Award-winning author ZoÃ« Archer has been helping to redefine the romance genre with her widely acclaimed historical paranormal Blades of the Rose series, featuring ass-kicking female protagonists, and storylines that defy the stereotype of the romance novel. Please join me in welcoming ZoÃ« Archer to Persephone!
Persephone Magazine: There’s a definite stereotype of romance novel heroines as damsels in distress. Your female protagonists are independent, strong, and not reliant on the male characters to save them from peril. What made you decide to approach your main characters this way, and do you feel that your heroines are more the norm or the exception for the romance genre nowadays?
ZoÃ« Archer: Thinking about romance as wish fulfillment, I definitely don’t want to be a damsel in distress. I want to kick ass and, when necessary, rescue myself, so I make sure that all of my heroines are intelligent, capable people who don’t go stumbling into danger like morons. Romance itself is a huge genre, not a monolithic construct at all, and within it there are heroines who run the gamut from the TSTL (Too Stupid To Live) to the ass-kicking variety. You can probably guess where I like to fall in that continuum. However, I will add that with the popularity of paranormal romance, we’re seeing a lot more strong heroines than we’ve had in the past.
PM: The Blades of the Rose series is often recommended to readers who are wary about the romance genre. Why do you think it’s such a good starting point for new romance readers?
ZA: Probably for the reason you outlined above: intelligent, strong heroines who are more likely to do some trouser-ripping than bodice-ripping. For readers who are unfamiliar with romance, they’re likely put off by outdated conceptualizations of what they think constitutes romance: rapist heroes, idiot heroines, hyperbolic, florid prose, etc. I came of age reading a lot of the romances from the ’70s and ’80s, and into the ’90s, and have made a conscious effort to address issues I found in those novels by depicting their complete opposite. Granted, most romance novels have changed dramatically since those earlier decades, but for readers who are unfamiliar with romance and are wary of those outdated topoi, my books can ease their fears. They aren’t your grandma’s romance novels, you know? Plus, the Blades of the Rose series is all about adventure. I often pitch it as Indiana Jones with hot sex. Who doesn’t want to read that?
PM: You integrate more modern concepts like interracial relationships and gender equality into your historical fiction novels. How do you make these somewhat anachronistic factors work well in your stories without compromising historical accuracy?
ZA: I’m a former academic who did a lot of my work in pre-19th century literature. The past has always fascinated me, and I love incorporating research into my writing. But, let’s face it, equality of the sexes is something we’re still working on. Likewise interracial relationships (particularly in the U.S.). So integrating these concepts into historical romance is definitely a challenge. By adding the paranormal element to my romances, I create a world apart from “reality,” where women can have as much agency and power as men. Yeah, it’s playing with historical truth, but all of fiction is a construct. I integrate as much accurate information as I can, and then come up with loopholes for my heroines to exist apart from the dominant paradigm. In almost all of my books, the heroines are outsiders, so they don’t subscribe to the current ethos regarding a woman’s role. Plus, a woman who knows how to fire a rifle is hot!
As for interracial relationships, they’ve existed for a very long time, so their inclusion is less of an artistic stretch. But I don’t shy away from the fact that people in interracial relationships are faced with ongoing prejudice. Love doesn’t end racism, but racism can be fought through the power of love.
PM: You’ve recently branched out from historical paranormal novels to sci-fi. Do you take a different approach in your writing depending on the subgenre? Do you find that you prefer world building from scratch rather than integrating real-life geographical and historical aspects?
ZA: Honestly, I enjoy both aspects of world-building, though with sci-fi, I’m definitely a proponent of the K.I.S.S. (keep it simple, stupid) model. My influences in sci-fi come not from books but film and television, where the world building generally supports the characters and adventure (thinking of Star Wars, Star Trek, countless cheesy ’80s sci-fi films). My language changes a little when I write sci-fi. It’s a bit more spare, more colloquial, and I get to make up metaphors and similes, which is fun. It might seem a weird thing for a historical romance author to write sci-fi, but in a way, they’re both set in different worlds and time periods. And the constants are the strong heroines, and the heroes who find that strength to be sexy as hell.
PM: What’s your process like for writing the steamier scenes? Do you find that writing sex scenes is different depending on whether you’re writing from the perspective of a female character or a male one? And how do you avoid the more common romance novel sex scene cliches and keep a fresh approach?
ZA: First of all, I need to make the sex scenes hot. That seems obvious, but if the writer doesn’t find her sex scenes arousing, then she’s not really invested in them, and they’ll read as flat and boring. Sex scenes really do advance the story and character development, so when I’m plotting or writing them, I have to ask myself how I want the hero and heroine’s relationship to evolve, and how their sex will affect that evolution. For example, in SCOUNDREL, much of the heroine’s journey has to do with taking charge of her identity, including her sexuality. After exploring her sensuality with the hero through much of the book, they have a sex scene where she takes charge, directing the action and literally being on top. The scene is hot, but it’s also an important development for both her character, for empowering herself, and the hero, for knowing the heroine’s emotional needs enough to cede control.
I do like writing sex scenes from both the heroine and the hero’s perspectives, because what woman hasn’t fantasized about what goes on in a man’s head during sex. These books are fantasy, so there’s probably a lot more emotional content that there might be in real life, so it isn’t just about the pursuit of pleasure, but the alchemy of desire and the growth of affection and esteem. When I read romance, I want to know why the hero and heroine are right for each other, beyond just lust. They need to like each other, respect each other, and that comes (heh) into play in the sex scenes, too. I’m not saying the sex scenes in my books are like encounter groups where you wear leotards and talk about your feeeeelings, but I try to make them meaningful and hot.
So it’s the emotional and narrative context that really makes each sex scene unique. Plus, I generally avoid having my hero and heroine have sex in a bed. Makes it a little more interesting.
PM: What are you currently working on? What can your readers look forward to from you?
ZA: My new series, THE HELLRAISERS, launches December 6 with DEVIL’S KISS. The log line is this: A group of 18th century English rakes inadvertently free the Devil from his prison and literally raise hell. It’s dark and sexy and the heroes are, as we say in the romance biz, bad boys. But don’t worry–the heroines do some serious ass-kicking. They aren’t whey-faced angels trying to wheedle the heroes toward redemption. Also, in January I will have a new sci-fi romance, which will be available exclusively as an e-book. I’m all about diversification.
Read ZoÃ«’s work with the Blades of the Rose series: WARRIOR, SCOUNDREL, REBEL, and STRANGER (Kindle readers can get the entire series as a bundle), and her sci-fi novel, Collision Course. Zoe has graciously offered to answer any further questions readers might have for her in the questions, so ask away!