Conversations & Guests

Role Playing Games, Gender, and Gestalt Rats: A conversation with Alexis Hall

Iron&Velvet_500x750Today I’m welcoming Alexis Hall to Paranormal Unbound. I’m so glad he agreed to chat with me, especially since I threw a ton of epic run-on questions at him, and he humored me replied very graciously!  Below you will see me say Iron & Velvet is one of the smartest, funniest, freshest books I’ve read in a long time, and I think you will get a sense of why when you read this interview.   Fair warning, it’s a long interview because I’m a geek, and by his own admission Alexis is a nerd. I hope at least some of can relate to one us 🙂

So Alexis, you’ve written Paranormal and Contemporary novels.  Do you prefer one to the other?  How does your experience writing differ from one genre to the other?

The truth is, I’m probably a pretty scatterbrained person. I kind of like all the things, and want to play in all the paddling pools. I don’t think I prefer any one genre to any other, but particular stories seem to suit particular worlds, and writing across genres gives you the opportunity to challenge yourself in different ways. My contemporaries tend to be quite emotional and character-driven, and while I hope my paranormals have emotions and characters they’re much more focused on plot and action. And, honestly, when you’ve spent months trying to articulate the worldview of a bipolar depressive, it’s  a nice change of pace to be able to think about things like how necromancy works or what happened with the war in Heaven.

Glitterland_500x750 2Strategy-wise, I approach contemporaries and paranormals in very different ways, which kind of helps keep me sane. When I write contemporaries, I do outline them but in this quite wibbly, abstract way which means I have some sense of the broader arc, but I often don’t have much idea what’s actually going to happen. With the paranormals, I do a lot of groundwork because there’s a lot of detail to keep track of, from the big abstract things like what the villains are trying to achieve down to little, petty things like where the heroine parked her car, or where her phone is, or if her hat would fall off if she jumped through this window.

I actually lost the damn car in Shadows & Dreams. It was really embarrassing.

LOL! You know something’s really lost in your manuscript when even “Find and Replace” doesn’t help! 

I know we are both fans of Meljean Brook. What other Paranormal authors do you like?

I’m actually a bit of a latecomer to paranormal romance because most of my influences in this genre are kind of edge cases. I read a lot of YA urban fantasy like Holly Black, Melissa Marr, Lauren Kate (who I heart so much there’s actually a passing reference to her in Shadows & Dreams – she’s name dropped by a succubus, which I hope she would enjoy), and these books often have strong romantic elements, but they’re technically genre romances. And then there’s the fantasy end of things, like Seanan McGuire, Justina Robson and even Jim Butcher, whose work I have some issues with but often find quite entertaining.

But honestly the two biggest influences on the Kate Kane series are probably pretty obvious: Anita Blake and Twilight. The truth is, I’m an unironic, unabashed fan of the early Anita Blake books. I really admire texts that know what they’re doing, and do it wholeheartedly (it’s what I like about JR Ward, even though highly gendered vampire societies don’t work for me), and there’s something really gripping about the early Anita Blakes. They’re exciting and action-packed, and there’s romance, and mystery, and that kind of kitchen sink world building where everything’s in there, but it somehow all works. And I really liked Anita. Her narration was really witty and engaging, and sort of down to earth at the same time. She’s quite a flawed character, but she’s also very principled, and I found that really compelling. I confess I kind of lost track around Narcissus in Chains  and Cerulean Sins but, up to that point, I’ve got the full set and I dip into them when I just fancy reading something fun.

As for Twilight, I’d say that was more of a conceptual inspiration, than a stylistic one. Like I say, I read a lot of books in the teenage-girl-gets-paranormal-lover genre. I hope that doesn’t make me sound too creepy. Anyway, one of the major recurring tropes in TGGPL is woe-is-us-you-will-remain-young-forever-but-I-will-wither-and-die and looking back on the sort of stories in your thirties you realise the far more pressing problem is that she’s going to grow up and he’s going to be the same person she was dating when she was seventeen. In a sense, a big part of what I wanted to do with Kate is ask what happens to all these girls after the story ends. Assuming they don’t, y’know, die giving birth to their half-vampire kid.

Yes! I love that about Kate–how she feels about her vampire ex-boyfriend Patrick, who never grows out of being Edward!

On our blog, we’re often speculating about the fate of the genre–what’s the next big thing? Are vampires over and done with? Will paranormal come back into fashion? Do you have any thoughts about this? In your opinion, what makes a really stand-out book in this genre? 

Gosh, that’s a biggie and, as I’ve mentioned above, one I’m not totally qualified to comment on. But, hey, that’s not going to stop me having a go.

I’m honestly a huge fan of all the classics – vampires, werewolves, wizards, fairies, the odd angel – and I really do believe they have, and will always have, an enduring place in the stories we want to tell. Sorry, if that sounds ridiculously portentous, but I do love this stuff, and I don’t think vampires will ever be over and done with, because we’ll keep reworking, reinventing and rediscovering them. In a way, what’s interesting about Twilight is that it takes the vampire and makes it into something new and relevant to an audience for whom it otherwise wouldn’t have been. The sparkles-in-sunlight thing gets a huge amount of flack, particularly from fantasy and horror readers, but actually the core themes behind Edward Cullen are the same core themes behind Dracula, or Camille or Lestat. It’s basically about sexuality as danger, and whether you express that as mysterious nocturnal visits from a bloke who turns into a wolf, or getting shoved out of the way of a car by a guy whose skin shines like diamonds, it’s tapping into the same sort of ideas, and fears, and desires.

In terms of genre trends, and the popularity of paranormal, I’m not sure if the market is going to be as faddy in the future. With self-publishing, print on demand, and Amazon, it’s a lot easier for readers to get hold of the specific thing they like without having to wait for it to be the thing that’s in bookshops. So I suspect – and I say this with absolutely no knowledge of how this stuff actually works – that the next big thing is likely to be a lot of small things.

For me, what makes a standout paranormal is a bunch of stuff. Again, these are personal, I’m not trying to write a how-to or a checklist. But I like world building that’s solid but not stodgy. I want to feel the author knows about five times as much as they’re telling me. Nalini Singh is a total master at this – her worlds are completely cracktastic, but you always have absolute faith she knows exactly what she’s doing with them.

I like a clear presentation of the core supernatural concepts that isn’t too gimmicky. I saw this play in Edinburgh called Natural Selection in which vampires were randomly amnesiacs, so they couldn’t remember anything that had happened since becoming vampires. On the surface, this seems like it would be pretty interesting but it was actually just this gratuitous half-arsed Memento ripoff. I think I’d rather have a completely traditional take on supernatural creature [x] delivered with conviction, than something that’s trying too hard to be original. Although I didn’t completely get on with Dragon Bound, I did like the way that Thea Harrison managed to get her characters to feel like the mythological creatures they were supposed to be, despite the fact they were actually in human form a lot of the time.

And also I like a kickarse heroine, and hero who isn’t too much of a douchenozzle. One of the things I really enjoy about paranormals is that power is sort of an integral theme, and I like books that play with that. Unlike YA, which can be very bogged down in ordinary girl / supernatural boyfriend, I’ve been interested to see a greater range of power dynamics in PNR. And even when the heroine is an ordinary human, she tends to meet the hero on relatively equal footing.

Yes, I agree the variety of relationships possible in PNR is very exciting! That was something I really had fun with in the final Blood Vine book–writing a powerful female and a male without any super powers.

So, you mentioned to me Iron and Velvet is a book dear to your heart. Can you tell us why?

Basically because I took all the stuff I like – and I do mean all the stuff – and put it in one book, and there it is. I did feel a little bit self-indulgent writing it because it’s just me squeeing all over the place, and running around in gleeful circles. I’m not sure you should be allowed to get away with that kind of thing, but somehow I did.

I know I’ve only got two books out, but, in a strange way, this is the one that says the most about me, or at least about what I’m into it. It’s kind of got all my joy, and everything I think is cool, and interesting, and fun to look at.

It’s sort of my Emma – not to, in any way at all, compare myself to Austen. But I think she said Emma was a heroine only she could love, and I feel very much the same about Kate, and her world. The truth is, I’m constantly astonished that anyone who isn’t me could like it. And, when they do, that really pleases me because it makes me feel strangely accepted.

I really identify with your answer and it’s sparked so many ideas! I want to chat about writing for oneself and why it works (because it does!) but that will just make this interview longer 🙂

So, moving on.  I love that Kate is a fairy princess whose mother is the Queen of the Wild Hunt–it just drips with irony! So Kate’s paranormal power is her mother’s, which you describe as something like an embodied abstract ideal.  Your world building is at once fresh and familiar, intricate and easy to grasp. You’ve got witches, werewolves, faeries, demons, vampires, monsters, animated statues, and other things I can’t list without having to explain. Did you plan and build your world carefully, or did it develop as you wrote?  Do you have one of those well-organized binders, or is it all in your head?

A little from column A, a little from column B. As I said above, I do really enjoy kitchen sink world building, but I actually think a lot about how everything fits together. In a sense, most of the world building work I’ve done has been in trying to establish a world that I could make up as I went along without it breaking. If that doesn’t sound like a complete contradiction.

Nerd alert, but my partner and I play a lot of tabletop roleplaying games, and something I’ve picked up from that is what kind of frameworks are robust against improvisation. I think, strangely, a key thing to establish is that some stuff is just weird. Part of the reason I was keen to have sentient rat gestalts and animated statues in the first book was to make it very clear that this was a world in which there were a very large number of different types of things that didn’t necessarily work the same way, and which overlapped, but didn’t form anything monolithic.

Speaking of animated statues, Elise is a good example of how this worked in practice. I’d always known there was that kind of magic in the world because there’s a sort of simmering undercurrent of classic mythology in one of the major plot arcs, and also I’m interested in created beings, so I’d had a vague intention to do something with that at some point.  But then when Kate went to speak to the Multitude (that’s the giant rat gestalt for people playing along at home) I wanted to have it ask something from her that was specific, and long-lasting, and showed that, although it was icky, it wasn’t necessarily a bad person. I hit on the idea of it asking Kate take care of somebody, and Elise sort of evolved from there. And actually she’s become a really important character, who’s sort of an integral part of Kate’s emotional development.

So I guess the world is something I developed as I wrote within parameters I established at the start. I have quite set rules for myself about how things work and don’t work, but within that I let things kind of combine and evolve organically.

I think this is a very important insight I’ve never heard a paranormal author say explicitly: that ideally we build a world in such a way that it can withstand improvisation. 

Iron & Velvet is the funniest book I’ve read in a long time, while being full of heart and sympathetic characters, and while being very sexy.  This is not an easy balance to achieve.  I have to say, when Kate went into the sewers and the poo jokes started in her fabulous dry noir tone…well, you won yourself a fan for life. What can I say? I’m a sucker for smart toilet humor.  And I recognize something in your style which I also strive for–a bit of the absurd.  But, you are a thousand times funnier than me, and I laughed aloud on every page. So my question is, do all those jokes just come to you as you write, or are you deliberate about it, as in “Chapter 4 needs more humor”? Do they appear in the first draft or get layered in?

Wow, thank you. And I’m afraid I might have to say a little from column A, a little from column B again. I think part of it is just a sort of rhythm you get into. This is a spurious and frivolous analogy but it’s a bit like when you’re having a pun war, and you just get into the habit of seeing everything through the lens of the particular type of joke you’re trying to make. Kate has quite a specific style, and quite a specific voice, so once you’re used to the patterns of it, things start suggesting themselves. Of course, that said, sometimes something will suggest itself but not in actual words, so I’ll be stuck sitting there thinking “I’m sure this is funny in some way but I’m not sure how or why yet”. And then it’s a bit like that old joke about sculpture: you get a lump of rock and cut away anything that isn’t a statue.

And, I simply have to ask you about gender. My gay best friend reads all the M/M stuff I write, and sometimes he says “that’s really beautiful, but it’s not how a man would describe it, which is fine, you’re not writing for men. Keep it like this.”  You are a man writing under a name that sometimes leads people to assume you’re a woman. Your contemporary, Glitterland, is a male/male romance. Kate, the heroine in Iron and Velvet is a lesbian, and she has amazing chemistry with Julian (and lots of other female characters) which felt right to me, as a woman.  Can you talk about how you think about writing gender and sex? Who are you writing for?  

Oh gosh, that’s a humdinger. To start with the easy bit, and sorry if this comes across as trite or glib, but I’ve never really tried to write for anybody except myself. And maybe that sounds selfish or solipsistic, but while I’m aware that some people write with a greater sense of market and audience than I do, I’d find it difficult and complicated and maybe a little bit offensive to try and write something I felt was appropriate for my perception of a group of people who aren’t me.

As for the name, I deliberately picked something slightly androgynous because I never really intended to make a big thing out of gender at all. Obviously it didn’t quite work out that way because for some people it is a big thing, but it still isn’t for me. Also, for what it’s worth, Alexis is a lot more unisex in Europe – it’s actually my great grandfather’s name, so it kind has a personal connection for me as well.

More widely – and not meaning to disagree with your GBF – I’m really wary of making pronouncements about what a man or a woman would or wouldn’t do, or think, or say. Of course we all want to write characters who ring true, but identifiable groups of people aren’t all the same. I’m really glad Kate worked for you, but I’m also aware she didn’t work for some readers, which I think highlights that there isn’t a magic formula for authentically portraying, well, anybody.

I suspect a lot of this intersects quite problematically with identity politics. I think because people are very keen to see themselves reflected in things that are supposed to resemble them (for quite sensible, obvious reasons, and I include myself in this) they forget that their version of that identity is not the only version of that identity. I think it’s very easy to say things like “a man wouldn’t think that” or “a woman wouldn’t do that” but a lot of the time what you really mean is “I wouldn’t think that” or “I wouldn’t do that”. The problem is, it’s kind of awful and alienating from both directions. If you read a book in which there’s someone who’s supposed to be like you, even or perhaps especially if it’s really broad like “a man” or “a woman” or “a nerd” or “a queer person”, and you don’t recognise yourself in them, then its quite hurtful and disorientating. And it’s very natural to respond by saying “people like me aren’t like this” when, in fact, there probably are people like you who you are like that, and who probably feel just as hurt and just as disorientated by having you claim they don’t exist.

Having said all that, I actually did go into Iron & Velvet with a desire to engage with gendered genre tropes. I’m absolutely not claiming to be breaking new ground or fighting anyone else’s battles for them, but I think it’s still very much the case that there are certain personality types that male protagonists are allowed to have and certain personality types that female protagonists are allowed to have. I mean, the current hero of popular culture is Walter White – hubristic, selfish, driven, and merciless – and that’s super cool when it’s a man, but his wife is widely reviled for having many of the same qualities. And, of course, ironically I do realise that part of the reason female characters are not given the leeway to act like Walter White or Dexter or Don Draper is that people think “women don’t act that way.”

And, at the risk of turning this part of the interview into an essay on Breaking Bad, one of the things I’d point out about Walter White is, well, men don’t act that way either. I’m a man, as are many of my friends, many of us are even highly qualified chemists, but none of us are so driven by our burning manpain as to enter and subsequently dominate a world run by violent, ruthless, heavily armed killers.

Basically, Walter White acts like a protagonist in a work of fiction. And protagonist is, or should be, an non-gender-coded role.

Thanks for taking the time to answer that enormous question.  I don’t think my best friend would be at all offended.  This is the kind of stuff he and I enjoy talking about, and he would agree about your criticism of identity politics.  I’m so glad you are thinking and writing about these things, and I have high hopes that as queer fiction becomes more mainstream, mainstream fiction might get less confined by gender roles.  Personally, I can find the chemistry between any well-drawn characters exciting, regardless of their anatomy or roles, and I think reading helps us cultivate that kind of empathy as human beings. 

Alexis Hall is a romance novel neophyte who likes hats, tea and sword fighting. He occasionally writes queer fiction. If you enjoy his ramblings, you can find more of them on Twitter @quicunquevult or on his website.

4 thoughts on “Role Playing Games, Gender, and Gestalt Rats: A conversation with Alexis Hall

  1. Absolutely fantastic interview. There are simply too many lines I loved to quote them all here, so I’ll stick with “I’ve never really tried to write for anybody except myself,” and just say, bravo.

    Oh, and the theme of vampires being about sexuality as danger: YES. This is something I think Twilight really got right.

    Thanks for the brilliant questions and answers.

    *runs off to buy IRON & VELVET*

    • Oh Ha! A.J. Made it it to the end of the interview! So glad you are buying and can’t wait to discuss with you!

      I like the way Alexis is honoring Twilights contributions in this interview, too.

      And, yes, I love that bit about writing for yourself. I think that leads to the most authentic voice, if not always the most sales 🙂

    • Eee, thank you for the kind words, and I hope you enjoy the book 🙂

      I do think Twilight gets a bad rap, to be honest. I mean, yes, it’s kind of got other problems going on there, nobody can deny that, but I don’t think it deserves quite the degree of dismissal it gets.

  2. Pingback: Alexis Hall is back with Shadows and Dreams | Paranormal Unbound

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