Fifty shades of boredom

July 15, 2012

Photo: John Wesley Ireland

I’m not very good at sex. Wait . . . let me rephrase that: I’m not very good at writing about sex.

I have completed two novels and great chunks of two others. In those pages you’ll find well-rounded characters and witty dialogue and rousing adventure. You will not find much in the way of graphic intimacy. A few meaningful glances followed by clothes slipping to the floor followed by . . . fade to black.

As a writer, I believe sex, like toilet breaks, should happen off the page, which probably explains why I’ve sold several million fewer copies than EL James.

Unless you’ve had your head buried in a honey cave lately, you’ll know Ms James is the author of the Fifty Shades trilogy. And if you think a better title would be Filthy Shades, congratulations, you just read my mind.

I’m no prude – far from it. My copy of Rosemary’s Baby used to fall open of its own accord at the sex scene. But that was two paragraphs, as opposed to every second paragraph in the Fifty Shades collection.

Is there a plot lurking amidst all the pounding? Not that I’ve heard. One reader told me she was nearly finished the third book before any kind of story arc revealed itself. And the characters? Cardboard cutouts have more personality. The writing itself? Splendid, she noted, but only if you consider it high literature to have your lead character gasp “Holy cow” or “Oh my” at regular intervals.

The reader in question is, of course, Viking Woman. Her gender is the target audience for these books, which are a sordid example of a new genre dubbed ‘mummy porn’. (Note there is no such thing as ‘daddy porn’. Why would men strain their eyes reading about shenanigans when the internet is filled with such pretty pictures?)

EL James has not re-invented the wheel by any stretch of the imagination. She has simply wrapped it in leather, slapped it into submission and left readers panting for more. All while dropping more F-bombs than you’d hear at a wharfie convention.

Like The Da Vinci Code and the Millennium trilogy, the Fifty Shades books have ridden a tidal wave of media hysteria all the way to the top of the bestseller lists. People are reading them not so much because they want to (one lady said the books bored her silly; another said she only read the sex scenes, and then only sparingly) but because everyone else seems to be doing it. It’s the lemming effect and if I knew how it worked, I’d buy a jar and spread it all over my books. And then myself.

In the meantime, all I can do is try to take advantage of the phenomenon as best I can. If the Good Wife is reading about all that huffing and puffing, then surely she must be open to suggestion.

What I lack in the way of Christian Grey’s money and allure I more than make up for in movie trivia. Think about it – is there anything more erotic than the food-sex scene from Nine 1/2 Weeks? Not only did it practically melt cinema screens at the time, but it is incredibly easy to replicate.

And so one night recently, after emptying the fridge of its most mouth-watering contents, I appeared in the bedroom doorway wearing little more than a look of anticipation.

Only to find Viking Woman’s copy of Fifty Shades Freed lying splayed on the floor where it had fallen, and Viking Woman herself sound asleep with the lights on. Leaving me standing there holding my sausage roll.

There was nothing for it then but to return to the kitchen and, since the food was already out, indulge in a quick snack. My wife may be reading mummy porn, but the only thing I’m gettin’ is fat. Oh my, indeed.

A version of this column was originally printed in the July 11, 2012 Napier (NZ) Courier.

Photo: Duncan Brown/Napier Courier

I originally interviewed Napier, New Zealand-based author Charity Norman for a story that was published in the May 2, 2012 edition of the Napier Courier. Charity, who is related to Virgina Woolf, chatted with me for nearly 30 minutes. I wasn’t able to fit all of Charity’s quotes into the newspaper and so, in the interest of the world-wide writing community, I’ve decided to put together this blog post based on our conversation.

Charity, 47, was born in Uganda but grew up in England. After turning her back on a career as a barrister to concentrate on her writing, Charity and her Kiwi husband, Tim Meredith, moved to New Zealand in 2002 and then to Napier three years ago. They have three children.

Her first book, Freeing Grace, was published in Australia and New Zealand by Allen & Unwin in 2010. Her second book, Second Chances, will be published on July 2.

BMM: Did you always want to be a writer?

CN: Yes. As a child, I lived in Yorkshire and my father is a vicar – like the Bronte sisters, whose father was also a vicar. My father had seven children and Patrick Bronte had a similar number. I thought I was Emily Bronte as a child. I used to make up really appalling poetry. But, as life went on, I realised I needed a proper career and proper money. I was a barrister for about 15 years or so in the northeast of England. I practised in crime and family, which feed into (Freeing Grace). The book is about adoption and so I was able to use a lot of my experiences in court and experiences with working for local authorities taking children away from their parents or acting for parents attempting to have their children not taken away. All of that has fed into this book and the next and, I suppose, into my life.

BMM: Tell us about your first foray into writing, after you and Tim moved the family to New Zealand.

CN: The intention was I would have time to write, because I’d always wanted to, and I’d started a book after I had one of the children. I finished that book, which is now in a drawer, and I just kept writing. It’s very difficult to write in a vacuum, not knowing if you’re wasting your time, if you’re being selfish in throwing away financial stability for no reason. And then I started worrying that I was setting a bad example for the children. And then finishing the book and finding an agent and a publisher is such an incredibly nailbiting business. It was a huge process, that first (published)book.

BMM: What was your reaction to receiving the email from an agent asking to see the full manuscript?

CN: It was like a miracle because you can’t really believe it’s going to happen. You’ve lived in this vacuum for so long and you start to lose confidence and have this niggling doubt that you might be rubbish.

BMM: You’ve said that the hardest part came after you signed with an agent.

CN: When I got the agent, I was so happy. She is excellent and I thought it would be easy from there but, in some respects, it actually got so much harder. They wanted it rewritten. I did that, sent it back to the agent’s editor and I got an email back saying it’s not ready, you’ve got to rewrite it again. By the time I sent it back, that editor had left and the new one wanted different changes. I think I had four different editors and all of that was quite soul-destroying. I spent two years rewriting, which was an anxious time as I didn’t know if I’d ever get it sold at the end of it. Every line has been rewritten; some may have been rewritten 50 times. I’m not complaining because I genuinely think it was good for me. It was a great exercise. It was a bit like doing a degree in being forced to continually look at every sentence.

When my agent finally sent the book out, it sold within a few months.

BMM: What originally attracted the agent to your manuscript?

CN: They liked the writing, they liked the story. I think a good agent knows what she likes in terms of writing style. I sometimes wonder if it isn’t a rewriting test. Agents and publishers like to see an author who is prepared to rewrite. I do think the biggest secret to being a published writer is being prepared to take constructive criticism onboard. You’ve got to be able to cross it out and start again.

BMM: How would you describe your genre?

CN: I am not fond of pigeonholes but (the publishers) call it as ‘upmarket women’s fiction’. I don’t really try to write literary, because that can be incredibly boring. I want what I write to be very readable. I want it to be fun. I do have things I want to say but I want it to be entertaining at the same time. Daphne du Maurier, for example, writes really good stuff, but thoroughly readable. Intelligent fiction doesn’t have to be turgid and impregnable, as some work is. I care about the writing but it shouldn’t get in the way of a good story.

BMM: Reviewers have generally been kind to Freeing Grace. How do you react to having strangers comment on your work?

CN: I’ve got better at it but you find yourself doing sad, sad, sad things like Googling your own name, Or getting your child to. Here, in New Zealand, there was much more interest in me than there was in the book, which is perhaps a cultural thing because I’m local.

BMM: Do you write for love or money?

CN: For the love. Although, if I didn’t think it was going to bring in something, I’d feel tempted to go back to what was a lucrative job, an interesting job. (The book) has started to make more –  in particular the French have been really good and have sold many thousands of copies. That’s started to make more sensible money but if I worked out how much I was paid per hour for writing that first book, I suspect it would be half a cent, or something ridiculous.

BMM: With Second Chances hitting bookstores in July, are you worried at all about the dreaded sophomore slump?

CN: (With the first book) it was such a long slog – so many false dawns, so many times I thought they’d say this time it’s ready and it wasn’t – all those constant disappointments give you a better attitude. Eight years ago, I would have been biting my nails but I’ve got so much better at thinking, ‘I’ll just keep going. If it’s not selling, don’t panic. You’re lucky to be published.’ And I do feel so incredibly lucky to be published at all.

BMM: Tell us about your writing routine.

CN: In theory, it starts as soon as the children go to school. And I carry on without stopping, at all, until they come home from school, and then I write at night. In theory, I can go from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. In practice, someone phones, someone comes to the door, my husband walks in and out of the house saying annoying things, I have to go do this or that – so it never works like I’m hoping it will. And so I end up doing an awful lot late at night. When I get really desperate, I go stay in a cabin belonging to some lovely friends. Twice I have gone up there and done nothing but write for a week and that really helps. That’s really good for getting you over the hump.

The owners of Thorps Coffee House (in Napier) have also been incredibly good to me. When my house is chaotic, the washing has piled across all surfaces, the phone won’t stop ringing and I am completely desperate, I can go down there. It’s a haven. They let me plug my computer into their power source. I have a quiet table at the back that I think of as my emergency office. That and several cups of coffee – to which I am addicted – normally gets 1,000 words written. In fact (Second Chances) owes a lot to them.

BMM: Where do your book ideas come from?

CN: I used to take very long walks and a lot of ideas would simply come to me. I think that was a better way to write, to have time to let ideas form. I should make myself do that now more. Snippets from newspapers. The library. People tell you stories or you hear of stories. When you are thinking of things you can write about, things take on a different meaning to you.

BMM: What advice can you offer to new writers?

CN: Keep writing. You’ve got to write. A lot. Hone that skill. Never assume that you are skilled enough. You can always get better. Keep reading and keep rewriting. If you are criticized constructively, be grateful.