Before A Great Rough Diamond came out, my friend, Sam Wiebe, and I sat down to talk about it. He’s a crime writer (with a book coming out next year!), and I’m a romance writer, but when we’re together, all we talk about is telling stories.
Q: What do you think makes you unique from other writers tackling the same subject matter?
A: A lot of the romances these days have some kind of paranormal twist to them. They’re either sci-fi or knights or Romans or dragons or vampires, obviously, is the biggest one right now.
What I wanted to write was just stories about people that I see as my friends. Just regular people, with regular jobs, who live in regular cities. I kind of created this tagline of Boring People With Ordinary Lives. But that isn’t really true because they’re not boring, they’re just not the people you see in books every day. They don’t go on grand adventures. Their grand adventure is life.
A Great Rough Diamond is about two guys, who have been together for a couple of years, and now they’re living together. One of them has moved across the country to live with the other one. Now they’re trying to figure out how their lives fit together, and whether they want to get married or not. If that’s something that they need in their lives.
Q: Tell us about where the book came from.
A: It actually came from somewhere very specific. Torquere Press does a lot of open calls. So they’ll say, here’s a theme, here’s a deadline, here’s a word count, write something and send it to us. Every month, they do a Birthstone series. April is diamond, so they want a story around diamonds.
It was really that pragmatic. But of course, I didn’t want to do a diamond ring. I didn’t want to do diamonds as in jewellery. I actually started thinking about a blood diamond story, but that seemed too political for such a short word count. It was maybe more of a novel, than a novella.
So then I got this idea of diamond records. The diamond certification of 10 million records. The first record to go diamond was Michael Jackson’s Thriller. So that’s what I’ve built the story around. The idea of giving Michael Jackson’s Thriller as an engagement present. “This is my diamond for you.”
Then I had to work back to what kind of person would give a record as an engagement present and what kind of person would want a record as an engagement present. So that created the characters. Once I had the characters, I could figure out the story.
Q: Could you talk more about the characters?
A: Charlie is a musician. He’s a drummer, and he’s in a band with two other people, his two best friends, Sean and Heidi. And they’re middle-of-the-road famous. They’re famous enough that they do this as their day job. They sell records, and they go on tour. But they’re not quite Justin Bieber famous.
They go on tour a lot, which is how he and Wes met, because Wes works in radio. Wes is a podcaster, which is kind of weird. I’ve kind of wondered if this is the first romance novel about a podcaster. Because it’s such a new job. He tells stories, and he records them, and he puts them online, and that’s what he does for a living.
Charlie is very outgoing, extroverted. I thought of him as a Mick Fleetwood guy, behind the drums. He’s the big, bear, daddy character. Not in the gay genre sense, but the heart of the group. He’s the papa bear who holds everyone together.
And then Wes is much more quiet. And he doesn’t know yet how he fits in with all of Charlie’s friends.
Q: A quiet podcaster?
A: In the sense that writers can be more quiet people. Where they feel most comfortable is in front of a microphone than a huge crowd of people.
Q: When I think of the typical romance hero: shirtless, Fabio, maybe in a kilt or a pirate costume. How do you deal with the reader’s expectations of the romance genre? Do you try to play with them or against them deliberately?
A: Absolutely deliberately. And it’s one of the reasons why I decided not to put male models on the cover of the book. I didn’t want those kinds of preconceptions in the reader’s mind before they started reading. Because Charlie and Wes are not typical romance heroes. Charlie may be–I kind of based him on a really extroverted, sporty, athletic-looking. He’s got a big bushy beard. He’s very good looking, but not in that Fabio sense. Not in the typical sense. He’s a musician, too, so he’s kind of a rock star. So that is a little bit typical.
I definitely don’t want to write those kinds of romantic heroes. Because for me, that’s not my romantic hero. And so much of writing romance is writing your own fantasies out loud. Especially after reading so many and not seeing what I wanted. I had to write what I wanted.
Q: Clothing plays an important part in your writing. What is it about clothing that defines someone, and why do you find that such an important symbol of someone’s character?
A: Well, in this book, not so much. In this one, it takes place all at one party, so Charlie actually spends most of the book sweaty, because he’s been playing drums. So he’s just wearing comfortable sweatpants and t-shirt kind of clothes. But he’s totally that guy. Also, because he’s the drummer. He is not the front man, so he’s very much, like, I’m back here playing the drums. If I get sweat on you, I’m sorry.
And then Wes works in radio. He’s not so much concerned with appearance also. The one moment I can think of where clothing defines a character is I describe the dress Heidi is wearing. She’s wearing a very 1950s, poofy skirt, red apples, and red cardigan. I really wanted her to be a real girly girl in contrast with all these guys she hangs out with.
She is very definitely a woman. Because she’s in a band with two other guys, and a lot of her friends are guys, so I really wanted to have that strong femininity at the centre of this book.
Q: What makes a great love story?
A: I think it’s all about characters. I think you have to–the reader has to fall in love with at least one of the characters. You have to root for these people to fall in love. I’ve been reading a lot of Harlequin novels recently. I’ve set myself a challenge to read a whole bunch of romance novels this year because even though I love writing love stories–and I tend to call them love stories. I don’t tend to call myself a romance novelist. And that’s kind of an elitist thing on my part. And I recognize that as a snobby thing, where I don’t want to be associated with romance novels because I don’t think romance novels are very good.
But at the same time, I’ve never really read that many. So I’m trying to challenge myself and stretch myself and read more of what sells. Like the really popular stuff, like the Harlequins. I’ve been reading those, and a lot of times, I don’t care about these people. I don’t know anything about them apart from their job and what small town they live in, and you’re supposed to believe they just fall in love. I think there needs to be so much more.
Yes, they need to be good looking. You have to have an idea of what they look like. But I’m not a very descriptive writer. I tend to put a lot more stock in who they are and what they love. Not necessarily what is their job, but what do they love to do. Like Wes is a podcaster, radio broadcaster, that is his job. But a huge part of this book is how much he loves to cook. Cooking for their friends, inviting them over, making sure that they have a good time. That is a good part of who he is.
Part of that is the idea in the gay community that you have to create your own family. A lot of times, people are rejected from their born family, so they go out there and find friends and lovers and roommates, and they create a family out of that. So that’s a really important idea that I wanted to see in books.
Q: A lot of the most famous and iconic love stories–Gone with the Wind, Casablanca, Farewell to Arms, Romeo and Juliet–they all end tragical, or at the very least, sadly. The two characters don’t get together. What is it about that genre that the average romance novel features a marriage at the end, but the really great ones seem to thwart that.
A: You think about Shakespeare’s comedies, and how they’re defined by the marriage at the end. That feels so pat. Especially for someone like myself who doesn’t necessarily see marriage and babies at the end of my life as success. And I know a lot of people like that. So I want to write a love story for them.
My book has a happy ending, but it’s not a marriage at the end. But I think those kinds of stories are valid. And those kinds of stories can be happy, too. Because it’s not about the marriage, it’s about coming to the decision together, and deciding what makes the two of you happy together. And there are all different kinds of ways of being happy. That’s what we don’t see enough of in romance novels.
Q: Could you talk about setting and what kind of pressure there is as a Canadian writer to make the setting less Canadian?
A: I think I’m a little bit luckier that I’m publishing with an ebook publishing because it’s much less anchored to a place. It’s only sold on the internet, so there’s going to be sales from all over the world, instead of whoever walks into one particular bookstore or one particular chain of bookstores that a publisher has a relationship with. So I’m lucky in that sense that I could set it anywhere.
But I did consciously decide, and I have consciously decided, to set most of my stories in America and in American cities. Simply because that’s what feels safe and familiar for a lot of readers. That’s what they see on television, that’s what they know. I do try to get away from Los Angeles or New York. This one is set in Chicago, and I simply chose Chicago because snow is important to the story. One of the first ideas of the diamond metaphor that I had was ice on a window, and how it looks like diamonds.
The very first idea I had was a band, who just gets together at somebody’s house, but then they get snowed in. So because they get snowed in over a weekend, they decide to just make an album. But that one just got too big.
I have one set in Chicago and one set in Seattle, which is a city that I know very well. I feel like, as a Vancouver writer, I can write a lot of the Pacific Northwest things into a Seattle story very easily. I think I could write a Portland story for easily as well. And just today, I decided to set my next one in Cleveland. I don’t know anything about Cleveland, but what I really wanted was a suburban city, and I didn’t want it to be in the South, but I needed it to be a little intolerant.
Q: The other part of setting, besides geographical location, is building a world. Are your novels set in the same world, is there an internal consistency?
A: It’s absolutely real to life, very contemporary. I don’t tend to set it in the past. (Although I was very seriously thinking about setting my new one in the 1950s, and I almost did it, but I realised I wasn’t going to have time to do enough research.) No, but I really just like to write about the world right now. Because I think so much of fiction right now is moving away from real life. There are so many historical novels out there, especially historical romance. And there’s so many sci-fi, and there’s so much paranormal, and there’s so much supernatural added to the real world.
Q: Do you think that’s a fear of writing about now?
A: I don’t know. I think a lot of it is–I don’t know that I would call it a fear, but I would call it an escape. Wanting to escape to something easier. I think we’re just in a cycle right now. Because if you wrote about people right now, you’d have to look at the world right now.
That’s not to take anything away from the fantasy fiction being written right now. It’s just not my particular cup of tea.
Q: Talk about the cover art, because that’s always one of the new author’s anxieties.
A: I was really opposed to having people on the cover, and we kind of talked about this. Part of it is the preconception, and I didn’t want the cover to dictate the story. I wanted the cover to suggest the story. I wanted people to go into it thinking, This is interesting. I wonder what this is about. Rather than, Wow, those two guys look good. I wonder if they kiss in the end. Because they’re going to kiss. Actually, they have sex right at the beginning of the book, so there’s no mystery. It’s very much an established romance. They’re already together, and the problems are them figuring things out.
So it’s not, I wonder if these two people are going to get together. It’s, I wonder what this is about. Let’s peek inside these people’s lives for a while. So my cover is a window, with snow and candles. I like that idea of the cover being an invitation to come into these people’s lives for a night, and meet their friends, and eat their food, and listen to their music.
Q: That segues into a question about sex scenes: gratuitous or non-gratuitous. Obviously, people are reading for tittilation of one kind or another, whether that’s intellectual or erotic. What do you think the expectations are as to writing sex into a romance?
A: My publisher has a heat rating, and they name the levels after chili peppers, which is a very cute motif. They publish anything from fading to black to actual body parts and fluids. But I don’t think about that as I’m writing it. I don’t think about would I categorize this as teen, mature, NC-17, or X. I write the scene that the conflict requires. I write the scene that the characters require, at that moment. I try to write not a lot of sex.
In every book, there should be no scene that doesn’t inform the characters and move the plot forward. The sex absolutely moves the plot forward. When they’re fighting, and Charlie wants to have sex, Wes pushes him away, and that means something. When they make up, Wes wants to have sex, and that means something. When they’re happy, they kiss, they hold hands. Charlie’s a big guy; he wraps Wes up in a big bear hug, and that means something. All those touches inform the character. Do they like to be touched in public? Do they like to be kissed in public? Do they not? All of that informs the characters, informs the story, and I think it’s absolutely not gratuitous at all.
I look at it as what I like as well. I’m not a video porn person. I’ve always been a reader, and I’ve always been a writer. So I like to read about that, too.
Q: One of the things about working in a genre, or working against a genre, is that you have, unless you’re very lucky and your taste runs exactly to the dictates of the market, you end up with those dictates on one side and your creative instincts on another. You have to try to reconcile those. Would you write a typical romance? Are there certain things you’re comfortable changing?
A: I can’t fully answer that yet because I don’t know how my book is going to be received. I’m very lucky that my publisher publishes such a wide range of genres and heat levels and subject matters, that they really give you a lot of freedom. Working through the edits with my editor was great where he just said, This is a fun story, let’s just clean it up a little bit, add a little more conflict, develop this scene.
I really think the romance genre is so much bigger than what people see it as. There are so many romance novels which are waitresses in cupcake stores, and some guys pulls up in a truck with a dog in the front seat, and there’s some kind of adventure where they have to find a murderer, and then they fall in love. But there’s so much space for the everyday stories that we haven’t seen yet. So I hope that the market is big enough to encapsulate the stories I want to tell.
But I have written straight romance. I really just want to write love stories. Me, personally, I am straight. I’m a straight woman. So I want to read the kinds of heterosexual romances that I wish I had. My own fantasy of romance. The reason that I like gay romance is simply because it’s different. It’s something that you don’t see. You see so many–on television, especially–men falling in love with women, women falling in love with men. You don’t see a lot of men falling in love with men. I write it because I want to read it. I want to read something different.
But I don’t rule out writing straight romance.
Q: What about any upcoming projects? What’s next?
A: The second novella comes out May 15th. I am writing–just starting right now, just trying to figure out the plot. I have the characters. It’s a couple that have been together for a while, and they move into a suburban, middle-of-America neighbourhood. They kind of get along, but they feel weird being out, because they’re the only gay couple in a neighbourhood of straight couples and kids and dogs and barbecues and fireworks and that kind of thing. I haven’t quite figured out what the turning conflict is, but that’s the germ of the story. They’re going to have a big fight, but then they’re going to make up.