What’s It Like to Be an Erotica Writer?

Author of S.E.C.R.E.T., Canada's answer to Fifty Shades of Grey, reveals her secret identity

S.E.C.R.E.T. Book Cover


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Asking me to write for free or read your work-in-progress in my spare time is like asking a miner, after a long day underground, if she wouldn’t mind digging around your backyard for coal. That’s how difficult I find writing. My previous two novels—Tempting Faith DiNapoli and The Almost Archer Sisters—were bestsellers in Canada, but writing them was like walking down a dark tunnel with a tiny light illuminating a brief turn here and there. It was hard work, the kind that always send me back to my full-time job as a TV and radio producer, vowing never to do that again. Then I started writing erotic fiction.

In May 2012, I was in the middle of ghostwriting a financial advice book for Doubleday Canada while working on Dragons’ Den. The weather was beautiful that month, but I was putting in 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. If I wasn’t at the CBC headquarters, I was working at my desk at home. And though ghostwriting can be lucrative and challenging, it was getting increasingly difficult to jump out of bed in the pre-dawn hours to write about retirement vehicles and compound-interest charts. Meanwhile, I watched as Fifty shades of Grey climbed the bestseller lists. I started daydreaming about working on a fun book like that, one that might attract a larger audience than my novels had—and one from which I might earn a decent living.

I’m no culture snob. I’m Taylor Swift’s number 1 middle-aged fan. I saw Avatar on opening weekend. I remain devoted to Saturday Night Live. And as a teen- ager, I was an avid consumer of erotica: Flowers in the Attic, Forever Amber, Scruples, Wifey, all of Kathleen E. Woodiwiss’s bodice-rippers. So I couldn’t wait to dig into this mind-blowing, earth-shattering, sexy trilogy. I wasn’t expecting Junot Díaz or Tamara Faith Berger, my current go-tos for frank, sexy writing. But I had a hard time getting past the opening pages of the first Fifty Shades. Don’t get me wrong: I have a lot of respect for E.L. James. It’s just that the dynamic between the submissive Anastasia Steel, quivering virgin, and the dominating Christian Grey, damaged billionaire, bored me.

This isn’t to say I don’t understand why women— especially young women—are longing to meet their own “Fifty Shades.” But as you get older (if you’re lucky), you begin to see that deep, dark, dramatic men who are un- attainable and unchangeable aren’t hot: They’re trouble. And not in a sexy way.

One Friday morning, as I was struggling through a tricky chapter on prenuptial agreements, I started lamenting with my editor, Nita Pronovost, about the lack of erotic books for grown women. Why wasn’t anyone writing realistic, modern characters having regular, hot sex? She basically told me that I should stop bitching and start writing erotica myself. And that, dear reader, is exactly what I did.

For me, writing a book always starts with a What if? So my question became, What if a group of smart, sexually savvy women helped others overcome their fears and become full-fledged sexual beings? After that question, the premise came to me in an instant, something I had only read about happening to other writers. I imagined a committee called S.E.C.R.E.T.—which became the title of my just-published book—that designed and executed one lucky candidate’s most daring sexual fantasies: public sex with a stranger; sex with a famous singer; sex on a yacht, in a limo, and so on. Many of these ideas came from canvassing my friends and googling “top female sex fantasies.”

Cassie, my main character, is selected by the committee because she feels unsexy, unwanted and lost, and the committee’s job is to sexually empower her. The men in my book adore women, but they aren’t there to change or control them or to be changed or controlled themselves. There are layers to S.E.C.R.E.T., rules and a code of ethics the women live by. Cassie learns what she likes and doesn’t like sexually, thereby learning more about herself.

Lisa Gabriele

Lisa Gabriele; Photo by Virginia MacDonald

Two days later, I had an outline. By the following weekend, I had the first four chapters. Nita looked at it, loved it, but told me to put it away until I finished my financial ghostwriting gig. But I couldn’t resist. My “dirty” book, as I took to calling it, was my hidden confection. I’d open it on my desktop every morning while still in my pyjamas and sneak in a couple hundred words, the way you steal bonbons on Weight Watchers. I’d tell myself, One chapter on retirement savings, and then you can write that fantasy with the Spanish masseur.

I had never been so compelled to write before, because writing became so much fun. Still, I didn’t have high hopes when Nita said scouts wanted to take my work-in-progress to the Frankfurt Book Fair—a five-day event where literary tastemakers gather, and publishers auction off manuscripts—to feel out interest. Post–Fifty Shades, there was still a huge appetite for erotica, but the only thing my book has in common with the E.L. James trilogy is a romance. I assumed that because it was so female-centric, S.E.C.R.E.T. would find only a niche readership. I imagined pointing it out to friends in small feminist bookstores, and telling them that I had written that book, something they’d never believe. (Especially because I’d decided to write it under a pseudonym, L. Marie Adeline—Adeline being my maternal grandmother’s maiden name.) I didn’t think it would resonate with the same readers who were swept away by Fifty Shades.

I was wrong.

During the fair, I was biking around New Orleans— where S.E.C.R.E.T. is set—with Nita, having booked a last-minute research trip to nail some of the key locations featured in the book.

Why New Orleans? As Anne Rice has proven, it’s inherently sexy and very walkable. I wanted Cassie to be a walker, because walking paces out a book in a way that driving does not. (When a character walks, she ruminates. When she drives, she has to pay attention.) Also, most people, whether they’ve been there or not, have a mental image of New Orleans, which is great for a writer. There’s less work to do setting a scene, so you can concentrate on characters and plot.

I had been to the city several times before, having once dated a guy from Baton Rouge. But I hadn’t been back since Hurricane Katrina. I needed to reintroduce myself to New Orleans and to see the actual places I had only googled when researching the book: the Cafe Rose Nicaud where Cassie works, the “Spinster Hotel” in Marigny where Cassie lives, the mansion in the Garden District where many of the book’s sex scenes play out. Each was exactly right, exactly how I had imagined them. It was almost uncanny.

When Nita and I returned to our hotel the first night, we both had several messages from the agents in Frankfurt. There was a four-way bidding war underway with publishers in Holland. A few minutes later, another country bought in, and every hour after that came news of more international publishers swooning over S.E.C.R.E.T. By Sunday, I got up the never to phone an American agent who previously would never have taken my call. By Monday, I had signed with her. By Tuesday, she was putting the finishing touches on international two-book deals, with nearly thirty countries aboard and counting. Publishers Weekly compared S.E.C.R.E.T. to Fifty Shades of Grey, and the Toronto Star’s front-page headline read “Fifty Shades of Eh.” All very heady, but they hadn’t read the book, because it didn’t exist! I was only halfway through.

All the buzz made me grateful I had used a pseudonym. It shut off that critical voice that said: You can’t do this. You don’t write this kind of stuff. I had done semi-explict pieces for Vice and Nerve magazines, but I hadn’t written a lot of actual sex scenes. And when I did, they involved awkward teenagers, troubled drunk women or bored married couples. I had also contributed a personal essay to an anthology called Bad Sex: We Did It, So You Won’t have To. Not exactly erotic territory. But the pseudonym gave me courage to go there, and the privacy to finish the book before the buzz started.

The notion that I had written a quiet feminist erotic novel was now dead. I began to break the news to close friends and my immediate family. My brothers, who’d never been big readers of my novels, thought it was a “smart move” to add sex to my repertoire. My sister, always my first reader, gave me chapter-by-chapter feedback. Her big note? Lose the word “delicious.”

It made her cringe. “Luscious, too. Gross,” she said. My friends were thrilled for me, especially the ones who felt left out of the Fifty Shades phenomenon and saw in S.E.C.R.E.T. a way in. But my dad, a Catholic-Italian senior citizen, was…very concerned. Surprisingly, it wasn’t the erotica part that troubled him. It was that I had resigned from my job at Dragons’ Den to finish the books. I’m from a working-class family where writing is a hobby, not a job. He strongly suggested that I keep working part-time, in case the books didn’t actually sell and the advances were the only money I’d ever make from them.

He may be right. It might be back to the mines for me soon. But for the next little while at least, “work” is bonbons and pyjamas.

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