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From Phyllida's Desk

Before Phyllida, or Not Dropping the Cake

Like many authors these days, I've decided to self-publish my backlist as e-books. Recognition, a $.99 novella, the first installment in what I'm calling the ECLIPSIS series of Lady Amalie's memoirs, is now available for the Kindle and Nook, and will be up in other formats soon.

My backlist is a little different from most: it was never published. For many prolific authors of genre fiction, there's a ready market for their out-of-print titles, an audience of fans eager to read the books they missed. For me, with only two real novels published in the past three years, this project is less about popular demand (I wish!) and more about exploring how I got here.

Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander, my first published novel, is still controversial in many ways. Its theme, the slightly bisexual hero and the woman who loves him, is a difficult concept for some readers. According to Eric M. Selinger, a professor of English at DePaul University who teaches the book in graduate seminars, students often debate whether the hero, Andrew Carrington, is "really" bisexual, "straight for you," or just a sexual top.

But what's really different about Phyllida is its heroine—which is probably why I named the book for her. At the start of the book, Phyllida has no way of knowing that the right man for her is one who loves men, or that the right marriage for her will be an m/m/f ménage. It's the fun of marriage-of-convenience plots that we can write them "backwards," throwing the protagonists together by chance--"Of all the gin joints … in all the world, she walks into mine"--and letting them figure out how inevitable, and how necessary, the pairing is.

The strength of Phyllida is its style, a light, bright, sparkling tone that sells it to some people who might not otherwise read a romance novel, and baffles other readers who prefer a more straightforward narrative. I turned to writing Regency romance as a natural fit for my writing style, after struggling with the more earnest, serious mood of sword-and-sorcery.

Yet I'm going ahead with publishing Lady Amalie's memoirs, because I think her story has something valuable to contribute to this discussion, one that is very far from settled. And don't worry, there's a sprinkling of wit and humor in these stories that appears in anything I write from the heart.

The ECLIPSIS stories begin in a standard way, with a "Terran" woman named Amelia Herzog who is physically and emotionally out of place in the world. Through self-discovery, education in arcane or occult arts, and the transforming experience of falling in love, Amelia becomes "Lady Amalie," wife and equal partner to the slightly bisexual Dominic-Leandro, Margrave Aranyi, one of the highest aristocrats of his world—and a sexual top.

Like Phyllida, Amelia comes to understand that this is precisely the kind of man who is right for her. She does not "accept" or "accommodate" her husband's desire to marry his male partner; she encourages him and, to some extent, participates in his same-sex desires because she shares them. It's not especially kinky (not that there's anything wrong with kink), just a recognition that this is the only possible marriage for her. It is what she wants, what she needs, and what she likes.

I recently watched an Italian movie on Netflix: David's Birthday (Il Compleanno). In this story, Matteo, a fortyish married psychiatrist, is consumed by a passion for David, a college student, the son of friends. At the story's climax (in both senses) while the others are out doing errands to prepare for David's birthday party, Matteo and David make love for the first time. And in an operatic finale, Matteo's wife, Francesca, returns with the birthday cake, climbs the stairs to David's room and opens the door…

Needless to say, she drops the cake.

Now, this would all be somewhat enjoyable if the mood of the film stayed consistently on the opera buffa or soap-opera level. But the movie is framed within the Wagner opera Tristan und Isolde, with its story of forbidden but irresistible desires leading inevitably to death. Once Francesca drops the cake, tragedy must follow.

The scene reminded me, in a peculiar way, of a moment in the second season of the TV series Torchwood, in which omnisexual hero Capt. Jack Harkness and his boyfriend, Ianto Jones, are making out at work and coworker Gwen Cooper sees them by accident. The "OH MY GOD" she lets out was so melodramatic and loud I thought I'd missed something. Was there a Weevil or another of the show's paranormal monsters about to pounce while the men's attention was engaged elsewhere? No, Gwen was simply dropping the cake.

But this was Torchwood, famous for its bi-friendly atmosphere. Unlike Francesca, Gwen knows the two men are involved. And although there was some earlier sexual tension between Gwen and Jack, they're not married or even a couple. In fact, Gwen had recently decided to stay with her regular-guy straight boyfriend.

As late as 2009, men are still writing these story lines, in which women, modern women who are comfortable with gay and bisexual men, who don't see sexual orientation as an issue, are shocked, shocked beyond belief to see two men having sex. Of course, few wives are thrilled to discover their husband having sex with someone else. But the act itself is not all that shocking.

And this leads me to something I never thought I'd say to gay men: Get over yourselves. Yes, you've had to fight hard for your right to exist, to be recognized and acknowledged as equal sharers in the human experience of love and relationships. It must add greatly to the pleasure sometimes to think of the coupling of two male bodies as so momentous, so powerful an event, that it makes women melt away like the Wicked Witch of the West catching a bucket of water in the face, or collapse like Superman confronted with a huge hunk of kryptonite.

But the truth is we're not always going to drop the cake.

Sometimes we'll accept it; sometimes we'll be into it; and whatever our relationship to the men--girlfriend, wife or just coworker--the sight of two men having passionate, sweaty sex is not horrifying in itself. For some of us, it's a turn-on.

We've been inundated lately with the idea that we mustn't fetishize "the other"--whatever it is we're attracted to. But there's a difference between obsessing over something superficial, like blond hair or dark skin, and understanding the kind of relationship that suits us best. With the recent focus on marriage equality, it's inconvenient to be reminded that not everyone can or wants to enter into a monogamous relationship.

With Phyllida, I wrote a heroine who discovers after the fact that what she wants is a ménage, a marriage to a husband who is also, or will be, married to another man. Amelia, by contrast, learns this truth about herself long before she marries. But both women choose their husbands. Although Phyllida must choose early in the story, it is a choice, one made only after determining that she is attracted to Andrew, and he to her. Amelia takes longer to make her decision—but the factors that influence her have little to do with her husband's sexual orientation, or not in a negative way.

Margaret Toscano (University of Utah) at the IASPR conference, talked about "the bondage of desire and the freedom of choice." Romance novels have been criticized for promoting a view of love and sex as surrender. But in many stories, Toscano argues, the heroine makes a free and rational choice of partner and marriage. She knows herself and she comes to know her partner, and she makes a choice, even if it's often the traditional one.

And don't forget: the man chooses, too. When a bisexual man is with a woman, it's by choice. We've become so accustomed to the idea of gay men forced by society's rules into sham marriages to women, we can't reposition our thinking to acknowledge that a bisexual man will, by definition, desire a woman at times, maybe even marry her. By choice.

And so it was for me writing these ECLIPSIS stories, and for Amelia, my first protagonist. Amelia can't make a decision until she's in a position of strength. She can't marry her Lord Aranyi until she becomes his equal—the "Lady Amalie" who will write these memoirs. He doesn't rescue her, nor does he raise her to his level with marriage. It's her own achievement of equality by her own efforts that makes true love and marriage possible. And that's what romance and love accomplish: they make lovers equal. Not necessarily in bodies, but in spirit.

Amelia recognizes in herself the alpha female whose only possible mate is the alpha male. Lord Aranyi is not especially "nice;" he's damaged and dangerous. But he's the right one for her. She's also damaged, and in this new world of swords and sorcery she learns to be dangerous. Amelia and Dominic share an anger that is in some ways the source of their strength and their creativity. Amelia knows her husband is only slightly bisexual as soon as she meets him. It's part of what make him the ideal husband—for her.

When Lady Amalie meets her husband's boyfriend, and when she sees them making love, she won't drop the cake.
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