Erotic fiction seems to be the book topic of the week, following the paperback release of the book dubbed "mommy porn", Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James. It's already hit number one on the New Zealand international fiction bestseller chart and the two sequels, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed, are out today.
So what's it like to write erotic fiction - and where do erotic novelists get their ideas?
This week I tracked down Leigh Marsden, Geraldine-based mother of one and novelist specialising in "relationship dramas with an erotic twist". When her book Scarlet was released last year, publisher Penguin New Zealand described it as the most sexually explicit novel it had ever published.
It's the story of George, a young Auckland waitress working out the unresolved issues in her past through a series of illicit and sometimes dangerous sexual liaisons. Scarlet was quickly followed by Crush, the tale of a woman called Phil who has returned to her home town yearning for an unrequited love, her friend Sean who is struggling against homophobia and Gill, stuck in an X-rated but unfulfilling marriage.
Both books hit the New Zealand fiction bestseller list and include plenty of detailed sexual exploits, but Marsden insists her books are not erotica. "While some of the sex scenes in Scarlet and Crush are certainly titillating, that's not the primary aim," she says. "The main purpose is to provide an extra insight into characters, because let's face it - what people get up to behind closed doors is fascinating and revealing."
Here, Marsden talks about discovering her knack for erotic fiction, the art of writing sex scenes and finding inspiration for all those "titillating" sexual exploits.
Q: How did you start writing erotic novels?
A: When I first started work on Scarlet I was reading a lot of Charles Bukowski. His work is so raw and in-your-face, it really inspired me to write Scarlet as explicit as it needed to be. Once I got over the embarrassment of it, I discovered I had a bit of a knack for writing sex scenes. Who knew? I'm not sure where that came from. I had a regular upbringing - we didn't live in a commune, there were no swingers parties at our house - so I can't blame mum and dad.
Q: How do you write a sex scene?
A: If I'm honest I tend to imagine myself in the situation. I don't think you have to necessarily have done everything the characters do to make it realistic and provocative, but you have to put yourself in their shoes (or underwear). That way you'll capture how it really feels to be there rather than just describing it. I'll spend a bit of time setting the scene, creating the atmosphere, and then just let it progress however it wants to. I don't plan too much. It takes a bit of creative thinking to avoid using the same words all the time, although I'm not a fan of flowery language either when it comes to describing things 'down there'. I tend to call the various bits their actual names - not in a medical way, just keeping the cringe factor down as much as possible.
Q: Where do you find inspiration for the sexual exploits in your books?
A: Whilst most people (my husband included) would like many of the exploits to be based on our personal experiences, the truth is that most of it is the product of an inventive imagination. I enjoy writing sex scenes, which I think translates to the page. It's no chore and, thus far, I've had no shortage of ideas. And if I'm stuck for inspiration on positions there's always the internet. No-one wants to read about one missionary position encounter after another!
Q: Do you write under your real name and why or why not?
A: Leigh Marsden is my real name. I'm proud of my work and always dreamed of seeing my name on a book, so didn't see the need to change it. My family is very open-minded, so there was no need to hide it from them!
Q: Are you as frank and open about sex in other aspects of your life?
A: I'm not out dogging on a Saturday night, but I'm no prude either. Some things never change, though. I'm just as embarrassed as anybody if a sex scene comes on while I'm watching a movie with my parents or brother.
Q: Have you had any unusual reactions to your work?
A: Just after Scarlet was released a friend's husband saw me out walking while he was driving. He did a rapid U-turn and stopped to give me a high five! I find that husbands in general are particularly supportive; they love their wives reading racy books in the bedroom.
Q: Have you read Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James? Why do you think it has been so successful?
A: I haven't read it, but all the reviews I've read seem to either positively rave about it or be completely scathing. When something polarises people like that, provoking such strong reactions, it tends to be popular. People want to know what all the fuss is about, for good or bad, so they can add their opinion to the discussion. I am curious to read it, but equally I don't want to. Mainly I'm worried it will be rubbish and then I'll be annoyed that James has got a million-dollar book contact, movie deals, etc, and not me!