Sunday, January 27, 2013

In conversation with Heidi and Violetta

Recently I've been going through a bit of a phase of reading historical settings. Not quite sure what prompted this but I've been getting total kicks from ancient Rome and Greece. When Mark of the Gladiator (Riptide Publishing) by Heidi Belleau and Violetta Vane landed on my virtual desk, I totally gobbled it up.

Naturally, I had to have the ladies over for a little Q&A... So a big welcome to Heidi and Violetta!

Ancient Rome... How much research did you conduct to give your tale a ring of authenticity?

Violetta: This was a very research-heavy book. We didn’t mind that at all; in fact, that’s one of the great bonuses of writing this kind of fiction. It’s like being in a perpetual classroom... for free. I already have a bit of a background in terms of ancient literature from when I was in academia. I own some books on related subjects, such as Spectacle Entertainments of Early Imperial Rome and The Sorrows of the Ancient Romans. We used a lot of great online sources, as well, and list some of them in the back of the book.

Anazar has been a slave for so long that he's lost a lot of his spirit. When you looked at his development as a character, what were some of the obstacles he had to overcome?

Violetta: Oh, nothing much. Just leaving behind his wife and most of his family, traveling across the known world to fight in a war not of his choosing, seeing most of his friends, male relatives and fellow tribesman dying in battle or executed after defeat... and that’s just the beginning. Like most people in that situation he went into survival mode, with very little space for much else. But the fact that he survived and is still capable of making moral choices means he has the capacity to rebuild his identity. I’ve read a lot about slavery in the ancient world and in the Americas, and one thing that’s clear is that many people were determined to survive and make moral choices. A lot of slaves in the ancient world did actually kill themselves, which is also a choice, in a terribly sad way.

So far when I've encountered writing duos (and trios even) the divisions have been quite clear-cut, in most cases with each author taking turns with a character each. This is not the case with Mark of the Gladiator, as the entire novel is told only from Anazar's point of view. How did this work out within your writing partnership?

Heidi: Well actually, even with novels where we do utilize multiple points of view, we both share all writing duties. We’ve never traded off in any organized way, although sometimes one person will take charge of a certain scene with minimal input from the other. So for example, had Mark of the Gladiator had both Anazar and, say, Felix as a POV character, we’d have both written both, versus Violetta writing Anazar and me writing Felix. We share chapters, pages, scenes, even sentences. On our blog tour for our co-authored novel Hawaiian Gothic, I actually broke down our process. (And it’s colour coded!)

You mention Mary Renault as one of your influences (okay, I admit that totally sold me), so tell us more about how you perceive the dynamics between your main characters within a historical context. I picked up a fair amount of power play between the characters. What are some of the considerations to bear in mind when writing historical settings?

Violetta: In terms of the kind of relationship you see in The Persian Boy, the central relationship in Mark of the Gladiator is nothing like that. There’s a Greek and then similar Roman model of approved relationships between older dominant penetrative men and submissive youths, the erastes/eromenos dyad—our hero doesn’t really fit this model, and he’s aware of that, and confused by it as well. He has to come to terms with his sexuality and the fact that his lover definitely falls into several wrong categories.

Heidi: Well, I think if you’re doing a story in Rome, especially one that heavily features the interactions of people from different classes, and between freedmen and slaves, you really have to deal with that power imbalance head on. One thing that was really important to us was not to just play the “power play” aspect purely for titillation. Not to say we don’t like power play as a sexual kink (especially in a consensual BDSM context--more on that later!), but with Mark of the Gladiator I really believe we needed to do oh-so-much more. Especially since this is a historical, we had to find that right balance between the sexuality of the romantic/erotic scenes and the grim reality of slavery.

In that regard, I’m really proud of the development of Anazar’s relationship with his master Marianus Lucius. (Spoilers!) At the beginning of the book, there’s this balance between desire and performance and coercion, where Anazar basically must service his master but also enjoys it, in a way . . . then as the book progresses and Anazar’s opinion of Marianus changes, the performance becomes difficult and the coercion becomes a new and terrifying thing, which flips that titillation dynamic into something sinister. Which is the reality of consent in that dynamic: it’s ultimately an illusion. If you can’t really refuse consent (as is the case with a master and slave), can you ever truly give it?

And this is the absolutely annoying question I know authors get asked endlessly... But in this case I was dying to know. Can we expect more in a historical setting from you?

Heidi: Hmm, not in the near future I don’t think! Right now we’re both working on solo projects, and we’re doing a joint project that’s a mixed-orientation contemporary BDSM series with a lot of comedy and a lot of unconventional sex. We’re hoping that even without the historical intrigue, our readers will still enjoy this series for its complex character dynamics and twisty subplots!

Then, in short:
Where's your current favourite holiday destination, and what draws you there?

Heidi: Probably Ireland. My husband is from there, so we go every couple years to visit his parents, and I always have a wonderful time. Surprise, surprise, I’m a history geek, and Ireland has locales and items of historical interest in spades.

Violetta: The Pacific Coast of Mexico. It’s one of the most bold and beautiful landscapes I can imagine, the people are wonderful and the food is to die for.

What book are you constantly recommending to people?

Heidi: That depends on the person! For M/M readers, I love The Island by Lisa Henry. For non-romance readers, basically anything by Sherman Alexie, who writes stunning and powerful short stories.

Violetta: The Flat Earth series by Tanith Lee.

And the film you save for rainy days?

Heidi: Moulin Rouge!

Violetta: El Topo.

Twitter @HeidiBelleau

Twitter @ViolettaVane

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