Friday, September 11, 2009

TammyJo Eckhart, Destined for Great Things in the Literary World

I met TammyJo Eckhart in Indianapolis, IN. this past summer, while I was attending the InConJunction convention held during the July 4th Weekend. Sharing a panel with her, and getting to talk to her later, I became more and more intrigued with TammyJo and her literary work. I found her very pleasant and engaging, and discovered yet another excellent writer in the process.

TammyJo is an established author, with several published works, by multiple publishers. She also holds a Ph.D in Ancient History, has published in the academic realm, and even hosts an increasingly popular blog for chocolate connoisseurs, The Chocolate Cult (of which she is the High Priestess). Needless to say, TammyJo is a very multifaceted individual, and I really enjoyed reading her novel, Servants of Destiny, which serves as my introduction to her literary work (and is reviewed by me, below the interview with her).

She has a strong erotic element in her various works, heavily BDSM in nature, which have a genuine flair, as TammyJo has an active BDSM lifestyle herself. TammyJo is an author who will challenge you, push boundaries, and make you look at things from non-traditional perspectives. Her work is not derivative, and she works the erotic elements into practical aspects of plot and characterization.

TammyJo Ekhart is pursuing her own destiny, and doing it quite well, and I hope that readers of all genres take a moment to give her work a try.

-Stephen Zimmer for the Seventh Star Blog Site, September 13, 2009

SZ: How would you describe yourself as a writer, being that your body of work entails many different genres?

TJE: I have a few goals with all the writing I do. First, I want to reveal the truth about any given situation or question. That might sound odd when the story is science fiction but then the truth is about human relationships, human reactions and feelings. Second, I want my reader to think. Even the most fluffy stuff I've written hopefully gets people to think about what they might do in that situation or how the events in the work or study relate to other things they already know. Finally, I do want to entertain in my fiction, but also in my non-fiction I want to engage the reader at some level, keep them turning the page even if it's to argue an interpretation of a piece data.

I think those three goals work well together. If a truth is revealed it should never just be blindly accepted, you should think about it, hopefully engage with it, and through that have it affect you in some fashion.

SZ: What was your first book published, and when was it released? Give us an idea as to the books that you have had released since then.

TJE: My very first solo book was a collection of five stories entitled "Punishment for the Crime" from Masquerade Books in June 1996. It came after I had a short and an essay accepted by two anthologies and the fiction anthology editor, Cecilia Tan, suggested I contact the publisher at Masquerade. We lived in NYC at that time and when he called me to invite me in, he actually presented me with two contracts, one for this five story collection and another for whatever project I wanted. That was a collection of seven stories and related essays about the legends connected to Amazons in the ancient world, which is what both my Master's and Doctoral theses were on as well. That book "Amazons: Erotic Explorations of the Ancient Myths" came out in summer 1997.

I parted ways with Masquerade not because I wanted to so much as I felt I had to, and I wasn't alone in that decision, so that left me with a third collection and with no publisher. I ended going with Greenery Press which was and still is a big name in non-fiction works about alternative sexualities. They put out "Justice and other short erotic tales" in 1999, but in a few years they decided that most of their fiction was not selling, so they stopped that side of publication.

Since then, between my doctoral studies and college teaching, I've put out four more books. Three collections of short stories again: "Eroscapes: Erotic Fiction from the Mind of TammyJo Eckhart" from Wells Street in 2004; "Sweet Memories of Pain & The Future of Pleasure" from Nazca Plains in 2007; "Mistress Loves Me This I Know" which reprints my earliest out of print material from Python University Productions in 2009. My first published novel "Servants of Destiny" was also from Nazca Plains in 2006. I've had six short stories in anthologies or magazines as well. It is hard to write and be a full-time graduate student and teacher, though that hasn't been a problem for a year and a half now.

SZ: To date, what books have been the best received, in your opinion?

TJE: My first two books sold well, sold out their initial 5000 book run, but Masquerade made some editorial decisions and I wasn't comfortable with their suggestions for another book because I felt it was crossing into less serious fiction, more pornographic than erotic in nature. Plus I don't like being told what to write, not even in school when I was a student. My third book also sold as well, selling out it's initial book run, but in a similar fashion that publisher decided to stop doing fiction.

Most reviews and communications I get about my fiction have been very positive. In the erotica populations, both kinky and not, I have had fans from all orientations. That pleasantly surprised me, so crossing those boundaries has become a goal for me as well in my writing. I have seen one review, and that was for my first book on, from a reader who felt if women in the story were powerful then it wasn't erotic or appropriate for some reason. Some people have very limited minds, I think. It's something I must work on as a scholar and a reviewer myself.

SZ: Which books have been the most satisfactory for you personally, as writer, and why?

TJE: The ones that are most satisfactory for me right now are one that haven't been published yet. I have a science fiction series I started many years ago. It's a series of 5+ books that explores how societies work to maintain systems of inequality, and that no matter how much you may oppose that on a personal level you are still a construct of that system, and therefore you, too, are doing things to support that system. It is not nearly as erotic as many of my works, but the truth which I always want to tell is that human beings are sexual creatures, so it still has some erotic parts and potential depending on the reader.

In terms of my published work, I like it all. I'd never sent something to a publisher that I couldn't be proud about, though I'm open to honest constructive criticism. My greatest satisfaction is when someone tells me "I loved this" especially if they thought they might not because I'm female, or white, or it is classified as "erotica", or whatever they believe may make my work unappealing to them.

SZ: What are the areas that you feel you have grown as a writer since your first releases?

TJE: This is going to sound very odd, but I think my greatest growth has been technical. I have dyslexia and so spelling, grammar, those sorts of necessary technical matters are a huge challenge. Yet I note with my in-house editor, my husband, who is brilliant in those matters, and in publisher suggestions/corrections, their need to "fix my work" has decreased dramatically.

I also think I've gotten more confident and gained more knowledge both through my scholarly background and as a book reviewer myself. I think that makes me more willing to do edgier things, and to try different viewpoints in my stories. I've always tackled edgy topics, I think, but I hope now I do them with more clarity and empathy.

SZ: You are obviously well-known for your portrayals of "dominant women", and you are also known for busting stereotypes of these types of characters. How do you feel you have accomplished that?

TJE: We have two models in the western world for strong women. One is a mommy figure, which in many ways is more sacrificing as her form of strength than necessarily a leader as we think of male leaders. The other is the "Bitch", to put it bluntly. I reject them as the only two models for competent women, for female leaders. I think that since we socialize boys and girls differently, encouraging them to play into the very small biological and psychological differences we may have, that how women and men react will be different. When I write, I want to show the reasons that go beyond those two models into reality. So a character of mine may be a very capable captain of a star ship, but she will also have her own social baggage that may have nothing to do with babies, or men, or other women for example. I don't know if you've notice that, but often in fiction women's motivations are really around one of those three things: children, getting/keeping a man, or competing with other women.

I reject the limiting nature of role models for men as well. I just hope I can show them equally well. I want to show the fuller and more realistic range of human motivation and emotions. Which isn't always pretty.

SZ: Now that you have several books out, and have worked with several different publishers, what do you look for these days in a potential small press publisher?

TJE: What I need now, from any publisher, is getting my work out there so people can find it. Don't just bury it on, don't expect me to do all the publicity, you are getting the bulk of the profits here. Average royalties are only 5-8%, so you get the money, you do the bulk of the marketing and getting into stores please. I go to conventions, I hope to add one or two more in 2010, I'm happy to go do readings to small groups, but if I wanted to do it all, I'd self-publish. I want to be able to work into a Borders or Barnes & Nobles and find my books on the shelves again as I did with Masquerade and Greenery.

I also like more feedback. It's nice to hear that my work is "clear" and "we want it" but help me improve it too, ask me a few questions, make a suggestion or two at least. I'll grow with more feedback and constructive criticism.

SZ: What are some of your frustrations with the small press world?

TJE: I can't say this is a problem with all small press but of the three small publishers I've had, only one so far has made me happy. That's Python who pays me my royalties and books come off the press and is taking my books where they promised, into difference conventions around the Midwest. Another hasn't marketed the book well at all and this was after a very unfortunate printing error that made us recall the book and have it reprinted. One of the publishers simply has not fulfilled the contract. I haven't seen one dime in royalties and nor are my books in stores as promised. Since I can't afford a lawyer, I've had to take more books as "payment" which is BS.

SZ: In regards to your writing, being that it contains quite vivid erotic elements, have you had difficulty with how your work has been received or defined(i.e. Have you been misconstrued as a writer of erotica with fantasy elements, as opposed to a fantasy writer whose work contains erotic elements?)

TJE: I have no problems saying I'm an erotic writer when that's what I'm writing. The biggest problem I have is that too many people see "erotic" and they think it is dirty, you can tell me if you think "Servants of Destiny" is dirty or that it should contain about 75% or more sexual activities. My characters have the amount and type of sex that is appropriate to them and their situations. No more, no less.

But "erotica" isn't really a genre because you can have erotic elements and plots in all types of stories. Even traditional folktales can be highly erotic when you read their uncensored versions, religious texts can have highly sensual and erotica language if not outright topics. If you define yourself only as an erotica author, I think the danger is that you allow other very important matters to falter such as historical facts or scientific possibilities or just plain physical limitations.

If my characters have sex, there is a reason. No reason, no sex. They reason can be positive or negative, that reflects reality. The amount varies widely. Even in my first book, which was marketed as erotica, there was one story that had no sex in it. I have to do what works for the major genre of the piece whether it's contemporary, science fiction, fantasy, historical, strange undefined speculative fiction where you mix genres.

SZ: Does having a strong erotic element in your work prove to be a challenge when reaching out to potential publishers? (Does it severely limit the range of publishers you are able to query?)

TJE: Not so far but I think that's more because I've been so busy with school. Right now I'm hoping to propose one book I've been working on for two years on and off to a bigger publisher. We'll see if it makes it over the initial query level what they make of the erotic elements it has. One thing that does annoy, something I won't do even if it breaks for publishing, is I won't make my sex all "bad" just to get published, I won't play into gender stereotypes. Someone wants me to change the sexes of my characters or have them become mental patients to explain their actions, sorry, nope, if it was meant to be that way, I would have written it that way to start.

My biggest challenge other than time will probably be connections. I don't have an agent with contacts in the publishing world. I've heard so many negative things about agents that I'm turned off a bit.

SZ: Do you have any sense of whether a majority of your readers come more from the erotica side of things, the fantasy/sci-fi world, historical fiction, contemporary fiction, or a does a majority of your readership come from an even spread of all of the above?

TJE: No doubt that they come mostly through the erotica world. Part of going with Python is the hope that they'd get me into the hands of sci fi, fantasy, horror people at conventions. Same reason I'm going to those conventions now myself. I will never turn my back on my own subculture, my own tribe, but I think my work can speak to a much wider range of people and I want a chance to do that.

SZ: Some people may not realize that you have achieved a Ph.D in Ancient History. How have you been able to draw upon your academic background in your writing?

TJE: My very second book "Amazons" came right from my research and studies. I really see that book as a hybrid between fiction and non-fiction. Even in my science fiction, I utilize what I know how societies, families and individuals work. I've had a few folks tell me that my worlds seem so plausible, so real, and complex just like real ones. That is because I'm thinking of the range of human societies and the various studies I've learned from when I write or design the worlds.

SZ: Along similar lines, tell us a little about the scholarly articles/publications that are part of your body of work.

TJE: I've had a few articles published throughout the years on mythology, women, slavery, and teaching. I've also presented at a few conferences. With the job market failing me the past two years, I've put that writing aside to focus on three other projects, two fiction and one non-fiction. I've love to have the tough choice of doing I take a tenure track position or keep writing and publishing.

SZ: What's on the near horizon for TammyJo Eckhart? Upcoming and new releases?

TJE: I just turned in a novella to Python called "Beyond the Softness of His Fur" which is "a science fiction tale of genetics, sex, and love between owners and pets". It looks at how science can be used by the elites and non-elites in society to create new systems of hierarchy as well as the question of what defines us as "human". Hopefully that will be out later this year.

I want to propose a book that collects some of what I've done on The Chocolate Cult, something I started to help me fight off depression and my chocoholism and which has taken on a life of it's own. I also will add new materials in as well and I think it would be a great gift book for Valentine's Day so I want to get that proposed in the next month.

I'm also revising a novel told through short stories that I will be proposing to publishers in October as well. I've read parts of this at conventions and an online community I'm a member of and they have been very well received. It is a very dark and scary novel but also it has a lot of hope, our main are fighting on the good side of things even if they are often unaware of that fact. This draw explicitly on my training in ancient history since I'm using Sumerian mythology as the basis for everything.

SZ: Have you been having fun being the High Priestess of The Chocolate Cult?

TJE: It is a lot of fun though it's less fun than when I started. I just can't get the historian out of me at all so when I read a report I have to ask questions and do research. When I learn something I feel the need to share it. I always want my reviews to be what I promised: honest, all five sense engaged descriptions. All of that takes work. Now if I'd only make money from it, it might be nice. I do get some samples from companies but I'm spending more of my own money still. The Chocolate Cult did hit over 10,000 unique visitor since March 2009 though on September 8, 2009, so I guess folks are learning about it and reading it.

SZ: What are some of the main links where people can find you, your work, and even The Chocolate Cult?

Main website: it has links to everything, my books, Live Journal accounts, Facebook, things like that.

Chocolate Cult:

Servants of Destiny Fulfills What It Set Out to Achieve
review by Stephen Zimmer for Seventh Star Press Blog Site, September 13, 2009

Servants of Destiny (Fem Fist Books, ISBN: 978-1887895774), by TammyJo Eckhart, is a fantasy novel that takes chances, challenges the reader, and blends compelling original ideas into a solid fantasy narrative.

The story centers around Marelda, a strong, magic-wielding woman, who has a sagely mentor named Sigrid. Marelda is on a quest that is tied to a prophecy, one concerning the restoration of the Divine Couple, reflecting a long-lost time of harmony and peaceful order.

While on her quest, she observes a young runaway slave who is about to be sold in a slave market. Recognizing something unique about him, she buys him, and seeks to take him with her on her quest.

This leads to a clear-cut relationship where Marelda is dominant and firmly in control, something she wastes no time in asserting. The idea of this kind of relationship is certainly not out of the bounds of fantasy literature. Robert Jordan's Aes Sedai have some undercurrents of this type of woman, as do the Mord Sith found in Terry Goodkind's Sword of Truth series.

TammyJo Eckhart paints a clear and effective picture of the type of predicament that Dolan is in, existing in a culture that has slavery as an accepted institution and way of life. There really is nowhere that he can run to, as the best that he can hope for is to evade the inevitable for a little longer than most others. I have more than a hunch that TammyJo was able to draw off of her expertise in ancient cultures and history (which she has a Ph.D in) in crafting such a society, as slavery was an accepted institution in numerous ancient cultures all across the world. Dolan's plight is believable, and the reactions of other characters encountered along the way is genuine, as to assist Dolan in any way is to invite great trouble to oneself.

When Marelda buys Dolan, and places a set of magical cuffs on him, there truly is no way out for the young man. Resentful of the situation, angry, and embittered, Dolan is understandably resistive. What follows is a very intensive process by which Dolan becomes resigned to his fate, and begins to embrace his destiny. It is a process of self-discovery, leading to more than Dolan ever imagined.

Marelda is a very strong character, and the dominant of the pair, but Dolan is by no means a quivering weakling. He is clever, strong-willed, and skilled, and becomes invaluable to Marelda's own quest to recover three ancient artifacts which have fallen into the hands of powerful enemies. To even have a chance at success in her quest, harmony in her relationship with Dolan is imperative. She is not perfect or invincible, and TammyJo has developed a very credible character with Marelda.

There is also a rather creative fusion between magic and sex portrayed in the book that proves to be a very critical factor in Marelda's fulfilment of destiny.

Servants of Destiny is an excellent fantasy novel with strong erotic elements. A good quest story, an excellent mentor figure for Marelda (Sigrid), and other parts of this tale will resonate well with any type of fantasy audience. The dominant-submissive relationship between Marelda and Dolan is an area where TammyJo lays down a challenge to general fantasy readers, and she crafts some very vivid, quite intense scenes, but she has developed consistent characterization and plot with these elements that testify strongly to her abilities as a writer. The erotic elements do not overwhelm the plot, and nor are they frivilous. TammyJo has done an excellent job in maintaining consistency and relevancy, something that she should be commended for in areas of literature where all too often the erotic aspects saturate the work to the sufferance of all else.

While the dominant-submissive relationship between Marelda and Dolan would not likely be considered "mainstream", a potential reader would be missing out on alot if he or she chose to see this type of relationship as a stumbling block to giving this well-crafted book a chance. Good writing involves good character construction, and is what a possibly tentative reader should focus on the most.

Servants of Destiny showcases a very talented author, and will satisfy readers of fantasy as well as those who enjoy erotic-laced tales. It will be interesting to see the kinds of science fiction and fantasy stories that TammyJo Eckhart brings us in the future, as I know that she will not settle for the conventional or status quo in those genres. Here's hoping that major publishers, or well-established small press publishers, with an eye for talent and originality will come across this very gifted, promising writer, and help her to reach her destiny.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for this interview and for the detailed review. I hope you get a lot of comments and I've let everyone I know know about this.

    (I noted some typos but I'm going to blame my dyslexia for that, ok?)