Confessions of an erotic writer

Award-winning Auckland playwright Elisabeth Easther was once an erotic fiction writer. As Fifty Shades of Grey hits our screens, she reveals the highs and lows of her short-lived career in smut.
Fifty Shades has sold well over 100 million copies and what's more, it's said to be the most requested book in Guantanamo Bay, outstripping the Koran in popularity. Photo / Thinkstock
Fifty Shades has sold well over 100 million copies and what's more, it's said to be the most requested book in Guantanamo Bay, outstripping the Koran in popularity. Photo / Thinkstock

I have to confess I feel deeply miffed that E.L. James whipped up Fifty Shades of Grey and I didn't. Because she did write it and I didn't, she's now filthy rich and I'm 50 shades of green, with envy.

Years ago, when I was living in London, trying to make ends meet, one of my many odd jobs (and there were plenty, some odder than others) was writing erotic fiction. One day, as I was poring over the classifieds in London's TimeOut magazine, I saw an item calling for hunky men willing to pose nude for a new ladies' magazine called Scarlet. Clearly I wasn't going to be selected as a model, despite my years at drama school, but, as a writer looking for any kind of paid work, I dialled the number at the bottom of the ad to ask if they were looking for words to sit alongside to the pictures.

The editor and I began exchanging emails and the next thing I knew I was writing a saucy sample story to see if I have a knack for the genre. And what do you know, turns out I'm a dab hand. Having plucked a nom de plume from a tube of lipstick, I let my imagination run wild and, pretty soon, my dirty work was appearing in publications throughout the UK and US.

I'm a trifle annoyed with myself for not having taken my x-rated exhortations further when I had the chance because today, everywhere I look, my face is being rubbed in Fifty Shades of flaming Grey. Despite being relatively badly written, the book has dominated bestseller lists around the world.

It has sold well over 100 million copies and what's more, it's said to be the most requested book in Guantanamo Bay, outstripping the Koran in popularity - as if those poor prisoners haven't suffered enough. It's a good bet, too, it's been tackled by your grandmother's book club. This book knows no boundaries.

It's true, Fifty Shades has brought "cliterature" out of the shadows and into the mainstream but others paved the way. How about Shirley Conran's Lace? I distinctly recall laying my 13-year-old mitts on a copy of that one summer and OMG, who knew you could do that with a goldfish? It probably scarred me for life, but it didn't stop me reading everything ever produced by Jilly Cooper and Jackie Collins.

I also devoted myself to several instalments of Clan of the Cave Bear, before working my way through Flowers in the Attic. Even The Bible has rude bits in it if you know where to look. Take a look at Ezekiel 23:19 and you'll see what I mean.

As you can no doubt tell, I am smarting a little over James' success and my lack thereof. Although, if I'm honest, having taken a look through my back catalogue, I suspect some of my stories were a little too comical for some people's tastes. Sure, they were written with an end in mind but I liked them to have a funny bone too. One of my favourites, Gagging For It, was about a hot young female comedian (FYI the characters are always hot) who got up to funny business in more ways than one. I wrote it because I'd wanted to recycle material from my brief stint as a stand-up but, judging from the market response to E.L. James' book, her gags appealed more than the one-liners I went for.

And I'm cool with it. Sure my work didn't bring me international acclaim and untold wealth but I'm glad I wrote rude words for a living - if nothing else I have some excellent anecdotes for dinner parties. The erotic magazines I wrote for would sometimes invite me to book and product launches where I'd find myself mingling with all kinds of people, including porn stars the colour of tangerines. Because I'm nosy, I'd encourage them to talk about their work but, more often than not they'd carry on about when they were going to tell their kids what they did for a living. It was like spending a gap year on another planet.

After a few years I moved on as I found other more reputable publications to write for and my career in smut petered out. Besides, you have no idea how challenging it is to find fresh words for private parts after you've used the standard terms a few too many times. And these days, I'm happy to say, I never use the colloquial term for cat in a story unless I'm referring to a genuine feline.

Elisabeth Easther is a New Zealand Herald writer. Her award-winning play, Seed, has its final night at the Circa Theatre in Wellington tonight.

- NZ Herald

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