Apologies everyone! I have a feeling that this interview is going to get extremely geeky. I was an English major, and one of the highlights of my university career was studying Shakespeare, so I’ve been interested in Midsummer Nights ever since it first appeared on the Ninestar Press website. Thank you so much, TJ, for letting me interview you!
T.J.: My pleasure! Thank you for giving me the chance to natter on about my silly stories. J
Not only does Midsummer Nights feature Oberon, Puck and Titania as characters, but in your blurb, you have Puck resorting to sonnets (among other techniques) to seduce Oberon. T.J., are you a Shakespeare enthusiast? If yes, please tell us what you enjoy about Shakespeare and what your favourite of his works are. If not — how do you explain Midsummer Nights?
T.J.: I’m a slobbering Shakeslut but here’s a dirty secret; I cannot fucking stand A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
I can’t! It’s horrible! For those who aren’t familiar with the plot: Titania is the fairy queen, and she’s taken under her wing a mortal boy whose dead mother was a friend of hers. Oberon decides he wants the boy for his own, and they have a big fight about it. To get back at her, Oberon has Puck find a magic flower with the power to make people fall in love with the first thing they see upon waking. He uses it on Titania, and she ends up falling in love with a human named Nick Bottom whose head Puck has replaced with a donkey’s head (because that’s just what Puck does when he’s bored). Titania spends the rest of the play treating Bottom as her lover, until Oberon takes pity on her and removes the spell (after getting his hands on the mortal boy). Oh, and there’s also a bunch of other humans wandering around the woods; Puck uses the flower on some of them too, and they fall in love with people they’d previously rejected.
Yeah, the whole story’s centered around a rape joke.
I’m not being glib; I cannot deal with that shit. I have zero tolerance for stories about the *SHEER HILARITY* of women being tricked into sleeping with men they otherwise wouldn’t. It turned my stomach when it happened to Ms Marvel, it turned my stomach when it happened to Titania. So! If I don’t like the play, why am I writing a story based on it? Well… there’s a few things I do like. The mechanicals. The wall (hee!). The atmosphere. The enchanted woods. Then there are lines like this:
But we are spirits of another sort
I with the morning’s love have oft made sport,
And like a forester the groves may tread
Even till the eastern gate, all fiery red
Opening on Neptune with fair blessed beams
Turns into yellow gold his salt green streams.
Now the hungry lion roars,
And the wolf behowls the moon;
Whilst the heavy ploughman snores,
All with weary task fordone.
Now the wasted brands do glow,
Whilst the screech-owl, screeching loud,
Puts the wretch that lies in woe
In remembrance of a shroud.
Now it is the time of night
That the graves all gaping wide,
Every one lets forth his sprite,
In the church-way paths to glide:
And we fairies, that do run
By the triple Hecate’s team,
From the presence of the sun,
Following darkness like a dream,
Now are frolic: not a mouse
Shall disturb this hallow’d house:
I am sent with broom before,
To sweep the dust behind the door.
Mmmmm yummy wordporn.
I like all those things. Most of all, though? I like fairies. Oh boy oh boy, do I like fairies. I never used to; when I was a teenager, I was all about elves. Tolkien’s, to be exact. They were magnificent and beautiful and badass and so, so tragic. Fairies, on the other hand, were sparkly rosy-cheeked gits who tried to teach me to give a shit about the environment in Ferngully. And now, a quote from Stan Nicholl’s exceptionally entertaining Orcs:
Two Wolverine foot soldiers lay stretched out with their backs against a tree, enraptured by a swarm of tiny fairies fluttering and gamboling above their heads. Soft multicolored light shimmered on the fairies’ wings and their gentle singing tinkled melodiously in the late-evening air.
One of the orcs abruptly shot out a hand and snatched a fistful of the creatures. They squeaked pitifully. He stuffed their wriggling bodies into his mouth and crunched noisily.
“Irritating little bastards,” his companion muttered.
The first trooper nodded sagely. “Yeah. But good to eat.”
“And stupid,” the second soldier added as the swarm formed again overhead.
That was how I wrote fairies in one of my earliest trunk novels; they were pretty much insects, and got stepped on a lot.
Then I read J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan for the first time and I met Tinkerbell. Tinkerbell. ❤ ❤ ❤ She’s been my fairy template ever since; shameless, petty, jealous, volatile, selfless, contradictory thing that she is. She gave me the idea that fairies could be every bit as badass and tragic as elves, while at the same time being really funny. Fairies as I imagine them can do angst, but it isn’t their default setting. They’re excitable. They’re cheerful. Sure, they might decide to shoot you in the eyes with tiny arrows if you squint at them, but after that they’ll sing a merry song as they skin your corpse to make their footwear.
Another thing I like about fairies is writing from the perspective of someone who’s about the size of a mouse. You have to think creatively about what they’d use in place of furniture, paper, pants, etc. Their size also makes it easier to construct a world with threats that feel real. To make your readers believe that Legolas is in serious danger, you need to present him with an army of orcs riding fire-breathing direwolves (granted, that’s more Jackson’s Legolas than Tolkien’s). Puck’s in trouble if he happens to run into a cross badger when his wings are wet. (There isn’t much action in Midsummer Nights, but there will be in the sequels. *cockteasecocktease*)
And I seem to have meandered wildly off-topic . Apologies! My favorite things Shakespeare wrote: Richard III, As You Like It and Coriolanus (*makes cow eyes at Volumnia*).
Shakespeare was a bit of a literary magpie, taking subjects from history and stories from other sources as the basis of his plays. Considering the fact that he adapted a Midsummer Night’s Dream from an Italian story, it feels really fitting that the story is being adapted again. What has changed with your adaption of these characters to your story? What have you kept the same?
T.J.: Well, there’s a lot more anal sex.
The play is set near Athens in antiquity, whereas my story takes place in a forest somewhere in England during Shakespeare’s lifetime. While Oberon’s still an arrogant king and Puck’s still a troublemaker, their personalities are quite different. Otherwise… I guess the play is more interested in the way fairies interact with humans, while I’m more interested in the way fairies interact with each other. While Midsummer Nights is primarily focused on Oberon and Puck, the sequels will delve deeper into how fairy society works (and doesn’t).
In terms of what I’ve tried to keep the same, I think I’m hoping to convey a similar sense of the magic of nature and the dark, quiet places in the wilderness where anything can happen. I’ve tried to retain Oberon and Puck’s core dynamic; Oberon’s large and in charge and doesn’t hesitate to bust Puck’s balls when he fucks up, and Puck’s desire to do his master’s bidding is hampered by his innate trollishness.
So, let’s talk Puck. He’s always been a favourite of mine. My first introduction to a Midsummer’s Night’s Dream was actually a low budget BBC adaption that the school library had. Puck was dark-haired, moody and dramatic, and pretty much the hero as far as I was concerned. I’m sure the fact that he wore a skirt made of leaves and nothing else helped that impression. Your Puck (and his very nice legs) seems to have no trouble getting attention. Tell us about him.
TJ: My Puck’s a big fat drama queen. Here’s an extract from Peter Pan about how J.M. Barrie thought fairy emotions worked:
Tink was not all bad; or, rather, she was all bad just now, but, on the other hand, sometimes she was all good. Fairies have to be one thing or the other, because being so small they unfortunately have room for one feeling only at a time.
That’s not how my fairies work, but it does describe Puck pretty well. All his emotions are BIG. When he’s jealous, he’s murderously jealous. When he’s in love, he’s hopelessly in love. He’s also vain, cynical and self-interested. Some of that’s because he’s young, as fairies go (less than one hundred years, while Oberon has been around since Romulus and Remus were at the she-wolf’s tit), and he’s never had anyone to care for before Oberon. Oh, and he’s a complete troll. (‘And those things do best please me/ That befall preposterously.’) At heart, though, he’s not a bad person. He wants to be a lot more devious than he really is. He’s kind to people who deserve it. He likes mortals, which is a big thing, seeing as how most fairies consider them either wild animals or food. Most of all, he’s willing to endure a lot of shit for the sake of those he loves.
I found Shakepeare’s Oberon a bit off-putting. Cruel to his wife and taking his role as king a little too seriously. I can’t imagine a fairy king like that making Puck fall in love despite himself. Clearly there is more going on here! What is Oberon really like?
TJ: Oh my God, Shakespeare’s Oberon is a wanker. He does all these awful, evil things AND HE GETS AWAY WITH IT! He wins the quarrel, he gets Titania’s child, and he never gets a smidgen of punishment. That’s what so infuriating. The first time I saw the play, I kept waiting for his whole scheme to bite him in the ass, and it never does.
Oberon in my story isn’t evil so much as unhappy and bad-tempered – partly because he’s married to someone he doesn’t love, and partly because as a fairy king he spends most of his time surrounded by sycophants or people who want to assassinate him. So the way he treats Puck is similar to the play, at first. Shakespeare’s Puck is both Oberon’s court clown and the guy he gets to do his dirty work. Talking to other fairies, Puck sums up his job as ‘I jest to Oberon and make him smile’ – though we don’t see him do very much of that in the play (because why ever would we want interesting character interaction when instead we could spend that time enjoying rape jokes and bestiality, WILLIAM?) In my story, I made that a cornerstone of their relationship. At first, Oberon’s attracted to Puck because he’s sex on legs, and as they become better acquainted he notices how good Puck is at making him happy.
I was really pleased to see Titania make an appearance — and a positive one at that! — in your preview. I really like that while acknowledging that her marriage isn’t happy, she doesn’t seem to bear Oberon any ill-will, wishing Puck luck in his quest. I’m happy about this for two reasons! Titania didn’t get a good deal in Shakespeare’s adaption, and women in M/M Romance (wives in particular) are too often seen as bad guys or obstacles. Was it a conscious choice to break this trend with Titania?
TJ: Sigh. Shakespeare gave us some amazing women. Volumnia and Rosalind are two of my favorite characters ever, in anything. I wish so so so much that Titania was given even half as much depth and complexity. But then I guess she’d be more sympathetic and the whole rape/bestiality plot wouldn’t be as side-splittingly hilarious. 😡
I wrote her as a survivor, trying as hard as she can to make the best of a bad situation. (Which is more than can be said for Oberon; his preferred coping mechanism is skulking off and brooding under a mushroom for hours at a time.) Her major flaw is a lack of sensitivity to other people’s feelings, and a lack of tolerance for any level of incompetence. The sad thing is that if she wasn’t married to Oberon, they’d be good friends. They’ve got a lot in common; they’re prideful and wise, they love their jobs, and they both care deeply about their court.
Is Midsummer Nights your first story? If not, what other writing have you done?
TJ: I’ve churned out tons and tons of stuff over the years, most of it complete crap. I was writing dirty fanfic when I should have been doing my algebra homework. My first official published story was Dolls, a 3K bit of post-apocalyptic erotic fluff that came out last year in Scifi Romance Quarterly:
What makes your writing different from other M/M authors? What do you aim for in your writing?
TJ: I suppose the main thing I aim for is to make my readers happy, same as anyone. As to what makes my stuff different, hmm… Well, all my romantic fiction is either fantasy or scifi; I’m not that interested in contemporary romances or historical fiction. The sort of romance I write usually involves a contrast, authority figure/underling, sinister villain/naïve hero, genius/twit, old/young, etc. Babies freak me out, so I don’t do mpreg. Wolves and bears and lions don’t do it for me; if I ever write shifter stuff it’ll probably involve a flamingo and a horseshoe crab shifter, or something. I enjoy and write stories featuring romances between disabled characters, particularly neurodiverse characters. I really don’t like it at all when a character’s disability is treated as something that needs to be ‘fixed’ or ‘overcome’ before they can be happy (particularly when the fixer is their abled/neurotypical love interest), so I try to keep that sort of thing out of my writing.
What is next on your writing agenda? Do you plan to continue writing, and if so what can we look forward to?
TJ: I’ve got two sequels to Midsummer Nights in the pipeline: Midsummer Sky (March 28) and Midsummer Court (May 23). Highlights include Oberon introducing Puck to his parents; an excess of naked Puck; poetry; feelings; a smidgen of world-building; Oberon doing kingly stuff; a further excess of naked Puck.
Also from Ninestar Press, I’ve got a slightly-under-20K erotic scifi romance coming out on March 14. The Captain’s Men is about a spaceship that gets lost in a distant galaxy and the small group of lonely gay, bi, and ace men on board. Their captain is polyamorous and the focus of the story; basically, one day he falls into bed with Thomas, a younger crewmate, and that starts off a chain reaction that ends with him seducing and being seduced by half the people on the ship. This one’s also the start of a series, which will follow our beleaguered crew from one cosmic mess to the next, all the while getting distracted by how much they want to fuck each other (except for the ace character, obviously. He’s got his own plans).
Thanks again for stopping by, T.J.! I had a lot of fun getting my Shakespeare geek on, and I hope you did, too.
TJ: I did! Thanks so much for the invite, Gillian. J