Ruthie here! Just wanted to pop in quickly to welcome Audra North for her first post as an Official Wonkomance Contributor. Huzzah!
Today I have the privilege of interviewing Cecilia Tan—writer, editor, and all-around amazeballs person. I was introduced to Cecilia several months ago through a mutual friend. Shortly thereafter, I read Slow Surrender, the first book in her Struck By Lightning trilogy, and was compelled to ask her ALL the questions (and by “all,” I mean “seven”). Since her second book in the trilogy, Slow Seduction, releases today, I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to pick her brains on both works (Also, it turns out that they’re both kickass.)
Cecilia Tan is the award-winning author of many novels and collections of erotic short stories, including Black Feathers, White Flames, The Siren and the Sword, The Prince’s Boy, and Daron’s Guitar Chronicles. Nearly all her fiction features erotica, love stories, and BDSM in some form, and they are not entirely “fictional.” Tan was recently nominated by RT Magazine for a Career Achievement Award in Erotica (winner to be announced in May). Meanwhile she is a past winner of the National Leather Association’s “Lifetime Achievement” award, the Pantheon of Leather “President’s Award”, and the NLA: International Writing Award. Susie Bright has called her “simply one of the most important writers, editors, and innovators in contemporary American erotic literature.” She has a masters in writing from Emerson College and lives and blogs in the Boston area.
So without further ado, may I present…drumroll…An Interview with Cecilia Tan!
Audra: I absolutely loved Slow Surrender, the first book in your Struck By Lightning trilogy. One of the messages that really resonated with me throughout is something that Karina (the heroine) learns as her relationship with James (the hero) evolves. Specifically, I’m referring to the idea that the truth of who someone is rarely conforms to a rigid classification of this-OR-that, but rather dwells somewhere in the fluid space of this-AND-that. Is that a central message of Slow Seduction, as well?
Cecilia: I’d say the theme of “And” instead of “Or” runs through a lot of my work. I’m sort of a walking example of “best of both worlds” in so many ways because I’m half-Asian/half-white, I’m bisexual… Even in the BDSM world, I’m a switch, which is a way of saying I’m part-dominant, part-submissive. If James is trying to teach Karina anything it’s that it’s very important to love the WHOLE person you’re with, not just their submissive side or their dominant side. Humans have a cognitive tendency to ALWAYS split things into two categories. It’s something our brains do before we think more deeply. One of the things James is trying to get across to Karina is that this tendency to cut everything into black and white makes a person miss all the delicious, wonderful, deep experiences that exist in-between. So many categories we create aren’t mutually exclusive: there is overlap. The overlap is where it gets the most interesting! It’s also where it gets the most complicated. In Slow Seduction things get very complicated for Karina while she sorts out what’s really important to her. She’s in love with James, but she’s learning that love alone isn’t enough. She needs to know herself and her needs and desires well enough to know why she loves James and why she responds to him the way she does. She needs to know it’s not just about James putting her under his “dom” spell. She may be the sub but she’s realizing now that doesn’t mean the dom is everything and the sub is nothing. To put it glibly, it takes two to tango.
Audra: Dom spell—love it! And speaking of overlap, the way you used glass in Slow Surrender was captivating. There is something fascinating about the way that a fragile material can also be so strong and beautiful and useful. In addition, at times the glass pieces that James produces become either an extension of or a proxy for his sexuality, and the first time he appears in Slow Seduction, it is via a photo of his glasswork. Where did you get the idea for him to be a glass artist? And were you trying to draw parallels between the nature of glass or did I just read too much into that?
Cecilia: The idea for James to be a glass artist was one of those inspirations that leaped into my head. It fit on so many levels, aesthetic, logistical, metaphorical… I knew I wanted him to be an artist of some kind, because I wanted there to be something for him and Karina to talk about when they weren’t talking about sex or their relationship. There had to be SOMETHING they could discuss. Having her be a grad student in art history and him be a contemporary artist meant that they had some common ground and common language but not a 100% overlap. Glass works for so many reasons. I felt making him a painter was a cliche, and besides, a painting can’t be used as a sex toy the way a glass dildo can! James is complicated. I liked the implication that making something from glass was a time-consuming, difficult endeavor. It’s not something you can just do in your dining room on the weekend. And with the Cinderella motif that repeats throughout the book, the fact that he could literally make glass slippers part of a sculpture was another perfect coincidence.
Audra: Oh, I am a sucker for Cinderella stories! I especially liked this one because the hero is already in love with the heroine before the scene where she puts on a beautiful dress and makeup. In fact, for me the more striking transformation was how Karina’s world opened up.
At the beginning of Slow Surrender, when James asks Karina to play a game with him, her internal debate on whether or not to go along with the request is such a contrast to who she becomes at the end, with her unhesitating willingness to try new things with him. And by the time Slow Seduction opens, she is moving to another country practically on a wing and a prayer. I know this is going to come across as the most vague question ever, but what are you feelings about having or being awakened to an adventurous spirit?
Cecilia: The key to the change in Karina is not that through the BDSM “training” she’s learning what her dom likes. It’s that she’s learning what SHE likes. Her previous sex partners have ranged from lackluster to incompetent. Why? Some of it was because they lacked the ability to discover what really turns Karina on. As James explores what makes her tick, they are both learning the answers. Of course trust between them is growing day by day, scene by scene, too, but it’s also Karina is getting so much positive reinforcement that taking these risks brings pleasurable rewards. Awakened is a good word for it. And now that she has discovered that the risk-taking itself is part of the thrill, she’s primed to jump into more! In Slow Seduction, she’s not the one moving slowly. She’s leaping right into the situation.
Audra: Speaking of pleasurable rewards…the sex in Slow Surrender is hot hot hot, but I wouldn’t call it titillating, which implies a lack of depth, and that is definitely not the case with Karina and James–their characters are written with such empathy and care. There is so much Relationship invested in their sexual exchanges (as well as in their non-sexual interactions). How does the sexual journey change for them in Slow Seduction, now that the relationship dynamic has shifted?
Cecilia: Well, it’s a bit of a challenge because James feels his trust was so thoroughly betrayed at the end of Slow Surrender that he’s the one who is hurt and untrusting and unsure. I know it’s more usual for the submissive partner to be the one with trust issues in BDSM fiction. That’s why this was so much more fun to write than the usual, though. I said there was a Cinderella theme going on, but the thing is James is Cinderella as much as Karina is. He’s the one who disappears into anonymity and leaves Karina searching for him. Karina’s goal in Slow Seduction is not only to find James, but to find out the depth of her own feelings. How much of what she craves is James himself and how much of it is merely she never had a lover like him before? James is special, but it takes her a while to be sure of it. Meanwhile, though, she sets out to prove to him that SHE is special and he was a fool to doubt her.
Audra: Oh! The end, the end! With the explosive sex and the broken trust and the disappearing! *clutches heart* The final scenes of Slow Surrender killed me. Killed me dead! I found myself torn between feeling like she should have accepted that she could love who someone is without labeling that person with a name and wanting him to understand that a name is a part of who someone is, especially if it has enough meaning that he is trying to hide from it. But it brings up an idea that I think about often: Do we need to label something first in order to then be able break it apart and understand it? What are your thoughts on loving without labels?
Cecilia: I think this goes hand in hand with my idea that things shouldn’t always be split into two categories. Just creating more mutually exclusive categories or labels isn’t a big improvement! I said before I’m the best of both worlds. When it comes to my fiction, though, I’m the best of ALL worlds. Why can’t a book have everything that’s good about erotica and romance and mystery and science fiction, for example? Bookstores used to hate me for crossing over so many subgenres because they didn’t know what shelf to put me on. At least with ebooks now that matters less. It’s okay to use multiple labels because the reader can find you on “all” the shelves. Books finding their readers is a lot like people meeting their lovers, though. Labels are important because they’re part of our vocabulary and the way we find each other. Every personal ad describes what the person is “Seeking.” But the labels are only the start of the conversation, not the be-all, end-all. In the BDSM world potential play partners look for each other using words like top, bottom, dom, sub, master, slave, et cetera. But after that initial laundry list, you have to then get at “well, but what do you mean by ‘slave’?” Labels are the start of that conversation, but far from the last word. I’d say this is true outside of BDSM, too. Do the words “husband” and “wife” automatically come with the same definitions, expectations, and assumptions for the man down on one knee as for the woman taking the diamond ring from his hand? Not automatically, no. Karina’s been living in a world where everyone makes assumptions all the time about what she “should” want in a boyfriend, as well as in life. James has been living in a world where he’s constantly labeled, categorized, and judged. They’re both ready to leave those worlds, and they find that when they’re together in James’s limousine.
Audra: That limo is one magical place. Michel Foucault wrote an essay called “Of Heterotopic Spaces,” in which he discusses how a single space can be so many things simultaneously. I thought of this precisely because that almost-iconic limousine in which Karina and James so frequently meet is a place where so many core dynamics are in play–Karina and James, Stefan and James, Karina and Stefan…
But in Slow Seduction, it seems that the story is shifting to England. Why did you decide to move it there, instead of keeping the characters in New York?
Cecilia: Oh yes, James and Karina create a bubble for themselves in the limo. They have this completely private, enclosed space where the rest of the world is completely irrelevant. The thing is, by the end of Slow Surrender, they’re starting to venture out. That’s why the Cinderella ball is such a big deal. It’s time to get out of the carriage. In Slow Seduction, though, it’s time for Karina to actually enter James’s world for real. That means not only searching for where he’s gone to ground but meeting people he knew in art school, ex-lovers, that sort of thing. If there’s really a relationship there, and not just recreational sex, she needs to know where he came from in a real sense. Although he was born in New York to a British mother, James was sent to school in England at age ten and was there until he finished art school, so all his “formative” years were there.
Audra: Ooo, I’m so excited to read Slow Seduction. The teaser pages at the end of Slow Surrender promise a great continuation of the story. And now the last question, just for fun! What’s your favorite food?
Cecilia: I love food! I love just about all food. You might think after reading the first two books in the series that my favorite food is mini chocolate eclairs, but although I do love those, I can’t single them out above other things. I can tell you the type or style of food that is my favorite, though, is SOUP. Vietnamese Pho, Japanese shabu shabu, Chinese congee, New England chowder, french onion, matzoh ball, thai coconut, ramen, split pea, Italian wedding soup… you name it. If it’s soup, I love it. Every cuisine I love, every place I travel to, I’m always having the soup. On my first trip to New Orleans I was there for a week and I had turtle soup every single day. I’d rather have soup for breakfast than cereal!
Audra: Soup sounds fantastic right about now. In the cold, dark New England winters, soup is always welcome. Also, my favorite breakfast is shredded beef with cabbage over wet rice, so I can relate to preferring that soup over cereal for the morning meal.
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions, Cecilia!
Keep reading for an excerpt from Slow Seduction, the second book in Cecilia’s Struck By Lightning trilogy. Or, you know, just go buy the whole thing now. You won’t be sorry.
by Cecilia Tan
In this excerpt from SLOW SEDUCTION, Karina is in England where she is spending the summer as a tour guide for a special art exhibition at the Tate Britain museum while she searched for James. One evening her boss tells her she is to give a private tour of the exhibition to a big money donor to the museum. And thus we meet SLOW SEDUCTION’s sexy antagonist, Damon George:
The limo driver opened the passenger door and a man in a sleek-looking suit with artfully tossed black hair stepped out. He was runway-model gorgeous, with the flat, disdainful look in his eye you see on the covers of magazines. Two women, one blonde and one brunette, with the same look about them followed.
I did a double take when Mr. Martindale led me right to them. I had been expecting rich art donors to be older, more like Martindale himself.
Instead, the man reminded me of James, and the two statuesque women of Lucinda, with their cool beauty. I had only met her once, at that kinky party, but she had made an impression, poised and sexy, like so many of the people there. Self-possessed and confident, yet exuding a sort of erotic vibe—or maybe at this point for me that kind of self-possession was an erotic vibe. That was James all over, completely in control, knowing that he turned heads and left people drooling in his wake. That cool exterior hid a passionate, wicked core. I remembered the exacting efficiency with which he tied me up with ropes as well as the way he had trembled against me, barely able to stop himself from fucking me before I was ready…
Martindale brought me back to reality. “Mr. Damon George, this is Karina Casper. She’ll be showing you around the exhibit.”
“Pleased to make your acquaintance, Ms. Casper.” The man took my hand briefly.
Martindale seemed to be waiting for him to introduce his companions, but he said nothing about them and they hung back, silent. Martindale cleared his throat. “Yes, well, let’s go in.”
A security guard met us at the doors to allow us inside. Martindale then led us through the back-entrance access hallways I had not been in before and into the galleries. The two women were wearing heels that seemed impossibly high, and we walked somewhat slowly, the sounds of their heels and our shoes loud in the empty museum.
“Pardon the dust from the construction,” he said, as we went past one of the areas where the major renovations were taking place.
“Why should I mind it?” Damon George said. “I’m paying for a lot of it, aren’t I?”
“Ha-ha, true,” Martindale agreed. “Now, here we are. I’ll leave you in Ms. Casper’s hands. Karina, when you’re done, pick up the phone here to let security know.”
“Yes, Mr. Martindale,” I said, wondering if I should curtsy. I didn’t. He gave me a little wave good-bye and then left.
The lights were already on full brightness as we stepped into the first gallery.
I took a deep breath, preparing to launch into a speech about the founding of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, but he stopped me before I could start.
“Karina Casper,” he said. “May I call you Karina? You can call me Damon instead of Mr. George.”
“Um, sure.” I tried to guess his age. Thirty, maybe? “Is there something in particular you want to know about the pre-Raphaelites?”
“Perhaps. Or perhaps I merely wish to commune with the art.” He clucked his tongue and walked down the first row of paintings, the two women trailing behind him like obedient pets.
Given that they reminded me of the people I’d seen and met at that kinky ball, I wondered if they were under an order of silence.
Maybe I was too after his comment about communing with the art. He was clearly as arrogant as they came. I reminded myself that he was a major donor and kissing his ass was my job.
So I followed along like one of his pets. He said nothing until we came to the famous image of Ophelia drowning herself. “Surely you see that this painting is about violence against women,” he said. “How dare they show it in public?”
I nearly rose to the bait, except that it was so obvious he was saying something outrageous to get a rise out of me, and I didn’t want to give him that satisfaction. “Our mission is to preserve and display the art,” I said in my best tour guide voice. “Not to condone any particular interpretation of it. Any work of great art will have multiple interpretations. In fact, I’d say the greater the art, the more interpretations there will be.”
He sniggered. “Very politically correct, my dear.”
What wouldn’t have been politic would be to say what I was really thinking, which is that I didn’t give a damn what his opinions were on art. Or anything. Arrogant prick. But I gave him my “waitress” smile and we moved on. He didn’t linger over many of the paintings, skimming along until we came to the final gallery.
“Now, here are the really sexy ones,” he said, opening his arms wide as if he were going to give the nudes of Andromeda a hug.
I should have known those would be his favorite paintings. Andromeda was the only nude in the whole exhibit. Depicted in three large paintings by Burne-Jones, Andromeda is rescued by Perseus from the sea serpent that is about to eat her. In the first, there’s a kind of love-at-first-sight moment, where she’s naked against the rocks and he takes off his helmet to look at her. In the second, we see her back turned while Perseus wrestles with the black coils of the sea serpent. In the last, she is clothed and they are bending over a font together so Perseus may show her the head of Medusa in the reflection.
It struck me suddenly that Andromeda’s dress in the final painting was strikingly similar to the one worn by the Beggar Maid. I stepped closer to examine it.
“You have it backwards, you know,” Damon said, stepping close and talking quietly into my ear, the way you would if the gallery were crowded with people. Since it wasn’t, I stepped aside, but he kept going. “You read it right to left, but the real story is the other direction.”
“What are you talking about?” I frowned, wondering what nonsense he was spouting this time. Was he trying to get a rise out of me again? “It follows the mythical tale.”
“Ah, but that’s the thing. You’re supposed to see it as the great and mighty Perseus is tamed and domesticated by the beautiful girl. The first thing he does? Uncover his head, then cut off the head of a snake, and then in the end show her how safe and tame the snake-head of Medusa is. In other words, he emasculates himself for her—the snake, the head, and the sword all being phallic symbols.”
“So? That’s still reading it left to right.”
“I know. That was the acceptable story to Victorians. But the real story is the other way. It’s that he begins tame, fools her into thinking he’s safe, and by the end is about to put his helmet on and ravish her.”
“Ancient Greek was read from right to left, not left to right,” he said smugly.
I racked my brain, trying to remember everything I knew about the paintings. I was fairly sure that Burne-Jones had painted three or four more of Perseus, and if only I knew the dates I could probably prove him wrong, but since these hadn’t figured into my thesis, I didn’t know the dates off the top of my head. “How do you know so much about Greek culture anyway?”
He laughed and turned to face me in front of the painting. “Don’t you think there’s a resemblance?”
The crazy thing is, there was. He could have been Perseus come to life, but with a much more annoying smirk. I still didn’t make the connection, though.
“George is anglicized from Georgiades,” he said. “So let’s just say…I know my Greek.”
Fine. “A very interesting theory, Mr. Georgiades.”
“Damon, please.” His eyebrow arched with mischief, and I knew he was about to say something else designed to get a rise out of me. “I only enjoy formality with those I’m fucking.”
I knew it. Well, if he thought he was going to shock me, he was wrong. “Is that why your companions don’t speak?” I asked. “And don’t have names?”
His grin widened with delight. “You’re very perceptive, Karina! I wouldn’t have guessed you for the type, but then…people never do. I suppose you went through the whole slap and tickle nightclub scene in New York?”
“No,” I said coldly. “Not really.”
“Hmm.” He merely gave me a nod and then turned back to the painting behind him.
He snapped his fingers, and the two women fell into a sudden embrace, kissing each other. I took a step back.
“You’re welcome to stay and watch, Karina, but if it’s too much for you, all I ask is for, oh, about seven minutes of privacy.”
“Are you kidding me? I can’t leave you alone with these paintings!” That was a much more shocking idea than that he had two sex slaves following him around. Oh. It dawned on me then that he’d brought them to the gallery specifically to get off. No wonder he paid a huge sum to have a private, after-hours viewing of the art.
“Even if I promise we won’t touch them?” At the word touch, he rubbed the length of his cock through his trousers.
I wasn’t about to let that distract me. “I’m sorry, Mr. George, but I don’t know you well enough to trust your promise. Just because you’re rich doesn’t mean you’re honorable.”