A book, a candle, a spark

My writer-hero, Tiffany Reisz, has posted a lovely letter on her blog to thank her readers for their support, to mark the day she wrote the ending of her epic erotic series, The Original Sinners.

She writes:

These books were my dream. Not the money they’ve made me or the friends they’ve made me or the lifestyle they’ve afforded me or even that they got me out of almost $60,000 in crushing student loan debt. The books themselves were the dream and because of you all, my readers, my Sinners, I got to write them. You see, if a writer wants to eat, he or she has to write books people will buy. If you all hadn’t supported the books with all the love and devotion and money (yay money!) you had, I wouldn’t have been able to write this huge sweeping series I’d dreamed of writing all those years ago when I was making $5.15 an hour working at Books-A-Million in Owensboro, Kentucky and scribbling scenes of THE SIREN on the back of flyers while standing at the registers surrounded by books other people had written and dreaming of the day my own books would be on those shelves.

If you’re a writer, you know about those dreams. You ARE those dreams. Some days I am afraid that all I am is dreams, that my husband will discover one day that he’s married some dreams instead of a real person, and that all he has to show for it are two rings hanging in midair on the couch beside him (although if that does happen, at least he’ll finally be able to put his feet up).

In one of the Original Sinners books, there is a Catholic saint – Saint Monica – who features not quite prominently, but significantly. On my travels in the last few months, I found myself at her tomb. I’m nominally Catholic myself (like most Irish people my age, I don’t practice. Unlike most Irish people my age, I feel a cultural link with the Church. The spiritual side of things I have not quite unravelled yet) but St. Monica had eluded me. We have a lot of saints. I can’t know them all. I have enough trouble remembering how many people St. Patrick was. I discovered St. Monica through Tiffany Reisz.

I stumbled upon St. Monica’s tomb by accident. Walking around Rome on a bruised foot, I went inside the Basilica of Sant’Agostino without the barest clue what it was (or for that matter where it was) because the charming cobbled streets were absolutely killing me and I wanted a break. I was entranced by the Caravaggio. I looked around the rest of the church for its beauty, then I found Saint Monica, and I remembered Original Sinners.

I lit a candle in front of the tomb, and said a prayer for writers everywhere.

Because a woman working in a bookstore, making $5.15 an hour, scribbled on some flyers and stuck with her scribbling, another woman, eleven years later, stood in a church thousands of miles from Kentucky, giving a shit about stuff she might otherwise never have given a shit about, and walked around Europe with a small smile. And then she went for ice-cream and thought about the many strange and magical ways that art can connect us all.

The Things No One Tells You About Writing Erotica

One of my favourite ways to write is ‘not in my bloody flat.’ In the flat, I get distracted by the washing up, the vacuuming, the million other things I feel I ought to be doing. When I wrote full-time, I would write at home until the middle of the day, then take my laptop to a nearby cafe, order a hot chocolate and write until half an hour before Mr. Temple was due home from work, then I would walk back home to be there when he got in.

I can’t do that so easily now, because I live in a small neighbourhood (in a big city) and I am . . . of not undistinctive appearance, so I don’t fancy being pegged as ‘that girl from the cafe who writes dirty stuff on her laptop. In public.’ (Fearing this kind of low-level shame comes as naturally to the Irish as breathing, and avoiding it is part of why I don’t ever plan to live in a proper small town again. At least in Dublin the people judging me don’t know my name).

But something happened last week. I was on the train for a couple of hours and found myself with nothing useful to do, so I opened up my laptop and worked for a while on a piece of utterly filthy writing. As ways to kill time on public transport go, this is unrivalled, and I was quite happily typing away until a cluster of loud drunk guys got on and took the bank of seats directly behind me.

They were wearing Christmas jumpers and Santa hats and antlers that lit up. All at the same time. Even over the sound of my headphones I could hear the hiss of cans opening and the clink of bottlecaps falling to the floor.

They sounded pretty harmless but they were loud. And bolshy. And determined to ensure that the entire carriage knew just how much they’d had to drink and how mad they intended going once they got to their destination, and that they had the biggest balls on the entire train.

They were sitting right behind me and I was working on one of the most explicit scenes between two women that I’ve ever written. If they’d glanced over and seen my screen, read even a line of what I was working on, I would have been (at best) slagged for a few dozen kilometres.

I didn’t give a flying fuck. I felt utterly invincible.

(Aside: what does a flying fuck look like? I’m picturing an unclothed tandem parachute jump with some sex added, and wishing I could draw, so that I could draw one and give it to my best friend for Christmas, with a card assuring her that I give a flying fuck. This is the kind of thing we find hilarious, which is why it’s lucky we met each other and don’t inflict our humour on the masses.

Oh, wait, this blog is public. Feck).

There is something about writing something taboo, something that blasts everything you were ever taught about being ‘good’ out of the water, that feels powerful. Guess what? I’m writing about sex workers. I’m writing about women. I’m writing erotica. I’m writing to self-publish. None of this was in the plan, and none of this is sanctioned by the Gods of Appropriate Behaviour that live in my brain (I can’t get rid of them – how do you evict a god who doesn’t want to go?). None of this will impress the literary establishment I’ve longed to impress since I was old enough to know one existed.

I’m writing this because I want to, and if one of the drunk guys on the train had started reading my work and slagged me about it, I would have said ‘Yes, I write porn. What do you do?’

 

 

The Ethics of Writing Erotica About Sex Workers

Last week, I was the lesser-given-a-shit-about writer who announced the release of a new erotic ebook about sex workers. I try not to be bitter, but it must be said that I had a grand total of zero fights with NYT bestselling authors last week, so I guess being the little guy (metaphorically speaking) isn’t so bad.

Joe Konrath’s announcement led to a helluva lot of controversy (check out the comments thread on his post if you’re interested, or his Twitter feed). The controversy centred on this comment from Konrath:

“Our male protagonist is a sex worker. An escort. A prostitute. I’m pretty sure Harlequin didn’t allow that back when Ann [Voss Peterson, co-author] was publishing her romance continuities. I also believe Harlequin had a guideline that once the hero met the heroine, neither were allowed to philander. Strike two. Finally, the sex in Want It Bad makes Fifty Shades of Grey look like a Disney picturebook. Harlequin may have had some racy titles, but I doubt they ever got this racy.”

Many people disagreed. I haven’t read enough Harlequin titles to comment, particularly not continuities, but I do know Tiffany Reisz is a Harlequin author and that lady cannot see a boundary without pushing it (which is why her books are brilliant).

But I haven’t seen anyone talk about the ethics of writing about sex workers (such is the nature of Konrath – you read one of his posts and it’s hard to know what points to engage with first. I don’t always agree with him but I read his blog because he makes me think, for better or worse. Also, I think he and Penelope Trunk need to be friends).

The morality of writing about sex workers has been on my mind since I started Lights Out, my erotic novel about two female sex workers who meet in a London brothel and are irresistibly drawn to each other. I’m a staunch feminist (not-quite-card-carrying – I figure I don’t need cards to point out that I’m a feminist since I am a woman with a job and a bank account; I don’t get to not be one) and I debated with myself a lot before deciding to release a book that depicted female sex workers.

 

Is sex work a feminist issue? And is it a bad thing? HOW THE HELL AM I SUPPOSED TO FEEL ABOUT THIS? GERMAINE? CAITLIN? ANYONE?

Warning: I am going to be talking about Iceland a LOT. And why wouldn’t I? They have 320,000 inhabitants, phone books organised by first name, tiny horses and the ability to bring air travel to a screeching halt. Iceland clearly rocks.

They are also getting closer and closer to banning the sex industry. The Guardian, my hippie-leftie-Bible, described Iceland as “the world’s most feminist country” when strip clubs were outlawed for feminist reasons (rather than religious reasons, which has precedents all over the freakin’ shop). From the article:

Kolbrún Halldórsdóttir, the politician who first proposed the ban, firmly told the national press on Wednesday: “It is not acceptable that women or people in general are a product to be sold.”

Abso-fucking-lutely. No argument there. I also like the ‘people in general’ remark.

Feministing, on the other hand, disagrees vociferously. Blogger Miriam writes:

History has shown us that criminalizing these industries simply drives them underground, where they continue to thrive, but with little regulation and definitely no protections for the workers (emphasis theirs).
Instead workers are criminalized (often instead of the people seeking their services), which prevents them from seeking recourse for abuses they may face.

Which sucks. Here’s a link to a news piece about the issue in Dublin, my home city, where sex workers fear new laws will make them more vulnerable to violence.

On the one hand, as a feminist, I love the idea of a society where sex isn’t a commodity to be bought and sold (surely when buying sex, consent becomes muddy as fuck?). But then, food is necessary for life, and it is a commodity we buy and sell. So is water (thank you, San Pellogrino, my second-favourite bubbly drink with a P in it). On the other, also as a feminist, I want a world where women don’t need to go into underpaid and potentially exploitative work just to make ends meet, but if they do, I want them to be protected and safe while they’re doing it.

For me, in an ideal world there would be no sex work. But if it’s going to exist, I want it regulated, safe and transparent. And without trafficking. Banning it does not seem like the way to achieve this.

 

Why write about something that, morally, I would rather didn’t exist? Why risk normalising it?

For the same reason that Sue Grafton or Dan Brown writes about murder. For the same reason that Stephen King writes about kidnapping, forced imprisonment and violence (King pointed out that school shootings were close to unheard of in the US before he wrote Rage and Carrie; now they are tragically not so. Did King normalise teen-on-teen violence? That’s a question for future sociologists to answer, I suppose). Because this is the story I want to tell.

 

How about pornography, then? Is that moral? 

In 2013, following the successful ban on sex work and strip clubs, Iceland attempted to follow up with a ban on “violent or degrading pornography”, “which some Icelanders take to mean most of it,” according to The Economist (the attempt was blocked by the European Commission due to censorship concerns). Had it passed, could vanilla folk have still enjoyed their bit of aul’ porn while kinksters couldn’t? Were the Icelandic people planning to knit away those dark winter evenings (and few places do dark winter evenings like Iceland – I’m quite a few kilometres south and don’t even ask me to try whiling away an Irish winter without something arousing and warming to read. Alexander McCall Smith is all well and good but not when it’s 0 degrees Celcius outside and my heating just packed up)? Apparently not – the same article in The Economist assures us that Iceland is sex-positive:

Iceland, however, is determinedly pro-women. Half the cabinet and 25 of the 63 members of Iceland’s parliament are female. The country is run by the world’s only openly lesbian prime minister. Iceland is also pro-sex. Its supermarkets sell condoms and mini-vibrators next to checkouts. A new sex-education film informs teenagers that sex should be something they want to do again and again, and then maybe again. Some 65% of Icelandic children are born outside marriage, more than any other country in the OECD. Same-sex marriage has been legal since 2010 and gays and lesbians can adopt children. Icelandair ran a campaign featuring the tagline, “Fancy a dirty weekend in Iceland?”

Provided it’s the right kind of sex, of course.

Do I hear a ‘won’t someone please think of the children’ coming on? Why yes, Helen Lovejoy, I do.

The country’s initiatives against the sex industry have been championed by a powerful feminist movement. “Tackling online porn, particularly the violent kind, is part of a broader set of policies to protect children and reduce sexual violence,” says Halla Gunnarsdottir, a political adviser to the interior minister who has proposed the law. But the more ambitious Iceland has become in its war against the sex industry, the less success it seems to enjoy.

The British Psychological Society backed a move to ban ‘violent or extreme’ pornography in Britain in 2006 on the grounds that it could influence impressionable people to either commit violent acts or sexual offences if a predisposition was already there. Some of their members disagreed. It is unproven that explicit material can lead to violence (not of the consensual variety) but seemingly there is doubt.

And how violent does material have to be before it’s violent pornography (aside: I now have that fucking System of a Down song stuck in my head, which will be marvellous at work tomorrow when I’m humming it at the water cooler and my boss has to pretend he doesn’t recognise it)? Bettie Page’s work with Irving Klaw, which features on badges and buttons that you can buy in the mildly offbeat district of my hometown? Or material where someone has actually been hurt or exploited in the making of it?

How are users to determine that?

It’s one thing to say that all users of pornography should stay away from anything violent that they feel was non-consensual or exploitative, but given that the appearance of non-consent is a kink, it’s a helluva task for some person sitting in front of their computer.

Also from The Guardian:

Many other organisations – including the CPS, the Police Federation, women’s rights organisations and child welfare groups – urged the government to introduce the [violent and degrading porn] ban. But libertarian campaigners accused the government of creating thought crimes and warned that images of consensual sexual activity would be outlawed.

“Government proposals to criminalise the possession of ‘violent pornography’ will do nothing to reduce real crime. They will treat consenting adults like children. And they run the risk of imposing much wider limits on freedom of speech than they intend,” Backlash said in a statement. A spokesman for the coalition – whose members include Feminists Against Censorship, the Sexual Freedom Coalition and the Libertarian Alliance – said: “A picture can look graphic and not involve harm, or look innocuous and involve a great deal of harm.”

That’s the crux of it, though, isn’t it? Which does more harm – a photo of a woman tied up and being beaten, who agreed to it and got up after she was untied and went for a latte with the bloke hitting her, who is named Tony and likes carrot cake and Arsenal? Or yet another romantic comedy movie depicting a woman repeatedly refusing to date a man, only to have him disrespect her ‘no’ and wear her down until she finally, grudgingly agrees to a date that he’s ‘sure’ she’ll like once she gets to know him? Which is more degrading to women? You can probably guess what I think.

The tougher question is which is more damaging to our culture.

 

How does this affect us as writers?

I’m using the Royal Plural here – this isn’t meant to be especially for Konrath and me (or ‘meself and Joe,’ if I’m going to be a proper Dubliner about this). As a writer and a feminist who believes that sex work is less-than-ideal, what on earth am I doing writing about sex workers and presenting them as protagonist figures? My book is about sex workers. It’s set in London, where sex work is legal but brothelkeeping isn’t – both figure in the story – and it presents two women who fall for each other. What I contributing to the culture by writing this?

It’s a question I’m still asking myself. I hope I have depicted the issues in the book responsibly. I hope I have shown that the life Kayla and Sally live isn’t typical for a sex worker. But then, Kayla and Sally aren’t typical women, which is part of the nature of fiction, and part of the responsibility we place on readers is to realise that fiction isn’t typical.

 

The Top 5 Challenges Facing A Newbie Erotica Writer

We need a new word for newbie erotica writers, I think. Newbie erotica writer sounds boring. Newrotica writer? Suggestions on a tweet to @AmyTempleWriter, please.

What are the biggest stumbling blocks for those of us new to this path?

1. The Mindset.

It is highly tempting to decide that erotica can be written only by candlelight with soft music playing and gentle breezes wafting the curtains atmospherically (fat chance in Ireland in November – if I leave the window open a crack my future will probably a lot more Wuthering Heights than Fifty Shades, what with the dying of horrible diseases and being rained on). It is genuinely difficult to get into the mindset of writing erotic fiction when you’re used to writing factual stuff on demand, or even mainstream fiction.

Also, all it takes is one text from my mother to put the kibosh on sexy writing for, oh, hours. Mum Temple likes to text. I taught her. It is my second-biggest regret in life.

 Protect your mindset, but don’t get caught up in the glamour of it all. That way lies madness, and empty Word documents.

 

2. The Fear.

I live in constant terror that one of the people I socialise with will discover what I’m writing. Not because I’m ashamed or because I have especially judgmental friends, but because I am Irish, and we like to slag our friends off. A lot (for evidence click here – be warned, contains the bad C word). It is how we show love. They could get years of mileage out of a single scene.

 

3. The Marketing.

I’m writing under a pen name, so I can’t utilise the (minimal) goodwill I have built up over the years under my real name. That time I rescued an entire puppy and someone Retweeted my 140-character tale of heroism? Not ever going to equal a book sale. Damnit. Lucky for the puppy I would have saved it had I known that (since you don’t know who I am, you’ll just have to take my word for it that Real Life Amy saves puppies).

How else am I going to sell this book? I’ll just have to hope the sodding thing is good.

4. The Imposter Syndrome.

I have this all the time anyway, so it may not be a problem for you guys – or it may be an even bigger problem, because I’m so used to living with the feeling that I am miraculously fooling everyone and they wrongly believe I am a functional adult. When I compared Tiffany Reisz’s bio with mine, it was with Imposter Syndrome that I was wrestling (if you thought the sight of me wrestling was unexpectedly unsexy, fear not, the book I’m working on has no wrestling scenes). Erotica writers should be devastatingly sexy, surely. I am not. I strive for devastating on a good day, but only in the fields of cookng and witty comebacks.

5. The Publicity.

I know, I know. Chance would be a fine bloody thing. I remember when E. L. James’s husband, writer Niall Leonard, was ‘unmasked’ and left wide open to comparisons with Christian Grey. He had this to say about it: “Perhaps being married to me helped her to fantasize about someone more interesting.”

He also said this: “I’m the least romantic fecker that ever lived – ask my wife Erika, aka EL James. Our first Christmas together I bought her a tin opener, and my earliest experience of kinky sex was her trying to shove it up my arse.”

I want to have a pint with this man so badly. He’s, like, top of my Semi-Famous People I Want To Have A Pint With List. And I don’t even drink pints.

What’s been driving you nuts when trying to write about sexytimes?