Tori: Tori St. Claire grew up writing. Hobby quickly turned into passion, and when she discovered the world of romance as a teen, poems and short stories gave way to full length novels with sexy heroes and heroines waiting to be swept off their feet. She wrote her first romance novel at seventeen.While that manuscript gathered dust-bunnies beneath the bed, she went on to establish herself as a contemporary, historical, and paranormal author under the pen name, Claire Ashgrove. Her writing, however, skirted a fine line between hot and steamy, and motivated by authors she admired, she pushed her boundaries and made the leap into erotica, using the darker side of human nature and on-the-edge suspense to drive grittier, sexier, stories.
Tori: Stripped is really difficult to talk about, I’m learning. Not because I don’t enjoy it, or there’s “nothing to say”, but because there’s so much to say and I run the risk of spoiling the story. It’s a very intricately woven plot, and really more of a thriller, than an atypical suspense. I can say that nothing is what it really is on the surface, and there’s a lot of twists and turns that take place. While there’s a constant threat of danger, the true suspense, in my opinion comes not from knowing something’s going to happen, but where that “something” is going to come from.
It has a good deal of espionage in it, a whole lot of steam-up-the-pages romance, and a wide cast of characters. My hope, when I sat down and wrote it, was that it would blend a little 007 with a little Cotton Malone (Steve Berry), with even more erotic romance.
Somehow, I’m thinking that’s not exactly what you wanted to hear so I’ll give this another, more entertaining shot: Stripped is an intricate story about a cunning woman who’s compromised almost all of her moral character in the name of US Intelligence, and a hot-blooded undercover detective who’s fairly on the straight and narrow. Natalya is a member of an elite group of CIA operatives called the Black Opals, who are, off-paper, assassins. Her world is tidy and straightforward and she’s devoted all of herself to destroying a sex-trade ring that’s founded in Moscow, Russia. Everything changes when she learns her sister is the next target and she must get close to Brandon Moretti to keep her sister safe. Brandon challenges everything Natalya understands… and more importantly, he makes her feel.
Tori: Sometimes ideas come after a lot of mulling a base concept over, or after I see a movie or read another book. Sometimes ideas just happen like a lightning strike. Stripped is the latter. I was driving, Ke$ha was on the radio, and a scene popped into my head. It’s the scene where Brandon says, “You know where this is going.” I honestly have no idea how my heroine became a CIA agent, or Brandon a cop, or how sex-trade became the core of the story. I knew I wanted some different setups, and I’ve tried very hard to make the answer to this question sound “logical and reasonable”. The only thing I can say concretely is I knew, without a doubt, that the next story I was writing involved morally ambiguous characters. I love them, and I’d asked an editor at a conference how far she thought I could go with a morally ambiguous character. When she said she didn’t think there was a ceiling (or floor), that sealed my desire to delve into heroes and heroines who, in another venue, would be criminals.
To redeem a character like Natalya, especially in romance, there has to be some “good” reason she’s doing what she’s doing. The only way I could have the set of characters I wanted to work with in the series was to have them be fighting for the United States and working for its defense.
The majority of research that I did for Stripped involved the Bratva — Moscow’s mafia. Learning where their sphere of influence was, how far they extended internationally, what general areas of crime they’re involved in, etc. A lot of this doesn’t show up in the book, but to craft the plot, I had to understand it in depth. I did a little Q &A with some people I know about guns, and one of my trusty beta-readers picked apart my “gun scenes” until we were mutually satisfied with meshing reality with fiction. *Laugh*.
Tori: I write in different genres, and while there’s a definite yes to this question, it depends on the genre. Off the top of my head, I can’t count the number of times a secondary character ends up as “Andy” or some variation of that name. There’s no reason for this, it for some reason just jumps out at me. I let it stand until final pass revisions before turning it in to my agent, and then just find/replace the name with another. The same tends to happen with the female name, Mary. I’m sure a few have slid through though when I’m convinced I finally conquered the habit, but some really minor character evaded my radar.
In the Black Opal series, the theme is really not knowing who or what the real threat is – which is something that comes from my love of intricate plotting, I believe. I have a hard time not creating an involved sub plot, and to compensate for that love here, where the Opal stories are more stand alone, I transferred it into the actual individual plot. However, that passion does crop up here, in the Black Opal series… it’s just hidden really well 😉 And yes, that’s somewhat of a teaser. The sub plot doesn’t blow up until later books.
Tori: I admire so many authors, especially romance authors. Shayla Black, Maya Banks, Karin Tabke, Sylvia Day… Johanna Lindsey probably inspired me to begin writing – I was a dedicated, rabid fan at the age I began writing.
But my dominant influences have been non-romance authors, honestly. Suspense didn’t really enter into my writing until I became addicted to Steve Berry. I absolutely adore how he keeps the true villains hidden and hope that I can do justice to his masterful approach. We won’t get into his speculative fiction here, but that is also a passion of mine. King, beyond the horror aspect, is a suspense master too. I don’t consider his Gunslinger books horror, and that suspense is still right there, in your face, making your spine stiff. His horror gives me nightmares nowadays, so I don’t read him like I used to. But I can say he influenced me to a degree. R.A. Salvatore is another heavy influence, and Tolkien is as well. My absolute favorite master is Faulkner. If I can ever reach the point where my writing can make the impact his does, in the single chapter that says, “My mother is a fish,” I will have reached my definition of success.
Tori: Hm. I think that goes back to the above question – The Gunslinger series by King, The Alexandria Link and The Romanov Prophecy by Berry, anything Tabke, Black and Banks. And As I Lay Dying by Faulkner, as well as The Grapes of Wrath.
Right now I’m buried in writing. But at the very top of my read next list is Crash Into You, by Roni Loren.
Tori: Oh goodness… I have so much in the works this year. Book 2 of the Black Opals, Lie to Me, will be coming out in July. There’s another Tori St. Claire proposal in the works, but I can’t speak to that right now. My other pen name, Claire Ashgrove, has a passel of stuff in the pipeline – the second in my Curse of the Templars series in September, the culmination of my Inherited Damnation short series, and an exciting new series there as well that I can’t talk about either.
Tori: I do actually. I’m curious, if you’ve not read Stripped, what element sounds the most intriguing based off the back cover copy, or what I’ve said about it. If you have read the book, what (without spoiling it) did you enjoy the most? I’m asking because if there’s something global, I want to make sure this stays throughout my other novels. I won’t know if I don’t ask.