Last fall, Ruby McNally won the Rumblr’s Anniversary Fanfiction Contest with a beautiful piece about Dirty Dancing. Earlier this month, she published her first romance novel, CRASH, about two paramedics in western Massachusetts. The Rumblr got together with her to talk about fandom, misogyny, and the romance novel industry:
THE RUMBLR: I loved your story about Dirty Dancing so much — the writing was vivid and lovely, and it’s always such a thrill, to me, finding all these smaller or less active fandoms than Harry Potter or Star Trek or whatever. I’m curious — tell me about your history with fandom and fanfiction.
RUBY MCNALLY: Well first of all, thank you so much! I love Dirty Dancing, and I had such a blast writing that piece. I’ve been in fandom since I was a kid, way before I knew fanfiction was a thing other people wrote and posted on the internet—before I had the internet, even. I just liked making up stories about characters I knew and loved and wanted to spend more time with. I always say that I kind of don’t understand how regular people engage with media they enjoy—like, how to watch an episode of your favorite show and then not think about it again for a week until the next episode comes on. When I love something, I love it very much, which for me has always, always meant wanting to come play in the sandbox myself. I’ve written in a bunch of different, mostly small fandoms—The Good Wife, LOST, You’ve Got Mail. I spent like a year writing a minor pairing on the last death-rattle seasons of ER. I like weird, random things.
I’ve definitely heard the Anne Rice/Orson Scott Card School of Fanfiction Criticism—go make up your own stories, get off my lawn, etc. etc.—and I get that, but in addition to being a relatively safe space for me to get comfortable using sex words, writing fic has always felt like a pianist playing scales, or a runner doing suicides. It’s practice, and a way of figuring out what’s interesting to me in any given season of my life—what is it about these characters or this situation that feels so compelling right now, and why? I would effing love it if somebody would write fanfiction of something I wrote. I would feel like I’d totally arrived.
RUMBLR: A few days ago, I was telling a friend about how excited I was to talk to you for The Rumblr, and he got this weird look on his face, like, ew, a romance novelist?? Do you encounter this from the people in your life? What’s it like, working in a genre that’s so — I don’t know — looked down on?
MCNALLY: Looked down on, absolutely! I’m in an MFA program in my other life, and it’s safe to say they’re not exactly coming up to me in droves at the bar to compliment me on my romance novels. The overwhelming attitude, both in literature and in life, seems to be that there’s something embarrassing about romance—that it’s girl stuff and therefore stupid, as if falling in love is an exclusively female act and so unworthy of being explored in fiction. And like, that’s bunk, clearly, but it’s also problematic on more than just an aesthetic level, because it’s how we end up in a culture where prestige television is way more likely to depict scenes of graphic rape than scenes of female pleasure, and a shot of a man’s face mid-orgasm will earn a movie a PG-13 rating while the same shot of a woman gets an R. Dismissing an entire genre as dumb lady stuff or ”Mommy Porn,” as if there’s something inherently disgusting or shameful about women wanting to read about pleasurable sexual experiences, is a form of socially acceptable misogyny—full stop.
Are there dumb romance novels? Absolutely. But there are also dumb crime novels and dumb war movies and really dumb literary short stories that people submit to their MFA workshops (ahem), and at at the end of the day I kind of feel like, you know what? With all due respect to your friend who I am sure is lovely, a person who cannot find it in himself to appreciate a really well-written sex scene is not really a person I want to sit next to at a dinner party. Or, frankly, go to bed with.
RUMBLR: You’ve said that you’re relatively new to the romance novel world. How did you end up here?
MCNALLY: Sort of by accident! Beyond your garden-variety Nora Roberts kind of stuff, I wasn’t a huge romance reader before I started writing. But not long after Fifty Shades came out a fandom friend of mine sent me a super-silly novel about a Navy SEAL and kind of dared me to do better—to see if I could take my extremely specific skill set (that is to say, writing explicit sex scenes with a straight face) and somehow apply it elsewhere. I wrote CRASH in three intense months, everywhere and all the time—on the subway, at my day job, at a bar waiting for friends. The fabulous Christa Desir at Samhain agreed to take me on, and a year later here I am. I’m having a ball.
RUMBLR: It seems like porn has been getting lots of critical attention in the past few years, with even the mainstream discussing and rethinking assumptions that it’s necessarily dirty, or anti-feminist, or unworthy of critical discussion. I’m thinking about Stoya and Sasha Grey, for example, or the Porn Studies journal that Routledge just started publishing. As far as I’ve seen, erotic fiction hasn’t gotten any similar attention. Why, do you think?
MCNALLY: Again, I think it’s the “Mommy Porn” problem. Romance novels are an industry where the books are produced almost exclusively by women, for women, and if society tells us anything it’s that media consumed by women is frivolous and not worthy of critical discussion. Chick flicks, beach reads, magazines, the entire Shonda Rhimes canon—romance novels are in the “pink ghetto” with a whole slew of other women-centric industries. Which is such a shame, because I think the romance novel industry is fascinating. I just got here, and already I could write an entire grad school paper on how many romance novels do or do not pass the Bechdel Test (and whether or not the Bechdel Test is even the best tool to understand feminism in romance novels, if feminism in women-specific spaces carries different expectations than in mainstream spaces, etc., etc…). These topics are up for grabs, people! If someone writes me a critical examination Fifty Shades' unique success without maligning women’s tastes, I will bake them a cake.
RUMBLR: I’ve only read maybe two or three romance novels in my life, but I really loved reading Crash. It was such a delight, to read about these people falling in love and having sex everywhere while also living their lives, worrying about money and taking care of their families and trying to be good at their jobs and good to their friends. Taryn’s sweet friendship with her rich girl coworker Doc really killed me, it was so real and so wonderful. This seems totally unlike what most of us tend to imagine when we think about romance fiction — is that true? Are you trying to do something different, or am I just clueless about what romance novels are actually like?
MCNALLY: Thank you! You’re not wrong, a lot of romance novels are about escapism—about millionaires or rock stars, capital-H Heroes and Heroines, about people who are Not You. I even have one on my desk from the seventies with a holographic cover that’s about SPACE CATS. But as a writer, I generally have a hard time connecting with characters that I don’t at least see a little of myself in? So my goal for writing romance novels has always been realism. I wanted to write books about two (mostly) average people banging, because those are the kind of books I want to read. And if I was going to write a blue collar trilogy about first responders—that’s what CRASH is, by the way, the first book in a series about emergency service personnel in the Berkshires—I wanted to actually write a blue collar trilogy about first responders. Where people have money problems and family problems and worry about their mortgage payments. I mean, gosh, foreclosure is stressful! Foreclosure can be a dramatic arc all by itself! I wanted to write a romance novel about that.
Another thing that was really important to me about CRASH was that both Taryn and Nick be paramedics. A lot of times in romance it’s just the guy who gets the “cool” profession, who gets to be the Navy SEAL and do the rescuing, and I wanted my heroines to be able to rescue themselves. I didn’t want Taryn to be an Everywoman or an audience surrogate, I wanted Taryn to be Taryn. I’m so glad you enjoyed her friendship with Doc—they weren’t as close in the first draft of the book, actually, but female friendships are hugely important to me and I was really pleased with how their relationship deepened a bit during revision.
RUMBLR: What are you working on now?
MCNALLY: I’m finishing up the Lights & Sirens Trilogy right now—the third book, BANG, is about a pair of beat cops whose relationship turns (super awkwardly) sexy after they’ve been partners for almost a decade. I’ve also got a standalone in the works about an ex-con who moves out Montauk to serve his parole, and the tough local girl he meets there. And I’ve just started outlining the novellas I’m planning to work on later this summer—five interconnected stories surrounding a Teamsters family living in the Midwest. I like taking tropes and trying to turn them on their heads a bit, and there’s definitely a lot of that going on in my upcoming work.
I like this interview a lot! I am glad to be thinking about falling in love and if/how that is gendered and how that is represented in media. I would also like to say, please do not call people “ex-cons”! There is a good explanation of why in this google book link (I have not otherwise read the book).
Par and I’s accommodations in Austin.
i think the cat meowing is the stray calico who, in my heart, belongs with me or i belong there or maybe i just want it to be 85 degrees and surrounded by animals again. reggie bein a bossy cat in the doorway, takin pics of a pig for eleanor, ready to return to brooklyn but not really wanting to leave.
My arrogance knows no bounds
And I will make no peace today
And you shall be so lucky
To find a woman like me
Today neither will the East claim me
nor the West admit me
Today my belly is a well
wherein serpents are coiled
ready to poison the world,
and you should be so lucky.
All I have is my arrogamce
I will teach it to lean back
and smoke a cigarette in your faces,
and you should be so lucky
No I will make no peace
even though my hands are empty
I will talk as big as I please
I will be all or nothing
And I will jump before the heavy trucks
And I will saw off my leg at the thigh
before I bend one womanly knee
I am poison
And you will drink me
And you should be so lucky.
Ishtar Awakens in Chicago by Mohja Kahf (via sheer-powder)
That Jenny Holzer projection has really stuck with me so I googled a bit and found the poem from which it is excerpted and I think it’s important to know the context, which is totally removed from that photograph.
i am poison
and you will drink me
and you should be so lucky
i listened to “still i rise" literally ten times in a row today so i feel this.