Know how it was just Easter and you just ate all those chocolate Easter eggs?
Perhaps you may still be hunting for chocolate Easter eggs, or maybe now you’re after calorie-free Easter eggs to make up for all the chocolate you ate, and if you are, let me tell you the In Service series is chock-full of calorie-free Easter eggs. CHOCK FULL.
And by “Easter eggs,” I mean Easter eggs of the meta kind, and by meta I mean the inside jokes, little nods to spy fiction and film, to well-known characters, to familiar tropes and cliches that run across the spy and romance genre. If you look, you can find them. Some are obvious. Some aren’t. Some are buried. Some are very, very subtle. Some are a running wink to a good-natured battle I have with a shallow-reading librarian friend namedVassiliki. Some show a connection between characters in Forever in Your Service and one of my earlier books, another seasoned romance, one not many have read.
Yeah, I mean the one I wrote for part of my doctoral work, the one that has a 50-ish peanut-butter-loving nuclear physicist heroine who’s solving a mystery with a local hot detective, while carrying out work as an FBI mole, the one with the cover that makes me shudder, the one that, at my publisher’s request, I had to change the title of to something that’s, well, um… well… kind of a joke in itself that, like eating too much chocolate, which proves not all Easter eggs are a smart choice.
Everyone thinks the story Beauty and the Beast is about Belle and the Beast, a cursed prince, but really it’s about Gaston’s ability to expectorate, decorate with antlers, and his slide into hell.
You can keep your pure-hearted heroines and heroes. I’ve always liked fairy tale villains best. Villains give a better example of what it means to be truly human. Villains face or ignore their own shortcomings. Villains illustrate the concept of free will. Villains demonstrate human frailty, human morality. Villains illuminate how to and how not to behave if one wants to be loved, accepted, and admired. We learn more about ourselves from the villain’s actions than we do from the heroine’s or hero’s actions.
Heroines and heroes can be kind of boring, particularly if they are all goody-goody, principled types. Why I think Cinderella is boring as dry grass is that I never learned anything from her, and I never learned anything from Sleeping Beauty, from The Little Mermaid, or Snow White either—other than if you’re pretty people hate you. But I learned plenty from the evil stepmother, nasty stepsisters, and The Evil Queens: If you do something mean it will, eventually, bite you on the ass and lead to your downfall.
Best to avoid being mean.
I love a well-fleshed out villain, but what I love even more is a character who has villainous traits. For me, what makes Mr Rochester far more interesting than Mr High Morals Darcy is that Rochester has a secret, a screaming wraith of a secret that makes him deceitful. The secret is in the attic and it very nearly ruins him. What do we learn from Rochester’s villainous behavior?
Polygamy is bad and don’t keep secrets from the woman you love.
Naturally, my love for a bit o’ badness points to the usual discussion about ‘niceness,’ as in how the leads, particularly the female lead in a romance novel, must be ‘nice,’ never nasty or bitchy, which points to the double standard discussion about how women ‘ought to behave,’ and how older women have been maligned for centuries, which points to a discussion on social mores blah, blah…
I want more female leads in romance fiction to be villainous, to have villainous traits the way Scarlett O’Hara and Rochester do. While Scarlett’s behavior in Gone With The Wind would never be questioned if she had been a man, she is, like Rochester, a perfect example of how good people, men and women, do bad things to protect what they love.
Yes, that is what I learned from Scarlett O’Hara and Mr Rochester.
What I learned from fairy tales wasn’t be pretty, be tidy, kiss frogs because they may be princes. My education came from the villains. I learned to never pretend to be something I wasn’t because that would get me shut up in a cask stuck with nails and dragged through the streets. I leaned to never be wicked to others because that would get me shut up in a vat with poisonous snake and then boiled in oil. I learned to be happy and grateful for what I have because, like the materialistic fisherman’s wife, I could lose it all in a flash, and its only ‘stuff.’
In Beauty and the Beast, Gaston’s utter ruin teaches us how to be human far better than the Beast does when he is transformed by love. Gaston’s transformation from man into a real hellish beast shows us that the villains are the true teachers in fairy tales and in life.
This is the point where there are a choice of ways for me to react. Let’s examine them and break them down.
I could have a Book Launch Brunch, except… As much as I LOVE the breakfast-lunch amalgam that allows others to imbibe and relax with alcohol whilst I get hyped-up on caffeine, I’m an introvert who hates parties where there are more than six people, and no one, except me, would get up and boogie to the Partridge Family’s I Woke Up In Love This Morning from William Murphy’s Bubblegum pop classics playlist if there’s hollandaise, coffee, and booze.
I could be obsessive and check my sales rank on Amazon, today and tomorrow because it’s July 25th here in Australia, but not yet in the UK or North America. However, Amazon boggles my mind and means nothing much at all to me, except for the fact that I’ll eventually get a royalty statement showing that I made enough money from selling a few copies of Next to You to allow me to buy three to ten cups of coffee.
Those three-to ten cups of coffee—OH WHAT JOY!!
It’s a proud moment and I’d like to burst into my favourite local café and shout COFFEE FOR EVERYONE, which, for me is the equivalent of popping a cork on something, tossing confetti and SQUEEEING and stuff…except that introvert, more-than-six people thing again, and I SQUEE better on paper. So I’m gonna go to my favourite local café and continue writing my new book at my favourite table in the corner, and have 2 cups of coffee that, thanks to my readers, my royalties have allowed me to buy. And coffee OH WHAT JOY!
I’m really, really incredibly happy to have William Murphy and Caroline finally meet and have you meet them. Thank you for sharing this moment with me and, well, if you happen to stop by and see me at my favourite café, know that I am truly enjoying the coffee you bought me when you bought my book.
Here’s the question I’ve been asked the most about my upcoming release Next to You:
“Why an a hero with albinism, Sandra?”
My answer? Contact lenses and an old friend.
I wear hard contact lenses and I have a very fair-skinned dear friend who wore an eye patch when he was a kid. That’s him over there.
Yeah, yeah, how cute and all, but what’s that kid got to do with a hero with albinism?
Know how what you see isn’t always what you get, and how looks are deceiving, and that love is blind? I’m myopic (near sighted or shortsighted if you prefer). I also have astigmatism plus, being middle aged, presbyopia. Soft contacts won’t correct my crappy vision. A soft lens won’t sit properly because my astigmatism is too severe. Glasses don’t even give me great distance acuity. Rigid contacts, however, correct my vision quite nicely. Fortunately, rigid gas permeable contacts are a special order item that last a long time, Unfortunately they’re not cheap. The thing is, twelve years ago, when I wroteNext to You, which was then titled A Simple Overexposure (if you read the book you’ll pick where I got that title), I needed new contacts, and it was getting difficult to find an optometrist to fit them and keep the cost under $400.
Being such a tightwad back then, I went online to find companies that manufactured hard contacts, so I could purchase them directly—cheaper than I could from my $400 a pair optometrist. What happened during my search for cheaper is that I came across an article discussing hard contact lenses and vision correction in people with albinism. The article mentioned the use of an eye patch for amblyopia and strabismic amblyopia. Immediately, I thought of that fair-skinned, eye-patch-wearing kid up there, my dear friend, whose name happens to be Will—or The Dread Pirate Will, as he asked to be called in return for letting me use his photo in this post.
maikel_nai via StoolsFair / CC BY
After some fond memories of Will, ones that involved us fake sumo wrestling and going to Monty Python film festivals, I found myself nerding out, reading more about vision conditions like strabismus and nystagmus–eye conditions people with albinism often have.
Then, I nerded out even more and began reading more and more about albinism, about the myths, the stigmatisation, and the stereotypes so often associated with the condition. In a bizarre way the stigmatisation and stereotypes reminded me of the way women of a certain age are stigmatised and stereotyped. I thought how stereotypes are, at their very root, a vision problem that can’t be corrected with contacts or an eye patch.
Suddenly, I had this image of middle-aged man with albinism; it was William Murphy, the suit-wearing, bubble-gum pop-loving hero of Next to You, and I knew there was more to this Will than meets the eye.
Five minutes after seeing Will’s image, I saw Caroline, a middle-aged, introverted, movie-loving heroine who isn’t exactly what she seems—because what you see isn’t always what you get, looks are deceiving, and love is blind.
Kind of like me without my contacts or glasses.
Next to You is out 25 July. You can preorder it now, from all the usual places:
In 2013, The United Nations Human Right council adopted a resolution making today, 13 June, International Albinism Awareness Day.
My book Next to You features a romantic lead with albinism and a deep abiding love of 70s Bubblegum pop songs. The book is due for release on 25 July, but is available for preorder on Amazon, review on Netgalley, and is also up on Goodreads. Yay, right? Okay but why did I write a character with albinism?
A rather obvious parallel. Read on and you’ll see what I mean.
The un.org information regarding International Albinism Awareness Day states, “The physical appearance of persons with albinism is often the object of erroneous beliefs and myths influenced by superstition.” Even in the western world, images of albinism are often based on myths and superstition. Naturally, this is something William Murphy, the silver fox hero of Next to Youunderstands. Will tries hard to educate other about the genetically inherited condition that affects his skin and, to less of an extent than many others with albinism, his vision. By the way, Will’s silver foxy because he’s 56, not because he’s albino.
I tried hard to dispel myths about albinism in Next to You, because when I began writing the story, so many years ago, I was surprised by how few accurate representations of persons with albinism there are. When was the last time you saw a person with albinism portrayed onscreen, in a book, comic, or graphic novel in a role that wasn’t a stereotype of evil or comic relief?
That sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Usually I soapbox about the representations–or lack thereof–of women over 40 in romance fiction. I write women of of substance, not tokens, comic foils, secondary characters, or worst of all, stereotypes: the crone, the crazy cat lady, the granny, the cougar. I write for a female audience that can see themselves, not as cat-ladies, crones, or knitting-cookie-baking grannies, but as regular women—who just happen to be older. Next to You is no different. Caroline is over 45, Will is older and just happens to have albinism.
Have a look at the UN’s statement again: The physical appearance of persons with albinism is often the object of erroneous beliefs and myths influenced by superstition.
Modify the statement slightly: Older women (or Older people) are often the object of erroneous beliefs and myths influenced by superstition.
There you have my reason. Marginalised populations.
Appearances are deceiving. Myths, superstitions, and stereotypes are appalling. Like any man, Will has life baggage, but it has little to do with his skin and eyes. Like any woman, Caroline has life baggage. While Will’s less-than-perfect vision does play a role in the story, I did my best to write an accurate representation of a man and a woman finding unexpected love a little bit later in life, leaving out the erroneous myths and stereotypes of albinism and age.
The UN notes that the erroneous beliefs, myths, and superstitions about albinism foster marginalisation and social exclusion. The beliefs and myths about albinism are centuries old, are present in cultural attitudes and practices around the world. You see this marginalisation in TV, film, books, advertising. The same can be said about older people. However, stereotypes, myths, and superstitions about albinism put lives at risk, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Here is information about International Albinism Awareness Day from the UN website:
Albinism is a rare, non-contagious, genetically inherited difference present at birth. In almost all types of albinism, both parents must carry the gene for it to be passed on, even if they do not have albinism themselves. The condition is found in both sexes regardless of ethnicity and in all countries of the world. Albinism results in a lack of pigmentation (melanin) in the hair, skin and eyes, causing vulnerability to the sun and bright light. As a result, almost all people with albinism are visually impaired and are prone to developing skin cancer. There is no cure for the absence of melanin that is central to albinism.
While numbers vary, it is estimated that in North America and Europe 1 in every 17,000 to 20,000 people have some form of albinism. The condition is much more prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa, with estimates of 1 in 1,400 people being affected in Tanzania and prevalence as high as 1 in 1,000 reported for select populations in Zimbabwe and for other specific ethnic groups in Southern Africa.
Violence and discrimination against persons with albinism: a global phenomenon?
While it has been reported that persons with albinism globally face discrimination and stigma, information on cases of physical attacks against persons with albinism is mainly available from countries in Africa.
Persons with albinism face more severe forms of discrimination and violence in those regions where the majority of the general population are relatively dark-skinned. … In other words, a greater degree of contrast in pigmentation often gives rise to a greater degree of discrimination. That appears to be the case in some sub-Saharan African countries where albinism is shrouded in myth and dangerous and erroneous beliefs.
The manner in which discrimination faced by persons with albinism manifests itself, and its severity, vary from region to region. In the western world, including North America, Europe and Australia, discrimination often consists of name-calling, persistent teasing and bullying of children with albinism. Little information is available from other regions such as Asia, South America and the Pacific etc. However, some reports indicate that in China and other Asian countries, children with albinism face abandonment and rejection by their families.
His milk chocolate eyes were a little on the buggy side. His ears were a tremendous feature, stuck up high on his little head, and he had a mole on his chin. A hair stuck out of that mole. I used to poke it with my fingertip. His hair was so soft.
From the start, he was there, when I first got into the writing scene, when it moved beyond keeping a sporadic journal, or writing letters. I would write and he was there, watching me, hoping at some point that I would get tired and peanut butter would eventuate. He liked to sit beside me, and by beside me I mean he got as close to the edge of the mattress as he could because my desk was right next to the bed. Later, when I moved the bed into another room and turned the front bedroom into my study, he’d hop up on the little couch and have a lie down, keeping his slightly buggy eyes on me as I hammered away at a story, hoping for peanut butter. Or a carrot, or cheese, but mostly for peanut butter.
My Little Buddy, my Budman was my companion for every book I have written. Every book. When I wrote him into Next to You he was 3. Caroline, the book’s heroine needed a companion, one who loved her unconditionally and fiercely. I gave her a Rat Terrier–my Rat Terrier. By the time I had three other books published, and Next to You was with my editor, Budman was almost 16, and he’d gone grey and blind. But he still sat beside me, his clouded, sightless eyes still set in my direction, hoping I’d break for peanut butter. He’s been gone since last August. I miss him, his warm little black and white body, his erect, bat-like ears, his slightly buggy brown eyes framed by a black mask that made him look like a canine version of Batman.
I didn’t realise that when I wrote him into Next to You, all those years ago, that I’d have such a bittersweet memorial to to my dog now. It’s weirdly fitting that Next to You deals with grief and the expectations that surround all that grief does or doesn’t entail, ideas of how one ought to behave when grieving, what’s considered appropriate, what’s considered crazy. Losing a companion animal, a dog, cat, ferret, whatever animal that was a loved part of your family hurts. A lot. The grief isn’t any different than losing a human family member. There is still an expectation of how one ought to behave when grieving, what’s considered appropriate, what’s considered crazy, yet there is also often an expectation that you only “lost a dog” and that you should “Get over it” or just “get another dog.”
Expectations blow as much as the asshats who tell you that you should be grateful that you only lost a dog.
Whether it’s for a human friend or a canine companion you lost, grief is different for everyone. It’s a mystery to why there are expectations around how to grieve and how to act when you grieve. I tried to show that as part of Caroline’s story. Part of her grieving process meant having Batman.
This post is part of my grieving process. It’s been nine months and it still hurts. I’m not ‘over’ losing my dog. I’m not done crying about it. I’m ready to get a another dog, but my husband isn’t. You know, in some way I’m grateful that my little peanut butter-loving dog lives on as Batman in Next to You.
I’ve immortalised him.
Next to YouComing July 25th.
A love of ‘70s Bubblegum pop music isn’t the only unusual thing about William Murphy—being a six-foot-three albino tends to make a man stand out. Will’s life is simple and he likes it that way. But when he meets his new next-door neighbor, complicated begins to look mighty attractive.
Caroline’s left the past behind and is trying to grab life by the balls, which means finding new friends besides her dog, Batman. Will offers her neighborly friendship, and as they bond over old movies, Caroline regains her confidence. Unexpected love blooms. But real life’s not like the movies.
Their cute romantic comedy goes all Fatal Attraction and Will learns that nothing about Caroline is quite the way it looks. His simple life turns more complicated than he could ever imagine.
A mix tape, a playlist, a soundtrack whatever you call it, why can’t books have soundtracks for sale like movies?
Because kids, compiling a soundtrack for a movie is something of a copyright, A&R big money nightmare. For books to have a companion soundtrack would be a copyright, A&R ginormous money acid trip hallucination beyond the comprehension of mortals.
Despite that, from the very first book I ever wrote (the one that will never see the light of day) to A Basic Renovation, For Your Eyes Only (originally titled And She Was–a title I think was better–but marketing didn’t think so and what do I know about marketing?) and Driving in Neutral, every book I write has a soundtrack. Most authors I know listen to music when they write. Music can be inspiring or set the mood for a scene. Characters might have their own theme song. Some characters might even have an entire theme soundtrack, which is the case with Next to You, my upcoming July release.
The music for Next to You is so vital to the story, to the character of William Murphy. Music, Bubblegum pop and Super Sounds of the Seventies is what makes Will Will, –just like movies are what makes his new next door neighbour Caroline Jones Caroline Jones, but more about Caroline in future posts.
In the words of Barry Manilow (yes, I am quoting Barry Manilow), I am music and I write the sooooooongs, but really I am writer and I write the characters who listen to the sooooooongs, and the character I wrote listens to the songs (although he doesn’t listen to Barry Manilow) that make him the man he is.
Here then is some of what William Murphy listens to. And seeing as all of these songs (and many more) are in my music library, you can be assured these are also songs I listen to. You can listen to the Next to You Soundtrack here on William Murphy’s YouTube Channel
Tell me, would you buy a book’s soundtrack the same way you’d buy a film soundtrack?
All it took was one song from my music library and there he was, big, very fair, naked, standing in the shower shaving–and singing The Partridge Family’s I Woke Up in Love This Morning.
I saw him so clearly. Everything I needed to know about William Murphy was contained in two minutes and 38 seconds of a well-crafted but manufactured sugar-sweet bit of Bubblegum pop genius.
That moment doesn’t explain William’s albinism except that’s how I saw him and his very essence came down to a love of expensive suits and hook-driven, upbeat, teenybopper tunes from the 60s and 70s. And I knew I had to set him against the backdrop of a romance. That romance is Next to You and it comes out in July.
You might ask ‘What is Bubblegum pop, Sandra?’ or say, ‘Wait, I thought you said you were all about Powerpop, Sandra.”
To answer the latter: I am all about Powerpop, which isn’t as sweet (or saccharine) as Bubblegum pop, but William Murphy is all about Bubblegum pop.
Yeah, okay, great. But what is Bubblegum pop?
Prepare for a music history lesson:
Intrinsically catchy, sunny, and targeted at a preteen audience –rather than middle aged men–Bubblegum Pop was simple and melodic, the music and lightweight lyrics often about happiness, love, and candy. With repetitive hooks, simple harmonies and simple chords, Bubblegum was often manufactured, created by record producers who hired session musicians—like Andy Kim and Ron Dante, to play and sing the songs.
Often considered to be contrived and production-driven, Bubblegum groups were often given fake names to present the illusion that they were a ‘real band’—The Partridge Family and the Archies, for example. Some groups like The Monkees were real musicians brought together by producers, but played as real band. Occasionally a single artist would provide vocals for several groups, such as Ron Dante’s lead vocals for The Archies (some of you might remember The Archies cartoon) and The Cuff Links. Other artists like David Cassidy (who went on to later solo fame) and Shirley Jones appeared on The Partridge Family television series, and provided vocals for the eponymous musical act, while supported by session musicians.
Most Bubblegum bands were one-hit wonders, however, Bubblegum has a left long legacy of songs reflect the upbeat, catchy simplicity of the music and memorable titles such as Sugar Sugar, Yummy Yummy Yummy, Hanky Panky, Dizzy, Mony Mony, I Think I love You, and memorable acts like The Ohio Express, Tommy James and the Shondells, The Partridge Family, The Monkees, The Osmonds, The Jackson 5, The Bay City Rollers, The Sweet and so many more.
William is simple, upbeat, sweet — naturally I have a playlist for Next to You–and it’s full of William Murphy’s beloved Bubblegum pop tunes.
I bet you’re dying to know what’s on it.
By the way, THIS is Ron Dante, who gave a marvellous voice to cartoon Archie Andrews’s lead vocals. And what a totally bitchin’ sunny and catchy song it is. I bet you’ll hum it all day.
While the inspiration for my writing seems to be rooted in food, what with all the cookie, peanut butter and coffee references, as well as all the bits where character seem to be eating, my Guest today, author Georgina Penney found her muse in an exotic location and tells a Halloween tale of Arabian Nights.
Halloween used to be just a scary movie or something that I’d see featured in American sitcoms as a kid. In fact, other than a couple of really memorable Simpsons episodes, it never flew across my radar until seven years ago when I moved to Saudi Arabia.
The compound we moved to was pretty much a simulacrum of 1950s American suburbia right down to the bake sales and coffee mornings. There were churches on camp, a golf course and, because the compound was built on the Arabian Gulf, some fantastic snorkeling and diving to be had… all right next to the world’s biggest oil refinery. (“Just don’t breathe the air and everything’s perfect honey!”)
The first inkling I got that Halloween was something that I would be experiencing for the first time was the decorations on my American and Canadian neighbors’ homes. In fact, even my Saudi neighbors got into the swing of things. There were suddenly scary ghosts hanging from palm trees and plastic spiders stuck to the golf carts we women drove around camp. People started talking about how the weather always shifted from scorchingly hot (50 plus degrees Celsius) to winter after Halloween and all of a sudden I started to have something to really look forward to.
Then I started to get women asking me if I could co-taxi with them into the nearest city, Khobar to get sweets and costumes for their kids. (If you’re smart, you never take a taxi on your own as a woman in Saudi.) Before I knew it, the sun was going down one weekend and my house was besieged by munchkins and their parents in costumes. It wasn’t just the American kids but the English, Lebanese, Australian, Saudi and everyone in between and I had a hoot of a time. (Thank God I’d stocked up on sweets on one of those trips into town!)
The surrealness of that evening, the sheer inclusiveness and the fun the kids and their parents were having really drew me in and became the inspiration for my first attempt at a novel. I haven’t stopped writing since and nowadays when Halloween comes around, I always make sure I’m well stocked up on sugary treats just in case there’s a ring on the doorbell.
Georgina Penney first discovered romance novels when she was eleven and has been a fan of the genre ever since. It took her another eighteen years to finally sit in front of a keyboard and get something down on the page but that’s alright, she was busy doing other things until then. You can find Georgina’s latest, Irrepressible Youhere.