How do you write a book that's sexy and stands up (to the best of one's ability anyway) as literature as well? Not as porn or erotica but as a full, rich story that tells part of a woman's sexual life? That was what I had to get fearless about in writing my most recent novel, Third Girl from the Left.
Angela Edwards, the protagonist of this story, is a not-entirely-successful actress in the black-starring, white-made films of the 1970s commonly known as blaxploitation. She has to get undressed a lot on camera and she learns quickly that she has to use her body to get parts, too. But she learns to manage her feelings about that--it doesn't kill her.
What I sometimes thought might kill me was writing about all the sex she had. Somewhere around the third or fourth scene like that, I remember thinking, "You know, maybe I'm overdoing this." I was assuaged in my unease by reading Peter Biskind's wonderful history of Hollywood in the 1970s, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. From that book I learned that if anything, I was underdoing the sex and drugs. That was reassuring.
And frankly, it was fun writing those scenes--the times Angela has sex for a part, the times she has sex for love. It was interesting and involving to try to create a whole woman who'd move through these scenes and live them. When she ended up in bed with her female roommate Sheila and then went on to live with her for the next 25 years, I was as surprised as she was. I didn't know she was bisexual--but neither did she. That's how it is, right?
People's reactions to the book have been overwhelmingly positive. My sister was a little rattled by all the sex scenes ("I can't tell people at church about this book," she said), but my mother was fine with it, and I've been thrilled by how the book has resonated with people, not only through the sexuality but the struggles of the mother and daughter within the book to understand and love one another. Sexy--sometimes. And I had to dig down to find a little fearlessness of my own to write it. But there was some emotional fearlessness required as well. I'm just as proud of that.
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