Inspired by all the media frenzy surrounding 50 Shades of Grey — and its even better spin-off, 50 Sheds of Grey — I decided to look into Australian erotic writing for the next issue of Newswrite (the magazine I edit for the NSW Writers’ Centre) and started speaking to a number of authors about how they create sex scenes.
Pretty soon I came across Krissy Kneen.
The author Emily Maguire (who writes about sex brilliantly in her debut novel, Taming the Beast), describes herself as a huge fan of Krissy’s work:
I rarely find her work ‘erotic’ in terms of arousal, but I think she writes about sex and the erotic in a deeply intelligent and empathetic way. I always come away from her work feeling warmer towards strangers and humanity in general. It’s like she uses the erotic to uncover the gorgeous, hugely varied vulnerabilities of human beings. She really captures the desperate need to be approved of in all our most private weirdness, to be touched and loved.
Intrigued by Krissy’s writing, and her appearance on ABC’s First Tuesday Book Club (as part of a panel on erotic literature), I spoke to her about her favourite writers, the history of erotica in Australia, and how to write great sex when you’re not in the mood.
Who do you see as the most interesting contemporary Australian writers working in erotic writing (short stories / novels / nonfiction)?
I love Susan Johnson’s My Hundred Lovers [see Wild Colonial Girl’s interview with Susan in the Writing Mothers series] and Rod Jones, Sonya Harnett and Frank Moorhouse do sex so well. I am not a big fan of most of the ‘erotic’ novels as a genre. It is rarely done well without relying on cliche. I prefer literary books that are not afraid of their sensuality.
I know there are a great many Australian writers working in romantic erotic fiction, paranormal erotic fiction and just general erotic fiction, and they do very well internationally, but I am afraid I am a sucker for literary fiction and so my reading in those areas is limited. I am currently reading Jeff Sparrow’s book about pornography, Money Shot, and finding that fascinating, and am also just starting Benjamin Law’s Gaysia — not exactly erotic books but important books about sex.
I still find Landscape with Animals by Cameron Redfern (Sonya Hartnett) to be my favourite Australian erotic book, although her genre is usually YA, so I think I’ll be waiting a long time for another from her. I recently re-read Linda Jaivin’s Eat Me and the sex bits are excellent, very funny, and it is lovely to see her wrestling with feminism and women’s friendships within the genre. I also love Kate Holden’s The Romantic for great writing about sex. Kate is a fabulous writer and I am very much looking forward to more. Nightpictures by Rod Jones is another one of my favourite erotic books.
Is there a history of Australian erotic fiction that you can trace back? Do you know of any early examples?
The academic who has written on this subject is Xavier Pons. His book Messengers of Eros is a really thorough look at sex in Australian fiction. The thing is, I haven’t read a lot of the early examples of Australian sex writing, but Pons has and shows us that there is indeed a long tradition of it, and although we associate sex writing with women now, it was a very masculine domain at one time. My real foray into sex writing in Australia began with Justine Ettler (River Ophelia) and Linda Jaivin (Eat Me). There was a big stir when Nikki Gemmel came out with the anonymous The Bride Stripped Bare and, although there was a lot of well-written sex, that book was so inherently conservative in its relationship to sex (if you have extra-marital sex you will die), I am not a fan. Her second book With My Body is an even less discreet ode to monogamy, even going so far as to say that the most sexy sex is that which is performed to conceive a child.
I personally love sex books that challenge us on our relationship to sexuality, that do not see monogamous or heterosexual as the default settings, and that allow sex to be something celebratory and not something to feel shame about. That is a rarity in sex literature and a very rare thing in erotic genre fiction, which is why I tend to steer clear.
How do you go about writing an ‘erotic’ scene? Does characterisation come first?
It is different for everything I write. If I am writing a novel, the character will always come first and their sexuality is just an expression of character, but with Triptych I was specifically setting out to write pornographic literature and as a result I thought about it in terms of sexual preference first and character second. I knew I wanted to write about transgressions and therefore picked three ‘perversions’ of sex (voyeurism, bestiality and incest) and worked back to character and story from there. In my short collection, Swallow the Sound, I just used sex scenes from novels I had written that had not been published. I worked those up into short stories — so definitely they came from the characters and the story.
What makes a scene ‘erotic’ for you? If it’s not working, do you ditch it or keep trying?
Some days I don’t feel like writing sex, but that is rare. Mostly the sex is the easy part. I have more trouble sustaining a plot for the length of a book. Structure is my difficulty and the sex is the fun easy part of the writing. It is rare that the sex isn’t working. Recently I had the experience of finding it very difficult to get an orgy started in a book I was writing. It was pages and pages later and they still weren’t even close to getting their clothes off. It took me the better part of a week to finally realise that one of the peripheral characters had all the power in the situation and all my protagonist had to do was confess to him that she wanted an orgy and he very quickly and easily made it happen. Sometimes, like that example, starting the sex is the hardest bit. Sometimes characters aren’t ready to leap into bed but often if you make them just do it and it is awkward and embarrassing, that makes for a great sex scene.
I can tell when a sex scene is really working. I can always feel it. It feels like you are riding a wave and you just have to stick with it till it comes to a natural end. It feels a bit like sculpting actually. It feels physical, like you are touching the shape of the scene. It is very sensual work. Every bit of writing feels like a different craft. I have recently been editing my book and that feels like sewing. It is exhausting and hurts your eyes and requires a lot of concentration but when it is done well you feel a sense of achievement seeing something that looks seamless, even though you know there is a lot of invisible mending in it. The sex scenes are definitely the sculptural component, where the other parts of the story feel a bit more like painting with oils, laying it on, and then going back when it is dry and adding more colour, taking it from a flat inert thing to something that gives the impression of movement.
I do enjoy the sex the best. I suppose that is why people respond to it in my work. It feels like my more natural craft. Still there is nothing like tackling the parts of a book that come less naturally to me and making them work. That feels like a real achievement.
WHAT DO YOU THINK? WHAT MAKES A PIECE OF WRITING EROTIC FOR YOU? DOES IT HAVE TO BE ABOUT SEX? HAVE YOU EVER TRIED TO WRITE A SEX SCENE YOURSELF?
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