I really love this interview by Rachel Kramer Bussel, one of the leading lights in erotica today. I thought I’d share it with you:
Rachel: How did you get the idea for the S.E.C.R.E.T. series, and did you have it fully plotted out when you started to write the first book?
It was one of those things that came to me in an instant—the concept, the idea of taking baby steps towards sexual ecstasy—though not the plot. Once I put the steps down, Cassie showed up, and as you know, writers follow their characters around, taking notes. Cassie just moved at the pace at which she was most comfortable and I chronicled it. The idea was born from the notion that most women, especially if they’d been celibate for a time, were single and over a certain age, wouldn’t even begin to know how to explore the outer reaches of their sexuality. So S.E.C.R.E.T. started as a “What if…” What if other women helped you? What if they took amazing risks, and told you you’d be okay if you did? What if they arranged everything? And I went from there.
S.E.C.R.E.T. Shared features both Cassie, from the first book, and Dauphine, a new recruit, with Cassie guiding Dauphine. Why is this role of guide important for Cassie’s growth?
Helping others can pull you out of a rut or a depression—certain kinds of depression, not the clinical kind. I’m taking more about that awful melancholy of the heartbroken; it can turn in on itself and isolate you. Sitting across a table listening to Dauphine’s sad story has a palliative affect on Cassie; it gives her perspective, it inflames her altruism. Also, guiding creates allegiance. I think a lot of women treat men like dwindling, precious commodities that we have to fight over. What I love about S.E.C.R.E.T. is the women cooperate and support each other. They don’t tear each other down. They treat each other like women, like adults, like comrades on this journey. They have each other’s backs. Guiding is part of their “job.”
I liked getting a look at the inner workings of S.E.C.R.E.T., which is actually very organized and methodical. How does the business of running S.E.C.R.E.T. mix with the more fun side of the group as they fulfill women’s sexual fantasies?
You can’t have one without the other; you have to be methodical to be spontaneous and book three delves deeper into the way fantasies are super organized and planned….so that they don’t seem super organized or planned. And there’s a sense of safety in the fact there is someone (usually Matilda) in charge. A sexual free-for-all sounds good on paper, but you have to pay taxes, you have to cover your overhead, you have to have charts and graphs to keep track of fantasies and schedules. And once that structure is in place, then, hell yeah, the women can have at it.
One of the themes of S.E.C.R.E.T. is female empowerment—it’s only women who have gone through tough times who are sought out for the group, and in S.E.C.R.E.T. Shared, the group raises money for women’s charities, and Dauphine learns to overcome major fears, such as flying. How do you see women’s sexuality connected to other parts of their lives?
I approached S.E.C.R.E.T. and S.E.C.R.E.T. Shared as an exercise in empowerment, for sure. But sex is just one aspect of growth and change; it’s part of the physical realm. There’s also the mental and the spiritual realms. S.E.C.R.E.T. only deals with the physical. Still, healing just that aspect of your life can have a palliative affect on your mental and spiritual life. I believe if you pick the most vexing aspect of your life and try to heal and change it, it will have a cascade affect. I’ve seen it. I’ve experienced aspects of that myself. When I take better care of my body, my mind and soul align. When I meditate, my body and mind calm down. I’m treating sex as part of that body, mind, soul triangle.
In the books, women are selected for S.E.C.R.E.T. who’ve been through tough times, whether in Cassie’s case, having been married to an alcoholic, or for Dauphine, having her ex-boyfriend betray her and write a novel based on her. Do you think that “regular” women (ones who don’t have such obvious problems as Cassie or Dauphine) would, if the group existed in real life, benefit from S.E.C.R.E.T.?
Probably. How could they not? But I find that to take such a dramatic leap (to join a group that’s about to grant you your sexual fantasies) you have to crave real change. But for dramatic purposes, I like my characters to start in a darker place than where they end up. Dauphine doesn’t have the crippling self-esteem from which Cassie suffered, but she is a control freak. She needs to let go. And I think her problems fall in the realm of “normal,” whatever that is. A lot of women tell me they really relate to Cassie and I suspect they will also see some of their own doubts and anxieties in Dauphine.
I’ve been impressed with both books that while power and money have played a role in the heroines’ finding a man attractive, it is not the be-all and end-all, and in fact one of the richest men around comes off as one of the most offensive. What do you see as the connection between money and sexual attraction within the world of S.E.C.R.E.T.?
I remember the “dirty” books of my youth; they weren’t all populated by rich men overpowering ingénues. Remember The Thorn Birds? Wifey? Fear of Flying? D.H. Lawrence’s entire oeuvre? Pierre is kind of a stand-in for this current obsession we have for rich men in erotica, but in my books, Pierre isn’t ideal. What is also intentional is my female characters not only work, they take their jobs seriously; they love their careers, they make their own money. It’s important to me that women find their work important, empowering, sexy, even. My women take care of themselves financially. They don’t choose men based on how well the men can take care of them. That “financial rescue” fantasy might even be as damaging as slut-shaming, in the long run. When you take away, limit or interfere with a woman’s ability to be self-sufficient you take away her power.
New Orleans plays such a big role in the books; can you tell us more about why you chose New Orleans? It comes across as both a city with a somewhat small town, intimate feel to it, versus a bigger, more impersonal city.
New Orleans is a small town. That’s its magic! You can walk from Audubon Park, across the French Quarter to the Marigny in a couple of hours, and see much of the city. It’s so walkable and temperate; there’s just this sexy vibe. Every time I go there, the first place I stop into is Mike’s on Frenchmen, to rent a bike. It’s the only way to get around New Orleans. In my books, I’ve tried to avoid the really touristy parts of the city, the French Quarter, the Jazz Fest, etc., focusing instead on neighborhoods and commercial stretches where locals really work, live and gather. Why New Orleans? I used to date a guy from Louisiana and I spent some time there back in the 90’s and fell in love. And it’s just a damn sensual place, the kind of place where you’d believe a group like S.E.C.R.E.T. would exist.
I know you’ve spent lots of time in New Orleans and once lived in Buenos Aires, the cities where S.E.C.R.E.T. Shared is set. Did you do any research for the books? I’m thinking particularly of one of my favorite moments, the airplane scene, with Dauphine.
Glad to hear you have a favorite. No, I have not had airplane sex, in particular, I have not had airplane cockpit sex with a pilot that looks like Idris Elba. But oh to have cockpit sex with Idris Elba. What’s great about writing about sexual fantasies is that you don’t really have to experience then to render them. I do canvass my friends though. Mostly I really listen to my characters, to what they want and they crave. And Buenos Aires is a haunting, gorgeous city. I lived there while working on a human rights fellowship in 1998. It was so fun to write about it finally.
I loved the fact that slut-shaming comes up in S.E.C.R.E.T. Shared, and it’s made clear that women shouldn’t feel ashamed of their sexuality, no matter who’s judging them. It’s such a double-edged sword, one that Cassie in particular faces explicitly. We seem to be at a point in our culture (in North America) where women are sexually free, but the specter of being called a slut remains. Was this something you specifically sought to address, and where do you see that duality of sexual freedom vs. slut-shaming going?
Yes, I did deliberately want to address this head on. To ignore it in a book where women have multiple sex partners would be odd. It’s part of why S.E.C.R.E.T. remains secret, or rather, anonymous, and why the candidates hesitate to join. And it’s why S.E.C.R.E.T. consists of women. It’s almost like they have to give each other permission to let go and have lots of sex. They aren’t going to shame each other. This isn’t going to come back and haunt them or bite them. They are safe, not just physically, but psychologically, and socially. It’s hurtful when men slut-shame women, certainly, but the scars run deeper, I think, when women tear each other down. Because that’s a betrayal. That’s just my opinion.
The S.E.C.R.E.T. books have now been published in many countries; have the reactions been different in different countries?
It’s been absolutely fascinating to watch where it’s big (Canada! Turkey! Brazil!) and where it’s growing slowly. The U.S. has been a tough market. It’s done well, but there is a real appetite for the “Happily Ever After” here, and Cassie’s is going to be hard won. Holland and France seems to really get it, and like that it isn’t “All About The Guy,” but again, I’m generalizing. It’s still early days. The first book only came out about six months ago. Two’s coming out now, and three will be in Spring of 2014. We shall see how this evolves.
Do you have a favorite scene from S.E.C.R.E.T. Shared?
I love the scene with Matilda and Cassie in Audubon Park, not just the slut shaming discussion, but the recruiting of Dominic (who is put to very good “use” in book three!). I loved writing a confident sexy woman nearing sixty who can turn heads with her strut, her décolleté, and her dress. Why is that such a shocker? A woman who takes care of herself, dresses well for her body, and is comfortable in her skin is a sexy beast, without exception, at any age.
How has your life changed since S.E.C.R.E.T. came out?
Well, it’s funny to be referred to as some kind of expert on sex or erotica. If people only knew how boring my life really was. I mean, I love my life, but it’s all about the writing right now. You know what I mean. You get a little feral. But the success of the books has given me my freedom. I can write. Just write. For a while anyway. That’s the kind of dream you never think will come true. And it did. That said, my former job, my “day job” was writing for, producing and directing television. I was very lucky. I miss it. I miss the camaraderie.
What’s next for you and for S.E.C.R.E.T.?
I have an idea for a novel I want to tackle right after I complete the S.E.C.R.E.T. trilogy, under my name, Lisa Gabriele. It’s funny and weird. I’m also developing a number of TV projects, which are at various stages of development, including S.E.C.R.E.T. and another series based on my first novel, for Canadian television. That’s getting some traction. So stuff…lots of work. I’m really, really, really blessed. I truly am someone who wakes up every day feeling indescribably grateful.
Rachel Kramer Bussel is a New York-based author, editor, blogger and event organizer. She has written for numerous publications, including Alternative Press, CNN.com, The Daily Beast, The Frisky, Gothamist, The Hairpin, Huffington Post, Inked, Jezebel, Lemondrop, Mediabistro, The Nervous Breakdown, New York Post, New York Observer, New York Press, Playgirl, The Root, Salon, San Francisco Chronicle, Time Out New York, The Village Voice, xoJane and Zink.