Sunday, 9 October 2016

Celebrity for a day - Cheltenham Literature Festival 2016

Friday 7th October 2016. I have been invited to attend the Cheltenham Literature Festival as a speaker on a panel discussing a beautiful new anthology of sexy stories 'Desire' published by Head of Zeus and chosen by Mariella Frostrup and my agent Lisa Moylett who is also editor of the Erotic Review. An extract from The Silver Chain, the first in my erotic romance series, is published in the collection, so Lisa took me up on my offer to 'do anything to help publisise' my and other erotica writers' work.

My husband Ted comes with me, partly for moral support but mainly because for the pleasure of talking about erotica the festival offers me a hotel room for the night - my first taste of what it's like to be treated like someone important - and it would be a waste to stay there alone. The journey to Cheltenham is fraught with tension. Although I've done workshops before, it was three years ago at York Literary Festival and public speaking is nerve-wracking at the best of times.

We arrive at the Queens Hotel and are tickled to be greeted as Mr and Mrs Bond. It's a pseudonym, but for one night only it is my real identity. Later Ted is chuffed when the staff say to him, 'Good evening, Mr Bond!' We are upgraded to a suite, which makes us feel even more important. A stunning room, and Ted's eyes gleam, because he knows what a big sumptuous hotel bed does to me.

But for the moment I'm too tense to enjoy it. We check into what I was told would be the Writers' Room, but actually has a big VIP notice on the door. Finally, I am a celebrity! Free drinks, alcohol and food are on offer, but I'm still too nervous to eat. We are given wrist tags, and finally belong to the community of guest speakers!

I distract myself by going to a talk by Ian McEwan on his new book 'Nutshell'. What a seasoned speaker he is, confident, funny, but still with the slightly rumpled look of the solitary writer.
Then it's time to meet the gang. We are to meet in the VIP room and be escorted to The Times Garden Theatre for our event.  Funnily enough as soon as I see Lisa, who I already know, and Anna Maconochie, the fellow author speaking on the panel, my heart rate slows to something less frenetic. The actress Anna Chancellor is there. She's going to read extracts of the book and is an absolutely lovely woman. Despite being a rather haughty character on screen, she is warm and lovable in real life and I feel we are mates - alas, just for one night!

Mariella is similarly absolutely lovely. I guess being a TV and film addict makes me star struck, but she has no airs and graces at all and in fact admits to being just as nervous as the rest of us, despite years of presenting experience. We discuss whether or not a glass of wine is a good idea. Everyone shuffles their feet, but when I say I'm going to have a small one (after days of abstinence), the others rush to join me. Ted stops me having a second one, on a stomach empty of anything except half an apple.  Feeling better. Selfie time again! That's not a pimple on my face, by the way - it's the mike they've attached so we can all be heard in the pretty enormous scary space.

And so to the stage. It's 9pm. A late slot, presumably bearing in mind the content of our discussion, which will include 'f' and 'c' and 'w' words as it gets warmed up. The lights are bright in our eyes, curiously comforting because the audience of perhaps 600 odd becomes an invisible sea of heads - friendly heads, as Ted reminds me before he vanishes into their midst. They're here because they want to hear what we have to say, not to heckle or be hostile. I have some notes on the stories of the anthology I particularly liked, and a couple of quotes I want to use, but never look at them. Mariella is a pro interviewer. After a funny introduction she asks me and Anna in turn about how and why we started writing erotica.  I relate how I started my erotica career as a love-lorn secretary turning rejected sex scenes into short stories when bored at work. When I sold my first to a magazine for £150, my career of short stories, novellas and novels began.

We discuss erotica as a genre, and I emphasise my enthusiasm for turning the every day into the extraordinary, with the help of inspiration and experience. Imagination as travel agent.  Finding love and sex in the most unexpected places, all the more powerful for being suggestive rather than explicit. I kick myself later that I don't illustrate the power of the short, sweet and subtle by referencing one of the early mobile phone ads, when texts were just being introduced. The commercial shows a frazzled woman on an escalator going to work. She gets a text: Hello Sexy. She blushes, glances round to see if anyone has noticed (the precursor of the ebook, where of course no-one can see what you are reading). You wonder who it's from. Then the sender says: How about we send the kids to the grandparents and we go away for the weekend? So you know it's from her husband, it's loving, it takes her by surprise, and it's incredibly erotic.

We discuss the difference between erotica and porn which to me is very stark. Porn is brutal, immediate, visual, unemotional, belittling. Erotica is suggestive, imaginative, enhancing and takes you to another world.  In answer to a further question, which is why is erotica necessary/growing in a world saturated by porn and sex,  I reiterate that it's as meaningful as ever, designed to transport readers away from daily life, into fantasies and exotic locations , while hopefully embellishing what they will come back to in the bedroom. Actually I'm not sure I put it as eloquently as that on the night, which is annoying, but I'm sharing it with you now.

Then the floor was opened up to questions, the first being what did we all think of Fifty Shades of Grey. I leap to answer that, which is to say that while I don't rate the writing and lack of editing of the trilogy, the rest of us erotica writers have to thank the Fifty Shades phenomenon for reinvigorating the erotica market which by then was dying a death.

Anna reads one more sexy, naughty extract in her flowing, deep, humorous voice, and the session is over. Mikes are removed, high heels exchanged for trainers, and we are led across the now dark Imperial Square to the Waterstones tent, to sign our book. One of the lovely volunteers guiding us asks if he can get us anything to drink. Five heads snap round. Wine! we all whoop, in unison.

In Waterstones a small but enthusiastic queue forms, clutching the wonderful, if enormous, volume now on sale, and the four of us sign it, fortified by several glasses of wine. Some copies of The Silver Chain are also available, which I sign for anyone who wants to be introduced to the passionate love story between Gustav and Serena! By now it's nearly 11pm and Waterstones is closing, so Ted and I bid farewell to our new friends and wander back to the hotel, where we enjoy a couple more glasses before repairing to our very sexy room - perhaps to practice some of the activities that we discussed earlier...