Day trip: Going in-depth with Playing the Game

by | Jul 19, 2013 | Neighborly Affection series, Where Am I

It’s no secret that writers are needy souls. Not so much for ourselves, but for our characters. For the little book-babies bravely making their way in the world with a graduating class numbering in the tens of thousands. Will they find good homes and solid jobs entertaining readers? - ...and then she said she liked my story, and she listened to me babble about the characters, and it was the Best Day Ever.The fear, of course, is that they’ll languish lonely and unread. But sometimes a reader comes along who instantly clicks with the book and the characters. And in rare and wonderful moments, that reader actually lets the author know about the formation of this beautiful bond — and then invites the author to discuss the book like grown-ups over coffee and cookies. (I’m not a coffee drinker, and it’s too hot for hot chocolate, so I’ll be having pink lemonade.)

If you want to know what Playing the Game and the Neighborly Affection series is all about, you don’t need to look any further than this interview by romance author Jessi Gage. She has a love for Henry, Alice, and Jay that fulfills every one of my hopes for them, and she’s smart as a whip to boot.

Here she is grilling me on BDSM styles of play, character voices, what’s ahead for the triad, and how Henry and Jay got together.


Jessi: I’m thrilled to host one of my new favorite erotica authors today. M.Q. Barber also happens to be a fellow Lyrical sister. I bought M.Q.’s new release, Playing the Game: Neighborly Affection Book 1, and read it lickety-split and fell in absolute love with it. Like, gushing, face-licking, makes-people-uncomfortable-to-witness love with it. I’ll explain as the interview gets going…

Jessi: First, thank you for being here, M.Q. Let’s start with an easy question. What’s your tagline for Playing the Game: Neighborly Affection Book 1?

MQ: Excited to be here, Jessi, if a bit apprehensive about the hard-hitting questions you have up your sleeves. The softball is to lull me into a false sense of security, right?

The official tagline, in all its glory: She expects dinner with neighbors, but gets sex with a side of safewords.

Jessi: What a yummy tagline!

I love erotica, but I shy away from BDSM themes. It was the ménage aspect that drew me to Playing the Game, and when I saw there was going to be some BDSM, I braced myself for discomfort. But I was already so hooked on Alice, Henry, and Jay that even if the guys were going to get all psycho domination on poor Alice, I was still interested to see how the game “played out”. But they never went psycho. In fact, I found your treatment of BDSM to be the most beautiful, thoughtful, and sweet that I’ve ever read. Alice was absolutely worshipped by Henry and Jay. And everything the three of them did felt mutually beneficial and mutually respectful. This allowed me to escape into the fantasy you wove much more easily than with other BDSM novels I’ve tried.

Henry, the dom in the three-way relationship, was the exact opposite of cruel and overbearing. There was absolutely no aggression in his domination. In fact in a couple of places, he right out states his objectives in taking on a dominant role, and they made so much sense to me it was a definite forehead smack moment:

“…I am in the dominant role, directing the action, yes, but the goal is not to fulfill my desires at the expense of yours or Jay’s. Rather the opposite, in fact. My primary goal is to ensure that your experience is exciting and memorable, meeting your needs and testing your boundaries without causing physical or emotional harm not expressly requested in your contract.”–Kindle Locations 929-931.

“Alice, dominance takes many forms. Not all require that the dominant partner make the submissive one lick his shoes or receive a spanking. I have no need to humiliate you.” He gestured to the papers she’d laid on the counter. “Unless it’s something you have indicated you desire.”–Kindle Locations 1246-1248.

What prompted you to take BDSM in this direction? Was this at all controversial to you or did you have any doubts as you wrote it? Was it a tough sell when you queried?

MQ: It wasn’t a controversial decision for me, no, and I didn’t have any doubts as I was writing it, but it probably helped that I didn’t have a fictional comparison to make when I started writing the story. At that point, I hadn’t read any BDSM romances, or any ménage romances, or any erotic romances at all. I wasn’t going into the writing with preconceived notions about what those things should look like in a fictional setting. I was just writing characters who felt very real to me.

The characters and their individual needs prompted the direction of the story. The thing about practicing BDSM is that it’s a very large umbrella term for an infinite number of variations on play. A woman who is shy or timid about her sexuality might want a dominant partner to “force” her to do things because she feels it gives her permission – that she isn’t a slut for wanting those things if her partner commands her to do them. Another woman might have the exact opposite desire – to show her partner how much she enjoys performing sexual acts and to be told she’s a slut for wanting that. It just happens that Alice isn’t a woman in either of those molds.

Henry, Alice, and Jay don’t play on the far end of the SM spectrum; none of them are sadists, and although they have some masochistic tendencies, they aren’t painsluts, either. (I don’t mean that in a derogatory fashion; painsluts should be proud of their kink, too.) The story of this triad fits more properly in the D/s dynamic. That’s not to say the characters don’t play impact or bondage games, because they do, but their relationship is closer to the big/little style of D/s. The dominant is a mentor figure, a guiding hand in the relationship, and he considers it his responsibility to help his partners become their best selves.

Henry’s a firm believer in safe, sane, and consensual. If heavy degradation were a kink Alice needed fulfilled, he would provide that for her during their time together, but it wouldn’t bode well for their long-term compatibility, because degrading his partners isn’t something he needs to make him feel like a man. Their personal styles of play wouldn’t be a good match.

The “psycho domination” you mention is one way of practicing BDSM (and, depending on the book, might or might not be abusive), and maybe it’s one that has a very large spotlight on it, but it’s far from the only way. I didn’t run into that problem while querying the book, but now that the book is out, I do wonder how best to find the people who might like it – Henry’s control style might be too subtle for fans of the abusive alphas, but the term BDSM might scare off people who would otherwise like the book. I’m awfully glad you took a chance on it despite your distaste for the psychos.

Sorry, Jessi – I could ramble about this topic for pages. If you have follow-up questions, you could always invite me back when book two comes out. ;-)

Jessi: Oh, please, ramble away. I love analyzing what clicked for me as a reader. I also love the opportunity to pick the brain of an author I admire. The more of yourself you’re willing to expose, the happier I am;-)

I’ve read a handful of erotica authors who give BDSM a thoughtful, sweet treatment like this (Kele Moon’s Beyond Eden & Roni Loren’s Crash Into You), but from what I’ve read, which is admittedly a fairly small sample size since BDSM is not my thing, one or more of the “players” are usually broken. I don’t mind reading about broken characters, but it was refreshing to read about 3 pretty normal folks who get their kink on without necessarily being psychologically damaged. It sounds like this was intentional on your part. What challenges did you find in creating conflict for three kinda normal people?

MQ: I confess, I’m a pantser, so I don’t really create conflict so much as conflict just happens. For Alice, her arrangement with Henry and Jay is foreign territory in many ways – having multiple lovers, giving up control, and even observing such a loving relationship. Having an analytical, linear thinker trying to accept those ideas gave rise to conflict all on its own. She’s dealing with the things normal people generally deal with: insecurity, jealousy, how to define her role, what she can reasonably ask of the relationship, what it means to be in love, etc.

The characters let me know fairly early on that a BDSM lifestyle wasn’t something they had chosen because they were broken in some way. The trust and communication required to make a D/s relationship work over the long haul can actually make it fairly healthy, because the partners are checking in with each other and paying attention to each other’s needs. (In a perfect world, of course; certainly abusive relationships can and do happen in the lifestyle just as they do outside it.)

Each of the characters has a different psychological makeup, and of course elements in their past contribute to how they approach sexuality and relationships, but all three of them are functional, stable people for the most part. There’s nothing wrong with having characters who have been through childhood abuse or who are fleeing stalkers or whatnot, but Henry, Jay, and Alice are just regular folks muddling their way through adulthood – which, I think, is what the vast majority of people in the lifestyle are, too.

Jessi: I adored Alice’s voice. The story was told primarily from her perspective, and what a fun storyteller she was! Her hilarious internal dialog revealed her personality so perfectly that I can tell she was a well-thought-out character:

Three doors came before the bathroom, the first closed and the second open on a chaotic mess. Jay’s bedroom, definitely.
The third matched her impression of Henry’s taste. Classy. Den-like. Dark, heavy furniture dominated by an enormous bed. Hello, brandy and cigars. Hello, Henry’s deep voice and heavy stare. Hello, fantastic orgasms on high-quality sheets.–
Kindle Locations 377-380.

Brandon. Mediocre sex, but human contact won priority over her vibrator, at least for two months. After that, he was more trouble than he was worth. Keeping a lackluster boyfriend through Valentine’s Day was begging for problems.–Kindle Locations 385-387.

He guaranteed her physical safety. What the hell did that mean? Sex complicated enough to require a disclaimer sounded like more than the occasional rug burn or bruised back.–Kindle Locations 1156-1158.

Where did you get your inspiration for Alice?

MQ: Oh, lord, that’s a dangerous question. She sprang fully formed like Athena from Zeus. The elements that make up her personality are generally the ones that I’ve enjoyed in heroines since I first picked up chapter books: intelligence, wit, practicality, stubbornness, and a willingness to take risks once she has weighed the potential outcomes. Submitting to Henry is a bit of boldness for her. It’s not a defeat but rather a recognition that he has knowledge and skills she doesn’t and he’s offering her the chance to acquire them. There’s power in surrender.

The first three books in the Neighborly Affection series are all entirely from Alice’s perspective; insights into Henry’s and Jay’s behavior are her own interpretations. Astute readers may disagree with her assumptions in some cases. One of the projects in the mix of things I’m working on is a complementary series of flash fiction from Jay’s perspective that would let readers peek inside his head during his weekly lunches with Alice spanning the time of book one and book two. If I get them all finished to my satisfaction, I expect I’ll send them out to newsletter subscribers as a little bonus. Hopefully Jay’s voice will prove equally distinct and entertaining as well as providing a look at the game from another angle.

Jessi: Ooh, hold on. I need to go subscribe to your newsletter right now. Okay. Done.

Now for the boys. I can’t think of a ménage I’ve read where the two heroes are so different from each other. I like to think of Henry as the proper British butler. He’s always fastidiously dressed. He can cook. Everything out of his mouth seems to come embossed on heavy card stock. Jay on the other hand…Alice thinks of him as an exuberant puppy dog. He’s a boisterous flirt with a lot of energy to burn. Care to share how these two opposites got together, or do I have to wait for future Neighborly Affection books to hear that story?

MQ: LOL. Henry would tell you patience is a virtue. I have to laugh, though, because Alice and Jay have a conversation along similar lines near the beginning of book three, and Henry has a very definitive answer for them on that count.

As for how Henry and Jay got together, Jay discusses it in broad terms in book two, so readers can get that bit of the story in early 2014 when Crossing the Lines comes out. But Henry, being oh-so-demanding, felt he needed to have his say on the issue. So I’ve written an entire “how Henry met Jay” prequel from Henry’s point of view. (I should say, though, that I haven’t submitted the manuscripts for book three or the prequel yet, so I can’t guarantee my publisher will opt to pick them up.)

Jessi: Pfft. You worry for nothing, dahling. I suspect your editor will track you down in person and physically shake those manuscripts out of you if you don’t submit them soon. Speaking of contracts…Henry, Alice, and Jay have one to guide their play. Alice’s reaction to it is priceless.

Why the fuck did he need to know how often she looked in a mirror or what phobias she might harbor? Or how her parents had disciplined her? Jesus Christ.
At least the sex ones made sense. Her preferred frequency for intercourse. Intrusive, sure, but logical. He’d need to know how often to fuck her, wouldn’t he?–
Kindle Locations 1129-1132.

I enjoyed reading Alice’s thoughts about the contract, sure, but I also loved how you use this part of the book to inform. Was education about BDSM important to you as you wrote Playing the Game?

MQ: I think education is important to Henry and for Alice, and if readers feel that their understanding is enhanced through taking this journey with Alice, then I’m pleased.

I’d caution readers that the book isn’t a how-to manual – there are several excellent nonfiction works that cover that ground – but I wouldn’t disagree with your assessment of it as educational in some ways. I think I’d say that realism was important to me. These are characters who have jobs and other outside obligations and are making an effort to commit to this arrangement in the same way a non-kinky couple might commit to a date night away from the kids to keep the spark alive in their marriage.

For Alice, choosing to make this commitment means understanding everything it entails, which means reading carefully through the contract Henry is proposing. It’s worth pointing out that Henry’s method isn’t the only one. Some real-life players have no contract at all, or have only a verbal agreement, or have a short and sweet statement of intent. The contract Henry gives Alice to look over is a reflection of who he is as a man and his expectations for himself as a dominant and for her as his partner. It’s not a standard boilerplate contract that everyone just downloads from BDSM Lawyers R Us. ;-)

Jessi: Henry might have a contract for Alice to sign, proving himself quite the analytical guy, but Alice has her own analytical streak. Some of my favorite interactions between Alice and Henry took place outside Henry and Jay’s apartment and were completely sex-free. On one date, they go to a museum. Henry the artist asks Alice the engineer how she views certain pieces of art. I loved Alice’s responses. Did you study art or engineering? If not, kudos to you on making these sections feel so authentic.

MQ: I studied humanities and philosophy, actually, so I’m lucky I don’t spend my days asking people if they want fries with that, LOL. It’s not so much that I’ve studied art or engineering in depth as it is that I’ve studied the how and why of human thought in general. How are people oriented to the world? How do they relate to it? I dabble in a lot of topics that interest me that way; the intersection of art and engineering is one of those topics.

I observe my characters in the same way I observe the people around me. I hope that makes the characters feel as though they have true depth, because everything they think or say or do goes back to the way they approach the world. In the scene you mention, Alice is revealing all sorts of things about herself and her view of the world to Henry – and being an observant, analytical guy with a penchant for control, he’s taking very careful mental notes.

Jessi: One of the things that made Playing the Game so special to me was the way you infuse Alice’s sexual escapades with intense emotion. She tells herself she’s in this contractual relationship with Henry and Jay for the sex and she’s capable of keeping their friendship separate from the sex, but she’s completely deluding herself! She’s so in love with them! She won’t admit it, and I hope this is where future books are going to go. I won’t ask you to divulge specifics, but I would love some general hints about how you intend to grow these three characters through the series.

MQ: I have to admit, the emotional journey is what makes the book special for me, too. Sex is the field they’re playing on, but the game is about the emotions, and the players are heavily invested in it.

I’d call it a fair characterization of Alice to say that she feels more for Henry and Jay than she’s comfortable admitting to herself at this point. And I don’t think it would be giving away too much to say that book two will address your interest in the matter. ;-)

General hints, eh? I think it’s safe to say that there are … (a moment, please, I’m counting) … at least eight things that get mentioned in a single line or more in Playing the Game that eventually become plot points on their own in the series. No, I won’t tell you what they are. Even my editor doesn’t know yet, LOL.

Jessi: Playing the Game is your debut novel. How long did it take you to write it, and how did you wind up with a contract for it? Tell me your journey to publication.

MQ: I actually wrote Playing the Game and the sequel, Crossing the Lines, at the same time. (I write out of order, so it felt perfectly natural to me to have the emotional climax of book two written before I’d finished up all of the scenes in book one. You don’t want to know how far out in the series I have scenes tucked away for.) It took me about five months to write, at which point I had 180,000 words in two books and no idea what to do with them.

I dithered for a couple of months about whether to do anything with them – the nagging voice of insecurity I suspect many writers are familiar with. But my critique partner kept insisting there wasn’t any harm in trying, and I had a friend who had recently contracted her first book and was incredibly generous with her advice. I made a list of the publishers I thought I’d try. Lyrical Press was my top pick, for a variety of reasons, so I submitted Playing the Game to them first. Just them. I figured I’d wait and see how it went and whether I could emotionally handle the rejection before submitting anywhere else.

Thirteen days later, Lyrical offered me a contract. Saying I was stunned would be an understatement.

Jessi: What a wonderful success story! Thank you for visiting A Time to Love, MQ! I wish you the best of luck with this series. Please do come back when book 2 releases! I will definitely be buying it as soon as humanly possible.

Available from these fine shops

The links below will take you to the M.Q. Barber page at each retailer. Need more info to make up your mind? Check out the series pages for the Neighborly Affection books and the Gentleman books.

Also available at your library

Did you know that you can read M.Q. Barber books for free through your library? Libraries can request digital copies through Overdrive, Hoopla, and BorrowBox.

If your library uses Overdrive, you can download the Libby app and request a book directly from your library. Check it out!