Howdy Dusk! How are ya?
Hi there. Thanks for having me over to your pad
Tell me, what led you down the road to being a writer? Did anyone guide and support your interest in writing?
The wonder to me is that everyone hasn’t taken this road, at least in an amateur way. I think the fan fiction world is proof that anyone can have the fun of writing stories, just as anyone can play sports, even though most of us aren’t going to become Olympic champions.
As for why I became a professional writer: I had the good fortune to be the progeny of two writers. My father is a literary historian (so is my stepmother), while my mother was an amateur reporter and poet. My mother and father met when they were both staff writers on their college newspaper. They exposed me and my brother to so much literary material when we were young that my brother (who chose to take the blue-collar route in life) once ensured that the waiting area of the place where he worked had the best stock of books on nineteenth-century English social history of any laundromat in the world.
I was writing stories by the time I was eight, had decided by the age of nine to become a professional writer, and have remained on that path ever since. Despite the fact that my parents weren’t especially keen on reading genre fiction, they provided magnificent support to me. They gave me my first dictionary, my first thesaurus, my first copy of Strunk & White, my first typewriter. (Boy, did I just date myself with that statement.) By the time I was ten, my father was taking me with him on trips to the Library of Congress, and by age fourteen, I had learned from him how to do primary-source research on nineteenth-century history. I learned much more from him than I ever did from my schoolteachers.
Most of all, though, my parents gave me their understanding. I failed to value this sufficiently when I was growing up; it wasn’t until I reached college that I realized that some parents might not like their kids spending endless hours scribbling stories and bringing home dozens of books from the library. (All at once. I had something of a reputation with the librarians.)
Yet even when I was young, I sensed the depth of my parents’ commitment to helping me grow as a reader and writer. One of my fondest memories is of my mother going to painstaking efforts to ensure that I was able to obtain a copy of Susan Cooper’s Silver on the Tree on its first day of publication. I went off to my bedroom to read it, all in an agony at anticipated interruption, because I knew that an ironclad rule in our family was that we were never allowed to miss dinner, and we were never allowed to read at the dinner table.
The bedroom door opened finally. My mother walked in with a smile, set down a dinner tray, and left me to finish reading the novel.
What other writers, if any, influenced you the most?
The books that had the biggest impact on me when I was a teen – the years when my writing style was shaped – were Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising fantasy series, Mary Stewart’s Arthurian historical fantasy novels The Crystal Cave and The Hollowed Hills, Ursula K. Le Guin’s original Earthsea fantasy trilogy, Sylvia Engdahl’s science fiction trilogy Children of the Star, Rosemary Sutcliff’s historical novels about Britain from classical times onward, Patricia A. McKillip’s Riddle-Master fantasy trilogy, and Mary Renault’s historical novels set in Ancient Greece. I also read a ton of Golden Age science fiction, as well as memoirs of some of those writers, which helped me to learn the craft of writing, such as how to write a hook opening, and that you shouldn’t shoot yourself if two billion editors reject your manuscript. (The latter advice came in handy eventually.)
A couple of decades later, in the 1990s, I discovered Guy Gavriel Kay’s novels, which introduced me to the subgenre I now mainly write in: historical fantasy set in imaginary worlds. As far as gay love stories are concerned, it was the slash fiction writers who turned my literary world upside down, starting in 2002.
How long does it take you to research your novels? I found that there was so much depth and complexity to “Rebirth” and “Whipster”, the two books that I read by you. It had to be time consuming.
Thank you; I’m glad it came across that way. Particularly since the research for Rebirth took half an hour.
That was because I hadn’t yet realized in early 2002 that I was writing historical fantasy. At the beginning of the Eternal Dungeon series, I was still creating the “vaguely medieval” setting that all my fantasy stories had been set in since my teen years. However, when checking a historical fact that year for slash writer Maureen Lycaon, I became aware that researching Victorian history is a whole lot easier than researching medieval history. So when it came time for me to decide what type of lighting the Eternal Dungeon should have, I thought, “What the heck. I’ll set this novel in an alternate-universe version of the Victorian era.” Then I went off and researched Victorian lighting and came back half an hour later to write the appropriate paragraph toward the end of the first story in Rebirth, “The Breaking.”
Little did I know what I was getting myself into. What happened between the time I wrote Rebirth and the time I wrote Whipster is that I wrote Debt Price (set in an alternate-universe version of the Renaissance era) and fell in love with the historical fantasy genre. So I decided to go all-out with Whipster, researching its time period from the moment I started plotting the novel. This meant starting from scratch; whereas I knew a little about the Victorian period when I wrote Rebirth (I’d spent a year in the 1990s researching a memoir of Victorian artist William Morris), I knew next to nothing about the Edwardian Era, when Whipster is set, much less about Edwardian male prostitution, which is the background setting of the novel.
It gives me shivers now to think back on the research for that novel. I tracked down every online and offline reference I could to male and female prostitution in Victorian and Edwardian times in England, the United States, and Canada. Among other things, this meant seeking out turn-of-the-century police reports and browsing through every single issue published till then of the Journal of Homosexuality (1976 to 2003). Since references to Victorian/Edwardian male prostitution proved scarce, I resorted to reading turn-of-the-century accounts of urban poverty, especially as the accounts related to male juvenile delinquents. Then I decided (in a masochistic fashion) to include a theatrical subplot, so I headed off to the local theatrical arts library and brought home stacks of turn-of-the-century accounts of stage life. After that, I had the fun of checking on little details, such as searching online for an Edwardian lunch menu. That only took me three hours.
This went on forever. It’s the main reason there’s been such a long gap between the first and second volumes of that series. When it came time for me to write other historical fantasy series, I approached research in a much more sensible fashion. While writing Life Prison, my main job has been reading memoirs of Victorian prisoners. While writing Commando, my main job has been reading enthralling – and frequently poignant – memoirs of the South African War. While writing Waterman, my main job has been reading first-hand accounts of Chesapeake Bay watermen and joyfully gobbling up turn-of-the-century schoolboy novels. When I get to the retrofuture portion of Waterman, my main job will be reading science fiction novels from the 1960s. That’s my idea of fun research.
As for how much time it takes: The way that research works is that my Muse gives me a few days head-start to do research, and then he races after me, catching up with me and passing me. Every now and then he’ll look back and say, “Hurry up, slowpoke! I need the technical details for Edwardian drawbridges in order to write the next scene with Michael and Janus.” I’ll rush to catch up with him; then he’ll speed ahead again. When he reaches the finishing line and doesn’t look back, I know that my research is over, except for little details.
Most of my stories are written intermittently, alongside other stories, which makes calculating research hours difficult. But I can give you nearly exact times for my Commando novella Spy Hill (recorded through my convenient HoursTracker app), because that story was written for a deadlined challenge, so I did it all in one fell swoop.
From beginning to end, the novella took 24 days to write (though I didn’t write on every day) – 20 hours in all. The research took about one month (overlapping the writing by three weeks). I didn’t count the hours of the first week of research, but the last three weeks of research took 14 hours. So the research probably took a little longer than the writing. The proofreading and editing (some of which consisted of historical fact-checking) took the longest time of all: 44 hours.
What drew you to write such dark novels like “Whipster” and “Rebirth”, and your other books?
Um, the right genes?
I’ve discussed this topic with other fans of darkfic (as stories with dark settings are termed in the fan fiction world). None of us have any idea why our reading tastes ended up like this. Since most of us can remember seeking out stories about prisoners and slaves and suchlike when we were pre-schoolers, we can only conclude that we were born this way.
I simply write what I like to read. Judging from the subject matter of your average fantasy novel – not to mention the wild popularity of such television series as Game of Thrones and Doctor Who and Sherlock – there’s a lot of us darkfic fans around.
But of course the ethical part of me feels the need to justify writing down these stories. To a large extent, it’s been the readers who have provided the justification; I’ve received the most moving letters from them, talking about how the stories touched on themes in their own lives. It’s escapism of a different sort: escaping into a familiar darkness, but this darkness is placed in a world where hope can be found.
Are there any differences or similarities between Michael of “Whipster” and Layle Smith of “Rebirth?” If so can you tell me a few?
There’s an obvious similarity in their sexualities. But those sexualities developed in a different fashion: Layle believes that he was born that way, whereas Michael believes that he was twisted that way by childhood trauma. As a result, the two men choose to deal with their sexualities in different manners.
Both Layle and Michael are hiding weaknesses, but Michael’s weakness is far more serious, due to that childhood trauma. If need be, Layle could survive without the help of a loved one; he did so for many years. Michael could not. So Michael is far more dependent on another person than Layle is. To put it in a more positive fashion: Michael’s platonic bond with Janus goes beyond the common practices of friendship, causing Michael and Janus to blur the usual hard-and-fast boundaries between friendship and romance.
How hard was it to make a man like Layle Smith (who I really loved) so likeable and sympathetic despite the horrible things that he had done in his past and to Elsdon? Many people would think him a sociopath.
I don’t personally see Layle as a sociopath, but that’s such a matter for reader interpretation that I feel I should stay out of any discussion of this topic. More importantly, I didn’t “make” Layle; I met him. My Muse was in charge of making Layle, in the same fashion that my Muse creates all my characters.
I certainly helped my Muse in figuring out how to present Layle to my readers. The problem I faced early on in the series was opposite to what you describe: I was concerned that Layle would come across as too likeable to my readers. I originally wrote the series for darkfic fans, and I knew they would be sympathetic to Layle’s sexual feelings (provided that those feelings weren’t acted on in a manner harmful to others). I was worried that their reaction to learning that Layle had dark dreamings would be to say, “Hey, what’s wrong with a little fantasizing? Nobody is hurt by a few daydreams.”
“First Time,” the third story in Rebirth, was written for such readers. I wanted to show them how utterly brutal Layle’s dreamings were, and how, for him, fantasy brutality and real brutality could never be entirely separated. If the readers didn’t understand this, by witnessing first-hand Layle’s darkest side, they would never understand his deep self-loathing.
It was a horrific tale to recount, which is why it’s written around the plotline of tender lovemaking. That story – like much of the Eternal Dungeon series – is about transforming the deepest evil into the highest good.
What does it say about Elsdon that he still remains in love with Layle? To go through what he did and not feel bitter or utter hatred for the man? (I have not yet read the other books yet so I don’t know if this has changed)
I hope you plan to put a spoiler notice before this question. 🙂
I had one reader accuse Elsdon of being a Mary Sue. I’ve had lots of readers tell me how utterly sweet Elsdon is. I can’t help but wonder whether those readers have noticed what events brought Elsdon to the Eternal Dungeon.
Elsdon is certainly extremely forgiving. So is Layle, which is why Elsdon is still alive. It should already be apparent by the second story in Rebirth that Layle has to put up with as much nonsense from Elsdon as Elsdon does from Layle (though Layle certainly puts his special trademark on his own type of nonsense). The two men are highly honorable individuals with distinct flaws. That’s one of the things that draws them together. It’s not a matter of one of them giving and the other receiving; they are alike and dissimilar, and their dissimilarities complement each other.
How far are you taking the Eternal Dungeon and Michael’s House series?
I’ve just started publishing stories in the fifth volume of The Eternal Dungeon, which will be the final volume, except for an epilogue volume. Michael’s House is a two-volume series. Both series will also have side stories, and in the case of Michael’s House, possibly a side novel.
I should also note that The Eternal Dungeon and Michael’s House are both part of my Turn-of-the-Century Toughs historical fantasy cycle, set in an imaginary version of Maryland and other Mid-Atlantic states between the 1880s and the 1910s. All five series in the cycle have overlapping settings and themes and plotlines – and yes, gay love – so readers of The Eternal Dungeon and Michael’s House are likely to enjoy the other three series as well. Life Prison is (at its name suggests) prison fiction, Commando is war fiction (I imagined what the South African Boer War might have been like if it had been fought on American soil), and Waterman . . . Gosh, how do I describe it? It draws inspiration from battles between Chesapeake Bay oystermen, a boarding-school love scene in Mary Renault’s The Charioteer, a society I’d created where people were legally classified as master or servant from birth, various science fiction prison stories I read as a teen, and The Jetsons. All these elements work together, believe it or not.
(Incidentally, just so that I don’t give a lopsided view here of my work: I write m/f love stories too, as well as a heck of a lot of friendship fiction, most of which appears in the same series as my m/f and m/m stories. My trans characters turn up everywhere.)
Have you ever thought of writing lighter fare? Like a comedy, say? Have you?
I don’t think there’s such a thing as pure comedy, since so much of comedy is based on laughing at other people’s misfortunes. It’s possible to create a cruel sort of comedy where you ridicule the misfortunate, but I prefer the sort of comedy that balances laughter with true sorrow – for example, Charlie Chaplin’s movies.
I’ve written a lot of this sort of comedy. The sixth story in Rebirth, “Tops and Sops,” is a tragi-comedy. So are certain parts of the fourth story, “In Training.” And if readers don’t end up laughing at the scenes in Whipster which feature Archy, I haven’t done my job properly.
My first published writings were satires I wrote for my high school newspaper. Satires are probably the lightest fare I’ve written, but the title of one of my more recent satires – “The Slavefic Plot Creator” – shows that, even when I’m being satirical, I’m being serious. I like that sweet-and-salty mixture.
What is one trend in reading that you really like or dislike? (i.e. m/m romance, zombie fiction, steam punk, etc)
I am hopelessly in love with original slash. A lot of people know that many of the early m/m romance writers, such as Laura Baumbach and Erastes, started as slash fan fiction writers – that is to say, they wrote fan fiction about m/m relationships. But what many people in the m/m romance community don’t realize is that, in those m/m pioneer days, there were already original (non-fan) writers in the slash community, most of whom didn’t end up in the m/m romance community. We’re still there, in the slash community. Some of us are self-publishing, some have been published by non-romance presses, some prefer to remain web fiction writers, and some names you might know in the m/m romance community were once original slash writers. For example, I first met Clare London – who now writes for Carina Press and many other m/m presses – when she was an original slash writer.
The difference between original slash and m/m romance is subtle. Not all original slash is m/m romance (i.e. gay genre romance), but some of it is. What you also find in original slash are stories where the m/m love story – or f/f love story – is important, but it’s not the only plotline going on. You said in your review of Whipster that the novel was hard to classify; that’s because it was written for an original slash e-zine, which didn’t require me to write genre romance. Likewise, The Eternal Dungeon is about gay romance, but it’s also about friendship and family loyalty, and there’s even a heterosexual subplot. None of this caused my slash readers to blink an eye, but I can tell you, it has made for some interesting encounters with m/m romance reviewers. 🙂
I’ve spent a lot of time in the m/m fiction community; I began hanging around the early versions of it in 2002, when it was still being called “pro-slash” (that is, professional slash). Fiona Glass published many of these early m/m writers in her original slash e-zine, Forbidden Fruit, which began in 2003; two other early original slash e-zines were MAS-Zine (which I contributed to) and JACK. By 2005, m/m writers like James Buchanan were beginning to market their stories to romance presses. Having witnessed how most other genre fiction presses slammed their doors shut to m/m writers, I was amazed to watch romance presses fling open their doors. Those early m/m-friendly romance publishers deserve a lot of credit; they were taking a big chance at the possibility of alienating their m/f readers.
Mind you, I suspect that there was a little m/m infiltration of editorial positions taking place at romance presses. 🙂
I’m happy that m/m romance has flourished, but there’s a lot of original slash that doesn’t qualify as genre romance, or simply doesn’t make its way to romance publishers. I’d say that one of the best places for insatiable m/m readers to visit is The Slash Pile on LiveJournal, where original slash stories are recommended (as well as some published m/m romance). The Slash Pilehas an amazingly good tags system, as well as a “Request Post Masterlist” that should turn any web directory editor green with envy.
My own favorite original slash writers are Lucius Parhelion (who writes for Torquere Press), Manna Francis (who writes for Casperian Books), Maculategiraffe aka Sabrina Deane (who self-publishes), and M. Chandler (who self-publishes). All of these authors also post stories online. There are many other original slash writers that I read with glee.
BONUS QUESTION!!! The origin of your name “Dusk” and have you ever considered changing it to “Twilight” you, know, sort of like an homage to the Twilight series.(heehee) I can see it now: Twilight Peterson!
(*Buries face in hands.*) This is almost as bad as the time that I discovered that the plot of Twilight is exactly the same as the plot of Rebirth. (Seriously. If anyone reading this has already read Rebirth and therefore won’t be spoilered, check out this blog post of mine.)
“Dusk” started out as an Internet nickname, when I originally signed up for Yahoo Groups around 2000. I had a friend whose Internet nick was Shadow, so I called myself Dusk. My first original-slash stories were posted under the name of Dusk, which soon became my social nickname, since I was making friends with slashers. Then I went back to using my legal name as my professional name, but I got tired after a while of having people judge my stories by my gender (especially since I’m genderqueer, so they were always guessing my gender wrong). So I decided to return to my gender-neutral nickname. Of course, I’d picked a gender-neutral nickname in the first place for a reason.
Mind you, the real advantage of my nickname is that it fits onto a tight cover layout so much better than my long legal name.
Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. If there is any advice for aspiring writers that you want to give, we are all ears!
Spend more hours creating stories than social networking and marketing. I wish I could go back in time and tell that to my younger self.
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