Monday, March 18, 2013

Five minutes with Aleksandr Voinov

I've been a fan of Aleksandr Voinov's writing from the moment I encountered one of his short stories in an anthology that I reviewed.His writing carries a dynamism I felt was often lacking in a lot of the m/m fiction I'd encountered. We fell to chatting via Goodreads and, since then, I've eagerly reviewed not only his offerings, but also the titles brought out by his publishing company, Riptide Publishing. So of course today I'm absolutely thrilled to have Aleks here today for a little Q&A. 

The first thing that struck me about your writing was the intensity of your characters' emotions. They live and love fiercely, and sex is often tangled with a degree of power play. I get an idea of how masculine love is very different compared to the love between a man and woman. Care to elaborate? 

Hah, good question. In my writing, I am interested in matters of power, hierarchy, and that delicious dance of who comes out on top, both sexually and otherwise. I think men are socialised more to be competitors, to be aware of status, and another man always presents a challenge and a question: Can I bend him to my will? Who will come out on top? In this case, we’re talking mafia characters, who are even more neurotic about status and power and influence than is normally the case. To them, it’s literally a matter of life and death.

Given how sexist our society is, women don’t usually appear as competitors on a man’s radar, in my experience and observation (since woman do compete, that can be a tragical oversight, especially since women wield power differently but no less efficiently). In story terms, hierarchy and power games absolutely increase the stakes and the emotions of characters. These people compete hard, they play hard, they party hard, and we can almost expect to see them go down in a blaze of (dark) glory, as it were.

You're a stickler for the detail, and that's part of what I feel gives your writing a ring of authenticity. I get the idea that you do *a lot* of research. Can you share a little about the process that goes into preparing to write a historical setting? What gives your stories that extra punch? 

Details are really everything. They can trigger turns and twists of the story, they deepen character, and they allow readers to relate and see things. If I write about a killer, I do need to know the brand of pistol he uses, and why he’s chosen that. That alone reveals character. Is it aesthetics? Handling? Sentimental reasons? I need to know these things, and often my characters tell me once they’ve started to come alive.

When I start anything, I get a pile of books. I’m in “accumulating” mode, I just buy everything I can get my hands on and then read a lot, make notes, put the telling pieces and the useful stuff into a folder or paper notebook and take it from there.

Setting suggests character—there are some settings that cry out for a specific character type or profession—and ingrained in that is the question of the central conflict/central experience. A nurse will have a very different experience/conflict than a soldier s/he cares for. Slowly, by understanding the world and how it’s different from ours, it becomes three-dimensional and comes to life in my head.

I even get a sense of “owning” it, as if I could move freely in it. Of course, it’s not the real place, but rather my interpretation of it. Giving an unbiased view is really the historian’s job; I just try to tell a good plausible story in a setting that comes alive for the reader. But first it has to come alive for me, and that means I need to know it like I lived there, or very nearly so. Which makes me a very slow historical novelist and slightly neurotic about details. But as much as I struggle and curse, it’s usually worth it. It just makes for a deeper experience for the reader, because by mastering the details, I essentially show them they can trust me to not lead them astray. And that trust relationship is very important.

Your body of work is already quite considerable. For those who're just embarking on dipping into your writing, where do you suggest they start, and tell us a little about those works and your mind space when you were writing them.

Considering how diverse they are, that’s a bit of a challenge, since I do hop madly from genre to genre. Maybe two of the best examples (and recent, so the writing is good) are Skybound and the Dark Soul series. They really couldn’t be more different.

Skybound is a “literary”, fairly subdued little story about a mechanic and a fighter pilot falling in love. No big deal, but these are the closing days of the Second World War, and they are Germans and hence on the losing side. To dare to love under those circumstances, that does take quite a bit of courage.

I didn’t actually want to write that story, especially since it’s first person and present tense (which I’d never done before), but it simply came over me in the middle of a pile of projects and demanded to be written. The research was pretty humungous, too—I knew nothing about German fighter planes, and even less about the guys who flew and repaired them. It’s not a story about Nazism or atrocities; it’s two guys trapped in a bad situation and finding ways to deal with it.

Dark Soul, by contrast, is more of a Quentin Tarantino movie, just with a little less ultraviolence. Much bolder, starker lines and colours than Skybound. It stars Silvio Spadaro, a young mafia killer whose sexuality (even gender expression) is pretty ambiguous. He’s hedonistic and inscrutable, sexy, deadly, and vulnerable at the same time. It’s mostly told from the view of Stefano Marino, a young mafia boss who’s married and in love with his wife Donata, a bit of a yuppie and an odd fish himself. He’s fairly educated and refined for a Mafioso, for one, and he has a bisexual streak he’s battling and eventually comes to terms with. Obviously, things go to hell when the Russian mob gets involved, leading to a spiral of events that eventually has the law stomping down on the mafia—hard. There’s plenty of sex and intense emotions, so maybe describing it as the “gay Godfather” works, although the mood is very different.

Writing Dark Soul was a bit of a trip, to be honest. Silvio came into my life about twenty years ago, and during those years I’ve tried to put him into a book, but all those attempts failed (at least they kept failing better every time). Dark Soul is me not failing at tackling that character, which makes me very proud. It was also a qualitative jump for me. Any author who’s been around for a while runs into the danger of getting complacent, and I think I was that. Then I wrote Dark Soul, and while writing it, I really had to stretch and work hard, and then I got a gifted editor with Rachel Haimowitz, who beat the remaining laziness out of me. The end result was a new level of writing, where “good enough” is no longer satisfactionary. I do want to be the best writer I can be, and with the right editor who calls me out on bad habits, that’s more likely to happen.

You're kinda crazy like me because you wear the publisher hat in addition to the author hat (okay, granted, I wear the editor hat and that's pretty much the same level of insanity). How on earth do you do it? (And I know you're employed full-time in corporate hell too.)

I don’t watch TV, really, and my social life is pretty much limited to meeting friends every now and then for coffee or lunch. What time I have, I use extremely efficiently, and being a bit of a workaholic does help. On the publisher side, I’m also fortunate in that I’m being backed up by a fantastic team. The day job is editing in financial services, so I’m quite adept at sneaking in my own edits during lulls in the workflow, when colleagues shop for stuff online or go for extended coffee breaks. But yeah, I think I can sustain this for maybe another three to five years and then something has to give. Ideally the day job. I’m quite hopeful that I might be able to get the same income from doing things I love than from editing financial analysts whose grasp of the English language or good style is not always perfect.

What annoys you the most about the chosen genres which you write and publish? What are some of the common pitfalls that you've seen over and over again? What would you like to see more of? 

Oh, it annoys me when authors don’t take pride in their work. I’ve once had a fight with an author who complained on a mailinglist about a negative review. Curious as I am, I went to the review site and read the review, which was cogent and gave lots of details about how the research of that hetero romance story was wrong. The author initially claimed her research was correct (which was a lie, considering both the reviewer and I knew a thing about what she’d been writing about), then, when it was proven to her step-by-step that even a fifteen-minute browse on Wikipedia would have caught 99% of all her mistakes, she blew up and said, “Oh come on, people. This is romance! It’s not like it’s a proper book!”

At which point, that author was dead to me. I mean, there is something like professional pride, and I think we owe our readers to do our best every time we sit down and put our fingers on the keyboard. And research is absolutely vital. Everybody makes mistakes—I know I have—but such blatant disregard for what you’re doing I find extremely hard to understand (which is my diplomatic way of saying I find it inexcusable). Why should romance be any less good, in terms of craft, research, editing, than any other genre out there? So, yeah. Attitudes like this have me spitting nails, both as a publisher and as an editor, let alone as a fellow author in a genre that is widely regarded as “trash” by the mainstream. If we don’t treat what we do with seriousness and respect, then we’ll never shed the reputation of being cheap hacks writing and publishing awful books for the id of barely-literate readers.

Now, for the less serious stuff...

What three novels do you keep recommending to folks? 

Light in August by William Faulkner, Theft: A Love Story by Peter Carey, and American Psycho by Brett Easton Ellis for “literary”. In our genre, I’d recommend Angels of the Deep by Kirby Crow, also The Song of the Fallen books by Rachel Haimowitz, and Santuario by GB Gordon. All three of those really pushed the bar upwards. In terms of general speculative fiction, I’d absolutely include Erekos by A M Tuomala.

And movies? Which ones do you keep returning to?

I have a soft spot for Gladiator, which I keep re-watching. Other favourites are The Lives of Others, which had me crying like a dog on a plane trip, and recently I loved Django Unchained.

Music? Do you prefer absolute silence while you write or do your stories have soundtracks?

I always work with music. Loud music helps shut down the critical voice that tells me whatever I’m typing is crap. It does help me hit the flow and just write.

Destinations? Have you gone to the places that occur in your stories, or do you have a wishlist?

I love travelling, and I’m usually writing about places I’ve been. London features prominently, since I live just outside and work in the Great Beast, and other places like Paris, Rome, Berlin feature. However, I’m always happy to expand my inner reference catalogue, so I’m trying to travel whenever possible. The wishlist right now has several places in the US (New York City, Denver, Antelope Canyon) and I’d love to see some places in the Middle East (like Damascus and some crusader castles), Egypt and then the Far East, like Hong Kong or Thailand. I just need more holidays!

What's on your desktop at the moment with regard to a WiP (or is it a state secret).

A pile of edits, mostly. Right now, I’m working on a historical novel set in Paris during the German occupation and the sequel to Scorpion, my dark gay military fantasy novel, both of which should get wrapped this year, finally, after many delays and crises of confidence.


Twitter: @aleksandrvoinov