Today, I'm pleased to introduce the author of some of the most thought-provoking but entertaining stories, I've ever read: Dusk Peterson. Dusk's books are all self-published, therefore these titles may not have appeared on reader's radar, but they are definitely worth checking out. Many are free.
Having lived the lifestyle, Dusk was very helpful with criticisms and suggestions for an early draft of my upcoming release "Leather + Lace"
AB: Hi Dusk, please start by giving me details about your next book.
DP: I don't have my 2013 publication schedule set up yet, so I can't say what my next book is likely to be. However, I can briefly summarize three series to which I'll be adding titles this year. All three focus on power-differentiated love.
The Eternal Dungeon is a favorite with my readers, and it won the Best Gay Fantasy category in the Rainbow Awards 2011. It's about a medieval-style dungeon in a Victorian world. The dungeon is run by a code of ethics, though how ethical a dungeon of torture can be is a question that various characters raise. The plotline centers on a relationship between the angst-ridden head torturer and a man who is under his power . . . somewhat.
Life Prison is also set in the Victorian period. It follows the attempts of a group of progressive-minded prisoners and guards to reform their prisons, and it explores what type of relationships can arise in a system that thrives on differences in rank and status.
Waterman is hard to summarize because it has so many different elements: it's an Edwardian boarding-school story, a nautical tale, a story of lords and liegemen, and has an additional setting based on a futuristic version of the 1960s. The central tension in the series arises from the fact that all people in this society are classified at birth as masters or servants. The question naturally arises: What if someone decides they've been misclassified?
AB: What do you look for when you read BDSM?
DP: My interest is primarily in the relationship aspect of D/s and M/s. Though I appreciate a well-crafted sex scene, I'm more interested in the couple's daily interactions outside the bedroom or dungeon. If one hangs out at 24/7 BDSM forums (FetLife, whose home page is decidedly not work-safe, has a lot of them), one quickly finds that these everyday interactions play a big role in many of the participants' lives.
AB: What do you try to convey when you write BDSM?
DP: I'm going to use the 1947 words of Robert A. Heinlein, as quoted in William H. Patterson, Jr.'s Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century. Heinlein said, "My notion of a story is an interesting situation in which a human being has to cope with a problem, does so, and thereby changes his personality, character, or evaluations in some measure because the coping has forced him to revise his thinking. How he copes with it, I can't plot in advance because that depends on his character, and I don't know what his character is until I get acquainted with him."
That's how I approach writing stories. I don't start with the intention of trying to convey something; I merely follow a character in a particular situation and see how he copes with it. Along the way, a theme will arise organically, out of the plotline.
That said, I always try to keep in mind the varying knowledge levels of my readers. There are a lot of misconceptions about BDSM, not only among outsiders, but among BDSM folk themselves. I try not to add to those misconceptions, and I try not to suggest that BDSM is in any way a homogenous practice or belief system. Different people have approached BDSM in different ways, particularly when they lived in different eras from our own.
DP: A similar question has been asked many times: Why is gay fiction appealing to women who have no desire to be gay men? Emily Veinglory said back in 2004: "Fiction, almost by definition, involves experiences outside the writer's immediate experience. If we have no trouble with J K Rowling writing about the experience of a male child, or Don Marquis writing poetry from the perspective of a cockroach, why is a woman writing about a gay man taboo?"
Similarly, Mark McLelland asked in 2001, "Why *shouldn't* Japanese women's comics be full of boys bonking? . . . Why should men's interest in 'lesbianism’ be taken for granted whereas women's interest in male homosexuality somehow be in need of interpretation?"
Instead of asking why readers who don't practice BDSM enjoy reading about it, shouldn't we be asking why non-detectives enjoy reading detective stories? Or why non-explorer Americans enjoy reading about Africa? I believe that the answer in all cases is the one Ms. Veinglory gave: "Fiction, almost by definition, involves experiences outside the writer’s immediate experience." That is part of fiction's appeal: it takes us into other people's minds, and lets us see life through their eyes.
AB: Has "Fifty Shades of Grey" helped the BDSM genre or harmed it? Is kink coming out of the closet?
DP: I can't comment on Fifty Shades of Grey, since I haven't read it. However, I can say that kink came out of the closet long ago. That's why BDSM conventions are often held at hotels.
Of course, some BDSM folks are in the closet; BDSM remains a non-mainstream practice. But mainstream awareness of BDSM has existed for a long time. Story of O was published in 1954, and it was hardly the first arrival of BDSM into the literary mainstream.
Quite honestly, I don't find anything groundbreaking about Fifty Shades of Grey in terms of its erotic subject matter. Back in 1992, leatherman John Preston edited an anthology named Flesh and the Word for New American Library's paperback imprint Plume. The anthology consisted mainly of reprints – including BDSM tales – from hardcore pornography magazines. (The publisher insisted on calling these stories "erotica," much to Preston's amusement.) BDSM has continued to show up regularly in mainstream erotica anthologies; one such anthology sits on the shelf of my local public library.
I think what is actually startling about Fifty Shades of Grey is that it is unapologetically fan fiction. That's new: in the past, publishers have gone to great efforts to disguise the origins of any fan fiction they published. I suppose it's harder for them to do that in the Age of Google.
DP: Not in the least, but I don't think that's likely to change any time soon, for the simple reason that most BDSM folk classify all their interactions, no matter how mundane, as NC-17. I've witnessed intense, emotional discussions between BDSM folk over whether one will corrupt innocent children if one calls one's master "sir" in public.
AB: How do you research for your BDSM books?
DP: I've written three types of BDSM stories: contemporary leather stories set in the modern day, retro leather M/s stories set during and before the 1980s, and historical fantasy stories with BDSM elements that are either plainly stated or believed to be there by my readers.
For my contemporary and retro stories, I hung out in the M/s and gay leather communities for several years. It's really much easier to do this than most writers realize. I think many writers envision BDSM as a shady world of hidden bars and secret clubs. Well, you can find the bars and the clubs through their websites on the Internet, and if even those are too scary to contemplate visiting (I walked around the block three times before I got up the courage to walk into a leather store for the first time), you can attend one of the many BDSM conventions, which are run very much like your average fan convention.
For my retro stories, I also perused a heck of a lot of early leather literature and art, and I visited the Leather Archives & Museum in Chicago. Today, it's even easier to get access to leather literature, because Viola Johnson tours the United States with her Leather Library. The library's slogan is "Never again landfill. Never again flames." That's because so many BDSM materials have been lost over the decades, not only through destruction by censors, but through BDSM folk discarding such materials, not realizing that they were discarding their community's own history.
My historical fantasy tales with BDSM elements require a more delicate approach to research. BDSM certainly existed during the Victorian and Edwardian periods, and I've dug up what little I can find about it, but most of those period sources haven't been published, were destroyed long ago, or simply were never recorded. So I have to reconstruct what gay BDSM might have been like back then.
Most importantly, I have to consider what BDSM would have meant to those characters, living in an earlier era. In modern America, a lot of the taboo nature of BDSM comes from the idea of non-egalitarian sexual relationships. But in Victorian times, virtually every marriage was non-egalitarian, and even in the United States, society was far more class-bound than it is today. The words "yes, sir" would have a very different meaning in a culture where "sir" was used as an everyday mode of address.
DP: Well, what is taboo depends on the community and the publication method. Online BDSM stories have much wider scope for subject matter, because the authors are only restricted by the rules of their webmasters, who generally are working under looser regulations than publishers do. On the other hand, fiction communities can collectively decide that their members are not (or should not be) interested in reading about certain subjects. These days, it's very easy, from a literary point of view, to break taboos, simply by starting one's own website or publishing company. The legal issues are the highest barriers to breaking taboos.
My own pet peeves have less to do with taboos than with the relative lack of certain literary approaches that I like. For example, many writers of fantasy, science fiction, and historical fiction go out of their way, in a delightful manner, to create cultures that are other-worldly, that are different from our own. Then, if they're BDSM writers, they plop modern BDSM players into the middle of these cultures and have their characters play with modern sex toys and safewords. I won't say this is wrong; anachronistic literature has its role to play, as Shakespeare showed. But it seems odd to me that few historical BDSM writers, for example, subject BDSM to the same rigorous historical research to which they subject their characters' costumes, language, and nautical etiquette.
I also wonder why so few m/m romance writers and slash writers have written about gay leather. I can understand the practical reasons why: if they're heterosexual women, it's often easier for them to research pansexual BDSM. But many m/m writers seem not to realize that pansexual BDSM, while sometimes practiced today by gay men, is actually descended from heterosexual BDSM. During the 1950s and 1960s, gay men developed their own, separate tradition of BDSM, independently of heterosexuals. This tradition, called leather, has many practices, terms, and attitudes that are different from what takes place in pansexual BDSM. In fact, there was very little interaction between gay BDSM players and heterosexual BDSM players until the 1990s. So anyone who is interested in the history of gay BDSM is likely to be interested by gay leather.
DP: I haven't heard of Flesh Cartel till you mentioned it, but I had a look at the blurb and warnings posted at the publisher's website, and it doesn't appear to me that the work is being marketed specifically as BDSM (though it has several BDSM-related tags associated with it). The first book is described in its blurb as a "psychosexual thriller," and it appears to be marketed as darkfic. Judging from the full list of theme tags for all its books (abduction/kidnapping, abuse, addiction, angst, etc.), the publisher seems to be especially interested in darkfic.
Darkfic – the term comes from fan fiction – is an overlapping but not identical subgenre to BDSM; it consists of stories with dark settings, and it often addresses the topic of abuse. I both read and write darkfic myself.
I think it's hard to create hard-and-fast literary lines between BDSM and abuse, just as it's hard to create hard-and-fast literary lines between vanilla sex and abuse. We're human beings, and human beings often fail to live up to their potential. Sometimes even the best-intentioned people become abusive. Sometimes ordinary people fall into the hands of vicious abusers. I think it's important to deal with these issues, not in every story about erotic desire, but in some of them.
As for "abuse as recreation literature" (aka the Marquis de Sade School of Literature) it's not to my particular taste, because I prefer realistic literature with an ethical stance. But reading about abuse for fun is no odder a literary taste than wanting to read light-hearted war stories. All of the people I know who have this literary taste are quite capable of understanding the distinction between fiction and reality.
What does bother me is reading stories that mix "abuse as recreation literature" with "abuse as examined through an ethical perspective." That sort of mix-and-match is very hard for my mind to handle. But quite often it's not intentional; it's simply the result of a writer not thinking through the full implications of what they've written. I've had more conversations than I can count with writers in which I asked them, concerning their manuscripts, "Immediately after this chapter on the ethics of the character's decision, you imply thematically that forced seduction is okay. Did you mean to imply that?" And the response I invariably get back is, "Gee, I didn't think about it when I wrote that scene. It just turned me on to write the scene. Let me see whether I can fix the problem. . . ." I think most writers, when their attention is drawn to the matter in a polite way, are willing to scrutinize their stories for possible flaws.
AB: Why do you choose to make BDSM the focus of your stories? What draws you to that as opposed to writing a story in which the characters are just kinky or even if steeped in the lifestyle it's just a part of who they are?
DP: Actually, writing stories in which kinkiness is just a part of who the characters are is exactly what I do. I've never written a story about BDSM that wasn't about other topics as well. In most of my historical fantasy stories that include BDSM elements, the main focus of the story isn't on BDSM, and I don't market those stories as BDSM tales (unless I'm specifically promoting them to BDSM readers). On the other hand, I'm a great believer in what is called "Chekhov's gun": the dramatic theory that, if you're going to place a gun on the wall during a play, it needs to be shot by the end of the play. If I'm putting BDSM or any other subject in my story, it's going to play a role in the story.
I'm afraid I'm one of those writers who can't analyze, except in an after-the-fact manner, why BDSM stories appeal to me. It's a taste I seem to have been born with. I can say that, in my case, it's a small portion of a much larger attraction to tales about power-differentiated relationships, both sexual and nonsexual. Kings and subjects, mentors and protegés, employers and employees, officers and enlisted soldiers, masters and servants . . . I love to read and write about them all, and to explore the gravely important ethics of the characters' interactions. For me, moral philosophy is like potato chips: I can't get enough of it.
If you haven't already, do check out Dusk's stories . They're great and for those who are interested, I reviewed "Rebirth" here.