Monthly Archives: August 2012

Total Recall. Except I totally don’t recall that I love you.

I watched the Arnie version on TV the other night, and I watched the Colin Farrell version at the cinema tonight, and I’m convinced: Total Recall missed a trick in the romance department. And it makes Douglas Quade look like a douche.

Here’s a bit of a run-down with some spoilers: Douglas Quade goes to Rekall have a false memory implanted into his brain. He requests a Secret-Agent Adventure. He then proceeds to have an adventure in which he is truly a secret agent called Houser who’s had his memory altered so that he thinks he’s Douglas Quade, Everyman. (I’ll give you a second.) It’s never entirely clear whether the adventure is real or the requested implant.

At the end of the story Quade has to chose between retrieving the memories of Houser and becoming “himself” again, or remaining the implanted self, Quade. He chooses Quade.

My problem is this: Quade has a wife called Lori. They were childhood sweethearts and have been married for seven years. She’s beautiful. In the Arnie version she’s also compliant, a good listener and a sexpot. In the Farrell version she’s smart, tough and sexy.

When the adventure ensues, it turns out she’s one of the bad guys. She claims she’s only known Quade for six weeks, when she was assigned to him. The entirety of their history is an implanted memory. She tries to kill him. She’s pretty good at it.

In the Arnie version, he puts a bullet through her head and his new girlfriend says, “What a bitch.” Or something. She definitely calls her a bitch. And Arnie just gives this knowing sneer like, Haha, your observations about my erstwhile wife are hilarious, because she is a woman who had the bad manners to be kind of a badass.

In the Farrell version she at least gets to be the baddie, not just the baddie’s girlfriend. Farrell makes some show of feeling conflicted when the new (old) love interest shows up, because his memories tell him he was married for seven years. Not so much conflicted about his feelings for his “wife”, however, as conflicted about what’s true and what’s not.

The whole premise of this story relies on the idea that a false memory is just as “real” as a true memory. The fact that they missed an opportunity to explore that idea to its furthest end boggles me.

Quade believes, utterly, that he’s been married to this woman for seven years. Both films use the fact that she tries to kill him as an easy-out. Like – psychopathic behaviour cancels out seven years of marital love and trust.

It would make a much more interesting point to say: He’s only known this woman six weeks in real time. He feels he’s loved her for seven years. What would it take to disassociate himself from those feelings – to be faced with the painful fact of her utter lack of feeling or loyalty to him?

Lovers to enemies can be just as interesting as the other way around.

Let me say here: I get that this is action-adventure, and not some complex love story. But the movie’s internal logic is what frustrates me. When Quade is faced with the choice between Quade and Houser, he chooses Quade. Because his emotional attachment to Quade is strong enough to overcome an external sense of his “true” self. The life that’s been implanted in his brain feels authentic to him.

But only when it comes to himself, apparently. If that life has such a strong emotional pull on him, why is it so easy for him to distance himself from his wife, or the emotions surrounding her?

In the Arnie version it makes him come across like a bit of a sociopath. Farrell almost pulls it off because he’s so damn good at the coy, uncertain looks that make him feel human. But I came away feeling that if he couldn’t feel the loss of love, he surely couldn’t feel much at all.

It’s a fascinating and terrifying question, whether love is pure chemical delusion, or something more. Total Recall asked the same question about reality, but only as it touched on the reality of one man’s ego. Ho hum.

The Regency: when men were men

One of my favourite historical details about the Regency is that men used to cry in Parliament to express their sensitivity.

But I digress. Earlier this year I entered a whole bunch of the American contests, just to get my MS out there when it still wasn’t quite ready for agent submissions. The scoresheets have been coming back in dribs and drabs and giving me a pretty good cross-section of what reader reactions might be to my novel. A few mornings ago I received this:

Your Hero, and please do not take this the wrong way but use this as constructive criticism.  At points in your story I had to re-read some paragraphs.  Example When the Dukes friends were over after whites it sounded more like a group of women talking to each other call them by pet names.  My impression at that time was that the Duke was bi-sexual, not that I have a problem with that, but this is a Historical Romance Category.  I’m not impressed with his image at all for a Hero.[Note to self: bi-sexuals ok, just not in Historical Romance.]  Although the Duke suffers Panic attacks does not make a man weak.  His character or what I’ve read of it sounds like a weak, selfish and insecure Duke who thinks he is in love with one sister who is not the Heroine.  I would focus on a better Character for this Duke. [So what you're saying is - that Really Average Character I've given him isn't working?] I would not have him thinking he is in love and I would not have him sleeping with a married women who is your Heroines sister.  I would also not have him calling other men pet names.  He needs to be a little tougher like you had him acting at Whites, when the Earl of Benruin confronted him.

You also mentioned in your synopsis how he and Kit your Heroine had sex.  They should be making Love and Sex should be with the other women who shouldn’t be her sister….[I shall have to look into this "making love".]

Confusing once again due to the amount of characters introduced in the first few chapters.  Example all the dandies sounded the same with calling each other by pet names.  Try to maybe have one dandy and one who is Mr. Serious and the other a jokester. [Then the jokester can come out with lines like, "I don't know why they call him Mr Serious. They should call him Mr Seriously Can't Tie A Cravat. Because look at his cravat." Comic gold. I see where you're going with this...] This way your characters will all have a distinctive voice. [If by distinctive you mean hilarious.] Try and match a voice to your Duke.  Make him a man most girls would fall for.  Hansom, tough looking and can melt butter when he entertains the ladies and a mouth that shots bullets when talking with a man.  Distinctive. [Hmm, my husband doesn't really look tough, so I guess that counts against him. But on the upside he's very handsome and does occasionally melt butter while entertaining me. I haven't noticed any bullets shooting from his mouth, but who knows what he gets up to when I'm not around? Manly things, I suspect.]

Okay, so it’s a bit mean to pick this apart – and the truth is that I really appreciate the time and consideration this judge put into reading my entry. Nothing obliged her to read it but her good will and desire to support aspiring authors. And the other truth is that, should this book ever see the light of day, a large chunk of readers are going to react in exactly this way to my hero.

He is not, as the judge went on to say, A Hero.

He’s slight, and effeminate. He calls other men by pet names. He has sex with them. He’s having an affair with my heroine’s sister (though he never is in love with her – I think this judge read love where there is only respect and affection). He’s so clever he tangles himself up in it, and because he has no idea how to express intimacy like a normal human being he tends to be vicious to the people he loves the most. Oh, and he wears a dress – and not only that, he wears the whole persona of a gorgeous, charismatic, powerful Georgian woman.

Actually, her statement about what girls (and here let me say, mine is definitely a novel for women) really like in a man made me feel a bit sheepish, because this happens in my book:

“Wife!”

The single word was violent as a bullet shot through the house…

That’s BenRuin speaking – the cuckolded husband of my heroine’s sister (my hero’s lover. Keeping up?). He is big and tough. He’s handsome. He comes straight from the Alpha mould.

A lot of readers are also confounded by the fact that the book starts in his POV – and through his eyes the reader sees my hero as a frippery. The readers who are confounded by it tend to be the readers who would prefer to read BenRuin’s book.

I did that on purpose. BenRuin is A Hero. Darlington is not.

In a recent podcast, Dan Savage gave this advice to a young bisexual dude: Be confident in your sexuality and the ladies will flock to you to get some of that. (More or less.) I agree. I find the idea of a bisexual man really hot. And I get that some women don’t.

I’ve always known that as a fairly queer book (there’s a tertiary gay romance, too, that’s boiling away in the background) My Lady Untamed won’t be for everyone. But when I only knew that theoretically, I kind of couldn’t imagine how anyone would not just fall for Darlington completely. To me he’s heaven. So it’s great to have proof and be able to put a shape to how some people will read it.

But it also solidifies for me that the kinds of heroes I fall for aren’t what the judge described. And that’s really why I start my novel with BenRuin. He’s the old guard. He’s A Romance Hero. I wanted him to see and dismiss my hero, because my hero is something else.

In the most recent Dear Bitches Smart Authors podcast, Sarah Wendell, Molly O’Keefe and Stephanie Doyle talk about the women who are pushing historical romance to its limits: Cecelia Grant, Sherry Thomas, Meredith Duran. They’re writing complex characters and redefining what sex is in romance. They are, without hesitation, the authors I aspire to stand beside.

the mother-daughter sex talk

When my older brother was fourteen and about to go on his first ever date, my parents sat him down and told him some things about respecting girls and always using condoms. The reason I know this is that my sister and I, in the next room, scrambled to the ends of our beds and listened in, trying not to giggle too loud.

Maybe a year or two later we were having a garage sale and my older sister lifted one of the books and hid it in her jumper. When Mum found it, the punishment was this: My sister had to sit and read the whole thing aloud. It was a “how babies are made” book, complete with illustrations.

The illustration of the woman giving birth showed her on her back, and I remember Mum saying, “Well that’s not completely accurate – you can give birth in all kinds of positions such as squatting or on all fours.” Like my sister wasn’t dying of embarrassment.

Mum used to give pre-natal classes and was wonderfully straightforward about those crazy, foreign, dizzying sex-related things.

I understood the mechanics, but until I read the incest-sex in Sleeping Dogs I hadn’t realised sex wasn’t a single act of penetration but something that happened over time. Until the first of my friends saw a real life penis at fifteen and drew the rest of us a diagram, I didn’t realise an erection didn’t stick straight out from the body. (I guess that kind of erection is easier to illustrate for the purposes of where babies come from.)

There were things I didn’t know, but I was happy to discover them slowly over time for myself. I felt prepared enough.

Yesterday I wrote a mother-daughter sex talk into my teen romance, and it ended up turning into a feminist manifesto. This is what I’d want to say to a daughter if I had the guts. It probably doesn’t quite fit into a scene in a light-hearted novel, though.

Did you suffer the sex talk? Did it make a difference? Have you had to give one?

Here’s Lexie suffering though:

Mum sat on the end of the bed, and wouldn’t look Lexie in the eye.

Oh no. Oh no!

Lexie buried her face in the pillow. “Please, please tell me this isn’t a sex talk.”

Mum cleared her throat. “You and Jerome seem serious, love. I don’t think I’d realised just how serious until I saw you together today.”

Well, at least there was irrefutable proof she was a hell of an actress.

“I am eighteen years old,” she groaned. “I know what goes where. Seriously, you don’t have to do this.”

“Trust me, I’m not enjoying it any more than—”

“Then don’t do it. I beg, I implore you.”

“Love, Jerome isn’t like the boys you go to parties with back home.”

No kidding.

“I just need to know you’re prepared.”

Lexie stuffed her face deeper into the pillow, and really wouldn’t have been surprised if her blush turned it red. “This is, like, child torture.”

Mum made an annoyed noise. “I can get Mum up here to give you the lecture instead, if you like.”

Lexie gasped and her head shot up. “You wouldn’t dare.”

Mum just raised an eyebrow and Lexie was forced to give in to her superior tactics. “Okay. Give me the talk. Wait – can you tweet it at me? 140 characters or less?”

Mum rolled her eyes and blushed a bit and looked really awkward again.

The irony was not lost on Lexie. All this trouble, when Jerome was the last man on earth she was actually going to be having sex with.

“Um, condoms,” Mum said. “No matter what a boy – er, a man – ever says to you, no matter how convincing he sounds, you never, ever have sex with him without a condom.”

“Well, duh,” Lexie said, which just proved how embarrassed she was. She was normally much more eloquent.

“I know you think you know about condoms, but, well, sex does actually feel better without one. You’ll probably even want to try it. Don’t. Just – please, don’t. It won’t ever be worth it.”

“Okay,” Lexie mumbled. Maybe if she just went with it, it would be over quicker.

“When you’re in a long-term, committed relationship then you can start thinking about maybe not using condoms.”

Dear God, argh! She was going to kill Jerome for putting her through this for nothing.

“But the most important thing I want to tell you is far less easy.”

Something in Mum’s voice – something serious and finally unembarrassed – made Lexie look at her.

“Lexie, as a woman you’re going to feel like you need to please your partner. Like all the pleasure in sex is about being something that he desires. You’re going to think you have to make certain faces and pull certain poses and that it’s good sex if he wants you. That’s all crap. That’s the kind of sex society has told you to have in a million little ways you can’t even see. The only kind of sex you should be having is the kind that gives you pleasure.”

So, on the up side Mum had remembered about feminism. On the down side Lexie wanted. To. Die.

“And I won’t ever do anything I don’t want to,” she said in a rush. “And I should only have sex if I think he respects me. Yep. Got it. We had Sex Ed in, like, year eight. I think that just about covers it, don’t you?” She gave a giant, panicked yawn. “So, um, I’m really tired. I’ll probably just go to sleep now. I’ve got to be up at 4:30. Goodnight!”

Mum shook her head, but looked relieved, too. “One day you’ll have to do this with your kids,” she said, standing up. “Then you’ll feel sorry for your old mum.”

Lexie had never heard a more convincing reason not to have kids in her life. Good thing her prospects for having sex with anyone were nonexistent.

the genesis of an idea

Just in case any of you don’t know of him, Heston Blumenthal is a mad-scientist chef. Or a gastrochemist. Or something. He’s amazing and inventive and there’s nothing he won’t try. (My favourite Heston moment was when he slow-cooked a whole pig in a hot-tub, because it was the only body of water large enough that could hold a consistent heat. He sort of looks up and realises what he’s doing and says, “I like to think of myself as a relatively normal bloke, by the way.”)

He filmed a series called Heston’s Feasts in which he cooks feasts that encapsulate a whole historical period. As part of his Victorian feast he wanted to serve Turtle Soup, which was a delicacy of the era.

The first step he takes is to go to America, to a turtle farm. He catches and kills a turtle then sticks it whole into a tub of water and boils it. That’s how the Victorians made Turtle Soup. He tries some of the meat, decides it’s a weird stringy texture, and cans the whole idea.

Next, he looks into Mock Turtle Soup, which was made from cow head and thus much cheaper and available to the aspirational classes. He follows a genuine Victorian recipe that gives him a rich broth. Much better.

He doesn’t stop there, though.

Because he’s trying to distill the whole Victorian age, he looks to Lewis Carroll for more inspiration. Mock Turtle Soup was so ubiquitous there was even a character in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland called Mock Turtle (a turtle with a cow’s head). He distils the soup down, freezes it, clarifies it, freezes it even colder or something, and creates a fob watch from the stock. He covers it in gold leaf and attaches it to a string and a “Mad Hatter’s Tea” paper tab.

His guests brew this in a cup with hot water until it dissolves into a gorgeous golden broth, emulating the Mad Hatter dunking his fob watch in his tea.

He creates a fantasy wonderland in the bowl based around the idea of the mock turtle egg, which he makes from turnip mousse and swede jelly – two staple Victorian vegetables.

You know when you read those books that just feel thin? Watching Heston create something magical, it occurred to me: Those books are turtle boiled in water. “Thin” is what you get when an author has an idea – even a brilliant idea – and writes the first iteration of that idea.

I know there have always been certain books that are produced at a high rate, and certain authors who work fast – that in itself isn’t unique to the present publishing climate. But I do think current conditions encourage fast production. On the one hand there’s self-publishing, which for some authors means a far shorter production process, and on the other there’s the expectation for traditionally published authors to keep up with the demands of a media-consuming generation.

The thing is – ideas take time. Most authors, when pushed to it, can produce words fast. Ideas generate by building on each other and stewing in the subconscious and making new connections with other ideas.

Heston didn’t even use his first idea, even though he went all the way to America to investigate it. But the end product wouldn’t exist without it – it’s even referenced in the the layers of pressed fat in the tureen. That end product is so rich because every thought he passed through influenced his process, and can be seen in layers and obscure references. It is a rich, nuanced, thoughtful, delightful soup.

For me, it isn’t viable to spend three years on every book. That’s not the kind of career I want to have. But I also want to write excellent books, and it’s worth reminding myself that quality is worth standing up for.

The next romance series in my head is becoming an absolute epic. The working title for the series is Kings of Industry. I want it to be full of interesting side plots and characters that influence and tie in to the main story. I want the relationships in the main story to be complex and shocking and unexpected. I want the industry to reach through every aspect of English life and all the way out to newly opened Japan. I want the series arc to be gut-wrenching and intricate.

I can see just a glimmer of what I want it to be, and I know I’m not even close to ready to start the first chapter. If I tried to write it now, it would be a turtle boiled in water.

So what I’m playing with is the idea of finishing my young adult sci-fi series next – which I have put a year of ideas work into. A book every three years might not be viable, but there may be something in staggering books so that one is written while another gestates, until it’s ready to be written and I start working on the next new idea.

Thanks to Yahny in London for permission to use her gorgeous pics. You can read an account of her culinary experience at Heston’s restaurant here. And you can watch Heston put the final touches on the soup here.

woman hero

My favourite piece of dialogue from Avatar: the Last Airbender goes like this:

Sokka: I’m sorry. I treated you like a girl, when I should have treated you like a warrior.

Suki: I am a warrior. But I’m a girl, too.

The only female Avenger in the Avengers movie is the Black Widow – a tough assassin who can more than take care of herself. She’s deadly and clever. Her emotions are the sharpest weapon in her arsenal. In the movie we see her, twice, use her “feminine” weakness as a weapon against men who underrate and discount her for it. It allows her past barriers the more physically powerful superheroes couldn’t have crossed.

There’s the suggestion in the movie (and, I think, overt confirmation in the comics) that she lets her enemies rape her, because it brings them close enough to be killed. She lets people trespass on her – lets them all the way past her defences – and they die for it. Her martial arts skills are extraordinary, but her greatest threat lies in being a weak, defenceless woman.

In the movie, Loki, the master of getting inside other people’s heads, attacks her with the truth about her blood-drenched past. She allows him to think he’s gotten to her, and as he pushes the point venomously home, he inadvertently gives part of his plan away. All emotion drops away from the Widow and she calls through to the team to let them know what she’s found out.

The scene is excellent, because we’re viewing her as Loki does, so the moment when she drops the pretence comes as a shock and makes her seem entirely kick-ass. What I love more, though, is that later we see how her emotions were disturbed by everything Loki said. Her emotions aren’t just an act. She lets her enemies in close enough to actually hurt her, to get what she wants from them.

I like it because it’s great characterisation – but also because it means her “feminine” emotions aren’t just a weapon in her arsenal, they’re still an integral part of who she is. She is a kick-ass heroine – and she’s a woman.

Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises is another mix of “feminine” and kick-ass. The first time we see her she’s playing a downtrodden waitress to get access to Wayne Manor – a guise she throws off when Bruce catches her. Like the Widow, something falls from her and her whole physicality shifts into that of a confident, competent woman. She plays the victim, the seductress, the confidante. Any female face that will get her what she wants.

In this version of the character, Catwoman’s “feminine” qualities felt less cultivated than the Widow’s. Who she is as a woman and who she is as a fighter feed organically into each other. Her emotional relationship to the world hasn’t quite been warped into a weapon yet.

The only problem is: it puts her at risk of becoming Batman’s girlfriend.

Part of the problem, actually, is that she wasn’t Catwoman. The movie played her as a clever, tough woman making her way in the world and taking what she wants. Who occasionally dons slinky clothes while she’s working. In her article applauding Anne Hathaway’s performance Kessock writes: “Where in most of the previous iterations of their relationship there was a definitive difference between how Selina and Bruce interacted versus how Catwoman and Batman interacted, in The Dark Knight Rises the two meet and remain on an almost constant level of transparency throughout the film.”

There is no level between them, though, because Batman gets the armor of an alter-ego and a costume – but Catwoman doesn’t. She remains Selena, the woman, and vulnerable to him. She wears her hair out, not hidden inside the black caul that makes her impenetrable.

Cat put it like this: “Masculine” is a clearly defined space. Everything outside of it is “feminine”, and undefined. Catwoman inhabits that space. Her strength comes from being undefined. Batman will never be able to grasp her.

I find these two instances so interesting, because romance is concerned with strong women. Women we can look up to. Women who fight for their right to love and be powerful at the same time.

I mostly find myself writing the woman I would be if I had the guts. The kind of woman who shows affection by being bossy and high-handed. Who becomes vicious when the people she loves are threatened and whose strength other people know they can rely on.

I tend to write women who have in some way already triumphed over the things that stop women from acting out power. Women like the Black Widow and Catwoman who create their own path. Women who represent a goal, not a daily experience.

Feminist readings of the movie Brave have made me rethink the kinds of women I want to write.

The main article these thought are in reference to is ‘Just another princess movie’ – which is pretty long, and makes an obtuse point or two, but is mostly interesting reading. Loofbourow writes of the central mother-daughter relationship:

I wonder…whether any of the foregoing critics who’ve tolerantly yawned at Pixar’s latest effort could name a Disney princess besides Mulan whose mother is alive, let alone named.

And yet, in Brave, there is a live mother, named and all. And then a remarkably boring thing happens: this interloping mother who has no place in this ordinary, predictable princess story suddenly becomes central to it. She gets turned into something that keeps on getting misread as a monster, something her loving and well-meaning husband has dedicated his life to tracking down and killing for the sake of his own story, which is built around victory and revenge.

…If fairytale princesses are motherless, warrior princesses are even more so. They’re motherless because it’s difficult—still, in 2012—to imagine a woman warrior who enjoys a relationship of mutual love and respect with her family generally and her mother specifically.

This idea struck me so hard because it pointed out a lack in my own expectations that I hadn’t even noticed. It is new and difficult to imagine a warrior woman within a loving family. The Widow’s family were slaughtered, and she had to be brainwashed and genetically altered, to become what she is. Catwoman, whatever version of her back story you take, has left a life so awful behind her that she wants to wipe her slate clean and start again, alone.

Women who can come through that much adversity are heroic, tough, strong. It makes sense. But is that kind of adversity necessary to a woman being kick-ass?

Loofbourow goes on to describe the moment in the film when the three hopeless suitors stand up to compete for Merida’s hand – and all our expectations tell us a fourth man will arrive, who is unsuitable yet perfect. She writes:

Then came the twist: Merida, bound (literally) by the accoutrements of official princesshood, broke out of her constraining dress and represented herself in the contest for her hand! On the grounds that she is a first-born, and therefore eligible to compete, she shames her suitors by beating them handily! The crowd goes wild.

That last part’s a lie — there is a crowd in that scene, all gasping ecstatically as each silly prince takes his shot, but that crowd does not go wild when Merida wins. This proves not to be the triumphant moment of female empowerment Hollywood likes to deliver when it remembers that women are watching.

The crowd instead does something much more likely: it goes weird.

Things get awkward.

love this reading. It’s a revelation. In the real world, which allows a certain space for women to inhabit, stepping outside that space is an uncomfortable act. It’s brave, it’s gutsy, it’s necessary. It’s rarely purely triumphant. As Marcotte writes:

In this grim world of male dominance, the fantasy of a single individual changing everything with a grand gesture of empowerment starts to look silly indeed. A lesser film would have made Merida’s plot to out-man the men at archery the end of the story, but this more realistic portrayal shows how individual action can make the situation worse. Only when the female characters start to work together—to take the collective action so beloved by progressive organizers—does actual change occur.

I’ve been thinking recently about those bluestocking heroines we love so much in historical romance – inquisitive, probably socially awkward, less consumed with what’s in fashion than what’s in the latest Edinburgh Review.

Our heroes come to love them for their minds, their independence and their courage of conviction. To the modern mind they stand out from the crowd as the girl to root for. But I’ve been thinking more about how difficult it would be to love someone who refuses to fit nicely into The Way Things Are. Even the most broadminded, smitten hero would be confronted when his beloved’s behaviour proved not to be an eccentricity but the truth of who she is, in all situations.

The series I have in mind to write next is going to take place some time in the second half of the nineteenth century. I’m still narrowing it down as I do my research – but one element I’m sure of is that I want my women to each have a relationship to the suffragette movement. And I want their greatest difficulty in coming to terms with their personal beliefs to be each other. As well as their greatest strength, eventually.

Describing just how subversive the central mother-daughter relationship in Brave is, Marcotte writes:

Even more interesting, the filmmakers take a critical look at the way women function under male dominance. Many patriarchal societies leave the stressful job of forcing girls to comply with degrading social norms to women, especially mothers. Unlike other movies such as Real Women Have Curves, where sexism-enforcing mothers are painted as villains, Merida’s mother, Elinor, pushes her daughter to perform femininity out of love. As with mothers throughout history who have done everything from put young girls on diets to hold them down to have their clitorises removed at puberty, they are acting not out of hatred but out of a love that leads them to protect their daughters from the price of rebellion.