Interview with Caitlyn Frost and Henry Drake

I adored Whip, Stir, and Serve, a new novella by Caitlyn Frost and Henry Drake. This short contemporary meet-cute BDSM romance blew me away. It centers an autistic bisexual demigirl submissive MC with anxiety, and a careful, sweet, dominant man MC who makes cinnamon rolls. It contains an incredibly hot and realistic BDSM scene full of consent.

I interviewed them both about this wonderful book, one of my early five star reads of 2018. The answers begin with their initials, so you can tell who said what.

How would you describe yourself to a new reader just discovering your work?

CF: As a person? I always struggle with this. I can go with the twitter bio version – a queer autistic enby – or spend days talking about my motivations as a writer. I’m bad at the middle ground. Let’s try this: I’m a late diagnosed autistic AFAB enby (my ID has fluctuated between demi-girl and agender at various times) who manages depression, PTSD, and anxiety. My writing – whether spec fic, erotica, romance, or ghostwritten blogs for one of my daytime clients – always tangles with these issues, whether I mean it to or not. Something I’ve noticed with late diagnosed authors is that we tend to look back at our books and go “Holy crap.” We are writing about autism long before we connect with the term autistic.

Beyond that? If you don’t like stories where girls (of any gender ID) get pleasure, get to chase their dreams, and nearly always get to catch some version of them, you’re not going to like anything with my name on it.

HD: As a person? A lot like Maggie. Autistic, self-deprecating, constantly trying to entertain and explain myself, autistic, obsessive, painfully oblivious, nerdy, autistic… which is why I don’t talk about myself much, I tend to find me fairly boring on account of I’m there with me all the time. Every day. It’s horrible. As a writer though, I’d say I’m an autistic guy who obsessively studied storytelling and writing, which aren’t quite the same thing, in the context of comics, television and written media (through the common thread of a serial format) to compensate for a lack of formal education. As a writer, my biggest focus was and is focusing on character voice. Caitlyn can tell you that with every story we worked on, the most consistent note I give is “Does this version of the line sound more like the character?”

What sparked Whip, Stir and Serve for you? What made you want to write this particular story?

CF: A (very, very) different version of this story was actually caught up in the Ellora’s Cave meltdown. My story, under a different pen name, released about a week after the Dear Author blog post that took those issues mainstream. I got my rights back right before the company shut down in 2016.

I was trying to avoid shredding the story and starting over from the basic concept (Maggie and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day that Got Better When She Got Laid), but this was a situation where the foundation just wasn’t solid. To avoid that rewrite, I just left it on the shelf for a long time. I’d reread it every so often, make a few small changes, but the story (with its lousy foundation) still wasn’t working. I asked Henry if he’d take a look and see if he agreed about where the flaws were, and the rest flowed from there.

HD: When I read the original story, I offered to proofread it. As it turns out, I don’t actually know what proofreading is – my notes were actually edits, and when I was probed for more information (“How would you write this sentence?”) it changed from editing for fun to being a full blown co-writer. So the answer is technically ‘it was there and I didn’t know any better’. As to why I was invested, I loved the original draft – funny, cute, sexy – and working with Caitlyn, I know the ways that she’s a better writer now than when she wrote her first version. Digging in with an autistic character, which is right up my alley on account of I am a non-fictional one of those, seemed like it could be a lot of fun.

Caitlyn’s talked to me about the notes she’s gotten as an autistic writer, which she says are fairly common notes for people of that type – that there’s an emotional distance to the characters, that something feels off, that it can be a little too clinical. These are pretty worthless notes, providing no actual direction. I can only tell you this – the original version of the story was so intensely focused from Maggie’s perspective that it was hard to connect with. By pulling back somewhat and describing things in a slightly more general way, providing the reader information that Maggie didn’t necessarily have or understand about herself, the story was easier to connect and relate to.

I was struck by the choice to include Maggie having a combination panic attack and meltdown, and the space you devoted to this in the text. Can you talk about this choice, and what motivated it?

CF: On the rare occasions when I see panic portrayed in fiction, it’s usually a result of PTSD, and very dramatic flashbacks. The car backfires and the soldier re-experiences a war trauma. That’s how it’s shown in every movie I’ve ever seen, because it’s dramatic and easy. And of course, sometimes that’s how it happens. Panic is sometimes (often) the result of a million small things going wrong. One of my worst sensory meltdowns occurred because I decided after a shower that it was more important to fix my mascara then to spend fifteen minutes under my weighted blanket.

Sometimes, shit just happens, and it’s too much, and you fall apart. When I re-experience traumas that people understand, they’re very sympathetic. When I go non-verbal because a sensory experience is overwhelming my brain, they’re not. I wanted Maggie to still be loved, even after she’d hit that point and fallen apart. Henry said at one point that people like us deserve to be loved, and I cried for a while.

As far as giving it space, it takes up space in the day. Maggie notes that she should have gone home from the store, gone to bed, and tried again tomorrow. That’s what it’s like for a lot of us, I think. I thought I was broken for a long time because of how I experienced panic and meltdowns. I am absolutely sure I’m not the only one, so it was too important to get wrong.

HD: I think it started with the idea that her sensory stuff should be part of the character, which meant making it part of the plot, which meant putting it on the page in detail. There’s a weird stigma regarding mental health, where issues related to it are given the Very Special Episode treatment. This is part of her life, but the story isn’t about that, it’s about Maggie on a day that went nowhere near how she expected.

She mentioned that I said people like us deserve to be loved. The natural evolution of that was giving more depth to Liam, which slid this story from erotica to erotic romance, which meant showing more of who Maggie is in her best state and her rawest. He treats her the way I think a lot of people in that situation wish they would be treated – with love and respect for their needs.

It’s clear that one of the core things you wanted to do in this book was to center an autistic character’s everyday experience. Can you tell me about why that’s important to you?

CF: So when Henry read the original draft of this story, he left me a note. I need to be incredibly clear that this was meant lovingly, and that I laughed over it, and was not hurt or upset in any way. He said: “Your autism is showing. Please, can you please use an emotion word somewhere on this page.” As far as centering an autistic character; when I realized that autism was part of my day to day life, I went looking for stories about autistic people. As I’m sure you know, there are very few – and when you filter out the ones that are ableist, inspiration porn, or just horrifically offensive – there are almost none.

When I was a kid, I knew I wasn’t like the people around me. I knew that things didn’t make sense to me the way they did to other people. One of the reasons I started writing stories when I was young was that it was how I made sense of my world – but I also held out hope that someone would read my stories and feel less alone. I thought of them as messages in bottles.

It was crucial that Maggie’s autism be part and parcel of her everyday life, because I’m not just autistic when I’m “being quirky” or stimming or engaging in my “special interest” or caught in a loop or having a meltdown. It was crucially important that an autistic perspective be the starting point for Maggie’s narrative.

HD: The original draft was autistic. And I’m using that word in a very specific way, in that it wasn’t just a story about an autistic character, it was written with an autistic voice that was not conscious of its autistic perspective. I went through the original draft with her and counted how many emotion words she had used, rather than the physical descriptions of emotions, and came up with four in the entire story. Four and a half, because I think the words “something that I thought seemed like amused” were used to describe Maggie’s mom at one point.

One of my goals, personally, was to make it so that anyone could read it and still understand what’s going on in her head – a huge trick was making sure that the reader had knowledge that Maggie didn’t, without making her an unreliable narrator. This is an autistic book, but our experiences aren’t alien, and the story was written with that in mind.

I loved the way consent works in this book, and how important it was to both the MCs. Can you tell me more about consent in your writing, and how you navigate the complexities of it?

CF: I think there’s absolutely a place for erotica where BDSM is more fetishized, where everyone is psychic and just dives in and everyone has a great time with humiliation and pain and whatever else. I think there’s absolutely a place for the kind of “sign this contract” story, although it’s a dynamic I don’t personally understand.

What I really liked about the way consent was handled in our story was that it reflects a more fluid type of interaction. If someone hits their limit in a particular area, what they’re willing to consent to in another area can change. We felt like this kind of back and forth, yes-seeking exchange really emphasized how that can play out, and also how sexy it can be to get that yes from your partner.

The kink in the story felt deeply realistic, and resonated with my own kink experience. I especially appreciated that the dominant wasn’t perfect, and that one of the elements of the story was a moment where Maggie insists that she gets to keep him safe too. What motivated you to write that particular moment in the story?

HD: Honestly, bad porn. I absolutely hate the stories with where the dom is there to serve as a psychic, omniscient penis, which gets in to a bit of Dom 101. As a matter of enlightened self-interest, having a sub enthusiastically consent means that they will enthusiastically participate. Figuring out how to ask these questions, especially in a sexual context, can bring a lot of truths that aren’t otherwise necessarily forthcoming. Even better, those answers can be explicitly expressed as turn-ons (both in their desires and in hearing them said aloud) for the dom, which can make the sub feel more desirable, which leads to a more open communication, and everyone ends up happy about the whole experience and wishing they’d kept a couple of towels nearby.

I really appreciated the queer representation in the story. Can you talk a bit about writing a bisexual demigirl character in this story, and your choice to make this representation incidental?

CF: The first book I ever read about being queer (lesbian) and coming out was Annie On My Mind by Nancy Garden. That book exploded my brain. But when I started looking for more books about queer kids, every single one was about coming out. And well-told coming out stories are crucial for our community, but also, I’m sick of them from a personal level. I wanted to write a story where a character is at peace with her sexuality, and where her love interest doesn’t consider it anything other than a piece of information.

In terms of the demi-girl rep; I was terrified to do more than handle it in that offhand way. Identifying as nonbinary is a really, really new thing for me, and I am not out to anyone offline. I didn’t change my pronouns, and I don’t experience any significant dysphoria from she/her pronouns or the word girl (I bug out hard when I get called a woman, but that’s a separate thing), so I didn’t feel comfortable making it a thing for Maggie. I couldn’t be authentic with that experience, at all.

HD: I deferred in every single way to Caitlyn in this, but we actually had a draft which had a more explicit scene about this and I noticed that we’d begun a physical transformation where, as we went further and further along, our hands had become a set of hams. So we went back and tried to write it like humans would interact with each other.

As a more personal thing, my experience has been that a lot more girls are bisexual than statistics suggest, they just don’t broadcast it or, sometimes, don’t accept that their masturbating thinking about girls and guys since they learned about the other end of the hairbrush might mean something. Or everyone’s favorite, “that didn’t count.” Seeing that in the people I’ve dated is something I wish just didn’t happen at all. Bisexual characters are, as a result, something I consider to be a critical part of avoiding that.

I’d like to hear a bit about your co-writing process. How did collaboration work on this story?

HD: I think the most important aspects of collaboration were Google Documents and fear, because insecurity leads to collaboration, and fear of not eating creates motivation. It was absolutely video chat that allowed us to write this story, reducing our lag time to almost nothing as we wrote/edited/proofread/made notes/yelled at sentences that weren’t working.

CF: Reading through the story now, there are very few places where I can tell what I wrote and what Henry did. We were constantly rehashing and rewriting each other’s words; nothing was sacrosanct. There are a handful of lines where it’s very clear to us that he wrote that or I wrote this, but it was all very tangled in the good ways.

There were times where we stood up to each other, though. I passionately defended the nerd Avengers reference in the basement. It’s possible I said “I like my joke. Give it back.”

There were also absolutely places where I tried to delete something and Henry said no, and vice versa. But what usually happened in those places is we’d get into a conversation about why whatever it was wasn’t working for us, and then we’d rewrite accordingly.

What’s next on the horizon for you? What stories are you working on?

CF: We’re still exploring what we want to work on together, but one thing I know for sure: I want to continue to write about autistic people. Whether they will be girls or demi-girls or agender or genderqueer, I don’t know. But I’m passionately committed to exploring autistic characters in both romance and spec fic.

HD: The collaboration is new, and this is just a start. So I’m going to give everyone’s favorite writer-y answer (he said, holding up the sarcasm sign): I don’t know, but hopefully good ones.

Whip,Stir, (1)Book Description

Maggie Jensen has one goal: make cinnamon buns, from scratch, for her father’s retirement party. She’ll do whatever it takes to finish the job and prove she isn’t a klutz in the kitchen, family stories about her burned hard boiled eggs be damned. She’s more comfortable in the wood shop, but how hard can this possibly be?

But after her first attempt ends in disaster, Maggie knows she needs a good luck charm to make this happen. She makes sure to pick up a secret ingredient on her next trip to the grocery store: a quick gaze at Liam, the eye candy behind the deli counter. He warns her this might be harder than she thinks, but Maggie is on a mission.

It turns out that baking is nothing like woodworking, and Maggie is in over her head. Inexperience combined with autistic and sensory issues threaten to ruin her plans, but Liam isn’t going to let her go it alone. He’s going to get these cinnamon buns made before the timer runs out, no matter what.

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