A picture of Ruby’s bookshelf because she’s “not ready” for her grandma to find out about her career. Understandable.
I’ve had the pleasure of featuring tons of Creative Ladies in this series…YA authors, poets, photographers, musicians, illustrators, and more. But one profession I haven’t yet featured? Erotic romance author. Until now, that is! I’m really happy to share this interview with Ruby McNally, the author of Crash (which you can buy right here on Amazon). Ruby talked to me about writing on the subway, complicated female characters, and the dangers of looking at adoptable dogs online (been there). You can find Ruby on her Tumblr and on Twitter @Ruby_McNally.
What’s your main creative gig (this can be your day job, your freelance work, or both)? Describe what you do on a normal working day.
Writing is my main gig–erotic romance, to be specific, which still feels a little odd to write out in full. I mean, I write extremely graphic sex scenes, for money. I still haven’t told my mother.
It didn’t start out that way. I was always a huge reader as a kid–like, I’m talking five, six books on the go at the same time–but until a couple of years ago I hadn’t read a single romance novel. I was a huge snot about it. I’d always wanted to be a writer, but I wanted to write Serious Literature or whatever, never mind that I was absolutely happiest typing away at hundreds of thousands of words of fanfiction that always included extended kissing scenes. Anyway, I more or less gave up on that dream in high school when I realized how tough it is to make a go of being an author (with some unsubtle help from my guidance counselor–good job getting me to go to college, Mrs. Caputo.) I got a sensible degree and a sensible job, and I stopped plotting out narrative arcs. I wrote a lot of fanfiction. Still, I always sort of assumed that if I ever did publish a book, it wouldn’t have nipples on its cover, you know?
But then E.L. James happened. Suddenly erotica was everywhere, and it was making money. My friend sent me a romance novel in the mail with a note saying, I bet we could do better. I don’t even remember what book it was. It was about a Navy SEAL, which doesn’t exactly narrow it down, but it was short, and it was bad. The sex was boring, the plot was dumb, the characters were vapid. And it was a book. A real, published book. And I thought, Hey, maybe I can do this.
I’ve since read much, much better romance novels. Like, hugely, intimidatingly good, that knocked me right off my high horse. But I’m always thankful I read that crappy one first. It gave me an artificially inflated sense of self-confidence that got me through the first draft of CRASH, got me to a publishing house, and got me writing the LIGHTS AND SIRENS series. And here I am, getting paid to write extremely graphic sex scenes in my spare time. Hi, Mom.
What are your creative, just-for-fun (not money or career advancement) hobbies?
I like to keep a running tally of professions it would be hard to write a romance novel about. Aging dive-bar cover-band guitarist. Woman butcher. Prostitute without a heart of gold. And then I decide how I would write them. The answer in this particular situation, obviously, is a polyamorous threesome.
What inspires you? Feel free to be as literal or as figurative as you want.
Movies, tv shows, people on the subway. My lapsed Catholic guilt. The scene in West Wing where President Bartlet shouts in Latin in the church. The other scene in West Wing where President Bartlet takes down Jenna Jacobs. The episode of Buffy where Buffy’s mother dies. The entirety of The Wire. I watch a lot of TV, clearly.
In three words, describe your creative aesthetic/viewpoint.
“Okay, now kiss.”
How would you describe your creative “process”? Does it involve a lot of staring into space, doodling, or candy eating?
Hm. I mean, I spend a lot of time on Tumblr looking at moody pictures of barns? I procrastinate, I walk around my apartment. I browse adoptable dogs online. I write best on the subway, actually. Any moving vehicle does it, but I’m on the subway the most. What I really need is a car and someone to drive me around in circles while I sit in the passenger’s seat and write. Something about the movement tricks my brain into focusing.
What creative accomplishment are you most proud of?
The whole LIGHTS AND SIRENS series, really. It’s a trio of books about emergency service workers in the Berkshires. The first book, CRASH, is out from Samhain Publishing on March 4. It’s about two EMTs, a widower and a girl who’s the head of her Shameless-style brood of siblings. There’s a Greek diner I wish existed in real life, plus a crumbling triple decker and a Craftsman with cabbage rose wallpaper. There’s a dog named Atlas and a lot of family ties. There’s sex too, obviously, although not in the back of an ambulance. I thought that might be a little crass. Most importantly, there’s a happy ending.
The second book in the series, SINGE, is going through its third round of edits at Samhain right now. It’s about two firefighters, and it takes place over the course of one summer as a string of arsons are sweeping through Great Barrington. The Greek diner from CRASH has a cameo, which is how you know I love it. And finally, I just started working on the last book, BANG. It’s about–wait for it–two cops.
I wrote the series because I was trying to write the kind of romance novel I’d want to read. Like, a romance novel about real people, where no one’s a millionaire or a celebrity or devastatingly beautiful. CRASH’s heroine didn’t go to college, SINGE’s can be real bossy and insecure. BANG’s is a divorced mother with a four-year-old and stretch marks. Also, it was really important to me that if I was going to do a series about emergency service workers, both the hero and heroine would be in the profession. So often romance novels have just the dude with the sexy job title–he’s a SEAL or a cop or a rock star or what have you. Masculine, action-packed professions. I wanted to write a novel where both the hero and the heroine had the same job. And not only that, I wanted to show the more pedestrian, realistic sides of those jobs. Not that the work emergency service personnel does is ever pedestrian, but the Berkshires aren’t exactly the South Bronx in the 70s, you know? There are a string of arsons in SINGE, but it’s such an aberration it alarms the whole community. There’s a shooting in BANG, but it’s the first one in ten years. That kind of thing.
What’s a big creative challenge/failure/embarrassment you’ve learned from?
I actually think a nice thing about coming from a fandom/fanfiction background is that, really quickly, you get used to the idea that the minute you put yourself out there in the universe, it’s inevitable that not everybody’s going to like what you do. Not everybody’s gonna see canon the same way you do. Not everybody’s gonna like how you describe things. It’s really liberating to figure that out as early as possible.
A thing I’ve already bumped up against a little bit is that the heroine of CRASH, Taryn, is not everybody’s cup of tea. She’s brash, she’s brutally honest, she’s had a tough go and she’s not always so nice about it, and she changes her mind a lot. Basically, she’s a human person. Like I said, I wanted to write the kind of books that I wanted to read, and I really like the idea of a difficult, complicated, pain-in-the-ass lady in love–but I guess it’s kind of inevitable that some readers were just going to find her, well, a pain in the ass.
Now, leaving aside the discussion of why we in romance (and also, like, in life) are so hard on our lady characters–which I think is a hugely important discussion, and one I absolutely want to have pretty much all the time–it’s kind of like, what can you do? All I could do was keep writing fanfic the way I wrote fanfic. And all I can do is keep writing books I’d want to read.
Who’s your Creative Lady role model (this can be a person you know, a celebrity, a fictional character, etc.)?
Oh man, Rainbow Rowell, 110%. I’d like to grow up to be her. My editor, Christa Desir, who is a freakin’ champion in all kinds of ways. Our Lady Beyonce.
What time of day are you most creative? Are you a morning person or a night owl?
I am a lunchtime person, actually. I write on my lunch break. It’s gotten to the point where I’m considering one of those little keyboard vacuums to take care of crumbs.
Lucky pigs from Ruby’s grandma
Being an awesome Creative Lady can be overwhelming. What do you do to relax?
Imagine what I’d do with my millions if my books ever went the way of E.L. James. Mostly, though, I watch the Food Network. I can’t cook, but I find it mind-numbingly soothing to watch others do it. Not coincidentally, the characters in SINGE find it soothing, too.
What books would you recommend to other Creative Ladies?
On Writing, by Stephen King (true story: I deleted 4,000 adverbs from the first draft of CRASH. FOUR. THOUSAND. ADVERBS.). All Sabrina Ward Harrison’s books. Richard Siken’s Crush and Marty McConnell’s wine for a shotgun.
What advice would you give to other Creative Ladies who want to do what you do?
Procrastinating by looking at adoptable dogs online is a slippery slope. Next you’re looking at your no-pets lease provision for loopholes and googling Life Hacks for secretly owning a pet.
But most importantly: don’t give up on your childhood dream just because you had a crappy career advisor in high school. There are always, always roundabout ways to achieve your passion.
What’s your Creative Lady motto?
No matter what the question, the answer is always more coffee.