Monday, November 17, 2008

An Interview with Pam Rosenthal





Kate Pearce interviews Pam Rosenthal




I first met Pam Rosenthal at one of the Romance Writers of America's annual conferences. We were both getting drinks at Starbucks and I saw her name badge and had a complete fan girl moment because I'd loved all her books. She was nice enough to say she knew who I was too, but I was still struck dumb to meet someone whose beautiful literary style of writing I admired so much.

Later, I got to know Pam even better when we collaborated with some other erotic historical romance writers over at the Spiced Tea Party blog. Her posts made me think for days and I also found out that she had an alter ego-Molly Weatherfield who wrote the classic erotic novel Carrie's Story. By that time I was also a Lustie and Molly's name came up frequently as someone whose writing was greatly admired-and I knew her! Pam very kindly consented to her first interview as Molly on Lust Bites and now she's back to share her new erotic historical release "The Edge of Impropriety"

Take it away Pam!

Kate. Why do you write in this particular time period? Is it the politics, the frocks, the repressed emotions?

Pam: All of the above. And Byron, Keats, and Shelley as well. The odd thing is that when I started writing romance, I thought my time period would be the French Revolution. Because that’s where my first romance, The Bookseller’s Daughter, was set. And because Carrie, the heroine of my Molly Weatherfield BDSM erotica, was a lover of French literature and a disciple, in a sense, of the Marquis de Sade. So I thought I’d want to write in the Marquis de Sade’s period – and never, never, in that stodgy old English Regency.

But it turns out that the English Regency wasn’t so stodgy after all, and that it was profoundly influenced by the French Revolution and by its own revolutionary geniuses like Mary Wollstonecraft. And so what I try to write about is the meeting of two worlds – the very proper ton, and the more raffish, interesting world of rebels and reformers that you’d find east of Regent Street.


K. Do you have a writing process? Do you plot or see it as it comes at you?

P. I start out with a beginning and an ending – in romance, these aren’t so far apart; the ending rather recapitulates the beginning, with all the wild desire now satisfied. It’s the middle that makes everyone crazy.


K. How many hours a day do you get to write and do you have a set schedule?

P. I try to write every morning for a few hours. When I’m not promoting a book, that is – promotion being God’s way of teaching us to appreciate the days when we actually get to write. And also (with a good interviewer like you, Kate) an opportunity to sit back and think about what we do, what works, and what doesn’t.

And what I’m thinking these days is that I ought to trust my own daydreams and fantasies more. The point of craft, I’m coming to think, is that when the daydreams and fantasies really get cooking, you’ll have the words, the syntax, and the general fluidity so you can get it while it’s hot.



K. How much research goes into your books? And do you do it all yourself?

P. A fair amount of research. And no, thank heaven, I don’t do it by myself. I have a wonderful research partner in my husband Michael – and I can’t describe it any better than I did in this guest post at the Wet Noodle Posse


K. What do you consider your strengths as a writer, what about your weaknesses?

P. My major strength, I think, is that I seem to be able to write about sex, to put experience that lies on the very edge of consciousness into words, syntax, and verb tense. Part of this strength, I think, is that I’m patient enough (and love the craft enough) to keep at it until I get it right. And part of it is that I probably have a few wires crossed in the erotic and intellectual parts of my central nervous system. So I think that even at my advanced age I’m still drawing on the energy of my own shy, wonky adolescent erotic curiosity and discoveries.

My major weaknesses are: first off, that I sometimes get so enamored of all that complexity and fragmentation that I don’t always move my plots along as quickly as the romance genre wants them to go; and secondly (as readers know, and I am sorry, really), that I’m a ridiculously slow writer. Which is why I think I should do more daydreaming and fantasizing up front and more writing it down (fast! And trusting to my craft!) after I’ve got the fantasies hot and bubbling (see above).



K. Do you fall in love with your heroes?

P. You bet. And my heroines. Gosh, don’t we all fall in love with our heroes and heroines?


K. Do you have a favorite character from all of your books so far? Is there anyone you'd like to keep writing about?

P. Not a favorite, exactly. But someday I’d like to find out what happens to Alec Hervey, David’s son in Almost a Gentleman, who in his sweet, brainy reasonableness is rather modeled on my own son. I haven’t thought of Alec for a while, but when the Library Journal reviewer told me how much she liked the preadolescent niece of my current hero (in The Edge of Impropriety) I found myself rather wanting to introduce this young woman-to-be to Alec – after she grows up, of course. (And hey, can I plug the Library Journal review of Edge?


K. Where do you think your books fall in the erotica/erotic romance spectrum?

P. Well, I know that these things are usually seen as a kind of spectrum from plot-driven erotic romance to episodic erotica. In the world of romance publishing, erotica’s seems to be measured by the number of sexual encounters per thousand words. While to some scholars, it’s erotica if the book is structured around its sexual set-pieces. see Teach Me Tonight.

Neither view works for me. I like to mix it up. And once in a while I get a reader or reviewer who sees it as I do – as in this recent Romantic Times review of Edge, where Kathe Robin says that “Rosenthal’s… always looking for new ways to burn up the pages and keep your mind focused on characters and plot, not just her wonderfully erotic love scenes.” I was thrilled that at least in that sentence Kathe sees it as an and rather than an or kind of thing, just as I do. And I cherish this comment from some long-ago blogger, who said of Phoebe and David in Almost a Gentleman, “even when they're across the room from each other, there's always this feeling that you're walking in on them in the middle of fucking.” I’d add that when they’re fucking I want there to be the feeling that the plot is progressing.

That said, and (at last) to answer your question, I think I write the erotica I want and need. Which changes with time. In the Carrie/SM books, it was about youthful freedom, intellectual honesty, and curiosity. But youth ends in maturity and commitment. And so finding a possible happy ending for Carrie led me to romance, which is about how we love and want to be loved. And it led me to try to write successful, and also erotic, romance novels.

These days I may be going somewhere different; I’m not sure yet.
But again, I wouldn’t be interested in writing (or reading) erotica that wasn’t as smart, as plot- and character-driven, as informed, and as technically adventurous as it can possibly be.


K. Who has influenced you as a writer?

P. Probably the only two books I’ve really entirely comprehended are Little Women and Story of O. So those are probably the deepest influences.


K. What's coming up next for you?

P. More erotica, of course (see above). Hot retellings of some canonical nineteenth century fiction. What I don’t know yet (again see above) is whether the stories will have happy endings or not.

Thanks Pam!


And thanks so much, Kate, for your wonderful questions and the opportunity to answer them.

Pam is offering a copy of "The Edge of Impropriety" to one lucky commenter!
Or buy it here

28 comments:

Nikki Magennis said...

What a lovely interview, Kate and Pam!

Great quote: 'I probably have a few wires crossed in the erotic and intellectual parts of my central nervous system'.

(Also, I want a research partner! That sounds like the bee's knees. Where can I get one?!)

Portia Da Costa said...

What an awesome interview! Many thanks to Pam for fascinating answers and to Kate for posing the questions.

It's an interview I'll come back and reread several times, I think. Esp. your observations on erotica 'and/or' erotic romance. Most thought provoking. :)

Olivia Knight said...

I ought to trust my own daydreams and fantasies more.

I know precisely what you mean. The best part about writing is when you let it go and follow behind, instead of structuring and rigidly planning. New characters stroll on to resolve massive plot dilemmas, interesting twists on themes dart through the imagery, sentences flow ~ and yet letting that happen is so appallingly difficult. I thought writing got easier as one went on - but as your intuition strengthens, so does your editor-craft-crit person, so they stay locked in battle, and meanwhile your standards rise!

I love hearing about other people's writing habits - thanks for letting us in on your secrets!

Janine Ashbless said...

Wonderful interview - thanks Pam (and Kate). This bit rang especially for me:

The point of craft, I’m coming to think, is that when the daydreams and fantasies really get cooking, you’ll have the words, the syntax, and the general fluidity so you can get it while it’s hot.

Laura Vivanco said...

to some scholars, it’s erotica if the book is structured around its sexual set-pieces.

I'm not sure that's what AgTigress was arguing, though. She wrote that "Erotica, though focusing on sexual activity, should follow the conventional structure of novels in having a proper story and believable characters."

Perhaps in the case of erotica and erotic romance it's a case of them having an improper story in some respects, but I'm not sure there's really that much difference between what AgTigress wrote and what you said here:

I wouldn’t be interested in writing (or reading) erotica that wasn’t as smart, as plot- and character-driven, as informed, and as technically adventurous as it can possibly be.

Deanna said...

A great interview Kate and Pam, I really enjoyed the insight.

A husband who does research for you, how lucky you are, Pam. However, with historicals I do enjoy doing the research almost as much as I enjoy writing the book. Trouble is I get so caught up in my research it slows down my writing.

Madeline Moore said...

Wonderful! I must run but will be back to reread and comment further.
Thanks to Kate and Pam.

Pam Rosenthal said...

First answer to Laura, because you're right, Laura. I got it wrong. I got scrambled in my own distinctions, hoist on my own whatever. AgTigress said that pornography is episodic, not erotica. The problem is (and the reason I goofed) is that I don't believe in that distinction either. Particularly in the Carrie books, I tried to write against that distinction. I really do want to confound my reader as to whether she wants narrative forward motion or a series of "nows" -- partly because I think that that confusion is the point of -- oh, let's just call it sexy writing, because I don't believe the label "pornographic" changes any of that.

Sorry for the unintended confusion instead of the intended confusion I actually care about.

Pam Rosenthal said...

And thanks to everybody else for their lovely comments. I am blessed to be married to my most astute reader -- which I mean in every possible way, and which sobriquet I first used with enormous pleasure when I gave it to Joseph in The Bookseller's Daughter to bestow upon Marie-Laure.

As for that business about trusting the imagination -- this didn't used to be a problem because when I wrote Carrie's Story I had 20+ years of secret sexual fantasy to draw upon. When I first became contracted in romance, though, it was more difficult, and I still have problems with deadlines and schedules. My current solution is to wait until I'm surer where I'm going before trying to get contracted, and to enjoy the freedom of doing it just for fun in the meantime. Because -- as I'm sure you all can attest to -- erotic writing is its own reward.

Pam Rosenthal said...

with historicals I do enjoy doing the research almost as much as I enjoy writing the book...

Deanna's post reminded me of an interesting point. Which is that I find a romantic/erotic component simply in situating my work in another era. Not just because of the clothes and tchotchkes, but because there are all these rules to be learned and followed.

And whereas the Carrie books take place in 90s San Francisco and Europe, I think of all that as a sort of mock-historical imagined setting superimposed upon the contemporary landscape, sort of like the chateau in Story of O.

Kate Pearce said...

I love listening to Pam talk-she really makes me think about the hows and the whys of what I do and how I write it.
And I totally get that whole let your imagination rule. I've written 16 books so far and I am in a place where I do trust my imagination to work it all out for me-and it does-it is a beautiful place to be. and, like Pam, (and one reason why I like her books so much,) is that I don't really follow the romance conventions either, I just let the story tell itself the way it needs to be told.

Thanks again Pam :)

cc said...

it's always fun to see how an author, no matter the genre, puts things together. And to see where people in different genres and fiction vs. non-fiction cross and deviate. I always take away something to add to the mix of my own writing.

Pam Rosenthal said...

I always take away something to add to the mix of my own writing

Thanks for that, cc. And Kate -- wow, 16 books written by letting the imagination have the upper hand. That's wonderful!

Lil said...

I agree with Kate. Pam's posts and interviews are ones that I find myself dwelling on in the days that follow. This interview will be no exception. I love the peek into your thoughts. Congrats on the release of The Edge of Impropriety.

Kate Pearce said...

LOL I wish Pam-the first 6 were not too great-it took me a while to work out that I needed to let go of the conventions and just write it the way my instinct said it should go.

And another thing that Pam said which always made me feel better about myself was that you didn't actually have to have done all the things you wanted to write about in a novel-you were perfectly entitled to use your stored erotic imagination.

Laura Vivanco said...

I really do want to confound my reader as to whether she wants narrative forward motion or a series of "nows" -- partly because I think that that confusion is the point of -- oh, let's just call it sexy writing, because I don't believe the label "pornographic" changes any of that.

Looking back at AgTigress's post, I saw that her core definition seemed to be that with pornography "The aim is solely to arouse sexual excitement in the reader" whereas "Erotic activities must, by definition, involve personal, emotional ties of some kind." The distinction here seems to be between producing a physical response (pornography) and creating emotional as well as physical effects (erotica).

What AgTigress doesn't seem to have touched on (or if she did, I'm missing it in my quick re-reading of her post) is how to classify writing which creates physical and intellectual effects, or which perhaps creates its physical effect via intellectual means.

What you say about "sexy writing" and confounding the reader encourages me to take a leap into speculation and suggest that perhaps part of the difficulty in making the distinction between erotica and pornography, particularly where authors like you are concerned, could be that for some pornographers and readers of pornography certain things which might not normally be expected in pornography might be among the most sexy/arousing aspects of the experience.

AgTigress's classification system maybe misses out what happens if the pornographer and/or reader are aroused by ideas, by thinking intellectually about what's being depicted, and if that's an intrinsic part of the experience for that writer/reader. In that case the text may be written with the sole aim of arousing "sexual excitement in the reader" (so would be pornographic) but because these pornographers/readers require intellectual content, there will also be features (such as a sense of intellectual purpose behind the placement of the sex scenes, so that there's an intellectual arc) which make it seem rather different from what AgTigress would recognise as pornography.

Does that sound at all plausible?

Pam Rosenthal said...

Thanks for the congrats, lil, and to everybody who said they found the interview thought-provoking. I quit grad school in English in 1968 (because it was 1968!) and part of me has always regretted it -- I think I have the flashy idea part down, but I wish I'd learned the research skills, the discipline, sheer heavy lifting I've learned is required (most especially from My Son the Victorianist) to put together a complicated idea and argue it convincingly. (And yes, that's part of the wishdream behind the end of Safe Word, if anybody might be wondering.)

In any case, it's wonderful to have this opportunity to work out ideas in the ether.

While as for erotic imagination, Kate. Well, I've probably said this before, but it seems to me that there's a way in which exposing the far reaches of one's imagination is as intimate an exposure as anything else.

Kate Pearce said...

"...but it seems to me that there's a way in which exposing the far reaches of one's imagination is as intimate an exposure as anything else."


Beautifully put! And I totally agree.

Pam Rosenthal said...

perhaps part of the difficulty in making the distinction between erotica and pornography...could be that for some pornographers and readers of pornography certain things which might not normally be expected in pornography might be among the most sexy/arousing aspects of the experience....because these pornographers/readers require intellectual content

"True, dat," as the little boys selling drugs on the corner in THE WIRE say.

But I'm not so sure that this so far outside the norm, Laura. Or that there aren't more "normal" conditions than we think. Mine, in any case, speaks itself in the epigraph of Carrie's Story:

Passion and expression are not really separable. Passion comes to birth in that powerful impetus of the mind which also brings language into existence. So soon as passion goes beyond instinct and becomes truly itself, it tends to self-description, either in order to justify or intensify its being, or else simply in order to keep going. -- Denis de Rougement, Love in the Western World

Laura Vivanco said...

But I'm not so sure that this so far outside the norm, Laura. Or that there aren't more "normal" conditions than we think.

I suppose it depends how one defines "normal" and "norm." They do get used in lots of different ways and depending on how they're used can have different connotations. I certainly didn't mean to imply that being intellectual was a bad thing. I was using the word "normally" to refer to the "prevalent" or "majority" expectation of what the content of pornography is likely to be.

I'll willingly admit to knowing next to nothing about either pornography or descriptions of pornography, so it could well be that there's been lots of discussion about the conjunction of erudition and eroticism in pornography and I just don't know about it.

I was, though, working on the assumption that most of what's been written about pornography doesn't described it as having an intellectual component.

That said, the general ("normal"?) opinion of romance is that it's badly written and intellectually undemanding. Obviously there are some romances that fit that description, but there are many other romances which don't. So I'm well aware that an absence of descriptions of a genre's intellectual content (a) may well be highly misleading and (b) may well say as much about the people doing the describing and their preconceptions, academic specialism and/or level of knowledge about the genre as it does about the texts under discussion.

Pam Rosenthal said...

I think, Laura, that I (and Carrie, and -- now that I think of it -- my hero and heroine Joseph and Marie-Laure from The Bookseller's Daughter) come out of that highfalutin French intellectual porn tradition. Story of O was absolutely formative for me in the 1960s, and so was Sontag's essay The Pornographic Imagination. I read a lot of the Marquis de Sade in my teens, too.

And I've gotten a fair amount of mail from highly intellected porn readers as well -- like guys who might also perhaps read cyber or steampunk. Carrie's Story was positively reviewed on bOING bOING, for example.

Any comments about this readership from you Lusties or LustBites blog regulars?

Lillian Feisty said...

Pam is one of my idols and a real inspiration. Thanks for the fabulous interview!

Pam Rosenthal said...

(blushing) thanks, Feisty, and thanks for stopping by.

Caffey said...

Hi Pam! I had the joy of reading some of your books right when you started out with Brava. I can still remember well ALMOST A GENTLEMAN, THE BOOKSELLER'S DAUGHTER and all! I'm thrilled you have a new one out! I find with your books, they will take me places that I'd be surprised with, more so that you have the characters really open up themselves so I get to see really alot of them. This was great reading on your interview. Loved the questions Kate and the answers Pam.

Would love to be in the contest! Congrats on the release Pam!

RfP said...

"I like to mix it up."

I've just finished reading The Slightest Provocation, and the "mixing up" of viewpoints worked beautifully for me. Being in Mary's head, or Kit's, being now or more distant... that welter of experiences reminds me of the way we *live* a relationship. Partly in our own heads, partly in the moment, and partly feeling our way into the other person's head. It's also interesting in that the reader is dumped into the conflict quite intimately. I have a feeling the relationship uncertainty is heightened by not having as much cozy narrative voice subtly reassuring us about the relationship--but I'm throwing out that last point without having re-read or really thought about it.

So I wouldn't say I was confounded "as to whether [I] want... narrative forward motion or a series of 'nows'". I was all for the mixing up :)

Pam Rosenthal said...

Hi Caffey! Great to see you here -- I think you might have sent me some of my earliest supportive feedback. Much appreciated and never forgotten.

And more recently, I've really enjoyed hearing from RfP:

...the way we *live* a relationship. Partly in our own heads, partly in the moment, and partly feeling our way into the other person's head...

What a great description of what I try to portray. Thanks.

RfP said...

Intimacy seems to be a common thread here, both between characters and between author and reader:

Pam: "there's a way in which exposing the far reaches of one's imagination is as intimate an exposure as anything else."

Laura: "what happens if the pornographer and/or reader are aroused by ideas, by thinking intellectually about what's being depicted, and if that's an intrinsic part of the experience for that writer/reader."

I don't think intimacy is always present in porn, at least not beyond the physical/visual--although perhaps if a piece of porn perfectly aligns with its consumer's desires, that could be experienced as a form of intimacy. I'm thinking of the "Someone else likes that too" and "How did she express exactly what I feel?" or "I wish I could live in her imaginary world" responses that can make readers feel close to authors.

So absolutely, intimacy can also be intellectual, in the touching of minds on other levels than the sexual (e.g. Pam's exposing the reaches of her imagination). Laura and I once debated the intimacy between teacher and student, and whether the site name "Teach Me Tonight" is sexy; this type of intellectual intimacy was what I had in mind.

Intimacy can take many other forms, but I think it's always powerful. E.g. in the end of Slightest Provocation, Fannie's thoughts on love are changed by eavesdropping on Mary and Kit's intimacies, "Listening to the two of you sing and squabble and make up".

Pam Rosenthal said...

Wow. You so totally have my number, RfP. I'm delighted and astonished to find my own apprehensions of romance reading so clearly and beautifully put.

I always write about intimacy. My intent in the first argument scene in The Slightest Provocation was to communicate that this couple has to end up together, if for no other reason than they're so knowing in the ways of infuriating each other (well, they have to end up together in the world of a romance anyway).

And of course the Carrie books are only possible because Jonathan, my dream top, tells Carrie up front that he understands her fantasies, and that "I'll give it narrative shape, I'll keep it going, and I'll figure out the particulars as we go along." The fantasy of perfect understanding is definitely one of romantic intimacy, and here the intimacy between characters spills over to the intimacy between author and reader (which is what I always say at just about this point when I give a workshop).

Off now, to read your debate with Laura.