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Allison Moon is the author of Lunatic Fringe (Lunatic Ink), the sexy, fast-paced, first book in her lesbian werewolf trilogy. Self-publishing pioneer and 2011 Lambda Literary Fellow, Moon has published with Not For Tourists, Nerve.com, McSweeney’s, and Psychopedia.com. She teaches an arsenal of workshops ranging in topic from “Self-Publishing 101” to “Pegging 101.” I met with Moon in her Oakland home to talk about her book, sex writing, and the state of self-publishing today.
I confess I’m not so well versed in werewolf literature—I came to Lunatic Fringe from being involved in the queer literary community. Did you anticipate that people would come to this book through a werewolf angle as opposed to a queer angle?
I did not anticipate that. I was approaching my marketing ideas from the lesbian feminist community completely, because that’s me. That’s my community. But there was this whole other powerful demographic that was apparently going to be interested in it. And the people approaching it through the fantasy world definitely have their own set of standards that a book has to live up to. So I don’t know how well I’m pleasing them.
But the people who are sticking around and the people who are giving me feedback are really great. They’re the ones who are saying, “this was solid transformation scene.” The transformation scene is kind of like the money shot in werewolf books. If you don’t nail a good transformation scene, people won’t be happy. People are really into the monster aspect of this. This is a genre that people are really into: shape shifting, werewolves, and monsters in general. In the second book I’m definitely more aware of those people when I’m writing some of the more action-y scenes.
Is the reaction to the first book changing your process?
A little bit. The first book was really for me, and I tried as hard as I could not to think about the audience – I was worried that would stymie me because I’d never written a full-length book. So I needed to be as true to me as I could, otherwise I would probably paralyze myself with doubt. Right?
So the first book was all me and now that I feel like I’ve gotten that out of my system in some ways, I want to write a book that’s going to be really entertaining, really fun, really fast-paced, really high energy, really sexy, and do all the things I enjoy doing, but playing a slightly bigger game. I feel like now, this process is [about] figuring out whether I can sustain this, and whether I can do this more.
Over the course of a trilogy, you mean? Or as a career?
As a career.
I imagine that each book will have a life of its own in certain ways. One of the things I noticed that I wasn’t anticipating about Lunatic Fringe was that some places were packed with lots of teachable moments. It was instructive in a lot of ways
And in some of those moments it sort of felt like it could have been a YA novel, a coming of age story that was just a little more instructive than a run-of-the-mill werewolf story. And then these teachable moments contrasted with a bunch of smoking hot sex scenes…
I found myself thinking, “Oh, this can kind of go in the YA genre” and then I got to those [sex] scenes, I was like, “Hmmm, I don’t know, are there some rules about that…?”
Somebody actually described my books as “YA plus fisting.”
(Laughs) I think that’s pretty accurate
Yeah, and I think the second book will probably be YA plus BDSM club.
(Laughs) …You know you’re appealing to lots of different kinds of audiences
I hope so. I definitely didn’t write with YA [in mind]. I know that YA is a huge market and had I been more market-minded I would have tried to tone down some of the sex and ramp up some of the more coming of age moments but, for me, as a teenager, I never really read specifically YA stuff. I liked reading whatever I was interested in. And a lot of those books tended to have adult themes, and I really appreciated being able to read those kinds of books. Whereas I think a lot of the YA readers nowadays are adults. Which is fine for them but that was never appealing to me as a teenager [and] it’s not really appealing to me as an adult. I’m more interested in speaking to the universal experience. And there’s plenty to be found in YA of the universal experience, I just don’t think you need to pigeonhole it to, well, you can’t cross that line around sex, or you can’t cross that line around violence, or whatever.
I honestly I can’t imagine this book without these sex scenes, or to have the sex scenes toned down in any way. For me, as someone who reads a lot of sex writing, I find that in books that aren’t specifically erotica or porn, the sex scenes are the least strong writing out of any of the writing in the book. But I found that in your book, the sex scenes were actually some of the most powerful writing.
I think that’s incredibly hard to do. Was it a different experience writing sex than other scenes?
I love writing sex. And I love talking sex. A lot of writers feel stymied or scared of writing sex because it’s like, “Oh I can totally reveal myself through all these horrible violent things I’m writing, but when I reveal myself through sex it’s like too personal” or something. Maybe it’s because I am confident around it, but sex is this place full of senses. Just like with the werewolf thing: when the characters are werewolves or when the characters are having sex, you get to involve yourself in this really beautiful world of sensation. And it’s not just about what you’re seeing or what you’re saying, it’s what you’re smelling, it’s what you’re touching, it’s how the person’s touch is effecting you, it’s what’s going on in your brain while all this amazing stuff’s happening outside. That to me is the most interesting aspect of sex. […] These are really rich places. And to describe it as like, “tab A, slot B,” totally degrades the experience of how important sex is to people’s lives, and that sex, as part of characterization, is essential. It was really important for me to have quality lesbian sex at the forefront [and] not just this thing that happens offstage.
When I saw you read a few weeks ago, […] you read a sex scene. How do you choose what you’re going to read? What do you most enjoy reading in public?
You know, the scene that I read there, I’ve actually read a lot. That’s the scene that I read the most because stuff happens. This is something that I kind of hated when writers read just what they think is their prettiest writing, or their best stuff, even if it’s not actually engaging. That drives me crazy. Because for me, it’s like, I’m listening to you for 5 minutes, I don’t know you, I want to hear a story
As opposed to something that they think is technically good?
Exactly. This is what I really love about engaging with more writers now [that I’ve written a book]. The Lambda [Emerging Voices Retreat] was huge for me to meet other writers and to see their processes. Some of the best writers that I’ve met haven’t been full of filigree and these amazing experiences – they can really just tell a story and they can tell it really economically and beautifully. […] So when I do a reading I want people to feel like there’s something that goes on. […] I also like reading the mushroom trip scene.
(Laughs) What were you writing before this book?
I think this is the first time I wrote anything that felt like I was writing the right project. It felt like it was just a good fit. It’s almost like when you’re dating people, and you’re like, oh they’re nice or whatever, but when you go out to dinner with that person where you’re like, “oh, damn, this is what it could have been like for the past three years when I was dating all these weirdos?” So that for me was the feeling of when I started writing this book. I just dove in and I was so confident about this being my book. I’m excited that I’m writing more books, but I’m exited to grow from this one, too. It’s just so fun to have this be the first thing I wrote because it is the thing that I feel like I could write best. I mean I started writing a play and I just couldn’t get into it because it was too challenging personally for me, like emotionally.
The subject matter, yeah. And now that I’ve written this book I actually feel more confident to go back to that play that I really want to write. And so I’m excited now because writing Lunatic Fringe broke open a lot of things for me.
It’s different thinking in terms of a project versus thinking in terms of a single short story or poem. And you’ve taken on something not just so huge as a novel, but so huge as a trilogy. That’s really ambitious.
(Laughs) I know. I think my naïveté definitely did me some favors in this because I’m the kind of person that can easily talk myself out of anything, but the fact that I just went into it headstrong and did it, and now I have more momentum and now I’m excited about writing the second one…I’m already a hundred pages into the second [book]! This is awesome! If I can sustain this through three books I will love myself forever!
It’s rare to come across something that you find inexhaustibly interesting. Are you going to self-publish all of them?
I think so. There’s one publisher who was really interested after I published the first one. They were like, “why didn’t you pitch this to us?” And I was like, “I didn’t have an agent, and I didn’t particularly want to.” So it’s really fun because that means I’m actually excited about the idea of self-publishing this trilogy. With self-publishing, you’re never really done. I haven’t really had time to write in a lot of ways because I’ve been marketing the first book. Having all that stuff that you have to do yourself as a self-publisher means it’s less hours every day you get to write the next book. So that’s one of the biggest differences between self-publishing and traditional publishing for authors to consider. If you want to self-publish, that’s great, but you’re going to be spending 6 months writing press releases, not the sequel.
Would you consider going a more mainstream route, getting an agent, and going through a bigger publisher?
For other books, yeah. Probably not for this series. For me this series is so personal that I’m really happy to just do it myself. There’s a certain amount of street-cred that comes along with self-publishing – nowadays more than ever. Like the fact that I’m doing this on my own and that this is a decidedly feminist book, that connection isn’t lost on me. I think that self-publishing can be a feminist act and I want to continue that. It’s obviously made it more difficult for me in a lot of ways, but at the same time, I’ve definitely made more money this way, I’ve definitely been able to meet more people this way because I’ve been actively pursuing bookstores and I’ve been actively pursuing speaking gigs, which means that I’m the one speaking on my own behalf and meeting people as opposed to having a publicist do it for me.
I read your self-publishing manifesto, and I’m wondering if you foresee self-publishing becoming a more “legitimate” way to put work out into the world?
Because there’s still a big stigma around it – that a writer would only self-publish if they couldn’t get a “real” publisher.
Oh yeah, there’s a huge stigma around it. I think what’s going to change it most is when people who have already had the professional track record of traditionally publishing start realizing that self-publishing can be a really useful thing for their backlists or for their experimental work. And it’s happening already. There are plenty of traditionally published authors who are starting to self-publish now just to be able to make a little more money and survive. I think it’s changing every day, but at the same time there are still readers that that kind of disengage with self-published work.
Because they don’t take it seriously
Yeah, I think that just like anything, the filters can be useful. Filters can help us in a lot of ways decide what to read and what to experience. But I think what’s happening with the revolution around self-publishing is exactly what happened with the indie revolution around film. People are starting to realize it’s not just Hollywood Blockbusters that are available to us. And it’s not just Twilight that’s available to us, either. Of course our filters are going to have to get better, right? We’re going to have to wade through more stuff. But I think anything that encourages individuals to get their voices out into the world is just a good thing, period. Hollywood doesn’t take risks because Hollywood’s too big to take risks. I think traditional publishing is often too big to take a lot of risks, too. So if you have your four-hundred-page prose poem that is just decidedly brilliant, it’s probably going to be really hard for you to publish that through Harper Collins. But if you can find the right audience, there’s no reason why that shouldn’t see the light of day. And that’s where I get kind of on my soapbox because there’s so much work out there that’s been buried or abandoned because so-and-so in some office on Broadway says it’s not good enough. And I think that’s bogus.
Poetry has had more of a DIY history where its publication is concerned because not as many people read poetry as people who read novels.
Yeah, the way the poetry world is now: it’s chapbooks, it’s zines, it’s hand-delivery, it’s personal contact. When you delve into the poetry world, it’s pretty extraordinary, this community of writers that share each others’ work and do it really at a grassroots level. I think that is amazing, and I think a lot of fiction writers can learn from that.
What we’re dealing with right now in the publishing world necessitates having to reach outside of what we’ve been doing and what we know.
Right. And that’s queer writing. That’s feminist writing. That’s any sort of “fringe writing.” There is a precedent for all of these things to have been self-published: nobody would publish them because they weren’t mainstream enough. They weren’t mass-appeal enough. […] Traditional publishing is more comfortable with gay stories than it used to be, more comfortable with women writers than it used to be. But the statistics come out all the time and we’re still not represented nearly as much as we should be based on how many people are creating great work. I could have changed the genders of my characters and made it a straight love story, or I could have shelved the book and never done anything with it, or I could self-publish and get the story out there
Interesting you say that because at the very end of the book there was this moment Lexie (the protagonist) and Archer (her girlfriend) shared where they talked about Archer maybe transforming into a man so they could live together – and there was this moment where I was like, oh, this is not just about them…
So when you talk about, “oh I could have changed the ending… I could have made them a straight couple” or made this a straight love story, [the book] really resists, at every turn, a traditional outcome. And your publishing process, it seems, as well as the story itself, is constantly negotiating those same channels in order to figure out specifically what’s right for an individual…
For the characters and also for you – I saw a lot of that happening even within the story.
Cool. Thanks for saying so! I’m glad you picked up on that. There’s such beauty around the idea of choosing one’s own destiny. I think that’s one of the best stories one can read.
I love the idea of it being a non-traditional story not just in that it’s a lesbian love story, but that the character chooses to do something for herself even if it looks from the outside like the weirdest choice there is to make. I wanted to speak to the independent spirit of a lot of the people who came before me that made it possible for the feminist press to exist or for Cleis Press to exist or for Seal Press to exist. These things exist because of people basically agreeing that even though they wouldn’t sell enough books to support rent on Broadway and health care for 800 employees, they do have enough verve and enough of an audience to support themselves, and that’s what I think self-publishing is really about. It’s this idea of the direct communication with the reader is a more transparent relationship – where there’s no such thing as this author at a distance and you can’t even email them through their webpage. It’s like “oh, talk to my agent…” and I’m like, “oh, that’s bullshit.”
So, you gave a little sneak peek when we started about what’s in store for Lexie in the next book, but care to divulge anything else…?
Sure…Well Lexie’s continuing on her path of exploration but she’s also kind of grappling with her wolf and not knowing how to really engage with it in a positive way. She’s trying to ignore the fact that Archer is gone, she’s trying to ignore the fact that there’s this wolf that wants to get out, and she meets a lovely lady who starts to usher her into figuring out how to tame her shadow side. Lexie is very depressed, but at the same time, Rene is in charge of the Pack, which is no longer being held down by a lot of Blythe’s more unsavory political ideals. So they are definitely having a lot more fun than they did in the first book. They’re watching porn, they’re stripping, they’re doing all sorts of things that Blythe found utterly distasteful. Which is really fun to write. And we actually meet another boy who comes in and is finding himself attracted to the Pack for his own reasons…
I’m excited! I have one last question.
Will you sign my book?
Oh, of course honey.