Today we’re interviewing Aleksandr Voinov, author, whose writing style is not even remotely close to most of his colleagues. His bio says:
Aleksandr Voinov is an emigrant German author living near London where, after four years in financial journalism, he is now making his living as an editor at an investment bank, freelance writer and creative writing teacher. At 36 years of age, Voinov has written about 13 novels and commercially published five with German publishers. After many years working in the horror, science fiction, cyberpunk and fantasy genres, Voinov has set his sights now on contemporary and historical erotic gay novels. He published his non-commercial work as Vashtan.
Voinov’s natural form is the novel, as all short stories eventually turn into novels. Described as a “workaholic speed-writing freak” by fellow writers, a “creative writing class drill sergeant” by his writing ‘padawans’, Voinov is a self-confessed geek and has enlarged his days by 12 secret hours in return for the sacrifice of ten albino virgin pygmy hippos.
So now we know how his production is twice as much as that of his colleagues. 🙂 I wonder where he buried the bodies of those albino virgin pygmy hippos? 😕 Did he eat them first and then bury the bones?
Hi Aleks. Thank you so much for agreeing to be interviewed on the site. I know this is a very exciting time for you, and I’ll come to that in a bit as I want to separate your writing from your new publishing venture, Riptide.
You have been writing for many years both fiction and non-fiction and your fiction works include horror, cyberpunk, science fiction, military, historical, mystery and fantasy (I probably missed a few). Your books have been described primarily as “dark”, and the targeted audience for them would not be those readers who are looking for something light that acts as a sleep aid. 🙂 Could you tell us something about Aleks the writer and Aleks the person and what drives you to write the kind of fiction you love.
Thank you so much for having me over as a guest. I love your blog, so it’s brilliant to be here.
I think you only missed urban fantasy, fantasy and thriller. Damn, I do seem to have covered everything but self-help and chic lit (and inspirational/Christian romance).
“Darkness” is probably right. I do drag my character through hell, but I think even my darkest stories are, at the end of it, about the strength of the human spirit, courage, and hope. Even people who make terrible mistakes and who are messed up eventually find their place, hope and even love. I find that really uplifting, actually.
I’m a historian by training, which might explain why I look at issues like war and abuse of power, and analyse how, say, totalitarian systems wreck people. Most of my work is informed by history and current affairs. I’m endlessly fascinated by questions such as how war can bring out the very worst in us (killing another person) and the very best in us (laying down your life/health for your ideals or the comrade at your side).
I’m most definitely an armchair general though. I’m an editor at an investment bank (after I escaped financial journalism with a full rolodex of contacts and otherwise just barely with my mental health intact). I live just outside London, am 36 years old, living with my partner, no cats.
Most of the M/M market is centered around “romance” but your books focus more on action or adventure with a dash of fantasy/paranormal and anything else you can throw into the mix. Do you feel that writing these stories which teem with heroism, but star characters who are not the usual hero material and who walk a thin line between legal and shady, are what draws some readers to your work?
I agree with some people in the genre who feel that it’s sad that m/m has become synonymous with m/m romance, which many believe is pretty much the same as het romance applied to gay men.
“Our” genre is so young and has so many parents (at least four I can see: gay pulp fiction, slash fiction, yaoi, and, absolutely, het romance) that I feel there’s a lot of space for all kinds of developments. I’m probably “different” in that my stories are grittier than the average, which I think might be due to the fact that I’ve almost never been exposed to heterosexual romance. Being almost ignorant of the rules means I’m probably breaking them all the time.
I come from the mainstream fantasy/thriller/horror/cyberpunk genres (where I had my first sales and paper releases), but my characters were always bisexual or gay. I used to tamp down on “the gay”, because in the Nineties in Germany, gay characters – forget it. You could get away with it if you did it really well, still reviews on Amazon read “great story, but EWWWW, the super-cool main character is GAY! BAH!” (And all he’d done was think fondly of an ex-lover, I didn’t exactly show him having hot monkey sex.)
When I discovered the m/m genre, I realized I could do what I’ve always been doing – but this time, I could actually write the sex and the romance that had always lingered in the background, but which I had to suppress to not alienate the target audience (which, invariably, is expected to be a 16-year old pimply male teenager who feels threatened in his sexuality by a gay kiss.)
So, I assume that I’m bringing the mainstream grittiness that attracts readers. But there are of course others like me. Manna Francis’s The Administration series comes to mind – not a typical m/m romance by any stretch, but ultimately about two messed-up men committing to each other.
Your characters are complex, conflicted and most of the time damaged in some way, which I love, but do you feel that the readers in this genre who are looking for lighter fare will be turned off?
Oh, there will always be readers who don’t like what I do. Which is fine. Readers tend to find the books they like, and I’ve actually gained some readers who emailed me and said that they stumbled across my stuff by accident but love how real the characters are. It’s more often a case of “Wow, I didn’t know this stuff existed!” than “How DARE you call yourself a romance writer!” (Yes, I sometimes get hate mail for not including enough unicorns and rainbows).
I will never appeal to everybody, which is ok. I believe taking my niche and owning it is the best I can do.
Conversely, are you looking at moving into strictly print publishing at some point in your career since general fiction readers have broader interests?
I’ve done “traditional” or “legacy” print publishing, and I’m not a huge fan. You have to wait two or more years for your book to come out, you have far less control over covers at the bigger houses you publish with (I landed some with Random House, and… yeah, no input there). I do like e-publishing and indie publishing, very much, and prefer it.
I believe that there’s a space for what I’m doing, and I don’t see myself deserting it anytime soon. I might make another push into the mainstream once gay characters are fully accepted. And even then, looking at the usual contracts that the Big Print Publishers offer, I have to say I’d rather pass than sell myself and my books into eternal slavery. We in the indie niche are extremely privileged and way more free than traditional print authors – I fully embrace that.
That said, I have a number of “mainstream” ideas that I might do the “traditional way”, but that would only ever be a sideshow.
Your bio says that “your characters make it out alive, but at a terrible cost, usually by the skin of their teeth. I want to see what’s at the core of them, and stripping them down to that core is rarely pleasant for them. But it does make them wiser, and often stronger people.”
How much does it turn you on to write these characters?
(Laughs). I’m not actually a sadist, you know. I feel with my character, I suffer with them, I laugh and sometimes even cry with them. But I still need to explore what keeps them together deep, deep down. I go places with them you or I wouldn’t examine inside ourselves without an excellent therapist. Those are the places I’m interested in, the scars, the wounds, the traumata and most definitely the wellspring of motivation and what makes us who we are.
You have an upcoming novella Break and Enter which will be released by Samhain just before Christmas. This book is co-written with Rachel Haimowitz and it seems like another wonderful adventure with ambivalent heroes. What can you tell us about the genesis of this story?
Oh, Rachel was kicking this idea around about an emergency crew guy who keeps picking up the same patient at night. The original idea was that the patient was being abused by a nasty boyfriend. I took her idea and flung it into a dystopian cyberpunk setting – the “frequent flyer”, as people who keep getting picked up are called in the lingo – ended up being Cyke, a foul-mouthed ex-soldier, cybered to the hilt, a white-hat hacker and penetration tester who gets to suffer a lot, but he does score a boyfriend and some hot sex in the process, so at least we made it worth his while.
For the centrepiece of the story, I got to use the tour of a top-secret data storage facility I’d done as a financial journalist, and so Rachel’s idea and mine fused into Break and Enter and the story of Bear and Cyke. Cyke quickly became one of our favourite characters, ever, mostly because he’s also genuinely funny in all his snark and sarcasm.
A lot of your books are co-written with other authors. Do you find writing in partnership easier than writing solo? What are some of the rewards of writing with a partner? What are the difficulties in melding two diverse “voices”?
What I really like about co-writing is pooling productivity. It’s just a great feeling to have somebody on the other end who cares as passionately about the story as you do. Also, the new ideas another writer brings to the table really help. I’ve learned a lot from many of my co-writers. Kate Cotoner covered my ass very well in English history during The Lion of Kent, and Barbara Sheridan is great at keeping the plot going. Rachel Haimowitz kicks my ass on the style level. She’s the most ferocious stylist I’ve ever encountered.
I’m not concerned about the voice. Both authors, unless they are voice-blind, will create what I call a ‘hybrid voice’, made up of elements of both writers’ voices.
This brings me to a question that I like to ask authors who have writing partners. In your case you write with different authors and I was wondering how you cope with the disparate writing styles of each of your writing partners?
I think it’s a bit like singing. If you’ve ever sung in a choir, you know you can change your voice to fit in better with others. Voice isn’t absolute or unchangeable. I’ve modulated my voice a lot, even in my own writing – in the story The Trick Is I’ve fitted my voice to Gileonnen’s, and it’s the closest I’ve ever come to a “literary” voice, but even better, I can’t actually tell exactly where my own text ends and Gil’s begins.
You have a new series that will be released by Riptide called Dark Soul. I have read the first book but could you tell the readers about the story arc?
Dark Soul is about Silvio Spadaro, a hypersexual mafia hitman who is a broken, broken boy. I’m telling his story in an episodic format – there’s an overarching plot and I know how it ends, but in every episode I’m exploring how the character ticks, what turns him on and what turns other people on about him. On one level, every story so far explores a kink and/or is about one big character revelation.
Most of it is told from the point-of-view of Stefano Marino, a boss in the Cosa Nostra (who is a lot more like a character from The Godfather than The Sopranos – I’m definitely slightly romanticising the mafia). Stefano is a closet case, bisexual, married, naturally dominant, and broken in his own way. The fascination for Silvio is as dangerous as it’s irresistible, as you really can’t be gay as a wiseguy or you tend to end up dead. Also, the Russian mob rampaging in Stefano’s territory is not helpful.
As you may know I usually ask fans of an author I’m going to be interviewing to submit their own questions and here are a few of them:
I’ve only just finished reading Special Forces so am not yet familiar with all of Aleks’ work so my question may be situational to these books…
In Special Forces, particularly in Veterans the last book, neither MC, Dan and Vadim, or significant supporting characters are monogamous emotionally or physically. Does Aleks believe this to be a more authentic portrayal of gay men in committed relationships than the HEA/monogamous stories normally written in the M/M genre? If so, does he worry that M/M readership, comprised primarily of women, may be turned off to his writing? I’d be interested to hear about the feedback he’s received from fans and editors about this.
Hi Ellie, thanks for the question. **Special Forces started out as unashamed “soldier porn” – and while we knew it would be a love story, neither of the authors at that point was very familiar with the m/m genre – I sure didn’t read it – and hence followed none of the rules.
I can’t make any statements about “more authentic” – everybody works out the life they want to live. There are happy monogamous couples, and there are people playing the field and living in a loose “tribe” of lovers and friends with benefits. My characters range from monogamous to having extremely colourful sexual habits, depending who they are and what their attitudes are.
Reader feedback on Special Forces varies wildly – from the “How could you!” hate mail about how I dared to break the rules of romance and then people telling me I helped them through a shitty period (divorce, illness, depression). As it was never commercially published, it’s never seen an editor (which is probably for the best. 🙂 )
I second Ellie’s question. I haven’t bothered to read any m/m/m ménage stories, but my overall impression is that open relationships are very rare? Where are the books in which two people have an ongoing relationship (like Dan and Vadim) but also have affairs. Is this something female writers have trouble with?
Hi Catana – thank you. I believe the “no infidelity” rule has been imposed from the het romance genre (where, I believe, the female has to stay “chaste” and the hero can have a couple of encounters with others – but I’m Not An Expert, so I might be totally wrong). I think it keeps things interesting, and there are many reasons why there are secondary lovers in Special Forces.
I think it might not be so much a “female” thing as something we’re used to from romance fiction (again, not speaking as an expert!). I think there are a lot of preconceptions, traditions and rules in the way. Personally, I think you can be attracted to several people at the same time. Whether you act on it is a different matter and everybody’s personal decision. The polyamorists are making new models work, for example.
Oboy! Perfect timing. I’m a big fan of his work and have a tendency (maybe too much of one) to compare other books to his. Yesterday I read and reviewed (on Goodreads) a book by another author [name withheld]. To put it bluntly, it was disappointing–the tight plot and the believable protagonists weakened by vague and unnecessary paranormal elements. It got me to thinking how seldom women manage to write totally convincing books about strong men. How they shy away from the hard edge and soften their protags, usually weakening them in the process.
Do you feel this is true? If so, do you think it’s an attempt to comply with the most popular market: romance? Or is it something in the female psyche that demands some softness in their protags? Just for the record, yes, there are tough female writers, just not enough of them.
Saying anything about “women do this” and “men do that” would be wrong. For writers, I feel it’s way more important where your early influences are than what you have (or have not) in your underwear. I’m originally from the thriller/fantasy/horror genres – it wouldn’t occur to me to have a “weak” leading man. To kill stuff with a sword you have to be somewhat buff and aggressive (of course, Elric of Melniboné already breaks that stereotype, and brilliantly so). So my heroes (and anti-heroes) are just the type you find in those genres. Whether written by a six-armed alien from Sedna, a man, a woman, or a trans person doesn’t matter. So – tradition, and your literary parents are more important than the shape of anybody’s soul or genitals, in my book at least.
Not sure it can be considered a good question, but here it comes.
I really loved First Blood and could not wait to read more about Nikita and Chris.
The next book was tentatively listed “in the works” on the website (marked as unfinished, but half-written or something like that) and even had a title. However, when I checked back on it about a month ago it disappeared. Hence the question – does the author plan on continuing the story or unfortunately it is “off the books”?
Hi Hellga – thanks for the question. Good question, too! Yes, Double Deal had a fair bit written and then both Barbara and I got otherwise engaged – real life and other projects happen. I have to check in with Barbara if she’s up for it. I’d really like to write more about snarky Chris and stoic brutal Nikita. They still have some relationship work to do for sure!
I have two questions:
1. I am intrigued by the way Special Forces unfolds over something like three decades and enjoy the sense of things unfolding over time in Aleks’ other stories. Do you tell stories that require longer timeframes because that is the only way to show complexity and change in the protagonists and their worlds?
Hi Merrian – thanks for the questions, both good ones, too. Yes, I like to spend some months or even a few years with characters. I’m as interested in showing “general” and “overall” developments as how characters respond to those changes.
It’s also why I like writing series – but I try to make sure each instalment can stand on its own, especially when I have to make people wait for the other parts. I think the reason is because I choose big plots (too big to chew through in a weekend) and then there’s the “historian viewpoint” again. I like to show history, how things took the shape they are in now. I want to show the beginning of the Scorpions (so there might be a prequel) and show how Adrastes sorts out his new kingdom/empire (so there should be a sequel).
The two WWII books I’m working on both start in 1941 and span four or more years (one of them will have an epilogue set in the 1960s). It’s how my brain works. Thanks for pointing that out – I hadn’t thought of it that way. Thought everybody does it…but you’re right.
2. There is a lot of aggression in the stories I have read. I see it as integral to the characters and the worlds in which they live. Why do you think this is such a feature of the stories you tell?
I’m interested in alpha males, primarily. Soldiers, warriors, spies, people who fight for something and against something. It’s easy to write because it yields instant plot and also shows the good and the bad in a person. My guys fight, and that means aggression, whether they put a sword through another fighter or outmanoeuvre them in the board room. There’s always an enemy, an opponent, and they’ll use whatever weapon they have at their disposal. So, yes, it’s an integral part of who these people are.
I enjoyed The Lion of Kent and part of the reason was because of the historical setting and the research that went into the writing. Is there a region/era that Aleks would like to write about but is finding the research too difficult/challenging?
Hi Rdafan7 – good questions! I’ve actually given up on a book set in a French-speaking country in Africa, because all sources are in French and I can’t speak French. Also, I didn’t find enough about the local culture to really immerse the reader in it. After pouring a lot of money into specialist maps and ethnographic books and every scrap I could find, it was still not enough to pull it off properly. I might still use the bits of that country that fascinate me and turn it into a sci-fi or fantasy setting. I’m mortified about getting stuff wrong.
Also, my next book to read is Scorpion, and then Special Forces (I ordered the revised book at Lulu). What are the difficulties when writing with a co-author as in TLOK, versus writing alone as with Scorpion? Will the sequel to Scorpion be out this year? After reading the reviews for both Scorpion & SF’s, I’m expecting I’ll want the sequels ASAP!
Thanks! Scorpion can definitely stand on its own, so you don’t have to worry about the other parts. I have ideas for a prequel (how the Scorpions started out under the first officer) and a sequel – what happens after Adrastes comes to power (I hope these are vague enough to not spoiler you!).
There are even some chapters already written, but the sequel and prequel won’t be out before mid-2014 due to a packed schedule, I’m afraid. But I’ll do both books right after each other and put them out at the same time.
BUT! In positive news, Kate Cotoner and I are working on the sequel to The Lion of Kent, tentatively titled Lion’s Share. We’ll see William be awesome and kick ass on the tournament circuit in France. It’ll be a full-sized novel, at least twice as long as TLOK and there might even be a third part, set during the crusades in the Holy Land (once the plot comes together).
There are no difficulties, really. The real difficulty is writing alone, because it’s slower and harder work. Kate covered my ass so well with the research (two historians are always better than one!), I felt a lot more confident.
Transit was very different from your other books (at least those I know of). It had a quiet intensity I really really loved. How much of this was your doing, or was it mostly Raev Grey (I must admit I haven’t read anything else from her, so I wouldn’t be able to tell)
I think it came mostly from the characters. You have two advertising guys, not soldiers, warriors or spies, so there’s much less crash boom bang and the story ends up much quieter. I liked it because it had that Christmassy feeling of stopping and thinking, focusing on what’s important, and relief from stress. But it’s only this site that gave it five stars – highest rating I ever got here! – while most of “my” traditional readers were lukewarm or actively hated it.
Last question and this is from me: What do you feel is your most important accomplishment as an author?
The most important thing (apart from mastering the craft enough that I can vaguely express what’s in my head and making the switch from German to English) is when I touch a reader out there – make them laugh or cry, or help them pass the time in hospital or on the commute, taking them away from the everyday grind and just give them a good time. That’s why we’re doing everything: Because somebody out there, somewhere, is in desperate need of that story we’re currently writing.
Of course I have many more questions Aleks but I think these are enough for one interview (or even two). 🙂 Maybe you can come back for Part II. Lol
Wow, this interview is already epic (and I rambled a LOT). I’d be happy to come back, though, anytime. Thank you for having me and getting those reader questions in for me. They were fun!
We don’t fool around. :whip: Thank you Aleks, I really appreciate the time.
**NOTE: Special Forces is co-written with Marquesate and Vashtan
Aleks’ second interview (on Riptide Publishing) will be live on Wednesday, October 26th. I hope you will log on to read what he has to say.
Aleksandr Voinov’s contact information