Since You Asked ...

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Picture by Leafturner Photography

(Parts of this interview appeared in Jade Magazine)

Is that your real name?

"Janine Ashbless" is a nom-de-plume. I actually write horror and ghost stories under my other name, and it is generally considered a bad idea to cross genres with your identity because it upsets readers who expect one thing and get another. I already get flak for writing both romance-driven erotica and 'pure' erotica under the same name! I chose "Janine" because it was the name of my Cool Best Friend at school. I chose "Ashbless" because of fantasy author Tim Powers - he cites a (completely made up) poet called William Ashbless in many of his novels, and I figured that the unreal Janine could well be a descendant of the unreal William.

Is it a problem writing both romance and erotica under the same name, then?

It can be - I've had readers enthusiastically devouring my romancier stuff, who then try Named and Shamed or Red Grow the Roses for example and they just hate it because it's all about the sex rather than the emotion (and the sex can be pretty wild and kinky!). Probably I should have separated into two different nom-de-plumes at the beginning ... but it's too late now. I blame an editor back in the day who told me that "romance these days is just erotica with a happy-ever-after." HE COULD NOT HAVE BEEN MORE WRONG. Romance (even blazing hot romance with BDSM and threesomes) has its own distinct rules and expectations which I've never enjoyed conforming to. Oh well, never mind. I write across genres anyway, much of the time - my longer fiction (romance, erotica, or somewhere between) is also full of adventure and speculative fantasy about the nature of the world. And the more romantic and emotion-driven my plot, the darker it's going to be too. Suffering and sacrifice play a much larger role in my romances than in my erotica. My poor in-love characters have a miserable time getting to their HEA, whereas my erotic characters (even when whipped, humiliated and imprisoned) are just loving every second.

Do you write with women readers in mind?

No: emphatically not. I write what I enjoy, not for any demographic. Many of my keenest readers are male. In fact, because I write conflict-riddled fantasy in which there are fights and the occasional death, and because I often write from the perspective of a male character, my authorial ‘voice’ can often sound more masculine than feminine. I have no problem with this at all, and get very shirty with people who think I should be writing chick-lit.

I am very aware how lucky I am to live in a Western society where my social role isn’t prescribed by my gender. I absolutely reject the notion that what I write, or the style in which I write it, or what I’m allowed to enjoy (sexually or otherwise), should be defined by my being female.

Describe yourself in five words…

Geek. Feminist. Liberal. Non-believer. Middle-class.

Describe your fiction in five words…

Erotic. Heartfelt. Dark. Idealistic. Middle-brow.

Some of your subject-matter is, uh, a bit extreme, isn’t it?

Jung said "If I didn't have a dark side, I wouldn't be whole."

It constantly surprises me the way people who are looking for erotic fiction can be prudish about tropes that in other genres would be considered very middle-of-the road. Certainly, I tend to stake my territory somewhere toward the ‘dark fiction’ or ‘horror’ end of the spectrum. But I do wonder, why is a fantasy about sex with a dragon any more perverse than one about, say, sex with a Klingon? Neither is a human being, but both are intelligent, sentient, self-willed creatures perfectly capable of sensuality and empathy.

And by the standards of the horror genre even Montague’s Last Ride is extremely mild!

I think the problem may be a category-error with the word "fantasy." Our language suffers from a paucity of words to describe different categories. Take, for example, the word "love": "I love pop-tarts": "I love my country": "I love Jesus": "I love my dog": "I love Johnny Depp": "I love my girlfriend": "I love my wife of twenty years": "I love the cute way you snort when you laugh": "I love my children". The word love is used to denote a number of completely distinct emotional states, but we assume people will know what we mean from the context - from looking at the object of the emotion.

Now, how about ... "I fantasise about being gang-banged by werewolves" : "I fantasise about shagging my neighbour"?

Are both of these really in the same emotional/mental categories? I think there's a very good chance they are not.

I think there are (at least!) two categories of sexual fantasy. There's one which might be called fictional - werewolves don't exist, it's never going to happen, and if it did it would be BLOODY HORRIBLE. But thinking about it gets me off. That's all.

And then there's a second category of sexual fantasy which might be closer to "wishing" - I really would rather like the neighbour to pop in for a cup of sugar one day, say.

To mix up the two is to commit a category error. They are not the same thing. However, it can be terribly difficult, especially for an outsider who has no access to the inside of my mind, to say which is which. Nobody but the fantasiser can say for sure how to categorise a statement like "I fantasise about shagging my wife's sister."

I believe that anything can fall inside the "fictional fantasy" category. ANYTHING. Even things that are illegal, immoral, or make you fat. It's okay to fiction-fantasise, without guilt. This category does not have access to real life. It's a sealed unit. Graphic novel creator Alan Moore (who is a goddamn genius and I will not brook any denials) said in his book Lost Girls: "Pornographies are the enchanted parklands where the most secret and vulnerable of all our many selves can safely play." That's about the size of it. Sexual fantasy is Sacred Space, a holy-day from reality: something cut off from real life and not subject to its ethical laws, wherein we can act out all the facets of our personalities, our dreams and nightmares, in a contained envelope. Then we put on our shoes, straighten our ties, and go back out into the real world. We don't take the fantasy world back with us.

Things that fall into the second category, the "wish-fantasy" - those are the ones you have to be careful about. Those are the ones that can affect our behaviour and wreck lives.There's no excuse for doing immoral, cruel or dickish things in real life, to real people.

As long as you don't blur the two states, I see no harm. You've got to be a grown-up of course - and I don't just mean in terms of years. You've got to have a properly developed sense of self and reality. You have to patrol the borders.

Alan Moore again: "Fiction and fact: only madmen and magistrates cannot discriminate between them."

I think a lot of the confusion and breast-beating (ahem) about such things as women having rape fantasies, is down to a failure to recognise that these are fiction-fantasies, not wish-fantasies.

And hell ... if you don't like it, don't read it. There are types of erotica I personally don't like and don't touch with a bargepole. They don't turn me on, they just make me go "yuck." I will not bring in the Thought Police to ban those, though.

Are any of your characters based on real people?

This one was asked a lot by my friends when I first started writing. I’m not sure whether they have an over-inflated idea of their own attractiveness, or are just nervous…

The answer is no, I try very hard to avoid that: to take someone’s private persona and write a public story about it would be unethical, and I’m not just referring to erotic fiction here. If I’m looking for a model for a character’s physical appearance I’ll usually take a mental trawl through fictional characters in films.

I did once make an absolutely colossal error - I wrote an entire book and was at the line-edit stage before I suddenly realised that the sexy hero was very obviously a (romanticised, larger-than-life) version of a close friend. Luckily he didn't mind ... and his wife didn't notice!

I do borrow people’s names, though: I like euphonic names … Arzu, Mahendra, Yashwant …

Why do you write Erotica?

Because it’s fun! Fun to write and fun to read. And it can make your readers very very happy. It’s a generous genre that gives something back.

How do you go about writing?

My ideas usually come to me when I’m in the shower. Mornings are when I write best, and I generally write sitting up in bed with my antediluvian laptop, and two greyhounds snoring quietly next to me. Desks give me backache.

Why don’t you write straight fantasy?

I used to say that I didn't actually like fantasy because it tends to boil down to imaginary politics. Then I started watching the TV version of Game of Thrones . . . and I LOVE it, so clearly my tastes have changed! So the answer is: there's nothing in a fantasy world that strikes me as fun, as interesting, or as important to write about, as sexual relationships.

So why does your erotica so often involve fantasy settings and/or the supernatural?

That’s got to do with the ‘suspension of disbelief’ thing that’s so important to achieve. I like my fictional sex to be life-changing; earth-shattering; important. I write about crisis points in people’s lives, where the act of sex is a pivot that might throw them one way or another. It has to be something that they will remember forever, that will somehow change them permanently even if it’s just a swift and nameless interaction. If there’s love involved I want to believe that that passion will be eternal. If someone is trapped in a terrible situation I want to imagine that that sexual encounter will save them.

I find it hard to do that in a completely realistic setting. This is a personal thing, and possibly a failing, but I struggle to suspend disbelief. In real life sex is often grubby or disappointing rather than glorious and life-affirming. In real life the man who gropes you in the elevator isn’t being dominant and masculine and flattering: he’s a creep and a potential rapist. In real life even really good sex is fraught with complications: a fantastic session with the boss you’ve always secretly fancied is followed by the realisation that you will never regain independence or control in that workplace, and that it is you, the woman, who will lose status in the eyes of your sniggering colleagues, not him. A red-hot, tear-the-clothes-off quickie will be entangled with fears about STDs and pregnancy. The handsome stranger will turn out to have a crap job in data-entry which he hates. The rough stud will turn out to be a slob whose idea of true fulfilment is sitting on the sofa with a six-pack of lager watching the World Cup. Sex doesn’t save or redeem or damn you; it’s just another experience that, good or bad, you have to assimilate while getting on with your life.

Real life is much bigger than sex. In erotic fiction, sex is central; sex is everything.

So I use fantasy settings in order to create characters who are Better Than Life. People who don’t have to worry about filling in tax returns or finding a new dentist or collecting the kids from school. I use the supernatural as a flag to signal “Believe – Just for a Moment.” Believe that love will conquer all. Believe that you will achieve the true object of your every desire. Believe in perfect, uncomplicated, uncontaminated ecstasy.