Suzanne Portnoy wrote The Butcher, the Baker and the Candlestick-maker about her outrageous sexual explorations in her 40s after a couple of serious longterm relationships broke up. And they include many visits to Rio’s in Camden. While Monique Roffey has written both novels – White Woman on a Green Bicycle was short-listed for the Orange Prize, her last novel House of Ashes was short-listed for the Costa Prize – a memoir With the Kisses of His Mouth which charts her journey into both Craigs List and tantra as a six year relationship broke up and she is about to publish The Tryst which is an erotic novel that looks at a sexless marriage and sees what happens when a seductive, other-worldly Lilah comes along and intoxicates them both. Here they tangle and joust over the depths and morals of sexuality and writing.
SUZANNE: I know, to some extent, that The Tryst was actually based on a real-life relationship that you had. Bearing in mind that you have already written a memoir, so you were not afraid to be upfront about your own personal life, why did you choose to make this fictitious?
MONIQUE: Well, actually this book was started long before the memoir; this is a prequel to the memoir, which I started seventeen years ago. So my first attempt to write about my situation was fictional. The Tryst came before the memoir and it’s a story that was very similar to the situation I was in with Jane and Bill: we were a loving couple in a stable relationship. There was a lot of love in the relationship; it was a really well-matched relationship in many ways, but if I had to look back and say what was wrong, it is because I was such a young woman. I was a sort of innocent, and unrealised. I was a very, very, very under-resourced woman; that was one of the reasons why my relationship was so celibate; because I was like ‘where do I go to be me, to be the bigger me sexually?’.
SUZANNE: Do you think that is kind of a generational thing, because certainly when I look back on my 20s either we didn’t know to ask or we didn’t think it was okay to ask for what we wanted sexually.
MONIQUE: Is it marriage? Or sometimes the sex we get within marriage; it’s very much a lucky dip, some people luck out, some people don’t. One of the direst outcomes of a life would be marrying somebody, agreeing to be with that person for the rest of your life, and quite soon into it, you realise that the sex has died or it’s dead, or it wasn’t strong enough. The sex could die for a number of reasons and our mothers’ generation would often stay in a celibate marriage for years, decades; a lifetime in a celibate marriage! So, we are just a generation after that. I think women like you and I have the desire to be out there in the world, to have adventures. My sex drive and my creative drive are very much linked.
SUZANNE: I think probably there is something to be said for very creative people being highly sexed people because sexuality is an expression of creativity and that you can be creative within a sexual relationship. I started reading a little bit about the Lilith character and about her being the first wife of Adam. Originally she was a Jewish woman but you cast her as a Southern Belle, which seemed an odd choice. What was that about?
MONIQUE: Good question. It comes from having met an American woman years ago; someone not too different from you, actually. I met this woman years ago that did come from the Deep South. She was really small and she was just on fire. She was on fire sexually. She talked like a policeman, she would laugh her head off; she sat with her legs open and you could tell you couldn’t leave men alone with her, for a moment. She would eat them alive. She was also very talented. That’s where Lilah’s ‘play persona’ came from, the one she uses on Jane and Bill: in the book, she adopts different personas to entrap innocent couples, and she has this Miss Alabama act going on for Jane and Bill.
SUZANNE: I was challenged by the idea of this predatory woman probably because I look at myself and I don’t want to think about myself in this way, but I also think, having been in relationships with people who I knew were either in celibate marriages or just in open marriages I never saw myself as a kind of ‘devil’ character. I always thought the only person that is making the choice here, the moral choice, is the man. It’s not me; I am just going about my business being my usual single self, and you are making a choice to be with me. You’re attached and I am not, but you seem to cast some of that blame on her.
MONIQUE: First of all, I see Lilah as a change agent and a harbinger of chaos; that is her fetish that’s what she likes to do, screw up the lives of these innocent couples. She’s kinky, but she doesn’t want to go and play with some experienced Dom or Sub – she likes these innocent people, the Mr. and Mrs. Everyday.
SUZANNE: But that is a really negative connotation of women.
MONIQUE: Really? I think all three people in this triangle are out of balance. The couple who aren’t having sex are out of balance, sexually. But the predator is out of balance too. In her love thing; she is too sexual. They have no sex, she is too sexy; they love each other, Lilah doesn’t know what love is. However, they all underestimate each other. Lilah thinks she’s just going to have a one night and they are completely out of their depth with her. Lilah is a descendant of the Lilith and she comes from a race of lovers who are much more pragmatic about love. They don’t really have love in this underworld. In a way, Jane is a bit like how I used to be years ago. My erotic life was only alive in my imagination: I dreamt Lilah up, I wrote her and Jane also was dreaming her up. The only part of Jane that is alive was her imagination, and she is dreaming about all these sexy trysts. I was doing this too. She literally dreams this pest up; she manifests this woman who comes in and she is the change agent Jane is looking for, she even invites her home. But Lilah is an evil person, who hasn’t a good bone in her body and she is also kind of human. She is a different kind of being altogether.
SUZANNE: The thing is, as women, we are confronted by this image of the slut, the slag, these women who are just up for sex. Women put other women like this down all the time. I always feel that the slut kind of persona is really difficult to manage, successfully, because there is so much weight attached to our own feelings about that type of woman. Even though you and I both know that we can just ‘do’ casual sex and walk away, that we would be completely comfortable about it.
MONIQUE: I have had lots of no strings attached sex, in the past. I’m not sure about casual sex these days, though. I’ve lost the knack or the appetite, or something has gone, completely.
SUZANNE: I lost some friends during that period of time when I was doing that kind of activity because they just really didn’t like it; it was too much.
MONIQUE: Maybe it was too much, for the average women, yes. Is society ready for somebody like you, like me, like Lilah, who is a bit too much? Lilah comes from the underworld, so she’s kind of a magical character.
SUZANNE: Well that’s how you get away with it.
MONIQUE: It’s not just I get away with it, Lilah isn’t the solution, that’s really what I think. She isn’t the answer. Bill fantasies about keeping her locked in a cage as a kind of sex slave. She is almost all sexuality and they are unsexual; they are locked up in their own stalemate, and this s very common amongst couples and carries lots of shame. I have been writing a blog about ‘There is Always Five Couples in the Bed:’ mommy, daddy on both sides, all the things mommy and daddy said; ‘don’t touch daddy’s penis’, ‘don’t do this, it’s bad’; it’s all in the bed with you. They are dealing with that shit; they are not getting it on because he has married his mother and she has got an alcoholic father and so married ‘nice’ Bill and they are stuck; you see it everywhere. There are intimacy problems, so they are not shagging. In this other very highly sexed, very powerful, very malicious sprite, Lilah, of course, I’m using this malicious sprite archetype; all through literature, all through Shakespeare, we have sprites that are fairies, pixies; they mean no good, they are precocious and they steal babies, lead people astray. It’s their job.
SUZANNE: Just to make mischief essentially. Now that you’re older, did you find writing the sex scenes easier than, say, when you wrote your memoir?
MONIQUE: I still find it as easy to write sex! I have been writing these sexy blogs recently and I have been surprised how I still find it easy to talk about fucking. I have a tantric and poetic feeling for language about sex and sexuality. Sometimes when I write about sex it can also be about fucking; good hard fucking, but more often than not, my opinion and my attitude to sex has been very influenced by tantra. For example, I’ve just written something for The Amorist magazine about a horny thing that happened not that long ago when I invited a man home. We just fooled around and kissed on the sofa, but I could feel the ‘kundalini’ rising in the both of us; that is how I would talk about desire these days, in tantric terms. I still find it easy to write about sex and to talk about sex. I like what you said the other day; that if you’ve been in the ring, in the arena and played a lot and been with people who are sexual, if you are willing to throw yourself out there, if you want to ‘go to the buffet’, taste everything, every dish, then you come back laden with treasure. I’ve got lots to say, and that’s because I’ve got lots of experience to draw on.
SUZANNE: Is it possible to be in love with someone while in a celibate relationship and how important is sex in a relationship. My question is how do you feel about that; is it possible?
MONIQUE: There are big differences between male and female sexuality. For example, we all go to sleep; we all go into REM sleep about six or seven times in the night. That’s when we’re paralysed. Men, they’ll get a boner every time they go into REM; so they get a boner six or seven times a night even when they are paralyzed and this has been proven. Men get turned on in their dreams. Men also usually wake up every morning with a boner; that is only one very common and natural aspect of male sexuality. Anyone sleeping with a man knows you wake up next to a horny man every morning, especially when he’s young. What do we women do about that? We don’t always wake up every morning, ready for action.
SUZANNE: I do, that is my time; I am not an evening person at all!
MONIQUE: Okay, you are very lucky. Also PIV sex, (penis in vagina sex). Loads of women do not orgasm through penetration; eighty percent, a high percentage – so those two things alone bring a lot of incompatibility to the average couple. Then there is childbirth. Throw that in, general fatigue, too; there are many, many reasons why the sex dance just collapses in a relationship. People go through patches of it; that’s kind of normal. Also, many women don’t know themselves. Many women I know have never used a vibrator, don’t masturbate. There are tons of women who’ve never touched themselves. I’ve been in many tantra workshops and seen women sob about their sexual lives or lack of it. There’s an issue around women not talking and not sharing things and not going, “you know what, my husband’s cock was really big and he hurt me; I should have said something and I should have stopped him.” Women keep quiet about their sexual grief.
SUZANNE: Again one of the big things in the book is that Lilith comes in and she forces them to confront the inadequacies in their marriage and she is that disruptive character so she just definitely makes them…it’s a wake-up call for them. And often affairs are a wake-up call for marriages.
MONIQUE: Affairs can save a marriage.
SUZANNE: I think it can go either way, but I think what affairs do, is they open up a conversation that previously wasn’t happening.
MONIQUE: Sometimes it opens up a conversation for a brief time, only, and they go back to how things were before; it depends on how brave the couple is. I think it can be rare for women to take the lead around the sexual relations. Also, I think women are very monogamous in their heart and once they’ve had a child or two, they’re done. In some Latin American couples, you see this working out really well. ‘I’ve had your babies, I was hot and sexy once, I’m married, here is the ring; I have the house, I have the name, I have the car, and now I’m past menopause. You need to go and get fucked somewhere else.’ In the Middle Eastern/Muslim culture, men are allowed four wives; it doesn’t just benefit the man, the wife thinks “Phew”. The new wife can see to his sexual needs now, I’m done.”
SUZANNE: It took you a long time to write, so was it just gestating for fifteen years for a reason?
MONIQUE: It was a combination, I started it when I was an inexperienced writer and also it was so personal. There was a lot of shame and taboo around this big secret when I was in my thirties and I sort of left the novel. I wrote the first draft fifteen years ago. It looked very different; it was one long story, then another long story and then another long story. It wasn’t chopped up like it is now.
SUZANNE: I was going to ask that, when you went back to it because I’ve got loads of writing sitting on hard drives and honestly when I read it back, it’s like I am looking at somebody else’s stuff; it’s like I don’t recognize this person.
MONIQUE: I started it when I was a younger woman, sure, still invested in patriarchy, still a little bit cautious, and still with a great feeling of failure around that relationship and just not as confident a writer. In the last fifteen years, I’ve had about three different computers, so it has gone from a massive desktop to another laptop, to a Mac. I had a floppy disc at one point. I always knew that I wanted to hang on to The Tryst; I always knew I had something. I thought it has got universal appeal; I’ve got to hang on to that story. It had spurts; I started it in 2003, I left it, I think, until maybe in 2006; I had blitz on it then. Then in 2012, I had another blitz on it and then we sold it. We sold it twice; we sold it to Simon & Schuster; they bought it, then they got cold feet and they dumped it. Then we sold it again, to Dodo Ink, my current publisher. The more The Tryst was knocked back, the more I wanted to see it published.
SUZANNE: In fact, I think sometimes these things happen for a reason at a certain time; you think people are ready to have these conversations now.
MONIQUE: People have had ten years of social media.
SUZANNE: That is right, absolutely! I think this kind of book, people are ready for it now and I don’t think people are reading it now and thinking oh my God, how dare she, how dare she; what’s wrong with them or …
MONIQUE: or, she, that Monique Roffey is anti-marriage, she hates us, and she hates me! No, I don’t hate you, I was you; I was just like you. Women like you and I are trailblazers. Let me show you something I received last year; this is about my memoir and this is the best piece of fan mail I’ve ever had, from a man called Michael, who I did meet once on a tantric weekend. This is what he said; “Hey Monique, I just wanted to say I’m getting married to a tantric female in three and a half weeks’ time. It wouldn’t have happened without your book and I think of you with love and gratitude; our lives have been revolutionized, take care.” So, I revolutionized a man’s life with my book, about my sexual journey in my forties! That is why I think you are right; people are ready to read about sex now, and female sexual desire at its meekest and most repressed and at it’s fullest and baddest. Both are here in this novel. The old Monique, and a wicked side. I identify with both Jane and Lilah, for sure, and both live in me.