Writing Dangerously

NOWD-2014-PosterI had the pleasure of accompanying my friend and RWA chapter-mate Kristin Miller to the National Novel Writing Month’s Night of Writing Dangerously last weekend as her date, hubba hubba! I had a great time, and here are some of my takeaways:

1) Writing is dangerous.  It’s vulnerable, an incredible investment of time and energy.  Almost every author I know has a life as full as mine, and making the commitment to keep writing every day has costs. We do it because we have to–we have the calling, the urge. Yet like everything that’s truly worthwhile, writing demands sacrifices. It was great fun to be in a crowded room full of others who, like me, have weighed those costs and deemed them worth it.

2) Phew! I finished the first draft of my latest WIP right before this event. It was a hard book, one of the most satisfying The Ends I’ve written.  Since my first NaNoWriMo in 2012, the timing of my writing projects hasn’t allowed me to participate again, and every year I’m bummed to miss the awesome communal and yet slightly word-count-competitive mayhem. The novel I completed from start to finish in November of 2012 will be published next summer, so that’s cool! I’d tell you it’s name, but it’s getting a new one as we speak.

Amber and Kristin at NOWD3) I was at a table of really talented writers from my RWA chapter, including the lovely Kristin Miller (right), Rachael Heron, Bethany Heron, Adrienne Bell and Veronica Wolff (and one really nice guy who had the courage to sit with a bunch of romance writers!). Together we discussed our writing processes, and what works for each of us.

As of last week, I’m seven novels into my life as a writer, which feels like an accomplishment to me, but makes me an infant compared to some of the others I was sitting with. I love every second of it; writing brings me so much joy.  But I still wrestle with my process, and with process envy for people who do it differently and (of course, because the grass is always greener) seem to do it more easily than me. Talking to these other writers reminded me once again that our process is as unique as our voice and the world-view we bring to our stories. We may as well embrace it and make it work, rather than trying to conform to the advice of others.

Still, it’s always nice to hear when someone else does it like you, and Rachael and I discovered we both have to be in the moment with our characters before we know what they will do next. It makes planning nigh impossible, but leaves me pleasantly surprised very often, and happily I’m not alone in doing it this way–by the gut in the moment of writing, rather than a carefully pre-mapped arc.

4) There are middle school students writing novels this month in San Francisco schools! How cool is that? I occasionally teach a middle school writing club, and I’ve been pushing my students with my new favorite app: Write or Die. Now I’m inspired to nudge a few dedicated young authors to this level of productivity.

5) I won a raffle basket of hardcover books, and I will be giving some of them away on the blog very soon!

Halloween Flash Fiction & A Queer Romance Month Post

grave_texture_1_by_goombanomics-d4bbzhwI’ve been on the Interwebs lately with a few fun things:

Today I wrote a silly little Halloween Flash Fiction Story for Jennifer over at Books Make me Happy!  It was a fun game–write a short piece inspired by a picture.  This is the one I chose, and as Jennifer says, “What’s a Halloween story without an empty grave and an appearance from the big guy down under?”  It’s a little noir with a female PI and an ex with a grudge.

About the Picture: Image: Grave Texture 1, Artist Page:Artist Page: Goombanomics http://www.deviantart.com/art/Grave-Texture-1-260899700

 


 

 

QRM Author badge_300I was hugely honored to be asked to contribute to Queer Romance Month, and the essays have been stunningly brilliant. Honestly, I recommended reading them all!  Mine is up today, and it’s called For These Things we are Beloved.  It’s about how real-life stories taught me all true love is queer, and how my spiritual journey taught me that love is love (which is the motto of Queer Romance Month).

 

 

 

 


Mummy 2Lastly, I participated in a fun little Scary Stories Facebook Party on Friday, and posted a video of me reading my favorite not-that-scary story, The Runaway Mummy.  It’s a parody of The Runaway Bunny, and one of my favorites!

You can find the video here.  It’s 4 and a half minutes of me being silly :-)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Release Day: Blood Eternal and the Blood Vine Box Set

I’m very grateful to my publisher Omnific for releasing the Blood Vine series as a boxed set.  And here’s the best news: the collection comes with a new short story starring Pedro and Lucas, BLOOD ETERNAL.

Blood Eternal:Distance has grown between blood mates Pedro Torres and Lucas Bennett. Before an eternity of bonded misery becomes their fate, Pedro undertakes a plan of seduction, hoping it will close the gap and bring his lover back to him forever.Buy links: Amazon | Barnes & Noble

This short story of 4000 words is also available separate from the box set.

The Blood Vine Series

Blood Vine: When public relations pro Zoey Porter arrives at an enchanting California winery, she discovers her sexy new client is the almost one-night stand she can’t forget. Zoey has vowed never to risk her heart again, but Andre needs her help.

Blood Entangled: Kos Maras’s orderly life is in shambles–he must distribute Blood Vine to a population of ailing vampires, but Hunters block him at every turn. To make matters worse, each night, he watches over a temptingly beautiful but unattainable woman sleeping in his bed.

Blood Reunited: Vampire biologist Bel Maras must create a cure for the wasting disease that plagues his family. But when it fails, only his ancient and estranged godmother Uta can help. Now these old enemies must overcome their past to save the vampires and come to peace with the bond they never chose.

Buy links: Amazon | Barnes & Noble

Thanks to the awesome bloggers who are buzzing about the release this week!  You can win a copy of the box set by entering contest at one of the following blogs:

The Secret Sermon In Every Romance Novel 

If you like to ponder the big ideas behind the romance genre, check out my recent post on the blog Wonkomance, in which I argue writing romance is a courageous and hopeful countercultural act.

The 10 minutes before I sleep.

downloadI’ve fallen out of the rhythm of blogging for a number of reasons, but something has stirred inside me–an inspiration to get back into it. I’m a creature of habit, and so I plan to make a new one.  A Monday post about what I’m reading.

Sadly, I lost my primary reading opportunity–audiobooks on my commute–three weeks ago, when my kids started joining me for the 1-1.5 hour round-trip each day. Since then, I have listened to the same Fancy Nancy stories countless times, instead of the grown-up novels I prefer. There’s something cool about sharing books with the twins, but I do miss my adult reads.

Consequently, I’m forced to choose what I read carefully.  And, currently, I don’t have time to read things I’m compulsive about. By compulsive I mean the absolutely delicious audiobooks of Laura Kinsale novels narrated by Nicholas Boulton, to which I have lost many hours of sleep.  I just can’t afford book hangovers when my only writing time is at 5 a.m.  Romance is largely a genre of page-turners, but for now I’m choosing the slow reads, which I can enjoy five or ten pages of before my eyelids begin drooping. If you have any slow-build romance authors to recommend, please share!

It’s a delicious feeling to settle into bed, warm and ready for sleep, and to pick up a book. The one I’m presently enjoying is the first Thursday Next novel, The Eyre Affair.

A little back story: in April, on a non-linear impulse, I listened to the fourth Thursday Next book on audio and enjoyed it. Months later, I undertook to write an “In Love with Nanny” story, and thought I should re-acquaint myself with Jane Eyre (which also included some yummy time watching Michael Fassbender as Rochester.)  When I found a few weeks ago that someone had abandoned the paperback at work, my next book was chosen for me by divine providence.Fassbender

These Thursday Next novels are really peculiar.  They are full of wordplay and puns, most of which I am probably missing.  They are essentially extensive literary in-jokes, delightfully surreal, plotted like genre fiction but only sort-of, and just right for reading sporadically. You could probably re-read countless times and find new layers on each pass. I’m a third of the way in, and we’ve only once been tantalized with a Rochester appearance.  We’ve also just now met “the love interest” who I happen to know spoilers about, since I read out of order.  Thursday is a little bit noir, very droll, and quite likable.  These books probably aren’t a fit for people who prefer to read only romance, but since I’m a genre omnivore, I am already looking forward to brushing my teeth and then reading another half-chapter.

DualityPrinciple-The300-2-200x300I also had the pleasure of reading the ARC of a debut by romance writer, Rebecca Grace Allen, who I *met* in those fun “Firsts” blog hops. Her novella, called The Duality Principle, will release November 11 from Samhain.

The story is smart, sexy, and passionate, with two lovable characters trying to make peace with the disparate parts of themselves.  I guess it’s a New Adult story, a genre I tend to avoid, but I enjoyed this one! Rebecca Grace has a lovely and natural voice, and it was fun to be inside both her sweet characters’ heads.  I have a high standard for fresh, believable internal conflict in erotic romance, and this book has it! I’ll definitely check out more of her work, and I recommend this fun, steamy summer-fling story. You can pre-order it now. And what a cute cover, right?

 


 

BloodVineSeries_v2_500x500Two bits of news:

The box set of the Blood Vine series, featuring a short story about Pedro and Lucas called “Blood Eternal,” will release Oct 14. You’ll be able to get the story separately too, if you already own all three Blood Vine books.

And yay! I’ve sold a paranormal romance called Temptress in a Teapot to Lyrical Press, now part of Kensington. This book is dear to my heart and I’m so happy it will be released in July 2015.

Meet my Characters Blog Hop: Pedro Torres

PedroLovesLucasMy dear writing friend Celia Breslin tagged me in the Meet my Characters Blog Hop–I never follow the rules for these things, but I still thought it would be fun!  So, voila!

Meet Pedro Torres, who considers himself the star of the Blood Vine series, about to be released as a box set.  While the Maras vampires (Andre, Kos and Bel) might argue with him about who is the true hero of the series, Pedro and his lover Lucas get their very own short story, Blood Eternal, that will be bundled with the box set and also available separately.  I’ve just turned in edits and found I’d forgotten how much I like this short, steamy ditty, which earned a “RAWR” from my editor.

Is your character a fictional or a historic person?

Pedro might argue this point too, and I admit he seems awfully real to me, but he is entirely the product of my own imagination. So—fictional!

When and where is the story set?

Blood Eternal is set several years after the close of Blood Reunited, which is to say in the present. The story takes place in Budapest, which is a really fascinating city–beautiful, old, with all the grit and mystique the countries formerly behind the Iron Curtain hold for me.  My husband lived in Budapest to study math as an undergraduate, and we have two watercolors he bought there hanging over our bed.  After the recent earthquake in Napa, CA, which shook our San Francisco home pretty good, I became convinced the pictures might decapitate me in my sleep and I nailed their hooks into the picture rail, so hopefully I will not be killed by my own art anytime soon.

What should we know about him?

Oh gosh, Pedro is such a fun character that it’s hard to choose just one thing.  How’s this?  He comes from a long line of Spanish vintners, and is himself an accomplished winemaker, which is how he’s occupied himself since Blood Reunited closed, and which allows him to make a wildly romantic gesture in this short story. Also, he’s a perennial smart ass.

What is the main conflict? What messes up his/her life?

At the start of Blood Eternal, Pedro and his bonded mate Lucas have been living in a long-distance relationship for several years, and he fears Lucas doesn’t want to come home and live with him when the opportunity finally arises.

What is the personal goal of the character?

In this short story, Pedro’s goal is to seduce Lucas and rekindle their intimacy.

Is this story published, and where can we read more about it?

Blood Eternal will be released in October as part of a box set of the Blood Vine series.  Here’s more about the trilogy, and here is where bloggers can sign up to join the release event.

BloodVineSeries_v2_500x500

Here are four other authors pals of mine participating in the hop:

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Flash Fiction: Lisa Queen of Love

FirstUndressing1I’m so excited to be part of the launch day of the First Undressing Blog Hop (#1stUndress), inspired by this great video!  It’s happening all week, organized by the fabulous Audra North! Here’s the schedule for the rest of the week, featuring some of my very favorite romance writers!

BTW–did you notice I have a gorgeous new website?  It’s designed by the fabulous Amber Shah at Book Beautiful.  She does covers too, and she’s great to work with! To celebrate, anyone who hasn’t yet signed up for my new newsletter will be entered in this giant book giveaway. Winners chosen Friday, books mailed Tuesday!

Blog hop rules: strangers meeting and undressing for the first time on camera! A pretty tough set up…I hope you enjoy my attempt :-)

Lisa, Queen of Love

The formally dressed singles filed into the hotel ballroom. Their excess of glam layers and accessories made for a festive atmosphere, but dampened their elegance. Oh well, the party vibe was the important part.

“I still say this will never work.” A grudging smile colored Brad’s words. The crowd was far bigger than they’d expected.

Anxiety squeezed Lisa’s chest so tight her sternum might crack in half.

It had to work!

In college she’d matched six couples who’d wound up happily married, earning herself the nickname Queen of Love. Since then, she’d turned her gift into a career. Or, she’d tried. Brad had funded her matchmaking business twice over. Both times, her dating services had built momentum, landed a few successes, but never quite managed a profit. Brad had gently suggested it was time to throw in the towel.

Instead, she’d devoted herself to studying what attracted young singles in San Francisco–avant garde events, bordering on the absurd. Hell, at this very moment, in the hotel next door the crazy-popular new cunnilingus-as-meditation club met.**

Let a stranger go down on you to find inner peace?

Whatever rocks your little birdie, girls.

Like the stereotypical matchmaker, she’d neglected her love life and had self-rocked her own birdie for months, but she wasn’t willing to go that far. Still, if her potential clients wanted an adventure, she would create one for them. She’d thrown her last funds into one final hurrah—Take off that Black Tie!

The rules were simple. When the music paused, dance partners would remove one item of each other’s clothing. When the tune started again, they could keep moving, or stick together for the next round.

Brad had roped his buddy Sean’s band, The Incidents, into playing. As serious up-and-comers, they’d drawn a big crowd.

“I’m so glad he volunteered.”

“He wanted to meet you.”

Brad had been trying to set them up for years. She’d listened to Sean’s CDs, watched videos on Youtube. “Leave the matchmaking to me,” she’d always said. The edgy musician had magnetic appeal, but guys like that weren’t for keeps. She preferred men like Brad—clean-cut, professional, safe. “When are you going to introduce me to your straight identical twin?” In reply, he’d rolled his eyes.

Across the room, Sean saluted Brad–an odd pair of friends, but true ones. The wiry singer wore no coat, his black tie was askew, and the cuffs of his tight, white tux shirt were rolled up to reveal ropy forearms. His jeans fit his rangy body like an adoring glove. Her mouth went dry–his sexy mockery of “black tie” was hot as hell, and she wasn’t the only one to notice. Droves of girls stared up at him as he tuned his guitar and half-smiled, gazing down with languid eyes.

“I told you he was something.” Brad snickered, as if reading her mind.

Even more so in person—he vibrated with charisma. “So not my type.”

“Mine either, unfortunately, but I still like to look,” he drolled, surveying the crowd. “I can’t believe these buffoons paid fifty dollars each to come in here and strip.”

He was reading their conspicuous use of accessories all wrong.

“They paid to see each other strip, silly. To see how they handle the scene and wear their own skin.” Personally, she preferred coffee for a first date, but these people were in search of a partner, a future, and she desperately wanted to help. It made it easier believe she’d have a future eventually too.

“Hhmph.” Brad raised one brow, looking her over.

A sleek halter–style dress and her grandma’s diamond stud earrings–the lack of accessories made it clear she was the hostess, not a player.

If Brad weren’t gay, she might have thought his intense regard of her cleavage meant he was checking her out. “You’re not planning to join in?”

“I’m on the clock. I need to mingle, make sure the vibe is fun and relaxed. And I’ll be guiding the videographer.”

“Video?”

“Everyone signed waivers at the door. No nudity. Just tasteful shots. We need this to go viral for business to pick up.”

“Indeed we do. Look, time to kick things off.”

It was. She wound around the edge of the crowd and stepped onto the stage.

Guitar slung over his shoulder, Sean watched her cross to him, his gray-green eyes as intense as one would expect of a soon-to-be rock star. She tried not to let it unnerve her, but a surprising twist of desire tightened her core. He probably looked at every woman like that.

God maybe she did need to get tongued into inner peace next door.

He stuck out his hand. “Finally, I meet Lisa, Queen of Love.”

He made it sound exotic, almost erotic. Not like the silly, playful nickname she’d built her brand around. And how would those calloused fingertips feel on her body?

He smirked and tugged his hand. “I’ll be needing this back.” Something odd about his voice caught her attention.

He strummed the guitar and the room went quiet.

“Evenin’, y’all. Time to get this party started.” A layer of long, lilting Irish vowels lived underneath his southern twang. Holy shit. The man had two accents, working together in an alchemy of sex appeal. Why hadn’t Brad warned her about that?

“Our lovely host, Lisa, Queen of Love.”

That time, her nickname in his mouth coiled through her pelvis, a hot, liquid counterpoint to her tension. He stepped back from the mic with a courtly bow. With her whoosh of exhaled breath, the high-stakes night nearly slipped out of her control.

The expectant faces of the crowd reminded her why she was there–last chance to be the Queen of Love. That vise of anxiety squeezed her heart again. She swallowed her nerves and delivered her speech. Everything came out clunky and stilted. As she spelled out the rules of the night, Brad cringed.

Sean, on the other hand, wore an s-shaped grin, like she was the most amusing thing he’d ever seen. He leaned so close to the mic she couldn’t help but look at his mouth.

“Like the pretty lady said, dance.” He strummed his guitar again and began to croon.

Lyrics with a fast, biting punk rhythm, sung in his deep, smooth voice–the unexpected dissonance mesmerized her.

Then her skin grew tight all over. Something was wrong. She looked at the crowd.

The camera guy was panning five hundred frozen bodies, their awkward stares caught, like insects in amber. Even the die hard band groupies stood still. Her stomach plummeted. At the end of the first chorus, Sean brought the song to a screeching halt. There was a collective shuffle.

“Folks. Y’all look like a bunch of grade-schoolers, afraid to spin your first bottle. So me and Lisa are gonna show you how it’s done.”

What? No!

Sean strode across the stage, long legs in black jeans. He took hold of Lisa’s hand, then gave her a leisurely once over. Damn it if her nipples didn’t pearl.

Into the mic he said, “I don’t suppose it would be fair to snag your dress first?”

The crowd chuckled nervously.

He dropped to his knees and grabbed her ankle, sliding off one high heel then the next. His calloused fingertips shot tingles up her legs. He rose and held up his spoils to a cheer.

In the corner of her eye, the cameraman moved, boxing her into his shot. Oh, God. This was not the plan. But if it would save her business…

“Your turn.” She crossed her arms over her tight breasts. “Let’s have that shirt.”

Sean set the guitar in its stand. She reached for his collar. A hundred tiny buttons joined the pleated plackets. Underneath, his skin radiated heat. She bit her lip and focused on the task.

He took hold of her shaking hands and whispered, “Relax. They need to see you’re into this, that you’ll play along. I’ll help.”

She met his eye and saw kindness there—strangers bound by a mutual friend.

Then those green irises took on a sparkle. “And best to make it look a little sexier.”

Her palms prickled in response and she gulped. “I’ll try.” She pulled his open shirt from his jeans, wanting to touch the dark trail of hair there. No. Too intimate.

She put her hands on his shoulders instead, dragging the sleeves down strong, sinewy biceps, lingering and stepping closer. She smiled up at him, hoping it was gratitude and not lust showing on her face. He grinned back.

Gloriously bare chested, he leaned into the mic, keeping Lisa in his line of sight. “I’ll tell y’all a secret. Couple a years back, I saw a picture of Lisa here on my pal’s fridge. Every time I’m there, I look again, but she’d never agree to meet me. Until tonight, and I’m going to take off her clothes.”

Lisa’s skin burst into flames as the crowd burst into a raucous cheer.

“Pretty Lisa, Queen of Love, this song is for you. And while I sing it,” he pointed both his index fingers at the crowd, “y’all need to find somebody to get naked.” A few fans woo-hood. The energy in the room shifted again, becoming more relaxed. People began to mingle as he sang a soft ballad. She tried to slink off the stage.

Brad blocked her way. “Sweetheart, the success of this evening very likely depends on you letting Sean take your dress off.” He nodded at the camera crew. “Hope you signed your waiver.”

The chorus ended. He leaned into the mic while staring right at her. “Earrings, or dress?”

The crowd roared, “Dress!”

“Yeah?” That time the question was for her alone.

Her cheeks blazed.

“Is this a punishment for not wanting to meet you?” she whispered.

He flinched. “Christ, no. I only wanted to help, when Brad said how much you wanted this.”

They’d never met, and yet he’d done this for her. Her throat tightened so she could only whisper. “Thanks.”

He spun her so she faced the band, which would spare her some embarrassment. It was the most gentlemanly thing anyone had done for her in ages.

“Want to get a coffee sometime?” she blurted.

“Love to.” His grin was something wicked.

She waved at the drummer, who gave her a stoic nod. Sean reached behind her neck and untied her halter, baring her breasts.

“Love to,” he repeated, gazing down at her very hard nipples. “Gents,” he raised his voice, “if you had this view, you’d all sign up for Lisa’s matchmaking services, and wind up broken hearted over her.”

A laugh rumbled behind her.

“Panties?” he asked, one hot word in her ear.

“A thong.”

“If it’s any comfort, I’m commando, and likely to be sporting quite a hard-on if you take my trousers. Makes it damn hard to play guitar.”

She laughed. “I think I’ll let you keep them, then. Let’s hope my bare ass is enough to keep the natives from getting restless.”

He circled behind her, shielding her, and unzipped the lower half of her dress, letting it fall to the floor.

Again, the crowd cheered, but she only felt his gaze burning into her. “Even more beautiful than I imagined. Why wouldn’t you ever have a drink with me?”

She glanced over her shoulder, somehow seeing subtle hints of his vulnerability, as if she’d known him for years. “Because I wanted to too much.”

His wicked grin grew wider. “Immediately after this, Lisa, Queen of Love, I’m taking you out for coffee.”

“It will be one A.M.”

“Decaf, then.” And he pecked the peak of her shoulder before stepping aside, and exposing her to five hundred people, who whistled and clapped.

She didn’t care a bit. Averting his eyes, Brad handed her a wadded up tablecloth. Heart aflutter, she wrapped herself in it, and watched Sean sing.

**I couldn’t make this up, but it’s actually clitoral hand job as meditation.

Thanks so much for taking the time to read my story “Lisa, Queen of Love.” If you liked it, consider signing up for my newsletter to receive news about my latest releases.

Now, check out Julia Kelly and A.L. Parks‘ blogs. They are also posting stories for day one!

A Scandalous Love: a Sermon on Mary Magdalene

Icon of MM

It was fun and challenging to preach about Mary Magdalene today as St. Marks in Palo Alto observed her feast day–challenging, because it’s quite a task to condense my messy ideas about feminism, sexuality, and sex work into one sermon. If you’re interested, here’s my attempt.  I think an audio recording will also go online, and I’ll share the link here when it does.

The nice folks at St. Marks were so welcoming and lots of them joined me for a lively chat about sexual ethics in early Christianity and now.

Update: Here’s the audio version (.mp3). For some reason I preached this one really slowly. You could probably speed it up in your audio player and enjoy it more :-)

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If the Savior made her worthy, who are you indeed to reject her?

Hi, my name is Amber Belldene, and I write romance novels. Between you and me, they’re pretty racy. Actually, Amber Belldene is my pen name, because I’m also an Episcopal Priest with a full-time churchy job.  It’s not super top secret though, because this Bishop just started following me on Twitter last night.

I arrived in these dual vocations at different times, and in different ways, and yet they harmonize, and have proven to be interconnected in ways I never expected. Because people are hungry to talk about sexuality and spirituality, they long to hear their bodies and desires are a part of their relationship with God, not an inconvenient hurdle on the path to holiness.

I think that’s why Salying invited me in particular to talk to you about Mary Magdalene. From Pope Gregory to The Last Temptation of Christ to the DiVinci Code, she’s a figure that’s fascinated people throughout history. The Gospels really only tell us she was Jesus’s friend, a beloved disciple, and yet their friendship has been the cause of much speculation.

On the one hand, in 2014, we roll our eyes that a friendship between a man and a woman would be scandalous. We interact with people of different genders and sexual orientations all the time. Yet, the way we socialize and work together is just a tiny speck on the timeline, when you consider the long span of human history that’s come before us. And even still, in these enlightened times, our interactions aren’t always easy. We experience moments of unexpected attraction, or we take offense at something someone says. Gender and sexual desire are always with us, two of the most core pieces of our identity. If we try to ignore them, they take on dangerous powers.

I’ll never forget a conversation with a colleague in which I naively suggested sexuality—attraction, and the real bodily need for physical love—that these things shouldn’t be such a big deal. The way he paused and then said, “Amber, come on,” it forced me to look more deeply, and I haven’t really stopped since then.

For the long span of history, human social rules have mostly assumed the worst of our behavior–that given the chance, we will use and abuse each other. So, in Jesus’s day, unmarried men and woman didn’t interact personally or privately—certainly not with the freedom and regularity we do now. Jesus’s friendship with women—prostitutes, sinners, and even those society deemed respectable—these friendships were inherently scandalous, part of what we call the Scandal of the Gospel. Jesus refused to see women as merely objects of temptation, or as shameful sinners who wantonly turn to prostitution or commit adultery.

As someone privileged by so much relative freedom, hard won by women of earlier generations, it’s taken me an embarrassingly long time to realize how radical his message was. In his time, a woman was pretty much a piece of property. A prostitute was a woman who used her only piece of capital—her body—to survive in a world where a woman couldn’t own anything else (and she only owned her body when she was without the protection of a husband or family, who would otherwise own her).

From Jesus’s friendship with women to his teachings on lust and divorce in the Sermon on the Mount, he is proclaiming women are people, not property. His first appearances after the resurrection are to women, and the Gospel of Mary Magdalene claims he revealed certain teachings only to her. The Gnosticism and secrecy of that gospel were rejected by orthodox Christianity, but the passage we heard today (Chapter 9:1-10) is illustrative. The moment Peter disagrees with Mary’s testimony, he uses her gender to discredit her. Just as later church fathers will do.

You’ve probably hear that Mary was a reformed prostitute. There’s absolutely no Biblical evidence of this, and the origins of the legend came from a sermon Pope Gregory the Great gave in the sixth century, conflating Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany (the sister of Martha), and the woman who anoints Jesus’s feet. Gregory blithely states they are all the same woman, a former prostitute. Mary Magdalene is later confused with Mary of Egypt, apparently another reformed prostitute. (In the forum after church I will talk more about the genre of reformed prostitute stories, which were actually a Christian co-opting of the very first romance novels).

But back to the Gospel of Mary. When Peter and Andrew reject Mary’s testimony, Levi takes her defense.

Peter you have always been hot tempered. Now I see you contending against the woman like the adversaries. But if the Savior made her worthy, who are you indeed to reject her? Surely the Savior knows her very well. That is why He loved her more than us. Rather let us be ashamed and put on the perfect Man, and separate as He commanded us and preach the gospel, not laying down any other rule or other law beyond what the Savior said.

Amen, Levi. That’s some pretty good advice.

It must have been daunting for the apostles, trying to translate the experience of knowing Jesus–a living, breathing miracle–into stories and a pattern of life for people who never did meet him face to face. That challenge of translation is why we have so many Gospels, so many different movements within the early church.

Among them, there are fabulous feminist impulses inspired by Jesus’s friendship and teachings: There’s Paul’s proclamation that there is neither slave nor free, male nor female. There are the female bishops and priests who scholars like Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza have resurrected within the texts from which the church fathers literally erased them. There is the way the church helped end the Greco-Roman institution of slavery, freeing both men and women from widespread sexual abuse by their masters. So many good and holy impulses toward freedom instead of slavery, toward humanization instead of exploitation.

And yet, we’re a very human institution, and for two millennia, we’ve still gotten a lot wrong, because of those deeply ingrained social rules attempting to regulate sexuality. The disempowerment of women, the clerical abuses preceding the Reformation, and recent sexual abuse scandals are some of the most obvious examples. Instead of Mary Magdalene as an icon of women’s authority, as Levi paints her, she is seen as Pope Gregory’s repentant sinner.  Not that repentance is bad, it’s something we all need to do. Though Mary might be celebrated for repenting, she hasn’t really been honored as she deserves, because of a deep and lingering ambivalence around sexuality.

On the one had, Mary deserves to be vindicated from the charges of being a reformed prostitute. Biblical scholarship tells us it’s not true, it was an attempt to relegate a woman with authority into a diminished role by assigning her a shameful past. As a woman, this lie makes me angry, it reminds me of times I’ve been labeled too brazen, too aggressive, or prurient.

On the other hand, I want to claim all those fictionalizations. I want to say thank you to Dan Brown and Nikos Kazantzakis for asking us to imagine that maybe, just maybe, Jesus did love Mary Magdalene passionately and sexually, because sexual love isn’t wrong or unholy when it’s freely undertaken with mutual affection and respect, it’s a beautiful way to experience divine love.

And I want us to remember that Jesus was friends with prostitutes, even if Mary wasn’t one, because we must look more closely at prostitution. There’s so much shame attached to it, as if women undertake sex work because they’re greedy and licentious. In fact, most people resort to prostitution out of desperation, and the real shame belongs to a society that drives some people to that point of desperation.* Jesus’s scandalous friendships with prostitutes helps us see more clearly the underlying causes: poverty, discrimination, and a predatory sexuality built upon using people instead of loving them.

If the Savior made her worthy, who are you indeed to reject her?

In an unexpected way, the distortions people have told about Mary and the stories they’ve imagined are all a part of her Gospel. And they hold up a mirror to the institution of the church, helping us to see who we are, and who we have been. And when you hold those stories together–lies, truths, and possibilities–they tell a story we need to hear. A story that’s part of The Gospel of God’s scandalous love for humanity.

A love so passionate it required Jesus’s human body to be expressed.

A love so fierce it demands the protection of the poor and the oppressed.

A love so broad that it includes those labeled unlovable.

A love so vulnerable that it asks to be returned.

It’s quite a miracle that Mary Magdalene has come to symbolize all those things, and that’s a sure sign of God’s spirit repairing the mistakes of human history. Because a Love so scandalous, so abundant it pours out of the bounds of respectability, that love will not rest until every single beloved creature lives in its light.

 

* I could say so much more about sex work, but this generalization has to suffice in the context of a sermon.

**I love this icon, which Kay (@MissBatesReads) shared with me early in the week.  Thanks Kay!

News and a Review

stairs

I’ve been a bit absent in the last few weeks and it’s time for some news and updates, as well as a mini-review.

Firstly, I have some time off from work this summer, and aside from my family vacations, I’m spending it writing and walking. I got a Fitbit, and my goal is to be a healthier, more balanced writer. I’ve been tossing my laptop into my backpack and hiking all over San Francisco, moving from café to café to library to meet my word count and step count goals. I feel great and I’ve learned I am a happier writer when I get out of the house everyday. An added bonus—I get to explore the glorious city where I live and often come across secret staircases like this one. Of course, I always have to take them. At the top or bottom may be something perfect to include in my WIP!

As a result, I haven’t been on Twitter or Facebook as much, and I miss seeing everyone there, but my heart and previously-widening booty are healthier for the exercise! I’m still around—@me or tag me or whatever and I will reply ASAP!

There have been a few delays with my novella One Sinful Night in São Paulo but I’m told it will be releasing sometime this summer. As a result, I’m extending my newsletter sign-up contest until the release date. You can sign up over in the sidebar to get news of all my new releases, and also be entered to win one of three stacks of book! (See this post for details on the contest.) After edits, I like that story even more and I’m so grateful to Entangled Publishing for giving it a home.

JackieBarbosa_HotUnderTheCollar_800px-682x1024 2

Hot Under the Collar

Also, here’s a quick mini-review of a story I really enjoyed: Hot Under the Collar.

This historical novella by Jackie Barbarosa features a sexy vicar hero who falls for a disgraced woman. Barbosa sets up a perfectly delicious conflict for this third son who needs his position in the town and a good reputation, but who falls for a woman with a poor one. It’s an engaging story, and there were two things I especially liked about it.

1) I love nuanced stories featuring mistresses, prostitutes, and sex workers. One of my favorites is Cecelia Grant’s A Gentleman Undone. I find books that explore this sort of work without simplistic moralizing to be fascinating and refreshing looks at what it means to be a woman. Barbosa’s heroine is sympathetic, strong, and sexually confident. No wonder the hero falls for her!

2) I also love stories about vicars, and Barbosa’s is reluctant, rakish, and not especially devout, and yet he finds himself both well suited to and enjoying the role. Not only is this a satisfying arc to read, but as a priest I love it when others of my order are humanized and our work demystified and celebrated.

When Grant introduced me to Barbosa on Twitter once, Jackie said sexy vicars don’t sell especially well. Why not change that, I say!?!

It’s a fun, quick read and I thoroughly enjoyed it!

Lastly, I met a very interesting writer at RT, Sally Kilpatrick, who I think is going to bend some genres in interesting ways! Look out ROMANCE!

She was kind enough to leave me this review for Blood Entangled after attending my panel on Sex and Spirituality.  Reviews are always appreciated and when they come along a year after a book releases, it’s nice to be reminded of what I loved about that book too.

Launching my Newsletter & a Contest

I’m launching a newsletter. Like most authors, I would prefer to write stories, so don’t fear being overrun by emails from me! But I will send out updates about releases and other major news.

Everyone who signs up for the newsletter before June 30 will be entered to win one of these 5-book stacks by genre: contemporary,  historical, and paranormal–lots of good stuff in here I’ve collected at various conventions and conferences over the last year!  Since I write in all three of these genres, I thought this would be a fun way to say thank you to everyone who signs up:

A Stack of Contemporary Romance Novels

Contemporary

A Stack of Historical Romance Novels

Historical

A Stack of Paranormal Romance Novels

Paranormal

 

You’ll be entered to win the contest just by signing up for the newsletter over in the sidebar–>

but if you prefer a particular genre, you can let me know in a comment below and I’ll do my best to accommodate the winners :-)

The God and Sex Panel Recap #RT14

Because some people asked, I’d hoped to video our panel at the Romantic Times Convention last week in New Orleans, but my iPad ran out of memory about two minutes in. So here is a recap, which I wrote with the help of all the panelists: Alice Gaines, Tiffany Reisz, Christa Soule/Desir and that’s me on the end (Amber Belldene).

panel

To me, the best thing about the panel was the way it became a conversation, exactly as we’d hoped it would. And to my mind, the easiest way to recap a conversation is to organize it by thread. This isn’t by any means a verbatim account of what happened, but a recollection of themes.

The erotic writer at church:

Alice Gaines shared her story of finding her way back to church, oddly enough through a sexy story she was plotting that involved an Anglican priest as a hero. She immediately joined the altar guild, and yet secretly wondered if people would be shocked to learn she wrote erotic romance. Then, one Sunday, her rector gave a sermon based on the werewolf romance novels his wife reads, and Alice saw her opportunity to come out to him about what she wrote. Now his wife reads her books and is reading Amber’s too. At church, Alice has put her writing to work composing lyrics to hymns, and she gives a portion of her writing proceeds to the church, so that erotica will soon be purchasing new choir robes.

Tiffany Reisz spoke of being a student at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky working on a dual Masters in Theology and Biblical Studies when she started reading and writing erotica. Writing became her passion and she decided to quit seminary to focus on her writing. Luckily it’s worked out for her. It comforts her to receive emails from readers who are inspired to pray more or return to church because of her books.

Christa Soule shared her story of growing up without religion, and yet always longing for a spiritual community.  When she graduated from college, she joined a group that brainwashed her into uncharacteristic behaviors, such as throwing out her vibrators, and distancing herself from her college best friend, a gay man.  Her other college friends intervened, got her out of the cult, and years later, she saw a GLBTQ inclusive sign on a UCC Church, walked in, and found a place where she could be herself.  Case and point: her pastor texted her with a prayer of support before our panel began.

Amber Belldene shared the story of feeling like she had a secret when she began writing alongside her day job as an Episcopal priest.  Upon selling her first book, she told her bishop (whom she is vowed to obey) that she was writing racy romance under a pen name.  He was only encouraging, and later, at a clergy conference, he told her he’d read the book.  When she was not embarrassed by this news in a dining hall full of hundreds of clergy, Amber felt that she had come a long way past shame, and now boldly proclaims the good news of erotica and romance.

Two members of the audience shared their struggles with families, and with a school in a small town—being ostracized and accused of sinfulness. This led to a further discussion on finding a faith community that accepts you and how much it is or isn’t the church’s business what you do for your job. And the importance of making that decision for yourself.

Amber recounted a Twitter conversation with Tiffany about the Jewish tradition that sex on the Sabbath is a mitzvah—that it’s good to make love as a way to rest, rejuvenate, and honor God.  Amber suggested this deep Biblical tradition might be a common ground an erotica writer can strike with people who disapprove of his or her work.

Another member of the audience shared she penned her first erotic romance while employed as a lay professional at a Catholic Church.  When her book sales took off, and she quit her day job to write.  At her farewell party, the parish priest announced her success and everyone embraced her.  She sold many books that night, and she’s still a member of the parish.

After a round of cheers, Christa added that churches have a responsibility to develop open, sex-positive cultures because of the history of sexual abuse in all denominations.

The religious in erotic books:

Tiffany Reisz expressed her opinion that the absence of religion in romance and erotica is unrealistic.  All people have religious convictions, including atheists.  When we face challenges, choices, and death, we all consider our beliefs and we often pray.  Yet all of this is missing in the books being published, and that leads to flatter, shallower characters.

A member of the audience commented that the absence is because publishers are afraid of touching on hot-button, culture-wars type issues, and not wanting to offend or alienate any readers.

Tiffany responded that publishers should realize people are often more open-minded than we expect.

Amber added that readers have to ask for realistic depictions of religion in books and writers have to write it really well.  If a character is well drawn and sympathetic, the reader won’t be alienated, even if he or she disagrees with the character’s beliefs or actions.  Reading can make our hearts and minds bigger.

Theology and Ethics

Tiffany discussed the theology implicit in her books, and how often readers comment that it moves them, for an example, a life-like depiction of Christ suffering on the cross as a symbol of love that suffers for the beloved.

Amber shared about the book From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity, and its exploration of the roots of very strict Christian sexual values in the Roman institutions of pederasty and slavery.  Even if the ethics the early church developed in that context no longer apply perfectly in ours, the history suggests that at the core of Christian sexual ethics lay respect, freedom and consent.

Along those lines, the group also discussed understanding the Bible in context of the “living word” and how Jesus telling women not to divorce their husbands at the time was because women were left destitute without their spouses, with no work or access to income to live. Similarly, there’s an evolution of relationships in the Bible, that polyamory is in several stories, and that it’s important to historically contextualize the scripture so that the core message of love and respect remains at the foundation.

Alice forgot to mention the most important part of her rector’s sermon on werewolf romances, so she’ll put it in here.  His message was that the books were about love and how the heroine soothes the hero as if by telling him, ‘I love you.  Calm down.”  He said that’s God’s message for all of us.  “I love you.  Calm down.”

For those who asked, Amber’s novella One Sinful Night in São Paulo (about a seminarian who worries she’ll never get laid again and sets out to seduce her brother’s best friend) is slated for release June 30th, from Entangled’s Brazen line.