Harper Fox is an author of all things emotional and stories that draw the reader through the pages. She is best known for her novels Scrap Metal and Life After Joe. No matter what she will write next, her readers will anxiously await the novel.
What got you interested in writing m/m fiction?
Like a lot of m/m authors, I came into the genre via fanfic. I used to hesitate to admit that, then questioned myself as to why I was regarding it as an “admission”, as if fanfic were a lesser artform or something to be ashamed of. Like all fields of creative endeavour, fanfic is only ever going to be as good or as bad as the authors writing it, and I’ve seen everything from the ridiculous to the absolutely sublime. It’s also a superb school for writers, offering a pre-made universe and a scaffold from which new authors can hang their own tales – and, importantly, test-drive their work with a large and mostly kindly readership. My fanfic name is Angelfish and I think I’m pretty much “out” in that regard. Or if not, I certainly am now! :–D For me the magic moment came when I realised that I could do what I’d always loved so much – writing passionate gay romances, love stories between men – and do it without the scaffold. And, eventually, not only get paid but begin to make a reasonable living from it! That’s got to be a dream come true for anyone – to take a childhood love and realise it as a career option. Like becoming a professional Lego-castle builder or something…
How did you begin your career and how did you grow your fan base to be so humongous?
I think most people know how much I owe to Josh Lanyon. (I keep telling him the cheque’s in the post, but he just won’t go away… ;-D) He’d been good enough to read some of my fanfic, and I’d sighed at him longingly one day about how I’d love to be able to do this for a living. He said, “How serious are you?”, and I said, “Deadly.” So he told me to go write three original m/m novels to submit to three different publishers – the scattergun approach. I was very impatient because I wanted to launch my brilliant self onto the unsuspecting m/m world right away and it seemed like a hell of a lot of hard work before I made my grand attempt. But Josh gave me lots of guidance on how long I should take over each book, what timescale I should stick to, and after about a year I had my three books. If even one of them had been accepted, I’d have been incandescent with joy – so you can imagine the state I was in when Driftwood was picked up by Samhain, Life After Joe by Carina Press and A Midwinter Prince by Loose Id.
With regard to that fan base, I’m probably a message of hope to writers who hate self-promo. The sad fact is that I’ve never done an awful lot to try and grow it. Having the three books go out with different publishers was a huge help because it cast a wide net to a lot of readers, and I was just so delighted when I had an email or a Facebook message from any of them saying they liked my work. I made sure I responded to each one individually, right away. And I think that kind of interaction worked for me in place of an awful lot of the more hardnosed marketing I should have been doing and at which I’m really no good at all – just widening, overlapping circles of personal acquaintance. I know for big-name authors responding to emails individually isn’t an option, but that’s a problem I doubt I’m ever likely to have, and at the moment I’m in the enjoyable midway stage of receiving lots of nice mail but not so much that I can’t deal with it in person. I think that’s actually really good practice for an author, as long as she can manage it. Given how much interaction goes on between readers in online groups, a nice individual response to an email is actually worth any amount of marketing to me. I hope this won’t come across as cynical because I genuinely, genuinely love talking on a one-to-one basis to my readers, but the fact is that people are far more likely to recommend your work and spread the word if they’ve had a response than if they’ve reached out and met with a resounding silence. So I grow my fan base organically – and pretty slowly, I have to say. It’s certainly not a rocketship to fame but it’s a way that works for me and keeps my valued readership happy, so I’ll be sticking with it, I reckon!
You write under a pseudonym. Why?
Well, my real name’s far from glamorous. There was an element of wanting to sound like a sexy romance author when I chose my pseudonym. I chose a gender-neutral first name mainly because I wanted to be judged as a writer rather than male writer or a female writer. It gave me a bit of cover as well for how much of my identity I wanted to expose while I was finding my feet. Now, I have to say right now that I never for one second wanted or intended readers to think I was a man, and I don’t think anyone did. If they had, it was only until my first photos and bios started to appear, but given the white-hot social media spotlight authors can come under, I think it really has to be a writer’s option to retain control of the aspects of themselves they choose to share with the world. I’ve been exceptionally lucky – I work for myself, my family are brilliant and tolerant, and I’ve had no reason to hide – not to mention that, having risked exposure, I’ve been rewarded only with friendliness, welcome and acceptance. That has not been the case for every author in my genre and I completely understand when career or family reasons have obliged them to stay undercover. Basically, the name gave me the option and the control. Also, in pure commonsense terms, if you’re writing in any genre with “erotic” or “erotica” in the title, using a pseudonym is probably vital. We live a in a judgemental world. We write in a genre that provokes strong reactions. We maybe get the odd person who mixes us up with what we write and wants a piece of us or our family that we’re not willing to give, and putting our legal name to our work just makes us too vulnerable, too easy to trace. I have to say, that kind of reaction is incredibly rare! But a pseudonym is a sensible safeguard, unless you really are prepared to throw your whole life out there. The safety and privacy of the people closest to you is a very serious consideration, too.
What was it like to decide to auction off your original manuscript for Once Upon a Haunted Moor?
It was scary and exhilarating. I was torn between thinking, “This is a great piece of author memorabilia” and “Harper, why on earth would anybody want to possess a bunch of your old notes?” But I had a good look through, and I saw the whole book was actually there in handwritten form, and I remembered all the work that had been involved, all the places I’d written in and all the emotions I’d been through whilst carving out that first draft. I still don’t think I could’ve done it for my own personal gain. Having people buy your books is one thing – there’s an infinite amount of them, they’re very reasonably priced, and that’s a kind of “equal access”, if you know what I mean – everybody has the same chance at getting one, much the same as everybody has the same chance of buying a fancy coffee from Starbucks. (And I’m very aware that affording a book or a Starbucks coffee is far from easy for a huge, huge number of hardworking people, which is why I try to hold prices down.) But there was only one manuscript. So I actually felt very bad at kind of saying to potential bidders for the manuscript, “Are you willing to pay me more than these other people for this?” And I suspect that some people who really can’t afford to bid are doing so because they love my work, which also makes me feel bad, and I want to give all of them a manuscript.
However, doing it for charity’s quite another thing. I can step back and say, “All this pain and guilt means bucks for the Cornish Ancient Sites!” So I’m really hoping for a great winning bid on Haunted Moor. I feel so privileged to be in a position to do this. It’s quite addictive and I can see myself auctioning off other memorabilia items in future. Um, storyboards and signed MSS sheets, that kind of thing. Not hair and fingernails. ;-D
Who is the LAST person you’d want to discover you write m/m fiction and how do you think they’d respond?
Oh, goodness, I’m happy to say that everybody in my life now knows exactly what I do. Once again, I’ve been incredibly lucky here. All my friends, my sister, her partner and my niece have been amazingly supportive from the very beginning, and my online friends know how I valued the lovely aunt and uncle I lost last year. I think I could’ve made a career out of robbing banks and they’d still have been rooting for me. That’s irreplaceable. Sadly, though, the one person I really didn’t want to tell I wrote m/m was my mum, who also died recently. She was the best of women and an ardent Catholic. She was also old and frail by the time I got published, and the main problem was that, more than anything else, she’d wanted me to succeed in my writing. To be able to say to her friends, “My daughter’s had a book published” – wow, that would have been a massive highlight for her. It should have been, and eventually, after a great deal of heart-searching, I did try to explain to her that it had happened, and I wrote books about men who love one another. The measure of her distress was that, despite her usual desire to spread the news far and wide about my every smallest achievement – she was a very proud mum – she never, ever told a single person about what I’d done. One day we sat down together and she said, quite literally pleading, “Can’t you write about something else? Can’t you?” She cried; I cried. It was pretty horrible. But there she was with her set of beliefs and there I was with mine. I tried my best to make her happy in other ways, and I never had any doubt that she loved me – just not that part of me. Some things can’t be fixed. I think I must have a pretty passionate belief in what I do to carry me past that, and I’m still very sorry for having grieved her.
Does living in a rural part of northern England help your writing process?
Ah, location, location, location! Where I’m living affects my writing process down to the very core. In fact we’ve been living in Cornwall for the last year and a half, but before that, beautiful bleak Northumberland was my home, and as of next week it will be again – we’re moving back. Cornwall has been marvellous but we’re missing friends and family too much. I never feel as if I’ve lived properly in a place until I’ve written a story set there. In fact, to refine that, I’m not quite certain that I as a person have existed in relation to a place until I’ve written a story set there. Maybe that’s true for other writers as well, that they go through a process of realising their own existence through their work. At all events, a day when I miss out on wordcount is a “nothing” day for me, a kind of grey fugue. (I’m hoping that some of my readers will send me oranges and chocolates when I’m safely locked up my padded cell one day.) Whether or not the location is rural – that’s not so important, I don’t think, although I do adore living out in the wilds. I wrote A Midwinter Prince when we were living four hundred miles away from London in the Northumbrian countryside – but, bizarrely, once I’d finished that novel, I felt as if I’d truly experienced and absorbed the city for the first time, despite having lived there for seven years. So, in essence, I need place and a sense of location to ground and fuel my work, yes. But it looks as though it doesn’t have to be the place I’m currently in. I’ve yet to experiment with setting a book in a place I’ve never visited. That would be an interesting experiment!
Why do you think so many women love to read m/m?
You know, I was so surprised when the vast, vast majority of feedback I was getting about my work came from women. I didn’t realise, when I started, how many female readers and authors there were in the genre, although my experiences with fanfic should have given me a hint! I do have gay male and trans* readers and it gives me so much pleasure to hear from them, as I often do, that my work has had a positive impact on their lives, or simply that they’ve enjoyed it. And obviously it’s great to hear from gay men that I’m getting stuff right! Now, people ask me a lot why women enjoy my books, and I always really have to scratch my head because I should imagine that every woman who does read them would probably give a different answer. The solitary theory I have is this: in a straight romance, women tend to identify, for good or ill, with the female protagonist. They share her joys and griefs on a physical level, and that can be tiring. If both halves of the love interest are male, a female reader is kind of out of the equation on that level, and perhaps she can enjoy the book as – to put it in one way – a non-combatant! I’ve read an awful lot of bad stuff about why women enjoy m/m and it saddens me. My own experience is so far from negative in this regard – it seems to me that so many women have a vast, benevolent, protective, loving interest in gay men, and, being full of that interest and love, it naturally follows that they’d like to read stories about them. Hmm, that feels like a very inadequate answer, but it’s all I’ve got!
How did you find out that you have a skill for making bread? Do you plan to express this creativity to other food mediums?
This is quite interesting because I can’t cook. I mean, really. I can burn water and once caused a kitchen fire whilst preparing a salad. However, I was an adopted child, and I found out as an adult that my biological grandfather had been a Jewish refugee who’d come to the UK and set up a bakery business. From that moment on my fingers itched for soft, springy dough! So how much was the power of suggestion and how much was a genuine hereditary skill, I don’t know, but as soon as I tried, I found out that I could just do it, barely glancing at a recipe and getting great results straight away. I love to bake and really would like to try and make more time for it. I think I’ll stick to bread, though – extending the creativity any further than that is only a recipe for disaster. 😀
What are you currently working on?
I’m drafting the outline for my next full-length novel, which I’ll be submitting to Samhain. Everything’s in a very fluid “ideas” state at the moment so I won’t go into detail (I like to leave the soup to bubble away for a while before calling folks to the table), but I’ll be setting it on the hills and moors of Northumberland. Partly I’m doing that for the reasons I mentioned before – my need to unite myself to my location! My Tyack & Frayne series is going down very well and I’ve had a lot of requests for Book 5, so depending upon how things go with the Samhain project, I’ll try to find time for the next volume of Gideon and Lee’s story.
Tell me about your writing process from idea to finished draft? Do you rewrite to death? Do you outline? How long does it typically take you to write a novel?
To answer the last (and easiest) part first, it takes me about two months for a novella and four for a full-length novel. That’s as long as I can take at the moment, in hard economical terms, to produce a book. It’s pretty mechanical. I set myself a word count of 1,000 words per day and I stick to it through all kinds of turbulence, migraines, house moves, whatever. I don’t mean that I’m some amazing person who slogs it out under fire here. That duty, that word count, has actually been my anchor and my comfort during tough times and it does me far more ultimate good to sit down and work than it does to think, “I can’t possibly write in these circumstances.” Given that mindset, at the end of every few months, I kind of have to have a finished book.
Now I am going to come off as arrogant. I don’t rewrite. If I haven’t got it pretty much right first time, something’s gone horribly wrong and I may as well scrap it, and that has happened to me recently, and it gave my confidence a real knock. Generally speaking, I give good first draft. I spend about a fortnight doing intensive mental and on-paper planning. My favourite outlining method is a huge sheet of paper where I can scribble down plot details, character dynamics, bits of dialogue, just everything as it occurs to me, without worrying at all about timeline or logic. The logic and the chronology comes afterwards, in an ever intensifying swirl of arrows connecting all these floating scraps and ideas. Then, out of that, I can build a “proper” outline, a linear piece of text a publisher would recognise as a synopsis. So my process is – wandering around in a daze for about a week just allowing my brain to work out what it wants to work on next, then the storyboard, then the outline, then 1,000 words per day until I’ve got a finished product. I have to say, this is not going to work for everyone, because by the time you’ve dreamed it, then planned it, then outlined it, chances are you’ll have bored yourself so much of the whole idea that you might not be able to face writing the damn book. 😀 I’m fortunate in that I still take immense joy in the actual nuts-and-bolts of the writing process despite all that foreplay. It works for me, and things can go badly wrong if I don’t follow the process through, so as a professional author this method is something I stick by pretty closely.
What was it like to create the breakdown of Matt’s life in Life After Joe? Was it a difficult process to do?
In terms of inspiration, it was easy. In terms of digging it out of myself and onto the page, it was one of the toughest things I’ve ever done. I’ve had a lot of very positive feedback about poor Matt’s crash-and-burn, although I’m aware it bends some of the romance-genre rules by making a protagonist behave really, really badly and in a way that many people might find repulsive. (I’m very grateful to Carina for having the imagination to take a chance on this one – they didn’t ask me to rein Matt in or censor him at all.) So I guess I depicted his breakdown well, and the inspiration is simple – I’m in a long-term relationship with the woman of my dreams, the absolute love of my life. That might sound odd but I’m certain that most authors and anybody with a good imagination would agree that, if you have a wonderful thing, it’s all too easy to imagine losing it. I knew someone at university who used to cry brokenheartedly every night because she loved her girlfriend so much that it had opened up a whole new emotional universe to her, and the very fact of that happening had created in her the terror of how it would be to lose this new world. So, yes, all you’ve got to do is flip your life’s magnetic poles in your head and look into the abyss. And that’s where things get difficult, because oh my God, does the abyss ever look back into you! Externalising all that grief and loss into readable prose – tough, tough work, but maybe that’s what writers are here for, to channel it out into readable form and create the connections, tap into our own feelings and send the back-and-forth lightning bolt into the hearts and minds of our readers. I can’t remember who said this or exactly how they put it, but basically it boiled down to “making a living out of our life’s worst moments”. Um, yes. That.
What advice do you have for those thinking about writing gay romance and what advice do you have for those who are trying to build an audience from scratch?
I would say first of all, don’t come to me for advice. At least, do, and I’ll give it freely and I’ll be honoured to do so, but you have to remember that this has been the route that’s worked for me. That it’s taken five years to go from scratch to a living, and when I say a living I mean a bare living, no extras. To pay the bills and be able to cast off gradually from the day job. But, really, how amazing is that? I have done it; I am paying the bills, just by doing the thing I love best. Miracle! I still can’t quite believe it myself. So, bearing in mind that your way is probably just as good as mine, I’m delighted to share my experience – please take the following “rules” with a big pinch of salt.
Rule 1 – write a good book. There’s just no other way into this. By “good”, I mean a book that people will want to read – that’s all. I haven’t read 50 Shades, but by God a gadillion other people wanted to, so on that basis alone it’s a good book. Write a book that’s good on its own terms. If it’s a glocky horror with dripping slime, make it the best one ever. If it’s a BDSM book that chucks women’s rights back through three decades, I don’t agree with your motives but you go on and make it a stunner. If you have it in you to write a book that Tolstoy would have envied, honour your gift and write that. In fact, sod how many people want to read it – whatever book you’ve got in you, find it and write the very best version of it you can. That’s what makes you a writer – nothing more and nothing less than that. But we’re looking at selling books in the gay-romance genre, so let’s hold on to our ideals as far as we can, but let’s also get down and dirty and commercial and pay some bills! Get over to some of the big m/m publishing sites and see what’s selling well. Buy a few books and read ’em. You don’t have to rewrite those books (that would be plagiarism ;-D) but you can absorb the dynamics of whatever’s making them successful and incorporate those into your own work. What I’m saying is, you have to have product. Good, marketable product. All the dreams and the love in the world won’t replace that. Just sit down and write a good book. I make that sound easy. It’s actually the toughest and the best thing in the world.
Rule 2 – don’t self-publish. At least, do – it’s great, fast, gives you total control over your product – but do your damnedest to find a traditional route out there first. M/m is now a very crowded field. That’s no bad thing – the more authors write it, the more readers find it and go to other authors to buy their books. I think we all can benefit from what’s been called a “glut”. The great authors, the good books (see Rule 1) will shine through. But I am absolutely certain that, had I set out and self-published my first three books, I’d still be writing around the edges of my nine-to-five. I just wouldn’t have had the market reach to build up a big enough reader base to make a living. That’s painful for a lot of self-pubbing authors to hear, which is why I remind you that this is about my experience only. Literary lightning can strike. You might sail out there tomorrow with your self-pubbed book and outsell FSoG, and I promise you, if that book’s good in any of the ways I talked about above, I’ll be jealous as hell but cheering you on! Bottom line, though, stripped of guts and glory, getting a book or two out through a traditional publisher is the best possible way to make your name – and, with that platform and background, then you can self-pub and have it be worthwhile. Here’s a thing, an honest confession of facts – I live off my Samhain royalty cheques. Samhain can keep a book going for me for over a year and still bring good money in. My self-pubbed stuff sells well, hits the Amazon top 20, peaks and passes within a couple of months. That’s improving as time goes by, but it’s a slow process. I couldn’t live solely off my self-pubbed work, and that’s five years down the line with a good backlist and rep.
Rule 3 – find a good publisher. I can only recommend the three I’ve worked with – Samhain, Carina and Loose Id. That doesn’t mean there aren’t dozens of great ones out there, it just means I can’t offer you my personal assurance of their quality. They’re the three Josh recommended to me. So if you do have a trusted mate in the business, ask and listen. In today’s shifting market where publishers can spring up like mushrooms overnight, longevity can be a factor. If a publishing house has been around for a few years, with happy authors repeat-publishing through them, that’s probably as gold-star a quality assurance as you’re going to get. Do your research. I hate to say it, but Google the name of a prospective publisher followed by “scam”. Don’t hand your baby to the dodgy-looking nanny in the “I Hate Mary Poppins” T-shirt. If anything looks too good to be true, it is. “We guarantee to publish your work” is too good to be true. Never, ever, ever hand over one single penny in advance to anyone. A quality publisher won’t ask for it. A vanity press will, and that’s not where we’re going with our good book! We’re taking it to market. You’re the talent. You’ve got the product. The cash flows from the publisher to you, and never the other way round. And, controversially, in my opinion, you don’t need an agent. Unlike the mainstream and paper-press industries, ebook romance publishers are actively looking for new work, seeking it out, ready to catch any gem as it comes in. If you’ve really got that good book, you should be able to find a gateway. I don’t say this to break hearts but to help you sell stuff, because making a living from your writing is the best thing in the world and I want you to do it. To doooo eeet. Okay? And it’s easy for me to say because I’m doooo-ing eeet already, but I published my first book in my mid-40s after more than two decades of trying to crack into mainstream. So I know about the pain and the blood of it all. If I’ve sounded glib about anything, forgive me!
Rule 4 – ignore all the rules, including mine, if you find a better way. And come back and tell us all about it. Good authors nurture other authors. If they’ve received help – and I received it by the bucketload – they try to pay it forward. I’ve tried to do a little bit of that here, and I’ve really enjoyed answering Jamie’s questions. So a big thank you for hosting me, and it’s been lovely to talk to you today!