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A Reader's Guide A Conversation with Zane Q: Zoe Reynard is a wonderful character: straight-talking, heartfelt, and insightful. It's so refreshing to come across such a strong black heroine in contemporary fiction. Did the nuances of Zoe's voice come easily?
A. I wanted Zoe to be strong-headed, determined and have control over every single aspect of her life except one: her sexuality. Throughout the book, Zoe is very determined when it comes to her business and keeping her best friend from making devastating mistakes, but her sex life is in shambles. Writing about Zoe came very easily to me because I actually felt her pain, and creating her vibrant personality was fun. A lot of her dialogue is based on the way I tend to speak, in exaggerated detail and bluntness. As for the different time periods, those are just based on memories. Q: A talented, successful businesswoman and a devoted mother, Zoe is also totally plugged into her own sexuality and dares to wear her passion on her sleeve -- and, most inspiring of all, she ultimately displays the self-confidence and bravery it takes to confront her own vulnerabilities and fears head-on. What was the inspiration for Zoe's story?
A. I felt like Zoe's story was one that needed to be told. Addicted
was originally going to be a story from The Sex Chronicles,
but after I started to pen the story about a woman who had taken on three lovers outside of her marriage, I decided that there was too many angles to be explored for it to be confined to a short story. So I sat the few pages aside until I completed my erotica collection. Once I picked it back up, I was so engrossed in the character and had thought out her dilemmas so well in my mind that I wrote the book in nineteen days from start to finish. I even wrote part of it by hand in a ski lodge while I watched my son go down the slopes from the window. Q: Women are going to love this book, no question. But what about men? Guys are of course going to be coming at Addicted from a completely different perspective. What sorts of feedback have you gotten from male readers so far?
A. Male readers love Addicted.
I often get e-mails from women who have to fight their men to get the book back so they can read it. Some women are glad that their men are actually reading something other than magazines or professional manuals because it gives them something to discuss. I have had dozens of men e-mail me to say that Addicted
has given them a clearer vision of what their women need in and out of the bedroom. One man told me that he wished he had read this book a few years ago because it might have prevented his divorce. He felt like his ex-wife had a lot of similarities to Zoe.
Often times, men are responsible for inhibited behavior in their women. Because women are taught from a young age that there are certain things girls should not think or do, they often fear being judged by the men they care about. Thus, it is sometimes easier to be uninhibited with strangers, as in Zoe's case, than with their life partners. They do not have to be concerned about what casual lovers think because it is so easy to walk away from them. I think a lot of men read Addicted
and begin to examine what they may be doing wrong in their own relationships. Last but not least, they love the sex scenes in the book. Q: On the strength of its dialogue and erotic scenes alone, Addicted is a great read. But Zoe's story is so much more than this. Tell us about some of the issues and themes you set out to illuminate in your portrait of Zoe.
A. I had four main goals when I sat down to write Addicted.
First, I wanted to make it clear that seeking mental health counseling is not a sign of weakness, a stigma that is often associated with it in the African-American community. I purposely had Jason react the way a typical person would react when Zoe mentioned that she had met a psychiatrist. After he made degrading remarks about the profession, Zoe felt like there was no way to admit that she had actually paid for Dr. Marcella Spencer's services. Thus, her lies continued.
Secondly, I wanted to show that we really are what we attract. Because Zoe had issues, she was attracting people around her that also had issues and one of them was so mentally unstable that he resorted to murder. Ironically, Zoe realized her problems and sought help; not realizing that she was one of the least troubled ones.
Thirdly, I wanted to explore the connection between a person's childhood and how they handle certain situations as an adult. We are all products of our environment and ultimately, what we become and how we behave is all a culmination of everything we have ever seen, experienced, or been taught.
Lastly, I wanted to show that women are sexual beings and have just as many wants and desires as men. Too often we are expected to be submissive and "go with the flow," but that is unfair when the man falls to sleep with a smile on his face and the woman lies there in misery or disappointment. If the lines of communication can be opened up, both parties can be benefit from that. Q: Recent publishing news indicates an explosion in popular fiction by black authors. Now more than ever, it seems like the rich diversity of interests, voices, and concerns of African-American readers is finally being reflected and represented in books produced by traditional, mainstream publishing houses. Do you think the self-publishing movement, in which you've played a hugely successful role, is responsible for helping to pave the way for this evolution?
A. Absolutely. To this day, more than three-quarters of the books I read are self-published. I love risk-takers, and because of the self-publishing explosion and the ease of print-on-demand, more people are stepping up to the plate realizing that they have nothing to lose. When I first started, no one would touch African-American erotica, and several published authors encouraged me to write black romance novels or sisterfriend novels because they had proven sales records. They said that I would kill my career. Interestingly enough, I see some of those same authors spreading the word about their story in an upcoming erotica collection or boasting that their next novel is erotic. Just like I predicted the explosion of African-American erotica years before it happened (which I am convinced will die down after a few years and only leave those who are truly passionate about the craft), there are other authors out there breaking ground who are not followers. Authors like Michael Presley (Blackfunk)
and Laurinda Brown (Fire and Brimstone)
are making their own paths and leaving a trail. Most people have not heard of them yet, but they most definitely will. Q: Like you, Iyanla Vanzant, Omar Tyree, and E. Lynn Harris -- along with so many other African-American writers -- all began their writing careers as self-published authors. To what degree were you directly influenced or inspired by these authors? How did you learn where to begin when it came down to really making it happen and getting your work out to readers?
A. I was inspired by them to the degree that I knew it was possible. After receiving rejection letters from a few agents, some of them repetitively, I made an almost immediate decision to self-publish because I was convinced they were wrong. I even told them that it was not a matter of whether or not I would sell a ton of books. It was only a matter of whether it would happen with or without their assistance.
I put three stories on the Internet and within three weeks, I had more than eight thousand hits from word-of-mouth alone. The three hundred plus e-mails I received daily -- one day I received more than eight hundred -- from people asking me to put out a book told me everything I needed to know. In the beginning, I started by selling ten of my stories for ten dollars by mail-order, and after getting tons of orders from people willing to pay ten dollars for what amounted to fifty pages of Xeroxed material, there was no question that I could sell a book. If only ten percent of the people who claimed they would purchase a book actually did, it would mean serious book sales. Originally, I was selling paperbacks for twenty and twenty-two dollars (Addicted
and The Sex Chronicles
respectively) and they were selling like hotcakes. At the urging of distributors, I lowered the price to fifteen and the rest is history. Q: As a trailblazer yourself in the realm of frank, erotica-flavored African-American fiction, what advice do you have for up-and-coming writers whose main concern is that their work reach as many readers as possible? Where should they get started?
A. That is an easy one. They need to get started on the Internet. They need to give a taste of their work to as many people as possible and build up a readership base way before their book ever comes out. They should join several of the online discussion groups to learn about marketing techniques and distribution outlets. They also need to do a lot of networking with published authors. Some will be amicable and extremely helpful, and some will be too busy working on their next book or negotiating their next contract to be bothered. They should only concern themselves with the ones that believe in mentoring new authors -- those who realize that they have a deeper purpose than self-gratification. Success definitely leaves clues, and learning from someone else's past mistakes is always vital. Most importantly, they need to read at least five books on the subject. I do that about any subject I am interested in to make sure that I can make an informed decision, before I leap head-first into foreign territory. Q: I've been checking out readers reviews of Addicted at various sites online. By tackling all the thorny issues surrounding sexual addiction, you've clearly touched a central nerve with this novel. Have you heard from many real-life Zoes since Addicted came out? Any real-life Jasons?
A. I have heard from several of both; especially real-life Zoes. One woman actually confessed her affairs to her husband after reading Addicted
and while he took it hard, they are now in counseling. She had met several men online and met them for sexual trysts. While she felt guilty, she had tried everything she could fathom to get her husband to open up to her more sexually. In the end, she was driven to step outside the marriage. I am glad that her husband agreed to seek help instead of walking away. I guess that would qualify him as a real-life Jason. Q: Jason, Brina, and Marcella are all richly developed, entirely believable characters. Are they based on any real-life models?
A. No one in particular, but I have always been an observer. In a crowded room filled with lively conversation, I will be the one sitting in the corner listening to what everyone is saying and watching their body language. I love creating characters and that is the beautiful part about writing. You can be who you want, say what you want, and do what you want and at the end of the day, you can go to bed with a clear conscience and having entertained yourself. Q: How and when did you begin writing fiction? To what degree did your parents and teachers play a role in your aspirations?
A. I have always had an extremely vivid imagination. Whenever we had a creative writing assignment in school, mine was always the most far-fetched. All of my teachers encouraged me to become a writer, but I never took it seriously until November 1997, when I became so bored while living in the country that writing was my only escape.
This may sound crazy but whenever I was bored as a child, I would daydream about being a different person. At one point in high school, I actually lived out the exciting, drama-filled life of a single person for a lengthy period of time. Every day she had a different adventure in my mind. I actually started a book about her way back then that is to this day unfinished. She was in high school just like me but her life could not have been more different. I used to have wild dreams that seemed so real that sometimes I would wake up unsure about whether or not the events had actually occurred.
My parents are both retired educators. My mother taught elementary school for decades and my father was a graduate school professor. He is the author of more than a dozen published books on theology, and my mother is an excellent children's writer. It is my personal goal to see at least one of her collections published in the near future. Whenever someone needs something creative for an event, they call her up and she always complies. My mother is the only person I know that sends out an annual Christmas family newsletter that runs more than twenty pages and the entire thing rhymes.
Because of their educational backgrounds, I grew up in a house full of books. Literally thousands of them, and by the time I was in the sixth grade, I was reading a book a day. To this day, I still read at least four books a week. All of those factors have directly influenced my writing and hopefully I can return the favor with my children, who both already show the gift of imagination -- especially my teenage son, who I am encouraging to write a book by the end of this year because his short stories are outstanding. My seven-year-old daughter and I do storytelling every night. Either I make up a crazy story to tell her when I tuck her in, or she recites one to me to type on my computer, and it is the highlight of my day. Q: Who would make the perfect Zoe Reynard in a movie adaptation?
A. That is a tough question and one I have pondered since a movie is imminent. My first choice would be an unknown actress that is exceptional at the craft. Once an actress has been seen too much, her name overshadows the role she is portraying. However, since this is the real world and big names mean big ticket sales to big studios, I would narrow it down to Nia Long, Thandie Newton, or Stacey Dash. If push comes to shove, I am prepared to do it as an independent film so Zoe might end up being portrayed by that exceptional, unknown actress after all. Q: Is Zoe's story finished? Can we look forward to a sequel?
A. Zoe's story is done but Addicted
is the first in a five book series. The returning character in each novel will be Dr. Marcella Spencer. In each of the remaining novels -- Nervous, Vengeance, Torn,
-- Dr. Spencer will deal with African-American women who have a diversity of emotional and sexual issues. The main character of Nervous,
Jonquinette, has multiple personalities. Nervous
is based on a character introduced in a short story of the same name from The Sex Chronicles.
I wanted to explore the wildest thing that could ever possibly happen to a woman. Jonquinette is a virgin -- at least she is in her mind. She is nervous around men and has never had sex but after constant blackouts, she awakes to find herself in clothing she does not recognize and with the evidence of sexual encounters all over her body. When she seeks the help of Dr. Spencer, her alternate personality, Jude (who feels she is the protector), becomes increasingly angry until she concludes that if one of them must go, it won't be her. Q: Fill in the blanks: 1.) I never miss a new novel by:
Ernest Hill, Ernest Gaines, Gloria Naylor, Terry McMillan, Sistah Souljah, James Patterson, Jeffrey Deaver, or Stephen King. 2.) I've lost count of how many times I've re-read: Against the Wind,
by one of my favorite authors, J.F. Freedman. 3.) The perfect soundtrack playing in readers heads as they read Addicted would probably include:
music by Prince, who is almost single-handedly responsible for my open attitude about sex. I used to rush home from high school and play his Controversy
album in its entirety every single day. Q: What is your sense of who your readers are? What do they want from a novel? Describe your ideal reader.
A. My readers come from all walks of life, from all races, and from all over the world. I have hits on my main web site EroticaNoir.com from countries I have never even heard of. I think that people are elated to see an African-American woman speak so open and honestly about sexuality. In fact, one of the reasons I continued to pursue the erotica genre -- other than the fact that everyone said I shouldn't do it -- was because of the numerous e-mails from women who just wanted to thank me for making them realize that they are not alone and that nothing is wrong with them. Because women do not tend to discuss their sexual escapades as much as men -- at least past a certain age -- a lot of women feel their sexual urges and fantasies are abnormal. That is rarely the case. Men like to read sexual material written by a woman, pure and simple. My ideal reader is someone that realizes that life is short and that no one has the right to judge another human being. My ideal reader is not sexually-repressed or sexually-oppressed, and he or she is someone who acknowledges that if we can free our bodies then we can also free our minds. Q: What are you working on these days?
A. Whew, how much time do you have? I actually have several film projects in the works, including trying to acquire a cable series for The Sex Chronicles.
We shot the pilot already and it has been shown in several film festivals, including during the opening night fundraiser for the SEPIA Reel Shades Film Festival in Washington, D.C., and the Black and Brown Short Film Competition in Hollywood, in which it placed third.
I am working also on the screenplay for Addicted,
along with several screenplays for thrillers. I am about an inch away from completing my first legal thriller, entitled Inconceivable Alliances,
and I am working on Nervous, The Dating Game, Skyscraper,
etc. The list goes on and on, but I love every minute of the creative process and could never imagine doing anything else. I have two particular projects in mind that will explore new territory and, just like Addicted,
I feel the stories need to be told. Reading Group Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. Zoe Reynard is, among other things, a woman struggling to heal the scars and fill the emotional spaces left by her father's untimely death and also -- as we discover late in the novel -- by a pair of disturbing sexual episodes from her early childhood. How successful is she in finally doing so?
2. Discuss the way Zane's narrative establishes a dual meaning of "love": as a literal performance of physical passion on one hand, and as a more abstract or soulful symbol of commitment, trust, and deep-seated connection on the other. How do Zoe's often conflicting notions of love play out and evolve over the course of the novel? To what degree does Zoe eventually manage to fuse these alternate loves into one fulfilling relationship with Jason?
3. In what ways do we see the legacy of Zoe's long-repressed childhood memories at work in the present action of this novel, affecting the tenor and shape of Zoe's relationships, choices, and/or motivations? What would you say was the breeding ground for Zoe's sexual addiction?
4. As a wife to Jason, a mother to her daughter and two sons, and a lover to Quinton, Tyson, and Diamond, Zoe is perpetually torn by clashing desires and responsibilities. Explain how this romantic and emotional triangle -- or quadrangle, really -- functions as the central tension in Zane's novel. In what ways does this tension resolve itself? Recount the high-speed, unpredictable series of plot twists, violent climaxes, and emotional denouements that Zane delivers, all in the last fifty or so pages of the book.
5. One of the reasons Addicted
is such an entertaining book for reading clubs and discussions among friends is there are so many different ways to come at this novel. It's an action-packed, sexy novel, but it also takes on some serious issues with which we all contend in our personal lives. What kind of a novel is Addicted?
Suspense thriller? Love story? Modern-day morality tale? Erotica? How would you describe this book to a friend?
6. According to Dr. Patrick Carnes, a research psychologist, sexual addiction as a clinical concern usually has clearly identifiable patterns of sexual behaviors, often starting in adolescence and childhood. What would you say are the key criteria for diagnosing someone with a sexual addiction? Based on your reading of Zane's novel or from other resources, what useful comparisons and contrasts can be drawn between sex addicts and alcoholics, drug addicts, and/or compulsive gamblers? Chart the course of Zoe's gradual identification, assessment, and containment of her addiction.
7. "All of us can't be lucky enough to find true love like the kind you and Jason have," Brina tells Zoe at one point. In her poignant depiction of Brina's abusive relationship with Dempsey, Zane spotlights a situation that is all too common in relationships these days. What is it that keeps Brina from leaving Dempsey?
8. How does Brina's ordeal, and her attendant rationale for putting up with Dempsey's abuse, relate to real-life situations you've personally weathered with friends and loved ones? If you were in Zoe's shoes, watching your best friend endure so much pain, how do you imagine you'd react? What steps would you take to remedy the problem?
9. Where do you see Zoe, Jason, Peter, Kyle Michael, and Kayla Michelle Reynard five years after the close of the book? Outline the story arc of a hypothetical sequel to Addicted.
10. Recently, all sorts of reviewers and cultural critics have stepped up and declared that we're currently in the midst of a Golden Age in African American popular/commercial fiction, naming as evidence such authors as Zane, Omar Tyree, Evelyn Palfrey, and RM Johnson -- not to mention E. Lynn Harris, Terry McMillan, Eric Jerome Dickey, and other established stars. In terms of your own reading, to what degree have you noticed an increase in the variety and depth of black fiction when you browse the bookshelves these days?
11. How significant is the influence of family on the lives of Addicted's
principle characters? How do family ties -- and the unraveling of these ties -- feature in Quinton's back-story? And in Jason and Zoe's back-stories? How do these personal histories come to play a key role in the culmination of Zoe's narrative?
12. With which character(s) in Addicted
do you most personally identify? Why?
13. Looking back through the novel, discuss the particular scenes, situations, or lines of dialogue that really left you feeling one of those "that-is-so-true" or "I've-been-there" moments.
14. "Jason was on the edge, and I was falling over the cliff with him." Here, in the wake of Zoe's hypnotized revelations at the hospital, Zane prepares us for yet another surprising disclosure. What is Jason's secret, and how has it affected his relationship with Zoe?
15. In the aftermath of Brina's murder at the hands of Dempsey, Zoe has an epiphany of sorts. "That's when I knew it was over. That's when I knew I could beat my sexual addiction." What is it that brings her to this realization?
16. Discuss the author's characterization of Jason Reynard. What kind of a person is Jason? What role does he play in the narrative, and how did you feel about him at different points in the novel? Did you relate to the way he reacted to Zoe's infidelities? Why or why not?
17. Consider Addicted
alongside other contemporary novels by African American women you've read recently. To what degree does this novel echo and reinforce certain themes and narrative styles you've come to expect, and in what ways does it depart from or redefine these traditions?