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An interview with Cara McKenna

ddHaley: Firstly, thank you again for taking the time out to do an interview. I read Downtown Devil and I wanted to let you know I loved it. I’ve read quite a few ménage books over the years and I think this is the first time I have seen one where there is passion between the two men, rather than it being two men essentially competing for the woman. What made you decide to have that intimacy between Mica and Vaughn?

Cara: Purely because I wanted to write full-on, no-holds-barred male/male sex again, in the context of a m/m/f ménage. It’s been a while. You get a little taste of m/m in Crosstown Crush, but you’re right, in that one there’s a definite streak of competition tempering the men’s contact…and an essential one, in that story, as competition feeds directly into the kink. But in the new book I wanted two men with history that predates the arrival of the heroine, and a genuine attraction all their own, albeit a fraught and complex one. I mean, Vaughn’s essentially straight, or at least self-identifies as straight. I loved exploring and exploiting the tension that’s built in when one lover is resistant and conflicted and the other’s completely shameless. I like the conflict and discomfort that come out of that imbalance, and I hope it makes for some charged sex scenes. I’m always drawn to uglier emotions, like distrust and even resentment, whatever that says about me. I like that Vaughn trusts Mica with his life, literally (when they’re climbing together), but not in any other capacity.

Haley: I think that it’s great that you are willing to deal with ugly emotions because it gives your characters more depth. In Crosstown Crush and Downtown Devil you have men who are uneasy with their own sexuality, Vaughn with his attraction to Mica and Mike with his desire to be cuckolded. In some of your other novels I’ve noticed there is a similar discomfort with some of the characters and what turns them on. Is that a theme you particularly enjoy exploring?

Cara: Yeah, I guess I do! It seems to me that many kinks are rooted in the most uncomfortable corners of our psyches, tied to dynamics that contradict or undermine some fundamental construct of our self-images. Like the outspoken feminist who gets off on being dominated or experimenting with rape role-play, or, like Mike from Crosstown Crush, a man whose professional persona demands he be decisive and in control all day, but when it comes to sex he’s compelled to explore and fetishize the sensation of being outmanned and uncertain—his most primal fears. I think if you’re going to write about sex, and especially kinky sex, the kinky characters need pasts and personalities that either inform or contradict those proclivities.

Haley: Awhile back I read the book How to Write Hot Sex that you contributed to. In it, you mention adding “ugly sensory details” to help create a sense of realism in sex scenes. Is that something you still consciously do or does it come naturally to you?

Cara: That’s not something I ever did consciously, but something I noticed later on, with readers’ help, that I do naturally. I began receiving reader messages thanking me for being “brave” or “realistic” and writing “real sex.” What I eventually figured out was that I was including details the majority of romance and erotica authors might not, things that at first might seem unflattering or even mood-killing. My standard example: the couple’s been having intercourse, then things shift and one character is going down on the other, and in their introspection they note the acrid taste of latex from the condom that had earlier been worn. Just a momentary yank out of the perfection, a little something that makes readers go, “Oh, I know that taste.” Or, “Yeah, I had a guy bump my cervix once,” or, “Oh yeah, I’ve totally gotten a charley horse when I was on top.” Little disruptions that are both real and humanizing, and give the characters a chance to negotiate, pause, course correct, communicate. Perfect sex is boring. A little taste of awkwardness or homeliness opens up opportunities to deepen characters and make even fantasy sex relatable.

Haley: I think it’s an excellent contrast to the old-school romance idea of sex scenes that were all flowery language and earth-shattering orgasms with little to no effort.

I wanted to ask you about your approach to characterization. In Downtown Devil it was clear how starkly different Mica and Vaughn are. Mica was so well characterized that he reminded me (maybe too much) of a guy I casually “dated” in my early twenties. When you create a character, do you go into the story knowing every detail about them like some writers do, or are you more prone to let the storytelling introduce you to the character?

Cara: Definitely the latter. Before I start writing I need to have a handle on the characters’ basic personalities, and if they have major issues—as Mica does—I have to have the bones of a backstory in place to explain them. But very often I don’t know the details or the depth of the damage until the characters are on the page, reacting to one another, getting intimate, and especially talking to each other. My characters are constantly surprising me in dialogue, casually mentioning that they run marathons, for example, and I stop and blink and think, “You do?” And then I think harder and it’s always, “Oh, of course you do! Why didn’t I know that?” Mica was very cagey about being discovered (I still don’t know his last name.) All I knew when I started was that he was the quintessential hot, charismatic barista and a maddening mind-fuck of a love interest, but little else. All the baggage he’s got came out on the page as I was typing it. It’s both nerve-wracking and exhilarating, trusting the characters to do that. For me it works far better than trying to game them out from page one, and winding up with predictable characters.

Haley: Since you have organic development happening as your write, do you find that there’s a big revision process for you between your first draft and what your editor sees? Or, with as much experience as you have now, do you have a good system for working with those character driven revelations?

Cara: My big revisions tend to come once the editor’s seen the completed manuscript. By the time I’ve drafted a book I’m so close to it—and usually so burned out by it—I just go through the whole thing and clean it up, revise surface-level stuff and deepen characterization…basically get it into good enough shape to show another human being. If it’s a plot-driven book, I can expect to have intense revisions ahead of me, because I’m not a strong plotter and tend to need lots of help in that department. But if it’s a sex-driven book, a story that’s comprised mostly of intimacy and dialogue, the revisions are usually light, because I’m more intuitive with those sorts of stories. I might need to beef up the ending or add an extra chapter, or clarify characters’ motivations here and there, but it’s comparably painless. But every single one of the Desert Dogs books, for example, have been torturous, revisions-wise. They’re romantic suspense, borderline mysteries, and all of them aside from the prequel novella has needed a good month’s worth of retooling and rewriting, because plotting is just not in my wheelhouse. Totally worth it, because they wind up so much tighter and more logical in the end, but all I do for that month is cry and drink, basically.

Haley: Oh no! Well hopefully you’re taking a break from the crying and drinking for a while.

So last year you did something a little different and came out with a literary fiction book, Badger. I saw an interview where you said that it was fun to do something new and get to write whatever you wanted, rather than working on spec. Do you think that’s something you’ll be attempting again in the future?

Cara: Yes, Badger! That weird-ass gem. I actually wrote Badger in 2011, it just took nearly four years to find the right home for it. (It sort of tumbled out of my brain in a manic rush, and I wasn’t even sure I was going to try to get it published; it just wanted out.) It’s a marketing department’s nightmare, and my agent and I received a glut of glowing rejections from editors who loved it but had nowhere to put in, as far as bookstore shelves go. But I’m very happy things worked out the way they did, and that I ended up partnering with my friends who started Brain Mill Press, because I don’t think that book could’ve wound up in better hands. And yes, I would absolutely love to write something genre-bending again in the near future, and I think that’s what I’ll be doing as soon as I’ve fulfilled my existing contracts. I’ve got the final Sins in the City installment (Midtown Masters) due in June, and then the finale of the Desert Dogs series (Miah’s book) due this winter. But by next spring I’ll be deep into the next project, which I think will land somewhere between After Hours and Badger, tone-wise. Not a romance, but explicit sex for sure, dark humor, and some grimier themes than my more mainstream erotic romances tackle.

Haley:  What do you think our AAR readers should know about Downtown Devil? Anything you want to tease while they wait for its release?

Also, what can you tell us about the third book in the series, Midtown Masters?

Cara: Readers should know it’s an m/m/f ménage, first and foremost—there’s intense guy-on-guy action in addition to the dudes-on-lady fun, so if that’s not your bag, give it a pass. That may be a tease in itself! But basically, if there’s ever been a hot barista who made your heart pump a little quicker before that espresso even passed your lips, Downtown Devil might just be for you! It’s a book for readers who want their cake and to eat it, too: impulsive, kinky, wild sex and lasting romance need not be mutually exclusive.

As for Midtown Masters, it’s nearly drafted! I’ve had so much fun writing this book. In short, a socially awkward, near-virginal bestselling mystery novelist gets lampooned by critics for his cardboard sex scenes, so he seeks the tutelage of a kinky couple who do private web cam performances. He only plans to take notes, but winds up getting a far more immersive education than he planned on.

Haley: Now I’m really excited for Midtown Masters. Will it feature guy on guy action? Or can you say?

Cara: Oh my, yes. All three of the protagonists are bi, so everyone is doing everything to everyone else. Though one of the heroes is a complete man-whore and the other is a relative innocent (with both men and women) so the dynamics are pretty intense.

Haley: Ooh! I’m excited for that. Do you have an estimate of when it will be released?

Cara: February 2017, I believe. Sounds like ages away!

Haley: Well I for one will be looking forward to it.

I have enjoyed talking to you and getting to know more about your process. I think it might be fun to wrap up out interview with the Pivot questionnaire made famous by Inside the Actor’s Studio.

  1. What is your favorite word?


  2. What is your least favorite word?


  3. What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?

    I especially love watching gifted dancers and athletes perform, people who are the very best at what they do, so talented, physically, that they seem like another species. I’m a big Olympics fan.

  4. What turns you off?

    Being told what to do. (I’d make a terrible submissive.)

  5. What sound or noise do you love?

    My baby’s farts.

  6. What sound or noise do you hate?

    Other people clipping their nails.

  7. What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

    Nursing, I think. I really admire nurses. I’m not sure I have what it takes, though.

  8. What profession would you not like to do?

    Centipede husbandry.

  9. If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

    “Ms. McKenna, you’ll be on cloud 3224, right between Gene Wilder and Alan Rickman.”

Haley: Centipede husbandry sounds pretty terrible.

It has been a pleasure talking to you. I’m excited for the AAR readers to read Downtown Devil and I will be eagerly awaiting Midtown Masters next year. Thank you again for taking time away from writing and your newly mobile baby to do this interview.

Cara: You’re very welcome! It was a pleasure.


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Caroline Russomanno
Caroline Russomanno
07/11/2016 9:57 pm

Haley – if you like an m/m centric menage story, try Loving You Easy, by Roni Loren, coming out in September. I had it for review and it will be positive! You can preorder here: https://www.amazon.com/Loving-You-Easy-Edge-Novel-ebook/dp/B0191WS0KO/allaboutromance

07/11/2016 5:47 pm

I love, love, love this interview. Such thoughtful and thought-provoking questions, and cara’s answers make me want to read her books, even though romance novels aren’t usually my genre of choice. I’m especially impressed by Cara’s realistic approach to describing sex, and her observation that this makes for deeper characters and deeper stories. Time to step outside my comfort zone and buy some romances, I think. :)

Shannon Dyer
Shannon Dyer
06/29/2016 3:38 pm

I’ve had Crosstown Crush on my TBR pile for quite some time now. This interview has inspired me to move it up and read it sooner.

Cara McKenna
Cara McKenna
Reply to  Shannon Dyer
06/29/2016 6:14 pm

Hope you enjoy!

Julianna Keyes
Julianna Keyes
06/29/2016 3:01 pm

I absolutely cannot wait for this book that’s a cross between “After Hours” and “Badger.” Those (alongside “Willing Victim”) make up my top three Cara McKenna books and I will be first in line to read it.

Cara McKenna
Cara McKenna
Reply to  Dabney Grinnan
06/29/2016 12:15 pm

Man, that’s a great question. I don’t think anyone’s ever asked me that before!

It feels too trite to say “Two dicks!” Plus I think there’s more to it than that… I think it’s akin to the appeal of the love triangle, only taken to the next level. There’s such a fascinating dance going on with three instead of two, so many more opportunities for uncomfortable and intense emotions to infuse it all, since it’s very unlikely that all three lovers feel exactly the same about what’s going on, or have the same level of investment—emotionally, romantically. That’s it—the balance. The balance is almost guaranteed to be wobbly. And what can I say—I like keeping my characters (and readers) just slightly on edge :-)

Haley Kral
Haley Kral
Reply to  Dabney Grinnan
07/07/2016 12:20 pm

I think for me its a nice break from the regular romance format of 1+1=2. Its interesting to see how the dynamics will play out and how the happy ending will come about.

Sonya Heaney
Sonya Heaney
06/29/2016 5:58 am

“1.What is your favorite word?

Hey – an Australian thing! :)

The reason I switched from journalism to psychology as my university elective was because I was being forced to do a series of interviews with a taxidermist. I just… could not… So there’s my vote for terrible job (the stuffing animals one)!

It was only last night – on the forums on this site – that I got thinking about how the lack of realism in contemporary romance is still such a big thing. I much prefer something to be a little awkward and a lot more real than to have a carbon copy of every other scene from every other book. I want to be able to relate to characters somehow.

(I sure hope February 2017 seems like a long time away – that’s my birthday month!)

Cara McKenna
Cara McKenna
Reply to  Sonya Heaney
06/29/2016 12:08 pm

Awkward three-way is the new billionaire stepbrother! Or so I keep telling myself.