We’re so pleased to welcome author Jeff Erno to The Novel Approach today, on the tour for his Life Without Parole Series from eXtasy Books. Enjoy Jeff’s guest post and then be sure to check out the great giveaway he’s offering to one lucky reader.
Finding Love Against All Odds
I’ve heard it said that love will go wherever it is sent, and we all know about the unlikely stories of how couples met and fell in love in unusual or challenging environments. Perhaps prison love stories are the quintessential examples of forbidden romance, especially gay love stories. Our prison system operates on a policy of deliberate denial at both the inmate and staffing levels. The prisoners themselves will adamantly deny ever engaging in any homosexual activity, and the corrections officers are oblivious to any and all such taboo behavior. Or so they say.
But some gay or bisexual people are convicted of crimes and incarcerated. Though sexual intimacy is strictly forbidden in this setting, one thing LGBT people have learned to do well is hide in plain sight. It’s not a stretch to imagine a romance blossoming in the confines of a prison cell, forbidden or not. And it’s not difficult to envision a clandestine relationship in such a setting.
And though the topic might be offensive or uncomfortable to some, the very nature of how we incarcerate our inmates—segregating them by gender—raises another question. Is there such a thing as situational homosexuality? If you place a heterosexual male in an all-male environment for years on end, denying him any conjugal contact with the opposite sex, will he resort to homosexual behavior?
I suppose such a situation would likely cause one to at least question their placement on the Kinsey Scale. It might also provide a scapegoat for individuals who previously had toyed with idea of experimenting with the same sex. What better excuse could there be to “try” man-on-man sex than being completely denied access to any form of heterosexual activity? But if we believe people are born with their sexual orientation, what difference would it make? A man who is 100% straight is never going to even be tempted to be intimate with another man. Right?
Or maybe it’s not so much about sex at all. Maybe it’s more about power and hierarchy. We all know that rape is not sex. Rape is forceful domination, and in an environment where the rules of the world have been replaced by a unique and unwritten rubric of ethics, homosexual activity can be explained away as a show of status. One man, more powerful than another, can own and control—and thus use—his subordinates for personal gratification.
And, of course, we also know that orientation is not always static. Many argue that sexual orientation is far more likely to be fluid than immutable. Yes, we all know people who are one hundred percent heterosexual or homosexual, but there are equally as many who fall somewhere in between those polarities. Some of these people identify as bisexual, but many do not. Some people who are mostly attracted to the opposite sex have learned to ignore or deny their same-sex attractions. But when they become incarcerated and completely segregated from the opposite sex, will these suppressed homosexual desires emerge and develop?
And what about the transgender inmate? We currently have a criminal justice system that has adopted an absolute, binary view of gender. You’re either male or you’re female, and the only determining factor is your birth certificate. A trans woman, living and identifying as her true gender—female—will be recognized as male and sentenced to a men’s prison if convicted of a crime. And though the system and the prison staff will try to force her to use her male name and identity, none of their efforts will change who she really is. Trans women in men’s prisons are the only women (other than female corrections officers or female prison staff) the male inmates encounter. This can be terrifying and dangerous to the transgender inmate, and the system itself offers few, if any, solutions.
Some prisons try to segregate homosexual and transgender inmates from the general population. Often they are housed in special units along with pedophiles and other sex offenders—people at risk for violence. But many avoid being labeled and prefer not to be identified and lumped into these categories. For many it is preferable to remain in the general population and try to assimilate. For others, it is a matter of finding their placement within the hierarchy or even finding themselves a protector.
Several years ago, when I was in my early twenties, one of my close friends was sentenced to serve a seven-to-twenty-year prison sentence for armed robbery. I was devastated, but not as much as my friend. I visited him numerous times at the prison during his incarceration, wrote him many letters, and sent him money and gifts. That was my first exposure to the reality of prison life.
In recent years, I’ve corresponded with other inmates through an online write-a-prisoner program that’s now in place. I’ve developed long-distance friendships with some and have learned that many use the system merely as a means of extracting donations from generous, albeit lonely, correspondents on the outside. Some of the guys I’ve met have completed their sentences and subsequently were released. Some have done well, while others have backslidden and were re-incarcerated.
So the idea of a prison romance has danced around in my head for many, many years. Every time I came close to beginning such a project, I managed to talk myself out of it. Prison is not just a unique location and setting, it’s an entirely different world. In order to survive a long-term sentence, inmates have to adopt a completely new world view. Their very purpose for existing becomes vastly different than it is for those of us on the outside, those of us who are “normal” and “free”. An inmate’s existence is not about hope for a better future or acquisition of life goals, but rather about making the best of what they have in the moment. And of course, it’s about survival.
I feared I couldn’t write a palatable story in such a setting. I doubted I could even come close to accurately conveying this reality, and even if I succeeded, I wondered who’d want to read such a story. Finally, I decided to write a story about a young man who was wrongfully convicted. This would give me a window through which I could both paint a picture of the prison life and also tell a story of hope, romance, and potentially happy endings.
My main character is Jeremy Banks. He’s openly gay—before his conviction. And he’s been charged with murder, found guilty in a court of law, and sentenced to life without parole. He claims to be innocent, but then so do most convicts.
Jeremy’s cellmate is Trey Palmer, also a murderer. Trey killed his stepfather, stabbed him multiple times with a butcher knife, and Trey has no remorse. He’d do it again in a heartbeat. Trey has always known he’s attracted to men, but he’s never been out of the closet. And when he encounters Jeremy for the first time, he’s both aroused and annoyed. The kid bugs him, and Trey knows a weakling like Jeremy is never going to survive a life sentence.
Woven into the story is a cast of diverse characters, including Jeremy’s eventual best friend, Shontay. Shontay (legally known as Laurence) is transgender. She is presented as female and referred to with feminine pronouns throughout the story. She is female, after all, regardless what the prison system labels her.
Several COs (correction officers) are characters within the story. Although one of these officers is clearly evil—he’s the villain—my hope is that readers do not think of the staff in terms of good or bad. I’ve always wondered why people so often do this with books and movies. We don’t do this in real life…at least, I hope not. Most people are more nuanced, neither entirely good nor entirely evil. This is also true of the inmates within the story. Yes, there are villains, but most of the inmate population is simply trying to survive. They break rules. They follow unwritten code. They have forbidden sex. But they also have their own set of prison ethics.
The story is a serial, and it must be read in order. Each book ends with a progressively more intense cliffhanger than the previous. Several sub-plots emerge, and the broader story becomes a collage of multiple interwoven threads, much like a soap opera. Often the scenes overlap and a few times slightly backtrack, but with the guidance of an amazing editor, I think they’re pretty clear and seamless. And I think readers will view the story as chronological.
I won’t lie to you (or myself) and claim this story is going to appeal to all readers. Many readers who are used to and prefer the formulaic m/m romance tropes might find it difficult to connect with some of the key characters. And there are some very uncomfortable topics explored in the story. There is a rape, a few murders, blackmail, a couple shankings, lots of sex (some might argue infidelity, depending on your perspective), a whole lot of bad language, forced separation, big misunderstandings…the list goes on. Overall, it’s a nearly 200k word prison soap opera. I do think many will enjoy it, and hopefully a few will even get “hooked”. And for those that do, I sincerely thank you for giving the story a chance. For those who don’t, I apologize and thank you for giving it a try. I hope to someday write a story with which you’ll connect.
Thank you for participating in my blog tour. And thanks so much to Lisa and the kind folks at Novel Approach who so graciously promote books of authors like me. It’s truly an invaluable service. I’m featuring a giveaway of the entire series. Please leave a comment or question to enter.
(**comments must be received by 11:59pm Eastern time on Wednesday, September 28, 2016. Winner will be selected at random on the 29th and notified by email**)
And to those attending GRL in Kansas City this year, I’ll see you there! Please say hi if you get a chance.
Life Without Parole Series Blurbs
Fallen Angel, Book One:
Trey Palmer killed his stepfather three years ago, stabbed him repeatedly with a butcher knife, and now he’s facing life behind bars. He doesn’t deny what he did, nor does he regret it. But he’s plagued with flashbacks of a torturous childhood in which he was abused by this man he finally extinguished. In prison, Trey employs a strategy of avoidance. He becomes a loner and a workaholic, steering clear of the gangs and their drama. His life changes one day, however, when a new cellmate arrives. Jeremy Banks, also in for murder, decries his innocence. With his long hair and angelic face, he’s too pretty for a men’s prison. Though at first annoying and mouthy, Jeremy begins to wiggle his way into Trey’s heart, and Trey starts to wonder if maybe the kid really is innocent. He really does seem like an angel. Their feelings for each other evolve, blossoming into something forbidden yet beautiful. But how can a love like theirs last in a place like this?
Caged Angel, Book Two:
Jeremy Banks did not at first hit it off with his assigned cellmate Trey Palmer, but somehow the two managed to form a bond that developed into something special, something beyond anything Jeremy could have ever hoped or dreamed. He begins to really settle into his new life behind bars and volunteers as a trainer of rescued greyhound dogs. He and Trey grow closer and their relationship becomes physical, until unexpectedly, tragedy strikes.
Abandoned Angel, Book Three:
Alone once more, Jeremy must find a way to go on without Trey. Waking one morning to learn Trey had been whisked away, transferred to another facility, Jeremy fears he and Trey might never see each other again. When he learns from the local news that Trey has been sent back to county to face a retrial, he doesn’t know whether to pray for his acquittal or to hope for his return. Jeremy has to forge a new path, discover a way to move on with his life without Trey. The two will likely never see each other again, but Jeremy can’t forget so easily. He turns to others for support and falls into the arms of another man, but will his new love ever really take the place of Trey?
Rescued Angel, Book Four:
With his trial behind him and his freedom looming, Trey Palmer must press on without Jeremy. In his new home at the hospital, Trey finds friendship and acceptance from a vulnerable patient. The blossoming relationship threatens to eclipse Trey’s love and commitment to Jeremy who remains in prison. Jeremy seeks refuge in the protective arms of another man who’s hardly a replacement for his Trey. Do Trey and Jeremy truly share a soul connection strong enough to withstand the challenges time and distance have placed between them?
Forgiven Angel, Book Five:
Jeremy and Trey have made difficult choices in their lives, and both harbor regrets. Sometimes choices made in order to survive come back later to haunt and torment. Will Trey ever be able to forgive Jeremy for the things he’s done in prison? Will Jeremy even be able to forgive himself? And will Trey be able to cope with yet another devastating loss, one he well could have prevented?
Soaring Angel, Book Six
The serial at last draws to a close in a spectacular, page-turning conclusion. On the verge of his long awaited release, Jeremy hopes to finally be able to put the nightmare of prison behind him. Enemies from within the prison as well as outside attempt to deny him freedom. Trey seeks escape from the vengeful scheme of Jeremy’s ex-lover, and Shontay, Corey, and Bobby yearn to find their happily-ever-afters.
About the Author
Jeff Erno began writing LGBT fiction in the late 1990s. Although an avid reader and amateur writer from a very young age, Jeff pursued a career as a retail store manager in Northern Michigan. When his first gay-themed novel was published, he was shocked that anyone would even want to read it. He now writes full time and has published several novels. Jeff now lives in Southern Michigan.
Jeff’s writing credits include a variety of themes and sub-genres including male romance, Young Adult, Science Fiction, erotica, and BDSM. He is the winner of a 2012 Rainbow Award and an Honorable Mention in 2011. His style is unpretentious and focused upon emotionally-driven, character-based stories that touch the heart. Jeff is especially passionate about young adult literature and combating teen bullying and youth suicide.