To say that EL James has opened doors with her erotic 50 Shades trilogy is an understatement. We all know about the phenomenal success that she has personally accumulated on the back of it, but the repercussions reverberate far beyond her personal good fortune. Erotica in general, and erotic romance in particular, has blasted its way off the top shelf and into the kindles and paperbacks devoured in bedrooms, beaches and book groups.
The reward for me was to be asked by Harper Collins to write a trilogy in the erotic romance genre that 50 Shades has, if not spawned, then highlighted and clarified. A strain, if that’s the right word, of erotica that moves away from the parade of hard-boiled sex scenes and instead dives into and explores the dynamics of a central intensely romantic relationship. There is still sex, plentiful, varied and kinky, but the scenes, though explosive, are an integral part of the relationship rather than simply space filling encounters.
My compelling characters are the deep, dark, distant Gustav who is older than Christian Grey with a chequered history and a vicious ex-wife to show for it, and Serena, naïve but not virginal, talented but troubled, who is more than equal to the deals he tries to strike with her. A cast of colourful characters surrounds and conspires against them as they fight their way through misunderstandings and across continents to find peace and, yes, true love.
Until 50 Shades I had become part of that legion of erotica writers who were beginning to fear they would always be labouring under the radar, but now we’ve emerged, blinking, from our lonely dens. After years of writing for the narrow niche of erotica, watching our royalties diminish, our imprints dissolve, and our pseudonyms languish unrecognised in the mainstream, we are in a new limelight. Not only are interested publishers, energetic agents and eager readers embracing us, but we are also now able to get out more. Come out of hibernation, and meet other members of our species.
Literary festivals are busting out all over these days, and getting the chance to talk about your craft to a captive audience is both frightening and flattering. Rapturous applause, laughter, and fans begging for your signature is nothing short of orgasmic, but there is no escaping the whiff of celebrity and hierarchy dominating these events: nothing worse than comparing the length of the queues for book signings in the lobby afterwards. Who says size doesn’t matter?
Never mind. After twenty years of glazed eyes and stifled yawns when you mention your ‘hobby’ to friends and family, you’re actually meeting your fans and mingling with people who speak the same language – in other words, fellow writers.
And so it was that I found myself on the London express bound for the grand design of ER’s Erotic Towers in classy Clapham. My mission? To indulge in an afternoon of writer-speak with possibly the most successful British erotica writer after EL James. A one to one. Talking heads. Less Clash of the Titans, more Kiss of the Sirens. Or something like that.
Anyway, let me introduce Jodi Ellen Malpas.
Before I discuss her meteoric success to date, I hope she won’t mind if I share my initial impression of her. Which was that she reminded me of my younger self. In a good way. At least, the self I wish I’d had the chance to be twenty years ago. She’s feisty, fulfilled, talented, and exactly as attractive and cool as you would want your favourite erotic author to be.
What can I say? Just like me.
By dint of inspired self-publishing and fortunate recognition, Jodi’s first This Man trilogy burst onto US and UK bookshelves when 50 Shades was still warm. Her characters Jesse and Ava are the hot lovers who made us laugh and cry with their combination of youthful energy, comic British slang and sheer lust as they navigate their way through the highs and lows of a stormy relationship. She swiftly followed this with her One Night trilogy, which introduces us to the mysterious Miller and intriguing Olivia who find salvation through each other.
Jodi’s sales figures and Twitter followers speak for themselves, but I wanted to get a bit closer to the ethos as she sees it of the erotic romance writer, to find out how similar we are in our views of 50 Shades, what she thinks of the people who believe it to be an anti-feminist, abusive treatise, and indeed what she thinks of ‘sexual politics’ in general.
Our conversation went something like this.
Primula: You’ve written passionately in defence of 50 Shades. What particularly do you love about the trilogy?
Jodie: Undoubtedly Christian Grey! He’s a man with a lot of darkness and mystery. It almost defies reason, really, that so many women would fall in love with him given that he is so emotionless. I think that it speaks volumes for the storytelling. As a writer I know that I strive to achieve a connection between my readers and my characters. If you can get your readers to fall in love with them they will start to champion them. They’re invested. They’re backing them. They’re interested in what’s going to happen.
Primula: And readers identified with, or wanted to be, Anastasia too? But, I agree, I think it starts with the hero. So yes, it’s a massive achievement to make millions of women fall at Christian Grey’s feet.
And EL James’s Christian is what inspired you to put your trilogy out there?
Jodi: Yes. Although, I’d already written them, but 50 Shades gave me the confidence to publish my work.
Primula: What about those placard-waving protesters who tried to hijack the 50 Shades movie? They were so off key with their ‘message’ that they can’t have actually read the books.
Jodi: Well indeed and the massive misconception with 50 Shades is that the man is holding all the power. It’s simply not true. Anastasia holds the balance of power.
Even with my own characters, Jesse Ward isn’t ‘the dominant’, although he’s a very alpha male. But he is pretty much falling to his knees for Ava (my heroine) who wields all the power.
Primula: Otherwise where’s the story? Where’s the tension? Even in a ‘me-Tarzan, you-Jane’ scenario it’s far sexier when the woman ends up taming the man! So – back to the placard-wavers. What would your placard say?
Jodi: My placard would probably say “#SpankMe!” (laughs) I mean, just loosen up! I feel that some of these women, furiously fighting, or trying to boycott 50 Shades are just looking for the biggest platform they can, so that their voices are heard. To describe this story as glorifying domestic violence is laughable because these stories – and your books, and mine – are all about strong women. They’re independent, they show great strength. It gets under my skin, because at no point in any of these books does that occur.
Primula: These are escapist fantasies. No one wants to read about ugliness and damage when they pick up an erotic romance. They want to fly away. They want to meet characters and become immersed in scenarios which they have dreamed about.
Jodi: Exactly, I’ve had messages from women who have been liberated by reading erotic fiction. The naysayers can concentrate on the negative aspects if they like, but the positives for women reading these books far outweigh those. There’s no proof that there’s any increase of domestic violence on the back of these books.
Primula: Quite the reverse, I would think. As you say, reading books about people throwing off the shackles of an unhappy past through meeting their match and falling in love – how can that be promoting anything negative?
Jodi: Women are being empowered, becoming stronger……
Primula: In the bedroom, as well as everywhere else!
Jodi: They’re not frightened to tell their partners what they want, what they like, and as for us writers, we too are liberated through writing about it.
Primula: I started writing erotica as a bit of a dare, a ‘two fingers’ to all those rejection letters, when a romantic publisher turned down a submission for being too sexually explicit. I wrote an erotic short story in a fit of pique (actually when I was at work), which was accepted by a magazine – and the rest is history. My boss later joked that he should have a cut of my fee, as I’d written the story in his time. I could hardly tell him I had the ‘hots’ for him and he was actually my fantasy hero, could I?
Jodi: Did he ever get to read the story?
Primula: No. But he did get the girl. I’m married to him now!
What got you writing in the first place, and what drew you specifically to erotica?
Jodi: I always wanted to write about Sex and Love.
Primula: Most lasting relationships have to make a compromise between freedom and promiscuity, faithfulness and monogamy. And erotica is a way of exploring that conundrum. So however experimental or kinky or out there the sex is in our erotic romances, ultimately they are about our hero and heroine finding someone they do want to be monogamous with.
Jodi: Absolutely, although, I think keeping the spark alive throughout a relationship, marriage, is a very hard thing to do because unfortunately real life does get in the way. Whether we’re mothers, or working or keeping house, sometimes at the end of the day you’re just too tired to do anything else other than sleep or read a few pages of a book.
Primula: Hopefully our books!
Jodi: Lots of women find their escape through reading. The response I had from my debut novel, This Man, was so empowering, and knowing that I wasn’t alone in my fantasies. It made me feel stronger, more liberated, and it pushed me on to write more and more.
Primula: So they were your fantasies?
Jodi: (laughs) Yes and it took a huge leap of faith to put my writing out there for people to read.
Primula: So would you say that Jesse and Ava, Miller and Livy are based on anyone you know personally, or are they purely from your imagination?
Jodi: (giggling) There’s no denying that the heroines Ava and Olivia have parts of me in them.
Primula: And the men? Are they purely fantasy?
Jodi: Purely from my head: I don’t know anyone like them. I mean, they’re gorgeous, but way too complicated. If there were any men walking this planet as complex as Jesse and Miller… wow!(laughing)
Primula: One of your great achievements in my view is that you came forth fully-formed, as it were, having written this trilogy exactly as you wanted to write it, by self-publishing it.. You’ve leapt over the rules and guidelines that other erotica writers are, maybe, bound by. For example, you’ve gone much more deeply into darker themes in the second trilogy. Such as male prostitution, for example. What drew you to explore this particular world?
Jodi: It’s a forbidden world, isn’t it, and is fascinating to me. You say ‘prostitute’: I prefer to use the description ‘high-class escort’.
Primula: Is that how you see Miller in the book?
Jodi:. Yes he is known professionally as The Special One. He’s a beautiful man. And a lot of his clients are married women who aren’t getting what they want…….sexually. Primula: Would you call him a gigolo perhaps? Although it always makes me think of Richard Gere…
Jodi: I don’t like that word! But yes, Miller is paid to entertain women whether that’s just by accompanying them to an event, or for sex – either way he makes women feel desired. That’s his job. And he’s very good at it! But he was imprisoned in that life. The shadowy figures who ran his life, procured his clients, understood just how talented he was. But for them it’s all about money and power, and his special gift was making them thousands and thousands of pounds .
Primula: Again, the stuff of fantasies…………
Jodi: Yes, it’s sex and glamour. Miller made himself a life. He has a club. He has his day job, so to speak, and it works for him. But when he meets Olivia, he wants out. She’s his sweet girl and he wants to be hers and hers alone and this means giving everything up.
Primula: A very personal question (and I often get asked this too!): we deal with quite kinky things in our books, as did EL James. Do you have personal tastes along those lines, for example have you ever been to a fetish club? How do you carry out research?
Jodi: Mostly out of my head. When I write I tend to concentrate more on the emotional elements of sex scenes. My sex scenes are not about sex for sex’s sake. There’s always an underlying reason, an emotional reason. Women are emotional creatures. (laughs)
Primla: (laughs) …which removes erotic romance from the old wham-bam-how-many-sex-scenes-can-we-cram-in model. But if that involves the odd rope or whip it can still be an emotional experience? Jodi: Yeah, definitely. Primula: Another misconception from the ‘haters’ about the kinkier sexual practices! Jodi: Anticipation and build-up can draw many emotions out of you. It can enhance the sexual experience, whether you’re tied up, or restricted, or not.
Primula: I’m often asked this about bondage, threesomes, lesbian sex etcetera, and my husband gets asked, too, usually when we’re all drunk at dinner parties. He smiles but mostly he has to admit that “Prim has a very vivid imagination!” Much to his chagrin. But I always say that an erotica writer worth her handcuffs should be able to transport herself, and her readers, to a castle, a dungeon, a penthouse, a suburban living room, wherever.
Jodi: Absolutely (laughs).
Primula: People seem to think that we erotica writes have to justify what we do. Some think that erotica is simply pornography by any other name. I believe that erotica and porn are diametrically opposed. To put you up on to a soapbox for a moment, do you differentiate between erotica and pornography and if so how?
Jodi: There’s a fine line isn’t there? I’ve always thought that erotica is an art. The word ‘porn’, just historically, is a dirty word. There’s a picture in this room, (pointing behind her) a black and white sketch of a naked woman. Perhaps if it was in glorious technicolor, it wouldn’t be as tasteful?
Primula: We are on the same page there. On just about everything, in fact! Another question I’m often asked – as if somehow I’m betraying the sisterhood by writing erotica and must therefore have an agenda that I can comprehensively argue – is: would you call yourself a feminist?
Jodi: I’m a very independent woman. Women over history have fought to earn their place in society as equals – and we deserve it. I am independent, and I fight for everything I believe in, but I still want to be looked after by a man, and that’s the crux of it for me: I want to be indulged, I want to be desired – I want a man to look after me. And can’t I have both? As a woman, surely, it’s our prerogative?
Primula: So on to a final question: What are you working on at the moment?
Jodi: Well I can’t tell you much other than I am writing another erotic trilogy. I took a big leap from This Man to One Night, which is much more suspenseful, darker, with a thriller element to it. Completely different characters, of course, and Miller had big boots to fill. Jesse (from This Man) was a tough act to follow. Anyway, my new man is very different from both of them.
Primula: Set in?
Jodi: Set in London……. I’m very excited about it.
Primula: We talked earlier about adapting our writing for our American readers who don’t necessarily understand words like ‘skint’ and ‘knackered’, but you’re keeping all our British jargon?
Jodi: Absolutely. It’s ‘knickers’ and ‘jumpers’ all the way.
Primula: Say no more