Interview: Claire Kent, Author of Escorted

escorted coverI’m pleased to host Claire Kent this morning on Wonkomance. Claire Kent is the author of Escorted, in which a twenty-six-year-old virgin, Lori, hires a male escort, Ander, to rid her of her unwanted innocence. The self-published book has won many converts (to the tune of more than a thousand ratings on Goodreads).

The book is delightfully Wonktastical—a bald hero with serious daddy issues, and loads of early, awkward, clinical sex—and it’s one of those deep, interior, emotional reads (a la Charlotte Stein!) that you just can’t put down.

Claire has been writing romance novels since she was twelve years old. She has a PhD in British literature and, when she’s not writing, she teaches English at the university level. She also writes romance novels under the pen name Noelle Adams–the “One Night” series, among others.

(Contest now closed for free copies of Escorted.)

You’re getting quite a bit of buzz with Escorted—seems like maybe you’ve touched a nerve with readers! What do you think it is?

I have no idea! I think maybe it’s the premise that has gotten people to give it a try, but most of the positive reviews say they like the way the relationship developed. That’s very encouraging to me, since the way I develop characters and relationships is also the reason I’ve never been the right “fit” with a publisher.

I’m absolutely shocked that the book has been received so well. I really did throw it up on Amazon on a whim, since I always loved the story but could never do anything with it. I was quite sure it would be a flop.

The hero, Ander, has been bald since he was a teenager and wrestles with significant daddy issues. Tell me a little bit about how this hero was conceived and how readers (including you!) feel about him.

The haunted hero with daddy issues has always been my favorite. I’m not sure why, but the particular kind of tortured soul I like in my heroes nearly always comes from parenting issues of some kind. And I’ve always found bald men crazy-sexy. Seriously, I remember watching The Ten Commandments when I was about thirteen and thinking that Pharaoh was much hotter than Moses! With Ander, I wanted some physical sign of his emotional scars—and I didn’t want to use a literal scar—so the baldness became that sign.

Ander’s baldness has definitely been a negative for a lot of readers, though. Many reviews have said that they couldn’t get past it, which I completely understand.

I love the way the sex builds in this book, from awkward and clinical to deeply sensual and romantic. Were some scenes harder than others to write?

I actually had a great time with the early clinical sex. It was so different from any sexual scenario I’ve written before that I really enjoyed the challenge. I often find sex scenes exhausting to write, so it’s sometimes hard to work up the energy to tackle them. But I had no trouble finding motivation to write those early scenes. I think the hardest sex scene in Escorted was the happy-resolution sex in the end. Since the final love scene is the culmination of the entire book’s development, I always feel this pressure to make the sex feel as special as their love is. It’s really hard to do that without falling into clichés.

We often get told that people never set out to write Wonkomance but find themselves doing it despite themselves … is that you?

I definitely never set out to write Wonkomance! I don’t think I’m particularly high on the wonkiness scale, in general. I love to write billionaire heroes, marriages of convenience, unexpected pregnancies, and all the standard tropes. Ander with his shiny bald head is actually an exception for me—most of my heroes are more traditionally handsome. Although my heroes will always have some unexpected quirk or vulnerability, and they’re almost never the normal alpha. Oh, and I also love to write awkward or unsatisfying sex scenes.

Overall, though, if anything is wonky about me, I’d say it’s that my books don’t meet a lot of established romance genre expectations. Escorted really does a lot of things “wrong,” so much so that publishers would never have taken it on without a major overhaul. It’s all 3rd person limited to the heroine’s POV, there’s not major drama, the conflict and character growth is very subtle (perhaps to the point of obscurity!), and the major moments are understated, except the final resolution. There have been plenty of readers who’ve noticed and not liked the book because of all that, which again I completely understand. None of that is intentional—I just write what seems real to me. So maybe that’s a little wonky.

a negotiated marriage coverWhy did you decide to write this book as Claire Kent instead of Noelle Adams?

Two reasons. One was that Escorted wasn’t a good fit for my Noelle Adams published titles. It’s much more erotic, for one thing. I was trying to work on a “brand” for my pennames, and I think that was a wise idea. Many readers who love my Noelle Adams stuff weren’t too thrilled with Escorted, and vice versa.

The other reason is that I was sure Escorted would flop. It was mostly an experiment, and I didn’t want to waste too much time on a likely failure, so I didn’t spend nearly the same amount of time editing it as I have my other work. It was all so spur of the moment that I just used Lori’s penname from the book—since I was in a hurry and couldn’t be bothered to think of a different one. Because of all this, I didn’t want Escorted attached to the penname I was actually working on.

What made you decide to pursue self-publishing? What are the pros and cons, as you see them? Have you stumbled into any pitfalls you’d advise people to avoid?

I’ve been pursuing a writing career for more than ten years. I’ve had four different literary agents—all very reputable—and none of them could get me a publishing deal, even when a couple of the acquiring editors wanted to take on my project. I was never the right “fit” for the publishers. I’ve had titles contracted with two different e-first publishers, and with both I’ve had incredibly frustrating and discouraging experiences, primarily because, again, I couldn’t make my writing into the “fit” they wanted (even though I tried!).

Self-publishing was mostly a last-ditch effort to reach readers. I’ve spent years in the past writing nothing at all because I was so discouraged about publishing prospects, and I didn’t want to fall into that again. So I figured I had nothing to lose.

The one benefit of spending so long trying to get published is that I’ve collected a huge stash of finished manuscripts. Now that I’m self-publishing, I have something to do with them all.

And the biggest pitfall that I’ve experienced was assuming no one was going to read my book! I’d advise everyone to act like your book is going to take off and make it as polished as you can!

Tell me a little bit about the trajectory of this book, in terms of generating buzz. What seemingly little events—a review on a certain site, tweets by a particular reviewer, etc—have made the most difference in the book’s success? Any lessons you can generalize for other writers pursuing self-publishing?

I put the book out in mid-December and did almost no promotion. It sold about fifty copies until I put it on the free promotion at Amazon in January. That’s when everything changed. I’ve tried to figure out what works and what doesn’t, but I haven’t been able to make any sense out of why and how things sell. The problem with Escorted is that everything happened at once. During the free promotion period, a lot of people were starting to give it good reviews on Amazon—and also Goodreads, although those were always mixed. Then some (incredibly generous) bloggers started talking about it, but that was happening at virtually the same time as the reader reviews and the free promotion period, so I don’t know what made a distinct difference or if everything just worked together.

I know for sure that the free promotion on Amazon is the tool that has worked the best for me. My Noelle Adams release in January did even better than Escorted in its free promotion period (twice as many downloads). It didn’t get any buzz, but it has actually sold even better afterwards than Escorted. The only thing I can attribute the sales to with that book is the free promotion, since no one has been talking about it at all and I haven’t done any other marketing. But I know other writers have seen virtually no impact from the free promotion, so it’s not a sure-fire thing. I wish I could give better advice to writers pursuing self-publishing, but it’s all still a mystery to me!

Excerpt from Escorted

“Do you want me to keep my clothes on this evening?” Ander stood, dark and looming, beside the bed.

Since she felt braver today, she replied, “Oh. No. I guess not. You can take them off.”

Ander started unbuttoning his shirt. His motion was slow, almost mesmerizing, as he gradually revealed his bare chest beneath. When he’d untucked the skirt, he let it slide with unhurried ease to the floor. His chest was toned and masculine. She could see the clean contours of muscle development on his abdomen and shoulders, even in the dim light of the room.

He slid his belt out of the loops. He moved naturally, not ostentatiously, but Lori suddenly realized he was giving her a little show.

It was effective. As she watched, her intimate muscles clenched in excitement and jitters rose up in her belly, but she also felt a gurgle of amusement. She had to press her lips together to stifle it.

Who would have thought that Lori Addison would be in the position to get such an elegant striptease from a bald man?

She must not have hidden her reaction well because Ander paused in the midst of unzipping. He arched his eyebrows. “Is something wrong?”

“Oh, no,” she said, keeping her eyes wide and trying not to stare down at what would be revealed when his pants came unzipped. “Everything’s fine. You’re doing an excellent job.”

Ander narrowed his eyes, a little suspiciously, before he let his trousers fall to the floor, revealing black silk boxers and a pair of very fine legs.

“Boxers?” Lori asked, working past the surge of visceral admiration at the sight of his near perfect body. “I was wondering what you wore.”

Ander took off his watch as he replied, “I didn’t know what you’d prefer. Since you’re American, I thought boxers were a better bet.”

Lori blinked up at him. “What do you mean?”

“American women tend to prefer boxers on men. If you were international, I’d have worn briefs. Obviously, once I know a woman’s preference, I accommodate it.”

“American women prefer boxers?”

“I have only my own informal assessment to go by, but, yes, I’d say three-fourths of them do. I try to pay attention.”

“Wow,” Lori breathed. “That’s what I call attention to detail.”

Ander gave her a half-smile. “It’s part of my job.” His hands lingered on the waistband of his boxers. “Shall I?”

You can purchase Escorted from Amazon. (Contest now closed for free copies.)

Posted in Writing Wonkomance | 16 Comments

Poetry Wonk: Fort Red Border by Kiki Petrosino

Fort Red Border looking pretty unfh.

Fort Red Border looking pretty unfh.

If you just asked me to give up my horses
I’d give up my horses”

Kiki Petrosino, Fort Red Border, “Sense-Certainty”

I love anagrams. One anagram of my full legal name is so terribly, awkwardly dirty that I regularly use it as an expletive and it is more satisfying than any of the other legitimate swears that I know or can possibly imagine.

An anagram reveals something hidden that was there all along.

Kiki Petrosino, in her 2009 collection of poems FORT RED BORDER, opens her book with a series of deeply intimate lyric poems voiced by a narrator engaged in a romance with Robert Redford.

Washing her afro with shampoo and a jar of water warmed by the sun, he leans over her, flashing a hole in the armpit of his workshirt and

I glimpse the long curve of Redford’s body through the hole.
There’s his arm, stretched above me.
Then a smooth triangle of torso disappearing into the shadows.
His shadows are grey & brown as grass.

So from this opening poem, “Wash,” we are inside another country. One where the craggy face and ginger waves of Robert Redford are familiar, but also one where his most private and unfamiliar moments with a lover are revealed, previously hidden, in fact, entirely fictional, but no less truthful, for that.

We’re in Fort Red Border, and what was inside his name—just arranged another way, and what he would do, and not do, for the love of a woman who could never comfortably live inside the culture he inhabits:

Redford watches as I gather my afro
into a plain elastic hoop. This is how I pull it back: both hands, a ballet
circle of turned elbows, my own putting-off crown. Is this he asks how
your mother wears it? He traces a soft cross at my nape. I tilt my head to
look at him. Not even close I grin. She doesn’t keep it natural. I take my
hands down. Redford’s face goes coltish and aware. Is that how you say it,

from “Dread,” Fort Red Border

Redford takes her to dinner, to exotic locations, seats her in first class accommodations. She alternately basks and bristles under his attentions:

I lean back & Redford traces my spine
with his thumb. I feel as though I’ve done well on something—
my Algebra exam, the fragile zipper on my tightest
dress, my federal taxes.

from “Coffee,” Fort Red Border

Or after an uncomfortable ski trip that underscores their differences in everything from athleticism to what constitutes fun on vacation:

A long time passed without speaking. Now, crumpling
the napkin in his fist, Redford asks: What were you doing out there, with
your equipment? There’s nothing to tell him. With my tongue, I draw a
secret tiger on the roof my mouth. Mostly, I am patient.

from “Crans Montana,” Fort Red Border

The Redford of these poems is as sexy as you imagine, and infinitely more tender than you could.

Ginger fox

Ginger fox

He is the dream of Redford: as commanding donning a suit and cedar cologne after leaving his lover to dream the morning away in bed as he is wrapping his arms around her while she does dishes, telling her “you float around my house all day/just like a little cloud of sweetness.”

And yet, here is a couple so achingly wonky, they live together at the very border of disturbed. Our narrator is infatuated and yet restless, and our hero is, well, Robert Redford.


We’re back, I think, to the idea of rearrangement and of what is hidden. Robert Redford, the American actor, represents an ideal that is instantly intuited by even his name. He is like, you can say, describing a hero, Robert Redford, and this is an evocative shorthand that somehow reassures your audience that the world will be in good hands. Hands, in fact, that “he slips across my waist, then along/my torso, pressing tightly” while he says “I know the secret shape/in you. It’s in the bone, burning there–/a thing I can’t call. Fine-made.”

If Robert Redford is our hero, how is he rearranged against this narrator? Against the failures of our own culture? Because this isn’t Robert Redford, this is Fort Red Border. A place of the imagination that allows us to see what it is we’ve been missing all along.

This Redford loves our unlikely heroine, but he doesn’t quite hear her, the words are scrambled, and he can never truly capture her like he thinks he should:

But what I’ve been thinking, deciding now—
If I just knew the words to still you down, some sound
to ride by. I’d find a way to keep you with me, then.

from “Sense-Certainty,” Fort Red Border

If you haven’t had the opportunity to spend time with a book of poems, I am recommending this one, and recommending it as Certified Wonktastical. Petrosino’s voice is accessible even as her language is precise and her metaphors intricate. Contemporary poetry resonates for the same reasons we love contemporary romance—we see and hear ourselves and the people we know. This is particularly true of Petrosino. This book is sexy, and heart-twisting, and true.

Fort Red Border has two other parts: “Otolaryngology,” an exploration of voice, including her award-winning poem “You Have made a Career of Not Listening;” and “Valentine,” which is a series of valentine poems that I adore that are the ultimate laugh/cry experience:

You can’t order some of the love.
It’s not scientific.

So you get the wrong love.
Or you get the wrong amount.

Chrysler Building Love when you wanted Dinner Roll Love.
Switchgrass Love instead of Foghorn Love.

Like, I’ve had:

Canyoneering Love
Espresso Love
Removable T-Top Love

None of which I ordered.

from “Valentine,” Fort Red Border

Kiki Petrosino

Kiki Petrosino

So now that all of you are clicking away, ordering this book of poems, here is the part where I also tell you that a commenter on this thread who leaves a comment by 11:59 p.m. US EST on Friday will receive their very own copy of Fort Red Border. Poems and stories about your affairs (real or imagined) with iconic celebrities, are absolutely encouraged.

Also, here is an anagram generator so that you may discover your own hidden truths. Or personal swear words.


Posted in Certified Wonktastical, Review, Talking Wonkomance | 13 Comments

Cinémawonque Analysis: Pretty Woman

wonktastical_PrettyWomanPretty Woman (1990) is such a modern classic of the mainstream romance genre, I think it’s incredibly easy to forget exactly how wonked this story is. In fact, I’ve attended writing workshops in which it’s used as a universal reference to illustrate romance fiction plot structure, because just about everyone’s watched it at least once. If not ten times.

For the two of you who have not seen Pretty Woman—forgive me, but I’m not going to bother synopsizing it. Just know these two basic facts: the heroine is a prostitute, and the hero is a wealthy businessman.

Before I enumerate what’s wonked about this movie and how its writer, J.F. Lawton, made it work, here’s a brief critique of the film itself.

I like this movie. I don’t love it, but I think it’s an incredibly successful romance (I’d argue it has to be, to float a hooker heroine and still have grossed nearly half a billion dollars in the box office, worldwide.) But the major thing that keeps me from loving the film isn’t a story issue. It’s a casting issue. I simply don’t buy Julia Roberts as a street-wise hooker. There’s something too delicate about her features, and too wooden in her delivery of the tough-girl bits of dialogue (“You’ll buy a snap-dog, we’ll cop a squat under a tree somewhere.”) Nor do I buy her as a gear-head grease monkey. But what I do buy is her chemistry with Richard Gere. And I think that, traded in for an actress who could play a more convincing tough-cookie, would have been a mistake. So, my main criticism is a negligible one.

A lesser factor that keeps me from loving this movie is predictable to most anyone who’s known me for two seconds—I’m turned off by incredibly wealthy heroes. While I think Edward is a good guy—with human flaws and none of the nearly standard-issue controlling douchebag millionaire tendencies we’re used to suffering—I simply can’t fall for him as I’m intended to. My favorite heroes all struggle far more than he does. A couple failed relationships, a freshly dead daddy, and a therapist do not a lust-worthy hero make, in my book. But that’s a very subjective complaint and rectifying it would ruin the story’s Cinderella / My Fair Lady angle, so I’ll declare that concern moot, as well.

On to the wonk! And how it is J.F. Lawton managed to make that wonk work, to the tune of a box office gold rush.

Edward-Vivian-in-Pretty-Woman-movie-couples-21269415-1280-720What’s Wonked: The Heroine’s a Hooker!
And not a classy one, either. She works on Hollywood Boulevard, and it’s a dangerous gig; she’s no pampered modern-day courtesan. But she’s not a desperate wretch, either. Vivian chose to be a hooker. She was initiated—but not coerced—by a close female friend, after not finishing high school and struggling to support herself doing some crappy straight jobs. Vivian doesn’t arrive at this point in her life in as a victim, which I find incredibly gratifying. This is just the shitty job that she’s taken to pay the rent. Realistic? Maybe not. But refreshing, certainly!

Why It Works
As the movie opens, the writer’s telling us, “So. Heroine’s a hooker. That’s how it is. Here are some brilliant little prop details to prove she has loving friends and family and that she’s relatable. Go ahead and care about her.” Her gig is presented as something barely worth batting an eye over, and we see her interacting with her hooker friends the same way we might banter and bicker around the water cooler. It’s not until she enters Edward’s world that her hookeriness feels startling—it’s not until she herself feels badly that the bubble bursts.

From the second we meet Vivian, we’re given reasons to like her. She’s resourceful and funny and loyal. She wants to do good and make the rent. She forgives her fuck-up friend and roommate, Kit [who would make a terrifically wonked heroine in her own right, if far a more challenging one to redeem than Vivian], while not being a complete doormat. Vivian wants to “get out of here,” even if she doesn’t have any great ambitions (aside from romantic ones, revealed later in the film.) She won’t get involved with a pimp—she wants to control her own career. A respectable street walker, this one. She has levels. Maybe not crazy-deep levels, but enough that we easily forget her vocation and she simply becomes “Vivian.”

We also see the way she interacts with the hero—she’s far more competent than he is during their highly unconventional meet-cute on the streets of Hollywood. Even if Roberts’ delivery of those tough-chick lines leaves something to be desired, authenticity-wise, the writer gives us every reason to believe Vivian is capable, and in as much control as a woman in her position could hope to be. She may not love hooking, but again, she’s no victim—and I can’t emphasize enough how key this is, for me.

What’s Wonked: The Hero Hires a Hooker!
[Spoiler alert for the two people who haven’t seen the film.] Edward hires Vivian as a prostitute—and he gets what he pays for. They have sex, and he gives her money, and she keeps it.

Why It Works
It works largely through sheer screenwriting magic. It works because Edward’s solicitation of Vivian’s sexual services happens in a very gradual and roundabout fashion. She gives him the curbside hard-sell and he caves somewhat, hiring her to escort him to Beverly Hills (he got lost on the way to his super-swanky and very nineties-tastic hotel), which makes the transaction innocent—even sweet, since she’s trying to talk him into letting her render some far seedier services.

He’s prepared to leave it at that once they reach Beverly Hills, except she’s charmed him. He rather reluctantly invites her to the stay the night, spurred by a fast-acting crush so well-acted by Gere and smartly nuanced, you know he’s not simply horny—he’s smitten. And once things do eventually become sexual (with I Love Lucy playing in the background—genius) Vivian is the initiator, and Edward’s the hesitant one. She makes all the first moves. Lawton does a brilliant job of somehow making what should be an incredibly sleazy scene into something quite vulnerable and romantic.

Another reason it works is that Edward is only marginally embarrassed by the arrangement, once it becomes a week-long affair. He does the only bare minimum of work to camouflage what Vivian is. Had he been ashamed and tried to hide her more rigorously, it would have been much harder to like him. But he’s nearly as blasé about the reasons for her staying in his penthouse as she is. He doesn’t flaunt her gig before the hotel staff, as she sometimes does, but he doesn’t apologize for it, either. He’s her champion, pretty much from the start, but he never sets out to “save” her. Nor does he even really try to change her, not outside of the necessity of classing her up so she can function as his date for business events. A million points for Edward.

But Why It Really Works
It really works because of the chemistry. The physical chemistry between Gere and Roberts, and the characters’ chemistry, as evidenced in their easy rapport, the way they make one another laugh, and how naturally they complement one another. They’re foils, after all. You really do believe these two people suit one another uniquely, in ways they wouldn’t be able to find in another match. Which is one of the most challenging feats to pull off, in any romance.

Add to that, the deliciously backward pace of the courtship! Their sexual relationship goes:

  1. Heroine offers to sell her body to the hero, and succeeds (eventually)
  2. Blowjob
  3. Sex on a grand piano, no mouth-kissing
  4. Nakers fun in a huge bathtub
  5. Sweeter sex, on a bed, but still no mouth-kissing
  6. Mouth-kissing, finally

It’s like a chart marking the progression of acts of sexual intimacy from chaste to lewd, flipped upside-down. Plus a piano!

Add to that, a kick-ass vintage 1990 soundtrack. The Red Hot Chili Peppers! Roxette!!

Add to that, the fabulous details of prop and symbolism. Sure, the balconies and opera box and fire escapes aren’t exactly subtle, and neither are Edward’s bare feet in the grass. But there are some real gems of characterization in there—the way Vivian eats a croissant, for example, or fixes her scuffed boot with a Sharpie.

But my truly favorite, unexpected thing about Pretty Woman? Edward never appears bothered by Vivian’s experience or threatened by her other clients / lovers. It is 100% slut-shaming free, somehow! He never calls her promiscuity to light, nor acts insecure or intimidated by it. He does get a touch jealous at the polo match and turns briefly into a douche as a result, but when confronted he’s quick to apologize and it’s clear his dickishness sprang from a place of vulnerability. A million more points for Edward! This film so easily could have relied on the conflict of “I’d love you, but you’re a dirty hoor and I’m a powerful rich dude with a reputation to protect,” but it doesn’t. Instead we get, “I’d love you despite you being a whore, but I’m an emotional wreck at the moment.”

The more I think about this movie, the more I admire the writing. In addition to the challenges revolving around the hooker issue, the story also takes place inside a single week…and yet I have no trouble believing both protagonists are in love by the time the credits roll. Which is pretty amazing, and a testament to their chemistry. I appreciate this movie so much more than I would have a few years back, simply being able to analyze the plot and characterizations from a romance writer’s point of view.

So to the two people who haven’t yet seen Pretty Woman—go get yourselves educated. You don’t have to love it, or even like it, but if you write romance, at least invest the time and energy to dissect it. It’s wonked, but man, does it work.

Posted in Certified Wonktastical, Movies, Review | Tagged , , , , , | 18 Comments