Ed Power meets the new generation of Irish women writers excelling in erotic fiction
The concept of a spanking good read took on a new meaning for Irish authors Eileen Gormley and Caroline McCall when they were hired to pen a Fifty Shades of Grey-esque S&M bonkbuster. Seeking inspiration the pair signed up for a bondage class in Dublin (yes, such a thing exists).
In a few detail-crammed hours they learned everything they could possibly need to know about whips, chains, chapless pants and the best way to suspend a lover from a four-poster bed without cutting off the blood flow to their brain (or anywhere else for that matter).
"To make sure we didn't write anything silly, we talked to people on the bondage scene and went to workshops," says Gormley. "After all, you don't just buy a rope and tie somebody up. That's a very good way to hurt a person.
"One of the complaints readers had about Fifty Shades of Grey is that some of the [sex] described was not physically possible or would have been quite dangerous if you'd actually tried it."
She had worried a bondage course might be creepy and populated with weirdos. In fact it was informative and very practical. "You learn the best type of rope to tie, how to secure a knot so that it won't slip – what pressure points on the body to avoid. Basically, Bondage 101. It felt somewhere between a classroom and a workshop – it is really good fun. We all went for a pint afterwards and had great craic.
"Penguin were looking for people who would write erotica quickly," says Gormley, who, with McCall, duly wrote the erotic adventure novel The Pleasures of Winter ("Winter" being hunky, enigmatic Irish movie star Jack Winter).
"The genre has always been a big seller. The difference is that, with Fifty Shades ... , you suddenly had all these discreet covers and everyone was reading them on the Dart. People thought 'I didn't know you could read stuff like that'."
The friends were approached by Penguin last March after they had written a shorter erotic novel together, entitled Angels, Demons and Doms. They finished The Pleasures of Winter over several months, turning in a whopping 400 pages.
The Pleasures of Winter is a huge success. It is number three in paperback sales and has reached the top of the Irish iTunes charts for ebook downloads to iPads and iPhones (and has reached No 4 in the UK).
The first thing authors of erotic novels are inevitably asked, of course, is 'have you tried it yourself?' In interview after interview, Fifty Shades author EL James has had to coyly side-step the question as to whether she, like her heroine Anastasia Steele, has been bound, tickled and prodded with random pointy things. Or did she merely read about it on the internet?
"At the end of the day, a crime writer doesn't go out and commit murder," comments Noelle Harrison, an Irish author who, under the pen-name Evie Blake, has just published high-brow S&M romp Valentina.
"You don't have to be a raving nymphomaniac to write erotica. You do need a good imagination and have to be open-minded; to be able to look at things from different angles."
Though grateful to EL James for creating a new market for erotica, Irish writers in the genre have mixed views about the quality of the Fifty Shades series. Already a published author, Harrison sees herself as belonging to an older literary tradition of steamy novels, one that extends back to Henry Miller and his contemporaries – avant-garde figures who approached erotica as cutting-edge literature rather than end-of-pier titillation.
"It was great that these [Fifty Shades of Grey] were published," she says. "I always wanted to go a little bit further with my books. Ironically, I was told 'No, no – you'll put off the reader'. I love writing in a sensual language. Fifty Shades convinced publishers there was a market for this. I did read it and, to my mind, it is basically a Cinderella story with an element of sexual fetish.
"That is the forbidden thing. It is a very traditional story – a poor girl falls in love with a rich man. The author is coming from the tradition of [teen vampire saga] Twilight. I am coming from Henry Miller."
In Valentina she chronicles the erotic exploits of a sultry Italian photographer who starts hanging out at a Milan S&M club, taking snaps. Gradually she is drawn into the sado-masochist universe – learning some interesting things about herself and what she wants from life along the way
"The character of Valentina was created in the late '60s by comic book writer Guido Crepax. She would have all these erotic fantasy adventures, which were pretty hardcore. His family asked me to reincarnate her and make her more accessible. I researched the Italian S&M scene. It was very interesting.
"They were so open about it. It was like 'you want to know about my sex life – hey, no problem'."
A different spin on Irish-related erotica is offered by American-based Kris Kennedy, whose 'erotic romances' unfold in medieval Ireland. "I set many of my novels in Ireland because it's scarred and strong," she said recently.
"More real-life drama has been acted out on Irish soil over the ages than the history books can ever relay. And when it comes to heroes, there's nothing more potent than a confident man on a mission, a man with a 'cause'."
There are some important ground-rules for erotica, says Gormley. You have to be explicit – but never mechanical. When scenes are reduced to a case of 'he did this and then she did that' you are, in essence, writing pornography, which is a very different thing.
"People think it's about 'part A slots into part B'. Actually, it's all about getting into the emotions of the characters, into their hearts. You have to write about how they feel, what they are sensing. You can't be clinical about it."
You also ought to be wary of purple prose. When writing about sex it is very easy to over-egg things and tumble into unintended hilarity. If a sentence makes you giggle when read aloud it is probably best left out.
"What you want is a relationship between the characters and a strong plot," says Gormley. "The difference with erotica is that it focuses on the sex scenes. However, if you take the sex out, hopefully you would be left with a good story."
Fifty Shades of Grey didn't quite drop out of the clear blue sky. Erotica has long been a mega-seller. What EL James did was make the genre quasi-respectable.
Nowadays you can read it without feeling as if you are participating in something illicit and slightly unbecoming (then again, perhaps that was part of the original appeal).
"Some bought it out of curiosity," says Gormley. "There were others who thought 'wow I like that'. The focus on characters and relationships will always appeal to women. And good sex scenes will appeal to anyone."
As she starts the second and third instalments of her Valentina trilogy, Harrison is optimistic the books will find an audience outside the stereotypical 'horny housewives' who, so runs the cliche, have been lapping up Fifty Shades.
"I suspect women are turned on by words and sound and men are more visually stimulated. That said, last week I did an erotic fiction workshop in London. I thought it was going to be all women. And it was all men.
"They really, really wanted to write erotica. Some were brilliant at it too. So I think this idea that only women are interested in erotica . . . that' s a bit of a myth, actually."