Interview with Cole McCade

I adored Cole McCade‘s contemporary m/m romance release Over and Over Again, which comes out today! The characters are drawn in such a complex, careful way, & the writing is beautiful. There is a lovely sweetness to this book. And it gave me so many feels!

I’m really jazzed to share this interview I did with Cole, which is such a thoughtful exploration of craft and in-depth discussion of this wonderful book.

Note: paragraph breaks and content notes are by Cole. I added bolding.

An Interview with Cole

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

Erratic. I love so many genres of fiction that I can’t explore just one at a time, and tend to follow what has its hooks in me instead of staying in one genre consistently. Many would call that a career-ending move, but…well, I’m having fun.

I think the only thing consistent about me would be my tendency toward layered, introspective writing that often relies heavily on sensory descriptors to convey emotional immersion—both a function of attempting to put my own synesthesia-influenced sensory impressions onto the page, and of attempting to capture the visual nuances of a highly pictographic non-English language while translating my mental stream of consciousness into English for my primary audience.

It’s probably part of me internalizing old writing advice, too, along the “show, don’t tell” vein; someone once told me it’s passive, flat writing to use the word for the emotion instead of the associated sensory impressions and experiences. Why say someone is sad when you can put the reader in their shoes with the crushing pain in their chest, the hollowness behind their eyes, etc.?

To this day I don’t remember who gave me that advice, or if it was good advice or bad advice. I can say for myself sometimes there’s merit in simplicity, in just saying “sad,” because in deep POV your character just might say “Hey, I’m sad.” But I still also do a lot of deeply descriptive writing to capture the physicality of emotions, and that’s probably what strikes people first.

What authors or books have you been reading lately that you would highly recommend?

I’ve been digging into a lot of post-apocalyptic short stories lately, and one who’s really stood out to me in the collections I’ve been reading is Tananarive Due. She’s got this way of writing characters who seem quiet, but the impact they have on you is as loud as a scream—and she dives into these perspectives who don’t follow the mainstream, who take risks and make choices by moral frameworks that defy the commonly accepted narrative. While I first found her through short work in anthologies, her African Immortals series (starting with My Soul to Keep) is overwhelmingly beautiful and raw.

I know I’m late to the party on Due, but new-to-me can be as amazing as new when discovering a great author.

For contemporary, Talia Hibbert is stunning me at every turn. She creates these meaningful moments between characters that are utterly shattering in their truth and emotional intensity, with this amazing insight that resonates so deep and pulls at the heart in all the best ways. Her writing is smart and funny, and her characters are just…real in a way we so often need to see from POC voices. She writes people I’d want to be friends with, or people I’d want to be. I really admire Hibbert’s talent, and the deft hand with which she masters her craft.

If you have one, tell me about a book crush, book squish, or book friend?

I will always answer this question with Gerald Tarrant from C.S. Friedman’s Coldfire Trilogy, even if it’s a choice many people would be horrified by (or maybe not, if they’ve read my urban SF From the Ashes) when you consider he’s a monstrous thing of evil operating by a wholly different and entirely predatory moral framework. I have a thing for morally complex characters, including evil that’s been turned to the path of good for a purpose without changing its fundamentally evil nature, and I’ve always been attracted to the cold, dangerous ones who maintain absolute control over their situation and others.

Recently, though, I’ve reevaluated that attraction, which has existed since I was a teenager. The thing with Tarrant is that his menace has a certain sensuality to it, but he’s explicitly non-sexual; he can’t even have sex in any definition of the word because sex could—in certain circumstances—lead to procreation and is considered an act of life in the story’s canon. Any act of life or preservation of life can negate the dark contract that maintains his eternal existence, so he chooses power, death, and darkness over physical intimacy and connections to life, although there’s still a deep capacity for an almost invasive personal intimacy inherent in his very nature.

Being demigray myself, even if I didn’t have the language for that until much, much later in life, I wonder now if I was attracted to him because I identified with him as someone capable of appreciating the sensual but having little interest in prioritizing the sexual. He was never denigrated as lesser for being non-sexual, and it was rarely intimated that he might miss the sexual pastimes of his mortal life. Instead the fact that he voluntarily shed them only contributed to his power and his appeal.

There’s also the dynamic between him and Damian Vryce, the MC but not really the star of the show. I hated Damian at first. He was everything I despised about the vehicle of the white allocishet male power fantasy before I even knew what “allo” and “cis” were. I think at one point in the book he’s even described as “bluff,” and I physically shudder in distaste to even think of a person who meets that descriptor.

But throughout the story, Tarrant erodes at Damian’s righteousness (and self-righteousness), his moral convictions, his arrogance—and he changes Damian in ways that he doesn’t bounce back from with typical blustering force. He alters Damian’s worldview, exposes him to situations and hard choices he’d been sheltered from before, leaves him doing things he’d never thought himself capable of.

Slowly but surely Tarrant is graying Damian’s morality, and while I won’t lie or pretend I wasn’t attracted to the queer undercurrent in the intimately dark loathing between them, I was also attracted to the theme of this villainous man who’s coded as beautiful(ly possibly queer), seductive, powerful, and untouchable completely destroying the privilege that has acted as the foundation of this “heroic” man’s existence.

I’ve always wanted to write a dynamic like that. Of corruption and transformation and the destruction of the heteronormative, of the appeal of villainy and the allure of the untouchable, the unspeakable.

Maybe one day.

What sparked Over and Over Again for you? What made you want to write this particular story?

A friend was teasing me about finally joining the club when it comes to my recent love of silver foxes, and started talking about wanting a story about a silver fox farmer. A goat farmer. And then she started teasing me about writing it, while I’m like “Are you taking the bloody piss?” as I had a very cartoonish image in my head of supremely dour, dull, plodding farmers with little character or charisma.

But the more she teased the more an idea took root, and suddenly Imre came to life before Luca erupted into existence as his foil. I chose the setting because my friend lives in Yorkshire, and if I was going to write the story for her I wanted it to feel like home (and she was also kind enough to help me with multiple authenticity matters). From there on, it took on a life of its own.

I really appreciated the demisexual representation in the story; it resonated for me, and felt very real. Can you talk a bit about Imre and writing ace spec characters?

That part of Imre was born of my recent (at the time) realization that there was a word for the endless conflict inside me and how I didn’t fit into typical expectations of allosexuality, particularly the hypersexuality expected of queer men. Imre gave me a vehicle to explore that.

I also wanted to explore the idea of someone who presents with such hypermasculine traits (his size, his strength, his ruggedness, etc.) being demi to break the trope of this massive brick-wall hypersexed alpha type and contribute to him being someone soft, gentle, patient. I feel like his demisexuality also reflects the general patience of his character, in that he’s willing to wait for intimacy because it matters so much to him and he wants it to be right for the relationship.

He’s the first ace-spec character I’ve written consciously and deliberately, but the process made me more cognizant of how being demi has influenced my writing throughout my career. Even when I try to write sex-first erotica, my way of processing attraction and progression of intimacy from emotional to physical—not to mention initial reticence and slow evolution of trust—always influences everything even when I’m not aware of it.

Fuck, I accidentally made one of my leads in Criminal Intentions demigray gay ace and didn’t realize it until I was in the middle of the second novel, because processing relationships through an ace-spec lens is just my normal and it was odd to me to realize it wasn’t for the majority. It totally floored me to realize that for many people sex is the answer, when for me it’s always a nebulous question.

But realizing that also helped me understand a lot of things, too, about how I relate to my fiction, my audience, and my market. It made a lot of things click that were puzzling me before about reader expectations, romantic arcs, etc.

I really appreciated the representation of self-neglect as self-harm in the story, it’s something that I so rarely see on the page. Can you talk a bit about writing this aspect of the story, and why you decided to include it?

(Content Warning for self-harm and abuse in this answer)

I included it because it’s something I’d have done at Luca’s age.

It’s no secret my headspace is a pretty tangled place full of a lot of damage and old scars, and those wounds were cut in young; when I was younger I couldn’t overtly punish myself for perceived failings without being noticed and punished further, so instead I would punish myself by depriving myself of necessities or pushing past pain, injury, psychological distress to be “stronger” than whatever hurt I was experiencing and that I felt I wasn’t allowed to indulge in.

It’s only as an adult that I recognized what I was doing was self-harm and was a result of a dysfunctional home environment, and that it’s a thing I still do sometimes. Since I tend to give bits of myself to my characters, I gave that bit to Luca, a subtle indicator of the harm his dysfunctional home environment was doing to him as the glue holding his parents together, leading to his tendency to self-blame for things beyond his control or for every tiny misstep + his tendency to feel like he had to push past it to be better and win others’ approval.

The key was also giving him someone who would recognize it for what it was, and try to break the cycle in healthy ways involving communication and self-care.

Over and Over Again is an age gap story where the older MC is a friend of the family and knew the younger MC as a child. They were estranged for years and when Imre meets him again Luca’s an adult. Imre’s arc is partly about seeing and accepting that and giving himself permission to want Luca.

This is a very slow burn deeply romantic love story that plays along the edges of taboo, when stories like this often lean more sexual than romantic. Tell me about what motivated you to push against these genre edges in this particular way.

While I always tend to write my stories for myself and hope others enjoy them, too, I always hold things back as well because they feel too private. Over and Over Again is one where I didn’t hold much back, for once, and put a lot of my wistful longings into the story.

Look…I’m a six foot tall bearded man of color with shoulders like a linebacker. I’m always expected to be the strong one, the protector, etc. even if I’m pretty and a bit femme with or without the beard—when in truth I generally want to be the soft one, the small one, the one who’s being protected. Men like me aren’t generally allowed that.

So Over and Over Again is something of a fantasy where I craft the perfect protector, someone like Imre, someone who could shelter and shield anyone, who could make anyone feel small in the best ways…even me. But one aspect of that is making his foil someone extremely vulnerable, and someone I can project my own missed opportunities onto when I remember being that age and crushing on these unattainable older figures in my life.

People often assume with a male author that the dominant partner in a partnership is the vehicle for the author, but that’s rarely true with me whether I’m writing queer or non-queer fic. Luca is the vehicle through which I was viewing Imre as this fantasy ideal, and to make that fantasy truly ideal Luca needed to be young enough to experience the sort of vulnerability that I often experience and yet try to hide because it’s not allowed to tall MOC nearing our forties. Men are so often told to “man up” and MOC in particular are never allowed true boyhood when we’re men from the moment we can be perceived as a threat. So Luca was a way to write this experience of boyhood becoming manhood while also exploring this desire to be protected by someone older and worldlier, retaining that vulnerability we’re so often denied.

I think in a lot of ways it’s something many of us need—a fantasy outlet where we can be vulnerable, where we can be young, where we can have the things we wanted in our youth without the associated consequences, where we can project onto a younger character who might have problems, but doesn’t have the shitty issues that turned us into the cases of arrested development we are as broken, tired adults. So I went into this story thinking there must be people like me out there, people who need a story like this as a balm on wounds both new and old, and hoped in the end that would be true.

Though of course, that’s one reason why the story is so long. I needed time to position Luca as an equal partner to Imre, a growing adult with independent thoughts of his own and a sense of clear agency about the choices he makes regardless of his vulnerability—and also to establish Imre’s intent to protect that vulnerability rather than preying on it. Otherwise this could’ve gone down some really bad pathways that I didn’t want to tread.

Consent is so complex and nuanced in this story, in a way I really appreciated. I’ve also found that to be true in your other work. Can you tell me more about consent in your writing, and how you navigate the complexities of it?

(Content Warning for this answer: discussions of sexual assault, dubcon, noncon, rape culture, and shame culture)

It’s funny you say that, as during early stages of the story’s development I had someone criticize the scene in the bath where Imre simply asks Luca “May I?” before touching him intimately; they said it would be sexier if he said something more forceful like “I need you,” when to me there’s nothing sexier than this great beast of a man holding himself back with all his will until his ingenue partner gives consent.

I get the appeal of being the one to drive a partner so wild they can’t restrain themselves, and why it’s such a popular trope as long as it’s fiction where mutual consent is implied in the reader contract. But imagine how much sexier it is when you drive your partner to such a state of wildness…and yet they still feel so deeply for you that they can’t bear to continue until they’ve restrained themselves and asked first.

If you’re into the power rush of being able to drive your partner beyond reason, imagine the sense of power in your partner trembling and waiting for your “yes,” all their strength going into holding themselves back and waiting for you to let them off their leash.

For a more straightforward answer, though, consent is something I’ve always tried to explore whether writing enthusiastic mutual consent or even venturing into dubcon stories. As someone who’s had his own consent overridden, ignored, or denied in multiple situations on multiple occasions, it’s something I think about rather often with how we handle consent in both verbal and non-verbal ways as a culture, and how gender dynamics play into that with queer and non-queer pairings; why non-consent and dubious consent are fantasies for some and what purpose they serve, particularly for assault survivors; how to write openly discussed consent in scenes of spontaneous passion without diluting the intimacy.

When I’m writing, I’m always asking myself—whose fantasy is this, and what role does consent play in that fantasy?

Even if characters seem to be denied consent, they need to be consenting to that denial of consent. They need to be willingly placing themselves in that situation because that’s what they want, even if it’s a new discovery for them that they want that. Sometimes that can make something even so simple as a POV choice crucial in communicating consent, when we need to be inside the head of the person providing consent in a dubious situation so that we know they wanted it and accepted it in the heat of the moment, and the framing of it is part of the fantasy for the reader.

Again, it really depends on that question of whose fantasy we’re writing. Are we writing a fantasy of a communicative, sensitive partner who discusses consent and negotiates boundaries, or the all-knowing partner who magically understands intimated desires and acts on them where someone more reticent may not be comfortable directly asking for what they want? Both are valid, both have their own forms of intimacy, both can be represented to varying degrees in a single story—but both require very different approaches to ensuring consent is apparent in the reader contract.

I think, too, a lot of my pathways with consent tie into my cultural roots, and the differing perspectives on sexual consent that are born of Japanese shame culture, where force and the illusion of non-consent can be desired because they allow the “victim” to engage in sexual pleasure without being sullied or impure because it’s not their fault, it’s being forced on them, their partner made them feel all these dirty things, really. It’s a cultural perspective that has issues when people can’t distinguish between “no means no” and “no means yes but I’m too shy/ashamed to say so, but trust you to understand the byplay taking place here and to enable this encounter for me”—which can lead to people who genuinely think assault and rape culture are the acceptable norm versus this specific scenario with a mutually understood and consenting dance of pretend between two partners playacting in order to be socially and culturally acceptable.

While I think too many people don’t understand what’s happening in that playact when they judge through a Western lens, I’m also not even going to pretend that the foundation of that cultural perspective hasn’t led to some major issues on a social front regarding autonomy, consent, and assault. There’s not enough communication about where the line is between mutually understood social byplay with clear indicators of consent, and perpetuation of rape culture. Nonetheless, knowing that perspective does provide a deeper understanding of different approaches to consent based on different social frameworks.

But reconciling personal knowledge of that perspective with a Western upbringing and primarily Western audience often leaves me looking for a delicate path between the two, and doing a lot of work to navigate matters of consent that may not tread expected or standard paths, but that still leave room for both partners to offer consent one way or another.

…I feel as though this answer danced around the question. You’re getting a lot of introspective though today. *laughs* Thank you for coming to my TED Talk.

I loved these two characters so much, all the layers of them; I felt so deeply for them both. One of the things I love about your work across genres is the complexity of your characters, how carefully they are drawn, how you let them unfold over time so readers really have the sense of getting to know them as the story emerges. How do you build characterization?

If I’m being honest, I don’t. Not really. I just kind of let things happen on their own once I get the nugget of a personality and a base idea of what they look like. I often compare my writing process to the evolution of a fractal pattern that continues to repeat on so many levels of complexity both large and small, and one of the tendrils in that fractal is the evolving characterization as the story progresses.

Events happen, and I ask myself how the characters would react in the situation, then why they would react that way, then what events lead to that reason and how it would have impacted them on other levels. And it just…weaves its way into the fractal, finds its way into the pattern and repeating themes, and it feels more self-evolving than something I do consciously.

I sometimes think of it as a neural network, too. Dendrites connecting, push and pull, one thing firing into  another. It’s intuitive, and I just follow the flow.

In a lot of ways this is the most fluffy of the books you have written, it’s more cozy, is a holiday romance, and plays with beloved tropes like snowed-in, gentle giant, and long term pining. Plus there are the baby goats!

What motivated you to write something substantially lighter than your other work? Do you think you might write more stories in this vein?

This answer might seem silly, but this is totally a byproduct of Yuri!!! On Ice. I mean I had the framework of a goat farmer story from my friend nudging at me, but then another friend and I buddy-watched Y!!!OI and I had so. Many. Feels. It made me so happy, did the most twisty and beautiful things to my heart, and right at the time when it was so easy to sink into despair because we were getting the first taste of what the U.S. would evolve into in the coming months.

So I wanted to write something that made me happy in the same way. I wanted to write something that would make other people happy in the same way, with all these subtle yet meaningful moments and these quiet little intimacies.

There’s merit in writing pain, in writing darkness, in exploring things that shatter people and how they put themselves back together. But there’s merit in writing things that just make people happy, too, for no other reason than that it’s nice to feel happy. I don’t want to limit myself to one range of emotions. I want to explore all the emotions that impact us as people, whether I stick to a single thematic element in one set of books or follow every rise and fall of the emotional spectrum in a single story.

Mostly, though, I just want to feel.

And I want people to feel with me.

So yes, I’ll likely write more stories in this vein, just as I’ll write stories that venture into other emotional landscapes as well. I’ve even got a series of M/M romcom-style stories planned just for something fun and silly and cute. Every kind of story fascinates me, so I doubt I’ll shy away whether it’s sour or sweet.

It’s clear that one of the core things you wanted to do in Over and Over Again was to really ground your story in a sense of place. Can you tell me about why that’s important to you and your process for doing that?

If I’d opened this questionnaire two days before I did, I wouldn’t have been able to answer this. I just realized a couple of days ago, after reading a book whose setting fell flat for me, that the settings of my stories are characters to me. And if I can’t establish the setting as a character, as a presence that I can feel with a sense of emotion and atmosphere, then I can’t define how my characters relate to their environment. Without that my work feels incomplete, shallow, passive. A quick dip at the trot, as they say.

So I treat the places my characters occupy as if they have a personality of their own, and define them as character relationships with my MCs. It’s again something I can’t really say I do with a clear-cut process, but more that I just…try to capture the feel of a place, particularly places I’ve been, and make it come to life.

The synesthesia thing plays in again here, as it’s often a major component in the “feel” I get of a place, and how I try to describe it as characters interact with their environment. What conflicts they have, what places make them feel safe and comfortable, etc.—just as we define conflicts with people, or which people make us feel safe and comfortable.

I guess in the end I’m asking…is my protagonist friends with their city/home, enemies, or even lovers?

What’s next on the horizon for you?

Too much. Everything. I have so many plans and I’m writing like I only have a few years left to execute them, when that’s not true. Just. I always get so many new ideas, so I think I’m trying to outrace them so that I’m not always backlogged on things I want to finish when at any moment my wonky brain chemicals might jam a mile-high speedbump into my path and it could be days or it could be months before I find momentum again. But just a brief look at what I’m planning in the coming years:

  1. Continuation of CRIMINAL INTENTIONS through multiple 13-episode seasons
  2. Wrap-up of the Undue Arrogance series with HIS COCKY CELLIST and HIS COCKY PRINCE
  3. THE GIRL WITH THE STARS ON HER SKIN, a multi-POV multi-novella contemporary NA story with F/F, M/M, and M/F pairings
  4. Wrap-up of the Crow City series
  5. Launch of the Crow City queer spinoff series, Caravan of the Macabre (Wally in the 90s!)
  6. A paranormal Choose Your Own Adventure project as Xen
  7. Expansion into science fiction that isn’t necessarily M/M romance but still has queer characters who happen to have queer relationships
  9. …a lot of other things that would take a week to describe

Like I said in the very first question, I love everything.

So I’m going to write everything I can, while I can, and see where my ideas take me.

More About Over and Over Again

Over and Over Again by Cole McCadeA ring of braided grass. A promise. Ten years of separation.

And memories of an innocent love with the power to last through time.

When Luca Ward was five years old, he swore he would love Imre Claybourne forever. Years later, that promise holds true—and when Luca finds himself shipped off to Imre’s North Yorkshire goat farm in disgrace, long-buried feelings flare back to life when he finds, in Imre, the same patiently stoic gentle giant he’d loved as a boy. The lines around Imre’s eyes may be deeper, the once-black night of his hair silvered to steel and stone…but he’s still the same slow-moving mountain of a man whose quiet-spoken warmth, gentle hands, and deep ties to his Roma heritage have always, to Luca, meant home.

The problem?

Imre is more than twice Luca’s age.

And Luca’s father’s best friend.

Yet if Imre is everything Luca remembered, for Imre this hot-eyed, fey young man is nothing of the boy he knew. Gone is the child, replaced by a vivid man whose fettered spirit is spinning, searching for north, his heart a thing of wild sweet pure emotion that draws Imre into the compelling fire of Luca’s frustrated passions. That fragile heart means everything to Imre—and he’ll do anything to protect it.

Even if it means distancing himself, when the years between them are a chasm Imre doesn’t know how to cross.

But can he resist the allure in cat-green eyes when Luca places his trembling heart in Imre’s hands…and begs for his love, over and over again?

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