I get the occasional odd look when people realize I write gay fiction. Married woman in her early forties with two kids, no gay siblings or cousins or aunts or uncles or anyone in my immediate family as far as I’m aware. (There is a second cousin once removed, but I’ve never actually met him, just heard about him.) So what in the world am I doing writing gay fiction?
There’s a couple of answers to that question, both lighthearted and serious. I like men. More men is better. That’s the lighthearted part, but it’s also true. I like the idea. It appeals to me. Does that make me a pervert? I suppose that depends on who you ask.
But it doesn’t stop there. If it did, I’d just subscribe to gay porn sites and read the amazing books written by other writers in this genre. It’s also, to me, a quiet form of social activism.
When I attended my first Cincinnati Pride Festival four years ago and ran a booth for Dreamspinner, the reaction I got from the men there left me reeling. Men of every age, size, race, and degree of flamboyant stopped at our table, picked up our books, and said, “These are about men like me?” I said yes because even if the specific book didn’t mirror the specific man, the men weren’t asking to that degree of specificity. “Books with happy endings?” “Well, most of them,” I replied. “I didn’t know there was such a thing!” Some of them bought books, some of them took cards, many of them hugged us, and all of them, every last one, thanked us for caring enough about them and their situation to write books about them as they were, living their normal lives, and looking for love.
This has played out numerous other times since then, at other events, in large groups and small.
But our audience isn’t, and shouldn’t be, just gay men. Our audience is wider than that. There’s a funny story from the first year Dreamspinner had a booth at Book Expo America. We were giving out gift bags of books to pretty much anyone who came by. A woman probably in her sixties came to the booth and congratulated us for what we were doing, even though she wasn’t sure she wanted to read the books herself. We convinced her to take a copy of Curious, since the whole point of that anthology was to provide an introduction to gay romance to women unfamiliar with the genre. She took the book finally. The next day she came back to the booth. “I read that book you gave me last night. It was really good. Do you have anything a little… spicier?” We sent her home with the full gift bag.
That woman may not be a regular Dreamspinner customer now. I have no way of knowing that. But I know she looks at gay couples with a more open mind for having read and enjoyed our books. How can she not? How can she read Checkmate or Tigers and Devils or any of the other eight titles that were given away that year and not look at them differently? Yes, our books, my books as an author, feature gay men, but the stories are bigger than that. They’re about love. Period.
Alliance in Blood is being translated into French, to my utter delight, and the translator has corresponded with me several times since he started. The consistent theme of his e-mails has been how the love between the characters happens to be between two men, but the relationship they’re building is universal. And isn’t that what it’s all about? Showing our characters, our men, as the guys next door or down the street or across town who want nothing more than to be able to love one another freely and without fear?
Maybe, just maybe, I’m doing a small part to contribute to the day when that will be reality, not a dream. If one person walks away from my body of work with a more open mind than when they arrived, I will have left a mark in the world that’s worth being proud of.
Ariel Tachna lives outside of Houston with her husband, her daughter and son, and their cat. Before moving there, she traveled all over the world, having fallen in love with both France, where she found her husband, and India, where she dreams of retiring some day. She’s bilingual with snippets of four other languages to her credit and is as in love with languages as she is with writing.
Caine Neiheisel is stuck in a dead-end job at the end of a dead-end relationship when the chance of a lifetime falls in his lap. His mother inherits her uncle’s sheep station in New South Wales, Australia, and Caine sees it as the opportunity to start over, out on the range where his stutter won’t hold him back and his willingness to work will surely make up for his lack of knowledge.
Unfortunately, Macklin Armstrong, the foreman of Lang Downs who should be Caine’s biggest ally, alternates between being cool and downright dismissive, and the other hands are more amused by Caine’s American accent than they are moved by his plight… until they find out he’s gay and their amusement turns to scorn. It will take all of Caine’s determination—and an act of cruel sabotage by a hostile neighbor—to bring the men of Lang Downs together and give Caine and Macklin a chance at love.
It seemed like they’d just eaten lunch, but when they took a table in the Marsden Café there in the hotel, the delicious smell of dinner brought Caine’s appetite back full force. They ordered, Macklin getting a beer, so Caine did the same, then sat back to wait for their meals to arrive.
“Tell me more about my uncle,” Caine asked into the silence between them. “I knew him from letters, and everything I read fascinated me, but I never met him.”
“Michael Lang was one of a kind,” Macklin said with such a fond smile that Caine’s worries fell away for the moment. Whatever Macklin might think of Caine, that didn’t carry over to Caine’s uncle. “I was a kid when I showed up on Lang Downs, hungry and dirty and desperate for work of any kind. I figured he’d toss me off the station like everyone else had done, but he didn’t. He had the cook feed me dinner and then asked me where I was from. I gave him some made-up bit of nonsense about not being from anywhere. He raised one eyebrow at me, told me if I’d tell him the truth, I could stay, and then waited me out. That was twenty-five years ago.”
“So what was the truth?” Caine asked impulsively.
“If I tell you, I can stay?” Macklin retorted mockingly.
“I d-d-didn’t mean it that way,” Caine said. “I’m s-sorry. It’s n-none of my b-business.”
“No, it’s not,” Macklin said, his face as hard as Caine had seen it since they met, making him wonder what nerve he had hit by mistake. He resigned himself to another confrontation. “I’ve proven myself as Lang Downs’s foreman, so you can either accept that or fire me and hope you find someone else with a fraction of my experience who won’t rob you blind.”
“I t-told you already I n-need your help,” Caine reminded him. “I don’t know how else to p-prove it to you. You have a p-place at Lang Downs as l-long as you want it.”
“I’m sorry,” Macklin said again, scrubbing at his sun-darkened cheeks with his hands. “It’s been a rough few months, not knowing what was going on with the station and then hearing it went to a relative so far away…. Everyone was worried about what would happen, and you not knowing anything about sheep doesn’t help. You could make any decisions you want, and we’d have no choice but to go along, even if they were bad ones.”
“I get that,” Caine said. He wanted to reach for Macklin’s hand, to somehow impress his sincerity upon the older man, but he doubted that would be well-received. “I really do, but you have to give me a chance to prove that isn’t my intention. If you toss my inexperience in my face every time I ask a question, how am I going to learn? If every question is met with the surety that I’m going to change something or make some bad decision, how will we ever find if there are ways we could be doing even better? I’m not saying I have any answers, because I don’t, but I want to learn, and when I do, I might have something to add eventually. I want us to be a team, once I get to the point I can pull my own weight.” I want to get to the point that “pup” doesn’t fit me anymore.
“You can ask any questions about the station you want,” Macklin said. “You’ve the right to do that, I suppose, but that doesn’t carry over to people’s personal lives. Those are still personal and that trust doesn’t come just because you’re the new owner’s son.”
“Uncle Michael always wrote about working on the station,” Caine said, choosing to change the subject back to the one topic they seemed to be able to discuss without arguing, “but he was my mother’s uncle, which means he would have been nearly ninety when he died. Did he still work with everyone?”
“Not as much the last few years,” Macklin said, “and he complained about every minute he couldn’t be out in the paddock. He hated paperwork, although he’d never let anyone else do it either until he couldn’t write clearly anymore. He said working with the animals and the jackaroos kept him young.”
“If he was still working the station in his eighties, I’d say he was right,” Caine replied. “It’s such a different life here from what I’m used to. Not just the sizes or the seasons. Intellectually I knew to expect those. It’s the independence, I guess. All of my parents’ friends are retired, and they’re twenty years younger than Uncle Michael. They may still be active, but not like he was. And the idea of living out on a station, four or five hours drive from the nearest town, with power that could go out in a storm and everything else you’ve described to me… it just doesn’t even connect to my experiences.”
“Don’t take this wrong, but if that’s the case, why are you here?” Macklin asked.
“Because my life in Philadelphia was going nowhere,” Caine admitted. Macklin might not want to talk about his past, and Caine would respect that, but maybe if he shared some of his own story, Macklin would come to see how serious he was about his commitment to Lang Downs. “You’ve heard me talk. When I get nervous, I stutter. I’ve been passed over for promotions at least once a year since I took the job straight out of college.”
“Why didn’t you go to a different company?” Macklin asked. “Or do something that didn’t require you to talk a lot?”
“I was good in school, except for the speaking stuff,” Caine explained. “Everyone assured me I’d outgrow the stutter or learn to cope with it or that it wouldn’t be a problem. I believed them, and with the speech plan I had, I graduated near the top of my class and got a decent scholarship. College was a little harder since there was no speech plan at that level, but the professors were mostly willing to work with me. It never occurred to me I’d have a problem having a career, so I never learned a trade I could do instead. It’s hard to get a job in construction if you don’t know one end of a hammer from the other.”
“I can see that being a problem,” Macklin said, failing to hide his amusement completely. Caine didn’t take offense. It was humorous unless you were the one living with the situation.
“The job I had paid the bills,” Caine said. “It wasn’t horrible, but it wasn’t going anywhere. I wasn’t ever going to get a raise or move up to a better standard of living. I had my own place, but I had to have a housemate to afford it, and since my housemate moved out a week before I found out about Uncle Michael, it just all seemed like a sign, a chance to learn something different, do something different, and maybe get out of the rut my life had become.”
“No Sheila to keep you there?” Macklin asked. “A nice-looking guy like you, surely you had a girlfriend.”
Caine laughed so hard he nearly choked on his beer. “No girlfriends,” he said with a shake of his head. “A boyfriend, but he’s the one who moved out. I’m apparently as bad in bed as I am in interviews.”
An odd look crossed Macklin’s face, too fleeting for Caine to pin down what it might have meant, but then he smiled. “Maybe that was the boyfriend’s fault, not yours.”
Caine rolled his eyes. “I appreciate the support, but I’m not getting my hopes up. So there you have it. My life in a nutshell. I sold my condo in Philadelphia and most of my furniture. My parents are keeping a few family pieces, but pretty much everything I own is sitting in that hotel room upstairs right now or in a box on the way here by mail. I don’t know how else to convince you that I’m committed to this path, but there’s no going back because there’s nothing to go back to.”
“Bloody hell, pup,” Macklin said with a shake of his head. “You don’t do things halfway, do you?”
“There wouldn’t be much point in that, would there?” Caine retorted, but he relaxed under the approving tone of Macklin’s voice. “Uncle Michael never talked about life in England in his letters, but I remember my grandmother talking about things and what they were like between the wars and then after World War II. My grandmother had it easy in a way because she married my granddad and moved to the US that way. She had him to rely on for shelter, food, and all. Uncle Michael didn’t have any of that. He sold everything and took the ship to Australia, hoping it would lead to a better life. It did for him. I thought maybe taking a page from his book would be good for me too.”
“I hope you’re right,” Macklin said. “I really do.”
The fact that the entire station would suffer if it turned out to be the wrong choice was understood, but Caine appreciated Macklin’s tact in not saying it aloud.
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