My guest today has many strings to his bow with a successful publishing history in both German and English and now, additionally, as part owner of a highly successful publishing house, Riptide Publishing . Aleksandr Voinov’s work has been described as “darkly erotic, filled with gritty, violent, sexy incident” and I am very pleased that he has agreed to take the time to answer some of my questions.
Aleks: Hi Elin! Thank you for inviting me over for a chat!
Elin: Your work encompasses many different subdivisions in the M/M genre – historical, science fiction, dystopian future, fantasy, man meets man romance – do you have a favourite or is your favourite what happens to tickle your fancy that particular moment?
Aleks: I think it shows how easily I get bored. I just need a change after exploring an idea or two in a setting, or I feel I’ll repeat myself too much and the Muse does get bored. In addition to that, of course, I read as widely as I write, so I do read horror and sci-fi and contemporaries and historicals, and don’t really have favourites. Though I admit I enjoy world-building more than contemporaries. There’s more freedom. That said, some of my favourite characters ever are contemporary people.
Elin: Can you recommend a suitable ‘entry level’ Voinov?
Aleks: I’d suggest my solo work to get an idea of my tone/voice, and Gold Digger is a fairly safe bet—it’s a friendly contemporary without huge issues but very good chemistry (I think). Incursion is sci-fi and heavily driven by some crazy ideas that dug into my brainstem at that point in time. For people who like more literary work, I’d suggest Skybound, my WWII historical short. The heavy stuff is doubtlessly my kinky mafia epic Dark Soul, the dark military gay fantasy novel Scorpion, or Counterpunch, which is about an alternative modern-day earth where slavery was never abolished. So, Skybound and Gold Digger.
Elin: You have several co-written titles on your backlist. Do you find the process of co-writing very different to your solo work? Is it more or less fun?
Aleks: Writing with somebody else is so much easier. You pool two good brains to solve problems, and it’s twice as fast as writing alone. A co-writer holds you accountable in terms of wordcount; if you’ve agreed to co-write on a certain evening, “not feeling it” isn’t really an excuse, which makes for far more disciplined and productive use of writing time. It’s also more entertaining—both ways. When I write with somebody else, I want to entertain and wow them. They are like the first audience. So I’m stretching a bit and try to make it extra interesting. Flipside of that is, it’s very entertaining for me when the co-writer is trying to blow my mind. It’s a bit of a game, too, and if we can wow each other, chances are, we’ll wow readers, too.
Elin: Fantasy and science fiction work best when built upon a solid foundation of reality. Discuss.
Aleks: You’re not going to hear me protest. My fantasy is heavily influenced by that history degree I have in the drawer, and I read a lot of non-fiction to get things exactly right. Right now, as I’m writing the sequel to Scorpion, which is a novel during which my characters are trying to re-build a lost empire, I’m thinking long and hard about the military realities of a pre-industrial world, because empire-building in this case means conquest, and the faction doing it has been weakened in a previous war, which has a strong impact on the characters and the devil’s bargains they have to enter to fulfil their goals.
Same with sci-fi. There are some things you need to solve if you’re looking to write in a world that has an interstellar civilization, which requires faster-than-light travel. Luckily, “gates” or portal technology are such sci-fi staples that you can draw on that. You’ll have to make a decision about how people move about and how it all works and by and large stick to it (unless an alien species has a different technology that solves the problem in a different way).
Personally, I’m finding my humanities degree really helps fleshing out other cultures. Similarly, regardless of whether your main character is a space-faring mercenary or a mercenary fighting in a pre-industrial world, both need to be humans and driven by human motivations. They need to act and react like humans so readers can empathise with them, which is another thing that’s based on reality. In the end, regardless of the trimmings, we’re writing about people.
Elin: The step from author to publisher is a big one. Do you find that your experience as a publisher is affecting how you approach your own work?
Aleks: If anything, I trust my editors more and work harder to help support the production process, because I see how much work goes into a book after the author is done with it. Though I’m obviously privileged in that I now have control over that process and get support from many excellent people that a self-published author would have to find and organize first. I’m finding this amount of control actually quite addictive, so Riptide is now my home as a writer. I’ve never been happier with my covers or the quality of the editing, largely because I no longer hand over responsibility to anybody, thinking they know what they are doing. And many do, but I’ve often felt uneasy with some aspect of the process at other houses, be it editing or cover or blurb or lack of marketing. All that is now over. I’m one of the people who enjoy the responsibility and the control.
Just as an example—I used to hate writing blurbs, but I’ve written/edited a lot of them for Riptide, and that does help a great deal. Marketing and promo are similar beasts. I used to lean back and wait for the sales to roll in—well, that didn’t work at all. Now that my books are actually actively marketed, my sales are way up compared to before. I’m also supporting the marketing people at Riptide a lot more with content, from interviews to blog posts or columns. The flipside is that I stay out of controversies because of that dual role I’m playing. I have to accept that anything I do or say anywhere reflects on Riptide, even though I’m just one in a large team and we don’t always necessarily agree behind the scenes.
Elin: What are your influences? Any movies, tv shows, books that lit a spark that your imagination fanned into flames? What first made you want to write a novel? Or is story telling as natural a function as breathing?
Aleks: I was absolutely ravenous as a kid when it came to books and TV shows. I never really bothered with YA and once unleashed on a library, I went through the speculative fiction shelves like somebody possessed. So, yes, there’s a huge amount of epic fantasy in my background, though Tanith Lee’s Flat Earth Series holds a very special place. And recently I realised how much the really awful movies of the sixties have influenced me, too, “sandal movies” and “spaghetti Westerns” (like the original Django with Franco Nero). So my footing is firmly on the pulpy side of things, and all anti-heroes (from The Punisher to Mad Max) have made a strong impression on me, too, which is likely the reason why nearly all my main characters are broken, twisted or subverted in some way. I also always loved mythology and fairy tales, especially the darker ones, and they continue to be a strong influence, especially the Greek stories and the European sagas. University has given me a stronger footing in “higher” literature (I do have the literature degree to show for it), with William Faulkner standing at the very pinnacle. All those influences come together in my mind for an unholy brew of myth and archetypes and modern “literary” sensibilities, and they keep sparking those crazy ideas off each other.
After almost diary-like writings that never went anywhere, I wrote and sold my first short story to a pulp magazine at sixteen, mostly because I read that the magazine was actually paying a (for me) substantial amount for a short story, and the other stories in the magazine were pretty weak, I thought. The first novel was about ten years later, and co-written with a friend—again because I thought the others in the series were really weak and the money was good. It was accepted and published by Heyne/Random House, and after that, I just kept going. I’d always made up stories, but it took many years to actually put things on the page in a way that other people wanted to read it and reach a certain constancy in output, too. I’d written on impulse, but only recently I’ve considered myself a “working writer” with a proper writing career and an actual plan of what to write next and in which order.
Elin: Now, I’d really like to talk about Skybound, your novella set, mostly, on a Luftwaffe airbase in the last days of the Second World War, that has bowled readers and critics over with the strength and immediacy of the story. Also the research which must have been massive. How long was that story in gestation? What was the most exciting bit of information that you discovered that didn’t make the final edit?
Aleks: I didn’t actually want to write it, at all. It seemed like such a risk, writing in first person present tense, which I’d never done, about something I knew absolutely nothing about, and it was interrupting a WWII novel that has been years in the making now, so I didn’t want to get sidetracked. But Felix’s voice just kept coming back to me, that wistful, poetic tone that seemed so out of place considering the setting. So I bit the bullet and did my research. I bought books on the Luftwaffe, the planes involved, and did my best to learn about the mechanics (writing only about fighter pilots would have been much easier—we actually have their stories).
At the same time, that story struck me like lightning, like biting on tinfoil. Here’s a young guy, a dreamer, a young man in love and both he and his adored hero are in mortal danger and on the wrong side of a war. How do you cope? Where do you find the courage to love? Getting the research right was the real challenge, and I’m thinking maybe I should have given the ending more room and space and been even more specific, but even as it stands now, it’s the strongest piece I’ve ever done.
What excited me are the small things. I pored over the Messerschmitt fighter plane cockpit layout to get into Baldur’s head, and watched documentaries that show the mechanics working and refuelling the planes. It’s striking how much was done by hand, too. These days, all that looks very different.
I got really into the Messerschmitt as a plane, reading how it developed and how it was adapted to fight under different conditions and as the war changed. It was a groundbreaking plane that was eventually bested by Allied designs and the problems of the war economy. There are also many little details. I must have spent hours on YouTube to listen to the engine sound of the historical planes as they are still being flown at air shows.
As another example, the leader of the squadron, Wischinsky, is a Condor Legion veteran, which makes him extremely ambivalent. Germany’s so-called “Condor Legion” was the one that destroyed, among others, the Basque town of Guernica in Spain during the Spanish Civil War, and essentially developed carpet-bombing (a tactic that came back to haunt Germany on a massive scale just a few years later). For contemporaries, Condor Legion veterans were a small, envied elite who rewrote the rulebook and developed strategies that were later perfected as Germany integrated its various arms (Army, Air Force, Naval Forces) for waging “total war”. So, Skybound stands in a huge, complex context and refers to a hundred things, which I hope gives it depth, and all those details would be known and meaningful to Felix, though he never explains them.
Elin: Since you’ve already done so much research on the period, can we look forward to any more WW2 Voinovs? Or are you trying something else entirely?
Aleks: Considering I stayed clear of the period for the longest time, I’m now strangely intrigued by it all, so yes, absolutely. In fact, I’ve co-written a WWII romance with LA Witt that’s due out in late summer/autumn from Riptide, and I’m working on two more WWII novels that are geared more towards the mainstream and I have two literary agencies that might be interested, though it’s obviously not the only route I could go with them. Considering how vast the issues are—and the misconceptions—I think I can quite happily write another 5-10 novels set in WWII as pure historicals, and I have a few ideas for a more “urban fantasy” take on the period, so an alternative universe. Still, I need to switch genres every now and then so the setting doesn’t get stale, So I’d expect WWII to feature in between my more erotic contemporaries and likely a series set in the Crusades.
Elin: Could we please have an excerpt of something?
Germany, 1945. The Third Reich is on its knees as Allied forces bomb Berlin to break the last resistance. Yet on an airfield near Berlin, the battle is far from over for a young mechanic, Felix, who’s attached to a squadron of fighter pilots. He’s especially attached to fighter ace Baldur Vogt, a man he admires and secretly loves. But there’s no room for love at the end of the world, never mind in Nazi Germany.
When Baldur narrowly cheats death, Felix pulls him from his plane, and the pilot makes his riskiest move yet. He takes a few days’ leave to recover, and he takes Felix with him. Away from the pressures of the airfield, their bond deepens, and Baldur shows Felix the kind of brotherhood he’d only ever dreamed of before.
But there’s no escaping the war, and when they return, Baldur joins the fray again in the skies over Berlin. As the Allies close in on the airfield where Felix waits for his lover, Baldur must face the truth that he is no longer the only one in mortal danger.
When he comes down again, his plane is steaming like a war horse. It is cold up there, despite the heat of battle. We all rush to him. Few others’ hearts are racing like mine, I expect. Mine is rattling like a badly maintained engine. The harsh tack-tack sound is hollow and sad and more dangerous than empty ammunition boxes in the middle of a dogfight.
The others are landing, too, steel eagles rolling over the tarmac; I don’t have time to count them. I’m normally counting the empty spaces. The absences. But I never count them in his Staffel. Nobody else exists to me when he lands. Everything stops existing when he takes off, as if he takes it all with him when he goes up there, to places I’ll never see again. That vast open non-place of emptiness that becomes significant only when his comrades are there, too, and of course the enemy fighters guarding the bombers bound for Berlin.
I freeze outside the small crowd greeting him as he pushes out of the cockpit—now the only animated part of the steel bird—briefly separating from it to drink, eat, rest while I care for the shell he leaves behind. Even from here I can see this was a bad fight. There’s a hole low in the cockpit window, the very end point of a line of them along the nose of the Messerschmitt Bf 109. I don’t expect to find a single bullet in the boxes when we open them up, but there might be a bullet meant for the pilot inside the cockpit.
He all but vanishes in the welcoming crowd, which is our signal. Like my other black-clad brethren, I’m there foremost for the plane, to fix what can be fixed, clean up what needs to be cleaned, to reload and refuel.
We push the plane to the side of the tarmac where we Schwarzen Männer, the “black men,” work, lately in grim silence. We know the bird needs to fly—there are few enough of them as it is, and while we dawdle, Berlin is burning, just as Hamburg has burned. This Jagdgeschwader is hunting bombers, downing them before they reach the city, if our pilots are lucky.
I used to count the absences when they landed.
There is a lot of work. They fight by day. They fight by night. We repair and reload whenever they come back. Once they receive word that bombers are en route, they jump out of their bunks, rookies and Experten alike, and get ready to fight. It’s the rookies who don’t last very long. At the speed at which the pilots are hurled again and again into the sky, many never make it. Their training is rushed, they are thrown into battle with hardly any flight hours at all, they cannot rest enough, and they take risks because they don’t know any better.
The Messerschmitt is not an easy plane. It can be volatile during landing and takeoff. It has pride; it doesn’t yield to just any man. Those who subdue it become old hands in a few flights.
# # #
It’s late at night when I sit near a wing on my toolbox. I can’t sleep. The cloud cover I see beyond the open hangar doors is heavy, no moon visible. This might be a flight night, or it might not be, but I’m not holding out much hope. This bird is ready to go. I fitted a new canopy myself—parts aren’t easy to come by, but there are wrecks I can salvage. Peter Christensen taught me everything I know about this, before they moved him west for a great offensive and he never came back.
I sit, smoking, my head against the cool comfort of the fighter plane’s wheel, its wing shielding but never embracing me. I’m a cold nestling tonight.
I want to read, but the situation won’t allow it. The leaden lump of what we’re doing and the sheer desperation of it stifles every thought of returning to the thick Karl May book I’d been reading. Adventure stories, where evil always loses in the end, defeated by the German hero and his American blood brother. The very idea feels like sacrilege now—there won’t be a red-skinned Indian brave to cover any German’s back. No cattle thieves, no bandits fighting over lost treasure in the endless prairie. This here is serious, and as far away as it can be from a schoolboy’s dreams.
And those other dreams, too. I must be the only one who felt an odd, deeper thrill at the rites of blood brotherhood in those books, of a friendship as deep as destiny that bound those characters together. Companions of my childhood, whispering words that inspired my sweaty dreams when I was old enough to see a deeper meaning. I would devote myself like this to another man. Take the bullet meant for him, and die in his arms, knowing I had fulfilled my destiny.
But I’m no Indian brave.
Steps circle the plane. I straighten up, expecting I-don’t-know-who. An inspection. My former superior, Christensen, who barked at me not to smoke anywhere near the priceless machines, his Berliner accent thick and comical but for his glare and his tendency to grab you by the scruff of your neck if you didn’t jump immediately. I never expected I’d miss him, but I guess I do.
I didn’t expect him, certainly not in uniform, and a recklessly dishevelled one at that. I’m about to jump up when he pushes an empty ammunition box closer to me and simply sits down, waving off any startled movement I could make. I’ve never spoken to him. Will he speak? Wordlessly, I offer him a cigarette, and he plucks it from the packet.
It’s the first time I see his hands, normally wrapped in black leather. His nails are so short that if they were any shorter, they’d bare the quick underneath. They are cut, not bitten.
I rub my hands on my coveralls before I offer him fire; he bends closer to take the flame rather than the lighter. My hands are steady, even though I expect them to lose that at any moment. I’ve never been so relieved to be able to snap the lighter shut, though I could have watched his face illuminated by fire for an hour. There’s a reflection of flame in his features, like in the painting of an old master. Flesh made light. I pull on my own cigarette, watch him cross his uniformed legs, then cross mine, realize what I’m doing and put them firmly back where they were.
“Felix, isn’t it?”
I almost swallow my cigarette, then manage to nod, wishing I had some more words, something as remotely as natural and nonchalant as his.
“The lucky one,” he continues, before inhaling smoke.
I’m tongue-tied. The idea that I will say something stupid is more mortifying than him thinking me a gaping idiot. “Don’t feel so lucky,” I choke out.
He looks at me. Dark blue eyes. But the feature I admire most is his forehead, the eyebrows. They look heroic, for want of a better word. My mother reads physiognomy books and says that the curve of the forehead expresses willpower. If it is shaped like a ram’s, the person it belongs to will push through a wall. The Leutnant’s forehead is that of a conqueror, then. Clear, strong features not out of place in a weekly newsreel.
“Why’s that?” he asks patiently, then his face falls and he looks down and to the side for a moment. “I guess it’s personal.”
Oh God, does he think my family was trapped in a firestorm? I’m on the verge of stuttering, but manage to catch myself. “I wish I could fight, Herr Leutnant.”
He regards me curiously.
“I dreamt of flying. As a boy, I mean.”
One corner of his mouth pulls up. Now he looks more like the fighter ace, the man who makes my hands shake. He must hear that a lot. He’s a legend. Every green boy desires to be him. I don’t. My desires are more complicated. “And?”
“I did not pass the test,” I admit, even though it kills me a little inside. He can laugh at me or mock me. That would make all of this easier. He’d crush me like a cigarette butt under his heel. He can do anything to me.
He is silent for a while, while I try not to stare too eagerly at him for my punishment.
“So you are the lucky one,” he says and leans forward.
I’m struck dumb. I want to hide from his gaze, penetrating and reckless as an eagle’s. Eyebrows shaped like wings, so expressive in a small lift. I wish I were a painter. Or that I owned a camera. Not that I could simply photograph him. He’d ask why. “Herr Leutnant?”
He glances at the Messerschmitt sitting next to us like a third person. “What have you done to her?”
“I did an engine check, replaced the canopy. I . . .” I reach into my pocket and pull out the bullet I found stuck in his seat. It must have missed his shoulder by no more than a thumb’s breadth when he twisted in his seat to look out for enemy planes—the shoulder that now moves in his uniform as he reaches out. I’ve offered the bullet without meaning to. I don’t want to drop it into his hand. So he takes my wrist and I nearly jump again. But I don’t let go of the bullet. He turns my palm in his to have a better look at it. “I was wondering where it went.”
I can’t even think. Leutnant Baldur Vogt is holding my hand. I’m holding something that almost killed him. Well, wounded him. Missed him, in any case. I can’t free my hand to turn it and relinquish the bullet. I want to. But I don’t.
He glances at me, his expression blank but somehow intent. Then his lips pull into a smile, giving me permission to breathe. I need it. “Do you want to keep it?”
My skin is hot and then cold. Why did he have to ask that? What does it mean? How to answer? My fingers are nerveless; I drop the bullet, he catches and lifts it, peers at it like a scientist would peer at a test tube. Just what is he reading in the grooves and marks on the brass surface?
I can breathe, so I breathe. “You were lucky it missed you. It was in the seat.”
The Leutnant looks at me abruptly, drops the bullet, then catches it like somebody would catch a tossed coin. “Really? You call this lucky?”
Yes, it would have killed you. Or can you fly with a bleeding shoulder? Well enough to escape the hunters?
“I don’t understand, Herr Leutnant.”
He scoffs. “Morbid thoughts.” He glances back at the open hangar door, then stands. I don’t want him to leave, even if he makes me feel like an idiot. I want to watch him smoke, I want to tell him what I did to ensure he will be as safe up there as I can make him. That I’m praying to his machine like a heathen idol to keep him alive in the clouds while I tighten every screw religiously. I can never tell him that. I don’t have the words for it, either. He will think me a hero-worshipping child. If I’m lucky, he’ll only laugh at me.
“Good night, Herr Leutnant.”
He glances at me over his shoulder. I have failed another test, but while I know what I did wrong when I failed the pilot test, I can’t for the life of me understand how I failed him.
“Go to bed, Felix. I will need you fresh and awake tomorrow.”
I stand to follow his order. He can’t mean what he said. It’s all the pilots who need me, and not just me, but the whole ground crew of six; mechanics, armourers, refuellers, two of each. With a glance, he has obliterated the others. I feel as if we are the only men alive this night, as if he is all pilots and I’m all black men. He shortens his stride, and we leave the hangar together; he’s not allowing me to trail in his wake. It’s almost like a conversation, walking together to the barracks. Then he separates and heads towards where the rest of his Staffel has to be sleeping, but stops along the way.
I pause and turn. He flicks his fingers, and I catch the bullet that comes to me in a high brass arc. His gaze is ironic, yet intent. I want to salute him, like the officer he is, although I should have done that ten minutes ago, and doing it now would be like locking the door after the burglars have walked away with the piano.
By the time I’ve made up my mind to pay him his due respect, he has nearly reached the barracks. I can’t exactly run after him, so I tighten my fingers around the bullet. It felt like I owned it when I pulled it from his seat, like that one polished stone amidst a million on a beach that catches your attention and feels like it’s meant for you alone.
If you would like to follow Aleks, you can do so at his website, and he can be found on Twitter, Facebook and Google+.