When one thinks of Regency-era fiction, one title immediately springs to mind: Pride and Prejudice. Ever since Jane Austen penned that novel, Regency novels have been littered with scheming mothers trying to marry off their goodhearted daughters to aristocratic, aloof gentlemen. It’s not exactly a genre to which gay men would normally be expected to flock. But that is a presumption that contemporary author M.J. Pearson is trying to break.
Pearson, a historical novelist currently living in Indiana, has written two successful gay-themed, Regency-period novels. The Price of Temptation and Discreet Young Gentleman both ranked at No. 1 on Amazon.com’s gay romance charts for several weeks. We recently spoke with the novelist about her books which challenge gay stereotypes using comedy and genuine love as potent as their heterosexual counterparts.
AfterElton.com: What drives a heterosexual woman to write gay romance?
M.J. Pearson: First of all, that is a bit of an assumption. [Laughs.] Second of all, I think that all people are sexy and interesting. My imagination is sort of pansexual, I’d say. So [I’ll write about] whatever combination I find interesting and appealing. Also there’s a bit of a political element involved. I strongly believe that love is love no matter what gender it affects. I’ve been ticked off the way the country’s been going in the past several years, and I really wanted to make a positive statement.
AE: Why did you pick the Regency period for your first novel?
MJP: Oh, I’ve always been a history buff, and I’ve read romance my entire life. I [have] probably read literally thousands of historical romances. I’ve always wanted to write historical romances if I wrote anything. And as far as history goes, I was going to school to be trained as an archaeologist for several years in grad school. As for Regency, it always seemed to have a natural match. Regency romances are very light and tended toward the witty and not the dark, which is what I like.
AE: How were gay men treated in the Regency period?
MJP: It was hardly a paradise at the time. Sodomy was illegal, but gay prosecution was very rare. There were occasional attempts where [British officials] tried to shut down the Molly houses or male brothels or male clubs. But overall in the Regency period — which ran from 1811 to 1820 — prosecution was actually very rare. There was something like 10 or 12 convictions in that time.
And in the cases of conviction, they would tend to fall into three specific categories. One was if the people were tried for sodomy with an unwilling person. The second was a couple having sex in public. And the third case was where a party first consented, but later changed their minds.
So it was not ever like people were being pulled from their beds and their private homes. People who were having consensual sex in private were at very little risk of prosecution.
AE: Has there been any controversy about your books?
MJP: I joined the Romance Writers of America shortly before my first book came out. The first issue of the Romance Writers [newsletter] that I got [included] a ballot where they wanted to restrict this genre to just between men and women, which felt like an enormous slap in the face.
You know, I really like gay romances, and I really wanted to be a part of this professional organization, [and] the first thing I get is a ballot that is going to exclude me! [Laughs.] So it caused quite a bit of fury. I emailed every member of the boards, saying: "I think this is wrong. The definition of romance at the time was between two people. There’s no reason to define it between a man and a woman."
It caused a lot of complaining and a lot of people blogged about it. I was getting a massive amounts of hits to my website at that point. The board ended up releasing a statement where any definition of a romance should be inclusive. So we thought it was over at that point, but there have been other people who’ve been writing in and saying, "This is just wrong."
There was this one letter where a woman wrote: "If we allow gays in next, then we’ll have to let in pedophiles. And if you can’t say one is wrong, then you can’t say the other is wrong." Which caused a huge outcry of people saying that she was wrong. Luckily there was a lot of support in the general Romance Writers of America group. So that’s really nice.
AE: Why do most people assume you are heterosexual?
MJP: Well, I mean, I am happily married to a man, and I have a child. [Laughs.] But you know, there have been times in my life where that hasn’t necessarily been the outcome. And no one’s ever stopped to ask. They’ve just assumed that I never thought the same way or that I couldn’t find women attractive. Then there was a time in my late teens when I thought I was exclusively lesbian.
AE: If the opportunity arises, have you ever thought about writing a lesbian Regency romance?
MJP: Well, lesbian Regency romances are already firmly established and has its own niche in publishing, and that’s not true with gay male romance. So on the one hand, there will probably be a bigger market for [lesbian Regency romance]. My agent has said to me: "Can’t you write a lesbian romance? We can probably sell more." But like I said, there is already a lot of that being done — maybe not in the historical genre, but it is already firmly established. And … I enjoy being apart of a genre that is kind of opening up.
AE: My personal favorite European era is the Regency. Though in my search for gay Regency novels, I could only find two others besides yours: Ransom by Lee Rowan and Standish by Erastes. Do you feel like a founding mother of gay Regency novels?
MJP: I don’t know when Ransom came out. I’m not familiar with that one. But I have read Standish, and it came out this year. So as far as I know, my novels were the first regencies published. So, yeah, I really enjoy the idea of being at the start of that.
AE: You’re also having a lot of international success in Britain, France and Japan. How does that make you feel?
MJP: Well, it’s wonderful! I love getting fan mail from other countries. I’ve gotten some from Ireland, France, Germany, Italy, and it just blows me away that people are finding my books — and enjoying them! There is something obviously that appeals cross-culturally, and it’s brilliant.
AE: What is some of the best feedback you’ve received from gay men?
MJP: One of the first fan letters I’ve [gotten] … was from a man who said, "I’ve been looking for this kind of book all my life." That it’s the kind of lighthearted gay historical romance [he was looking for]. He hadn’t seen anything like it. And that’s the kind of response that I would like. I like to feel that there really was a niche.
There has been other gay romance out there, but the difference that I see is I come from a strong romance background. I’ve read it my entire life. I’m really firmly grounded in the genre. It brings a little something [to my books].
A lot of the women who write gay romances are coming from different starting points. There are the kind that come from the science fiction/fantasy genre, which is more open to the sexual difference or overtones, or out of fan fiction. So it’s really interesting because it adds a lot to the gay romance genre.
AE: Why do you think there are so many women writing exclusively gay male couples? Where do you think that comes from?
MJP: I know one of the places it comes from in historical romance is that if you have any kind of background in history, it’s really hard to write historically accurate heterosexual couplings. Tolerance was very different between men and women, and most romance writers completely ignore that.
There are a lot of realities that are hard to juggle. Though if you start with a male couple, you might have the class differences and the money differences, but you don’t have the gender power relations going on. Which makes it a little easier to write, in a way.
Another thing is a lot of women, including me, find men attractive. When you find one man attractive, what’s more attractive than two?
AE: There is just a basic sexual nature.
MJP: Probably. It’s just the way people are wired. If you’re wired to find people attractive in various situations, it’s gonna be how you’re gonna write.
AE: You’ve written two well-received novels so far. What is the third one that is coming up? Can you give us a preview?
MJP: I am working on one that was actually suggested to me by my son who plays a lot of war games on the computer. He knows that during the Regency, the Napoleonic wars are going on. So he said, "Why don’t you have an English soldier and a French soldier fall in love?" That was the starting point for the one I’m working on right now.
AE: Do you have a title?
MJP: Right now the working title is Sacrifice Treasure.
AE: What are the names of your two main characters?
MJP: Right now, Emil is the Frenchman, and the Englishman, who goes by his middle name, is LeRon. He’s actually half-French.
AE: An AfterElton.com exclusive.
MJP: There you go! I don’t think anyone else has that.
AE: What does your family think of your novels?
MJP: Well, my husband doesn’t read a lot of fiction in general. He did read the first book and thought it was a page turner. They’re fine with it. My son’s fifth-grade class got into a discussion about one of my books. Some of the kids said that they thought it was wrong, while the others stood up and said it was fine. He was pleased to know which kids in his class supported him and which didn’t.
AE: What other historical gay authors do you admire?
MJP: Emily Vainglory has done some good e-books, one called The Highwayman. Going back to Mary Renault’s The Persian Boy — that was very influential in my life. [It’s] also like Gaywick and Standish, but they’re just a little too gothic for me. They are very angsty and full of rape and beatings and stuff like that. Which is …
AE: A little heavy?
MJP: Yeah, yeah. I prefer the lighter genre, which there hasn’t been a ton of [in gay romances].
AE: Have you ever considered writing something that takes a serious look at gays in historical settings?
MJP: I actually do have a manuscript that was written during the Oscar Wilde trial in 1899. That really is a time when essentially closet doors were slamming all over England. The main character of that book is just trying to essentially reconnect after his lover’s suicide. He’s just re-emerging into social life and considering getting back into a relationship again when this trial is going on. It is a little darker, and it deals with things like blackmail and suicide. But in the end it’s very romantic, and it’s got a lot of humor in it.
AE: You also mentioned Mary Renault, a founding mother of gay literature. How influential has her work been on your state of mind?
MJP: I think she was very influential — and at a very early age. My junior-high library had a lot of her books. I loved all of them, but mostly The Persian Boy. I do remember looking around for others like that and not finding anything else.
AE: I’m sure you’ve been compared to Jane Austen quite a bit.
MJP: [Laughs.] I don’t think anyone has actually compared me to her. But I adore Jane Austen.
AE: Three hundred years after her death, her work is still influential and meaningful. When people analyze your books, how do you want them to be perceived?
MJP: I think my main goal is I want to entertain people. If I can give them something to think about occasionally at the same time, that would be great. I would like that young gay men, or gay men of any age, to see they [are apart of the romance genre]. I also like readers of traditional romance to say, "Oh, well this is really great, even though it’s about men!"