Interview: Cecilia Tan
By Mary Anne Mohanraj
23 October 2000
I first learned of Cecilia Tan when she bought a story from me -- the first story I'd ever had accepted, in fact -- for an erotic fantasy anthology she was putting out, SexMagick 2. Over the years since then we've met many times at conventions, and have had the opportunity to work together on a few more projects; in fact, I just bought a story of hers, a retelling of "The Little Mermaid," for my recent anthology, Aqua Erotica. She is a fine author whose work has appeared numerous times in Best American Erotica and Best Lesbian Erotica; her recent collection of short stories from HarperCollins is entitled Black Feathers. She's also an excellent editor, a sexuality activist, and she is in a unique position in the speculative fiction world, as the founder/publisher of Circlet Press.
Mary Anne Mohanraj: Circlet publishes a wide range of erotic science fiction and fantasy, queer-themed SF/F, and sex-related nonfiction. They also distribute fine erotic books, magazines, how-to manuals, graphic novels and works of sexual politics, particularly bondage/SM/leather and other alternative sexualities. As I understand it, Cecilia started Circlet Press because she saw a gap in the speculative fiction publishing world -- Cecilia, would that be an accurate assessment? Could you tell us how and why you started Circlet Press?
Cecilia Tan: Basically what had happened was I had written some stories that were very graphically erotic and also very clearly science fiction, involving telepathic characters, other planets, etc. . . . and I found there was no place I could submit them for publication. Now, I had been telling myself I was a writer for years and years, but I had never written anything that really made me say "Aha! This is it!" until I had written these stories. They were the best and most important work I had done to date, I felt, and it just seemed baffling that there was no outlet for them.
At the time I was posting a lot to alt.sex.bondage -- this was back in 1990-1991 or so, when there were only three sex-related newsgroups on Usenet, alt.sex, alt.sex.bondage, and alt.sex.bestiality (which was more of a joke group than anything else). This was before the Web, back when it was all people at universities and high tech companies forging communities. And one of the adages that was coined around that time was something called "Ugol's Law" -- which boiled down to "You're never the only one who . . . (fill in predilection here)." The corollary being, "and you can find others like you on the Internet." So I thought, surely I can't be the only person who enjoys sex in my science fiction, and vice versa!
So I published the stories in a chapbook called Telepaths Don't Need Safewords and discovered, sure enough, there were plenty of other people out there who wanted to read them.
MM: Circlet has published many collections since then -- what collections have you most enjoyed working on? Why?
CT: I've really enjoyed them all. I come up with the ideas for our anthologies on my own, I craft the themes, and then I do the editorial selection, so I get to see the entire process and nurture the stories from slush pile through publication. I like to come up with themes that combine an erotic theme and a science fiction/fantasy one. Some of them are no-brainers, like erotic vampires. Not a stretch. But I also like the more esoteric combinations, like Sexcrime, where we took dystopian settings (a la 1984, where the title comes from) and oppressive societies, and explored the passion and sexuality that can smolder under repressive conditions.
MM: Are there particular things that drive you nuts when you're looking through submissions?
CT: There are a bunch of things that can drive me to tear my hair out. We work with many authors who are amateurs, so I don't get too bent out of shape when there are typical flaws or mistakes that can be fixed with rewriting. But when there are fundamental aspects of a story that can't be saved . . . because the story has a fundamentally sex-negative attitude or misogynistic attitude, well, then there's nothing we can do but mail it back to the author. For some reason, when a lot of people think "erotic science fiction" the first thing that comes to their mind is aliens raping humans, and the more squidgy tentacles the better. Hello, but, ew? And for some reason the humans often end up dead or eaten in these stories, too. This is one of the reasons I have rules against any kind of rape/nonconsensuality and murder in our books. People who have a fundamentally sex-negative attitude think, oh, sex is this yucky thing that makes me squirm, so to write an erotic story, I should write something that will make the reader feel just as squirmy and disgusting. The only feeling of arousal they know is associated with something icky. I'm trying to change that attitude both in the world at large and in the world of publishing by only putting material into print that is sex-positive, for example, that is about people seeking pleasure and finding it without being eaten by alien monsters.
For some reason the science fiction genre seems more prone to the repressive, sex-negative attitude than some others. . . I think because of the kinship with "horror." So I try to make it clear to people that what we publish is not horror. But I still get a lot of manuscripts every year that make me want to run and take a shower.
That, and -LY adverbs, are probably my two biggest pet peeves.
MM: Fair enough, but is there never a place for questioning consensuality issues in erotica? I know this is very tricky ground, but some of my own writing wanders into this area -- I admit to getting a little tired sometimes of the relentlessly sex-positive focus of erotic publishing. Would Circlet not accept a good story that wasn't necessarily sex-positive?
CT: Of course there is room to question consensuality in erotica, and in erotic science fiction, but we are trying to reverse a rather strong tide of using sex in the genres of horror, sf, and fantasy to shock, horrify, or disgust, rather than to celebrate the sex itself. I have, actually, published quite a few stories that do have rape, murder, and other things that are supposedly against the Circlet rules in them, but the difference was that the stories were not glorifying these things -- they were part of the plot, but weren't point of the story. They were sex-positive stories that happened to include a contrasting element. But people and authors who just "don't get" what we mean by sex-positive are best off avoiding trying to put anything non-consensual into their stories if they are sending it here.
I personally enjoy a much wider range of erotic tastes than what Circlet publishes, but our focus is purposefully narrow in the sex-positive regard. I do sometimes get very well-written, evolved stories that are still sex-negative, and I have to turn them away.
MM: I see; I hadn't realized that was a deliberate editorial policy at Circlet, rather than a personal preference. To move from editing to publishing -- what has the experience of founding your own publishing house been like for you? Generally positive or negative? Would you recommend it to others? What advice might you give to an aspiring publisher?
CT: I worked in book publishing before heading out on my own, so I had some idea what I was getting myself into. It's really a lot of work and not something I would recommend just as a hobby for someone. Nothing beats being in complete control of a book, though. I've had my experiences publishing with big New York publishers, and I will continue to publish with them because they can get me money and audience I can't reach entirely on my own. But you give up so much creative control when you sign away your rights to a big publisher. Doing it myself is extremely satisfying, and I really enjoy helping beginning writers get going and refine their craft.
MM: You've also gotten much better at doing it youself. I have some of the early Circlet titles -- they're chapbooks, folded and stapled. Your recent books have been much more professionally done; good production values, beautiful covers, etc. That must be expensive. What's the money like for you? You balance publishing and your own writing -- is that all you do, or do you need to have a day job too? Have you found it easy or difficult to support yourself in this field?
CT: I don't make a red cent in salary from what I do with Circlet Press, despite the fact that it takes up most of my time. I would like to sell the company at some point, so that I can concentrate on my own writing more, and presumably the sale would net me a profit, since I own a large chunk of the shares in the corporation. But at this point, I make my living teaching tae kwon do part time, and from writing. I make more money from writing than from anything else I do, but it is the thing that I have the least amount of time to devote to! I need to write more, in fact, but that's hard to do when I'm running a company.
MM: Tell us about your own writing -- how did you begin writing? Did you intend to become an author, or did you have a specific reason or reasons for writing your stories?
CT: I started writing when I was old enough to hold a crayon. I taught myself phonics, actually, when I learned to spell my own name. I thought --hey, there's a trick to remembering how to do this. . . and I immediately began writing "books" that were phonetically spelled. I'd fold over a piece of manila paper, and write a title on the front and "Th End" (sic) on the back. I'd illustrate them, too, just like children's books. But I was a much better writer than illustrator -- once I learned to spell, anyway.
So I always called myself a writer and told my parents that was what I was going to grow up to be. Life is so much easier when you know who you are and what you want to do with your life. . . but for years and years I didn't feel I had written anything worth finishing, or worth reading. I had learned the craft of writing, but I didn't have anything to say. Until I started writing erotica, that is.
I think the erotic science fiction I wrote was defining for me, because it was the final step in solidifying who I was as an adult individual, asserting my sexuality and uncovering a lot of what had just been sublimated up until then. Once that was uncorked, I found my voice, and I've been going strong ever since. I also write non-erotic science fiction, baseball essays, literary fiction, and other stuff, too, now.
MM: Hmm. . .has your erotica background affected publishing your other writing? I know a lot of authors are hesitant to write erotica (or write it under a pseudonym) because they're afraid of being branded as a 'sex writer.' I know some people are surprised when they read something of mine that isn't erotic, or doesn't involve sexuality at all. And I haven't even tried to publish my children's book yet. Has that been an issue for you?
CT: I've published a lot of other things and I've always just used my real name on all of them -- but I haven't used my erotic publication credits to sell most of my other work. For example, I'm writing a weekly column for a New York Yankees web site. I didn't tell them I write erotica also and I don't see why it should make a difference. I have been talking about writing a young adult book, though, and would probably do that under a pseudonym, if I had to in order to get the publisher to agree. But generally speaking, I'm simply not famous enough in any one area for people to make the connection to another area of writing. I have written and published a bunch of science fiction stories that aren't erotic, but they are clearly cut from similar cloth as my erotic sf/f stuff. But with stuff that's further out from the genre, no one has noticed that I am "the same" Cecilia Tan. I'm going to keep trying to use my one name as much as possible, no matter what I write. It hasn't been an issue thus far, and hopefully it won't be.
MM: Heh. I didn't even realize you were a baseball person; diverse interests! Can we talk a little about your background? I believe you are of mixed ethnicity -- Chinese/Anglo? Has that played into your writing? If so, how?
CT: I'm actually Chinese-Filipino/Irish/Welsh. That hasn't been as important in my writing as sexual identity has, but it has come into play in various ways. I believe every story is exploring some aspect of self, just some are wider or deeper aspects than others. I do write a bit about characters who feel cut off from their ancestry, which is a fairly common American viewpoint. I also write a lot about characters who are between cultures, or between in other ways. Mr. Spock was my role model growing up. I grew up believing that people who were half and half had special powers and were better than everyone else. David Bowie was my other childhood role model, in his case for his gender/bisexuality between-ness.
MM: I can certainly empathize with that -- and I suspect a lot of your readers can who aren't necessarily of mixed ethnicity. It's a common theme in speculative fiction, perhaps speaking to the way in which we all feel alien at times, especially as children. What authors do you like to read? What book or books have had a strong influence on you or your writing?
CT: I try to read a lot, but I don't have time to read as much as I would like. I try to read four books at a time, simultaneously, kind of like you do when you're taking four different college courses. So I try to read a nonfiction book, a critical book or essay collection, a work of literature, and something sf/f for my own fun. Right now, for example, I'm reading a collection of Angela Carter's short stories, a biography of Babe Ruth, I'm re-reading Steven Brust's Jhereg books, and I'm without a book of critical essays at the moment. As far as writers who have influenced me, I think individual books influence me more than writers do. David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest redefined my notions of what is possible in fiction, Tim Powers' Last Call did the same for my conception of fantasy. I love Neal Stephenson but don't write like him at all. Samuel R. Delany has probably been an influence, but I'd be hard pressed to actually point it out in my work.
MM: What about the new work that is emerging? What challenges do you see facing speculative fiction writers today? What areas most concern you?
CT: The biggest challenges I see facing writers are twofold. One, how will we continue to make a living in the new economy, where publishers and newspapers are forcing writers to hand over all rights, and I do mean all rights, for a single one-time fee, while the publisher can exploit the written piece again and again? I am not at all worried about Internet "piracy" of copyrighted material -- people passing stories around among their friends like they do MP3s. I am much more worried about the outright robbery that our own publishers are forcing on us, not just genre writers, but all writers. As the companies that own book publishers, magazines, and Internet outlets merge and gobble one another up, they get more and more powerful, and more and more able to force us into accepting their terms.
The other big challenge I see is an artistic one, which is how will writers of the future transcend genre? Hasn't it all been done? How will we break new ground? We are always expanding the possibilities of what the genre can do, but new territory gets quickly populated by clones. We have to continue to break new ground, while at the same time satisfying our readers' hunger for the basic elements of genre.
MM: Certainly a tricky balance -- it'll be interesting for us to see with this magazine whether the readers will continue to accept us as speculative fiction, given that a lot of what we publish doesn't fit comfortably in genre boundaries, and doesn't necessarily use genre tropes. Finally, what advice would you give the aspiring young writer? What are the important things they should keep in the forefront of their mind?
CT: Write what you are on fire to write. If you aren't on fire, then you may as well get a job in pharmaceuticals or something in the meantime until you figure it out. Once you do figure it out, though, don't be afraid to quit that job in pharmaceuticals.
MM: Thanks, Cecilia -- it's been terrific talking with you, as always!
Mary Anne Mohanraj is Editor-in-Chief of Strange Horizons.
Find out more about Cecilia Tan at her Web site.