by Bambi Zavattini
On the eve of her book debut, Bambi Zavattini ponders action movies, watching sex scenes as a kid, and how she came to write erotic fiction
I don’t know if a profile exists of the “typical” erotica writer, but if one does, I know I sure don’t fit it. As of three years ago, the only erotic fiction I had ever read was a story I found in Barnes and Noble when I was in eleventh grade: it was strange, BDSM-ey, and involved a woman getting hit by a ruler. It didn’t make me want to read more. The 50 Shades of Grey phenomenon came and went, and I neither read the books nor saw the movies. And yet, my first novel, dirty and explicit as it is, is available on Amazon Kindle as of today. Go figure!
As a writer, my work has often explored sex: coming of age, stories about masculine toxicity, and various forms of emotionally-disturbed characters getting it on. Perhaps because of these themes, one night my good friend Nimms told me I should try writing erotica. Write something meant deliberately to arouse? It seemed like a fun challenge.
The first sexy story I wrote turned me on. As in, really turned me on. So I submitted it to Lelo’s erotic stories blog, Volonté. (Lelo, by the way, is based out of Sweden and is the Rolls Royce of sex toys.) They published it online and it got a few hundred thousand reads. So I wanted to write more, and each story I wrote got (I thought) better and hotter. They, too, were put on the Volonté site.
How, then, did I make the leap from writing 3,000-word smutty tales to writing a full-on book that would be, from cover-to-cover, very NSFW? I was asked to write one. Actually, three in fact. A literary agent read one of my stories on Volonté and contacted me. She was looking for a romance/erotica writer, and if I agreed to write a novel that could be the first of a trilogy or series, she would have me as a client.
Flattered, I accepted. I had yet to publish anything (besides my short stories) and I had yet to write a book. But what did I know about erotic novels? I thought of all those paperbacks that lined the shelves in drugstores with paintings of Fabio on their covers; the thousands of titles already available on Amazon. “I have to admit,” I told my agent-to-be, “I don’t know much about the genre. I don’t read it.”
“I’m not concerned about that,” she told me. “Your work doesn’t fall into any of the tired tropes that most of these books do. A lot of them are overly sentimental, or they’re just plain graphic. Yours has a nice build to it; we can work with that.” My head swole a little.
A genre I do know a bit about is action movies. (As a girl, I wanted to be Milla Jovovich in The Fifth Element or Ripley from Aliens, and in recent years Charlize Theron’s ass-kicking roles have sent me running to the theater.) So treating sex scenes like action sequences (bare with this analogy), I had to choose how outlandish my book would be. Would it be Mission:Impossible-franchise-insane? (Tom Cruise crashes his motorcycle at like a hundred miles per hour and he just stands up and is totally fine.) Or would it be more like Atomic Blonde? (Sure, none of its fight scenes are realistic, per se, but everything at least looks real enough to suspend my disbelief, and after Theron gets her ass kicked, she looks and acts like she’s had her ass kicked.) I chose to lean towards the latter, because those are the types of action movies I like more. And, I’ve come to see, I’ve always been attracted to believable, grounded titillation in literature.
So then, Jade, my story’s heroine, would not fall for a billionaire a firefighter, because I know that I am not waiting around for a billionaire or a jacked firefighter. Instead, Jade finds herself torn between a burly, handsome doctor (these actually exist and you can actually find them and sleep with them, as a couple of my friends will attest) and an emotionally fragile but sexy-as-hell starving artist (which just happens to be the type for whom I’ve fallen more times than I’m proud).
When I sent a draft to my agent, there were some sections in it with which she took issue. She wanted to know why Jade would have sex with a guy in a dingy apartment; she suggested she meet her love interest at a fancy restaurant instead of the more casual setting I had written; and at one point when the lovers are going at it against the wall, I mentioned their having to adjust their footing to properly align their crotches: here my agent wrote in red pen, “Not sexy.”
I wouldn’t argue that any of the things my agent tagged were turn-ons, of course, and I did omit most of them out of fear of scaring readers away. But these critiques made me think about my own tastes when it comes to eroticism. When I was in seventh grade, for example, I read Stephen King’s Carrie. In it, teenagers Tommy and Sue have sex and one of them recalls something to the effect of, “It was a whole lot of rubbing for just a little warmth.” As a girl, I thought the line was awfully arousing. Partly, this was because I was going through puberty and just the mention of sex made me blush. And partly, this was because its simplicity suggested the less-than-idyllic reality that is intercourse; it is in that uncomfortable reality that lovers often find intimacy. At around the same age, I watched the movie Meet Joe Black and afterwards, when I was alone, I would replay in my head the sex scene between Brad Pitt and Claire Forlani over and over again: it was tender, raw, sentimental, and awkward A.F. Such nervous tension only feeds sensual excitement, both in real life and in erotic media. In Pitt and Forlani’s awkwardness, there is breathtaking intimacy. What’s more arousing than intimacy?
Perhaps writing such verisimilitude into sex scenes is not the average erotica reader’s cup of tea. Perhaps I was writing Die Hard when readers wanted Avengers: Infinity War. (Then again, there is no average reader of erotica, is there? I mean, there’s Wizard Erotica and Dinosaur Erotica, so…I don’t even have an informed comment on that.)
Unfortunately, my agent wasn’t able to sell the manuscript. Publishers sited the story’s inclusion of adultery as a reason they passed. My gut tells me the editors who read it were looking for true romance and true fantasy—Hallmark Channel movies but with hardcore sex scenes—and I had indulged, instead, something grounded and imperfect. I had, after all, never led anyone to believe that this series of books would be romantic. Erotica, ladies and gentlemen, is what I wanted to write and what I did write.
A few months after rejection by traditional publishers, my book is available online. As a novel, it’s “new adult” literature: Jade comes to terms with her sexual and personal identity in a way that I think is relatable to millennials, especially those born in the ’80s. As erotica, somewhere in the abyss that is Amazon, amongst all those covers flaunting Fabio’s successors and women with preposterously “perfect” bodies, I know there must be a niche for what I’ve written. After all, I think my book is sexy, even if it lacks a storybook ending: the foreplay is stylized in ways I would like to manifest in real-life, Jade does things in the book that I have only dreamed about doing with a lover. Surely others will identify? Surely writing one’s own fantasies is enough?
Zavattini’s book, It Started in the Dark, is available on Amazon Kindle: https://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/B07NL32K5N?ref=aw_sitb_digital-text
I hold a random bundle of post-it notes to my chest to staunch the river’s flow of loss, like the loss of years and the loss of youth and the loss of moments I forgot to commit to the notes to remember so then I’ve forgotten them. Footnotes to a life lived as a time machine.
Years ago I set-up a calendar alert for Valentine’s Day and made it seem like it was a love letter from a stranger. On the day I got it, I thought maybe you snuck on my phone and programmed the surprise. Then I remembered. In the years passing, I would send myself candy grams during office Valentine’s Days. And I never forgot who values me the most.
I delete the text you sent me.
by J. Sam Williams
Our fabulous blog team