My pick for best romance of 2013 was the very sexy Uncommon Passion by Anne Calhoun. (AAR readers liked it too: It won Best Erotica/Romantica in our most recent Annual Reader Poll.)
That novel, like many of Ms. Calhoun’s work, is hard to label. Is it contemporary romance? Is it erotic romance? Is it erotica? Who better to ask than the author herself?
Lucky for AAR, she was more than happy to entertain the question.
Anne, thanks for taking the time to talk with me. There are few authors who write romantic erotica or whatever you would call it–what would you call it? –better than you do. I love Uncommon Passion. In it, the trajectory taken by its lovers Rachel and Ben is limned by sex. Their relationship moves from a very unusual one-night stand to a love affair for the ages and every step is illustrated by how they come together physically.
What would you call Uncommon Passion? Erotica? Erotic romance? Contemporary romance with erotic elements?
Hi, Dabney! It’s so much fun to talk shop like this. I’m so honored you like Uncommon Passion so much…I’m guessing you read quite a few books in 2013.
I call Uncommon Passion erotic romance. My very first editor, Meghan Conrad, helped me clarify the difference years ago when she rejected a story idea. Through discussing to her about it I realized that, for me, a romance novel is an emotional journey with sexual consequences. The characters will have sex, usually at key turning points in the plot, to increase the conflict and heighten their emotional connection. An erotic romance is a sexual journey with emotional consequences. The characters are on some kind of sexual journey – virgin to experienced is a favorite of mine – and at key turning points in the story, they feel something for the other character. The emotions complicate the conflict, rather than the sex complicating the conflicts. Obviously, both are present in either erotic romance or other sub-genres, but the balance tips one way or the other based on the story’s backbone.
So, the backbone of Uncommon Passion is Rachel’s journey from virgin to experienced woman. Lots of other things happen along the way, but the key plot points center around a pretty simple equation: Rachel gaining sexual experience + the emotional consequences from those encounters = erotic romance.
As with all approaches to getting a book from head to page, your mileage may vary!
I am immediately distracted by you saying you’re are fond of the virgin to experienced trope. I don’t know that I have read everything that you’ve written – I think I’ve read seven novels or novellas by you – and Uncommon Passion is the only one I can think of with a virgin heroine. In fact, several of your heroines – Thea from Breath on Embers and Marissa from Unforgiven – are women who have enough sexual experience to know what they do and don’t want. Other than Rachel, do you have any virgin heroines?
Sorry – I wasn’t clear. I’ve written one literal virgin, but Lacey from Liberating Lacey was in the same vein (not wildly experienced, went looking for it). Otherwise, I do tend to write at the opposite end of the spectrum. Marin from the Agony/Ecstasy anthology, Tess from Under His Hand, Corryn from Choosing Luke, the heroines in the books I’m working on now, all are very comfortable with their sexuality. To paraphrase an INXS song, they know what they want, and where it goes.
In fact, that was one of my favorite aspects of Marissa in Unforgiven, that she’d had more lovers than Adam (in that book – a contemporary romance, not erorom – sex was part of the conflict/plot but not the story’s backbone). Thea – Breath on Embers was erotic romance – was just flat-out using sex like she used music, as a way to turn the dial up to eleven and drown out her grief. The sexual journey in that book was from sex as a distraction/distancing mechanism to sex as a way of connecting.
Going back to your earlier question, I wouldn’t describe what I write as erotica because while the books are explicit, the story always leads to an emotional resolution, connection, healing, love. I’ve got a couple of straight-up erotica ideas, and that’s what’s missing: the emotional resolution and connection. Again, YMMV.
Do you think readers are more likely to define writing as erotica if it explores non-traditional relationship? Breath on Embers seems more likely to me to be labeled as erotica because it has a threesome scene. Am I off-base in thinking that?
I’m really hesitant to tell anyone that her definition of erotica vs. romantica vs. erotic romance is “off base”. In my mind everything I write falls in the erotic romance category, but others may see it differently. One of the many joys of writing in this genre is that sex, love, relationships, etc. are so deliciously slippery and fun to explore. I know how I categorize what I write, but I’m not at all attached to what other people call it. I’m just glad they’re reading my books.
I guess I was thinking more in terms of publishing rather than my own definition. Books with something other than one man and one woman in bed feel as though they are more likely to be marketed as erotic romance/erotica even if their level of heat is the same.
Hmmm… my definition as a writer is probably different from how readers view the book. I’d say a threesome definitely lands it in erotic romance territory, and maybe even erotica!
Sex, love, romance–they’re each a piece of why I respond strongly to this genre. For me, the three are distinct, each with its own emotional impact. How do you see them as a writer? Is one easier to write about than another?
I couldn’t agree more about the distinctness, or the emotional impact. The genre packs such a wallop because each component is a powerful component of what it means to be human. Sex can be the most intimate thing you do with another human being, or it can be utterly meaningless…or worse, something a character uses as a shield. Love…that’s what it’s all about, yes? And romance…watching characters go through the mating dance, preening and fluffing their plumage and offering tokens is endlessly fascinating.
I’ve never really thought about if one is easier to write than another, because they’re so intertwined in my mind. I’ve usually got a pretty good handle on the sex, and how that sex affects each character’s emotional arc. The romance elements usually blow up in some way or another. Ben’s date night with Rachel is a good example. It seems so simple, right? Take a girl to an open mic night he already knows she enjoys. But for Ben it’s like having his fingernails pulled out with pliers, because it reminds him of something he’s lost with his brother, and it reminds him of what he isn’t yet able to give Rachel, and it’s a little bit boring, and he’s just not good at it. He brings her flowers – a nice touch…but then the rose gets crushed by the naked blonde in his bed. Ouch. Poor Ben.
I think as a writer that’s the worst part. I really like Ben – all my characters – and I want their lives to be happy! But I want them to have fought to get their HEA, becoming a bit more whole in the process, and to know the value of it when they finally have it in their hands. So as much as I wanted that night to go perfectly for them, it can’t, because it’s got to make things worse for them (conflict, a build to a black moment, all of that good stuff that makes the journey memorable to the reader).
That’s where the love and romance come together for me. There’s nothing, NOTHING, more romantic than being loved by someone who’s seen you at your worst and loves you anyway, who will call you on your bullshit and hold you accountable for the kind of human being you are, but who does that from a position of love and honor and commitment. Ben’s brother and Rachel both do that, and in the end, he’s a better man for it.
I’m not sure that answered the question, LOL!
Do you have a favorite thing to write?
My favorite thing to write is dialogue. When the characters start talking to each other I find their voices, and often the tone of a story. When they stop talking, I’ve usually sent them down the wrong path.
In terms of erotic romance vs. contemporary romance, I don’t really have a favorite. Some stories are better suited to an erotic novel, while others fit more neatly into contemporary; it depends on that spine, on where the characters start and where they’ll end up.
Has your writing changed as you’ve become better known? What sorts of stories can we expect next from Anne Calhoun?
I don’t *think* my writing has changed because people have discovered my books, mostly because I write out of sheer curiosity. Most of my professional/academic life has been looking around for something I wasn’t sure I could do, then trying to do it. I tend to approach writing from a similar place. How would I handle a particular situation or trope? A virgin heroine, a grieving widow, a man who’s been betrayed and yet can’t forgive himself for his own mistakes? It’s not a particularly methodical way to write, but it’s how I work.
Observing books after time passed has been interesting. Sometimes I pick up a book and reread a section, then wonder who wrote it…because it surely wasn’t me! The similarities and differences intrigue me. Overall, I’ve discovered the core story I tend to tell, explored situations that caught my interest, hopefully honed my craft as I’ve worked.
Up next are four New York City-based stories. Intermix is releasing two long erotic romance novellas and Heat is releasing two erotic romance novels. The first novel is a marriage-in-trouble story with an NYPD Captain and an expat Brit who runs a stationary shop, and will release in 2015. The first long novella features a food truck chef and a paramedic, and will release in Sept 2014.
Excellent. I’m happy to hear there’s much to look forward to!