When did you develop a taste for reading – where and what would you read?
I’ve been an avid reader for as long as I can remember, spending hours lying on my stomach on the grass or my bed depending on the weather. My parents are amongst the best read people I know (barring erotica) and our house was full of books. Once I was too old for Beatrix Potter I used to read alien tales such as Heidi and Little House on the Prairie, aspirational stories such as Ballet Shoes, the plain silly St Clare’s series (banned by my own convent boarding school) and the thoughtful Anne of Green Gables and Little Women, and then I’d pretend to be one of the heroines, drifting round the garden talking to myself.
Once I vowed to read every single book on my parents’ bookshelves. Needless to say I only got as far as wading through a rogue Georgette Heyer and some Fanny Craddock cookbooks before trying Casino Royale – which left me wondering what a French kiss was. I stole ideas from Daisy Ashford and wrote a romantic novel in an exercise book, complete with illustrations. Unfortunately my elder sisters found it and read it aloud over supper one evening to much hilarity, which was humiliating beyond belief. At school we were suffocated by exams and set texts so until I left Oxford I had barely read a novel written later than 1890 and to this day I refuse to pick up a Bronte.
What was your childhood like?
I was born in Winchester, the third of four daughters in a Catholic family. When I was two we moved into the countryside when my father founded a boys’ school and we lived a remote existence in the headmaster’s house. Apparently there was still anti-Catholic sentiment around which meant that we weren’t welcome at local schools, so we went first to a cute convent in Salisbury and then because it was a long trek my mother decided to teach us at home with a little group of friends. From that rarified start I was parachuted straight to boarding school aged 10 which I adapted to pretty well.
My parents thought our home was idyllic with ponies and dogs and lots of space, but it was frankly lonely and weird. When we came home during term time the place was teeming with terrifying wolf-whistling, staring blokes – going to chapel was torture – and in the holidays the place was deserted. The nearest bus stop was a mile away. We were pushed together with locals who liked riding or playing tennis, but as a family of maverick, creative girls we had nothing in common with them and longed for cities, shops, cinemas and traffic jams which is why we decamped to London as soon as we left school.
I am interested in your time at Oxford where you read English, but you have said you didn’t particularly enjoy the experience – can you explain why?
It was a huge honour and privilege to be accepted at Oxford, but in order to go there I gave up a place at Exeter to read French and History and I’ve often wondered if I might have been happier there, because the social and academic pressures at Oxford were huge. I’d had two years off, travelling and then temping in London, so I was out of the academic zone and had forgotten how to knuckle down and write essays. My peers seemed immature and the English course was antiquated. We had to learn Anglo Saxon and Middle English and no literature post 1960, and the grind of essays and exams, together with the weight of expectation meant that I did not read or write anything for years after graduating.
Your family would not have expected you to be an erotic writer – how do they view this choice of career?
Most of my family and friends view it askance or downright disapprove. The more open minded of them are supportive and amused, but my parents take an extremely dim view and I know they see it as ‘prostituting my talent.’ They are disappointed because they can’t boast to their friends about what I’m doing. Most people of their generation can’t stomach the strong erotic content of my work, and in fact I would be inhibited if I knew they were likely to read it, so it’s mutually understood that we don’t even discuss it. My ambition eventually is for them to walk into a book shop one day and see a work of mine that they can pick up and read with pride.
How did your life experiences inform your writing?
I’ve made my upbringing and education sound a bit stifling up until now, and in many ways it was conventional and predictable, but although it was quiet and cut off, I did learn to ride, ice skate and play tennis as well socialise when required. As a young teenager I was trusted by my parents to the extent that I went to work with the sick on a pilgrimage to Lourdes with a bunch of hard-partying young volunteers, totally unchaperoned. Being taught by and enclosed with nuns for my formative years influenced me more than I realised at the time (though I was the first head girl to be caught smoking on her first night of office, and frequently absconded to London, once memorably to deflower my boyfriend).
My parents did have some imagination, though. In a bid to get me away from that same boyfriend who, far too expertly taught by me, had acquired an addiction to playing around, they sent me on a school leavers’ art history course in Venice which was a magical 7 weeks of winter mists, carnivale, singing my first ever jazz solo and kissing Italian counts in tumbledown palazzi. That experience kick-started the restlessness that frustrated me at Oxford and drove me, when I had the chance, to turn my back on everyone and everything and take a crazy teaching job in Cairo where I lived for two years. Being known only as me, not as anyone’s girlfriend, sister or daughter was liberating. In my late twenties I became a single mother by an Englishman I’d met in Egypt and, tough as that was, my son was the catalyst for a renewed determination and creativity – which leads me to my next answer!
I’m interested to know why/how you ended up writing erotica in particular?
I fell into writing erotica partly as a dare and partly by mistake. I had been submitting novels and short stories all my life and when my son was little I decided to try to write a Mills and Boon novel. Various attempts were rejected, one with the comment that the ‘sex scenes were too explicit’. Black Lace and other erotic publications were beginning to make themselves known at the time, so I decided on a whim to turn the offending sex scene into a short story, bashed it out on my typewriter at work one day (yes, it was typewriters back in 1994) and sent it off to the now defunct magazine For Women. They accepted it, paid me £150, and the rest is history. Success is like a snowball. Once you’ve proved yourself, other editors are more likely to read your work and you move further away from the slush pile.
Would you consider yourself a feminist?
Yes, in an insular rather than a political way. I enjoy being female with all the delights and responsibilities that femininity has to offer while at the same time appreciating the fact that opportunities or choices have never been denied me on the basis of my sex. I recognise and celebrate the psycholgical and physiological differences between men and women which should be harnessed and utilised for the general good, rather than fought over, and I think the more men and women can be friends and harmonise, the more successful and peaceful the world would be.
I do think some of the more strident aspects of feminism such as more ‘quotas’ of women in high positions do us no favours. Some surveys show that some women, if they can afford it, actually want to stay home with their children rather than give half their salary to someone else to do it, and don’t for a minute miss the stress, internal politics, commuting and deadlines. In the 100 years since we wore long clothes, widows were shrouded in black, and women had no vote or bank account, we and our (western) sisters have travelled an amazing distance. The feminists I most admire nowadays are not those ‘leaning-in’ or couriering their breast milk across town from a board meeting, but those who daily risk their lives just surviving in societies which mutilate, sideline and abuse women.
Finally, and returning to my insular view of what I am doing in my own world to promote feminism I also believe in the old fashioned values of chivalry and charm, and as the mother of three sons I aim to bring them up to treat women with respect and be gentleman, like their Dad.
How would you explain the difference between pornography and erotica?
I hope I’m quoting correctly, but Rowan Pelling said once: ‘Any pornographer can construct a two-bit fantasy, but only the truthful can convey the shocking electricity of real erotic connection. Aspiring eroticists must also engage the imagination: trite pornography fails not because it’s explicit, but because it’s dull and formulaic’.
Most pornography takes something that is beautiful, if basic, and turns it something ugly, brutish or even violent. At its extreme it is starting to damage and frighten the young, evolving minds that watch it.
Some might say this is rich coming from a writer of erotica, but the two prime words I have just used are ‘watch’ and ‘writer’. One of the many tags that irritated me about the 50 Shades phenomenon was its description as ‘mummy porn’, which, without getting too heavy, seemed to link two opposing words in an extremely unpleasant way. So, which is it? Erotica, or porn? In my view, it can’t be both.
Porn is immediate, visual, predominantly male-orientated while erotica seeks to arouse through the imagination and is mostly by women, for women.
It’s the difference between brutality and sensuality. Porn seeks to lower, erotica to elevate.
Mellor in Lady Chatterly sums this up quaintly, but accurately: ‘If men could fuck with warm hearts, and the women take it warm-heartedly, everything would come all right. It’s all this cold-hearted fucking that is death and idiocy’.
With regards to pornography do you think men/women can be held captive to their sexual fantasies?
I suppose it depends on whether they can leave the fantasies in the bedroom (and in their heads) or whether the images and ideas start to interfere with daily life. If the fantasies are uplifting and arousing yet harmless then they remain private while enhancing a normal healthy sex life, but if they are darker and more corroding they could start to distort the person’s perception, make them objectify the people they encounter by placing them into those fantasies. In extreme cases the fantasies, if enacted, can harm others or even kill.
I also think it depends on how addictive the fantasies are and, going back to the porn discussion, is the visual imprint that displays the fantasy more likely to be long-lasting and powerful than the written words which trigger the imagination?
Are you a romantic?
Absolutely. That’s why I welcome the new genre of erotic romance, because nearly all the erotica I’ve written has revolved around some kind of romantic and emotional connection between my characters. I love the dynamics of a love story, the conflict, the drama, the consummation, and I’m a sucker for a white wedding.
As child I dreamed of being a princess being swept off her feet by a knight on a white steed and I’m not ashamed to admit that. When it didn’t look as if it wasn’t going to happen, and after kissing a lot of frogs, I gave up and started creating fictional romantic and erotic scenarios instead. A year or so later my knight arrived, zooming up Earls Court Road in a battered blue Saab…
You were brought up as a Roman Catholic – did the decision to write erotica cause conflict?
There isn’t so much conflict from my more religious parents and elderly relations as an absolute silence about my fiction. I have written non-fiction features on various aspects of Catholicism such as abortion and assisted dying which we have discussed but some of the religious boundaries I cross in my erotica would be taboo.
It’s not hard to see how my upbringing around nuns, religion, mass, church, cloister, chapel, cell, ritual, prayer, meditation, confession, penance, candles, incense, singing etc has informed my writing. As school girls we all lived in dread of getting ‘the call’ and having to abandon booze and boys, but at the same time we were intrigued by the secrecy and mystery surrounding a celibate, enclosed life. And although it was imposed on us then, the idea of total silence and retreat is hugely welcome to me now as a harassed adult.
While I certainly push the boundaries and have written of sex between nuns and priests, for example, it isn’t unheard of for priests to have sex and father children, and certainly not for nuns to leave the Order. I like writing about people bound by self-imposed restrictions, rules, regulations, uniforms and then seeing how these are broken down.
Sigmund Freud would be interested to learn whether there is anything of your husband in Gustav?
I think I deliberately made them as different from each other as possible partly to allow my imagination to run riot and partly to avoid any kind of recognition which could result in offence being taken. People often wonder if they are going to feature in a work of fiction, and I would have been inhibited to think of my husband reading the book and finding real or imagined criticism or comparison.
Gustav is the stuff of fantasy and dream, and actually started off as a vampire. I wanted him to start as a total enigma and then reveal him little by little. I’ve tried to make him melt as the trilogy has progressed, gradually unpeeling the layers to reveal the emotions beneath. My husband may share some of Gustav’s chivalry and manners, and is upright and masculine but he is much more open and immediate, and emotionally articulate.
Where I did use real life, though, is in describing the excitement and joy of finding true, long-lasting love after years of searching, although Serena, being so young, has hardly been on the long rocky road of failed relationships that I have!
Abuse and human frailty are just some of the themes running through your books – was it important to have characters with these particular traits and history?
If I’m totally honest the themes of abuse did not come easily to me when writing this trilogy and I certainly shied away from anything physical in Serena’s past, but I admit once I’d come up with the idea of neglect I found that awful and powerful, because although she wasn’t beaten as a child which I would abhor writing about, I thought the idea of neglect and how it would permeate a person’s life, very interesting. The adult themes of domination and submission were aspects which I injected into the stories to a certain extent, partly to explain Margot’s influence on Gustav and Pierre, and partly because I felt it was expected of me. I tried to edge away from it as the trilogy progressed and focus more on the emotional tugs of war rather than physical.
As for human frailty, that is an endless and multi-faceted source of fascination, because not only has every single one of us either been born frail or experienced periods of difficulty in our lives, but it gives you the chance to take your characters from a place of vulnerability to one of strength. An erotic trilogy isn’t the easiest platform to explore these ideas, but I hoped I succeeded to a certain extent even if ultimately a happy ending was the only possible answer.
You write in a strong visual manner: ‘the shadows stalking him, and the mist separating us……..’ do you have a strong visual memory?
Yes, and it comes both from putting myself body and soul into the scenarios I am writing about, from memory of places I’ve been, but also because as an amateur photographer I know how powerful images can be when framed through a lens or telescope. Also I feel that erotic romances give you licence to put a little of the fairy tale into the story, exaggerated characters, settings, locations, lots of light and shade.
Curiosity is an integral part of being a writer and I’ve noticed you’ve created quite detailed life stories for your characters – do you think this is important?
I’m really pleased that you find these life stories are detailed. If the focus is on a small nucleus of protagonists or you’re examining just two of them you have to create families, childhoods, fantasies and fears, but you also have to know how they would react in certain circumstances, what they would wear, eat, drink, what they like and hate. A detailed background, a CV if you like, also helps to differentiate one character from another, and is invaluable to distinguish the good guy from the bad. Some characters, like Margot, have no apparent family or history other than her marriage to Gustav, and that somehow makes her even more sinister, because all we can go on is what she immediately reveals of herself.
Actors ask ‘What’s my motivation?’ because they need to inhabit the person they’re playing. A writer has to a certain extent inhabit the characters they create, because if the writer doesn’t believe in them, nor will the reader.
Some of the stories I get sent for a critique contain parades of shadowy men and women who all look, sound and think the same, and unless you’re writing about an army of robots that is never going to engage your reader. My advice to any would-be writer is that you don’t necessarily have to make your characters likeable or even reliable, but they do have to be three-dimensional.
Places/settings are very well described and seem to be elemental to your storytelling – why?
A writer needs to create a universe. You could set an entire novel in one room or one house, or one city, but you still have to give it all the aspects and dimensions that make that room or house or city a world for the characters living within it. I like the idea of the claustrophobic novel, but I also love reflecting my love of travel and writing about places such as Morocco, Venice and New York as if I’m still there.
It seems to me that you were you consciously writing against some of the constraints/expectations of a romantic erotic writer, particularly with regards to your heroine Serena, who is a rather adventurous ingénue. But why do you think women, in particular, respond to this sort of fantasy?
Serena is based on a version of myself when I was that age, how I wish I’d been. Like the Berocca adverts, she’s me, but on a really good day. If my readers can identify with her in the same way then I’ve done my job properly. Serena is more feisty, more adventurous, less hidebound by what other people think than I was. But she’s also alone in the world, unsupported, and emotionally starved, so in that sense totally unlike me. She has had to fend for herself from an early age, which is not to make her something out of a misery memoir but to make her stronger and more resilient. I hope women would relate to that because they like a fighter, but also someone discovering herself at the same time as she’s discovering the world around her.
Why does the hero have to be not only wealthy, but self-assured, masterful and to a certain extent violent/moody in the manner of Rochester in Jane Eyre?
It’s the fantasy again. The escapism. The idea of the heroine being the only person who can get through to this man, being the only woman in the world for him. While I would find Gustav gorgeous but exhausting in real life, the challenge for Serena, young as she is, is to break down his barriers to get not only to the sexually honest man under the clothes, but to drill down to the emotional, vulnerable, knowable man under the angst. He’s not as self-assured as he seems, and he’s only masterful because he needs to learn the language of reason and gentleness.
As for the wealthiness, that is the stuff of fairy tales, the penthouses, the fast cars, the jewellery, the meals out, and I admit it’s not particularly original, but I hope I’ve made it aspirational rather than just gilding the lily. Nothing is simple. Nothing is precisely what it seems. There’s erotic potential in the idea of impoverished people struggling to put food on the table and fighting their way to the top, and it’s been done many times by Barbara Taylor Bradford, Danielle Steele, Jackie Collins et al, but money being no object is everyone’s dream, isn’t it? It oils the wheels, but there is jeopardy, too, because at any day those wheels could come off and the whole edifice could crumble and go into free-fall. No amount of money is going to help if you have real problems or nasty people trying to ruin your life.
Finally: are you a solitary person?
I’m a Gemini, so I’m both solitary and social. I love my own company, and am very happy waving everyone off and shutting the front door so I can have the day to myself. This is essential for writing. In fact, I often dream of a cottage on a Scottish (or preferably Greek) island where I could disappear to for weeks on end. But there would have to be no telly to distract me, and I know that after about two days of total solitude I would not only be bored but would miss my husband and my sons desperately.
I do find it hard to swim up to the surface after a day’s writing when they come home and I have to start chatting and cooking, and sometimes I’m not very nice to be around when half my head is still in the novel, but it takes discipline and it’s possible to lead two very pleasant lives: one fictional, one real.