Flight of fantasy: With erotic novelist Sylvia Day
Her first erotic blockbuster achieved 13 million sales worldwide. Eoin Butler finds out what makes Sylvia Day's books such hot stuff
In April 2012, American romance novelist Sylvia Day published 'Bared To You', a 'Fifty Shades of Grey'-style erotic blockbuster that has gone on to sell an astonishing 13 million copies worldwide, topping best-seller lists in 21 countries and spawning four sequels – two of which are, as yet, mercifully unpublished.
The phenomenally popular Crossfire series, if you're not already familiar with it (and if you're not, the sales figures suggest you must be living under a rock), centres on the life and sexual exploits of a young ingénue, 24-year-old Eva Tramell, recently arrived in New York.
For Sylvia Day, the appeal of the series is straightforward. "These stories connect with readers, and in large numbers too," she reckons, "because they are character-driven. Other genres are plot-driven, but the entire focus of a romance novel is on the characters and their arcs."
Certainly, the author never sells her own characters short. Crossfire heroine Eva Tramell is not just stunningly beautiful, but also San Diego State University educated, and employed in a plum job at "one of the preeminent advertising agencies in the United States".
Eva's room-mate Cary Taylor, similarly, is one of the world's most sought after up-and-coming male models. He "rarely looks anything less than absolutely gorgeous" and has established a reputation within the industry for being "both professional and prompt".
Cary's face may appear on more billboards than David Beckham's, but when a fictional hunk's strongest selling points include punctuality, one senses we may not yet quite have arrived at our leading man. That assumption proves correct.
Step forward Gideon Cross. Feted in gossip magazines as "the world's sexiest man", Cross is the owner of Manhattan's Crossfire Building, a "sleek spire of gleaming sapphire that pierces the clouds". There are "ornate copper-framed revolving doors" out front and an "awe-inspiring interior, with gold-veined marble floors and walls".
And, like most billionaire property magnates and philanthropists out there, Cross is in his late twenties.
Is there ever a point, I ask Sylvia Day, when even a romantic fiction novelist must stop and ask if she is indulging in the fantasy element a little to excess?
The author rejects that suggestion. "When it comes to your hero," she replies, "what the readers really fall in love with are his flaws. No one ever falls in love with a perfect hero."
Cross's main flaw, in that case, is a chiselled handsomeness of such rugged aspect, it seems to induce near asphyxiation in any female who crosses his path. During their first encounter, Eva collapses to the floor in awe and refers, in near consecutive sentences, to his "magnificent manliness" and "exquisite masculinity".
"The intense magnetism he exuded [she reports] grew in strength, becoming a near tangible impression of vibrant and unrelenting power."
Back at her luxurious Upper West Side apartment , with its panoramic views and kitchen facilities "most restaurants would kill for", she describes the encounter to her ne'er tardy, model room-mate, Cary Taylor.
"Bad boys can be fun, just so long as you don't get too close," he counsels her, displaying chick-lit wisdom beyond his years.
Eva isn't having it. "I can't see this guy ever being fun," she replies. "He was way too intense. Still, I bet he'd be awesome in the sack with all that intensity."
(Oh, for God's sake, the poor reader cries out at this point. Enough! The guy is intense! We get it already!)
Fortunately, Eva isn't left long to wonder whether this one-man Cuban missile crisis on legs reciprocates her feelings. For the very next day, she is contracted to do marketing work for his firm and, whenever the pair find themselves alone, he begins to proposition her in ever more graphic terms. In that respect, the current spate of "Mommy porn" novels differ markedly from traditional Mills & Boon fare. The text includes some pretty blunt language.
"That's just a personal preference for me," says Day, when I ask about the profusion of four-letter-words. "I find it very awkward to use euphemisms to refer to body parts.
"Men do not talk in euphemisms, especially when it comes to sex. So, as a reader, I would say to myself, 'There is no guy I know who would say that.' So, for me, it's about establishing a sense of realism."
Realism? Gideon is supposed to be one of the 25 richest men on earth! Within two pages of making Eva's acquaintance he has left himself open to a virtually incontestable workplace harassment lawsuit! If she had a dictaphone in her pocket, she could take him to the cleaners!
The author equivocates. "The book is written from Eva's perspective," she says eventually. "So although we don't see it, it is very clear to him that she is open to the sexual chemistry between them. It's really no different than going to a bar, exchanging looks across the room and then having that turn into a dialogue that becomes more suggestive."
In other words, he's just a boy, standing in front of a girl, offering to lick chocolate from her nether regions?
"A certain suspension of disbelief is required," Day concedes. "And the author needs to be able to sell that idea to the readers. The reader understands that this is not quite the reality you see every day. Yet you can enjoy it long enough to enjoy the story."
So could a story like this work if the hero were, say, a taxi driver or a janitor?
"Absolutely," she replies. "I believe it would. Are you familiar with Nora Roberts' work?"
"Well, she had a book called 'The Search', where the hero was a woodworker. Now obviously, if you're talking about a character who struggles in their employment, with a horrible boss, or their car is breaking down all the time, that's too external a conflict. You'd be taking away from the inner conflict of the character.
"You couldn't have a hero who was destitute. But you could certainly have a hero who, with wiliness and ambition, manages to drag himself up by the bootstraps."
Despite her success, the author is guarded about her personal life and doesn't particularly relish being in the spotlight. The thing she has enjoyed most, she says, about the surprise bestselling success of the Crossfire books was splashing out on a couple of nice handbags. ("But my splurges are pretty small.")
The downside is being recognised in public. "Writers are not celebrities, so you don't expect to walk down the street and hear 'Oh my God, there's Sylvia Day'. You prefer to be anonymous."
Indeed the most fascinating autobiographical insight the 41-year-old author reveals in passing is that she once worked as a Russian linguist for US military intelligence.
"Operation Desert Storm had just ended, so I felt that if I was going to enjoy the freedoms I did, I needed to make a contribution. So I enlisted, and they gave me an aptitude test, and I happened to score highly in linguistics.
"The army said, 'well, we're going to send you to language school'."
I ask some follow-up questions on that subject, but she excuses herself from answering them. "I really can't talk about it," she offers, apologetically.
The transition from military intelligence to romantic novelist must have been a dramatic one? Not necessarily, she replies. "I've known since I was 12-years-old that I was going to be a romance novelist. I wrote an essay in Junior High saying as much. But what I did in the military wasn't all that different. It's about focusing on people. Dissecting them. Figuring out what makes them tick."
She has spoken in the past about the romance genre not receiving the respect it deserves. With those sales, books like 'Bared To You' and 'Fifty Shades of Grey' must be practically propping up the publishing industry. Is that mainstream recognition something she would crave?
"Obviously, there are those in the industry who don't give romance novels the level of respect the sales would warrant. They'll talk about a book that sells maybe 100,000 copies, that happens to be very literary, whereas something like Crossfire will sell 13 million copies in a single language and hardly get any mentions at all.
"But those people are not your audience, you don't cater to them, so you can't feel slighted by them. But the publishers understand the value of what we do and so do the readers.
"But you have tens of millions of sales every year, in 41 languages around the world. If you can't be satisfied with that? Well, you're looking in the wrong place."