Tricia Owens is not your typical professional fiction writer. She hasn't published any novels or short stories; you can't find her work at Barnes & Noble or on Amazon.com. Owens, 32, writes yaoi (pronounced "yowie"), a genre of homoerotic science fiction and fantasy that's a phenomenon in Japan and has attracted a growing cult following in the U.S. She posts her stories to her website, Juxtapose Fantasy (juxtaposefantasy.com) which boasts over 300 subscribers, almost exclusively female, who pay Owens $9.99 per month to read her tales of male-on-male sex in three different fantasy universes. She is, as far as she knows, the only yaoi writer who maintains a successful and profitable pay site.
A Las Vegas resident for 10 years, Owens started out writing homoerotic fiction featuring characters from the Lord of the Rings franchise, then branched out to her own original characters two years ago. She spent time as a food server before quitting her job last April to run the Juxtapose Fantasy site full-time. In addition to the stories, the site offers comic books featuring Owens' characters, and memorabilia including T-shirts, key chains and mouse pads. She's hard at work developing a video game with her characters as well. Over lunch, Owens discussed the appeal of male-on-male sex to women, building her own empire, and the delicate matter of genitals on plushie dolls.
How would you describe yaoi to someone who's never heard of it?
It's male homoerotica that's written for a female audience. There's usually a character that the female readers can identify with, who's not feminine. But there's a very distinct power dynamic that exists in yaoi, and in "slash," which is the Western counterpart. There's a lot of dominance and submission, stuff like that. In general, that's what it is. Yaoi, in a loose description of it, is based on characters that have been in cartoons, animes, things like that. They haven't been portrayed by real live people. Slash has been movies, TV, books, things where an actual living person has portrayed the character. Those are the differences. In general, it's male homoerotica for women by women.
What drew you to it in the first place?
The novelty of it. I thought it was crazy. Not crazy, but when I was reading fantasy when I was younger, there's always—not always, but there's a lot of an undercurrent of potential homoerotica. Maybe the main character—it's usually a young male—kind of maybe isn't set in his sexuality yet, so there's a lot of options. But they never explore it, really, because there's no market for that in mainstream fantasy. And so I always looked for books that had that in there, a little undercurrent of that. What do I like about it? It puts the main character in a vulnerable position, but it doesn't make him weak, which I think is the problem with a lot of hetero romance, is that the women can end up being a little weak, and the man is a big manly guy. That gets a little tiring, and it's not something that I can identify with all the time. So at least if it's a male, there's somebody who's vulnerable and can be feminine the way I am, but then is also strong in the way that I'm not, so it's interesting to read about.
Do you think there will ever or can ever be a place for homosexual relationships in mainstream fantasy?
I think so, just because of the fact that more yaoi has been showing up in, like, Borders. It's really low-key stuff, it's not explicit things like the bondage, but the fact that it's even in there, in Barnes & Noble, that's a big step. I think it has to be done really slowly, obviously, and it has to be done the right way. But like [fantasy author] Mercedes Lackey had a lot of luck with one of her series which featured gay characters. And so I think there's an audience out there, but I know it's limited compared to the rest of the market. But I don't see why not, if the writing's good enough.
Is being published your ultimate goal?
No, the ultimate goal is really the empire. I really want to make the site really big. It's not about me; it's about the site. I want books to be in bookstores. I want Juxtapose Fantasy to be another fandom, like Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. I want something that everyone recognizes, they buy all my products. It doesn't necessarily have to be as popular or big as Harry Potter, but just something that people have heard of. Eventually maybe I'll bring in other writers to write, so I'm not doing all the work.
What else do you read?
You know, it's sad. I want to read novels. The only time I ever get to really is when I go on vacation and I'm sitting at an airport or on a plane. Because I don't want to make a commitment to something that's that long, that takes me away from the computer that long. So I read a lot of online fiction: a lot of yaoi, a lot of regular gay fiction. Because I write so much, and about the same characters, I worry that I start to use crutches, you know, the same kind of phrases, the same kind of wording. I try and read other stories to get ideas of other styles, to try to keep my stuff interesting.
When you say you read gay fiction, is that "realist" gay fiction?
Well, like, fiction written by men. I don't know if you're familiar with [gay fiction website] Nifty.org? I read a lot off of there. And that's interesting, only because it's really frustrating, because the stories can be really good, like the sex may be hot, but the story around it, the characterization—really, they're stroke stories, you know? And it would be such a good story if a woman had written it; that's what I always think after I read these things. So that's kind of interesting, just to get a different perspective on how they view relationships.
Your stories focus on much more than just sex.
There are some stories that are just sex; they're called "PWP," which means "porn without plot," but they tend to be less satisfying in general, I think. People can read them every once in a while and they love them, but I think, especially because the audience is women, they want a story and they really want character development. That's extremely important to them. Which is good, because I think that's one of my stronger points, writing-wise. PWP, it's not getting someone to react to the story and think about it afterwards. The sex stories, you read it and it's great then, but you don't think about it again, ever. I want my stories to have people go back and read them over and over again, which they do.
There are either no female characters in your stories or they are completely non-sexual. Is it important to de-emphasize women in your stories?
It's sad to say, but yeah. Because I get a lot of feedback that women don't want women in their slash or yaoi. They're there to read about men. That's what they want to read about. But I've been trying. I'm actually making a concerted effort to insert more female characters in there. That way it's just not a gay man's world. I want to make it a little bit more realistic. But yeah, they are going to always be secondary characters. The readers really, really don't want any hetero action at all in there. So I probably won't put that in there unless I absolutely have to. Occasionally I get somebody to say, "Well, I wish there were more females in here," but I think 95 percent of people don't want any females in there. They want a fantasy. They just want a bunch of good-looking guys in it. No women in there to compete with them.
Do you ever think about what that says about feminism or the way women readers view themselves?
Sad to say, but a lot of what I do is business-driven. I don't really stop to think about what this means. I mean, I have my own theories on some things. I get the impression sometimes that some women—I'm not going to generalize all of them—are a little uncomfortable with their own sexuality, so they don't want anyone in there to be identifiable as them in the story. Even though they're identifying with the main character individually, if they can tell it's a man, it's not "me." The way I view it, for me personally, is that I do think of it as competition. I mean, if I can't have these guys, then I don't want any other woman to have them, even if it's another female character. So I know some women do feel like that. I've had comments like that. To me, I think it's just a distancing factor. No women in the story at all, then it's not really related to them anymore. It's fantasy. And it's OK if they engage in it, because it's fantasy. It doesn't reflect on them personally. It's really defensive, I think.
Do you think reading yaoi encourage sexuality, or does that kind of distancing effect almost discourage actual, real sexuality?
I think it depends on if the reader is in a relationship already or not. If they are, I think it definitely encourages sexuality. I get e-mails all the time telling me how they jumped their boyfriend or whatever right after reading the story. So I think it really pumps up a sex life if you already have one.
But if you don't, I think it does tend to draw readers to the genre that are a little unsure of their sexuality, and are trying to explore it, and they can explore it in a safe way through a character that isn't them. It's not a female that's doing hot bondage sex, which would imply that they want it; it's a guy. If you're not in a relationship—not on the whole, but for a lot of readers—it's a safe way for them to explore what they want in a relationship. A lot of the bottom characters, which is the identifying character, tend to have—that I write in fiction—repressed sexuality, a lot of hang-ups on things. I think that's not a coincidence. I think writers are writing to their audience or because they have those problems themselves, so it's natural that the same kind of readers would gravitate toward those stories.
There's no social implication of homosexuality in your stories—no homophobia, no angst about coming out and so on. Is that something you just prefer not to deal with?
I think it's a writer preference. Some writers really like to write stories about people dealing with their sexuality, that they're gay. They want to deal with that. Me, I want to write a fantasy in every sense of the word, where love is love. The conflict isn't whether or not they're gay; it's who they're going to love. So to me that's more appealing. I read enough and watch enough about homophobia in the world; I don't need to see it in my escapist fiction.
But I started to include a little bit of that kind of angst in the angel story, because the cop has been straight for 40 years of his life, so now he's dealing with his sexuality. And I like that idea: The mature man dealing with a question that he's never had to deal with. To me that's more interesting than just dealing with homophobia and being beaten.
How have your boyfriends and friends felt about your writing yaoi?
Well, I've been single since I started it, so I have no real input on that, besides through my friends or my coworkers. I don't know, maybe it's because it's Vegas, but everyone's really cool about it. No one has a problem. They think it's hilarious at first, but now they're all jealous because I'm writing for a living and they have to work at a restaurant. My mom, she didn't understand it at first when I started writing fan fiction. She wanted to know why I wasn't writing "real stuff" and making money that way. I had to explain to her that I'm starting out something so I can start my real stuff, build up a readership. She tells people who she thinks are open-minded; she doesn't tell everybody what I do. She just says I write fiction. She used to push a lot about having me try and write mainstream stuff, but she went with me to the convention [Yaoi Con in San Francisco] and I think after she saw the reaction that I got from all the readers—I mean, people were really gushing over me—I think she really realized that this is something that people love, and I can make money at it. I don't think she's going to press for the real fiction stuff anymore.
My brother's straight, and he thinks it's hilarious. He has no problem with it at all. He thinks it's really funny. He also thinks it's cool that I can live wherever I want. When I find somebody, they definitely have to be open to that. Like if I meet people at clubs around here, I'll tell them right away. I'm not embarrassed about it at all. I have no problem with it. If there's a problem, it's their problem, not mine. I can't foresee it being a problem ever in the future.
You have plushie dolls for sale on your site. Considering the nature of your stories, are the plushies anatomically correct?
The ones, the pajama plushies, they actually do have detachable penises. They're attached with Velcro, so you can stick them so they're down, but if you turn them up, they stick straight up because of the angle of it. It's kind of gross, you know? I thought it was just for the fun factor of it. I didn't need them really anatomically correct. They're like fingers. I think that's a really weird product: These cute little children-looking plushies of these characters that are having hardcore gay sex. But they sell really well.