Heidi Cullinan has stopped by today to talk about “The Swoon Factor” and her new book Antisocial.
I’ve always been a writer of two minds: I love a good erotic story, but I also love a simple, swooning romance, one where the author keeps me at the edge of my seat with romantic tension and leaves me hanging and sighing over touches and glances. I always knew Antisocial would be more the latter than the former, but I never realized how much of a swooner it would be until I was waist-deep into the thing. If Love Lessons and Dance With Me were formerly my most swoon-worthy romances, they’re now 5.5’s on a Heidi Cullinan scale, because Antisocial has swept them all away.
How this story arrived there is something I can’t explain. I’ve been writing this story for years, and after struggling with several aspects and finding myself unable to make several things work, I simply stopped fighting everything and let it fly. Initially I’d thought Skylar was simply like me, someone who was so closeted about his orientation he’d buried it in his own mind—he was, in a way, but it turned out his orientation was different than mine. When I realized he landed somewhere between ace and demi, I kept trying to educate myself so I didn’t do a bad job of telling his story, and as I do with these sorts of things I became rather obsessed with telling the tale. It was much like telling Sam Keller’s story in Special Delivery; I didn’t share his experience, but I wanted to understand it and live inside it as much as I could. And of course because we’re all connected if you look close enough, as I reached down, I found several places I could identify with Skylar on deep levels, the same way I could with Sam—and one of them was with this sense of wanting a passionate connection, in a way that didn’t matter about sexual contact but was all about that deep romance.
I thought a lot about my love of Pride and Prejudice and even more of Sense and Sensibility, of Austen’s genius for conveying emotion in glances and words, of making me feel as if the characters had shared deep, meaningful exchanges sometimes when all they had done was sit inside a room together, not making eye contact. I knew I didn’t have Austen’s talent, but I wanted to bring that kind of spirit to Antisocial, challenging myself to make the story as romantic and bright and powerful as I could without leaning on the usual conventions.
I hope you enjoy Antisocial and this trip with me through my most romantic romance yet. I love this novel for so many reasons, but that it is so romantic is definitely one of those reasons.
Here’s a little sample to get you started.
“Maybe…maybe you secretly want to be a curmudgeon. Maybe you want me to give you lessons.”
“Huh. Maybe I do.” Skylar’s voice sounded dreamy. Then dejected. “But I don’t have anything to offer you in exchange. And I still can’t find a way to pay you for the painting.”
“You’re still fixated on that? I don’t require an equal exchange. I told you. I gave it to you. And if you seriously want curmudgeon lessons, I offer them for free.”
Xander turned his head to smile at him to make it clear he knew Skylar didn’t actually want curmudgeon lessons. Except Skylar turned his head at the same time, and he looked completely serious. And their legs weren’t just brushing now, they were touching.
Xander stopped smiling.
The air between them changed.
The insanity that had swirled in the air ever since Xander had called to cancel the Pygmalion thing settled around them like a blanket, but it didn’t lighten the mood at all. It lit a charge.
I feel like I could kiss him, Xander thought.
And just as quickly another thought rode in after. Don’t.
Xander was used to negative thinking. Sometimes he felt like he’d personally invented it. This wasn’t negative thinking, though. This wasn’t a voice in his head telling him how dare he imagine he could kiss Skylar Stone. The whisper of don’t didn’t come from self-destructive thoughts. It came from something else.
It came from…
He didn’t know where it came from. All he knew was that he was pretty sure he could kiss Skylar right now. And he was even more sure that he should not.
Confused, Xander sat up, rubbing the side of his face.
Skylar sat up too. He seemed self-conscious and unsure of himself, something Xander had never seen on Skylar before. “I’m sorry.”
This was the same voice as the don’t. Xander still didn’t understand what was going on, but something about the voice and the way Skylar was acting felt important, so he didn’t let himself get awkward, he simply rode it out.
“Nothing to apologize for. Like I said. If you want to hang out with me this summer and learn how to be a curmudgeon, you let me know. I have my part-time job, but other than that, I’m just putting together my BFA project. And we’ll have our meetings to do the social media stuff, obviously. But I’m saying…I don’t mind hanging out more, with you.”
Skylar looked grim and haggard, much as he had when he’d arrived at Xander’s door. “I have to study for the LSAT. No courses this summer, for a change, but I need to raise my score. Which I’m not sure I can do. But I have to anyway.” He softened as he glanced Xander’s way. “I want to hang out with you, though. If I can.
This was so weird. Xander felt like he’d met a million different Skylars in the span of a few days. Well, no. If he thought about it, there were only two. The incarnations of smarmy, ting Skylar, the one Zelda had called Silver Stone, the one who wanted to plan out Xander’s life and turn him into someone he wasn’t. And then there was the one he’d met tonight. The geek Skylar. The softer Skylar. The I-wear-sweats-and-things-with-holes Skylar.
Xander really liked the second Skylar. Like, he liked him.
You, sir, are in so much fucking trouble.
Xander cleared his throat. “That sounds rough, that studying.” He tried to think of something inspiring or helpful to add, but he had nothing.
“I’m supposed to go to Yale, or a list of other impossible-to-get-into schools. But mostly Yale. I need a higher LSAT score than the one I currently have.”
Xander frowned at him. “What do you mean, you’re supposed to?”
Skylar shrugged, staring at the carpet. “My dad. It’s where he wants me to go. Or rather, where the firm where he works wants me to go. They’ll hire me once I pass the bar, if I graduate from Yale Law. I was supposed to do my undergraduate there, but I didn’t get in. Big family scandal.”
Whole lot of supposed to in there. Zelda would light this guy on fire. Everything in Xander told him to back away slowly from this conversation, except the tired set of Skylar’s broad shoulders kept drawing him in. “Well, is that what you want to do?”
Skylar scratched his stubble with his index finger, still fixing his gaze on the carpet. “It’s not like you’re thinking. It’s not that my dad is some Republican blowhard who browbeats me.” He picked at a hole in the knee of his sweatpants. “My parents are liberals. Big ones. My dad works with Republicans but donates to all kinds of charities. My mom owns a business and uses her profits to help shut down sweatshops.”
Okay, so no. It wasn’t like Xander had been thinking. Except… “You still didn’t answer my question.”
He knew right away he shouldn’t have asked, even before Skylar tensed, fists closing on his thighs. Xander didn’t want to retract it, though, because Christ, who wanted that kind of life? He didn’t care if the Stone family was the goddamned Justice League, he didn’t want to join it. It sounded insane.
If Skylar honestly wanted that, fine. If he insisted on lying to himself about it, not Xander’s business. But the hell Xander was going to sit here and be part of the bullshit.
Skylar started to get up, and Xander thought he would leave. Maybe that’s what Skylar planned. But then the Hotay & Moo sketch fluttered to the floor, and Skylar stopped, carefully picked it up, and sat back down again.
“How about a trade,” he said at last. “What if you gave me curmudgeon lessons, and I gave you lessons on how to realize not all people are worth avoiding?” He nudged Xander’s knee with his. “I wouldn’t make you be too social.”
Xander grunted, mostly to cover how his brain short-circuited at Skylar’s body contact. “You’re far too invested in dragging me out of my cave. It’s annoying.”
Skylar laughed, and the sound was so charming, so unaffected and arousing, Xander had to bite back a groan. “Maybe that’s why I can’t stop, because you find me annoying. Most people don’t.”
“I didn’t say I found you annoying. I said your efforts were annoying.”
“Usually my efforts work without issue. You’re a challenge, Xander Fairchild.”
And you’re my wet dream. God, what was wrong with him? Xander wanted to ask him if he had a girlfriend, just to shut himself up. He wanted to hear all about the perfect sorority girl Skylar was seeing to shut down in advance any dreams he was going to have of kissing the guy.
Don’t. Don’t ask him. Don’t bring up anything like that, ever.
There was that damn voice again. Xander still didn’t understand, but he did more this time than listen to it. He engaged it. Poked at that space inside him that seemed to see Skylar, the real Skylar, and asked it what he should do with Skylar now, how he was supposed to move forward from here.
Surprisingly, it gave him an answer.
Xander turned to Skylar. “I’ll think about it. That’s the best I can do right now. But in the meantime, there is something you can do for me.”
He was nervous about this, but he was trying to trust that voice. And it had whispered that Skylar needed to trade to feel safe, and he also needed time, lots of time, with Xander to get to know him before he would open up. Curmudgeon though he was, Xander did want to see the rest of the Skylar he’d glimpsed behind the veil.
Skylar regarded him hopefully, waiting. “Yes? How can I help you?”
Xander felt a little wicked. He couldn’t help himself. He wanted to see if the voice was right. The bigger the favor, the more excited he’ll get. “It’s okay if it’s too much to ask.”
Skylar sat up straighter, leaned forward. “It won’t be too much. Just tell me. I’ll do it.”
It’s going to be so hard not to kiss him. Xander leaned forward too, to prove to himself that he had the restraint. “For my project, I need a subject. I was wondering…would it be okay if that subject was you, if you’d let me draw and paint you? Would you be my model?”
For a brief flash of time, Xander saw all the way in. Straight into Skylar as he opened like a lotus, and Xander couldn’t breathe for the perfect, heartbreaking beauty and joy. Then the flower closed, and it was simply Skylar, smiling, beaming even, pleased as punch as he clutched the Hotay & Moo sketch and leaned back onto the couch. “I would love to. Thank you for asking.”
“It’d mean we’d have to get together. Irrespective of the lessons thing. A lot. And you’d need to sit still for a long time. Though some of that time you could be studying. Also, I could work a little from photographs.”
“Stop trying to make me say no, curmudgeon. You’ve just made my whole summer. The only way it could get better would be if you told me you were using me as the model for the hero in a manga.”
Xander laughed. “Um…well, my friend wanted me to do one, but I don’t know how to write an original story. Plus, I really can’t see the committee buying that as a BFA project.”
There was that hunger again. “You could write one, though?”
“I could draw one. If someone gave me the story and the characters.”
He wasn’t sure what went through Skylar’s head there, but plenty must have, given the expressions that passed over his face. All Skylar said in the end, though, was, “I’d be honored to sit for you, anytime. We can talk about it tomorrow when we have our meeting. And any other time in text, of course.”
“Yeah, about that.” Xander fished his sad little flip phone off the coffee table and waved it in chagrined surrender. “Try not to be offended if my texts are crap. I don’t have that great of a phone. It doesn’t have a keypad or anything.”
Skylar’s smile wasn’t tinging anymore. “No offense will be taken.”
Xander saw him to the door. It wasn’t awkward per se, but it was a…charged goodbye. They were both aware everything had changed. That they’d cracked into something good, but scary. Fragile. Something to be treated with care.
He vowed to not mess this friendship up, to not muddy it or screw with it in any way.
“See you tomorrow,” he told Skylar, carefully tucking his attraction away.
Skylar’s smile was a sunbeam. “See you tomorrow,” he replied, and left the apartment.
But the sunbeam—and the glow of Xander’s want—remained.
Author: Heidi Cullinan
Publisher: Self Published
Release Date: August 8th 2017
Genre(s): M/M Contemporary Romance
Page Count: 341 pages
Reviewed by: Belen
A single stroke can change your world.
Xander Fairchild can’t stand people in general and frat boys in particular, so when he’s forced to spend his summer working on his senior project with Skylar Stone, a silver-tongued Delta Sig with a trust fund who wants to make Xander over into a shiny new image, Xander is determined to resist. He came to idyllic, Japanese culture-soaked Benten college to hide and make manga, not to be transformed into a corporate clone in the eleventh hour.
Skylar’s life has been laid out for him since before he was born, but all it takes is one look at Xander’s artwork, and the veneer around him begins to crack. Xander himself does plenty of damage too. There’s something about the antisocial artist’s refusal to yield that forces Skylar to acknowledge how much his own orchestrated future is killing him slowly…as is the truth about his gray-spectrum sexuality, which he hasn’t dared to speak aloud, even to himself.
Through a summer of art and friendship, Xander and Skylar learn more about each other, themselves, and their feelings for one another. But as their senior year begins, they must decide if they will part ways and return to the dull futures they had planned, or if they will take a risk and leap into a brightly colored future—together.
Heidi Cullinan has always enjoyed a good love story, provided it has a happy ending. Proud to be from the first Midwestern state with full marriage equality, Heidi is a vocal advocate for LGBT rights. She writes positive-outcome romances for LGBT characters struggling against insurmountable odds because she believes there’s no such thing as too much happy ever after. When Heidi isn’t writing, she enjoys cooking, reading, playing with her cats, and watching television with her family.
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