Welcome to my new series, #AuthorInterview where I interview authors of all kinds to find out a little more about them.
For my first interview in this series, I introduce to you the author Erato.
To begin with, I’m going to request something of you instead of asking a question. As an introduction to the readers, describe yourself in three sentences.
You know this is only going to be interesting if I exaggerate horribly in one direction or the other. Either I’m the most vile of creatures, or I have to outdo Mohammed Ali’s “I am the greatest” speech.
My first legitimate question for this interview is: What three books inspired you to become a writer? I know this is a very typically question, so I wanted to try to make it a little more unique than the typical “what inspired you” question.
My origins as a writer were actually in screenwriting. The trouble with that, is a script is worthless unless it actually gets made into a film; and nothing I was writing was tending that way, after more than 15 years at it. So, I went into books because at least that way, the book is the finished product. Consequently, it wasn’t really books, but rather films that inspired me to be a writer.
Recently, I read your book “The Virgin and the Bull” and I thought it was fantastic! To introduce this book to new readers, how would you describe this book in 3 words?
Thank you very much, I’m glad you liked it. As for a three word description: Noir Historical Thriller.
I found this book to be a unique spin on a historical, fictional romance novel. It’s not purely one genre, and it takes giant leaps and bounds outside of the norm. Was this your original intention or did it just all fall into place like that?
I was actually intending to write a really commercial romance, like something for Harlequin or one of those kind of publishers… so I just kind of tried to think of the greatest romance stories and do something in that vein, plus added sex scenes (as Harlequin is famed for.) Now, trouble is, it hadn’t occurred to me that in the current romance market they would probably refuse all the greats. Romeo and Juliet? It doesn’t have an HEA and it’s not told from the female perspective and the suicide and gang violence is triggering, and the heroine is underage, and not to mention it’s in script format and you need footnotes in most editions. No way, change that to have a happy ending, make Juliet at least eighteen, get rid of all that Mercutio stuff, and make sure nothing distressing happens in the story. This should be a fun a relaxing experience, to read. Ugh.
I was pretty proud of Virgin and the Bull, but then when I started looking for romance publishers, they usually listed elements that would get your novel automatically rejected, and those lists amounted to practically everything in it. So, then I tried sending it to some other, more versatile publishers, but I couldn’t figure out what genre it was if it wasn’t a historical romance, and most didn’t want those anyway, so I never heard back from them. While I was waiting to hear back from publishers, I passed a couple months writing a different book, The Cut of the Clothes, which was a retelling of a true story. For that, I used Norma Desmond as my model for a lot of Prinny’s behavior (the real life Prinny, a.k.a. King George IV, really sounded like that type, that sort of combination of neediness and arrogance and glamour and crazy.) While in the midst of watching a semi-continuous loop of Sunset Boulevard — a famous film noir — I realized that Virgin and the Bull was also structured according to a noir model, just by chance. So that gave me a better idea of how I could pitch it. (Note that a lot of people conflate noir with mysteries or detective stories, but as I was taught, it refers to a particular story structure, which can be summed up as: There are no good guys. Sunset Boulevard is an excellent example of a non-detective, non-mystery noir.)
The clincher was when I started preparing to self-publish, and I began to ask advice in a couple of Regency fiction groups. The people there seemed to not even be capable of comprehending what the story was meant to be. They were confused by the noir, by the male lead; then I showed an early idea for cover art, which was basically an image meant to represent the prelude to the rape scene. (Old pulps had great success by just showing covers that depicted the most violent moment in the whole book, and I was intending on going that route.) No one could seem to understand that this image might be any kind of accurate depiction of something in the book. They just kept complaining it looked like exactly what it was supposed to look like, as if I had chosen the image by mistake and couldn’t have meant that, then suggesting instead I should use a stock cover of a happy smiling couple at a ball — as if a Regency-set story couldn’t possibly be about anything but a happy smiling couple at a ball. (If you were to read Virgin and the Bull with the expectation that it was going to be a story about a happy smiling couple at a ball, you’d be disappointed if not downright offended by what it really is. The main character kills himself on page one — that should well establish that no one is going to be happy and smiling for any length of time.) So from that point on, I resolved that it was no longer a romance, no longer Regency — from then on I declared it a thriller. You can have all the sex and shootouts and suicides and rapes and infidelities you want in a thriller, and it’s perfectly normal. Every Alfred Hitchcock movie has a romantic subplot, that part’s fine — I just made sure to play up the crime elements, which were already there. Nevertheless, if you describe the plot in any more detail than what’s on the back cover, it does kind of become apparent that the heart of the story is a romance involving an arranged marriage.
I think ultimately the reason it’s very different from most romances, is I don’t read a lot of modern romance novels — most of what I read is like 200 years old, and the standards were totally different in the past. Romance wasn’t just for women, so they’d have action scenes and violence of a sort that is done in epic romance movies still (think Titanic) but seems to have fallen out of use for books. I guess the reason is movies are still designed to appeal to both men and women, but these days there’s a presumption that a man will never read a book unless it’s a straight horror or crime novel — with the upshot being that men who read are also developing these expectations, that anything romantic is “for girls.” I suppose that somewhat means it goes back to my screenwriting training again, too.
One big change about this book compared to other romance novels I’ve read, is the male lead. Can you explain why you chose to do this? Perhaps, what your inspirations were?
Many of my favorite romances have male leads: The Age of Innocence, La Dame aux Camelias, The Sorrows of Young Werther. Now, if your leading man’s personality is going to just amount to “Sexy Duke” I can see why it makes sense not to write a story from his viewpoint. La Dame aux Camelias and Werther were actually written by male authors and both were inspired by true stories. These are not tales of sex-crazed rakes who go bodice-ripping through life: these guys have thoughts and emotions, they just love their women to death but are constantly screwing things up by being selfish or jealous or acting in some way that they regret in hindsight; by the end they’re going around sobbing and asking themselves “Why am I so stupid?” — and that seems a lot more real to me, both for male and female behaviors. For some reason, female romance leads are more likely to just be victims of circumstance, and everything else about them is supposedly perfect — if they have flaws at all it’s not usually a true flaw, it’ll be something like “She’s too progressive for her era” that no one reading the book is really likely to fault her for. I have a lot of trouble getting through stories in which the main character is presented as virtually perfect: I find that to be an unbearable character flaw.
Now, as to why I chose Charles Macgregor for the lead in this story… well, I was used to reading romances with male leads, so I didn’t think anything of it. I was actually rather horrified when I found that most present-day romance readers look at a male lead as a violation of “the rules,” unless of course it’s a gay romance. The origin of The Virgin and the Bull’s plotline was something I had originally wanted for the Regency Romantics series (a bunch of novellas without sex scenes that I did in 2017.) It was a bit too long for the novellas, though, so I used a trimmed down version of the storyline to make the book In the Fire. That one had the girl as the main character; but the equivalent character to Macgregor was a fellow named Richard Kensington, who I had thought was kind of interesting. I wanted to see more of him, so I decided I would make him into the lead of the new story. Now, Macgregor swiftly developed a somewhat different personality from Kensington, but his establishment as the main character was pretty much fixed. When editing the letters, I found you can actually cut virtually all of the other character’s notes and still have a complete story just with Macgregor’s words alone.
Jumping back away from the book and more about you, if you could collab with any author, who would you collab with? Also, what would that book be about?
Ha, you know, the nearest thing I had to success as a screenwriter was actually a situation where I almost did get to collaborate with my favorite writer, but, that fell apart and never actually happened, and the whole thing is really kind of an embarrassment at this point. I won’t name him. The script was a satirical horror movie.
Authors have different inspirations and goals as a writer, all of which are unique and interesting to hear! What would you describe as a milestone, or how you would deem yourself “successful” as an author in the future?
If these books actually start turning a profit.
One aspect of writing that authors sometimes find difficult is jumping genres. If you were forced to jump into a genre you haven’t written before, which one would you choose?
Ehh, I think we found with Virgin and the Bull that the genres just end up being whatever the best storyline dictates they have to be. I’ve actually worked in a lot of different genres, I just keep the Erato pen name exclusive to historical novels.
If we go by genres I’ve never written before, but would like to try… maybe a Disney fairytale kind of story. A few years ago I actually was going to write a script for one, on spec; but by total chance Disney turned out to be making something really really similar already, so I dropped it before I ever really began.
Back to “The Virgin and the Bull” – what inspired the title and the cover?
When I was writing the book, I kept trying to come up with a good title… I think the placeholder name was just “Constance” but, despite there being a long tradition of naming stories after one of the characters, I don’t actually think those are good titles. A character name could be anything — “Constance” could be a silly comedy, or it could be about a 5 year old dying in the holocaust. It just says nothing about the content. You’d have to look at the font to figure out what it’s about. So, while writing, I would periodically try out a new title; and I tried several other things that didn’t work. I remember there was a phase of titles involving the word “Proclivities.” There was another bunch that were Shakespeare quotes. Then, a bit more than halfway through the book, we get to that scene where Exenchester and Constance visit the Temple of the Sun at Kew Gardens, and start talking about everyone’s zodiac sign. Exenchester is a Virgo; Macgregor is a Taurus. And suddenly I had a title that worked — enigmatic and possibly sexy.
As for the cover — well, I told previously of the aborted pulp-style cover I had originally intended. When I decided to pitch it as a thriller, I found that people interested in thrillers didn’t like the historical aspect, so I realized I couldn’t use art that showed costumes. It would have to be something more symbolic. I ended up going for a personification of a virgin and bull on the cover, in a somewhat surrealist style based on posters for David Lynch movies and posters for productions of Peter Schaffer’s Equus. I wanted it to look kind of pretentious: it’s the kind of book that has Robert Fergusson poems and quotes from Cicero’s orations, written by someone using a Greek muse for her pen name. That’s about as pretentious as it gets. Footnotes, man.
For my second last question, if “The Virgin and the Bull” was made into a movie and you had to cast the characters, who would you cast?
I’ve considered that. It’s tricky because the leads are so young, anyone the right age will probably outgrow the role in about two weeks… I don’t actually know of any actors the right ages and types at the moment. Constance is kind of modeled on Ann-Margret and Helen (a Bollywood dancer who specialized in “foreign devil” roles), she really needs strong sexual energy. Macgregor is the kind of role they probably would have given to Ewan McGregor 20 years ago, even though he was never hunky enough; Evan Williams physically is the right type, but is a little too old now. In contrast, Exenchester is a ridiculous little dweeb; he was partially modeled after Simon Helberg’s depiction of Cosme McMoon in the Florence Foster Jenkins movie; slightly effeminate and quite awkward. It’s a role you’d probably give a comic actor who is trying to make a crossover. Virgin and the Bull would be a pretty terrible candidate for a movie adaption though, since the main character is bedridden for half the story, and no one is ever actually in the room together — they’re just writing letters all the time, the action of the story is everyone reading and writing letters.
My final question for this interview, is what question have you been dying to answer that you haven’t been asked yet? And answer it, of course!
“What do you think is the most exciting moment in the book?” — Well, the tension is designed to steadily increase throughout, so naturally that means the climax is where everything goes over the top. It’s got something of a stacked battle, with the “sex letter” being the first part of it. One might or might not enjoy the sexy time being had within the letter, but the fact is that Charles Macgregor is reading this whole thing too, and doubtless having a heart attack at these vivid descriptions. Everything he does in the rest of the story, including kill himself, is a reaction to that letter — so of course his actions get pretty intense when he’s confronted with the culprits of what he just read. The last battle actually had to be rewritten multiple times: the first version came out like something from a commedia dell’arte, it didn’t quite work, wasn’t dramatic enough. Second draft got more violent, but in that version Exenchester handled himself in a way he could be proud of, and that didn’t work (Exie is a bizarrely powerful character, and if he ever seizes that power it’s suddenly overwhelming.) I wrote about six variants of that version, none of them working; so then I decided to try a version where Macgregor actually killed Exenchester. That also didn’t quite work, but it was better — I found Exenchester needed to be scared out of his wits for the scene to succeed. So at last we have the final confrontation between Macgregor and Exenchester where Macgregor is just bullying this poor crying clergyman, and the thing is, that poor crying clergyman is the last hope for a happy ending in this story… that’s tension, there.
Thank you to the always wonderful Erato for taking part in this author interview! After reading The Virgin and the Bull, I was blown away. Stay tuned for my review of the novel, coming out next month! If you’re looking for an epic new book to read, check out this noir, historical novel that has loads of drama, action and romance! It’s a must read on my shelf and I highly recommend it!
To find out more about Erato, check out her Facebook page.
Who else would you like to see included in this series? Comment below!
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Photo from the author Erato.