Alex Beecroft is my guest today – for the second time, so the first can’t have been too scary.
Our subject today is her latest release, His Heart’s Obsession, about the difficulties experienced by young gay men when part of an organisation that punishes the expression of their desires by death, and the inventiveness required to establish a satisfying relationship.
Hi, Alex, thanks so much for agreeing to sit in my Comfy Chair again.
Elin: I understand from entries in your blog that His Heart’s Obsession has had a rather long gestation. Would you care to tell us a bit about that?
Alex: It’s a saga in its own right, certainly. It was originally a longish short story – about 12K words long – and was accepted by one publisher (I won’t give names) to go into an anthology in 2008. Then the editor in charge of that project became ill and all the writers were offered their stories back.
I took it back and sent it out to a different publisher, who also accepted it. Then nothing happened for two years, until eventually the contract ran out. So I took it back again. This time I decided that the story would make more sense if I expanded it to help get across a better picture of who the characters were. And particularly to help explain why Hal doesn’t trust Robert.
After I’d expanded it into a short novella, I sent it to Carina. This time was ‘third time lucky’ and it finally broke its jinx and has been released. I’m so relieved!
Elin: His Heart’s Obsession is the most overtly romantic of your stories – almost totally focussed on the play of emotions, the development of relationships. Do you find there to be a lot of structural differences between a relationship driven story and one with masses of action?
Alex: There is a difference in that if you have a story with masses of action, the action in itself is a strand of plot which has to be developed sensibly and tied up or resolved at the end. The more strands of plot you have, the longer your story has to be to do justice to them all. So a story which is only a love story can be shorter than a story which is love story plus action (plus mystery etc.) In either case, the progression of the love story must make its own internal sense, so the difference is one of number of plots rather than structure of plots.
Elin: Villains – incredibly important in fiction since they challenge the main protagonists and give them something to contend with beyond the tension of a developing relationship. What sort of villains do you prize? A moustache-twirling nightmare or … ?
Alex: To tell the truth, I don’t generally have them at all. (Which makes ‘how to write a novel’ books terribly frustrating. They assume you’ve got a single hero facing off against a single villain, or at least an antagonist. I have two heroes and no villain.)
Very few of the struggles in my life have been against individuals. Most of them have been against society. So in my books, more or less, my heroes struggle to reconcile who they are with a society that cannot accept them for who they are. I don’t generally need a villain on top of that.
However – if I actually answer that question instead of avoiding it – I admit to quite liking a moustache twirling villain. If you’re going to lay the smackdown on someone, I don’t want to be feeling sorry for him. And I will feel sorry for him if he’s even slightly believable. If there’s a hint of a real human being in there, I’ll want him to be redeemed rather than punished. OTOH, if there isn’t a hint of real human being in there, I’ll find him unbelievable. This is probably one of the reasons why I don’t normally have a villain myself. The whole concept is hugely problematical.
Elin: What are you reading? Something to be clutched to the bosom or tossed aside with force? Fiction or non-fiction?
Alex: I’m between books at the moment. I’ve just finished Neal Stephenson’s “Snow Crash”, which was a wonderfully high-concept cyber-punk SF novel with bonus Sumerian linguistic programming. I don’t know what to read next, though I’ve been told his “Cryptonomicon” is also very good.
On the non-fiction side, I’ve just downloaded “In the Shadow of Empires: The historic Vlad Dracula, the events he shaped and the events that shaped him,” in an attempt to bring some historic grounding to my vampire novel. There are very few available books out there on the history of Wallachia. It’s frustrating.
Elin: I sympathise. When I was flirting with writing about Scythia I thought I might have to learn Ukrainian.
I understand that you are on the planning committee for UK Meet and that we only have – ooh about 5 weeks to go. Any interesting developments lately?
Alex: Ooh, well, Silver Publishing have very kindly sent us three [three!] Kindle Touches to give away on the day. One will go into the raffle we’re running to support the Albert Kennedy Trust, and the other two will be prizes in various events. I want one!
Also Clare London has given us a sneak peek of the goody bags we’ll be giving away on the day, and they are seriously cool. We were able to get stylish messenger bags rather than cheap cotton ones because Dreamspinner Press are sponsoring them. I was quite cynical about the idea of goody bags at first, but now I’m all “where’s mine!”
Elin: I know that you are working hard – congratulations on getting an agent, by the way :D – so, have you any WIPs you could tell us about?
Alex: Thank you! Well, I’ve just sent “Pilgrims’ Tale” off to my agent. I don’t know if that counts as being ‘in progress’ but it’s certainly not out yet. I’ve got as far as writing back-cover copy for that one, which goes:
In Dark Ages’ England, warriors were the highest form of human life. They fucked whoever they pleased, women or men, but they were no man’s bitch. If a man allowed himself to be fucked, then he must be some craven little lickspittle coward – a boy, a slave or a whore – not a real man at all.
Reluctant berserker, Wulfstan, a noble and fearsome warrior, has spent most of his life trying to hide the fact that he would love to be cherished and taken care of by someone stronger than himself. Slight and beautiful harper, Leofgar, has the opposite problem – how can he keep the trained killers off him long enough to get them to acknowledge he’s as much of a man as any of them?
When Wulfstan kills his friend to cover up his secret, and Leofgar flees rather than submit to his lord’s lust, they meet on the road to the pilgrims’ shrine at Ely. Pursued by a mother’s curse and Leofgar’s vengeful lord, they must battle guilt, outlaws, and the powers of the underworld with the aid of music, a single sword and a female saint. And if they fall in love on the way, there’s still that murderous shame to overcome too.
I’ve also got a completed first draft of a light-hearted fairy-tale called “Elf Princes’ Quest.” I’ll be editing and polishing that for a couple of months (and hopefully giving it a better name. Titling is not my forte!)
Then I’ve just started to write the first draft of a vampire novel set in 18th Century Wallachia. I quite like the title of that – “The Glass Floor,” but I’m no longer certain that there will turn out to be a glass floor in it. I’m only about a chapter and a half into that one, but I’m enjoying it a lot, and appreciating the fact that I’m learning all sorts of things about Romania in the process of research.
Elin: Finally – could we please have an excerpt of something?
Alex: Well, as we’re talking about His Heart’s Obsession, here’s Chapter One of that :)
Robert Hughes stirred on his cot. They were at anchor and the night was still and quiet, or he would not have been able to hear the low murmuring of Hal’s voice from the next cabin. Tropical heat suffused the wooden womb in which he lay, made him kick off his one sheet and sit up.
He had never claimed to be a good man. Quite the opposite, he was as deep-dyed a rogue as a man could hope to meet in the British Royal Navy. So he did not hesitate to swing himself out of the narrow coffin of his bunk, land light-footed on the warm planks, and gently move aside the sea chest that lay against the canvas partition wall.
“Ah…” It was a little insinuating murmur, hot as the night, Hal’s woodwind deep voice broken from its daylight authority and gasping, breathless and needy. “Please…”
I’m doing this for his own good. Behind the chest, the canvas wall had been ripped, and a hole half the size of Robert’s fist stood out from the shaping battens. He had found it there six months ago and not reported it, because sometimes—like tonight—the wanting grew too much. Then he would draw the chest back and kneel here, with his face to the gap, watching Hal Morgan sleep.
It was a stolen intimacy, but those were the only kind he had, so he cherished them.
Hal had a child’s fear of darkness—he slept with a lantern freshly trimmed above him. Always had, in all the five years they had served together. Indeed, it was his shadow on the white canvas, his silhouette—dark against the pale background that moved as he moved, bending down to unbuckle shoes, drawing its shirt over its head—showing itself, slender and well shaped and unselfconscious, that had moved Robert to encourage the fraying hole.
Even now he would touch the silhouette and feign to be touching Hal’s spirit or his naked skin. He dreamed about it at times—of Hal asleep in the other room, and his shadow reaching out from the wall, coming to enfold Robert and fill with tenderness all the places inside that ached when he watched it.
But it seemed Hal had his own dreams.
Scrunched up in the tight corner of his tiny room, Robert kissed the fabric, then put his eye to the hole.
Dim rushlight seemed bright to him after the darkness of his own sleep. He made out Hal’s sheet, crumpled on the floor where he had kicked it off, allowed himself to look up by careful degrees, rationing the torment and anticipation.
Hal’s hand first—held at an awkward angle where his elbow must be jammed into the raised edges of the cot. Such beautiful hands he had—expressive, mobile, clever hands, tanned and capable. Awake, they punctuated his speech with movement and emotion—exclaiming, illustrating, never still. Here, drawn in sepia by the brown light, his fingers clenched and released as though they held tight to a lover’s flesh.
Quietly, Robert reached up and touched the place on his own shoulder where Hal clung demandingly to his dream-lover. A wave of arousal, oily as despair, curled up from his balls to his throat, drying his mouth. I should stop looking. He would knock me down if he knew.
But his gaze travelled on upwards to where he could see the curve of Hal’s throat, his head tilted back, his neck offered in submission to his lover’s mouth. Only the top of his chest was visible above the side of the bunk, the neckline of his nightshirt askew enough to show flesh as pale as his linen, and sweat like a dew of gold in the lantern light.
He lay on his back, his legs pulled up, one resting against the hull, the other against the board of the cot. His shirt had fallen down to pool in his lap, leaving the braced lines and undefended skin of those long legs bare to Robert’s gaze. Never had a thief more cherished a stolen intimacy than Robert cherished this. He personally slept half-clothed, breeches on, to be prepared for any emergency in the night, but now he stroked a hand up his inner thigh, pretending it was Hal’s bare leg. Fumbled at the buttons of his fly, pressing now uncomfortably hard against his aching yard.
“Nnh! Oh please. Please!”
Hal’s mouth was soft, half parted. His tongue touched his lower lip as if licking off the savour of a kiss, but his eyes were pinched closed, his brow creased as if in pain. His low whisper had grown louder, taken on a growl of frustration. Even—to the sensitive ears of a man obsessed by his moods—an edge of tears.
Not even in his dreams, Robert thought, soothing the ache between his own legs with a practiced hand, does his imaginary lover make him happy. I would. I would if he would let me. I would take that invitingly open mouth and fill it with bliss. I’d worship him from that vainly offered arse to… God, how I’d fill that until he screamed.
“Please. Oh W…”
Bloody hell, he was going to say it! Robert’s fantasy burst like a sail in a storm. Hal was dreaming, he didn’t know his voice had risen, and he was going to say it out loud. Oh, please, William. And God alone knew who else was listening in, idly in the dead of night when there was no other source of entertainment. Boult was as close on the other side as Robert was on this, and Boult would have quite a different reaction to learning of Hal’s fantasies than Robert did.
Buttoning himself back up fast, Robert got stiffly up from his knees, lurched out of his cabin’s sliding door. There was a light under Boult’s door—he was awake. Must be listening by now. Bloody hell. Robert crashed into the wall by Hal’s cabin, loud as he could. Then, to be sure, he made a noisy performance of rolling back the door and fell against the sword-belt hung up inside with a great jangle.
When he looked up, it was to find Hal sitting, shirt pulled down over his knees, dark eyes startled and haunted with something worse than sleep. Awake, thank God, and unincriminated. Now all that remained was for Robert to get himself out of here without casting suspicion upon himself, and at that he was infinitely practiced, having been something of a prankster since before he was breeched. That time at university, for example, when he had put down turf in young Smalting’s room and filled it with sheep. That had been most amusing.
So as Hal exclaimed, “Hughes? What on earth?” Robert feigned drunkenness, grabbed for the doorjamb as if to hold himself up, and slurred, “What’re you doing in my cabin?”
The brief glimpse of Hal’s misery, flayed and tender, was whisked away, to be replaced with a more familiar irritation. He had, Robert thought, the kind of face on which anger looked as enthralling as a smile.
“You woke me up, you sot! Your cabin is next door. Idiot!”
It was something just to have that fierce regard concentrated entirely on him. Robert clung on harder and smiled. Hal’s hair had been mussed by the pillow, crushed gold. He never got a chance to see it in the daytime because of the wigs. He could stand here and look forever, and as he now had a perfectly good excuse, that was what he did.
Hal shook his head and gave a small, long-suffering smile. “You’re drunk as David’s sow, aren’t you? Did you hear any of that? Next door. Your cabin is next door.” He reached for the housecoat that lay across the foot of the bed. “Do you need me to take you?”
Oh yes. Come back to my bed with me. Let me show you what I’m really thinking. I’ll banish that phantom from you. I’ll burn it away.
But no. If the others hadn’t been listening before, they certainly were now, and this was not the place, or time. It never was. “Sorry. No. I can… Don’t need any help. Perfectly capable of bedding to my walk on my own.”
The thought weighed him down as he returned to his own humid, empty bed, spoiled his satisfaction in a rescue so neatly pulled off. It never was the time to tell Hal how he felt. When would it ever be?
His Heart’s Obsession is available from Carina Press, here.
Alex’s website is here
Elin’s list of Comfy Chair interviewees is here