Sex is in the air.
I just saw a great post on sex scenes in novels by author L.A. Banks [link below], which nicely echoed some recent conversations of mine. I teach in the MFA program at Antioch University Los Angeles, and a male student approached me yesterday and asked me to recommend one of my novels with good sex scenes.
The Tennyson Hardwick novels, of course! That’s the series I co-author with hubby Steven Barnes, in partnership with Blair Underwood, about an actor-turned-detective.
I recommended From Cape Town with Love or In the Night of the Heat, both of which get pret-ty steamy. I’m always too shy to read the scenes aloud. (The audio book version of their predecessor, Casanegra, taught me that words on a page sound even more intimate when they’re spoken. Whoa.)
Sex scenes can be controversial, pushing readers’ buttons. Some readers complain that Tennyson is too sexual, and others wouldn’t have him any other way.
When Casanegra was first published in 2007, I was so excited that I wanted to have it announced at my church’s Sunday service. But…well…
Ironically, though, when I was invited to a book club meeting by a church member, attended by highly religious church ladies, no one even mentioned the sex in the book, completely taking it for granted as a part of the story. I’m embarrassed when older family members read the books, but they’re not complaining either.
The best sex scenes are the ones that deepen and reveal the characters or forward the plot. What’s the key to writing good sex scenes? It’s the same standard as any scenes in fiction: Story logic (don’t ram them in, so to speak), emotional honesty and attention to detail. I also try to walk a line between being too clinical and too coarse.
One of my favorite examples is “Bring on the Bombs: A Historical Interview” by the great Nikki Giovanni in Best Black Women’s Erotica, edited by Blanche Richardson ( Cleis Press, 2001), where the tumult of the civil rights movement drives a couple into each other’s arms to gain strength from their erotic encounter.
In the second Tennyson Hardwick novel, In the Night of the Heat, we show Ten’s emotional deterioration after a break-up when he seduces a woman who is highly vulnerable because she’s deep in mourning herself. (A reader recently reminded us about this naughty behavior on his Facebook Fan page when “Ten” dished out his company line about never fooling around on the job.)
In the Tennyson novels, it’s not just sex for the sake of sex. The novels are told in first person, so the character is the narrator. He’s a former gigolo who serviced powerful women in Hollywood, and his past creeps up on him at unexpected moments. He is sexually damaged, and his careful attention to sexual detail is a symptom of his struggles with sex and intimacy.
That’s out story, anyway, and we’re sticking to it.
Unlike Leslie, as she writes in her blog post “Is there such a thing as too much good sex?”, I’ve never had an editor ask me to ratchet the sex in a novel up or down—although I once decided to spice up the short story I wanted to submit to Blanche’s anthology. The sexual content in my work has always been at my own discretion.
When Steve, Blair and I knew we were publishing a Vook (video e-book) version of From Cape Town with Love, we all agreed right away that we wanted to cut out the explicit content to make it more appropriate for younger readers. (But trust me, it’s still hot. That’s where the screenshot above is from.)
But there has been some form of sexual content in almost every novel I’ve published, starting with my first protagonist, Hilton, as he makes love to his wife in The Between. In My Soul to Keep, my 500-year-old immortal has understandable sexual prowess. In Joplin’s Ghost, sex pretty much saves my protagonist’s life. Literally.
Because sex is an important part of life—and it’s certainly a treasured part of mine.
With the Tennyson Hardwick novels, a sexually damaged character is also our way of urging readers to tread carefully. Sex is powerful, and power can be good or bad. The If-it-feels-good-do-it philosophy can lead down some of life’s thorniest paths.
Just ask Tennyson.
The Tennyson Hardwick series is published by Atria Books. The Vook version of From Cape Town with Love is available for computer download at Vook.com, or as an iPhone or iPad app at iTunes.