February 3rd, 2012


So I was interviewed recently by Guy Raz for NPR’s weekend edition of All Things Considered. Which was pretty exciting for me — I mean, I listen to that program all the time, and here I was actually going to be on it. It’s as exciting as describing the funny sound your engine makes on “Car Talk,” or being a contestant on “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me!” The program segment was a follow-up to the two articles Fast Company ran on Amazon, erotica, and piracy, here and here; I wrote my version of the events here.

First, a staff member from NPR contacted me by email and we had a few exchanges; then she called me and we talked for about half an hour (probably to establish that I wasn’t a nutter). I checked out OK, so she said that they’d have me go down to the local recording studio for my area’s NPR station, and I’d be interviewed and recorded. She said Guy would ask essentially the same questions she did.

Now, an interview is easy, right? Someone asks you questions, and you answer them. And if you know the topic in advance, and you’ve even already more or less walked through it on the phone with someone, there’s nothing you need to prepare. You just show up.

And so I did. And … well, he asked me a question I hadn’t expected.

He asked, “What are your books about?”

I know! I know! Of all the possible questions you could ask an author, surely that one would be the most likely one of all. It ought to be the question I expect the most, not one that catches me by surprise. I can’t explain my surprise rationally, I can only tell you that I felt it.

Fortunately, I did not say the first thing that popped into my head, which was, “Oh, they’re about ten pages.” Unfortunately, though, I did say the second thing that popped into my head, which was, “They’re about sex.”

Now, our interview lasted about 20 minutes, and he did follow up that question by asking me to relate the plot to one of my stories, which I did… but the total time for the segment was under ten minutes, and there were other people to be interviewed as well, so I knew that a lot of that would be cut.

Not, of course, the quip of my books being about sex.


Because the thing is… they’re not about sex. Sex is the vehicle, the conveyance, yes; but my stories are about desire, or attachment, or doubt, or adventure, or growth, or any of the many things that other novels and short stories are about. I almost always have a core idea that I wish to explore: Is it wrong to need reassurance of one’s attractiveness? What role do observers play in defining a couple? How does being covered (physically and metaphorically) affect your view of yourself? What circumstances drive us to ask directly for what we want? and so on.

Readers don’t always pick up on whatever issue it is that I think I’m exploring, I’ve noticed — and that’s perfectly OK. The “message,” if there is one, is really for me. But I never sit down to write thinking, “I know! I’ll describe two people fucking!”

I have no idea why I didn’t say that on the air. But I do think it’s a good question, and it’s one that every author should be prepared to be asked, I think; and it’s worth answering for yourself, whether anyone else puts it to you or not.

For those who wish to hear my embarrassing answer on the air, the link is here.

For my fellow writers, I offer the chance to answer the same question here: What are your stories about? How important is it to you that your message be apparent? Do you always know your “about” before you begin, or do you ever look back at a finished story and discover it then?

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This entry was posted on Friday, February 3rd, 2012 at 5:26 pm and is filed under • What Are Your Books About?. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

7 Responses to “What are your books about?”

K D Grace Says:

Fantastic post, Shar! And wow! NPR! Wow! Totally cool!

I usually know what my stories are about, and there is always an ‘about,’ even if I don’t have it in mind when the idea hits me. And I’m always thrilled when readers ‘get it,’ and a little disappointed when they don’t.

I would have to say that my books are about human relationships and the effect sex has on those relationships and the individuals in the relationship. Sex is a great way to get to KNOW your characters! There! My nutshell answer.

Now, off to listen to your interview!


K D Grace Says:

WOW! Amazing interview, Shar! Scary problem. Glad to see it getting the attention it deserves.

Gregory Allen Says:

I recalled thinking you came off well prepared, and I went and listened to it again, just now. To me, when you answered, “Well, they’re about sex.” It sounded, not like you were caught off guard, it sounded like you were setting up the subject of the interview, and letting people know not all erotica authors are hesitant about answering that question exactly how you did. Plus, soon after, they went onto the travel points and made it clear your stories are about more than sex. So it came off great, I thought.

Shar Says:

Oh, well, that is a relief! And I know on a short interview segment they probably don’t want a lot of blah blah blah about life, the universe, and everything. Thanks for the kind words. 🙂

Fulani Says:

I didn’t hear it as you being caught off-guard, just being forthright. There was a strand in the argument about erotica authors being targeted and I thought the question was intended to establish that it’s a problem.

Because the thing is, if you look at the number of titles available on e.g. Amazon’s Kindle store, the big three categories are romance, crime and erotica (roughly speaking, 18, 15 and 12% of all titles on the UK site). I don’t have figures for actual sales – and apparently publishers are reticent about this for the e-market – but a report the other day said this: ‘The reading public in private is lazy and smutty. E-readers hide the material. Erotica sells well. My own downmarket literary fetish is male-oriented historical fiction (histfic). Swords and sails stuff. I’m happier reading it on an e-reader, and keeping shelf space for books that proclaim my cleverness’ (Antonia Senior writing in The Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2012/feb/05/ebook-sales-downmarket-genre).

(On a side note, a lot of the published industry figures, like Publishers’ Weekly, don’t explicitly list erotica and fold it into some other genre like ‘romance’ or ‘general fiction’. But I suspect this will change in time.)

So my conclusion, and I guess that of a lot of your listeners, was that erotica’s being pirated because it’s popular – otherwise there wouldn’t be the motive to do it. If texts on watching paint dry were popular, they’d be pirated too.

But as to what my own stories are ‘about’ – often there’s an underlying theme that revolves around my own interests in philosophy, social theory, art and literature. The very first erotic story I wrote, believe it or not, was an exercise in phenomenology. And Erotic Review Magazine liked it and published it. So I just carried on from there.

Shar Says:

Perhaps you haven’t read one. 😉 Or… perhaps the question is, What is sex about?

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