INTERVIEW: Annabeth Leong

Three things give Annabeth Leong a feeling of perfect peace: punching a bag, having an orgasm, and taking communion. Writing is a more tumultuous experience, but she loves it anyway. Annabeth has written romance and erotica of many flavors — dark, kinky, vanilla, straight, lesbian, bi, and menage. She particularly enjoys playing off myth, legend, fairy tales, and fantastic history. She believes passionately in freedom of speech, rights for people of all sexual orientations, and freedom of religion. She lives in Providence, Rhode Island, blogs, and tweets @AnnabethLeong.

In this interview, we talk about shame, sex, fairy tales, and what it’s like writing erotica for charity.

PT: Without revealing the superhero’s true identity, of course, who is Annabeth Leong?

AL: Annabeth Leong is an alter ego who became an aspiration. I invented the pseudonym out of practicality at first, because I’d written a story I felt I couldn’t publish under my real name. But I’ve found it increasingly important as time goes on that the story I wrote was the result of asking myself, “What would I write if I weren’t worried about publishing? What comes naturally and feels true to me?” The result was a science fiction story that felt way too sexy to shop to the standard places (“Robot Lovers Prey on the Lonely”).

I wrote more and more as Annabeth. I haven’t published under my real name in a long time. I fell in love with the freedom I saw in my writing when I used that pen name. Aside from sex and its accompanying taboos, as Annabeth I’ve written about substance abuse (“Running Away and Running Home Again”), domestic violence (“Violets”), and murder (“A Prayer Before Bed”). Under my real name, I tended to write admirable characters who did the right thing and had the right answers. As Annabeth, I started to write real characters, who did whatever seemed right at the time and had obvious flaws. These days, Annabeth is someone I try to live up to, someone who represents truth as I see it and is never afraid to speak, no matter how uncomfortable the subject.

PT: Has your relationship with Annabeth changed over time?

AL: It’s become a lot more normal. For a long time it was a naughty secret, something I sort of wanted to boast about but also hoped no one would discover. Now what I do as Annabeth is an essential part of me. For a while, I said I was “becoming Annabeth,” but I don’t think that’s quite right. Annabeth was always me. I’ve just accepted that more now.

PT: Your work is amazingly diverse, but I’ve noticed that you’ve returned several times to mythology and fairy tales. What about the old stories draws you?

From a practical standpoint, fairy tales and myths are easy to work with, because when I use them I already have a plot and a set of resonant archetypes. I can twist them or transplant them or explore them, but I’m building on a very solid foundation.

I also love them, and feel comfortable with that territory. Some writers gravitate toward certain periods of history. Myth is my history. I read the Iliad over once every couple years. I’m always reading fairy tales and retellings of fairy tales. It’s familiar ground, and where my imagination lives.

PT: It’s a common assumption that we enjoy fairy tales when we’re young and then rediscover them when we’re older. Did that happen to you? If so, was there a story that brought you back? Was there a narrative that always stuck with you?

AL: I don’t think I ever left fairy tales, though I’ve had different relationships to them. I went from being a kid who read World’s Best Fairy Tales over and over to being a teenager who read Neil Gaiman and other work soaked in mythopoetic sensibility to being a college student who studied classics to being an adult using myth and fairy tales as the basis of my stories (and still reading them, of course).

I think the main thing that’s changed is that they actually seem more true and accurate the older I get. When I was younger, I was confused by how immature and whimsical people and magical beings were in these stories. I’m blurring fairy tales and myth a bit here, but I also couldn’t understand how the Greek gods could ever have been deemed worthy of worship. This went along with the feeling in my 20s that I was figuring things out in life and progressing in a systematic way. As I entered my 30s, I started to see how puzzling and primal the world still is, and how I am not going to figure it out. Fairy tales and myths are written to explain this sense of threat, the fear of what is just on the other side of the known, and to lay out some attempt at intuitive rules that can help navigate this disturbing territory. I relate to that more now.

This also has a lovely connection to sex, which seems by nature to take people to the edge of the woods, so to speak, and sometimes into them.

As far as narratives that stuck with me, I like the animal lover narratives — my favorite is “East of the Sun and West of the Moon.” I’ve drawn up plans to write that one, but have never felt like I got to the key of what it needed from me. There always needs to be a piece that I can fill in.

I’ve always been a huge admirer of Robin McKinley’s retellings of Beauty and the Beast — and I love that she did two very different takes on it. I think it’s actually a good example of how fairy tales read differently with age. The one she wrote when she was younger, Beauty, clearly served as inspiration for Disney’s movie interpretation. The later work, which I like better, is called Rose Daughter, and it’s darker and braver and allows the beast to remain a beast.

AL: You’ve worked with Coming Together twice (if I’m reading your Amazon page right). Tell me about the decision to donate the proceeds of your work to charity.

I’ve actually just signed another contract with Coming Together. This is for Coming Together: Arm in Arm in Arm, an anthology of tentacle erotica that will benefit Oceana, an organization that works to protect the world’s oceans. My story is called “Freedom for a Small Part,” and it’s about a woman trying to help the tentacle creature trapped in the plumbing in her college dorm.

That digression aside, I wasn’t thinking much about charity when I started working with Coming Together. I wrote a post for them recently called, “The Accidental Altruist.” They’d put out a call for submissions, and I had a story (“The Hunt,” which appeared in Coming Together: As ONE). I really just wanted to get published. My attitude changed over time. The people who run Coming Together are incredible writers and editors — it’s really an honor to work with them, and that’s motivated me to keep sending them stories. But they’re also passionately committed to making a difference, and it’s rubbed off on me over time.

Royalties from The Six Swans go to Kiva, which offers microloans to entrepreneurs around the world, and, as part of Coming Together’s lending team, I help decide where the money goes. When I made an account and got on Kiva for the first time, I felt incredibly moved. I’m pursuing my dreams by writing, and it felt awesome to extend that to other people. I also get a huge kick out of thinking about where that money comes from. I don’t actually know if all these charities know we’re donating money raised by selling naughty books, but I’d love to see the looks on their faces when this dawns on them.

Of course, I also like making money and supporting myself, so continuing to work with Coming Together has become a more meaningful decision now, since a story for them is a story I don’t write for pay. That change has actually made the charity writing matter more for me than it did when I had another job and wrote as Annabeth as a hobby.

PT: I’ve noticed that authors tend to have one thing that they really want the world to get the way Einstein spent most of his life trying to explain relativity. Do you have something like that?

AL: I know I have themes, but I often discover them by writing. I think if I sat down to write about a Big Theme, I’d give myself a bad case of writers block. I think of this in terms of what’s true to my voice, and the things that I know about and am able to say. It’s important, though, to make sure this happens in the right order. If a writer goes looking for Voice, I think, again, you get writer’s block. And I think more in terms of what I’m able to say than what I want to say or think I should say or need to say.

Things certainly show up, though. I wrestle with shame at all levels in all my work. Some of it is personal — you may not see it when you read the story, but I had to have a wrestle with shame to be able to write the story. Other times, it’s explicit but light. I have a couple of paranormal stories coming out in which the world of the supernatural allows the main character to be wild in a way she’s always wanted to be, but felt embarrassed about. In another recent story (“A Cure for Excess”), the main character needs to find lovers who accept the full extent of her libido. In other work, I’ve gone darker places with shame. The “Snake and the Lyre” is the story I think of as really “about shame.” In that story, Eurydice’s sensual needs make her unfit for the world of daylight.

Questions of shame and how to get over shame are really big to me, but I think another reason I shy from the phrasing suggesting there’s something I “want the world to get” is that I don’t know what I think about shame. I don’t think I have answers. I’m exploring it intensely, and I think people should think about it and how it affects them, but that’s about as far as I am able to go.

PT: Have you learned anything about shame in your exploration?

AL: The best antidote for shame is acceptance, especially of the “I’ve done that, too, variety.” On the other hand, it grows in the dark and is highly contagious.

It serves a vital function, and part of dealing with it is discerning the difference between shame you want to keep feeling (I do want to feel shame for lying to my partner, for example), and shame that’s serving no purpose for you (I don’t want to feel shame for having kinky thoughts). This is a lot harder than it sounds.

Shame is aphrodisiac — I recently saw the phrase “the thrills of shame” and quite liked it. However, I feel that erotic pleasure derived from shame often brings on quite a hangover after the orgasm has passed. I don’t like it.

I have read stories depicting shameless people, and have even met people who appeared to be shameless, but I’m not sure I believe in that. In our society, people unfortunately work out the details of sex alone or in small groups. It’s hard not to trip over some shame in the course of that, and so shame and sexuality are frequently deeply entangled. Someone who seems shameless and liberated in many ways can unexpectedly lock up when exposed to the wrong phrase or activity.

I have been quite crippled by shame at various points in my life. Erotica — both reading and writing — have done a lot to free me of it. I’m fanatically grateful for that.

Shame clings and easily recurs, especially when provoked.

There are tons of forces in society encouraging feelings of shame in ways that I personally do not think are helpful. See, for example, the recent supposedly shocking Steve McQueen film (actually by the name of Shame) which perpetuated that idea that if someone’s having sex, then someone’s going to get hurt (in this case, the main character’s sister, because it’s usually a woman who gets hurt). For a movie exploring shame, I thought it was surprisingly shallow about it. One of the scenes that’s supposed to be most shameful is the one where the main character gets a blow job from a man, and I thought it was really sad that this is still an image for the lowest sexual depth to which a character can fall.

PT: In a (relatively) recent blog post you said: “Erotica pulls off the covers and gives access to the whole person — parts of the psyche that are all too frequently ignored in other literature.” Obviously, sexuality is one of those things, but it seems to me that erotica tends to explore other things that other genres are a bit (excuse the pun) gun-shy about.

AL: I definitely agree with you. I don’t want to start belittling sex, because I think it’s easy to do that when one is trying to speak seriously and artistically about writing. That said, once a writer has permission to write about a subject as personal and messy and exhilarating as sex, I think it loosens inhibitions generally. This is how I found myself addressing issues in my erotica that I had specifically resolved not to address in fiction. It’s hard to censor yourself in one way when you’re letting loose in another.

That said, genre conventions can introduce some difficulties. I am lucky to have some publishers who give me a lot of freedom as far as content and endings. The erotic romance genre on the other hand, which I have written, has some formula requirements. You need that happy ending (HEA for happily ever after), or at minimum happy for now (HFN). Other publishers emphasize that they want to see works focused on pleasure, things that make the reader feel good. I really see how this makes sense depending on publishing goals. If you want the reader to buy the book for a pleasant afternoon in bed, you don’t want to start disturbing them. I think there’s also a real audience for what I think of as literary erotica, which is aimed at people who want the no-holds-barred exploration of the human psyche that we’ve been discussing. I read both, write both, and respect both, but I think confusing them with each other can often lead to misconceptions about the genre.

PT: Where would be a good place to start for those who might be interested in exploring literary erotica?

AL: If you want to go very classic, my favorite literary erotic work is Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron. It’s earthy and humorous, and has some stories that I still find quite hot. (My favorite is the tenth tale of the third day, in which the monk Rustico teaches innocent Alibech, ahem, “how to put the devil into hell”). Anais Nin’s Little Birds and Delta of Venus are also classics I was glad to discover, though I’ll note that Anais would have had trouble publishing many of her stories with today’s publishers — they are full of bestiality, violence, death, and other subjects that will get you automatically rejected from a lot of the places putting out erotica today. I think everyone ought to read Nancy Friday’s My Secret Garden, an exploration of and compendium of women’s sexual fantasies. Shere Hite’s The Hite Report may be more scientific than literary, but it’s eye-opening and was formative for me. If you want to read a work so explicit and disturbing it will stop your heart and make you feel like Mary Poppins, try Georges Bataiile’s The Story of the Eye, which has forever reassured me that I’m really not such a pervert after all. (I’m leaving out a lot of people who get mentioned a lot, such as De Sade and Henry Miller, mostly because I don’t have enough familiarity with them to make a recommendation).

Anyone interested in literary erotica ought to know about Cleis Press and Circlet Press (for full disclosure, I work with both). Cleis puts out high-quality collections of erotica in categories ranging from light erotic romance, to queer-friendly, to kinky. Circlet puts out speculative fiction erotica of high literary quality.

A few personal favorites: anything by Remittance Girl, Debra Hyde’s Blind Seduction and Story of L (which just won the Lambda Literary Award for lesbian erotica), and Thirteen’s Fancy Man series (a philosophical, creative take on gay BDSM). My tastes turn queer and kinky, so be warned.

And, of course, anyone interested in literary erotica should immediately go read everything I’ve ever written. 🙂

PT: What does a typical day look like—if there is such a thing?

AL: I am actually quite regimented. I do make adjustments to my workday if I’m trying to solve a problem, so it evolves as time passes, but I’ll describe the current form. I am pretty nerdy about this kind of organization, so I have defined a bunch of specific problems and solutions.

I used to have a staff job and found that my work day easily stretched to 12 hours or more. It was unsustainable, and I felt a constant sense of defeat. Also, I noticed that I wrote a lot slower than I know I can write, because I was so tired, and I had long unproductive periods. So now I write seven hours a day, and try to stick to no more and no less. I feel a little bad admitting it considering how many exhortations there are to Work Hard. I feel like that amount of work doesn’t sound impressive or serious enough. What I have found is that this amount is sustainable for me, and I am able to spend seven hours actually working. It turns out to be a lot more work than I did at the staff job, too, because actual work is quite different from time spent at the computer. I think one of the biggest diseases in society today is the pressure many people feel to spend tons of time at their desks and pretend all that time is actually productive.

So I follow a strict schedule: two hours and a ten minute break, two hours and then a lunch break, an hour and a half and a ten minute break, an hour and a half and quitting time.

I break that time into sessions, and set a timer for each one. While the timer is ticking, I don’t do anything besides work on whatever I’m supposed to be working on. I found I would avoid starting the timer if I wasn’t excited about doing something, so now I have a deal. I can choose to set the timer for either 15 minutes or 25 minutes. I try to give each choice equal moral weight. This works really well for me, because the part of me that doesn’t want to work can think of 15 minutes as half as much work as a full session, but from another perspective we’re really just talking about 10 minutes less work.

For my morning four hours, I run through a standard list of eight actions. Some of these are about progressing on current projects, and some are about keeping up with the business side of writing (which can become surprisingly time-consuming). There is always something I’m more or less excited about doing on any given day, so to avoid only doing the stuff I consistently like and putting off the rest, I use a random-number generator to tell me which item on the list needs to come next.

The afternoon session is devoted to either handling revisions if I have them or writing new material. This has been one of my most recent innovations — essentially I’m leaving half my day unplanned, though I still use the timer system for it. I found that writing work is extremely unpredictable. Sometimes, you have to make work, like research or brainstorm for a new project. Other times, you have edits coming in from three places at once. Previous systems would fall down because I didn’t know how to handle these big, sudden demands. By leaving a big swath of daily time unreserved, I have room to handle edits systematically when they come. And I really like writing new material, so it feels like a treat when I have afternoons free for that.

I treat this as a workday and do my other tasks around it — having lunch, cleaning the house, spending time with my partner. I had trouble for a while with letting people interrupt me all the time because my work schedule could be “flexible.” Personally, I don’t really like flexibility, so things have started to work a lot better once I began to refuse to be flexible. I do still sometimes take my laptop to the library or take a notebook to the park for a change of venue, which is a really nice benefit. I don’t want to lose out on the benefits of flexibility. I think the key was to think about how flexibility could benefit me instead of people who want me to help them with things in the middle of the day.

I realize this doesn’t sound very sexy. Scheduling rarely is, unless a person has a specialized sort of fetish. For me, the regimented schedule allows me to really focus on thinking and writing about sex, which can indeed be hot. Sometimes, the hotness makes the breaks very necessary. And no matter how regimented my workday, there’s something to be said for the dinner conversations I can have with my partner. “Do you think the vibration from a bass amp could actually make a woman come?” is a lot more stimulating than, say, talking about how I had to do my TPS reports (hat tip to Office Space). But most of the sexiness in my lifestyle takes place during my free time, as is the case for most people. I read a lot of erotica in my spare time, read nonfiction books about sex, watch porn, and have sex. I do sometimes think about work while I’m doing these things, but I’m not convinced that’s good. I sometimes worry how my partner feels when I turn to him after sex and say, “I had the best idea for a story just now.” On the one hand, I’m sure it’s flattering for him to have inspired me that way. On the other hand, it does mean I was thinking about work while we were having sex.

PT: Has your experience as a staff writer influenced you as a fiction writer?

AL: The biggest thing it gave me was a sense for how to finish work and let it out into the world. I spent years under pressure to produce a certain amount of work with very tight deadlines on a regular basis. Sometimes, something just has to be finished whether you feel ready or not, and I think that’s a good lesson to learn. When I was on staff, I treated fiction as much more of a hobby. I would do draft after draft, because I had heard a lot about how virtuous it is to do that. Unfortunately, draft after draft translated to rarely sending things out. I would play with the same piece of writing for far too long, and I didn’t have a good sense of when I ought to move on. At some point, I realized I had to treat fiction more like my nonfiction work — not like an exalted thing I would roll around forever. I’ve worked on defining a reasonable amount of rewriting and sticking to that. There is an important balance to strike between sending out first drafts and using revision as procrastination. My staff experience helped give me a sense of what this reality would look like. I could then apply that to my fiction.

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