An interview with erotica author Cara McKenna

Besides liking author Cara McKenna’s first name, I like her books. Her heroes are macho, but real and down-to-earth. The first book I read was Ruin Me, an erotic tale of woman who is unable to commit to her fiancé. The second Cara McKenna book I read was Willing Victim, which wowed me by its surprising poignancy. As a result, I just had to interview her. (You can take the reporter out of the newsroom, but you can’t take the newsroom out of the reporter!). In addition to writing erotica, McKenna pens romance under the name Meg Maguire. Today’s blog contains my interview.

1. You write both “smart erotica” and “red-hot romance.” Where/how do you draw line between the two? How do you define erotica and red-hot romance?

It’s all about the focus. Let me think up a woeful analogy…I’m good at those. Oh, I know! Cupcakes!

With romance, the plot is the muffin tin, the characters are the ingredients, the oven’s the sexual tension, and their relationship the risen cake. Sex is the frosting—sort of a bonus—its flavor designed to complement the cake. And sometimes, if the bedroom door is closed, the frosting is squirted in the middle where you don’t get to see it, though hopefully you’ll still taste it. And why not sprinkle some anime porn on top to spice it up? Om nom nom.

With erotica—and I’m talking about what I write, straight-up erotica as opposed to erotic romance—sex is the oven and the muffin tin. Sexual curiosity or tension keeps the characters together, working in tandem with the plot (or in its place) to add the heat and develop their emotional relationship. Kink is the frosting, I think, that little extra flavor that makes it memorable. But the characters are still the ingredients—without them you’ve got nothing.

Which makes porn like eating store-bought frosting straight from the tub, I suppose. It usually tastes good for a few spoonfuls, but it gets old quick.

2. How did you get started as an erotic romance author? What made you decide to do this?

I like writing about people boinking. Next question.

Just teasing. And actually, I should clarify—I don’t think of myself as an erotic romance writer. I write erotica, and I write romance. Erotic romance is a mix of the two, everything you get in a mainstream romance plus extra explicit sex. My own erotica doesn’t claim to offer everything a romance does, such as a strong external plot or a guaranteed happy ending. But I digress.

When I started writing it was the summer of 2008, and at the time I worked in downtown Boston in the design department of a magazine publishing company. I skipped the subway in favor of walking the half hour to and from my office, and during those walks I’d listen to my iPod, and weird little clips began to play in my head, like music videos. Over the course of several weeks those clips got more complex, unraveling an entire story, a whole movie, which fascinated me to no end. I thought to myself, “This might be a romance novel.” By a sheer fluke I’d learned about the RWA from an episode of This American Life, so I began doing my homework. I read writing how-to books and began tapping out my little story. When it became clear I might actually finish the thing, I joined the RWA. I joined my local chapter and went to meetings. Finished one book and started another. I attended my first conference where I won the chance to submit a full manuscript to Brenda Chin, the senior editor of Harlequin’s Blaze imprint. I hadn’t actually written the book whose hook she’d liked so much, but no matter. I was serendipitously laid off that same week and immediately went to work hammering out the book and subbed it six weeks later. And heard nothing but crickets chirping.

With the economy still in the crapper and a healthy severance check keeping me respectable, I continued writing. My husband and I were planning on moving that fall (we didn’t—housing market was in the crapper as well) so at the time it seemed silly to look for another nine-to-five. After finishing and submitting a second Blaze manuscript, I needed a break from happily-ever-afters. I started a short erotica [Brazen], got the world’s nicest rejection on my second Blaze proposal (unmarketable hero—artists don’t sell well) then finished and sent my first erotica story off to Ellora’s Cave on a chaptermate’s suggestion. I wrote most of another novella [Shivaree] while I waited to be rejected again, but lo and behold, Ellora’s Cave bought the first one, despite of how glib and odd it was. I finished the second and they bought that one too. I was on a roll!

Erotica is damn fun to write so I kept at it, romance on the back burner. Then one summer’s day about nine months later, I got a call from an editor at Harlequin Blaze, requesting revisions on that very first Blaze book I’d submitted over a year earlier. It’s true—you really do have to be patient in this business. Those revisions were accepted a month later and since then I’ve been juggling the two genres, erotica and steamy romance, as well as two pen names (I write romance as Meg Maguire). Oh and happy ending time: my second, (rejected) Blaze manuscript [The Reluctant Nude] finaled in the RWA’s Golden Heart this year. Because of the short word counts, it’s tough to find a traditional home for category romances once Harlequin takes a pass, so I was thrilled when Samhain, a progressive publisher that does both electronic and paperback distribution, bought it.

And that is how I came to develop multiple-personality disorder.

3. In Willing Victim, you write about a couple that engages in mock rape; in Ruin Me, your heroine can’t commit to her fiancé (a really nice guy); and in Shivaree you have a male/male relationship in your M/F/M ménage. Even beyond the “kink” that seems to go hand-in-hand with erotic romance, you seem to push the envelope a little further. Do you agree? Can you speak to this?

Again, I’ll suggest that I don’t write erotic romance—can’t guarantee readers a big snuggly happy ending. But I’ve been told by the powers-that-be at Ellora’s Cave that yes, I am an envelope-pusher, though they seem to get a kick out of it. They dig challenging boundaries.

But as for me, I don’t sit down to brainstorm a new story and think, “How can I make my readers uncomfortable this time?” But that is what I do, essentially. It’s my natural inclination to write characters into really awkward, fraught situations then watch them thrash. Sometimes literally. I’m always careful to make it clear with warnings when a topic might squick a potential reader out, like the infidelity and rape role-play warnings for Ruin Me and Willing Victim. My erotica M.O. in a nutshell is to write vignettes that take place during the most interesting point in the main character’s sex life, explore whatever journey they embark on, watch them change, and drop curtain. It tends to give those happy ending fans emotional wedgies, but that’s how I love to write. If I tie things up too tidily for my characters, then I have no reason to worry about them. And if I stop worrying about them, they become forgettable to me. I like to wonder what becomes of them. And sometimes that wondering manifests into sequels.

4. What inspires you? How do your ideas come to you?

Oh Lordy, all sorts of places. Songs have done it before, or just people I pass in the street. If it’s a conscious brainstorming effort, more often than not I start with the hero’s job. Boxer, lumberjack, mechanic, survivalist—something dangerous, preferably, and an occupation or passion that explains how they got such unreasonably hot bodies, since tycoons with gym memberships turn me right off. Then I research (meaning I watch shows or movies full of down-and-dirty foul-mouthed working class men getting all bruised and sweaty) for more sparks of inspiration.

Once I know my man, I figure out what sort of lover might waltz in and turn his world upside down, or whose world he might disrupt, and then the other character(s) begins to take form. But usually the hero comes first for me. One exception to that rule was Robin from Ruin Me. It was really important that I knew her inside and out before I could write a convincing and satisfying (I hope) story about her essentially cheating on her super-decent boyfriend.

5. What is your favorite thing about writing? Your least favorite?

Favorite thing…those mornings when all I do is wake up and take a breath and barf cleverness all over the page. Writers—and runners—you know what I mean. Those golden days when you sit in front of the screen or lace up your shoes, and you can just go forever, and everything comes easily and feels right and you just fly. So that, and the commute. Can’t beat the commute.

Least favorite thing would be the little voice in the back of my head that frets that I’m not pulling my weight financially in my marriage. As supportive as my husband has been of my new writing successes since my regular salary went away, I still feel insecure about myself as a fiscally responsible partner now and then. But the paychecks are getting better, the longer I work at it.

6. Describe your writing process. Are you a disciplined every-day writer who outlines? Or an inspiration-driven, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants writer?

I do write just about every day. I’m half plotter, half pantser, all the benefits and all the pitfalls of both approaches. I figure out the scenario and the characters, and start the story. Then I get a feel for where it’s going, where the characters need to push each other, and some scenes fall into place in my mental outline, maybe a sense of the resolution. More writing, and by the time I get to the middle I usually know what all the scenes will roughly be and how they’ll get me where I need to go. And I usually write the ending around this time, so I have a clear view of where I need to end up. Then it gets hard, since some of the mystery is gone, and it’s usually a steady but tough slog toward the finish as I fill in the holes. Make of that phrasing what you will.

7. Among your previous occupations, you list “decent designer” and “overly enthusiastic penguin handler.” What kind of designer? And tell me about the penguins!

Graphic designer. I used to do mainly print layouts, nothing too glamorous, but now I’ve switched largely to web so I can manage my own sites. It’s a handy skill in this business, what with all the promo, though I’ll admit it’s tough giving up control to my publishers’ art departments when it comes time to create the covers.

And yes, the penguins! I still hold senior volunteer status at Boston’s New England Aquarium, though I haven’t actually gone in since last summer. But basically, if you go in there you’ll see people in wetsuits wading around the penguin exhibit, feeding the birds and scrubbing up their messes and chatting to visitors. That’s me! It’s a tough job—a shift is eight to ten hours of almost purely physical labor. Some folks are cat people and some are dog people, and I’m a bird person. Love love love birds. Fat ones, anyway, not so much pointy bony ones like hawks. And yes, even pigeons and seagulls. I just want to squeeeeeeze them. Though perhaps with a haz-mat suit on, in the case of the pigeons.

8. What do you like to read?

I’ll profess, reading’s gotten tough since I started writing. I’m still a newbie with a head full of Strunk and editorial style guides, so reading my own genres has become nearly impossible, as I can’t help but mentally reword things in my own voice. I hope that gets better. Only if an author has a really strong voice of their own can I get lost in a book nowadays. When I do read it’s mostly contemporary and historical, very rarely paranormal or science fiction. I find stories that could possibly be happening to somebody say, down the street from me, more appealing than fantastical ones…though I do love the idea of time travel romances! But I like when an author can make an ordinary person seem fascinating through their flaws. Flaws flaws flaws. Bring ’em on.

Kristan Higgins is a new favorite of mine— she has a fabulous voice. When reading erotica I’m drawn frequently to m/m, and I really enjoy K.A. Mitchell and Katie Allen (and they write proper erotic romance, unlike myself). Both of them can keep lazy old me from skimming through the plottish bits, and that ain’t easy. And general fiction, too—I love Alexander McCall Smith and John Irving. I have a love/hate thing going with Palahniuk. Naguib Mahfouz is amazing if you like an epic. My all-time favorite is George Orwell. Down and Out in Paris and London and Clergyman’s Daughter…swoon. Oh, Georgie.

But more often than not these days, I read nonfiction, especially science. Mary Roach, Mark Kurlansky, Oliver Sacks. And I’ll knock an old woman down to get my hands on anything David Sedaris has touched.

9. What do you do when you’re not writing?

I’m pretty dull and predictable. I get up, I check my e-mail, I write for an hour, then if my joints are cooperative I run between two and five miles, often while listening to the podcast of the BBC’s The Archers, the world’s oldest and nerdiest radio soap opera. I love radio. Got hooked on The Archers by mistake when I would tune in to listen to Radio 4’s Just a Minute. Anyhow. Run, home, shower, more writing, lunch eaten while watching bad reality TV online—Top Model, Biggest Loser, Hoarders, Obsessed…if it’s about people struggling, you know I’m a fan. Do some housework, take a walk. I walk a lot. It helps me plot. Then I make dinner and watch Top Gear or a movie with my husband and we make farting and/or quacking noises at each other. No lie. I also like cycling, board games, pub trivia, baking, fishing with my dad up in Maine (where I grew up), and of course taking a six pack down to the cove and drinking on the rocks until the husband and I get all buzzed and existential. It’s a good life.

Readers can find Cara McKenna at Her twitter handles are @caramckenna and @megguire. You can find her books, published by Ellora’s Cave at :

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2 Responses to An interview with erotica author Cara McKenna

  1. Ashlyn Chase says:

    Great interview!

    Cara forgot to mention she’s the newsletter editor for her local RWA chapter. A position I strong-armed her into, which she’s handled brilliantly. She even redesigned out logos.

    I read Ruin Me first also and was absolutely blown away. Talk about smart! I enjoyed Robin’s inner dialog as much as the story itself. And I was actually relieved that she…no, I don’t want to spoil it for anyone!

    Just read it, folks.

  2. Cara McKenna says:

    Hi Ash, and thanks! Ashlyn is like my romance-writing guidance counselor. I suspect the angel and devil perched on my shoulders bear a suspicious resemblance.

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