Could a former porn star be the next EL James?

Sasha Grey managed to break in to mainstream acting.Photo / Creative Commons
Sasha Grey managed to break in to mainstream acting.Photo / Creative Commons

* Warning: Adult content

Sex sells, still. Blame EL James if you like, but ever since Fifty Shades of Grey shifted 40 million copies around the world last year, thus making it abundantly clear that a great many of us like our bedroom habits to involve a lot more than slap and tickle, publishers have desperately sought a successor, another sex-riddled bestseller to tempt us into illicit blushes.

Into this breach now steps the latest hopeful, Sasha Grey, a 25-year- old former porn superstar whose direct-to-DVD movies include I Wanna Bang Your Sister and Buttman's Stretch Class 2. The American has reinvented herself as a novelist, and her first book, The Juliette Society, is at least theoretically Fifty Shades' heir in that it, too, explores the mostly unspoken world of BDSM (bondage, discipline, sado-masochism). It revolves around a woman's introduction to a highly secretive sex k club.

It will be published in 20 territories around the world, and Hollywood has already snapped up the film rights.

Though Grey doesn't flinch from filling the pages with hardcore penetration, her writing style is a curious, jarring one, more redolent of a Raymond Chandler-esque 1930s private dick than someone purportedly in touch with their tumescent sensuality. Here she is on penises: "It doesn't have to be big, but it definitely has to be hard and operated by someone with a licence to drive. Because there's no point banging hard on the accelerator if you don't know how to apply the brakes, turn the wheel, or shift gears. And that gear stick? If you want to put it in my box, you better know how to use it."

It was Grey's agent who first suggested she write a book, back in 2008. Many of her fans concurred, but it was only when EL James's erotic trilogy breathed new life into a very old art form that she decided to give it a go.

"I wanted to create characters in a world that felt grounded within the fantasy world, but I didn't want a cliché woman looking for Mr Right," she says.

Sex, like life, she points out, can sometimes be scary. "It's not always fun, but I didn't want to write about this dark side from a negative point of view. Instead, I wanted to explore it."

She also wanted, by her own admission, to cash in on a potential cash cow, and who can blame her? Grey retired from the porn industry four years ago, and has since dabbled in acting, and written a succession of screenplays that haven't been picked up. But with the novel she has already made more money in publishing deals than she did as an actress.

Though Grey purports first and foremost to be a film fanatic - "I'd love to see my name up on the silver screen as screenwriter" - her failure in this to date has made her success at fiction all the sweeter. "I don't want to say it has boosted my ego, but it has confirmed to me several things," she says. "And it's a good feeling."

A shame, then, that The Juliette Society is not very good. Like the films in which she once starred, narrative here is distinctly secondary to a lot of swollen sex scenes that never feel entirely real. But she clearly takes the business of writing seriously, and bogs the whole thing down with an awful lot of plot that includes a thriller, and even a political dimension. But it is the purported raunch factor upon which you can't help but focus, albeit for reasons other than arousal: some of it is downright bizarre.

"You'd think an educated woman might have more profound things to spend her time thinking about than the most satisfying way to articulate ejaculate," she writes at one point. "I'm not so sure about that... The big bang created a universal body made up of solar systems - giant wombs, incubators for the planets, which are cosmic eggs waiting to be fertilised with the seed of life, which is: come. And that, in essence, is my sexual theory of life, the universe and everything."

Of course it is. If the book sells well, the subsequent parodies will all but write themselves.

When I speak to Grey, via Skype, she is at her rented Paris apartment, where she is working through last-minute edits on the book and DJing in nightclubs around the city. She elects to keep her Skype video off, so I do likewise, meaning that I put on my second-best shirt for nothing. She has a strong, smoky voice and an ironic, detached manner. Images of her online confirm that she is anything but predictable porn fare: handsome rather than beautiful, and distinctly un-pneumatic. She is a strong individual, and during her three years in the industry, during which she became famous for doing everything up to and including toilet-licking (a niche market), she says she never once felt the victim. "This isn't the 1970s; I was always in control."

Born Marina Ann Hantzis in 1988, she was raised in a rough neighbourhood in northern California. Internet reports suggest that after her parents divorced, she was estranged from her father, but this isn't true. "Oh, people always like to create the usual stories: porn star with daddy issues. Actually, I was always close to my father. I still am."

Her parents were appalled when she settled upon her chosen career. Her mother pleaded with her daily to give it up. And her father? "He told me not to f*** up." Grey didn't ask what he meant by this - "I didn't dare; dads can be scary" - but merely endeavoured to do as told.

She says she was good at school, and wanted initially to go into business, until she grew disillusioned. "I saw all these people older than me who had graduated, had degrees, but couldn't get jobs, and were in debt already. I didn't want to be a slave to that pattern, just another zombie. So I looked into porn, and went into that."

Her reasons were not purely financial. As a teenager, she had become increasingly interested in BDSM. Her then-boyfriend, however, wasn't, and friends thought her a freak for talking about it. "I didn't know where I could go to meet people with similar interests," she says. And then she did: pornography.

"I wanted to explore my interests in a safe way, but I also wanted to bring something new to porn, to change what I saw on screen."

For her, porn was all too formulaic, too predictable. She wanted to challenge this, to be less passive, more dominant, and surprise both her co-stars and the viewer. This made her a superstar in a world where many of her peers seemed interchangeable. At first, she tells me, it was all terribly exciting. "But there is a limit to how much you can explore your interests on camera, you know? You can never fully lose yourself in the moment because you're being filmed."

After appearing in a number of rock videos, she was profiled in Rolling Stone magazine, which brought her to the attention of Hollywood. She then did something few former porn stars manage - she crossed over to mainstream entertainment, though the roles she landed (in US TV drama Entourage, and Steven Soderbergh's film The Girlfriend Experience) were essentially extensions of herself. And so she focused on writing her own screenplays. Her love of film is obvious throughout The Juliette Society, which is stuffed with deconstructionist essays on the films of Luis Buñuel and Orson Welles, and she says she would like to branch out into the wider film world, but admits she doesn't know whether she will ever be permitted to, given her past.

"Though I don't think I'm trying to escape from what I've done at all," she insists. "I'm just trying to grow from it."

In one sense, she has little reason to want to escape: sex has been very good to her. But porn does leave a taint. Even my PC's antivirus software considers her potentially dangerous. While researching this article, I Googled her website. "This link is suspicious," it read when I hovered my mouse over it. "Be careful." I clicked anyway. "WHOA!" my screen now read. "Are you sure you want to go there?"

And so, suddenly chastened, a little scared, I clicked away from Sasha Grey - just in case.


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