Cecilia Tan keeps busy. Writer, editor, business owner, martial artist, musician, foodie -- she is a woman of many and varied interests. Amazon.com’s “About the Author” starts: “Susie Bright calls Cecilia Tan ‘simply one of the most important writers, editors, and innovators in contemporary American erotic literature.’” A long-term resident of Cambridge, MA, she went down to her hometown of New York City at the end of September to cheer on her favorite baseball team, the New York Yankees, and to sample some of the local cuisine in the city’s world-class restaurants and friendly hidden gems. Aside from the Yankees getting knocked out of the pennant race, she had a very enjoyable trip.
A blogger since the age before weblogs, with a journal that dates back to 1996, ctan -- her common nom de guerre -- writes early and often about her life, her projects and her passions on her website. We spoke from Boston to New York.
Jacob Sommer: I haven't yet met a writer who wasn't first an inveterate reader. What kind of books did you like to read before you were an author? What new books do you read, and what books do you reread?
Cecilia Tan: You may be shocked by this, then, but I read almost no prose fiction for pleasure nowadays. That wasn't always the case. For many years I would always be reading four books at a time: one fiction in the genre (science fiction fantasy), one fiction not in the genre, one nonfiction, and one critical or personal essay. I probably kept that up for 6-7 years after I left grad school. But now if I read two novels a year for leisure, that's a lot.
It basically comes down to this: if I could spend an hour sitting and reading, I would rather spend that hour sitting and WRITING. There's never enough time to write in a writer's life. I have also learned over the years that as a writer/reader, I am an introvert. Being introduced to lots of new people drains me, and being introduced to new characters who aren't my own drains me creatively. So I very carefully limit my intake of new stories, because I am a fiction introvert. That includes not only not reading books but I don't watch TV, and I only see maybe 3-4 movies a year.
It also explains why I tend to stick with a series. Reading more about the same characters is less draining than reading entirely new ones. The one series I'm most hooked on is Naomi Novik's His Majesty's Dragon books, which are wonderfully written. I plan to read more Holly Black soon; her "Tithe" was a perfect book.
Being a fiction introvert, though, means re-reading is okay. I re-read various books of Roger Zelazny every few years, [including] “Nine Princes in Amber,” “Eye of Cat,” [and] “Roadmarks.” I re-read the entire Lord of the Rings a few years back, including all the appendices, and then worked my way through “The Silmarillion” again, though I probably won't do that again. I've re-read the Harry Potter books probably twice all the way through from beginning to end, with re-reads of some of the individual books here and there. That also means reading fan fiction is a fine thing for me, where the characters and world is completely known. I've probably read 2-3 million words of Harry Potter fanfic in the past ten years.
JS: Most people don't make the leap from reading to professional writing. How did you first get into it, and what was your first piece?
CTan: I always knew I wanted to be a writer. When I was four, I figured out the secret of phonics and boom, I was off and writing before anyone told me there was such a thing as correct spelling. Most kids would draw a picture on a piece of manila paper. I'd fold it over, write a title on the cover, "Th End" on the back (no one had told me about the "schwa" yet), and then draw a picture and caption it like a children's book inside.
My first "real" story, as far as I was concerned was "Telepaths Don't Need Safewords." I was out of college, working a day job in publishing, and trying to write at night and on weekends. I wrote a bunch of science fiction stories that were okay, but not brilliant. Then I wrote "Telepaths" and I just felt I was onto something. I felt for the first time I'd written strong characters, an interesting plot, and created an intriguing world. The fact that the story was also erotic and also mixed science fiction with BDSM subculture, and the fact that this combination would make it unpublishable by any commercial magazine or publisher, didn't enter my mind. I just knew I'd done it: I'd written a good story.
It wasn't until I went to try to sell it that I realized I'd have to start my own company so there would be a place for that type of material. So I self-published the story in a chapbook with three other stories, but I also kept striving to be "professionally" published. I was receiving several signs from the universe at the time that if I wanted to really make a go of a writing career, I needed to put more of my energy into that and less into my book publishing day job.
I finally decided to bite the bullet and quit the job to start a masters program in writing. How's this for a sign? On my very last day at the office, I got home to find my first acceptance letter from a professional publication. It was from Susie Bright, who was editing the Herotica series at the time as well as acquiring one story a month for Penthouse. I think that first acceptance was for Herotica, and then a month or so later Susie bought a piece for Penthouse as well. The rest, as the cliche goes, is history.
JS: It's even harder to find an author who has become a successful publisher than it is to find a reader who took up the pen. What led you to create Circlet Press?
CTan: Well, see [the] above anecdote about the unpublishable story. I suppose a lot of people would have "trunked" (put the manuscript in a trunk and otherwise forget about it - JS) a story like "Telepaths Don't Need Safewords." Actually I KNOW a lot of people did, because as soon as I opened Circlet Press, I started getting submissions from professional science fiction writers whose main reaction was, "Yay! I finally have a place to send those trunk stories that were too sexy for the mainstream!" I was amazed that writers I admired were meeting me at conventions and admiring ME.
That only confirmed for me that I did the right thing in creating a publishing house. I wasn't the only one with a voice that needed to be heard, and I was the right person to do it at the right time. I had been working in book publishing for three years at that point, so I knew the business. And here we are almost 20 years later and we're still in business, despite the book industry's major upheavals, disasters, and changes.
JS: Your "Magic University" series has concluded with the fourth book in the series. What was your inspiration for the storyline?
CTan: Well, the elevator pitch is that it's Harry Potter for adults, or perhaps that should be adult as in X-rated. But it's much more than that of course. J.K. Rowling wasn't the first to write a magic school story, nor a Cinderella story, so I riff on those same elements--but I am highly aware that everyone in the world has read Harry Potter. As such, I get to poke gentle fun of it from time to time.
Cover of "Magic University: The Siren and The Sword"
The main thing that I wanted to do in the books, though, was challenge the fantasy notion that there always has to be a Battle Between Good! And! Evil! Why can't a story about magic NOT be about the struggle between good and evil? Since the publisher is a romance publisher, I thought it would be the perfect place to take a multi-book quest story where the quest is not to Defeat Evil but to find true love. There are struggles, and some of them are magical, but they aren't against a dark villain. If anything, the characters are more prone to struggle against the darkness inside themselves. The books are ultimately a paean to the fact that the world isn't evenly divided into good and evil, or even into male and female or gay and straight.
JS: Your professional writing seems to be predominantly erotica and baseball. How different are they to write? How do you reconcile the two? For that matter, have you ever written a book about both?
CTan: Anything that a person is passionate about, they should be able to write about. The main difference between the erotica and the baseball is that most (but not all) of the erotica writing is fiction, and most (but not all) of the baseball writing is nonfiction. I have combined them from time to time, though. Most recently I wrote an erotic romance novel called “The Hot Streak,” where a nice girl meets a ballplayer. [Naturally,] hijinks ensue. I'm under contract to write another erotic baseball novel for Ravenous Romance, too, but the next one they want to be a gay one. So I'm working on that.
JS: What was your favorite piece to write, and why?
CTan: I can't pick a favorite any more than a mother could choose one favorite child. If I were the sort of writer who only worked on one thing at a time, my "favorite" thing would probably always be the thing that I was working on at the time. But I'm usually working on three or four things at a time, so even from among those I couldn't choose. Every book or story has something special and enjoyable about it -- if they didn't, I wouldn't be bothering to write them.
JS: Is there a subject you'd like to write more about?
CTan: I'd love to write more about food and travel, possibly together. But I only have so much writing time, and the gigs I have keep me fairly well busy these days, so starting yet another writing career -- which is what it is when one dabbles in a new genre -- is something I don't quite have time for. I have a blog about tea and I'll have to be satisfied with writing sporadic entries there, I suppose.
JS: OK - you live in Boston. Why do you love the Yankees?
CTan: [*shrugs*] Born and raised in New York City. Next question?
JS: [*smiles*] You get the last word, so what would you like to highlight?
CTan: Last word! I'll just mention that there's plenty of my writing that can be read and enjoyed free on the Internet. Two full serials are available. For those who like a lot of sex and high fantasy, there is “The Prince's Boy," which was serialized over the course of two years on circlet.com. The other serial is “Daron's Guitar Chronicles,” which is a 1980s coming-out story about a young rock guitarist trying to make it big. His biggest obstacle to happiness, if not fame, is his own internalized homophobia. There are 200 chapters of Daron's Guitar Chronicles so far, and more to come.
cover of "Darron's Guitar Chronicles Volume Two"
Cecilia Tan’s final book in her Magic University series, “Magic University: The Poet and the Prophecy,” is available at Amazon.com for Kindle-enabled devices, along with the previous three volumes. For more information about Cecilia Tan, please visit her website at http://www.ceciliatan.com/