We’re Talking Heidi Belleau & Violetta Vane and The Saturnalia Effect – Oh My!

Thanks so much for taking the time to be with us today, Heidi & Violetta. Why don’t we start by having you tell us a bit about yourself and your background?

Heidi: Well, for starters I live in Northern Canada with my husband and four-month-old daughter. I have a degree in history and I’m a big nerd. (I feel these things go hand-in-hand.) I’ve been writing M/M since my teens, but it was only recently that I realized that it’s a real genre full of real readers and writers!

Violetta: I was raised by roaming hippies and eventually put down roots in the Southern US. My family values always involved questioning authority; I didn’t rebel against my parents by becoming a conservative, but I’m still not quite as eccentric as they are. I’m an Asian-American and ex-goth, among other things.

When did you discover your passion for writing? Was there someone in particular who encouraged and inspired your love of storytelling?

Heidi: Ever since I was a little girl! I remember writing a Sailor Moon ripoff “magical girl” series of stories in the fourth grade, and I was writing before that, too. I think the first time anyone suggested I might have a knack for it was in the sixth grade, when the librarian in my elementary school started personally tutoring me in creative writing, I think because she saw I had potential. She’s been supportive of my entire journey, although I don’t know if M/M erotic romance was quite what she had in mind for me. I know she’d be proud regardless!

Violetta: I wrote poetry as a young child, including some very odd, anachronistic stuff that was inspired by Robert E. Howard. I was in academia for a while, and wrote lots of essays, trying to master style as much as content, but I was never really happy with that path. Then, for several years I worked on some pretty intense memoir essays in a specialized field. Finally, I started writing fiction, and something clicked. I love this!

How long does it typically take you to write a book, then see it through the publishing process?

Heidi: That depends entirely on the book length! Violetta and I have written stories that are anywhere from 15,000 words right up to 130,000 so I can’t say there’s any hard and fast number.

Violetta: The turnaround for The Saturnalia Effect was speedy, probably because we wrote it for a call. It took about a week of intense planning, two weeks of writing, another week of beta editing, two weeks of waiting to see if it would be accepted, a week of giddy celebration after it was accepted, a few weeks of relaxing, a week of final editing, a week of gasping OMG OUR COVER ARTWORK IS OUTRAGEOUSLY AMAZING across all social media, and then several weeks of promotion. Storm Moon Press has been fantastic to work with throughout all of this.

Do the titles of your books generally come to you as you’re writing, or do you know what they’ll be called before the writing process begins?

Heidi: Once again, that depends. With The Saturnalia Effect, we knew our title pretty much immediately, when we were in the planning stages even, but a lot of the time it takes a bit of back and forth to come to something that works.

Violetta: We like to give our work a short title immediately after beginning, although we try not to get too attached to it in case a better one comes along. But The Saturnalia Effect turned out to be perfect.

Asking this question might be a bit like asking you to choose one child over another, but of all the characters you’ve created, do you have one who stands out among the others as a favorite? If so, who and why?

Heidi: That is a tough question! I’m going to have to say Sean O’Hara from our big fantasy novel that’s out on subs right now. I love his resilience and the growth he goes through over the course of the novel. At first blush he seems very reactionary and a bit immature, but over the course of the book you come to realize he’s so much more. That’s my favourite kind of character in general, really: one who surprises you.

Violetta: I love Sean so damn much, too. And it was such a validation to track the reactions of our beta readers to Sean: at first encounter, a wary irritation, deepening slowly into respect and fascination.

When someone reads one of your books for the first time, what do you hope s/he takes away from the experience?

Heidi: I just hope that for however long they were reading, I helped them to feel some real emotion, whether that’s sadness or excitement or anxiety or arousal. However, if they read a story of mine and are still thinking about it a week, a month, a year later? Then I’ll know I’ve really done well.

Violetta: Whether they loved it or hated it, I hope they come away with a sense of honesty. It’s hard to explain–I don’t mean not messing with readers’ minds, because many readers love that and look for that in stories–but there’s a sort of creative honesty that always impresses me in the books I love.

How much creative input do you have in the cover design of your books?

Heidi: Storm Moon Press gives authors this amazingly detailed worksheet for the cover artist to work from, so for The Saturnalia Effect, we had an amazing amount of control, actually, right down to the expression on Troy’s face! The artist originally had this incredibly sexy, captivating expression where Troy was looking “into the camera” as it were, and it was really breathtaking but it didn’t fit who he was as a person, and we were able to actually say “can you try X” and “can you make him look a little more Y”, which is absolutely fantastic.

Violetta: I always like to be prepared for the worst-case scenario. I was determined to grit my teeth and nod politely if we happened to end up with a horrendous, cheap-looking Photoshop with dead-eyed Ken-doll men. Instead, we got a jaw-dropping piece of original artwork tailored to fit the story.

Is there a particular sub-genre in which you enjoy writing more than others? (i.e. paranormal vs. historical vs. contemporary)

Heidi: Funnily enough, even though I did history in university and it’s a lifelong passion of mine, I have a very hard time writing it! I’m so worried about doing things wrong and not researching enough… it’s very paralyzing to me. I’m terrified of making mistakes. So when I write, there is a sense of history, and a respect for the enormity of history, but I feel much more comfortable writing in contemporary settings.

Violetta: I love writing any story where big things happen. I respect people who can make great art out of normal daily life, but I’m not able to do that. I’ve always had a fascination with the epic and the weird. Doing a quiet, slice-of-life contemporary would be quite difficult for me. I love fantasy and science fiction, and urban fantasy represents the ideal overlap of our interests as co-writers.

Do you prefer writing in the 1st or the 3rd person? What advantages do you see in writing in one vs. the other?

Heidi: I can do either, although everything I’ve been working on recently is in a close third. I think I like third just because you can use a slightly more authorial voice. I think writing, say, Troy in first person would be a bit tricky because he’s not had a lot of opportunities in life for education and he isn’t much of a reader, so I’d have a very limited vocabulary to work with if I wanted to write his “voice”. I prefer to write as me lurking around in his head, vocalizing things he might have trouble with.

Violetta: I’ve rarely written in anything other than third person. The years I spent working on memoir style would bleed into any attempt at first person, I think, but someday I really need to challenge myself in that direction. One skill I’d love to master is third-person omniscient. I’ve heard advice that modern stories shouldn’t use it, but I disagree: writers like Neil Gaiman often use it to brilliant effect.

Do you write full time? If not, how many hours per day do you attempt to dedicate to your writing?

Heidi: I’m a stay-at-home-mom, so some would say I do write full time, although I think parenting is my primary job, even if I don’t get paid. I generally write anywhere from one or two hours a day up to eight or nine, just depending on how motivated I’m feeling and how cooperative my daughter’s being.

Violetta: I have two children, and I homeschool the oldest. My days are tough. So are my evenings. I actually got more written when I was still working a full-time office job! I write whenever I can, in between the constant demands on my time. I’d love to write full-time, but that’s a far-off luxury still.

Do you typically outline your plots before you begin the writing process, or do you write in a more freestyle fashion?

Heidi: I think when you’re co-writing there isn’t as much room for that “by the seat of your pants” writing. We do definitely improvise and change tracks midstream, but we definitely plan a lot more than a solo author would have to, because we need to both be on the same page for everything from character motivation to plot to what purpose scenes serve.

Violetta: We outline very carefully. For a novel we wrote, we used spreadsheets and tension charts and enough Google Docs planning material to choke a digital/virtual horse. I’ve read too many romance stories with lackluster plots spackled over with filler. As a reader and a writer, I always want suspense. Sure, there’s going to be love and sex and a happy ever after, but how? There needs to be doubt, excitement, tension, real stakes. We like to keep our stories tight as hell. On the other hand, we do permit ourselves the flexibility to change some plans midstream if that’s what really makes the most sense for the characters. Also, our method of structuring often gives us more freedom to freestyle and get loose and poetic. It feels supportive, not constraining.

How much do your characters resemble you and/or the people you know?

Heidi: I think on some emotional level there is probably some of me in there, and I know when I wrote Cormac Kelly from our big fantasy novel, there was a dash of my husband in his dialogue when it came to Irish-isms, but otherwise, seeing as I’m a middle-class white girl from rural Canada whose biggest crime was shoplifting a pair of earrings as a teenager? I’d say I don’t much resemble my characters at all.

Violetta: Real life is like the seasoning that goes into the stew. There’s not a lot of it, but it really makes a big difference. As writers, we’re all influenced by other stories we read or watch or consume, consciously or subconsciously, so sometimes we end up repeating the same tropes and personality traits in our characters. At worst, it’s stereotypical: at best, it’s repetitive. Referring back to real life helps check that tendency and keep things fresh. But it’s a subtle feedback process. I can think of only one very minor character that I copied directly from someone I knew in real life, and even there I changed his nationality and speech mannerisms.

How much do you draw upon your own life experiences in your writing?

Heidi: More than I know, I bet!

Violetta: Directly? Not a lot. But it happens. For The Saturnalia Effect, when we were conceptualizing the failed robbery that got Troy Khoury sent to Westgate Prison, I thought about two experiences ducking semi-automatic gunfire – one in Mexico, one in a motel in Charlotte, North Carolina. For the story that we’re writing now, I’m drawing on scary moments swimming in rough oceans when I was younger. I live a sedentary life now, but I’ve got a somewhat checkered past!

Are you surprised by the ever growing female fan-base of Male/Male fiction?

Heidi: Not at all! Women have been slashing Holmes/Watson and Kirk/Spock for ages, and the whole yaoi genre of manga has been going strong in Japan for as long as I can remember (and probably longer still), so the fact that a romance genre about men in love with men exists and is written and read by women doesn’t shock me at all.

Violetta: Being Japanese-American and having ties to Japan, no, I wasn’t surprised. I’ve known for a long time that this was a genre that appealed primarily to women, but I honestly didn’t have a high opinion of it, because it seemed, well… schoolgirlish. However, I think I was operating on some stereotypes of my own, because when I actually started exploring m/m romance seriously, it turned out to be much more diverse than I expected, and included some very mature, sophisticated themes and perspectives. I’d thought it was something completely separate from “real” gay fiction written by and for gay men, but I discovered there are many areas where the two overlap.

When did you begin writing in the Male/Male genre? What about it interests you the most?

Heidi: Since I was a teenager, at least! Growing up in a conservative community, writing and reading was really the only way I got to explore sexuality beyond the Stephen Harper approved Man+Woman=Baby equation. I love it for the same reason I love any romance: because I want to see deserving people who’ve faced hardship find happiness. Writing about queer people finding that happiness, with all the adversity we face, just makes it all the sweeter.

Violetta: I’ve always looked out for books and media incorporating diverse approaches to gender and sexuality. I’m not LGBTQ myself, but I faced a lot of racial prejudice growing up, and other kids often attacked me for being non-gender-conforming as well. I’m very stubborn, so I reacted by questioning the whole idea of having to conform. My artistic heroes were often people who resisted conformity, perhaps with defiant androgyny, or just quietly being queer. I read and write m/m because it turns me on (along with other things) but I try to do it respectfully as much as possible.

What was the best piece of advice you’ve ever received with respect to the art of writing? How did it change the way you approach your craft?

Heidi: Don’t worry about writing the Great Novel. You don’t need to change the face of literature to be a good or happy writer. It took a couple years, but I finally came to understand it was okay to write what I love and write a niche genre. I was able to let go of a lot of fear and insecurity and just write what I love.

Violetta: I haven’t reread Samuel R. Delany’s essays since I became a writer, but the way he talks about writing has influenced me in so many ways. He always stresses structure, which is different from plot, and so I often try to think about writing in architectural, three-dimensional terms.

Will you share three things you’ve learned about the business of writing since your first publication?

Heidi: 1. The publishing world is a small place, so don’t burn bridges.
2. Don’t sit around waiting for a contract: get back to work! Hitting “send” is not the end of your responsibilities as an author.
3. Don’t use social media just to dump buy-links on people. You might as well be selling penis enhancement drugs, with that strategy.

If you were to offer a word of advice to a new author just starting out, what would it be?

Heidi: Write what you love and care about. Don’t write what you think people expect you to write, or what you think will make money, or what will be “easy” to get published… just be authentic.

Digital media—the e-reader/tablet computer/Android apps—is changing the way people access and enjoy books. What pros and/or cons do you see surrounding the business of e-publishing? How do you see digital media evolving in the years to come?

Heidi: Pros? The opportunity for small presses and small genres to find readership and get authors published. A lot of stories in the M/M genre, at least at this point in time, would probably never find a home in traditional publishing for various reasons, some of them financial, but many, many more political and based in the bigotry of our society.

Cons? Less quality control, especially with the boom in easy self-publishing. Since there’s less of an investment required to make and distribute an ebook, a lot of stuff that should have just stayed on a given author’s harddrive is getting an isbn and getting put out there for the world to see. I think because of that, though, the role of trusted reviewers is going to become more vital. We’ll adapt.

When you have the chance to sit down and enjoy some quiet reading time, what sorts of books are you most likely to pick up? Who are your favorite authors?

Heidi: I read romance, actually! Although I do very much enjoy general fiction, as well. It depends on what kind of mood I’m in. If I’m feeling run-down, romance all the way. I’ll buy anything by Diana Gabaldon (especially her Lord John mysteries, because I feel like her original Outlander series is getting a bit bloated at this point) or Karen Marie Moening (my guiltiest pleasure!).

Violetta: My must-buy authors are mostly in science fiction and the New Weird. I love Walter Jon Williams, C.J. Cherryh, Robert Charles Wilson, Richard K. Morgan, China Miéville, Jeff VanderMeer. I don’t have a favorite author yet in m/m; I’m reading widely and finding out my favorites. I’m also always on the lookout for quality MMF and interracial/multicultural M/F.

If you had the opportunity to sit down to dinner with one famous person, either past or present, who would you choose and why?

Heidi: Jack Layton, so I could give him a hug and thank him for everything he did for Canadian politics. Or Chris Pine, so he could be witty and handsome and talk about literature while I stared at his bulge the whole time. Either or!

Violetta: David Bowie. I’m a Bowiefreak.

How would you describe your sense of humor? What makes you laugh?

Heidi: Very self deprecating! I love to make fun of myself. What makes me laugh? Everything but “politically uncorrect” jokes. You know, the ones where the person telling the joke looks over their shoulder before they say it? Ugh.

Violetta: Absurdist humor. Black humor. I was raised with a lot of British media, so maybe that’s to blame.

Do you have an all time favorite fictional character?

Violetta: I have a strange, fishy love for Namor, the Sub-Mariner, the Marvel superhero whose roots go back to the 1940s. I love how he started off from the beginning as an anti-hero. Then how his erratic development reflects the different stages of US postwar history. Maybe it’s just the fact he’s well-built and his “costume” consists of nothing but a gold bracelet and a green speedo made from dragon scales.

Do you have a favorite personal mantra, quote, or saying that describes your outlook on life and the way you approach each day?

Heidi: Oh yes! It’s a Stephen Fry quote: “[Wodehouse] taught me something about good nature. It is enough to be benign, to be gentle, to be funny, to be kind.” I think about that quote all the time. It reminds me not to hold myself to impossibly high standards. Your life isn’t a waste just because you don’t change the world. Especially when I was teaching, I really did need to keep this idea close to my heart, because it’s very easy as a teacher to fall into the trap of taking every tiny failure personally.

Violetta: In difficult times, I often think of Marc Antony as played by James Purefoy in the HBO/BBC production of Rome: “When in doubt, attack!”

Do you speak more than one language? If so, which one(s)?

Heidi: Just English, I’m afraid! I was once relatively fluent in French, and I can still pick up the jist of a French book if I’m reading it, but I’ve mostly lost the language otherwise.

Violetta: Spanish. I learned it in Miami, Costa Rica and Mexico. As a teenager, I was fascinated by German, mainly because I wanted to have a “Berlin period” like Iggy Pop and David Bowie. But when I tried to learn it, it defeated me entirely, and I never got past German 101. I moved to Spanish instead, which was a lot more practical when I worked restaurant jobs in Miami. I love Spanish, achieved decent fluency and wish I had the chance to speak it more. I also know a bit of Japanese, but really nothing beyond basic phrases.

Of all the modern conveniences, which one would you most likely say you couldn’t live without?

Heidi: The Internet! I live in such isolation, it’s really my only connection to the rest of the world. If all I had in life was this city, I don’t know that I’d be alive right now.

Violetta: I’m a creature of the Internet too. I’ve been on it for almost a quarter century.

Do you have any new projects/works-in-progress you’d care to share with us?

Heidi: We are nearly finished this amazing novel set in Hawaii, all about a couple of young men who were childhood friends and in unconsummated love as teenagers, trying to claw a second chance at a relationship out of impossible circumstances. And it’s got a fantastic Hawaiian-flavoured paranormal twist, as well. I can’t wait to get it out in the world.

Violetta: “Hawaiian Gothic” is going to rock the m/m world. We’re so excited about getting that done and subbed. We’re also in early editing stages of a raw, beautiful but not-really-romance story. It’s got sex, drugs and Santería, but that’s all we can say at the moment.

Thanks again for spending some time with us, Heidi & Violetta! It’s been great having you with us. Will you tell us where we can find you on the Internet?

Heidi: Thank you for having us! I do enjoy talking about myself, so thanks for enabling me ;). You can find me on tweeting as @HeidiBelleau , on goodreads , facebook and g+ (whichever side of that divide you fall on), and I have a blog: Heidi Below Zero .

Violetta: Violetta: I’m at Violetta Vane’s Imaginarium, I tweet at @ViolettaVane, and you can find all the links to social media at my blog. I try to reserve my blog for longer posts and throw out the shorter fun stuff on G+ and Twitter.

And we’d love if you’d consider sharing a favorite excerpt from one of your books with us.

Sure! Here’s a steamy scene from The Saturnalia Effect:

So maybe Daniel had a hunch about what he was up to. But if Troy pushed him hard enough, pushed him just right, it might not matter. Make him think with his dick instead of his head. Yeah. The time for slow, coy seduction had passed.

He looked down at the neat little pile he’d made of his boxers and jumpsuit, sneakers on top. Smoothed his hands down his thighs. He could hear the water from the showers hitting the tiles, and if he closed his eyes, he could pretend it was rain.

He hadn’t had a single shower since coming to Westgate. He’d been washing himself at a laundry room sink instead, with a sliver of soap and a scratchy handtowel, braving the bitterly cold water just enough to keep from getting ripe. The reputation prison showers had on the outside was well earned—except that in the real world, you didn’t actually need to drop the soap to end up… well. Doubly so for guys like him. He’d put a lot of effort into not getting himself into that situation.

Now he was going in with the exact opposite intention.

A smothering wall of steam hit him face-on. He pushed ahead, heading straight for the back of the room, far past the comfort of an easy escape route. He had to fight every instinct and habit he’d carefully built up since coming here. If he could have worn shoes in here, he would have.

“Work it, girl!” came the first catcall. He barely flinched; he’d known that was coming. He’d seen the looks they all gave him in the TV room, the cafeteria, every shared space he dared to enter. It had always only been a matter of time.

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