I need to preface this post with a bit of my own personal back story: I went through a serious Twilight fan-fiction phase for about a year, beginning in the first trimester of my pregnancy, leading into the months my daughter was a newborn. It is all Twitter’s fault, of course — I saw people tweeting about something called MOTU and then I Googled it and discovered Master of the Universe, the fan fiction story that would later go on to become the U.K.’s bestselling book of all time (!!!) Fifty Shades of Grey.
But it was the story I read after that, as I lay in bed at two in the morning with unbearable acid reflux (never have kids, you guys) that did me in and solidified my addiction. The University of Edward Masen, the tale of a volatile, dark professor, his impressionable young graduate student and their shared past and passion for Dante, totally owned me for a summer. The story is titillating and romantic and filled with angst but with an academic twist, as it explores Renaissance art and literature at length.
The author of said story, Sylvain Reynard, eventually e-published it as two books (Gabriel’s Inferno and Gabriel’s Rapture) with the independent publisher Omnific, and just recently signed a substantial deal to publish the books with Penguin Group’s Berkley imprint. I’ve always been intrigued by Renard, a private figure who has spent much of his time using his fan-fiction fame to promote numerous charities. I was thrilled he agreed to answer some questions via email about publishing Gabriel’s Inferno, the fan fiction community, the Fifty Shades phenomenon, his charitable work and the possibility of his stories one day making it to the big screen.
VH1: How did you come to the decision to e-publish Gabriel’s Inferno, and how did the deal with Penguin come about?
Sylvain Reynard: The story of the Professor and his student was one I wanted to explore, even if only for myself. I didn’t anticipate it being published, but I’m grateful for the opportunity. The e-books have just been released by Berkley (Penguin). Readers have responded very positively to my writing, which led to the novels being on the USA Today best-seller list, and as of last week, the New York Times best-seller list. I didn’t expect the novels to find a home with a major imprint, but I’m grateful that they did.
VH1: Comparisons to Fifty Shades of Grey are inevitable — are you wary of this or do you welcome it?
Sylvain Reynard: I think it would be interesting (especially for readers) to see what would happen if Mr. Grey and Professor Emerson faced each other in a fencing match …
VH1: Are you hopeful that the movie rights to Gabriel’s Inferno might sell? Who do you envision as Gabriel and Julia?
Sylvain Reynard: My readers have very strong feelings about these issues, particularly in terms of who they envision as Gabriel and Julia. I think I offered my opinion once or twice on the matter and the result was the sound of crickets. So I’ve decided to allow the readers to choose their own favourites and keep my (cricket-inducing) vision to myself. The Professor, however, wishes it to be made known that he is not opposed to being immortalized on film …
VH1: You and E.L. James are friends. Has she given you any advice for navigating this new world of publishing? What do you think of the massive success Fifty Shades has had?
Sylvain Reynard: E.L. James is a good friend and has always been supportive of my writing. I’m happy for her success and I’m eager (along with others, I’m sure) to discover what her next writing project will be.
VH1: What is your connection to Dante, the art world and the academic community? It seems to be your area of expertise — tell us a bit about your interest in it and your background.
Sylvain Reynard: Dante and Renaissance art have always been two of my primary interests. I was fortunate that with my novels I was able to incorporate these subjects into the narrative and perhaps to spark the reader’s curiosity with respect to both. One of the things I enjoy the most is hearing from readers who picked up one of Dante’s writings or visited an art gallery because they were inspired by my books. I’m also flattered to learn that many readers have added Florence to their travel plans.
VH1: What are your thoughts on the explosion in popularity of erotic fiction? Do you think that’s a selling point of Gabriel’s Inferno? What is your process like for writing such intimate scenes? Where does your inspiration come from?
Sylvain Reynard: I think it’s fascinating, especially on a sociological level. I’m not sure I can explain the phenomenon, but like many others, I find it interesting and I wonder what precipitated the trend. My novels contain sensual elements and intimate scenes, but I don’t think one would consider them erotica. The romance, itself, was prompted by the love Dante had for Beatrice, but art, literature, food, and music also inspire me.
VH1: The fan-fiction community often gets a bad rap. Can you tell us why it’s important, why you value it and what it’s meant for you as a person and a writer?
Sylvain Reynard: C.S. Lewis once said, “We read to know that we are not alone.” I would add to that, “We write to know that our words have meaning.” When I began writing my first novel, I was writing for myself. I was examining issues of suffering and loss, love and forgiveness and trying to find meaning. As a first-time novelist, I knew little about where to go or what to do in order for my work to be read. This community welcomed my words and me. Members of the community continue to read my writing and to encourage me.
In addition, the community is very active in raising awareness and donations for various charities, including organizations that help children, cancer patients, and for humanitarian efforts in the wake of recent natural disasters at home and abroad. They are one of the most socially active and generous groups of individuals I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing.
In short, their spirit of inclusion, charity, and support to an absolute outsider continues to inspire me and to challenge me to share those same values with others.
VH1: Tell us a bit about your charitable endeavors and how you plan on continuing them with this new incarnation of Gabriel’s Inferno.
Sylvain Reynard: Thanks for asking about this, Kate. I’m very grateful for the opportunity to speak about this. Given the subject matter of the novels and the troubled backgrounds of the main characters, I’ve had the opportunity to deal with various social issues in my writing. But beyond that, I’ve tried to use my platform as a writer who is active on social media to raise awareness about various charities. Two groups that I’ve recently begun talking about are the Kinamba Project, which raises funds to educate primary schoolchildren in Rwanda, and Covenant House, which provides shelter and safety to homeless youth. Both organizations rely on donations in order to meet the needs of those who pass through their doors and both organizations welcome support. If I could just share one anecdote. Recently, I tweeted about Covenant House, highlighting their good work. And a reader responded by sharing with me that he had lived at Covenant House when he found himself in crisis. We never know how our donations or volunteerism can affect others –– even those who we already know.
VH1: You are a very mysterious and private figure. Will you continue to keep your identity hidden or will you step into the spotlight a little as your book hits the mainstream? Are you nervous about the increased attention/scrutiny? And what do you think of the speculation about your gender?
Sylvain Reynard: I’m uncomfortable with a lot of attention. I prefer the focus of readers to be on the characters and the narrative, rather than on the author. In a society in which all aspects of life are broadcasted for public consumption, I prefer to keep my private life private.