LET’S TALK ABOUT SEX
If you’re going to write about lovers, as I do, then invariably sex is going to make an appearance at some point in your story. But for most of us, the question is, how do we do it so that readers are seduced rather than turned off? How do we express sex without it seeming unintentionally creepy or ugly? How do we make it seem natural? How do we depict it as the lovely-amazing-bizarre-shocking-sometimes-painful thing it truly is?
The general advice is, of course, that less is more – unless you really are going for erotica, or there is some other compelling reason for a blow-by-blow description (ahem). If you’re writing a romantic saga or a story that is underpinned by relationships, then you probably want the sex to be just one aspect, maybe even only an embellishment, to a more complex whole. Some writers shut the door on sex altogether, preferring to leave the bedroom entirely up to the reader’s imagination – an off-screen event they can either magic up in their own minds, or not.
Personally, wherever it makes sense for the characters to go there, I love to take readers into the bedroom – into that intimate place where we’re at our most vulnerable, where bonds are forged with our bodies. Where the characters shut up at last and feel for each other through the dark, be that an actual night-time affair or an existential searching for connection between souls. And I love the challenge of exploring and trying to make real this beautiful and baffling human wonder on the page.
How each of us deal with the deed in our work is going to be unique to every author, of course, but when this very question came up recently in a writers’ forum, it got me searching through the old files to have a closer look at just how I have done it across all my novels.
In my first, Black Diamonds, my lovers, Daniel and Francine, are so young and naïve in 1914 that their shock at their own excitement and the strange brutality of sex means it’s all over in a couple of minutes. It’s a fairly typical start to a long and beautiful marriage. Some years later, in 1918, they make love, both of them wounded, and Francine tells us: ‘It is fierce and it is infinitely gentle. Gloria.’ A rush of relief.
Bernadette in This Red Earth says of her first experience of sex with her boy-next-door geologist, Gordon: ‘…my terror becomes wonder against his skin, and then something else altogether as he fills me so that I am the vast warm ball of melted rock that he says is inside the earth. And afterwards, safe and sleepy in his arms I look up at the stars through my window, wondering how it is that a man so strong and heavy in the chest could be so light upon me…’ She’s curious about the whole thing, rather than surprised.
By contrast, In The Blue Mile, my lovers don’t have sex at all. Olivia would love to fall into Eoghan’s arms, and do all manner of delightful things to him, but he won’t let her until he can sort himself out and, because he’s religious, until they can be married. The ship’s whistle at the very end might indicate just how fabulous that off-screen activity turns out to be when they sail off into the sunset, though.
In Paper Daisies, intimacy is fraught with grief and fear. Berylda dares to let Ben love her before she imagines her life will be over, and it’s all pretty explicit, if brief: ‘I have never known such pain, nor such a longing for it to remain. I hold him deeper and deeper to me; I am filled with stone; I am filled fire; I am filled with light. His kiss swallows my cry.’ There’s a bit of Aussie Gothic.
Wild Chicory, by contrast again, is probably the most romantic thing I’ve even penned: ‘Away from the old, draughty, make-do homestead, she made a place for them, a warm and secret place in a corner of the hayshed, where only the chicory could hear them; and on a few precious occasions, deep in the winter, only the softly falling snow.’ So old-fashioned and glancing but somehow all the sexier for it.
Then, most recently, there’s Irene dragging Fin into her cabin aboard the Koombana in Jewel Sea: ‘I take him with such hungry violence my wanting turns the iron bedstead beneath us to dust, to steam, to stars.’ Whoa. Where’s my fan and my smelling salts?
What all these expressions of sex have in common is that each one is a sketch, a glimpse, a few quick brushstrokes that give the reader enough of an idea to take them into the experience, but it remains one the reader must interpret for themselves. In all of my stories, set as they mostly are in the early twentieth century, there’s also the consideration of language appropriate to the times – one wouldn’t have ‘got laid’ in any of them. Who needs a sexual cliché anyway? Inventing languages of love spoken only by two is such a delicious thing to do.
But what do you think? What sort of sex do you like in your stories?