Most of Romancelandia knows where they were when they first encountered Tiffany Reisz’s The Red. I was a fairly recent convert to romance, dipping my toe into the wild and wonderful world of self-published eBooks, when I stumbled across Reisz’s incredible erotic novel which takes place at an art gallery with love scenes that are all inspired by classic paintings. The fearless, all-in exploration of desire and fantasy of The Red, especially when conveyed in Reisz’s elegant prose, made it a sensation in the romance community.
Two years later, Reisz has returned to that world with The Rose, an erotic novel starring the daughter of The Red’s eventual pairing, which takes its inspiration from the myths of Greek mythology. I talked to Reisz about reinterpreting ancient myths for a modern audience, the surprising inspiration of David Mitchell (the actor, not the writer) and which love scene was the hardest to get right.
When you first wrote The Red, did you have any notion that you would eventually write a sequel?
When I first wrote The Red, I didn’t think anyone would read it. We’d self-published only 100 hardcover copies as a special edition for a conference I was the guest of honor at, and . . . I really thought that 100 would be it. The Red is slightly deranged erotica and I had no expectations for it. But when it went up on NetGalley, we started getting a lot of effusive reviews from readers and then somehow it got a starred Library Journal review and was named an NPR Best Book of 2017 and then hit the USA Today bestseller list. A book I genuinely thought we’d sell 100 copies of just went sort of viral. I think it shocked the hell out of people and whether they loved it or hated it, readers were talking about it. Made sense to write a sequel. The Red was self-published but the sequel, The Rose, is published by MIRA.
What spurred the shift from erotic fantasies based on art in The Red to ones based on Greek myths in The Rose?
The Red was set in an art gallery called The Red Gallery so it made sense all the sex scenes were based on paintings. I didn’t want to simply redo The Red in a different art gallery. And I didn’t want to have the same main characters. The Red was set in the mid-1990s in New York, so I knew my heroine could have a daughter old enough to star in her own book by now. I’m a huge fan of Greek mythology. It’s twisted, it’s funny, it’s weird, it’s wonderful. It was an easy leap from writing sex scenes based on paintings to love scenes based on Greek mythology.
What was the hardest love scene to get right?
The first time August and Lia have sex as August and Lia and not in the guise of mythological characters was definitely the hardest for me and for Lia. She was horribly wounded by a romantic betrayal when she was very young and has enormous trust issues. But she’s also sick of feeling wounded, feeling left out and she’s finally met this unusual man, August Bowman, who seems to be able to touch a heart that she was certain was dead. I wanted their first time together to be tender but also to show how hard it was for her to get there. It’s a very playful scene, lots of teasing. August is doing his best to take the pressure off of her while not letting her run away from something he knows she wants and needs but still scares her.
I thought the first love scene, where Lia and August take the form of Perseus and Andromeda, was particularly delightful. It really drove home to me the importance of humor and laughter in sex. Why did you choose to start the book with this scene, and why do you think love scenes, even in romance, are often so serious?
Thank you! The story of Andromeda and Perseus is also the story of Andromeda and her mother and her mother’s betrayal that leads to Andromeda nearly being put to death. It was a perfect fit for the plot of the book—the mother’s accidental betrayal of her daughter. Plus Andromeda and Perseus were mostly strangers like Lia and August. Perseus was Andromeda’s rescuer, again like August and Lia. Thematically it was the entire story of The Rose in one single myth.
And I’m absolutely certain Perseus was exactly like I portrayed him—young and brash but also doting and silly and besotted with Andromeda. Again, the teasing and playfulness help calm and comfort Lia/Andromeda, who’s just been through hell. I mean . . . Hades.
It makes perfect sense that love scenes in romance novels are usually very tense and serious. Humor is a tension breaker and great sex relies on tension. You break the tension with humor and you risk pulling someone out of the scene. But I wanted to bring myths to life, make them feel real and modern and relatable to the reader. Every generation thinks it invents kinky sex and humor although both have been around since the beginning of humanity. The ancient Greeks were hilarious. If you don’t believe me, read Lysistrata by Aristophanes. We read that in college, and my class laughed so hard we nearly hurt ourselves. Realizing that people 3,000 years ago made the same dirty jokes we do today made the past come alive to me.
There are a few Greek myths in The Rose that are reinterpreted to be less sexist or violent than they usually are. Do you think these myths had those characteristics from the beginning, or did they develop these negative traits as time went on?
The myths are so ancient that I don’t think we can know anything for certain about what they were like in their original form. They might have been more sexist and violent. They might have been children’s bedtime stories for all we know. The fun thing about myths is that they’re so open to interpretation and reinterpretation. And Goddess bless the Greeks for being so generous with these stories that are the foundation of the Western literary canon.
I love Greek mythology and I’m a woman who hates violence, so if I can find a way to read the myths as sex-positive and joyful with plenty of room in them for women to have fun, anyone can. It just takes some imagination. Who knows? Maybe Leda had a swan fetish and Zeus knew about it and that’s why he turned himself into a swan. (For the record, I do not explore the Leda and the Swan myth in The Rose. I gave that one a pass.)
You thank David Mitchell in your acknowledgments for being the inspiration for “a posh and whimsical (and adorably stuffy) English person.” Am I correct in assuming that he inspired, at least in part, Lia?
Since there are two famous David Mitchells in England, I have to be clear we’re talking about David Mitchell, the actor (“Peep Show,” “That Mitchell and Webb Look”) and not David Mitchell, the author of Cloud Atlas.
David Mitchell (the actor) has this wonderfully prickly stuffy posh persona and yet, if you read his memoir, Backstory, he turns into an absolute marshmallow when talking about falling in love with his wife, Victoria, and getting his heart broken. Lia was absolutely inspired by David’s posh and prickly, yet secretly marshmallowy, personality. I could hear so many of her lines in his voice. That’s what I get for watching British comedy panel shows while I’m supposed to be writing.
In an essay for The Huffington Post you wrote in 2012, you talked about how you felt God’s pleasure most strongly while writing. Without going into too much detail, The Rose beautifully unifies the ideas of divine worship and sexual pleasure in really compelling contrast to how sex-negative many modern religions can be. Do you think that that sort of easy union has been lost to us in the modern age? Or are there movements or traditions that are bringing that back?
I’m not enough of a religious historian to say if there ever was the easy union of sex and religion that we imagine there was in ancient Greece or practiced among the ancient Celts and Druids. I’d like to think we had it figured out once and therefore we can figure it out again, but I wasn’t there. Being a prostitute in the temple of Aphrodite might have been a blast. It might have been a nightmare. No firsthand accounts survive as far as I know. But if/when a new movement or religious tradition shows up in my neighborhood that has the soul/body dichotomy all figured out, I’ll be the first to join that clergy.
If you were responsible for casting Lia and August in a film adaptation of The Rose, who would you pick?
Sophie Turner from “Game of Thrones” would do a marvelous job with Lia, her prickly side and her secret sweet side. For August? Maybe Panos Vlahos from “Days of Our Lives.”
As handsome as Greek men are, really any of them would do. Literally any of them . . .
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The Rose.
Author photo credit Andrew Shaffer.