Unfuckable Feminists

 

Like so many women (and minorities, and the LGBT community, and immigrants, and anyone else who has ever felt the sting of discrimination or marginalization), I am still reeling from the outcome of Tuesday’s election. Millions of eloquent words have already been written in an effort to parse the unthinkable and help us come to terms with the fact that we have gifted the most important job on earth to a man devoid of character and intelligence, whose brand is hate and exclusion, and whose tools of the trade are bullying and bombast and abuse, so I won’t rehash that here, except to reiterate that sexism and misogyny (both latent and overt) were two of the election’s driving factors. Likewise, this is not an ode to Hillary Clinton, either, though anyone acquainted with me knows that I admire her fiercely and mourn that our country will not be able to avail itself of her leadership and compassion when both are so sorely needed. Rather, this debacle (and btw, 2016, you are an absolute bastard) has me thinking once again about what it means to be a woman, and particularly a feminist, in America, and that’s what I’m addressing here.

Michelle Goldberg wrote an insightful and heartbreaking election postmortem for Slate http://www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/2016/11/09/donald_trump_s_victory_proves_that_america_hates_women.html?wpsrc=sh_all_dt_tw_bot? One line in particular in the article caught my eye: a sentence which talked about the many white female Trump supporters who found their self-worth not in their intellectual or emotional contributions, but in their physical appeal to men. In contrast, Hillary and–by extension–her feminist supporters were viewed by many male and female Trump fans alike as “unfuckable.”

Reading the Slate article immediately reminded me of a quote from singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash: “When I…moved to Nashville,” she recalled, “the first record exec I met said, ‘Well now, we just have to make this girl fuckable.’” As anyone with a modicum of knowledge about country music is aware, Cash is one of the most gifted artists of her generation, and her talents were immediately evident. However, in this exec’s eyes–and sadly, in the eyes of many men, even today–she was a commodity, and her only true worth was her fuckability. Ergo, if men do not want to go to bed with us, then we women have no value.

To state the obvious, women are not merely collections of body parts designed for pleasure and service. We are human beings, each of us unique and complex…and one aspect of that uniqueness is our sexuality. Working in tandem with the view of women as objects is the stereotype that women who dare to breach traditional gender boundaries are man-haters, and/or physically undesirable. Well, I am a feminist, and I love men. Let me say that again: I love men. I LOVE THEM SO MUCH THAT I WRITE ROMANCE NOVELS. They are LITERALLY the heroes of my work. I just happen to believe that women are entitled to political, social and economic equality. And you know what? That belief doesn’t make me unfuckable. I’m a feminist, and I’m also feminine. The terms aren’t mutually exclusive. I like Italian heels and French lingerie and if you saw me on the street you’d never know that I am a feminist. If you took the time to look closely, you’d see more than body parts; you’d see a woman, multifaceted and flawed. You’d see someone you could learn from, as well as teach. You’d see an ally, not an enemy. You can’t fathom all of the wonderful things you would see. The same is true for EVERY SINGLE WOMAN ON THIS EARTH.

I can’t presume to speak for all feminists–we are as diverse as women are diverse. But I am compelled to state, in light of the devastating blow ALL women took this week (even those self-labeled “adorable deplorable”s oblivious to this gargantuan equal rights setback), that I am proud to be a feminist. I’m never going to stop believing in the value of women and girls.  BUT. I also refuse to let anyone take away my sexuality. I refuse to be labeled as a man-hater, or forced to forfeit my desires. The “unfuckable feminist” is a propaganda tool, and an admittedly handy stereotype. It is NOT, however, reality.

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Revisiting Cardinal Memories

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Cardinal Memories: Recollections from Baseball’s Greatest Fans (University of Missouri Press, 2000)

I love romance novels, and I love the St. Louis Cardinals. At first glance, those two passions may sound incongruous, but they really aren’t: To be a baseball fan is to embark on a lifelong love affair of a sort, one you can’t end no matter how many times your team breaks your heart. My first book, a collection of stories about the Cardinals, was an ode to the devotion that every baseball fan understands. I thought I would share one of the tales here. Though the book was published nearly two decades ago, it is still available on the publisher’s website (http://press.umsystem.edu/product/Cardinal-Memories,1611.aspx), and via Amazon.

 

Romance’s Detractors and Benefactors…Who’s Right?

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Are romance novels badly written? The debate seemingly never ends.

Romance is the (old-school reference alert) Rodney Dangerfield of genre fiction. A month seldom passes when a noted writer doesn’t (at least seemingly) disparage romance novels and/or authors, inevitably sparking a spirited defense of the genre from its writers and fans. This happened again a few days ago when Curtis Sittenfeld, in a piece promoting Eligible, her modern retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, stated that “most romances are badly written.” After reading two days worth of social media comments on the dust-up, I feel the need to offer my own defense of the genre…and Sittenfeld, too.

There is a school of thought that says writers should nurture other writers, and never criticize them. After all, anyone who has ever written a book knows how hard it is. Maybe not digging a ditch in a drought hard, but sometimes it feels like the mental equivalent. So we writers should support one another. And anyway, criticism is what readers are for, right? But most writers, however renowned, are still readers first. So naturally, we have opinions on what we read, whether we share them or not.

I’ve been an obsessive reader all my life—I devour biographies, cookbooks, classics and literary fiction. But I can say without hesitation or embarrassment that I love romance novels best. Ask me my desert island genre and that’s it. Anything else is not. Even. Close. So…do I think most romances are badly written? Reading is an inherently subjective experience; we each apply our own tastes and life experiences to every story we consume, so no two of us will ever look at a book exactly the same way. How then do we quantify “good” or “bad”? One way is to look at certain technical aspects of a work, like dialogue tags or punctuation. Any introductory MFA class or fiction how-to blog will tell aspiring writers to keep dialogue tags simple: Use “said” and “asked” and nothing else. Avoid tags entirely whenever you can. Also, adverbs are the devil. Exclamation points? More than one or two per 100,000 words is probably too many. Many writers in many genres follow these rules. Very few romance writers do. There are romance authors who routinely have characters giggle, breathe, laugh and sigh dialogue, or exclaim repeatedly. Personally, I dislike dialogue tags that are not variations of “said,” and I don’t use them. (How on earth does one giggle dialogue, anyway?) That said, characters in my novel routinely “reply,” “mutter,” etc. As a reader, I enjoy this sort of variety, so I write that way, too, even though it would set an MFA professor’s teeth on edge. I think it’s worth noting that in Pride and Prejudice, Austen routinely uses dialogue tags like “cried” and “exclaimed,” and she shows some big love for adverbs. So, if romance writers use more dialogue tags than some deem acceptable, and we sprinkle those adverbs around liberally, I don’t think it automatically indicates “bad” writing. Maybe we just learned from the master.

Another way we can try to quantify what’s “good” or “bad” is by examining a book’s editing, or lack thereof. Using this yardstick, a lot of romance novels—especially those that are self-published, but also many that are traditionally published—come up short. A good book takes time. To quote Phyllis A. Whitney, “a good book isn’t written—it’s rewritten.” When I finished the first draft of my debut romance, Heaven in the Dark, I laid it aside for weeks and came back to it with fresh eyes. Since I am also a professional editor, I gave it a structural edit (whether, like a lawyer, I had a fool for a client, is another subject) and multiple rounds of revisions before sharing it with beta readers. With their feedback, I made more revisions and then had another round of beta reading. Finally, I copy edited and proofread the manuscript within an inch of its life. That process—from writing the first word to self-publication—took me nearly a year. After all of that, I still found a typo in the published book. I am fortunate that I am not relying on my income as a novelist to make a living, because a self-published romance author who produces only one book per year will probably not grow rich from her words. The formula for self-published romance success is to produce as many books as you can, as quickly as you can—that’s why so many self-published authors release partial books, serials or cliffhangers. If they want to survive and thrive financially, they have to rush to publish. So, even if they have the funds for and access to a good editor (and many don’t), their manuscripts are often hastened through the editing process. The end result is wildly uneven quality: I’ve read many self-published romance novels that needed major structural editing; I’ve read others that are full of distracting plot inconsistencies and/or typos; and I’ve read some that are beautifully written and masterfully edited. While there are certainly authors out there who are in it for a money grab, I firmly believe that most romance writers write because they have to. They are producing the best book they can, because they want to contribute to a genre they love. That’s how I feel, anyway.

So, if poor editing makes a book bad, then there are some bad romances—and not just the self-published variety. When I was a child, I used to marvel at how books never had typos. Mistakes were scarce as hen’s teeth, as my grandma would say. Now, I can’t remember the last time I read a book with no typos. In fact, I routinely see dozens of errors in books put out by the “Big Five” publishers—in all genres. The big corporations are feeling the same rush to publish, the same financial pressure, as indie authors.

Writing style. Editing. Maybe we can try to rate a book based on those criteria, but ultimately a novel is about characters. Plot. And I don’t think those things can ever be evaluated objectively. I recently visited Amazon and Goodreads to peruse reviews of some of my all-time favorite novels, from a Pulitzer Prize winner like Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind to a critical darling like Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins to a beloved romance classic like Judith McNaught’s Whitney, My Love. I adore all three of these love stories. Yet, if you read any review site, there are readers who hated them. Whitney, My Love, a historical romance, features a hero who at one point takes the heroine by force. For me, in the story’s setting and context, it made sense, and didn’t detract from their love. Some readers, however, saw the hero as a brutal rapist. I respect their opinions. One reader’s “badly written romance” is another’s five-star experience, and both are right.

Like most genres, romance has its conventions. Some critics feel that makes the stories stale or limited. As a reader, I have my favorite tropes, and seeing how an author will tackle a trope—what new twists she’ll bring to it—is one of the things I love best about the genre. Within its confines, romance is constantly being reinvented and reinvigorated—I feel like right now the genre is absolutely bursting with talent and creativity. Does the increase in the volume of romance novels mean that there is more dreck? Probably. But it means that there are more great books, too! These days, there is truly something for everyone; it just may take a little longer to find exactly what you want. We’ve all read books that we knew were perfectly well written, but they didn’t hold that spark for us. Other times, we find books that we want to climb inside and live forever. I discovered Tessa Bailey a few months ago—if you haven’t read her work, she is the absolute queen of dirty talking alpha heroes—and if I could, I would crawl inside her Line of Duty series and become one of her heroines. That’s how vivid and engaging those stories and characters are—her books take me to another world and make me sorry I can’t stay there. Ditto Kresley Cole’s The Game Maker series, a trio of erotic masterpieces with genius plotting and banter so clever it would give the Gilmore Girls envy.

In summary, even though I bristle when anyone derides romance, I can also admit that—as with every genre—not every novel is a Darcy. Some of them are Wickhams. And often my Darcy is your Wickham, and vice versa. I admire Sittenfeld’s work and think her comments are an opportunity for all of us who write romance to keep striving to better our own craft and lift up the genre as much as we can. What I would really love to see are more writers like Alyssa Rosenberg, journalists who truly love and appreciate the genre and write about it critically but also respectfully (and even passionately). Mainstream publications (I’m looking at you, New York Times) are still largely unwilling to regularly review romance, despite its immense popularity and profitability. That needs to change. Rodney Dangerfield understood.

HEAVEN IN THE DARK Is Now on Kindle Unlimited

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Are you a Kindle Unlimited subscriber? HEAVEN IN THE DARK is now available on KU, which means it’s FREE. Check it out: http://www.amazon.com/Heaven-Dark-Tina-Wright-ebook/dp/B015HJ1AJS/ref=pd_rhf_cr_p_img_1?ie=UTF8&refRID=1HCSAAEGXBEKX8EZE66G

If you’re not a KU subscriber and you love romance, it’s definitely worth a trial. I discovered several favorite authors via KU, including R.S. Grey (sexy romcoms) and Marie Force (glorious insta-love). Give ’em a try!

xo

 

My Hero…the Porn Star?

NOTE: This post contains explicit language/sexual content. 18+ Only.

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Late last year, I read a romance novel featuring a porn star hero. It was steamy, and I enjoyed it, but it was clear that the author either knew nothing about adult entertainment or, if she did, she knew the realities of the industry might prejudice readers against her hero. So, conveniently, even though he was a “star,” the hero had made only a handful of films and had a very small number of sexual partners. He also loathed his job and gave it up immediately after meeting the heroine to pursue “worthwhile” work. The words “porn star,” when applied to men, often conjure images of virility, endowment and sexual prowess, and that was the case in this book—the hero was skilled in bed. However, he was a porn star in name only—the character was completely unrealistic, with no basis in reality, and the story was essentially a fairy tale. When I finished reading it, I wondered: “Wouldn’t there be a lot of messy realities to sort through if/when a porn star fell in love with a civilian (i.e. someone who doesn’t work in the adult industry)? What if he’d been with hundreds or thousands of women, as would be likely for a veteran star? What if he loved some aspects of his job? And what if she had her own baggage? What if she was absolutely repulsed by his career? Is there a way through all of that to a happy ending? How?”

FYI, romance novels about porn stars seem to be in vogue right now. A quick check of Goodreads reveals that nearly a dozen porn star romances were published over the last couple of years, with at least two more due this spring. Only one of these stories features an adult performer heroine (I would guess this is because society is more accepting of men having lots of sex partners than it is of women—porn men can be “alpha males” but porn women are “sluts”—but that’s a subject for another blog post); all of the other books pair a male porn star with a civilian. And in pretty much every story, the hero is cocky, confident, sexy, has a minimum of emotional baggage and is happy to quit porn at the drop of a condom for the love of a good woman, which my gut tells me is superficial and probably flat-out wrong.

A few days after I’d read this novel and mulled over all of the above, I woke up at 2:00 a.m. with a new character in my head. Yup—a porn star. I could picture him so vividly that I knew trying to sleep would be futile, so I grabbed my laptop and spent the next five hours furiously writing down everything I saw. When the dust settled, and I read through a rough draft of the first two chapters of something, I realized that to tell this story truthfully—to make it as gritty and realistic as the characters needed it to be—I needed to learn more about porn.

Previously, porn was only on my radar in a general sense—I knew crossover pop culture figures like Ron Jeremy and Jenna Jameson, and I’d flipped past the odd softcore clip on Cinemax or the Playboy Channel when I was a kid, but it had never held any interest for me, and I had never watched a film, or even a scene. I knew that had to change, so I put Google on the case and soon had a handful of clips of top male stars to view. The first surprise was that the men were more attractive than I expected—and not one of them had a Village People/porn ’stache. Okay. Time to hit “Play.” Clip #1: A little intro dialogue set the scene, which took place in a bathroom, and that was the extent of a plot. The male performer, a 40-something veteran, and his much younger co-star rolled through a series of sex acts—various intercourse positions, plus oral—like they were ticking them off a checklist. When she went to give him a blowjob, he grabbed her head and forced her to deep throat him. She immediately came off of him and (off-camera) vomited into the sink; after a brief fade in the footage, she was back to work. Okay. Time to hit “Stop.” Needless to say, I found nothing about this arousing—dude was just too rough. #NotMyJam

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The Village People knew how to rock a porn ‘stache.

The next two videos were, content-wise, almost the same: Each pair of performers rotated through a variety of acts and positions with a minimum of dialogue, touching or affection. I found it all very soulless and mechanical. I wish I could say I was titillated at some point but, quite frankly, I was only bored.

On to clip #4, which starred a performer named Mick Blue. As soon as the scene began, I could tell it would be different, as Mick spent a lot of time up front kissing and caressing his partner. Once they began having sex, he continued to touch her and maintain eye contact throughout. I’m not sure if Mick was attempting to bring romance to the storyline, or just showing care and consideration for the girl with whom he was paired, but his actions were actually romantic—unlike anything I’d seen in the other clips, and more akin to what one would find in a mainstream film. Maybe this was an atypical scene for Mick—I haven’t watched others to know—but his demonstrative actions were a million times sexier than the emotionless gymnastics of the other clips, and he impressed in a way no one else did.

Feeling sufficiently familiar with porn content, my next step was to gain a better understanding of how the industry works, and of the personalities of the performers and their fans. I decided to do this by interacting with the community on Twitter, so I created a secondary Twitter account exclusively for my research and dug in. (I want to emphasize that I’m not embarrassed to interact with adult performers on my primary account—in fact, I have—but I thought I’d be better able to talk with people honestly if I didn’t advertise that I was a romance writer: Romance novelists—like porn stars—are often discounted/disrespected.)

After only a couple days of reading tweets from stars and fans, one thing jumped out at me: Loneliness was rampant—among both performers and their followers. The first person with whom I chatted was a 30ish male fan from the Netherlands, who followed many female stars. He often tweeted comments to them along the lines of “Thank God for porn. I wouldn’t get off without it, since women hate sex.” After reading a string of his tweets on this theme (none of which were acknowledged by the stars or other fans), I felt obliged to respond, telling him that I enjoyed sex and thought most women did, and wished him better luck. He replied with his thanks, saying he felt as though he were “in an ocean with not a drop to drink” and that he’d felt lonely and invisible to women for years. This was a theme I would see repeated constantly.

Since the porn star in my story is male, and I wanted insight into his potential mindset, I spent much of my time reading tweets from the men and their fans. However, I did follow some key women, and had a few takeaways on female performers: 1) They are younger than I realized—many as young as 18 and few over 30. While many male stars are in their 30s or 40s and have been working for a decade or more, the shelf life of female performers is much shorter. 2) The girls/women who were in relationships were almost exclusively with men also in the industry. I’m sure there are some, but I didn’t run across a single woman who was dating a civilian. Many ladies who were unattached tweeted regularly that they were horny, lonely or wished they had a significant other. Their reluctance to date anyone who isn’t tested for STDs every 14 days (as porn performers are), and the fact that many men look down on women who’ve had so many sexual partners, seems to make dating civilians a rarity. 3) Drug use is common and acknowledged (this is true of the men, too—not even counting the ED drugs/injections most men use on-set), especially smoking pot, and there were scores of tweets about using, as well as complaint tweets about shoots being cancelled because various female performers flaked/were no-shows/were high, etc. 4) The wish list phenomenon (in which female performers ask fans to buy them clothing, jewelry, etc.) is distasteful. Not all of the women have wish lists. And some state that in lieu of gifts, fans may donate to a favored charity. Others, though, spend a lot of time angling for gifts. 5) Garish stripper platforms and over-pronounced eyebrows are (mostly) prerequisites for filming. As a woman with a penchant for beautiful Italian heels, I found the shoes baffling. Men must like them? #AlsoNotMyJam

As much as you can get to know anyone from his/her tweets (and some Twitter accounts read like virtual diaries), I found the women in porn to be just like any other cross-section of women. Some were uneducated, depressed, troubled, from abused backgrounds, etc., and seemed fragile and very ill-served by their present careers. Other performers came across as disingenuous, their bios stating how much they loved their work, when what they really appeared to love was that the work is lucrative (top stars can earn low- to mid-six figures annually); these were the performers whose tweets were always in sales mode—“buy my movies/clips, look at my wish list, watch my Cam Show, come see me feature dance.” Such relentless shilling and manipulation is a feminist’s nightmare. However, there are also women in the genre who are strong, business savvy, compassionate and intelligent. One star live-tweeted a Republican debate with such wit and insight that I found myself wishing she were the moderator. And I was particularly impressed with Anikka Albrite, whose tweets about art and animals consistently entertained, and who on multiple occasions reached out with kind words to someone in need. (FYI, Anikka happens to be married to Mick Blue, and I fell a little in love with this couple. They both have a lot of heart and humanity.) I didn’t have any preconceived notions about female performers, and I was not surprised to find strong, smart women in porn—we as a society have a tendency to paint everyone with the same brush, and that is always a mistake.

That’s what I gleaned from the women. But the point of my research was to get insight into male stars, and their fans. So what did I learn? I learned that there is no one stereotypical porn star—that’s for sure. Several younger stars seemed to be in it for the obvious reason: lots of sex. Some of the men clearly loved women, while others were blatant misogynists—one performer even regularly offered “fat-shaming” tweets. Mick Blue? Well, he adores his wife and is awesome, as expected.

In my timeline, one star stood out: a veteran performer who was a man’s man but also thoughtful, sensitive, romantic and sensual, successful in his field but also conflicted, and he wore his heart on his sleeve—or at least on his app. In short, he shared many traits with my character. In his tweets, this man spoke frankly about the clinical nature of his work; about his loneliness and longing for a relationship; and his desire for purpose and meaning in his life. He shared his past struggles with addiction and depression. On multiple occasions, his words were tinged with sadness and near-despair, and I felt compelled to reply. He subsequently ended up following me and we exchanged DMs. Though he never said it outright, I inferred that he’s ready for a different path—one without porn. And though he’s usually dated fellow porn stars, I inferred that he’s open to a new path there, too. It appeared that he had few people in his life who were not either in the adult industry, or fans; at one point, I offered my (more objective?) friendship, as I felt empathetic—I am a Pisces and he is a sign I understand—but as a stranger, my purview was limited. Nonetheless, I ached for his struggles and felt…sad. I still do.

Whenever this star tweeted about his feelings, he was inundated with replies. A handful were always of the “Cheer up. You da man. You’ve got the greatest job on earth” variety, but most were sympathetic men and women commiserating, stating that they, too, were lacking love in their lives. As I mentioned earlier, if there was one theme that dwarfed all others in the Porn Twitterverse, it was the sadness/loneliness in the hearts of so many performers and fans. I found myself wondering why. Were fans drawn to porn in part because they were lonely? Or was their attraction to and reliance upon porn isolating them even more from the “real” world? From meaningful human interaction? And how does porn affect its performers? The inherent intimacy of making love—the eye contact, the emotional and/or physical connection—is largely stripped away in porn. And, repetition can lead to desensitization. Do those things affect stars when they step away from the camera? Is porn a product that is potentially harmful to both its creators and its consumers, making them lonelier than most? Or, are these performers and fans just more vocal and honest about something—loneliness—that is an epidemic across society? As Thoreau said, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.” The answer is probably a mix of all of the above.

One more note about that male star: He’s my age, and a chunk of his fandom is women in their 30s/40s/50s. These ladies regularly flattered and propositioned him, and their tweets almost always went unacknowledged. However, when women in their early 20s with model-ish profile pics tweeted him, they almost always received a reply, occasionally with an invitation. Why men in their 40s/50s so often want to date women in their 20s—even when the traits they profess to desire are most likely found in women their own age—is another subject, but I raise it here because of the frequent age difference between men and women in porn. When 50ish men are routinely sexing up 19-year-old girls, it can’t help but impact performers and viewers.

After weeks of immersing myself in the XXX world, I went back to work on my manuscript with a new perspective…and a rather heavy heart. My heroine’s heart was heavy, too, sadness permeating her words. One of the first things she told the hero was that she felt she had nothing special she could give to him…there was nothing he hadn’t already experienced a thousand times over. Fortunately, they’ve since begun to realize that there are some things they can give each other that neither has had before. It remains to be seen if and how they’ll get to happily ever after.

It’s funny. At first glance, porn and romance novels make strange bedfellows (pun intended). While explicit sex scenes are welcome and often important, a great love story ultimately succeeds because of the characters’ emotional bond. Porn, on the other hand, is purely physical. Yet there is no denying that the two genres feed some of the same needs and desires. It’s well known that men respond more to visual stimuli, while for women, our brains are our biggest erogenous zones and we are turned on by the written word. Is it fair to say that romance novels (largely written by/for females) are empowering to women, while porn (largely produced by/for males, although that’s changing a tiny bit) gives the control to men? Whatever your opinion, I think we can agree on one thing: Romance reader and/or porn fan—all of us are longing for connection.

Playing with the Queen of Hearts: Chance, Choice and Fate

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Photo credit: Unknown

For obvious reasons, many people are thinking and talking about love and romance today, me included. My Twitter pal Mollie, who is single, wrote a lovely blog piece on what she is looking for in a relationship (molliewallace.wordpress.com), which inspired me to do the same.

As background, I’ve been in love a couple of times, but I’ve never married, and it’s been a while since I was involved with anyone. For me, being single is a mix of chance and choice, with perhaps a dash of fate. I’ve been accused many times of being “too picky,” but when it comes to love and attraction, you either feel it or you don’t. When I am alone, I enjoy the person I am with–most of us know from experience that it’s far lonelier to be with someone else with whom we have no connection, than it is to just be by ourselves. I was surrounded by divorces and unhappy relationships growing up, and I think that made me determined that I would never settle. I’m also not someone who has ever actively sought to meet men–no Match.com or Tinder for me. I’ve always believed that the thing to do is live my best life, and if I’m out there living it, what’s meant for me will find me.

But what do I want? As I’ve gotten older, the list has gotten shorter, and the criteria more important. The only true nonstarter for me is a smoker. Clearing that hurdle, these are the qualities in a man that I value most:

1) Creativity, with his head and/or hands. Whether a man is a painter or musician or writer, a furniture-builder or another sort of craftsman, I’m drawn to people with imagination…people who can look past reality to see possibilities. I’m (cursed to be) a Pisces, so I’m a dreamer and an idealist, and I’ve learned that men who don’t share these traits usually don’t mesh with me.

2) Funny and possesses a good sense of humor. This is one of those traits that is crucial, but hard to describe. Either someone makes you laugh, or they don’t. They see humor where you do, or they don’t. I’m reminded of the Seinfeld ep where Jerry falls in love with a character played by Janeane Garafalo, who is basically a female version of himself. When someone points that out, Jerry agrees: “I’ve swept myself off of my feet.” That’s kind of what I’m looking for.

3) Intelligence/sensitivity. I couldn’t care less whether someone has a college diploma. In fact, I’ve met some very unintelligent, uninteresting people with advanced degrees. However, I could never be with someone who wasn’t smart…able to reason and think critically, and take an interest in the larger world. Spirituality and political and social issues are important to me, and I want to be with someone who is also engaged by those things. Hand in hand with this is someone who is also in touch with his feelings, and willing to share them.

4) A healthy attitude about money. I have dated a spendthrift, and a miser. Both were equal turn offs. I (believe I) have a healthy attitude about money. I have no debts and have always been a responsible saver/investor, but I also don’t hesitate to treat myself to things that enhance my life–be that food and drink with good friends, travel or personal luxuries. A partner who doesn’t have similar financial beliefs is a recipe for disaster.

5) Chemistry. Ah, the most elusive trait of all. We either feel it or we don’t. With the exception of (the exceptional) Jamie Dornan, I don’t have the tastes of the masses. I mean, I went to college with Brad Pitt, and I thought he was “okay”–cute, but just not my type. (Nor I his, needless to say!) But I do have a physical type, usually guys with brown hair and brown eyes. And nice forearms and hands make me swoon.  Chemistry–to me–is both that can’t-keep-your-hands-off-of-each other physical desire, and a spiritual/emotional connection. I want my lover to be my best friend.

6) He has to want me. As I mentioned, I’m a Pisces. If you believe there is something to astrology (as I do), then you may know that Pisceans are intuitive and nurturing. We are sensitive and love to take care of others in every way possible, and in my past, this always manifested as me doing all of the giving. I take full responsibility for it; I was drawn to black holes of emotional need, and they eagerly took all of the nurturing I gave. But there was no reciprocity. Now, I recognize that flaw, and anyone I choose to be with in the future will have to really want me, and demonstrate the same.

There are many other, more superfluous, things I could add to the list: I love music, love to travel, to cook, to hike, to watch sports, and someone who shares those interests would be great, but the core values and traits above are my priorities.

I have a lot of female friends in their 30s, 40s and 50s who, like me, are single and (mostly) never married. They are all bright and attractive women. I think ideally, we’d all like to be in relationships. I would. When you get right down to it, we are really only here on earth for two reasons: 1) to love others; 2) to use our lives for some good purpose. I believe people operate at a higher frequency and have more to give when they love, and are loved. And I wouldn’t be a romance novelist if I didn’t believe in the fulfillment that a romantic partnership can offer. Through knowing and loving another, we discover more of ourselves, too. I certainly want that for myself, and everyone else. That said, anyone who has ever picked up an issue of Cosmo has seen the stats and statements on the odds of a 30+ woman finding love: “The odds aren’t good, and the goods are odd.”

So, for me, I plan to keep my heart open, but never settle. I’ve read a lot of HEAs, written a couple, and even seen a few in real life, so I know they do exist. In the meantime, I have to be true to myself. We all do. Chance. Choice. Fate.

On my next blog post: What I Learned about Love and Relationships from Studying Porn.

Taylor Swift Is More

As some of you know, before I started writing and editing full time, I spent 20 years as a music publicist. Over that time, I had the chance to work with hundreds of (usually) amazing artists, from newcomers to living legends to contemporary superstars. Often, people ask me which artist was my favorite to work with, and I never hesitate to tell them that it was Taylor Swift. The next question is usually a variation of, “Is she really as wonderful as she seems?” The answer is, “More.” I’ve had the good fortune to work with Taylor numerous times over the last decade, and I’d like to share two stories that illustrate her grace, class, empathy and intelligence.

On one occasion, Taylor was doing an interview with Matt Lauer in the gallery at a popular Nashville museum. Behind a stanchioned-off area, a large group of lucky museum visitors had gathered to watch. I knew from past experiences that Taylor usually spent time with fans at such events. However, on this date, she was on a very tight schedule and due to fly to London immediately after the interview. When Taylor finished with Matt, several members of her team hurried her to the elevator and out of the gallery, bypassing the fans. I remained with Matt and his crew, and remarked that I was surprised her companions  were able to get her to leave without a visit to those fans. No sooner had I uttered those words–a total of perhaps 60 seconds since Taylor’s departure–than the elevator doors opened again and Taylor stepped out. She immediately went over to the fans and spent time with them, tirelessly hugging and posing for selfies, before she departed. This tells you two things about Taylor: 1) While she may have a great management staff working with her, she makes the decisions; and 2) She never turns down a chance to make people happy, to make their day brighter. Honestly, I felt ebullient myself just watching how much joy she brought to those lucky museum visitors.

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Taylor performs at Bridgestone Arena on Sept. 25, 2015. (Photo: Tina Wright)

On another occasion, Taylor was again at the museum, this time for an interview with ABC. While the crew was setting up, I had the chance to hang out with her one-on-one. We mostly shared girl talk–comparing notes on fashion, among other things. She was extremely complimentary about my style and what I wore–this from someone who is one of the world’s best-dressed women. She complimented my PR work, hugged me, and laughed and chatted with me as though I were a member of her #squad instead of just a casual colleague. Though there were other industry and media folks around, not once did she look over my shoulder. When we were talking, she was wholly PRESENT, and made me feel like there was no place she’d rather be than with me. This is the gift of people who are truly charismatic: They don’t drone on and on about themselves, no matter how accomplished they are. Rather, they make everyone with whom they come into contact feel special. Taylor has this ability in spades.

In two decades in the music industry, I have had hundreds–maybe even thousands–of unforgettable experiences. But none of them mean more than the times I was able to work with Taylor, talk to Taylor, watch her perform or interact with her fans. She has a quick mind and an amazing array of talents, but it is her generous nature that I love most. So yes, she really is as wonderful as she seems. More.

I Am What I Read…And What I Read Is Me

We all know that ultimately a novel is a collaboration between author and reader. An author (usually) writes the book that he/she would want to read, and then each reader synthesizes the words, absorbing them through the filter of his or her own experiences, tastes, background and mores, with the end result being a unique reading experience. No two readers will ever experience a story in exactly the same way. Because of that, it always intrigues me to read negative reviews of a book I have loved, or vice versa. This was especially true today, when I read some of the low-rated reviews of Beth Kery’s Because You Are Mine, an erotic romance that I just finished and loved. Foremost among the criticisms was that it is in many ways a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey. There are similarities…we have Ian, the dominant alpha billionaire hero with a troubled past and an affinity for BDSM who needs to punish and control Francesca, the beautiful, naturally submissive heroine. Ian, like Christian Grey, professes that he can offer sexual pleasure but not love or romance. Furthermore, a few of the scenes, set-ups and secondary characters in Because You Are Mine are deeply evocative of Fifty. While these similarities made a negative impression on some readers, for me it was just the opposite. (And we can’t forget: Fifty itself was the retelling of another tale.) Far from being a hindrance, I loved seeing how Kery would take these similarities and make the story her own, and she did not disappoint. The caliber of her writing, the crafting of her characters and her beautiful language make Because You Are Mine very compelling fiction–erotic writing at its finest. Writing in third person (my preference because it allows an author to tell a broader, richer story), Kery took me on an emotional journey with Ian and Francesca. One of my favorite elements of the novel is the fact that, years prior to their first meeting, Francesca, an artist, had seen Ian from the rear and been moved enough to capture his desolation on canvas:

“She’d painted him four years ago. That’s what he was telling her—that he knew she’d observed him walking the dark, lonely streets in the dead of the night while the rest of the world slumbered, warm and content in their beds. Francesca hadn’t realized the identity of her inspiration at the time, nor had he probably known he was being observed until he saw the painting, but there could be no doubt of it. Ian Noble was the cat who walked by himself. And he’d wanted her to know it.”

That’s a beautiful scene, one that speaks to the heart of the connection between these two characters. When it comes to erotic romance, Beth Kery is at the top of her game and the top of my list.

There were also a few things about this book that I loved on a personal note, e.g. when Ian takes Francesca to Paris, they stay at the Hotel George V. Apparently, it’s the hotel of choice for fictional billionaires. (I have it on good authority that Heaven in the Dark ‘s David Swift always stays there.)  Also, as the book is set largely in Chicago, the protagonists visited many of my favorite spots. Dinner at Trump’s hotel? Yes, thanks.

In summary, the person that I am–my tastes, my experiences–had a fulfilling journey with these characters. For me, Because You Are Mine was a work of beautiful, nuanced writing, and each turn of the page was time well-spent.

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A HEAVENly Casserole for Cheese and Artichoke Lovers

My novel, Heaven in the Dark, is set in Milan. When you read it–as hopefully you will when it comes out on Oct. 20–you’ll find that good food is important to, and relished by, the characters. It is Italy, after all! While most foods described in the book are authentic to the region, I did take advantage of a dinner party scene to have the characters enjoy one of my all-time favorite recipes, savory bread pudding with artichokes and two cheeses. I highly recommend going the extra mile and using Parmigiano Reggiano–there really is no substitute for its sublime flavor. I like to serve this rich, decadent casserole around the holidays, but cheese lovers will crave it all year. David Swift loves it! Here’s the recipe, courtesy of the Vegetarian Times:

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Buon Appetito!