Reading (and Writing) Romance in the Time of Trump

If you follow me on Facebook, you know I’ve taken the leap to pitching blogs to HuffPo and some other mainstream outlets. I mitigate the sting of rejection by repurposing that unclaimed content here. Please pardon any redundant thoughts or things that might seem totally obvious to anyone who already knows or follows me.

(Disclaimer: No bodices were ripped and no pussies were grabbed in the writing of this post.)

Romance novels get a bad rap. We know this. They’re dismissed as trashy, fantastical, formulaic. Romance is a joke, not something to be taken seriously. That’s the argument against anything by/for/about women, right?

But now more than ever, women are standing up and refusing to be quiet. We resist. We persist. And now more than ever, romance should, too.

My grandmother gave me my first romance novel in 1993, when I was in eleventh grade at the Academy of the Sacred Heart, an all-girls Catholic boarding school in south Louisiana. The sex was barely PG, but she gave me a warning anyway. “It’s a good story,” she said. “Just skip the dirty parts.” I tucked myself in my room and read it instead of doing my homework on the Sacraments. It was the closest I’d come to being a bad girl. I was hooked.

By the time I got to college, romance was my preferred guilty pleasure. I hoarded Harlequins to read between studying for organic chemistry and genetics. And after changing my major to English, I savored Nora Roberts in secret, far from the judgmental gaze of my literature professors and creative writing seminar classmates.

In grad school, I discovered Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance and learned the language of dismantling hegemonic patriarchal structures. But even as I wrote papers and pounded my fist about the importance of women-centered stories, romance remained something I sheepishly admitted to reading. Usually while blushing and saying something about how I alternated romance with “real” books.

That changed a few years ago when I finally gave myself permission to write the genre I loved. Suddenly, halting attempts and half-finished chapters gave way to a finished manuscript and a publishing contract. I met a community of readers and writers who not only love romance, but take it seriously. I got my first fan mail.

Now, I’m a college administrator by day who reads and writes lesbian romance novels by night (and early morning and weekend and the occasional sick day). I might still blush when people ask me what I write, but I’m much savvier in what I have to say.

Romance is hopeful, I say, and that’s a pretty radical thing. Name another genre where love conquers all and female protagonists—surgeons and Supreme Court justices and bounty hunters and CEOs—are front and center.

I make the business case. Did you know, for example, that romance makes up a 13% share of the adult fiction market? Then there’s the feminist angle. The romance industry is one of the few in the U.S. that is and has always been predominantly by women, for women. It’s also been quicker than other industries to embrace a host of diverse stories and characters—people of color and LGBTQ characters in particular.

But that’s my usual shtick. These days, there’s more to the story. Just like everything in the era of Trump, the rules have changed.

Romance isn’t just legitimate; it’s relevant. I’d go so far as to say it’s essential. In these days of alternative facts and grossly unqualified cabinet picks, romance keeps me centered. It keeps me sane.

I’m pretty sure I’m not alone.

Take La La Land. Whether or not you’re smitten with the romantic musical comedy, it’s hard to argue with its record-tying fourteen Oscar nods. You’d be hard pressed to find another time when the drama-loving Academy picked an upbeat romance as its darling.

We’re living in a world where #lovetrumpshate is part of the vernacular. For every three articles or calls to action on our Facebook and Twitter feeds, there’s one about self-care. Resistance is exhausting, after all. Making the time to recharge is critical for the long game. I don’t know about you, but I’m in it to win it.

So I’m saying loudly and proudly: Romance is part of my resistance strategy. Because when women are repeatedly silenced and publicly reprimanded, romance amplifies women’s voices. When women are grabbed—literally and figuratively—by the pussy, romance empowers women’s agency, sexuality, and desire.

Romance is escapism, sure. But it’s also rebellion. I’d go so far as to say it’s a nutrient. Like vitamin D. And much like my pale, pale self in the throes of winter in upstate New York, I need all the help I can get.

Do I Make You Uncomfortable?

Like most girls raised in the South (or GRITS, as we’re sometimes known), I was raised to be compliant. Smart, sure. Sassy, even. But when push comes to shove, don’t.

Don’t challenge the status quo. Don’t challenge your elders. And whatever you do, for the love of God, don’t make others uncomfortable.

I’m really good at making people comfortable. Like, freaky good. It comes in handy sometimes. Who doesn’t love making people feel more at ease?

The problem is that I often make people feel better about things that they shouldn’t. Through the years, I’ve helped family and friends rationalize some pretty bad/selfish/immature decisions. I’ve also all allowed people to get away with some pretty bad/selfish/immature things.

I’ve owned that this is cowardly on my part. I’ve accepted that confrontation is not my forte and I’ve given myself permission to choose self-preservation over standing up for the myself. At times, I’ve truly needed to do that. But not always.

The thing is, it’s not all about me. Sometimes–most of the time–it’s about standing up for what is right. And not even “right” in the vaguely morally superior way. I mean “right” in the way that keeps people from getting killed.

I was reminded today (by my brilliant editor and friend Ashley Bartlett) that silence is death. True, it might not be my death. I am, after all, an educated and well-employed feminine-presenting white women who lives in a progressive community. But many queer people (and people of color and people in poverty and people with disabilities) aren’t so lucky. And by making my majority culture family and friends more comfortable, I am making life more dangerous for those not in the majority.

Hate crimes don’t exist in a vacuum. People who shoot up black churches and queer night clubs and mosques are acting out hate that simmers, not on the fringes, but in the mainstream. Around the supper table. At holiday parties. On fishing trips. At the gym.

My fellow citizens–the ones who shrug off racial slurs and gripe about “illegals” and tolerate presidents who joke about sexual assault–are a greater danger to me and to my community than the radical terrorist I’m told to fear. My own uncles–the ones who screen the packages I send to my mother for fear I might try to sneak her another of my novels–enable bigotry just as much as as guy on the street corner who screams about my eternal damnation.

Now that I think of it this way, it’s a no brainer. Danger beats discomfort. The days of smiling and nodding have passed.

If it’s any consolation, I’ll be uncomfortable, too.

 

For the Love of Gumbo


It’s February! That means a few things.

One: Crescent City Confidential is out! If you haven’t got your very own copy, what are you waiting for?Crescent City Confidential.jpg

Two: it’s gumbo season. Nothing warms a winter evening better than a bowl of Cajun goodness and a glass of old vine Zinfandel.

Three: those things are not mutually exclusive.

Crescent City Confidential is an Aurora Rey novel, after all, and it’s set in New Orleans. That means lots of food and lots of cooking. Oh, and a cooking lesson. Because who doesn’t love to flirt and make dinner with the woman you’re trying to get into bed?

Today’s lesson? Gumbo. Tess shows Sam how it’s done. And because I love y’all, I’m going to show you, too.

Chicken and Sausage Gumbo

1 chicken
1 lb. andouille sausage, sliced
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 cup flour
2 onions, chopped
1 green bell pepper, chopped
3 stalks celery, chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1/4-1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes
1 T. apple cider vinegar
salt, pepper, and hot sauce to taste
gumbo file (optional)

  1. Put chicken in a pot with enough water to cover and boil until the meat begins to pull away from the bone (about 45 minutes). Remove chicken and separate meat from bones, discard bones and reserve stock. Note: You can take a shortcut (and not sacrifice much flavor) by using a rotisserie chicken and a few cups of purchased stock.
  2. Combine oil and flour in a large, heavy bottomed pot. Whisk over medium heat until the color of milk chocolate. This will take a while. Be bold, but don’t burn it!

    It starts out looking like this.

    Keep whisking so it browns evenly.

    When it looks like peanut butter, you’re getting close.

    When it’s the color of milk chocolate, you win.

  3. Add chopped vegetables and stir until they begin to soften.

    It will look scary. Fear not.

  4. Slowly add chicken stock and pepper flakes.

    It will look a lot less scary.

  5. Add chicken and sausage to pot and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer about an hour. Add vinegar. Add salt, pepper, and hot sauce to taste.

    Perfection in a pot.

  6. Serve over rice. Add additional hot sauce and a sprinkle of gumbo file, if desired. If you want to be authentically Cajun about it, serve potato salad on the side. (No, I don’t know why. It’s just a thing.)

I hope you enjoy both the recipe and the book. I’d love to hear from you about either!

 

The Personal Is Political: Local Edition

I’m pretty sure that my Facebook and Twitter feeds now consist of equal parts 1) the latest horrifying thing proposed or said by the new administration, 2) instructions on who to call and what to say to protest said horrifying things, and 3) happy and/or cute things designed to help us all keep our sanity. Oh, and the occasional “Aren’t you overreacting?” (But that’s another post.)

It’s encouraging to see so many people fired up and banding together, but it’s overwhelming. First, there’s the fact that I’m an introvert and arguing makes me sick to my stomach. Second, there is so much going on, it’s hard to decide in any moment whether one should be defending science, women, queers, people of color, immigrants, free speech, reproductive rights, the environment, education…I could go on. I have seen some great lists to stay organized, which help, and some great encouragement to remember self-care.

The latter is especially important. The fight will be long and we can’t afford to burn out. That means I fully intend to embrace romance novels and videos of baby sloths and moments of zen and big glasses of good red wine.

It also means I’m going to throw myself even more into work I can do in my community. Take, for example, the Advocacy Center, my county’s agency that provides service to victims of domestic violence, childhood sexual abuse, and sexual assault. It also provides education and prevention training. I’m on the board and we are currently working to purchase the building, a move that will provide financial stability when funding fluctuates.

It’s good and important work. Now, however, it’s critical. The budget that Trump has proposed cuts all grants tied to the Violence Against Women Act. All of the funding. Gone. Now, it’s not a done deal and I’ll be part of plenty of calls to demand it get put back in. And don’t worry, I’ll be imploring all of you to do the same.

But in the meantime, I can put more time and energy into our campaign. I can donate a couple more hours a month to make sure that this vital service in my community is supported and promoted and valued. I can do concrete and tangible work that has impact and makes me feel good. It feels less daunting some days to do that than call my senators. In the grand scheme of things, it might even help win over more hearts and minds than my Facebook posts. (Especially since I’m pretty sure that most of my family that disagrees with me doesn’t look at my posts anyway.)

So in these hard times, I’m adding my own call to action into the mix. Find something close to home that you care about and give it your time and maybe some of your money. Make it personal. Because your experiences and your contributions are by definition political, now more than ever.

Marching Orders


This weekend, Andie and I drove down to D.C. for the Women’s March on Washington. It was amazing, inspiring, energizing. While it’s still fresh in my mind, I wanted to capture the highlights of the day.

First, I should note that I found myself on the fence about going in the weeks leading up to the March itself. I was afraid it might be a rather amorphous thing of (mostly) white women without a true agenda. And then the platform was published. As I read the four-page document–articulate and unflinching in its focus on progressive issues and social justice–every hesitation vanished.

We booked a hotel near the end of one of the Metro lines and drove down Friday after work. We arrived at the Red Roof after ten, tired and still shaking our heads at the alarmingly nationalist tone of the inaugural address. I had a hard time falling asleep.

The next morning, we woke at five. A knot of anxiety sat in my stomach. I was excited, but didn’t know what to expect. So many people had encouraged us to “be safe.” We diligently wrote each other’s phone numbers on our arms in Sharpie, just in case.

We arrived at the train station around 6:30. Dozens of cars were already there. People in pink pussy hats, people with signs and clear backpacks streamed in. As I waited in line to buy metro passes, people explained to each other how it worked, what they needed. We rode the escalator to the platform and I soaked in the energy around me. I knew then it would be a good day. Our train was already full–moms with their teenage daughters, an older straight couple who clearly weren’t new to marches, couples with small children, packs of friends.

We were in D.C. by 7:30, wandering in search of breakfast and coffee. Most places weren’t open yet. The couple that were had huge lines. We walked on, figuring we’d find a food truck or something along the way. By the time we arrived at the National Mall, hundreds of people were there, taking selfies and hugging and buying buttons. I chose “Pussy Power” and “I Like Girls Who Like Girls.”


We made our way down 4th Street, along the side of Museum of the American Indian. The crowd was thick–mostly women, but more than a few men; black and brown and white;  differently abled; women in head scarves; old and young and everything in between. We walked to Independence Avenue, where the rally stage was set up, then backtracked to the museum, taking up residence on small ledge a couple of feet off the ground. We had a view of one of the screens and some of the crowd. By the time the rally started, the entire street had filled in, with only a single-file line of people moving in either direction.

There were so many people, but we had no idea the true scope of the crowd. We also couldn’t hear the rally speakers. (Don’t worry, we watched the videos after.) We chatted with women from California, Colorado, Massachusetts, and New York. Our little posse on the ledge consoled a young woman who’d been separated from her friends, helped create a clear path for wheelchairs trying to pass.

And the signs. So many signs. “Don’t Tread on My Ovaries.” “A Woman’s Place Is in the Resistance.” “I Can’t Believe I Still Have to Protest this Shit.” “You’re So Vain, You Probably Think This March Is About You.” And this one:


By 1:30, the rally was still going and the crowd was getting restless. Chants of “Let’s march now” gathered steam. Then the message came, passed through the crowd like a hot potato. There were too many of us to march.

Hell, no.

Rather than trying to make our way to the march route along Independence, we headed back to the Mall. So had thousands of others. The throng was massive and felt, at times, disorganized. We were all heading in the direction of the White House, but didn’t really know how we’d get there. Even then, everyone was friendly. People paused to let others pass so that groups wouldn’t be separated. At one point, we bent low to walk under a swimming-pool-sized Constitution.

We were funneled eventually to Pennsylvania Avenue, the route of the inaugural parade. The police offered direction; everyone listened and thanked them. It felt like a march, then. Chants broke out. “No hate, no fear, immigrants are welcome here.” “This is what democracy looks like.” “Women’s rights are human rights.” “Black lives matter.” “Trans lives matter.” “We will not go away, welcome to your first day.”

The bleachers, notoriously empty the day before, were packed. Cheers and waves and solidarity. I heard there were some counter-protesters, but I never saw one. One guy in a “Make America Great Again” hat passed in the crowd at the rally. No one said a word to him. The news made a big deal about a crowd that size without a single arrest. More than than, though, there was no shoving, no fighting. I felt profoundly safe. And while I know that being a crowd whose majority was white women made us “less threatening,” I don’t think you can underestimate the importance of it remaining a peaceful demonstration.

Around 5:00, we peeled off from the crowd. I think the ellipse in front of the White House was full and the march had essentially stopped. And we’d yet to eat. (I know, poor planning on our part.) We went in search of sustenance. We snagged two precious seats at a sports bar and laughed about all the hungry and thirsty women pouring money into local restaurants. We were exhausted, happy, proud.

We took the train back to Maryland. At our hotel, we showered, scrubbing off the Sharpie ICE numbers we’d not needed. We caught up with the news (there was absolutely no phone signal at the march) and were asleep by 8:30.

And now I’m home. I’m disgusted that the President couldn’t even be presidential enough to acknowledge the millions of people who showed up to express their concerns, the issues that matter to them. I remain horrified that his racist, homophobic cabinet picks will likely go through without a hitch. I am deeply worried about my right to marry the person I love and the future of public education and the consequences of diplomatic clusterfucks.

But I’m resolved. I’m resolved and energized, knowing that there are so many good people out there, fighting for equality and justice. I’m resolved even though it estranges me from my own family–most of whom “like” all the pics I post of my dogs, but didn’t even acknowledge my half dozen posts about the march.

The true work begins today. It begins with the Ten Action Items and with calling my representatives. It will continue. The complacency that helped to create this situation will not return. The future is not entirely female, but it’s feminist. Or, as my sign said, Feminist AF. And I’m going to help make it so.

What is luminous, really?

Before we get started, I need to warn you that this post might get a little catty. But I’m warning you. And I promise to throw in a “bless her heart,” so it will all be okay. (And before you ask, no, this does not make catty behavior acceptable in the real world.)

Whew. Now that that’s out of the way…

I just finished reading Emma Cline’s The Girls for a book club. I picked it up, and talked my way into this book club, because I feel like I’ve been in a bit of a reading rut. I’ve not been reading as much as I’d like to and, when I do, it tends to be lesbian romance. (Which isn’t bad. It’s good to keep up with the genre in which I write and I love the books. Love. That said, it’s not my only interest and I don’t want to have literary tunnel vision.)

Anyway, The Girls was the “it” book of last summer. Reviews called it “luminous.” (Not unlike the praise for Stephanie Danler’s much acclaimed Sweetbitter, which I could not bring myself to read).

I started reading and, for the first sixty pages or so, I was hooked. Cline is masterful at imagery. She wields adverbs in ways that make my hear flutter. She plays with the male gaze and creates a gaze of her own–female and unapologetic even as her protagonist acquiesces to the male (gaze and more). And she has a talent for evoking the mind and meanderings of female teenage existence and her regretful, middle-aged counterpart. I was at once nostalgic and uncomfortable, in that perfect mix of awe and envy.

After those first sixty pages, though, it started to grate on me. I couldn’t decide if it was the subject matter or the language. It was too…too. Too MFA. Overwrought. My partner really liked and I started to panic. I actually went online in search of reviews that might validate my ennui. Fortunately I found some. This made me feel better, enough so that I finished the book and sipped an IPA while discussing it with a bunch of really smart teachers who had interesting things to say about its strengths and weaknesses.

But, even now, I can’t get rid of this nagging feeling. Did I not love it because it wasn’t as good as all the hype promised? Or, much more worrying, has my reading palate become one-dimensional? Worse still, am I just jealous of all the attention? I don’t know. But the nagging has remained and makes me question who I am as a woman, a reader, and a writer. Not in an existential crisis sort of way, but still.

Part of me feels badly for even saying all this because the two authors I’m thinking of (Cline and Danler) are both young women writers and the world needs more amazing and wonderful female voices. Voices that evoke all sorts of things, demand attention, don’t apologize. Voices like theirs, bless their hearts. (See what I did there?) And here I am, aloof and nitpicking. But I go back to that feeling that I’m not critiquing their actual voices. My very problem with books like these is that they are processed and packaged to be young/fresh/ingenue. You know, luminous.

Maybe, at the end of the day, there’s nothing wrong with that. That specific packaging is simply not my cup of tea. The same way that romance isn’t everyone’s thing. Or fantasy. Or memoir. I just…I guess I’m just tired of the value judgment that seems to come with it. The fact that some (seemingly arbitrary) work gets picked up as the new luminous thing and is all over the New York Times, the New Yorker, NPR, the Slate Culture Gabfest. Are there really not enough great books that we all have to get on the same wagon? And for the love of all that is good and holy, does that wagon always have to be luminous?

Okay. Rant over. Thank you for indulging me.

Ring My Bell

I admit it. I’m a sucker for positive reinforcement. And I don’t mean those grand rewards for hitting some major goal. I mean the most basic Pavlovian type system–small, frequent, consistent treats tied to specific behaviors.

Example: I love Scrivener. I love that I can see my whole outline. I love that I can move scenes around with ease. But I swear I’d use it if it offered nothing more than that little bar that goes from red to green as I reach my daily word goal. And the big bar of the manuscript total? Swoon.

I’ve decided I’m so into positive reinforcement, I should try to apply it to more areas of my life. Case in point: exercise.

A few years ago, I was in the best shape of my life. I wasn’t skinny; I don’t think I’ll ever qualify for that adjective. Still. I was a bit lighter than I am now. More importantly, I had stamina and flexibility. I did two to three dance classes a week, I walked more days than not. I felt fit and limber and it was lovely.

And then life happened. A bad ankle sprain kept me from dance class. A new relationship sent me into a state of happy nesting, complete with lots of great meals and wine. And I started writing.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m happier than I’ve ever been. And I love that writing has become an almost-daily routine. I’ve got three books published, a fourth written, and a fifth in progress. I’ve made friends with other writers and readers–a whole magical community of people I didn’t know existed a few years ago. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. Not even for pencil skirts and skinny jeans and a strong core.

But who says I can’t have it all?

No one, but I’ve not actually been good at doing it in recent months.  But it’s January and a good time for leaf turning and all that. Which brings me to Pavlov. I decided that uber fitness goals, while nice, don’t have that Pavlovian je ne sais quois. I needed something more immediate. Small. Preferably shiny. Enter stickers.


You heard right, stickers. I went to the craft store (for another, slightly more legitimate purchase) and raided the scrapbooking aisle. I got stars and flowers and little owls. And now, each time I exercise, I get a star in my planner. I’m not going to lie, it’s almost laughably satisfying. I’ve got five stars and an owl (for weekly word goals) so far in January. Not to mention 15,000 words of my new manuscript and spaghetti arms from flailing around to belly dancing videos.

Laugh if you want. I am (laughing at myself, that is). But I’m not ashamed to take all the help I can get. But that’s another life lesson (and another post). What about you? What gives you that extra little oomph? Or, as good ole Pavlov would say, what rings your bell?