Art / Feminism / Occult / Sex & Love

ARTIST SPOTLIGHT: Erotica, Romance & Surrealist Author Ryal Woods

 Ryal Woods’ first novel Murmur (MLR Press) is coming out October 11th and we can’t wait to get our hands on it. It’s the first in a series of books that will deal with surreal-abstract concepts, sensuality, and romance. Dark, intelligent, and measured, Murmur and the subsequent stories of the series unravel through the senses. It’s “a sensual story in the most literal way,” according to its author, who discusses that and much more for this week’s Artist Spotlight. 

Cover art courtesy of Anna Reith and MLR Press

Cover art courtesy of Anna Reith and MLR Press

Your release date is right around the corner! How do you feel about everything as it’s all coming together?

Nervous, excited. It’s those dueling feelings of “Yay, I’m so happy to share this with the world!” and “Oh god, what have I done?” I don’t even know what else to say about it, I sort of feel like the proverbial deer in the headlights, waiting for impact. But I’m pretty confident that I’ve done what I set out to do, my intentions and the end result mesh with my expectations, so at this point I give it up, hand it over, and let others make of it what they will. I’m always interested to see what people think of my work. Sometimes their impressions take me by surprise, because they’ve seen something that I didn’t expect or intend, but it makes perfect sense to them. It’s wonderful, really. The story will have several lives and take on many characteristics as people read it. In that sense it’s never completed, it’s always evolving and changing. It makes the effort I put into creating it worth so much more than however many hours it took to get it into people’s hands. What more could I ask for?

Murmur is the first book in a series that will be coming out. Can you tell us about the series and what to expect?

The series is called Secrets of the Senses, and each book takes place in a different time period, with different characters. The common thread is the senses themselves. We relate to the world and one another through our senses – what we see, smell, hear, touch, taste, and extrapolate from these things. Our senses are the most powerful tools we have for interacting with the world, and yet, no one has full understanding of how to use them to a greater benefit beyond biology. In this series, the senses have evolved past physical limitations of the hosts – us humans – into sentient beings. So it’s about the relationships between the senses and the people who are their conduits, connecting them to the world from the outside, instead of being trapped inside.

For instance, In Murmur, my main character, Aonghas, has a close association with the sense of smell, and this sentient being that is breath incarnate has its own unique powers that it shares with Aonghas – powers of an occult nature, of necromancy, that harness the essence of what is hidden, and what is revealed. I can’t say it’s magic, because that has it’s own connotations. It’s all magic, really—anything we don’t understand seems magical. Once we figure it out, it’s science, it’s philosophy, it’s intellectually feasible.

So Aonghas is gifted with enhanced senses, but his gifts don’t mean that he has an advantage in confronting the basic struggles of life. Gifts, talents, anything that places a person outside of the norm can put them at a disadvantage. He feels set apart from others, and he’s going through the process of sorting out which consequences are created by outside forces, and what he has created through his own beliefs and interpretations. He’s learning what it is to be a whole person, and it scares the crap out of him, as well it should. It’s scary stuff to reconcile everything we are, what is thought to be good, what is seen as bad, and what truth there is underneath it all. Realizing that nothing is as simple as good/bad, yes/no, right/wrong is completely freeing, and it’s also like freefalling because you’ve gotten rid of the safety in the rules.

Essentially, this series is about finding the power all of us hold over our own relationship to the world, and learning how to wield it.

You’ve expressed concern about the genre placement of your series. Murmur is set to be released as romance, but what about the others?

My publisher, MLR, classifies Murmur as romance because that is the genre they specialize in, but what defines “romance” has expanded a lot over the years, it’s not just bodice busters anymore. Or in the case of gay male fiction, codpiece busters! There is an element of what’s known as HEA/HFN (happily ever after, happy for now) that is usually associated with romance, but isn’t always the case. There are variations, such as Epic Tragic Romances like Titanic, or stories that don’t wrap things up in a nice little bow at the end, and instead leave it to the readers to decide what happens beyond the point of where the story has left off.

But there are two issues I see specific to gay fiction that lead to stereotyping, and that’s the major concern I have with labeling. One is the false assumption that gay relationships will always end in tragedy, and the second is that because a story involves two men or two women together, it’s automatically centered solely on the relationship, or even more stereotypically, on the sex.

In the past, many stories involving same sex couples did have tragic endings, because society could not accept the idea that couples who live outside of the assumed norm of heterosexual relationships could be happy. Same sex unions in fiction were usually short-lived or depicted as an unfulfilled longing, based on the assumption that a couple couldn’t possibly maintain a homosexual relationship in an unaccepting society. And of course what relationships there were obviously centered around lots and lots of sex, because sex was the whole point of homosexual relationships, right? Gay people didn’t actually love each other or do ordinary things like buy houses and have children and worry about bills. Society is changing its ideas about what a same sex relationship is, and stories in books and movies are shifting along with that. But it takes time to break down such long-held stereotypes, so there’s still this lingering expectation of tragedy and pornographic sex. This is what puts authors of gay fiction on the defense, and what limits readership.

As I explained, Murmur is a sensual story in the most literal way. There’s a romantic component to the story, but that’s not the focus. There’s sex in the story, but it’s not central to the plot. People are sexual, we’re romantic, we’re intelligent, we’re confused, we’re often wrong, we’re talented and clumsy and wise, and we do unwise things. We’re not any one thing, and neither is my story.

What are your thoughts on genre placement in general? 

I understand that sorting literature into genres helps readers to know what they can expect when they’re choosing a book, but I really don’t like classifications of any sort. When I worked in a bookstore, we shelved the same book in multiple sections to make it easier for readers to find what they wanted, whether they were looking for a particular book, or just browsing a section. Sometimes you find exactly what you want in a place you never expected to look for it. It’s good to break out of routines and explore a bit. The less we adhere to labels, the easier it is to discover new things about the world, and consequently, about ourselves.

You also have a collection of short stories out, Stories for Boys. As an author who also writes within the “erotica” genre, what do you think about the Fifty Shades Of Grey craze and everything surrounding that?

I can’t talk about Fifty Shades of Grey specifically, because it’s not right for me to comment on something I haven’t read. One person’s porn is another person’s philosophical treatise – it’s all subjective. I have this whole obsession with what I call Phallus and Philosophy, because sex and mindset are inseparable and complex bed partners. There is a lot of sex in philosophical fiction, due to the fact that it’s such a basic component of how we relate to other people, how society defines us, and how we see the world. Erotica pulls visceral responses from the audience because sex is tied to our very being, so the way in which it’s portrayed can bring up strong reactions other than the tinglies. It raises so many issues that it’s impossible to even begin to touch on them without boring the bejeebers out of you. And that’s not sexy.

I wouldn’t say my stories are what most people typically expect in erotica. Some readers might get annoyed and put away the lube because I focus so heavily on what’s going on in people’s minds as they’re engaging in sex. What brought them to that moment, the way in which they see their partner or think their partner sees them, and how these ideas, right or wrong, influence their reactions, how open or shut down they’ll be as a result. It’s an unexpected level of intimacy that isn’t usually associated with erotica, and it can be uncomfortable. But it’s not something I can avoid, because to me, the true erotic nature of sex begins in the mind.

I have gone on and on about fan fiction and self-publishing on my website, because they’re two relatively new approaches to storytelling that have an impact on how we write, market, and choose books. In general, I think it’s great that people are able to widely share their work without the benefit of publishers and formal marketing. I’m sure the world has missed out on a lot of brilliant novels because the manuscripts didn’t meet a publisher’s criteria. It’s great to know that we’re no longer at the mercy of someone else’s decision making about whether or not a story is marketable.

It also brings up a few issues of its own, such as whether it’s really beneficial to the audience or the writer to be putting out half-baked ideas, and unedited material. Every writer, no matter who they are, benefits from working with a good editor. Aside from the basic issues of poor spelling and sentence structuring, there’s also the flow of the text, how adding or deleting things improve the story as a whole and make it more accessible to readers. An author may have a great idea for a story, but if it’s badly executed, no one is going to notice the potential because the focus will be on the mistakes. That’s not helpful to the author. Neither is taking someone else’s work and making it their own, accidental (or intentional) plagiarism, and setting themselves up for trouble because they’ve used song lyrics or products or characters in their stories that weren’t properly credited or granted to them by permission. These kinds of things are upsetting to artists and the audience, and it gives the whole self-publishing world a bad reputation. No one wants to be associated with negative opinions, whether they’re directly involved in self-publishing and fan fiction, or are being impacted by unwanted, unapproved connections.

My feeling is that a lot more thought needs to go into how we self regulate as we’re evolving these new formats.

Previous work you’ve released is centered in homosexuality. How has that been received? Have you encountered any hurdles or backlash because of it or has it all gone off without a hitch?

My characters in Murmur are gay, but my story isn’t about being gay. It’s as frustrating to explain as trying to deal with labels like Romance and Erotica. I have been told by friends and family that I don’t have to write about gay characters, that I’m limiting the audience for my work. If I’m limiting my audience, then fine, I’m okay with that. I think maybe it’s the other way around – the audience limits their choices by putting restrictions on what they will and won’t read, and that’s fair, it’s really up to them. What I choose to write has nothing to do with the choices people make in their reading habits, and everything to do with what interests me.

I don’t have to write about anything at all, but I do have to write about the things that inspire me, otherwise it’s impossible to write well. My characters happen to be gay, bisexual, transgender, transcending gender, and yes, some are even heterosexual. I don’t know who my characters will be in future stories – they’ll be who they’re supposed to be.

I write about identity, and identity isn’t one dimensional. We can’t just stick labels on ourselves and each other, and call it good – it’s not good at all. Labels can’t begin to express the intricacies of humanity, and I’m not going to cater to that type of thinking.

More simply, I’m over heterosexuality cornering the market on everything. At this point, it shouldn’t be shocking to know that heterosexuals aren’t the center of the universe. I would argue that heterosexuals aren’t even as heterosexual as they think they are. People are too complex to be 100% this or that, so why keep feeding into that myth?

Let us in on your process a little bit! Going off of the excerpts of Murmur and what you’ve shared already, it seems very character driven. Would you agree with that? When you sit down to write are you thinking about the next step for your protagonist? How do you approach unraveling your stories?

I guess maybe all stories are character driven? I confess I don’t even know what that means! I dread being asked questions of a literary nature – “does the arrangement of the book support the subplots and symbolism…” All I can come up with is “uh, I like writing.” I can’t diagram a sentence, I’m crap at Mad Libs because I can’t remember which parts of speech are what. When I’m writing I don’t have to think about these things, I just sort of…do it. And somehow, it flows on its own and falls into place. That’s pretty much my writing process. I just do it, I let things unravel themselves and don’t attempt to plot ahead, trusting that everything will work out.

To return to your first point, I don’t think I can separate characters and plot, because one is reliant on the other. It’s the situations that the characters find themselves in that drive the story. But it’s those particular characters, and that particular situation – any other person or circumstance would change the development of the story and the outcome. Which I guess is kind of an obvious thing to say. But I hope this covers the question, because otherwise, I’ll just have to throw out my hands and say “I like writing!”

For fun: What is the worst advice you’ve heard authors give to writers? And to counter that: What’s some advice you have for budding writers out there?

The worst advice? Write what you know. That’s all well and good for people who actually know something, but that doesn’t include me. I write what I don’t know. My advice is to write what you dream of, what you’d like to know, what you aspire to or want to change about the world, what you’d like to experience. Write what you imagine to be possible. What you actually know will naturally be part of that, it’s the beams and rafters beneath the construction.

I also disagree with the advice of counting words, setting a goal of so many words per day. I think it’s important to write every day, but forcing yourself into meeting a certain number of words per day will only pull focus from what’s truly important – the words themselves. There’s this little anecdote about James Joyce being asked if he’s written a great deal on his latest project, Ulysses, and he answers that he wrote two sentences that day. He had the words the day before, but on that day he finally got them in the right order. That’s the key to good writing – you want the right words in the right order, not just a quantity of words.

I like this: writing equals ass in chair. That quotation has been attributed to practically everyone, which is pretty revealing, eh? A sort of universal truth.

What are your plans for the new year? Any new projects? You won’t keep us waiting and waiting for book two of your series, will you?

I plan to continue working on my series, I’m in the middle of book three, which is being completely uncooperative. I’ve also just started a new series. Four parts, is the plan for that one. It’s too new to talk about, I have to play around with it a bit more before I can say anything with certainty. Book two of Secrets of the Senses is called Becoming, and it’s waiting for its turn, so with any luck it won’t be too long. I’m hoping to release it within the next year. I guess that all depends on how Murmur does!

Murmur hits the shelves October 11th—this Friday! Get your copy at MLR Press!

Stay updated with Ryal’s writing at

Image: Anna Reith

Renée Aubern is a California born, New York bred poet, writer of songs, and kook. Constantly on the move, she documents the world around her in photographs and notebook scribbles. @reneeaubern


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