At the height of her popularity, no one knew who she was — and that’s how she liked it.
Zane, the pseudonymous and prolific writer of erotic fiction, began seeing her books fly off the shelves in the mid-’90s. And they flew far and wide. It wasn’t uncommon to find her book Sex Chronicles atop an auntie’s dresser and Gettin’ Buck Wild peeking from a teacher’s purse. During this time, Zane was both everywhere and nowhere. Her signature style of erotica, potently black in its prose and vivid in its imagery, affirmed to readers across the nation that erotic fiction could be about more than carnal desire. Her stories lent more focus to character development than sheer pornography. Zane’s erotica was not written simply to help you finish; it was written to keep you reading until the end.
But even as her books were sold en masse, the author enjoyed the obscurity afforded through her pseudonym. She didn’t even reveal herself as Zane to family members until she’d written multiple bestsellers. For Zane, this obscurity has always been a choice to bypass celebrity and maintain focus instead on her work, which continues steadily.
Zane, now the creator of an erotic podcast, “Purple Panties,” took time to talk with HuffPost about the evolution of erotic writing, her hallowed space as the “Queen of Erotica” and whether, as a pioneer, she has been given the respect she deserves.
How did your upbringing lead to your creation of “Zane”?
Well, one thing I appreciate my parents for is that they exposed us to a lot of stuff. My father taught at the University of Argentina, Oxford, Duke, Yale and all these other places, so we were exposed to a lot of different cultures and races at a very young age. I love the way my parents taught me humility and how to embrace the differences in others instead of fear them. My father is an expert in world religion, so we’d go to our regular church — he grew up Baptist, my mother grew up AME. But he would also take us to synagogues, and Buddhist temples and stuff like that. We would learn to appreciate differences. I’ve learned to appreciate creativity more than anything else. I see the beauty in different types of writing and television shows. And with that being said, that attitude has always made me Zane.
Growing up in a religious household, did you ever feel that becoming Zane was in defiance of the way you were raised?
I’ve always been very open when it comes to sexuality, just like I’m open about other stuff. One reason I used the pen name was because my father is rather well-known in the religious community. He actually has — probably — more books out than I do. So I was nervous about that. But when he found out, it wasn’t a big deal to him. I was kind of surprised at that. I told my mother, and she told my father, but for about five years they didn’t know I was Zane.
“I never had interest in being famous. I still don’t.”
They saw your rise as an author without even knowing it was you?
They didn’t know I was Zane, no. I’d already told my parents, “I’m thinking about writing a book, but under a pseudonym.” And they were like, “Why would you write under a pseudonym?” I just said, “I don’t know,” and left it at that. So I finally told my mother when I had three out of five of the bestsellers on Essence’s bestseller list. We’d gone to the farmers’ market one day, and I told her to stop by CVS drugstore. I went in, bought a copy of Essence and brought it back out, and I said, “You see this bestseller list? This Zane person: That’s me.”
Damn. That’s an incredible unveiling.
The reason I finally had to do it was that I was still working my corporate job for no reason. At that point, I had sold millions of dollars worth of books, and I was still going to work because I didn’t want my parents to wonder how I was paying my bills with no job. I was still going to work for the hell of it, to be honest. I just decided it was silly what I was doing, so that’s when I came out with it.
What was it like to reveal yourself to the world in that way? Was it freeing? Was it horrifying?
A little bit of both. I orchestrated it myself — I let The New York Times do a great reveal, because it was getting too crazy with people trying to figure out who I was. And I also had people pretending to be me, which was pretty silly. And that still happens sometimes, by the way. You know, people pretending to be Zane. I just decided it was time to do it. I never had interest in being famous. I still don’t.
“When some other women of other races came out and did this way after I did it, people acted like it was the first time it’d been done. It wasn’t even the first time it’d been done when I did it.”
With the popularity of “50 Shades of Grey,” it feels like we’re just getting around to appreciating and respecting the genre of erotic literature. We’re seeing it embraced more widely in mainstream society. You’ve been doing this work for a long time. Do you feel you’ve been given the respect you’re owed?
No, I really don’t — just being honest. When some other women of other races came out and did this way after I did it, people acted like it was the first time it’d been done. It wasn’t even the first time it’d been done when I did it. What I did was bring erotica — at least, black erotica — to the front of the bookstore.
What was the reception like then — and what is it like for you now — from your black women readers?
It’s been great. A lot of black women have told me I sexually liberated them well into their 40s and 50s, because they’d had hang-ups before they started reading my books. I had so many women thanking me for letting them know they were normal — that it was OK to have those types of feelings and OK to have those types of desires. And that’s why my first book was called The Sex Chronicles: Shattering the Myth. There were so many myths about African-American women and our sexuality, and women period.
“I want readers to understand who these characters are to each other. All this raunchy, freaky stuff — what is driving them to do that? Anyone can write the sex.”
Has your writing changed over the years as our national conversations about women have changed? Have you felt your writing mature at all?
I know I’ve matured. I know I’m not the same person I was 21 years ago when I became Zane. That would be crazy if I was. When I first started writing about the “Dick You Down Crew” or the “Pussy Bandits,” I was 30, you know? Of course I’ve matured, but I still have a vivid imagination.
My books have always dealt with heavy topics. A lot of it deals with what I see a lot of women going through. For example, as sexual as my book “Vengeance” is, it’s really about the issue of multigenerational mental illness in the African-American community.
Do you feel there’s always been a space for erotic literature to address these sorts of topics?
If you’re just reading something to get off, that’s porn. To me, an erotic story has character development. I want my readers to understand why my characters are having sex. I want readers to understand who these characters are to each other. All this raunchy, freaky stuff — what is driving them to do that? Anyone can write the sex.
“Purple Panties” is your foray into the world of erotic podcasting. Why now?
Well, I was approached about doing an erotic podcast, and I decided on “Purple Panties.” I enjoyed it. It’s a different medium for me. I wanted to do it because I’ve done theater, I’ve done movies, I’ve done television; this was something I’d not done. And I believe that being creative in different media can be challenging. I took a challenge, and I’m very proud of the outcome.
How does writing podcast scripts differ from writing scripts for other media?
It was different writing scripts where you don’t really write the movements of people, but you have to write the sound. What sounds should be there? I’m used to writing scripts where you have the movement involved: “So and so walks across the room.” “So and so gets on the bed.” But with this, we had to build the scenes differently by including a lot of sound. A car horn. Music. Whatever it takes to create the setting.