richard pierce

richard pierce

14 January 2013

Why I've become sexually explicit

Let me tell you a secret. At one point in Dead Men, I closed a chapter without what my editor considered a suitable climax, for want of a better word. So he asked me to write a sex scene, so that “readers wouldn’t be disappointed, so they could see that the relationship had actually run its full course.” Being a debut writer, I duly obliged, albeit in a way I thought tasteful; no description of the mechanics of sex, but an intimation of intimacy. Interestingly, a Guardian reviewer noted that “He could also have lost the later sex scenes, which feel a bit dutiful.” Right on.

And now I have just finished a novel I initially thought of as a literary riposte to Fifty Shades of Grey, where I have gone entirely the other way, and the mechanics of sex have become just as important as the plot. Originally, I thought a plot would be unnecessary in response to a book which I thought was poorly written. But then something happened that I should have predicted; as in all the books I write, the characters develop a life of their own, and I ended up with a plot that assumed the Yugoslavian civil war and ethnic cleansing as its centre of gravity. And this after I had written page after page of explicit sex, which, for the avoidance of any doubt, is entirely fictitious and based in no way upon my past or present sexual relationships.

The process of writing was interesting, because, invented or not, the sex did echo with memories, extrapolating on certain situations, mingling with wishful thinking, possibly, for the future. But most of all, I felt depersonalized in the writing of it, and it’s an exercise I may well not repeat. I kept telling myself it was an exercise between “serious” books, and one I don';t think I'll attempt again, although I was pleased to produce 76k words in seven weeks.

When I was about 5k words in, I had an interesting discussion about erotica with Stephen Bumfrey on BBC Radio Norfolk. If I remember correctly what I said was that it was difficult to write about sex because it was so personal, so intimate, so emotional, and that the recounting of – imagined or not – sex somehow destroyed that intimacy, that it reduced sex to pure rutting, to nothing more than mechanics. I left that interview wondering if there was any point in continuing with the book. Thought processes are weird, because what I ended up with was a book that, although 75% of it is pure, unmitigated and often perverse sex (but no bestiality or necrophilia, nor anal sex, nor bondage), contrasts pure lust with love, breaks down the walls between the two, shows how possible it is for lust to mature into love, for something that’s akin to hate (the fulfilment of a base instinct) to become the exact opposite.

My agent for Dead Men isn’t into representing erotica, so he gave me his blessing to shop The Failed Assassin (31 Days of Shade) to other agents, where it is at the moment. I hope someone will pick it up, because I do think it is a worthwhile book. I could revisit it, and rewrite it without the explicitness, but it would lose its visceral energy, would lose the symphonic quality of its counterpoints between sex and love, between hate and love. At one point, the main male character says to the main female character, “You’re not planning on tying me up, are you?”, to which she responds with “I’m not that primitive.” For me, that encapsulates what I have come to believe of good erotic novels – they don’t have to be basic; they can and should reflect the human condition, just like any other great novels do.