Angel (Novel)

Isn’t it Erotic, Don’t You Think?

angelTwo days ago the long-awaited (by me) second edition of the novel Angel was released by DSP Publications.

DSP is a new imprint of Dreamspinner Press, and the hope is that the new imprint will put an end to Angel’s “erotica problem.”

What I am referring to is the tendency of book selling sites to label it as “erotica.” This has much less to do with the content of the novel than the fact that it was put out by a publisher that is known for some steamy novels and the assumption is that anything from that publisher must be a little bit erotic. (It’s like ra-ee-ain on your wedding day! Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.)

So Dreamspinner, which has been branching out for some time into less romantic and erotic LGBT literature chose some titles that they thought would benefit from a different kind of presentation. I’m very glad.

I’ve been thinking about this word “erotica” a bit lately. A couple of months ago I was scolded in a review of my second novel Identity Theft for including a scene that depicts masturbation. “I don’t want to read erotica,” the reviewer said. Or words to that effect, it was a while ago and I am quoting from memory. The same reviewer went on to say that I was a smart and accomplished woman who did not have to resort to that kind of thing to sell books.

Whether or not the scene itself added to the plot or understanding of the character is an argument for other people. What struck me was the use of the word “erotica.” The word is supposed to indicate literary art created to spark the sexual imagination. It is not simply art that depicts sexuality; it is art created to turn you on.

Sexuality is a part of adult life, and something that has different meanings in different contexts. To my way of thinking, the scene she described was, if anything, anti-erotic. It depicts a person who is deluding himself to the point that he can’t really believe anyone outside his fantasy world exists and can be effected by what he does. It is a person who is isolated, and at that moment, self-absorbed and a bit ridiculous and pathetic. If the reader goes away from that scene thinking “Wow, that was hot,” I think I have missed the mark somehow as a story teller.

I’ve written a lot of books now, and I’ve gotten comfortable with the idea that not everyone is going to like everything I do and that some things will resonate with one reader and annoy another. That can’t be helped. It is still odd, however, when you read a review and find that someone has misunderstood your motives in a significant way. Then it moves beyond a critique of the work to a critique of the character of the writer. This reader imagined that I made a calculated decision to “spice things up” because I thought it would sell more books. I have to say that until I read the review, I hadn’t given much thought at all to the sex in the book except as it was part of the story I was telling. The idea that sex was by definition commercial didn’t enter my mind. I am not sure that it is. Sure, someone had a hit with that Shades of Gray thing, but that is a publishing aberration, not the norm.

That little episode aside, it is still worth noting that Angel, which is a story of love and spirituality and includes no on-page descriptions of sex has consistently been called “controversial” whereas Identity Theft, which does show sexual behavior more directly, and which includes characters who make some highly questionable moral decisions, has never been given that label.

Ten Things You Didn’t Know About the Novel Angel

Angel by Laura LeeI recently wrote a guest post for A Well Read Woman on “Ten Things You Didn’t Know About the Novel Identity Theft.” So stay tuned for that. I will let you know as soon as it appears. I had so much fun doing it that I decided to write one for my first novel Angel.

1. A real retired minister inspired the story

The initial spark of an idea for Angel came when I was invited to speak at a conference in Seattle and took a bus tour of Mount Rainier. The driver was entertaining and kept talking about burning out on his old job. Only at the end of the tour did someone ask what his old job had been and he said “a minister.” I thought the mystery of what would make someone leave the ministry to become a tourist guide on a mountain was a great premise. Of course, I know nothing about the actual minister’s story, but he did describe the mountain as “magnificent in its symbiosis” a line that made its way into the book.

2. There is an unpublished sequel to Angel

Over the course of the next year and a half after the release of the novel Angel, I wrote a second novel from Ian’s perspective. It begins with Ian at age 13 losing everything in a house fire and ends in the present just after same sex marriage was legalized in the state of Washington. After completing it, I decided not to try to publish it.

3. Ian Finnerty’s name is a play on “infinity “

My father was an author and when he passed away he left many partial fiction manuscripts. One very sketchy idea was for a novel about an alcoholic pilot named Ian Finnerty who flew a traffic helicopter and went by the name “Captain Infinity” on the air. Ian sounded like a young person’s name and the connection to “infinity” seemed a propos for a character who is described as an angel. So I used it as an homage to my late father. In the unpublished sequel to Angel, by the way, Ian’s middle name is revealed to be Armstrong.

4. Paul Tobit’s name is a reference to the apocryphal book of Tobit

Paul’s name came much later than Ian’s. I do not write novels in sequence and for much of the writing I was still calling the main character “the minister” because I didn’t have a name that quite felt right. His name finally came when I wrote the scene where the minister introduces himself to Ian. “I’m Paul,” he said, and I thanked the character for finally letting me know what to call him. It was not a conscious reference to St. Paul, but may have been a subconscious one as St. Paul’s epistles come up in the text.

Paul’s last name, however, was chosen consciously. It is an allusion to the book of Tobit, which was part of the version of the Bible known as the Septuagint and is still part of the Orthodox and Catholic Biblical cannons. It is one of the most ancient angel stories we have. It recounts how God sent an angel, Raphael, to heal Tobit who has suffered pretty much all of the smiting the Bible can dish out. He’s been left alone, impoverished, blind and even the birds shit on him. Raphael is described as “one of the seven angels who see the face of God.” The angel introduces Tobit to his bride, Sarah (thus Paul’s wife was named Sarah). By taking a leap of faith and trusting the odd advice of the angel, Tobit gets his sight back and finds love. (Although not with the angel.)

5. The denominational language that Paul wrestles with is from the United Methodist Church

Paul’s denomination is purposely never identified in Angel. It is a denomination, unlike the Methodist church, which I believe moves pastors to different parishes after a given time, where a minister can stay as long as he and the congregation are happy with one another. In writing the book, I studied the statements on human sexuality of the Presbyterians and Methodists. The Presbyterians changed their policies between the time the book was written and published but the Methodist church still used the language which appears in Angel about homosexuality being “incompatible with Christian teaching” and about “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals” not being allowed in the ministry. Shortly after the book was released, in fact, Rev. Amy Delong was tried by the UMC under that language.

6. The book is set in the year 2007

As I recently explained in a blog post, laws and culture have changed so fast regarding LGBT issues that it is possible to pretty much identify the exact year that Paul and Ian spent together by a reference to the states in which same sex marriage was then legal.

7. Ian’s friend Ray is of Egyptian descent

In Angel, Ray is described as being of “some vague ethnicity Paul can’t quite place.” In Ian’s unpublished book he is described this way: “Ray Shenouda was the definition of tall, dark and handsome. Of Egyptian descent, he had black hair and nearly black eyes, strong cheek bones and he spent way more time in the gym than Ian ever would, at least until someone got the idea to install an open bar there. He was, by any objective standard, extremely good looking. Ian recognized he was attractive, but Ray’s good looks stirred nothing in him, and this seemed to be mutual. During that one month when Ian was broke and crashing on Ray’s couch, they had played around a couple of times just to try things out. Actually, it was two and a half times. The third time involved too much alcohol, a few half-hearted gropes and the sudden realization on both of their parts that it was kind of a stupid thing to keep doing.”

8. The interior, but not the exterior, of Paul’s church is inspired by a real place

In order to have a sense of physical space in the church, I visualized the interior of my own church, which is a modern structure. The exterior, however, is a traditional gothic church with an attached cemetery. This is the kind of thing you can do in fiction. In the church office where I worked there is a bathroom right behind the office manager’s desk. An editor balked at the description of this unrealistic layout, but I left it in.

9. Gay men are still not allowed to donate blood under current FDA guidelines

A pivotal plot point in Angel revolves around the annual church blood drive. Under current FDA guidelines, which date back to 1985, a man who has had sex with another man– even once– is banned for life from donating blood. The FDA has proposed a change in policy which would only ban donations for one year, but which would continue to ban any non-celibate gay men from donating.

10. A second edition of Angel is set to be released on November 10

Novels and the Ancient History of Five Years Ago

9781613721032_p0_v1_s260x420I recently went through the process of approving a set of edits on an already published novel, which is going to be re-released in a second edition. This is the first time I’ve ever been called on, or given an opportunity, to revise a work that has already been published. It doesn’t happen often.

One of the interesting dilemmas I faced in the touch up of Angel was whether or not to try to update some references that are now obsolete. The novel deals with a protestant minister (of an undefined denomination but a kind of Methodist-Presbyteriny one) who finds himself at odds with his congregation when he falls in love with another man. At the time I wrote the book Presbyterians did not allow the ordination of openly gay ministers. This changed between the time the book was purchased and first released. (The Methodists, for a number of political reasons that I will not go into here, as far as I know, have not changed their stance.)

So the culture has changed rapidly.

Back in June, before I knew the publisher wanted to re-issue Angel, I wrote about a particular passage in the novel that was out of date:

A discussion on the news the other night made me realize that my novel, published in 2011, is already becoming obsolete– and I couldn’t be happier.  A panel was discussing how quickly the dominoes were falling when it comes to U.S. states recognizing same sex marriage. I thought about a now obsolete passage in Angel in which the two protagonists joke about the comparative merits of getting married in Massachusetts or Iowa, the two states that allowed such a thing when the book was written. “The ocean is sexier than corn,” Ian said.

In only three years, the novel has become  a period piece.

Most pundits now expect that the Supreme Court will soon legalize same sex marriage across the country.

So I had to decide whether to cut the reference to Iowa and Massachusetts, indeed to traveling anywhere to get legally married, in order to bring the book up to date.

In the end, I decided to leave it as it was because the culture has changed and continues to change so rapidly, keeping the novel up to date strikes me as being a bit like constantly upgrading your software. There is always a newer version.

Yesterday I quoted George Bernard Shaw who wrote in The Sanity of Art, “The writer who aims at producing the platitudes which are ‘not for an age, but for all time’ has his reward in being unreadable in all ages.” He went on to say, “The man who writes about himself and his own time is the only man who writes about all people and about all time.”

I agree with that, and that is why I think I have to leave Ian and Paul where I left them, in the recent past. Angel is set not in the present day but some time around the year 2007. I didn’t know that at the time I was writing, but I do now.

“Hands down one of my top reads of all time… This is the literary apex for me.”

9781613721032_p0_v1_s260x420The novel Angel was reviewed (for the second time) by Judith for I Love YA Fiction.  It received a 10 of 10 review. (Her first review of the novel was two years ago on sister site I Love Romantic Fiction.)  There is also a link to a rather thorough interview I gave back then.

“…a finely crafted love story which really spoke to me on a deeper level than I could ever describe adequately here. All I can say is you must give this book a chance and hopefully it will touch you as deeply as it did me.”

What Do You Expect Me to Do With Your Disapproval?

AngelLargeSquareToday I attended a books and authors event at Leon & Lulu, a great shop in Clarkston. There were 30 writers there showcasing their books and I met some wonderful people.

I brought along only one book, my first novel Angel.  (The cover image here is actually the one for the audio version.)

Angel, of course, is the story of a minister whose sense of identity, his worldview and his relationship to his community are challenged when he becomes attracted to a young man.

Most of the people I talked to about the book were positive and friendly even if it was not something they thought they would like to read.

Towards the end of the event, however, there was one woman who asked me about my book. I told her its theme and she set the book down quickly and said, “I’m certainly not reading this one. I don’t approve of that.”

I was not upset by her reaction. You would have to live under a rock to be unaware that there are people who feel that way. I was, instead, interested in why she felt it important to share her disapproval with me. What exactly did she want me to do with that information?

Feel ashamed? Not likely. Think more highly of her? Also not likely.  Change my point of view in deference to a stranger?

There are a lot of things that characters do in books that one might disapprove of. In fact, there are few books that contain characters that do nothing worthy of disapproval or there would be no drama. But imagine if I had said, “My book is about a corrupt politician.”

You would not expect someone to respond by saying, “I am certainly not going to read that. I don’t approve of that.”

Imagine a conversation that went like this:

“What is your book about?”

“It’s a romance novel.”

“I’m certainly not going to read that. I don’t approve of romance novels.”

This would come across as inappropriate and obviously rude, would it not?

I have to assume that my visitor was not really trying to tell me anything about homosexuality. She was trying to tell me something about herself. “I am the kind of person who does not approve of that.” Not approving of homosexuality is part of her sense of identity.

Some time ago I wrote an article here called The Lifestyle.  It dealt with some of my thoughts after a similar conversation with a friend.

Disapproving is more than not liking or opting out.  It assumes, in essence, that your opinion matters.  It assumes that you get a vote.  You can really only “disapprove” from a position of power and security and the assumption that society is on your side.

In general, we do not welcome the views of others when it comes to our “lifestyle choices.”  How would you feel about someone who said she disapproved of your choice of religion or how many children you had or what you did on the weekends or how many hours you worked or what kind of career you had or how you spent your money?  These are all “lifestyle choices.”

Would you thank such a person for her thoughtfulness and concern for your well-being or would you instead reply with something along the lines of “well who asked you?”

I did not reply with “well who asked you?”

Unlike the stranger, I did not feel compelled to voice my disapproval. But I have been giving a lot of thought as to why.

What Kind of Week Has It Been?

AngelLargeSquareOverall, this has been a pretty good writer week. I say “writer” week as opposed to “writing” week to distinguish between the career and the creation.

The audio version of my first novel Angel has just been released and my crowdfunding campaign for my second novel Identity Theft has been attracting great results. (But still needs your support– 57% funded with five days to go.)

Promoting these two different novels in one week has given me the opportunity to compare and contrast them. Outwardly the two stories are quite different. Angel is the story of a Christian minister who becomes attracted to a troubled young man. (In the intro to an interview I gave today it was referred to as “the author’s homosexual story.”)

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Identity Theft tells the story of a young man who works in a rock star’s office, the havoc he creates after he decides to flirt with a fan online in the guise of his boss, and his attempts to fix the situation without revealing what he has done.

They are different in tone. Angel is more lyrical and literary. Identity Theft is more humorous, contemporary and plot-driven. It actually has more vivid description of sex than Angel, yet I am willing to bet that it is 99.9% less likely to find itself saddled with the “erotica” and “controversial” labels because all the characters are straight.

Both novels, in their own ways, deal with the question of identity. In Angel, the protagonist Paul finds his identity as a Christian threatened by his new identity as a man who loves another man. He is uncomfortable with labels like “bisexual” and what people might assume comes with it. He struggles with the question of who gets to decide if he is “Christian” enough. His entire congregation is forced to wrestle with its identity.

Angel could really have been called Identity Theft too.

The Curious Kick of Hearing an Actor Reading Your Writing

AngelLargeSquareI’m stealing this headline from an article in The Millions.  It is an article about the reactions a fellow Detroit author, Bill Morris author of Motor City Burning, on hearing his words read by an actor for the first time:

Writing is its own form of music. And though I had read my novel aloud to myself many times and had read passages of it aloud to dozens of audiences on my book tour, hearing another person — a trained actor — reading my writing was a curious kick, a revelation. The words I was hearing were deeply familiar yet somehow refreshingly new. The miles flew past. I actually forgot I was in Ohio.

I, too, have been fascinated by Shea Taylor’s narration of Angel. What has been most interesting is to hear the dialogue between the two main characters, Ian and Paul. It is a curious kick, a revelation.