Q1: Hello, Michael, and thank you for agreeing to this interview! How about we start with you telling us a little bit about yourself?
I was born to humble beginnings in the small town of Greeley, Colorado during a raging snowstorm. As the wind howled outside, I took my first breath and let out a mighty cry against injustice, against man’s inhumanity to man and that announced I would become a great writer!
Kidding! I’m not about to bore you with my whole life story, which didn’t start off quite so obnoxiously.
So a little about me.
I’m a writer of gay historical fiction, including Man & Beast and Man & Monster. Both books are set on the American frontier of the late 1700s and imagine what it might have been like to have been gay or bisexual at that time. Both books are adventure stories with a pretty big dollop of M/M romance in there as well, plus some thriller and supernatural elements as well.
In the past I’ve worked as an entertainment journalist, founded a website that was sold to MTV/ Viacom, and even worked as a flight attendant. I live in Seattle, Washington, with my husband and fellow writer, Brent Hartinger. I’m passionate about gay issues and politics in general, love to travel, read constantly, and have been known to devour an entire bag of Dove dark chocolate in one sitting.
Q2: When and why did you start writing? Was there anyone or anything in particular that inspired you to write?
I wrote my first book in the sixth grade when our class assignment was to create an entire book from scratch. Our masterpiece was an underwater extravaganza and let’s just say I might have been a little insufferable in imposing my will, er, vision on the kids in my group. I’m not saying the word “dictator” was used, but it probably could have been.
What inspired me to want to become a writer? Other books, obviously, since reading provided an escape from a home life that wasn’t so great. But in particular it was Where the Red Fern Grows that first made me want to write. That a person could use nothing but words to reach into my chest, yank out my heart, and leave me a sobbing mess seemed like such an incredibly powerful thing to be able to do. I wanted to be able to move people the same way, though my goal isn’t necessarily to make my only readers sob.
I want them to gasp, swoon, get turned on. To be angry, happy, and moved. Basically, I want them to feel.
Q3: Hmm, Where the Red Fern Grows sounds like something I should check out ’cause who doesn’t like their heart yanked out? Wait, that doesn’t sound so good… The book will still probably end up on my Kindle though. Anyway, back to the interview: any big achievements that you are proud of?
Did you miss the part where I said I ate an entire bag of Dove dark chocolate IN ONE SITTING! (You might be detecting a theme here…)
So, big achievements.
Well, I’m proud that I learned from my parents’ mistakes and have made a happy life for myself by doing the opposite of what they did. Instead, a married a man I loved, followed my dreams, was financially responsible, and always trusted my own instincts over anyone else’s
I’m also proud that I founded AfterElton.com, a website devoted to covering gay and bisexual men in pop culture. I think it’s fair to say AfterElton actually managed to make a difference in how gay and bi men have been portrayed in Hollywood. We forced networks to think very hard about how they presented gay characters, held them accountable when they did a poor job and praised them when they did well. I don’t think it’s a reach to say that part of the reason the most recent Star Trek revealed Sulu to be gay was due to a conversation I had with J.J. Abrams.
And I’m proud that I’ve fought for LGBT rights my entire life, including writing books about gay and bisexual men that tell our own stories in our own words.
Q4: I thought that scene was there as a nod to actor George Takei – the original Sulu, who is openly gay. Do you like how that scene ended up?
Oh, I think it was definitely a nod to Takei, maybe even an homage. But the fact is, I’d been badgering different Star Trek writers for years about the show’s lack of LGBT visibility. Was I happy with it? Ten years ago, I probably would have said yes. But now it’s 2017 and Star Trek has lagged so incredibly far behind on this issue, that no, simply revealing that Sulu is gay doesn’t even come close to where Star Trek needs to be. If the next instalment either features Sulu’s relationship more prominently or adds another gay character, then we can talk about my being happy.
Q5: Do you get anxious about what people close to you might say about your books? For example, when you write a sex scene, is there a moment when you think “I hope no one who knows me reads this”?
Hmm, that’s a pretty good question. I mostly worry that they’ll think what I’ve written is crap! Otherwise the answer is “no” because I’m pretty much a “just put it all out there and see what happens” kind of guy.
However, when my first book came out, Brent and I did not want to give a copy to his parents. It included a pretty graphic sex scene that just wasn’t appropriate for his nice Catholic folks. However, when they insisted they were going to buy a copy if we didn’t hand one over, we finally relented and gave them a copy. But first we glued the pages with the sex scene shut. They never mentioned it and I have no idea if they ever did read that scene. And I don’t want to know!
Q6: Who is your biggest supporter and what would you like to say to them?
Brent is easily my biggest supporter and champion. He’s not just my husband, he also reads and edits everything I write before anyone else sees it. But editing a book means giving a lot of feedback, which is a nice way of saying “criticism.” And that can put a lot of stress on a relationship. I’m not saying I’ve spent time lying on the bathroom floor sobbing, but I’m not denying it either.
Yet, Brent has never wavered in pushing me to a be a better writer and has reread things over and over without complaint. He’s amazing.
So to Brent, I say, “Touch my chocolate and die! Also, you are by far and away the best thing in my life. Thanks for being there all these years.”
Q7: Your husband sounds amazing! Feel free to tell him I said so. As a matter of fact, make sure you do! Preferably before he accidently touches your Dove dark chocolate and suffers a mysterious death…
But back to your work. What kind of audience would enjoy your books? Who are they aimed at?
Readers with exquisite taste, duh! (Perhaps I’ve had too much caffeine this morning…)
I’d say my books are aimed at anyone who enjoys genre books with characters who are usually underdogs, are fundamentally decent people, and who like their novels to have strong, coherent, and exciting plots. Personally, I hate books that seem to wander all over the place and don’t really have a point or a logical ending. I’m also not a big fan of literary fiction, so you won’t find a lot of poetic descriptions and internal monologues in my writing. While I’m currently writing historical fiction, I think my themes are universal and are ones that even contemporary readers can relate to.
A little more specifically, I’d say my books are for readers who want to read about the lives and loves of gay and bisexual men. Not everything I’ve written is “gay” and/or about gay themes necessarily. But I promise you’ll always find those characters in my books.
Q8: What are you working on now and when will it be available?
I’m currently writing book two in my new series The Drowning World. The first book is called A Broken Land, the second is A Treacherous Sea, and the last one is A Fiery Sky. The series is set in 5500 BC during the rise of the first proto-cities and follows hunters Hodd and Laart, who are also mates, as they go on a quest to save their people. Over the course of the series, that quest takes them across the world as it was then known to them.
One of the things that I love about writing these books is that while there is a lot of physical evidence about how people lived at that time – ruins, clothing, pottery – we know almost nothing about how they lived. What were their societies like? Their religions? Their relationships? We can infer some of those things, but we actually know very little. So I get to make all of that up myself, which I have a blast doing. It’s almost like writing a fantasy novel.
The first two books won’t be out until later this year, though I actually went ahead and had all three covers designed ahead of time. And I absolutely love them. In fact, doing the covers before writing the books really forced me to think about my plots, themes, and what the books were going to be like.
I hope the covers capture the sense of adventure, of the time and place, as well as the relationship between Hodd and Laart.
Q9: Traditional or self-publishing and why?
I’ve actually done both, and each has their pluses and minuses. With The Drowning World series, I’m going to see if I can land an agent because being traditionally published does give you instant access to a much larger audience.
But, as I know from personal experience, it also comes with some serious downsides. For starters, your publisher will choose your cover, and in my humble opinion, most covers suck. Additionally, a publisher is never going to work as hard to sell your book as you will. It’s also very easy for a publisher to drop the marketing ball, especially because they usually have dozens of other books to sell. If they think yours is flagging in any way, they tend to pull back pretty quickly. Yes, you can still market your own book, but you often don’t know things aren’t going well until it’s too late. Even then, they usually still expect you to run everything by them first.
That being said, while it’s great to have control over everything when you self-publish, that means ALL of the work is on you. And that is a lot of work!
Interestingly, I got the rights back to my first two books – Frontiers and Firelands – and updated them, gave them new titles and covers and republished them as Man & Beast and Man & Monster. They are now part of my The Savage Land series. So these particular books have been both traditionally and self-published!
Q10: Did you encounter any obstacles when publishing? If so, what were they?
I was very fortunate when I first started out. I actually had two agents competing to represent me, then the agent I chose sold my first book pretty quickly. The problems started after that. My first book sold respectably, but not so well that the publisher wanted a second book. I sold my second book to a smaller press, but they eventually went out of business. Suddenly, I had two books that hadn’t been big sellers, which has made it a lot harder to sell the next book. But I’m nothing if not a fighter.
Starting out in traditional publishing has had its own obstacles. For starters, I had no email list, which is pretty important these days. Secondly, it’s important to network within the subset of your writing world. In my case, that was the M/M romance community. While my books don’t fall exactly into that category, it’s the closest thing and has the most readers. And I had almost zero connections with those folks.
But I’m pretty proactive. The first thing I did was to attend the GayRomLit retreat where I did a lot of networking. Then I came up with the Big Gay Fiction Giveaway, which brought together more than 80 M/M writers in a promotion to give away free copies of our books in exchange for readers signing up for our newsletters. In a week, I went from having 150 people subscribed to my newsletter to over 1500. Not bad! Plus, suddenly I was known by quite a few more folks in the M/M writing community.
More recently, I found myself frustrated by how hard it can be to get attention for books that aren’t strictly contemporary M/M romance. So I founded This Gay Book I Loved, a Facebook group for readers who love genre gay books. In less than a month we had over 200 members.
Q11: And I am one of those members! Any advice for writers who might be reading this?
When Brent and I discuss giving advice to other writers, it’s usually both of us yelling, “Don’t do it! Don’t go in there! You’ll be sorry!”
The fact is, writing is a very difficult career filled with a ton of criticism and rejection. Even if you write a great book, so many things have to go right for that book to become a success. So if there is something else you love as much as writing, I’d suggest you take that up instead.
But if writing is something you simply have to do, then be prepared to work really hard. Know your market by reading the sorts of books you hope to write. Take a writing course to get better at your craft. Network like mad, especially using social media. Understand how the business itself works, because being a good writer is only half the battle. And if you don’t understand the other half, it’s as if you’re going into a fight with one hand tied behind your back.
Then just keep writing and don’t give up.
Q12: Where can people find you?
The best way to find me is by following the trail of Dove dark chocolate wrappers around Seattle. (No, I don’t get paid for advertising Dove. I wish!)
I genuinely enjoy hearing from readers and make myself very accessible. You can find me at my personal Facebook page where I post a lot of pictures of Seattle, rant about politics, and share funny bits I like to write. You can also check me out on my Facebook author page, my Goodreads page, my website, and on Twitter (@michaelgjensen). Or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Don’t be shy!
Q13: You sure you are not getting paid by Dove? Absolutely, absolutely sure? Well, okay then… Thank you for doing this interview!
Thank you for having me! Now hand over the dark chocolate you promised!
Books by Michael that I’ve reviewed: