Suzanne Stroh author of the TABOU Quintet of Novels is here today answering some questions on her writing and her reading too!
Please tell us about your current release.
Patience launches my sexy quintet of novels, TABOU, a saga that spans 100 years on four continents and recounts the erotic Odyssey of Jocelyn Russet, the 27-year old brewing heiress born in London and raised in the Virginia countryside.
In each book, Jocelyn meets her destiny on one big night, when her fate turns on secret histories and forbidden encounters with a different woman every time. The novels interlock, as in The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell, and they can be read in any order, thanks to the Prologues that open each novel and the indexes that help readers keep track of the cast of characters. The whole project hearkens to the heyday of the 19th century novel, where readers could immerse themselves in detailed worlds peopled by dozens of characters. Edgy, modern action and full-spectrum erotic writing updates the series to give it a “classic modern” feel.
Book One is a double love story that is part rollicking adventure, part sexy romp through the glittering 1980s and 1990s, set in London and Los Angeles. It’s the tale of two British-born heiresses of different generations, Jocelyn Russet and Patience Herrick, both coming of age at the same time. Are they made in heaven, or star-crossed? What forgotten memories do they share, what secret legacies must they uncover and take charge of, and why are their families being targeted for terror?
Can you tell us about the journey that led you to write your book?
TABOU began as an unproduced Hollywood screenplay that focused on Jocelyn and Sylvie Russet and Jocelyn’s climbing partner, Zander Duffield. It fulfilled the basic requirements of good drama: three act structure and a compelling narrative with a love interest and an antagonist. I dreamed of Catherine Deneuve in the role of the 45-year-old Cognac heiress, Sylvie Russet, in the vein of INDOCHINE, the blockbuster epic Deneuve had just starred in so magnificently, but the movie project fell through.
My characters had really come to life, and now they wouldn’t let me go. Early on, I realized that there were deeper stories I wanted to tell about how love and Eros, business and spy craft, run in families just like other heritable traits. Telling stories that spanned four generations or more required a format more ambitious than film, or even a single novel. It took years for me to find the right “glue” that would bind nine families together on four continents over four generations. The day I realized Patience Herrick was an epic heroine strong enough to parry Jocelyn and Sylvie, with her own family business story that could carry a quintet, I knew I had a series on my hands. Aurore de Fillery and Valerie Drummond, Countess of Tiffin and Ross, sprung out of that seed. And soon I could see the organic whole taking shape.
So Book One of TABOU is a love letter to the real Patience. She is one of only two characters in TABOU modeled closely after a single person; the rest are truly composites.
TABOU is not autobiographical fiction, but it does draw deeply from my experience, and it is fair to say that as a mountaineer, motorcyclist, screenwriter, field medic and family business specialist based in the Virginia countryside, I truly live what I write about in TABOU.
I worked feverishly on the first draft of TABOU six days a week while still nursing my baby daughter, completing it in about seven months. Then I took a break and re-read a lot of period biographies, along with two great novel cycles from the late 1950s that compliment one another and balance the stylistic influences of TABOU.
First I re-read The Alexandria Quartet, a literary masterpiece by Lawrence Durrell, whose artistic aim was to explore the four dimensions of love in an era when Einstein had just discovered time as the fourth dimension of space. I followed that with another run-through of the Peter and Charlie Trilogy by Gordon Merrick, published after Merrick’s death from 1959-1961. This was a serious work of literary erotica by a successful author of gay “potboilers,” his explicit, homoerotic romances that critics had ghettoized. Merrick was a major talent. But as E.M. Forster had done with Maurice, he refused to publish the Peter and Charlie books during his lifetime. The subject matter was too taboo.
No longer! What really gripped me about the Peter and Charlie books, besides the first class erotic writing, was the family saga. What other gay epic gave the heroic lovers children—and the struggles of parenthood pitted against Eros? Merrick was taking Durrell’s “fourth dimension” (the enduring powers—both creative and destructive–of love over time) to the next level. Literary giants like Forster, Lawrence, Woolf, Sackville-West and others had dreamed about it—but never accomplished it. I wanted all that sexy continuity for TABOU…and more.
For readers around the world, generations of their own family histories have been lost because of taboos that forbid truth telling about the wide range and variety of sexual desire and experience, not to mention its power to transform history. Helen’s face launched 1,000 ships, remember? Bosie’s charms landed Oscar Wilde in prison. Who paid the price? Who inherited the spoils?
Historians and biographers have become franker in writing colorful and meaningful gay, lesbian and bisexual lives. Recent biographies of Alan Turing and Walt Whitman vie with my personal favorite by Victoria Glendinning, Vita, in the pantheon. But the living legacies of these lives remain unclaimed by their heirs, or else squandered. Who knows the adventures of her great-great gay uncle, or the heroic deeds of his three-greats lesbian aunt? Greta Garbo’s niece threatens legal action against those who pry too deeply into Garbo’s life story, as if their consanguinity is still a threat. For those of us who crave connection and continuity across generations, James Joyce made much of the difference between spiritual paternity and actual paternity in Ulysses, but does anybody remember? Dolly Wilde told anyone who would listen, in Paris between the wars, that she was more like her uncle Oscar Wilde than he was like himself. But when she died, that continuity appeared to have vanished…until, out of the blue, Jamie O’Neill wrote a brilliant novel called At Swim, Two Boys, which revealed him as the spawn of the gay Wilde and the hetero Joyce. Why have so few talented writers addressed this huge gap in consanguinity and continuity between us and our queer forebears?
This is the great question that spurred me on through many drafts to finish and publish TABOU now. My mission: to mind the gap. Then to bridge it, one erotic fiction at a time, since we have lost the links in the real human daisy chain over the last century.
I bring an unusual perspective to TABOU. As a descendant of John Hart, who signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, and as a fifth-generation owner of the international Stroh’s brewing business that had been in my family since 1848 in America, then back to 1509 in the Palatinate (Germany), it seemed like nowhere was this yawning gap more visible than in my own milieu. So I built the mythology of TABOU around the world I was born into and raised in and now pass down to my daughter: the world of political dynasties and business families that bears some resemblance to the Olympian heights. Here on Earth, with the help of the “chattering classes,” it’s a world that has taken such painstaking care to trace its own history from generation to generation for centuries. But it’s a history that has left out the biggest change agent of all: the wide variety of sexual experience that perennially inspires us, nourishes our souls, enlivens our art, and strengthens our connections between love and Eros in every generation.
I don’t want to spoil it for you, but one of my beta readers summarized what I’d accomplished like this: “At first I was like, ‘who are these people?’ And then I got it! They’re dripping rich and saving the world!”
Can you tell us about the story behind your book cover?
Great question. I’m very proud of this.
I worked with a very talented young designer, Andrea Kuchinski, on the cover design. We’ve been collaborating creatively for a decade, ever since Andrea was a teenage apprentice at the design firm that won a Hermes award for my web site, suzannestroh.com.
For this project, we needed to incorporate several key elements. We had a series title, and there are five books in the series. So we needed a family of covers, not just one cover. The series title, TABOU, is incomplete without the mysterious mirror reflection of currency symbols, £$F€£, used throughout the series as section dividers. I can’t explain the meaning of this, or else I’d be ruining the climax of Book Five, Valerie. So trust me: the title and the series of currency symbols are inseparable. We also had to incorporate the tree of life, with its nine withered branches representing the nine dynastic families of TABOU, and with its entangled root system. And finally, we wanted to express the eroticism and good taste that sets TABOU apart from contemporary trends in literary fiction.
Our process at the beginning of each new project is to talk things through over a coffee. Sometimes Andrea will record our conversation, but at this stage in our collaboration, we can pretty much read one another’s aesthetic. I leave her to work freely and come up with a concept.
As you can see from the Facebook page, Andrea’s first prototype was a family of covers that evokes the South Pacific imagery where Sylvie Russet grew up on Hiva Oa, near Tahiti. Dominated by the tree, the covers were whimsical, blocky, colorful and fun—but not edgy. We agreed we wanted to go for something deeper, bolder, starker and more profound, more beautiful.
To me, an art history major in college, nothing is more beautiful than the human body. I started looking for nude photographs that would hint at the mysteries of TABOU, showing the variety of sexual experience (and more critically, the powerful union of sex and love) that is central to my theme.
Meanwhile, Andrea had a breakthrough. She noticed that our tree of life contained elements in the root system which, if lifted out of context, resembled beautiful, flowing tattoos. By overlaying the root system on the nudes, we began to get some really extraordinary imagery that still evoked the South Pacific. We knew we had what we wanted, stylistically. What remained was layout.
Andrea drives this part of the iterative process, which usually goes very fast. It’s a back-and-forth exchange where we home in on color, typeface and layout until we feel that we’ve reached the full expression of our concept. Very soon we’d built a unified family of covers. Et voilà.
We were both completely shocked when the iBookstore judged the cover of Book One too “explicit” and asked for a redesign—or else they would refuse to sell the book. I wasn’t happy, but agreed to the redesign. I love the aesthetics of Apple devices, and I myself am totally “Macked-out.” But the idea of censorship by Apple still sticks in my craw.
Since before the Renaissance, the highest measure of artistic greatness (in painting, sculpture and modern media) has always been depicting the nude–the magnificent form and structure of the human body. I disagree profoundly with the conventional American notion that expressing nudity, especially artistic nudity, is “obscene,” when expressing graphic violence is not. Censorship is not just a problem for authors. It limits filmmakers as well, as I know from my work as a screenwriter and film producer, driving the marketplace through the Hollywood rating system, which determines what movies our children can see—or cannot see.
I shouldn’t have been surprised when the iBookstore rejected the cover of Book Two. But I am still disappointed. As with Book One, I have redesigned the cover of Jocelyn for iPad readers. You can see the original artwork on my Facebook page.
What approaches have you taken to marketing your book?
This is an all-eBook publicity campaign organized through my publisher, Publish Green. To let readers know about TABOU, I am building momentum through word of mouth and Facebook advertising. With my Facebook page, Tabou by Suzanne Stroh, and my web site, www.workwithstroh.com, I am forging the authentic, personalized, one-to-one connection that readers crave from authors in a world of McMedia.
I’m also organizing a blog tour, and I’m available to support the book through interviews and personal appearances on blogs and web sites like yours.
What book on the market does yours compare to? How is your book different?
TABOU is a literary reader’s Fifty Shades of Grey, without the BDSM. It has great sex writing, like Fifty Shades of Grey, but it is neither mommy porn nor genre fiction built on the formula for stock erotica. The gaps between the sex scenes are much longer, and those gaps are filled with more intriguing plots that involve many more characters. It also presents all kinds of couples in love: gay, straight, bisexual, single and partnered, young and old, able-bodied and disabled, faithful and unfaithful to their spouses.
Like the novel series by Edward St. Aubyn, TABOU is set in a glittering world of bluebloods and elites. But these elites are not your typical “1%.” Unlike St. Aubyn’s abusive elites, TABOU’s international elites are productive, not destructive. They are on a mission led by a moral code, a reason for being—a higher purpose that is revealed progressively as characters accept hidden legacies and face life-threatening challenges after discovering secret histories.
What would you say is your most interesting writing quirk?
I’d start with the sex writing. Very little literary fiction published today has truly great sex writing in it that explores the full range of sexual experience. And almost no erotica delivers the deep satisfaction of a good literary novel. My work bridges this gap. You won’t find hot sex every 30 pages, as in genre fiction. But you’ll keep every volume of TABOU by your bedside, no matter whom you share your bed with!
My writing is a personal blend of deep artistic influences in several genres, including biography, giving rise to some unconventional quirks. One of my goals has been to counteract the predictability of so much contemporary fiction, in part by re-inventing the experience of really getting lost in a juicy 19th century saga peopled with dozens of fascinating characters, each with his or her own vivid storyline. To make it easier for readers to follow all the characters, I’ve provided character indexes, the way a biographer would index a biography.
Technically, TABOU requires commitment from the reader, in the way that the music of Kanye West is challenging—but worth it. It’s not a breezy read; nor is it a slim volume. It takes at least 100 pages to “get into” a novel cycle this big, but then you’re hooked, if you’re like 50% of my beta readers who became addicted! TABOU’s pleasures are deeper. They grow on you.
For instance, TABOU is ambitious in throwing out the conventional linear narrative in favor of the pleasures of being able to peek into the future and to jump back into the past instantaneously. A benefit of blending the past, the present and the future together in every book is that you can read the books in any order. It’s kind of like enjoying the possibility of multiple endings in a computer game. You will have a unique experience of TABOU, depending on how you choose to read it. The dual narratives begin, in Book One, on the same March day in 1993 and 2003, each progressing from there. You know you’re in a flashback, recalling past events, when you see dialog ‘in single quotes like this.’ Dialog in the main story “looks like this.” And future events are written in bold italics. You won’t get confused because all this is explained in the Author’s Note that appears in the end matter of every TABOU eBook.
Readers will also notice lots of interior dialog, reflecting multiple points of view, along with lots of verb phrases in my books. Screenwriting has taught me to craft edgy sentences that begin with verb phrases. It’s a screenwriters’ convention that energizes the pace and adds immediacy to the narrative.
Open your book to a random page and tell us what’s happening.
It’s 4:00 p.m. in Los Angeles in 1993 at the height of the “British invasion” of Hollywood. Patience Herrick, daughter of the three-time American ambassador to Great Britain, pretty much rules the city’s social calendar. Tonight she needs to get out of throwing a dinner party in Bel Air for a French champagne princess, where the Hollywood elite will mingle with the US Vice President—all so she can celebrate her tenth anniversary with Jocelyn Russet, the love of her life, the brewing heiress Patience seduced in a London ballroom. So tonight is a date made in heaven—that Patience completely forgot about.
She calls her best friend Calandra Seacord for help. Calandra can definitely host the party in her place; she’s Greek and gorgeous, an Arianna Huffington double, married to the man running for Governor of California. Calandra and Patience grew up together in London. Patience knows her well and loves her like a sister.
But Patience doesn’t know everything. Calandra is a secret agent working for the champagne princess, hunting down unprosecuted Nazi war criminals, kidnapping them, and bringing them to mock trials in order to recover stolen assets. Calandra can’t risk being seen socially with the princess, so she has to make up a plausible reason why she can’t do this important favor tonight for Patience.
There’s another problem: Patience is a world-class judge of character. Nothing slips past her. Calandra can’t let Patience on to her secret. So in order to distract Patience, Calandra reveals the biggest secret of Patience’s life. And when she does, Patience begins a journey of recalling lost memories that will change her life forever….starting with her anniversary date tonight….
Do you plan any subsequent books?
Book Two, Jocelyn, is now available. Book Three, Sylvie, will go on sale in time for the 2012 holiday season. The cycle will conclude with Books Four and Five in 2013. Each TABOU book features a sneak preview of the next book.
Tell us what you’re reading at the moment and what you think of it.
I’ve always got a few books going at any given time. I love reading in multiple genres. Do you?
In erotic fiction, I’ve started Fifty Shades Darker by EL James, and while it’s a fun, breezy read with the sex writing as good as ever, I’m not surprised to find the thin plot growing even thinner. I love to read great sex writing, but I like it in better taste and more measured doses with deeper character development, more going on with more characters, and exciting story lines. I much preferred The Last Nude by Ellis Avery, which I devoured, almost in one sitting. It’s about the cocaine-fueled obsession of Modernist painter Tamara de Lempicka for her 17-year old model Raphaela, whose portraits secured Lempicka’s rock star status in Paris between the wars. I’m also reading Afterimage by Helen Humphreys, the fictional account of another muse obsession, this time by pioneer English photographer Julia Margaret Cameron for her housemaid.
Two graphic novels have captured my attention. I just finished really Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home. It’s the first work by Bechdel I can really connect with. It’s a very compelling, but heavy, memoir by a Midwestern intellectual whose closeted father took his own life when Alison came out as a lesbian. I’ve turned now to Logicomix, the story of Bertrand Russell’s quest to lay a unified foundation for mathematics, set in Edwardian England and beyond. Apart from The Invention of Hugo Cabret, it may be the most beautiful graphic novel I’ve ever read. It took four authors and artists to make it: Apostolos Doxiadis, Christos Papadimitriou, Alecos Papadatos and Annie Di Donna. What a cool collaboration.
Nonfiction titles are always by the bedside and on my Kindle. By the bedside is Marina Warner’s scholarly book about the Tales of the Arabian Nights, Stranger Magic. It’s well researched and beautifully published. Comprehensive. Kate Summerscale’s biography of Toughie Carstairs, The Queen of Whale Cay, made me laugh out loud. She was the very butch Standard Oil heiress who ran an ambulance unit in World War I and then became “the fastest woman on the water” racing hydroplanes between the wars. My father would have seen her challenge the Harmsworth Cup on the St. Clair River in Detroit in 1929 and 1930. After she lost both races, Toughie retired to the Bahamas, where she became the autocratic ruler of her own island.
I try to read in French as much as I can. Right now I’m gripped by Francesco Rappazzini’s biography of Elizabeth de Gramont, set in Paris during the first half of the 20th century, which has never been translated. The “red duchess” Lily de Gramont, from one of France’s oldest families, was Proust’s fact-checker; she was the best friend of the man Proust pined for; and she was the only woman Natalie Barney could never control: they were lovers for 45 years. If you don’t read French, you can get an idea of “Natly’s” escapades with Lily de Gramont in Diana Souhami’s wonderful and hilarious book, Wild Girls.