every Indian celebration I've gone to. "Who helped you put on your sari?" is the most common question. When I tell them I tied it myself, I'm immediately adopted because most of the Indian women who didn't grow up in India can't tie their own. They choose to wear a salwar kameez instead.

I haven't worked at a nuclear plant, but I learned a long time ago how to research things, and I take the time to do that research, whether it's into rally car racing (Overdrive), nuclear reactors (Fallout), or Australian sheep stations (Inherit the Sky and Chase the Stars). It's nice to see that research paying off in a story that feels real to the reviewer.

More than anything, though, it was this line that caught and held me:"the story of a real,wonderful relationship between two men caught up in a natural disaster." When I had my web site redesigned, I spent some time working out a new tag line: real characters, raw emotion, an authentic journey to love. That one line from the reviewer at Joyfully Jay tells me I did what I promise readers I will do. I lived up to my tagline and brought my readers another authentic journey.

So hats off to research and realism and making conscious choices in my books, but mostly, here's to readers and reviewers who take the time to get it.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Eye Candy


I like men. This shouldn't come to any surprise to anyone who's been to my web site, read any of my books, followed me on Facebook, or had much of any other interaction with me. I'm as happy to share pictures of attractive men as pretty much anything else.

So imagine my surprise when the inspiration I drew from my week in P-town last week came not from the cute boys (and they were cute boys!) in the cast of Naked Boys Singing, but from the perfectly average Bears walking around town. Yes, I was surprised as you are. I’ve always tended toward the sleek bodies with my men, even when they’re scruffy. (Why yes, I fell in love with Aragorn ten years ago.) You won’t find muscle-bound men in my books. They’re strong enough to do what needs to be done, but they don’t spend hours in the gym trying to see how bulked up they can get. I don’t mind a light dusting of chest hair, but no pelts, thank you, and definitely no potbellies.

So why, you’re probably wondering, was I so inspired by the Bears rather than the beautiful boys on stage? Because the Bears were walking around town holding hands and acting like men in love, and if there’s one thing that inspires me more than anything else, it’s seeing the ultimate goal of all of my books played out in real life. Derek and Sambit, Beau and Jacob, Shane and Jean-Mathias, Brett and Gerald, and all the others might not look like Bears during the points in their lives when I was writing about them. They may never look like Bears, but I wrote about them as they were striving to find and to hold onto exactly what those men in P-town were living with smiles and laughter and gracious generosity. (That’s the topic for another post. I’ve never been treated so well as I was by the many wonderful gentlemen we encountered while we traveled.) They were striving to find love.

And if that isn’t inspiring, I don’t know what is. So I have a new definition of eye candy after my trip last week: couples in love. Be sure I’ll share pictures as I find them. The men may not always be beautiful, but the love between them will be.



Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Why I write gay fiction


I get the occasional odd look when people realize I write gay fiction. Married woman in her early forties with two kids, no gay siblings or cousins or aunts or uncles or anyone in my immediate family as far as I'm aware. (There is a second cousin once removed, but I've never actually met him, just heard about him.) So what in the world am I doing writing gay fiction?

There's a couple of answers to that question, both lighthearted and serious. I like men. More men is better. That's the lighthearted part, but it's also true. I like the idea. It appeals to me. Does that make me a pervert? I suppose that depends on who you ask.

But it doesn't stop there. If it did, I'd just subscribe to gay porn sites and read the amazing books written by other writers in this genre. It's also, to me, a quiet form of social activism.

When I attended my first Cincinnati Pride Festival four years ago and ran a booth for Dreamspinner, the reaction I got from the men there left me reeling. Men of every age, size, race, and degree of flamboyant stopped at our table, picked up our books, and said, "These are about men like me?" I said yes because even if the specific book didn't mirror the specific man, the men weren't asking to that degree of specificity. "Books with happy endings?" "Well, most of them," I replied. "I didn't know there was such a thing!" Some of them bought books, some of them took cards, many of them hugged us, and all of them, every last one, thanked us for caring enough about them and their situation to write books about them as they were, living their normal lives, and looking for love.

This has played out numerous other times since then, at other events, in large groups and small.

But our audience isn't, and shouldn't be, just gay men. Our audience is wider than that. There's a funny story from the first year Dreamspinner had a booth at Book Expo America. We were giving out gift bags of books to pretty much anyone who came by. A woman probably in her sixties came to the booth and congratulated us for what we were doing, even though she wasn't sure she wanted to read the books herself. We convinced her to take a copy of Curious, since the whole point of that anthology was to provide an introduction to gay romance to women unfamiliar with the genre. She took the book finally. The next day she came back to the booth. "I read that book you gave me last night. It was really good. Do you have anything a little... spicier?" We sent her home with the full gift bag.

That woman may not be a regular Dreamspinner customer now. I have no way of knowing that. But I know she looks at gay couples with a more open mind for having read and enjoyed our books. How can she not? How can she read Checkmate or Tigers and Devils or any of the other eight titles that were given away that year and not look at them differently? Yes, our books, my books as an author, feature gay men, but the stories are bigger than that. They're about love. Period.

Alliance in Blood is being translated into French, Spanish, and Italian to my utter delight, and the translators have corresponded with me several times since they started. The consistent theme of their e-mails has been how the love between the characters happens to be between two men, but the relationship they're building is universal. And isn't that what it's all about? Showing our characters, our men, as the guys next door or down the street or across town who want nothing more than to be able to love one another freely and without fear?

Maybe, just maybe, I'm doing a small part to contribute to the day when that will be reality, not a dream. If one person walks away from my body of work with a more open mind than when they arrived, I will have left a mark in the world that's worth being proud of.