Today we bring you the first in what will hopefully become a series of interviews with writers who publish under the gay romance banner, but consider their stories to be more than romance novels, much in the way Matthew’s own writing tends to not foreground romantic relationships. We are incredibly happy to present Matthew’s recent interview with Kim Fielding, author of the Ennek trilogy and the just released Brute. Matthew began by asking her why she writes:
Kim: I don’t have much choice in the matter. I’ve had stories inside my head, clamouring to get out since I was a little kid. It’s only in the last few years I’ve found the courage to share them with others. When I go without writing for very long I get itchy typing fingers. It’s a huge plus for me that readers seem to enjoy my work, but frankly I’d probably keep on writing even if nobody ever saw my words but me. It’s all probably some kind of diagnosable compulsion, but not one I ever want to be cured of.
Matthew: Is there any particular reason you decided to write about two men?
Kim: Well, I like men! Seriously, I have very little control over who my characters are and what they do—or who they’re attracted to. And I think there are some specific advantages to writing about two men. It allows me to play with power themes and tropes and also to challenge stereotypes. It also creates a distance between myself and my characters that I think is a good thing. Nobody is going to assume there’s something autobiographical about my novel when the protagonist is a male, gay, maimed giant, for instance. Also, I write the kinds of things I enjoy reading. I’ve never liked het romance very much; it tends to bore or frustrate me. I think some of the ideas in gay romance are a lot fresher.
Matthew: I know you say you write more than ‘just’ romance. What then do you write and how do you feel it differs from traditional romance stories?
Kim: I think a lot of what I write defies neat categorization. Maybe that’s because the books of many of my favourite authors, such as Neil Gaiman, Isabel Allende, and Kurt Vonnegut, also cross genre boundaries. A lot of what I write has elements of magic or paranormal in it, but those elements tend to be blended in pretty thoroughly with everyday life. I suppose if I had to choose a category I felt most comfortable placing myself in, it might be magical realism. In my newest novel, for example—Brute—magic definitely exists. People can be healed by it and one of the main characters has dreams that foretell deaths. But most of the book centers around more everyday concerns, such as how to earn money, how to find friendship and love, and how to weigh conflicting duties.
One thing that sets a lot of my work apart from more traditional romance stories is the role of the relationship versus other plot elements. The relationship between the men is very important, but it’s not the only important thing going on, and in fact it’s probably not the most important thing in the story. In my Ennek trilogy, for instance, the heroes are faced with a number of really formidable challenges: loss of family, abuse of power, slavery, tyranny—to name just a few. They’d have to face those things even if they’d never met. But their growing relationship with each other helps them meet those challenges in different ways.
Matthew: With your latest book, Brute, you’ve chosen to write about a one handed man who considers himself ugly and a blind man—what drew you to these characters?
Kim: I chose that name in part because I was trying to say something about labelling: how we often tend to live up to (or down to, as the case may be) the things people call us. And sometimes those labels become so much a part of our identity that few people take the time to get to know the real person. And I liked the irony, of course, because in truth Brute is anything but—he’s actually a very kind and gentle man who takes his responsibilities very seriously.
What Brute is called plays an important role in the story. I can’t tell you more than that without giving too much away.
Matthew: Do you think there’s a risk writing a romance between two characters who are not conventionally handsome? There’s been a lot of talk about m/m fiction being ‘escapist’ and part of that escapism would normally be having physically beautiful characters.
Kim: I guess I’ll find out! Personally, I get a little annoyed when characters are too gorgeous. Escapism is fine, but I guess I like a good dose of realism too. I really do hope there’s room in the genre for unconventional heroes. My novella Speechless has a character who has aphasia and cannot speak or write. After that book came out, I received emails from fans who had disabilities of their own, and who were pleased to find a story about someone who was imperfect.
Matthew: Can you tell us anything about what you’re writing now?
Kim: Sure! I’m in the editing stages of two stories that will be released in 2013. Venetian Masks will come out in February or March. It’s a contemporary romance novel about a man who reluctantly takes a solo trip to Europe after his boyfriend dumps him. In Venice he meets an American ex-pat who has a lot of potentially dangerous secrets. Then in April or May my novella Night Shift will come out. That one is about an ex-con on his last chance, working the night shift at a motel. He forms a relationship with a mysterious security guard while trying to exorcise his own personal demons. And I just finished the first draft of another novel, a sequel to my werewolf romance Good Bones.
Matthew: We have an excerpt of Brute to share with our readers. Could you explain a bit about the excerpt they’re about to read?
Kim: I’d love to. Brute has worked all his life as a labourer in a village. He doesn’t have any friends or family, and everyone assumes he’s stupid and, well, brutish. But when he rescues a prince, Brute ends up losing one of his hands. The prince tells him to come to the palace in the capital city of Tellomer, and there Brute is given the job of guarding a prisoner named Gray Leynham. We don’t know much about Gray at this point in the story, except that he’s blind and miserable, and that he dreams other people’s deaths. He also speaks with a very bad stutter.
Gray was awake when Brute entered his chamber, turning his face in the direction of the table, where Brute set the food. “B-b-b-brute?”
“It’s me,” Brute answered, and couldn’t help but notice that Gray sighed with relief. “Sorry I was gone so long. I brought dinner, though. Just give me a minute.”
Gray nodded. “D-d-didn’t th-th-th-th—fuck!—th-think you’d c-c-c-come b-b-b-back.”
“I guess I’m too stupid to stay away,” said Brute. “Nowhere else to go anyway.” He lifted the fabric from the basket and discovered a half dozen golden rounds of dough, each with poppy seeds sprinkled on top. Alys had put some grapes in the basket too—large red ones—and a bottle of wine. He wondered what the king would think he if he knew that his ogreish new employee was consuming his fine food and drink. Then he shrugged philosophically and took a large bite of one of the rolls, moaning as he tasted the filling of extremely tender and delightfully spiced meat. He gobbled it down quickly before grabbing a second roll and Gray’s bowl of mush, then made his way to the cell.
Gray almost yelped with surprise when Brute handed him the roll. “Fuck!” He never seemed to have any problem with that word, Brute noticed and smiled. Gray nibbled at the roll slowly, pleased little sounds coming from his throat the entire time. He ate his mush as well, although with considerably less enthusiasm. He could hold the bowl by himself now, Brute noticed, and without any shaking of his hands.
“N-n-not m-m-m-meant to f-f-feed me like th-th-th-that,” Gray said when he was done.
“I know. But you’re not going to tell anyone, are you?”
Gray snorted. “N-n-no.”
“Then nobody will know.” Brute stood and gathered the empty bowl.
He had considerable difficulty getting the cork out of the wine bottle. It wasn’t something he’d practiced often even when he had two hands. But eventually he propped the bottle between this thighs and dug at the cork with the tip of his knife, and he was able to get at the liquid inside. Little bits of cork floated in it, but he didn’t care. The wine was lovely. He drank it all while he ate his food, and he was left feeling warm and comfortable and content.
He was sleepy too, so he decided to wash up and get ready for bed. He removed his shirt first, but as he was unbuttoning his trousers, he remembered the candies. He pulled them out of his pocket and gazed at his palm: three slightly linty balls, one yellow and two green. He popped one of the green ones in his mouth and looked speculatively toward the cell. What was the point of being happy if you couldn’t share it, at least a little, he thought.
Gray startled a bit when Brute opened the cell, and seemed to tense under his quilt. But Brute simply crouched beside him and held out his hand. “Here. This is for you.” When Gray didn’t react—aside from deepening his frown—Brute gently fished Gray’s left arm out from under the blanket and transferred the candies to Gray’s slightly clenched hand.
Gray sniffed at the candies, then poked them with a fingertip. “Wh-wh-wh-what?”
“Just sweets. I was given them as a gift today, and I suppose they’re mine to give away if I want to.”
Gray put the candies in his mouth and spent a long time sucking on them. He had a strange expression on his face, one that Brute couldn’t place. But then it was hard to read him anyway, between the dim light and his mass of beard and hair, and the nothingness where his eyes should be. But when Brute stood up, Gray reached out and tentatively touched his leg. “C-c-c-can I f-f-feel y-y-y-you?”
The prisoner sputtered helplessly as he tried to say something, but Brute couldn’t make any sense of it. Finally, Gray swore again, twice—“Fuck! Fuck!”—and then mimed running his fingertips over his face. Brute understood.
“You want to see—to feel my face.”
Gray sighed a bit and nodded twice.
“It’s not a nice face.” But even as he said it, Brute wondered if a man could tell with his fingers that Brute was ugly. Would he feel ugly too?
“P-p-please,” Gray whispered. “W-w-w-want t-t-to know y-y-you. H-h-help m-m-me remember. L-l-l-later.”
“When I’m gone, you mean.”
Gray nodded again and turned his head away.
Maybe Brute should have refused. But nobody had ever wanted to remember him before, and people certainly weren’t clamoring to touch him. His skin felt hungry for it, like his stomach when he’d missed a few meals. So he collapsed onto the floor, sitting cross-legged next to Gray, so close that his knees brushed against Gray’s blanket-covered leg. “Okay.”
Brute had given up trying to guess the prisoner’s age, but when Gray smiled at him now, Brute realized that the other man was younger than he’d expected, although well past his youth. Midthirties, maybe. Just a few years older than Brute. How many of those years had he spent chained in this cell?
Gray shifted himself around so that his knees pressed against Brute’s. His chains clanked as he moved. He lifted his right hand and reached forward, then seemed surprised when his fingers touched Brute’s lower neck instead of his face. “Tall!” he exclaimed, stammer-free.
Brute laughed. “I am.” He wondered what mental image Gray had of him, and how close it was to the truth. Then he stopped wondering anything and nearly held his breath as questing fingers ghosted over his closely shorn scalp, over his heavy brow and crooked nose, over his evening-stubbled cheeks, over his scars. Even over his smooth, dry lips—which caused an involuntary shiver.
But then Gray continued to touch him, sliding his fingertips gently down Brute’s neck. When he reached the notch between collarbones, he raised his other hand as well and glided his palms to both of Brute’s shoulders. “B-b-b-big,” he said, sounding impressed.
The knot in Brute’s throat was too thick for him to reply, even as Gray’s hands moved slowly down his biceps. This man was a witch, Warin had said. Maybe this was some kind of spell, a continuation of Gray’s supposedly nefarious deeds. The sensations matched what he suspected magic would feel like—everywhere Gray touched tingled slightly, as a sleeping limb did when it was in the process of waking up.
But Brute remained still, and Gray traced the heavy muscles of his forearms. And then Gray’s left hand continued past Brute’s wrist and down to the heavy knuckles, while his right hand—well, it ran out of things to feel. Gray gasped. “B-b-b-brute?”
Gray took a deep breath. Brute expected he might be disgusted, but he didn’t seem to be. He delicately felt the contours of the rounded stump before pulling away completely. “Y-you’re st-st-still strong.”
Honestly, Brute was feeling a little weak in the knees. But he climbed to his feet and left the cell, bolting it carefully behind him. He pulled off his trousers and breechclout, and he climbed into his comfortable bed and went to sleep.
If either of them dreamed that night, the images weren’t enough to wake them.
Kim Fielding is very pleased every time someone calls her eclectic. She has migrated back and forth across the western two-thirds of the United States and currently lives in California, where she long ago ran out of bookshelf space. She’s a university professor who dreams of being able to travel and write full-time. She also dreams of having two perfectly-behaved children, a husband who isn’t obsessed with football, and a house that cleans itself. Some dreams are more easily obtained than others.