Pushing the Envelope
(June 12, 2000)
Stephanie Bond’s Too Hot to Sleep has become one of those books that ricochets throughout the Internet because of controversy. According to a posting on a romance web site message board by Romantic Times publisher Carol Stacy, RT’s reviewer gave the book a 1-star rating because their reviewer found the subject matter objectionable and went outside the boundaries of a romance novel. Our own reviewer enjoyed it very much, and disagreed that the subject matter was objectionable and outside the boundaries of a romance novel. While our reviewer agreed that the book pushes the envelop and may offend some readers, she found it “a totally fun book.”
Because of the controversy surrounding this book, we decided to ask Stephanie to talk about it.
- Did you expect this book would create such buzz?
- Did you purposely push the envelope?
- What are the differences between the Temptation and Blaze lines?
- Is the Blaze line more romantic erotica than erotic romance?
- How do you respond to two paradoxical criticisms heard of the Blaze lines?
The first I made myself (in the June 1st issue of At the Back Fence) that many of the Blaze titles seem like love scenes with a little plot thrown in for filler, and the second, conversely, that the heat of the Blaze titles is more than a little hype?
- What place does masturbation have in romance?
Here then are Stephanie’s answers:
— Stephanie Bond
I didn’t expect that Too Hot to Sleep would create such buzz. Because this was my first Blaze, I worked closely with my editor to make sure my story was in keeping with the “voice” of the line. I remember us discussing, for instance, that the characters should focus on visualizing the other character when they were having phone sex – which is certainly more sensual than the mechanics of what is actually going on. And I distinctly remember that the copy editor found all the ellipses I used in the phone sex dialogue as stylistic, so she removed them. But my editor and I unanimously agreed that the dialogue during the phone sex scenes should be fragmented and breathless, so we put all the ellipses back in. We were respectful that the premise of the book was innovative, so we worked together to present it as lyrically and romantically as possible. I focused on word choice and delivery more in Too Hot to Sleep than any book I’ve written. Which is why I was disappointed when the Romantic Times reviewer said she found some of the scenes offensive (the review that sparked this discussion). No romance writer sets out to offend readers.
On the other hand, if the controversy helps convey to readers what kinds of stories they’ll find within the pages of Blaze, then it’s certainly been worth it. (Especially since Harlequin just announced a spin-off line called Harlequin Blaze, debuting in 2001. I want readers to know what to expect and to anticipate the longer, highly sensual reads.)
I did purposely push the envelope in Too Hot to Sleep. I started writing for Harlequin in their Love & Laughter line, so my readers still expect a level of humor in my stories. When I made the move to Temptation, I had to add more characterization and sexual tension to my madcap premises. When my editor asked me to write a Temptation Blaze, I wanted to make sure I delivered on the implicit Blaze promise of a super sexy read. I added a sensual dimension to the humorous premise of having a conversation with a wrong number. I purposely pushed the envelope because it was a Blaze and therefore, more sensual. I try to add humor to whatever line I’m writing for, but first and foremost, I strive to hit the crux of what the line is about. My objective is to please the readers for that line, not reinvent the line.
For me, a Harlequin Temptation story is all about sexual tension and the chemistry between the hero and heroine who are thrust together for some reason. The number and intensity of the lovemaking scenes vary according to the premise and the characters. In Club Cupid, my heroine is stranded in Key West and has to rely on a Good Samaritan bartender to get her out of jam. Their sexual relationship develops rather quickly, and is sustained throughout the story. In About Last Night, the heroine is getting married and finds herself quarantined in a hotel room with her best man. Because of her commitment, naturally their sexual relationship progresses very slowly, climaxing in a single love scene.
A story for the Temptation Blaze sub-series, on the other hand, starts with a sensual premise (seduction, sexual awakening, exploring fantasies). If I had to sum up Blaze stories in a few words, I’d say they are sexual adventures that result in a committed relationship. Again, the frequency and the intensity of the lovemaking will vary from book to book. In Too Hot to Sleep, my first Temptation Blaze, the heroine decides to jumpstart her lackluster boyfriend by initiating phone sex. The hero is the wrong number she dials (and keeps dialing). Even though the premise is inherently sensual, there’s only one consummated love scene in the book.
I’ve read erotica, and I think the term “romantic erotica” is a misnomer. “Erotic romance” is a closer description of Blaze, but above all, a Temptation Blaze is still a romance – two characters who are monogamous after they meet, and end up in a committed relationship. They just have more fun along the way!
We’re very much trained as romance readers (and as good girls!) that sex is a by-product of the emotional romance. In Blaze stories, however, sometimes an emotional attachment is a by-product of the intense sexuality. The latter situation draws upon all the skills of a romance writer to give the characters motivation to do things that most people wouldn’t have the nerve to do.
I like to think of my Blaze heroines as normal, straight-laced women who, because of the circumstances, behave in ways they’ve only fantasized about. We’ve all been there – imagined a tryst with that handsome stranger on the plane. But if he looked up and nodded toward the lavatory with intent, we’d hide behind a newspaper and slink out the rear exit. But what if the captain announced the plane was out of fuel and directed you to prepare for a crash landing in the ocean in thirty minutes? A Blaze heroine would choose to have a mindblowing experience with that handsome stranger as her last minutes on earth. Then, of course, the plane would land safely on an aircraft carrier and the stranger would wind up being her new management trainee. Get the gist? The Blaze heroine is you, except single and in extraordinary circumstances that allow her to explore her fantasies. Plus she gets to keep the guy in the end – does it get any better?
I think readers are approaching the Blaze sub-series with a preconceived notion, and everyone’s notion of erotic is different. To some readers, lots of sex is sexy; to other readers, conflict is sexy. Each Blaze title is different because the Blaze writers themselves are different – some emphasize the sexual adventure, others dwell on the emotional impact, and still others, like me, try to dish up a little humor along the way. I hope that readers will appreciate the spicy variety, and let Harlequin and the Blaze authors know which stories they especially love, so we can write more!
I think a self-gratification scene can be very sexy, and can also serve as a turning point for a character. For instance, in About Last Night…, the heroine realized she was beginning to have feelings for the hero when she thought about him instead of her betrothed during a self-gratification scene in a bubble bath. Or let’s say you have a 35-year-old heroine who is a virgin – I’d find a self-gratification scene much more believable as a transitional experience before sleeping with the hero. And let’s don’t forget that masturbation is safe sex, which I try to encourage in all of my romance novels. Fulfilling, liberating, and safe – why shouldn’t we be including self-gratification scenes in our romances? To quote the heroine’s best friend in Too Hot to Sleep: “That man doesn’t own your orgasms, Georgia.”