Meghan O’Brien interviews Sandy Lowe:
Before we talk about your debut novel, Party of Three, I need to tell you how genuinely proud I am of the writer you’ve become. When we first met in 2008, you were a passionate reader of lesbian fiction who hadn’t yet reached the legal drinking age in the United States. Now you’re the author of one of the finest erotic romances I’ve read in quite some time. Not to sound too cliché (or condescending), but you’ve come a long way, baby!
Oh, wow. Can we all just take a moment to appreciate that the Meghan O’Brien called me baby? With an exclamation mark no less…Okay, I shall now stop referring to you in the third person, wouldn’t want to come off a creeper when we’re settling in to talk about sex!
Thank you for your kind words. It’s blowing my mind that you read and liked my book. Your books continue to mean so much to me. Not only are they an excellent example of exceptionally well written sex and relationships, but that books like yours are out there, and that readers enjoy them as much as I do, paved the way for me to do the same. I owe a debt of gratitude to you and all the phenomenal erotic romance writers who came before me. Not just for blazing a path (though that in itself is amazing), but for teaching me the way all good learning happens: by example. Specifically, you taught me the unique pleasure of reading (and writing for readers) really very exceptionally filthy dialogue. Thanks for talking dirty.
Moving on. Why erotic romance? As a reader and as a writer, what appeals to you about this often polarizing genre?
I’ve never written anything else. Sex is fascinating. Who we are with our clothes off, with our hearts pounding, with a total stranger, or a crush, or a lover of twenty years touching us, is an intuitive expression of our humanity. Sex can make us vulnerable, or it can give us power. It can bring to light our insecurities or imbue us with a confidence we don’t feel in any other context. Sex can mean letting go by holding on to that one special person. Sex can be an escape from reality or the truest expression of our character (or both at the same time). Sex is wonderful and freeing and pleasurable. It’s contradictory—it exposes us and in doing so can produce a whole crap-ton of anxiety. I mean, really, who wouldn’t want to write about all that? It sounds like fun, right?
Sex is a platform from which we can explore what it means to be a person in the world. For the LGBTQ+ community especially, sex is an expression of our relationships and identities. Sex is one way that we validate our connections, our relationships, and our rights. I choose to write erotic romance to express this side of my identity and to share that with readers who are looking for the same.
One of the most interesting (and impressive) aspects of Party of Three is its unique structure. Going in, I had no idea the narrative was structured a bit like a sexy three-act play, with each tasty little vignette told from a different character’s point of view. How did you come up with the idea of depicting a trio of erotic love stories unfolding over the course of a single evening?
Have you ever done something other people thought was awesome, but was really just you being a chickenshit? If you have, you need to share the story over drinks. That pretty much sums up the structure of Party of Three. Everyone’s like That’s daring, how inventive. (Except my editor, who was more like, “Satan, why did you do this to me?”) I was pleased because accidentally doing something awesome is very cool, but I didn’t structure the book in three parts to be cool. I did it because the idea of writing one coherent narrative for seventy thousand words made me want to curl up in a ball with the covers over my head and eat Oreos all day. It’s hard to type in the dark when your fingers are covered in cookie crumbs. I didn’t think I could write a whole book the way normal people do, so I figured out this complicated way of overcoming my own fear of failure. What if I only had to write twenty-five thousand words three times? So. Much. Easier. Right?
Pretty sure it wasn’t.
Party of Three revolves around the sexcapades (and romantic entanglements) of longtime friends Sarah, Kaitlin, and Avery. Whose POV was the most challenging to write? How about the most fun?
Writing is a lot of fun because it’s 100% creative. Just you and a blank page, and your brain that won’t shut up or maybe won’t start talking. You learn stuff about yourself that you’d probably never have realized. Some of it isn’t very interesting. Did you know I spelled dessert incorrectly approximately seventeen billion times? One of the more noteworthy things was that I couldn’t conjure a masculine-of-center voice for my point of view character. I’m lucky that deep point of view comes naturally to me, but I had envisioned Avery as more masculine-of-center than she turned out. She ended up androgen-ish because that’s as far as I could go in that headspace and have it sound authentic. Realizing this—and realizing that if I didn’t want every book I write to sound the same, I would need to develop the skill—was definitely a challenge. It’s always depressing when you come up against your own limitations and realize you aren’t actually Captain Marvel extraordinary, isn’t it? So unfair.
The most fun was writing the epilogue, which has all three points of view. By the end of the book I knew the characters so well that their banter flowed and it all came together. I wrote that in one draft, propped up in bed at midnight, with my deadline looming and my self-talk drill sergeant being all Just finish the damn book so I can take a nap. So I did.
As far as you’re concerned, what’s the single most important ingredient an erotic scene needs in order to be hot?
People (and by people, I mean the internet) love to debate whether the sex in books—usually romances—is idealized. No one ever comes that fast, they say. No couple ever orgasms at the very same instant, they say. No one looks that good naked, they say. I just watched Red Sparrow starring Jennifer Lawrence, and I say that some people do, in fact, look so good naked.
One of the things that I think is the same in fiction as it is in life is that when sex has tension, it’s hotter. By tension I don’t necessarily mean Does she love me?, though that’s certainly a great option. I mean there has to be something going on psychologically for the characters that creates or relieves tension. In romance novels, the best sex scenes are often the first, because that first scene relieves the erotic tension the author has been building, and the last because that scene relieves the emotional/psychological tension.
Sex devoid of psychological meaning/tension is about as interesting as any other banal action like walking down the street. Describing a character walking down the street isn’t very interesting. But what if that street was a dark alley? What if there’s someone behind her possibly wielding a meat cleaver? What if she thinks walking instead of running will somehow bring less attention to her presence? What if she’s compiling in her head all the things she wished she had said to her ex, and dammit, is she really going to fucking die on the same day Janice broke her heart? Go figure. Bet Jan’s going to cry crocodile tears at her funeral. See what I mean? Tension.
Actually, maybe you don’t, because somehow, I ended up talking about meat cleavers and breakups when I was supposed to be talking about hot sex. Oops. It works the same way, just with less possibility of an untimely demise. Yay for sex. If the characters have something to prove, or they’re out for revenge, or they’re finally getting a chance with the woman they’ve wanted since puberty, or someone could walk in on them at any moment, that all creates tension which makes the sex hotter. Maybe you’re pissed off because you went to this party hoping to see this certain woman who is Jennifer Lawrence sexy, and that got you excited. But she leaves with this other person and now you’re depressed. You’re over thirty and try not to make terrible life choices, so you don’t get wasted on that half-gallon bottle of Grey Goose. Instead you throw caution to the wind and go about seducing some other hot not-at-all-like-Jen-because-who-needs-her-anyway woman. That sex scene is going to be raw and emotional and both increase tension, because you’re acting out and not getting what (or who) you really want, but also relieving tension in the physical sense. It feels good and it helps you to forget, and isn’t that just exactly what you need? (Spoiler alert: Nope.)
These are the things that make sex different to walking down the street.
Conversely, what ruins an erotic scene for you? For me, it’s weird euphemisms. meat pocketain’t getting nobody off! [Ed. note: ewwwww]
This cracked me up. I’m not sure what a meat pocket is, or where it’s located, but please feel free to never enlighten me. For me it’s distant point of view and reporting the sex scene, rather than writing it from inside the head of the character (deep point of view). Sex is such an intimate, visceral experience that creating a lot of distance between the character’s experience and the action of the sex scene makes it fall flat for me.
What's your favorite erotic scene of all time? How about your favorite from Party of Three?
Just one? Tough question! I promise you I’m not sucking up, but one of my very favorite erotic scenes is your short story “Winner Takes All” published in Erotic Interludes 5: Road Games. For those readers who haven’t had the pleasure, (and trust me on this, you guys: So. Much. Pleasure) it’s the story of a woman who gets a call in the middle of the night from her lover who has bet her in a poker game and lost. She has to pay up. Her lover must watch the winner (who is conveniently super-hot and talented in the arts of eros) have lots and lots of sex with her. There is so much tension in this scene because the protagonist really isn’t supposed to be enjoying herself, and her lover is about to jump the poker table and throat-punch this really hot butch who’s just going for it, fucking the not-supposed-to-be-liking-it woman’s brains out, except lover woman is also kind of turned on by the whole thing too, and oh my God what a mindfuck.
Did I summarize that accurately? Bet you want me to write all your blurbs now, don’t you? :-) There’s a twist at the end that I won’t spoil, but holy flying pancakes is that story hot.
From Party of Three I think my favorite scene was Avery and Spencer (oops, spoiler!) on the balcony talking about sex. Spencer wants to be a sex therapist and needs some personal and specific advice for her college application. Their conversation ranges from masturbation to threesomes and I loved writing the unique tension (aka agony) of talking about sex with someone you’re very attracted to, then relieving that tension with some rather excellent kissing, ramping it back up again when something very unexpected and unwelcome occurs, and so on.
Which of the three couples in Party of Three would shatter your heart into pieces if they ever broke up? Personally, I’m rather invested in Avery and her new lover (no spoilers!). Please tell me they live happily ever after.
Ha, well of course they do. It’s a romance novel! I’d be heartbroken if Kaitlyn and Beck broke up because they’ve been through so much to be together that breaking them up would just be cruel.
Does your family know you write erotic romance? If so, how awkward was that disclosure? And do you plan to let your parents read your book? As far as I know, mine still haven’t. Or at least they’re kind enough to let me believe that, which I appreciate.
Ah. Families and sex. Is there anything more fraught? It’s even more awkward than politics and religion. My family knows in the sense that I post about it on social media and they sometimes comment on those posts. It’s important to me that I write under my legal name and don’t hide what I write. But hiding and giving your mom a book with a large number of sex scenes are two very different things! I just sent copies to my aunt and my sister-in-law, but I’d be more than happy if neither of my parents ever picked up a copy. It’s not something we’ve discussed specifically, though if we do, I’ve promised myself not to apologize for writing so much sex, no matter how awkward the conversation. We’ll see how it goes.
Erotic writing is such an intimate, uniquely personal thing to put out into the world. Sometimes I’ll reflect on the various sexual fantasies I’ve essentially copped to having by way of my own creative output and cringe. Did you have to work up the courage to publish your own dirty stories, or is it no big deal to share your turn-ons with an appreciative audience?
I never really thought about it like that until you put the idea in my head. Sexual fantasies are so interesting precisely because they’re not real. I’ll often fantasize about something that I would never in a billion years actually do, but the ideais appealing. There’s so much freedom in not having to face the restrictions, the consequences, the avalanche of unknowables and uncontrollables that makes reality, you know, like real. Writing is the same way. I don’t write myself, but I do write what I think would be hot for my characters and thus do cop to my fantasies. But there’s also this psychological line because fantasies aren’t real and characters aren’t real, (unfortunately, because I’d borrow so much sugar if Jude from The Sex Therapist Next Door was my neighbor) which means I can share them with readers without blushing too much.
Have you ever revisited an erotic scene you’ve written only to be shocked by how filthy it is (and by extension, you are)? Or is that just me?
I wish I did. To read back what you wrote and be shocked by it indicates total absorption and the experience of flow when writing, almost as if you don’t really know what you wrote until you read it back. I’d love to have that experience. Me? I obsess over every sentence. I’ve lived with the thoughts in my head for so long that seeing them on the page doesn’t shock me. But, seriously, teach me this because it sounds amazing. I can also see it leading to wine and sexy dirty paragraphs being written for educational purposes. It’s skill building. Say yes.
Prior to Party of Three, you had a number of short erotic stories published by BSB. Short form fiction presents its own set of challenges, especially in a genre that asks you to create a whole lot of heat and connection with very few words. Now that you’re officially a novelist, can you tell us which form you prefer to write? Bite-sized sexytimes, or marathons of fucking?
This is a trick question, right? When asked to choose between bite-sized sexytimes and marathons of fucking my answer is…both, obviously.
Novels are definitely more challenging. More character development, more plot, more variety of scenes with the same characters. Challenge can be fun and make you a better writer. Short stories are fun because it’s somehow a more convenient space to push erotic boundaries (poker game, anyone?), and since the whole focus is the sex you have an opportunity to fine-tune your skills, build tension fast, show attraction, use of language, etc.
Have you started your next project yet? Anything else you can share about potential future endeavors?
I have, but I’m behind schedule, so don’t tell anyone, okay? Just in case I never finish the damn thing. It’s called If You Dare and is just a regular ol’ erotic romance with no weird-ass three-part structure. Lauren West is visiting her mom for the holidays in small town upstate New York and running from a scandal back in San Francisco. She’s drowning her sorrows and complaining about her love life, when Roxie, her best friend from high school, dares her to sleep with the next woman who walks into the bar. That woman is librarian Emma Prescott who has had a crush on Lauren since forever, but battles anxiety from a past sexual experience. She’s got a really long, really hot, list of sexual fantasies she’s never had the guts to try for real…Until Lauren.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers of erotic romance? Dos and don’ts, sage wisdom, cautionary tales?
See above re: meat cleavers and breakups.
Also, the best advice I can give to erotic romance writers is that the sex is the story. A romance that also happens to have a bunch of really great sex (you know, like every Radclyffe novel ever, for example) is not an erotic romance. Erotic romance is when, if you took the sex out of the story, you wouldn’t have a story that made any sense. Just try taking sex out of The Night Offor Thirteen Hours—it doesn’t work, right? (Also, please no one do that, you’d miss sooo much.) When thinking up story ideas, I always first figure out how I can make sex the center. How can I create a plot around sex?
When I wrote Party of Three, I wrote three point of view characters who all had a lot of sex. I had to anticipate that a reader might read all three stories in one sitting and so the characters and scenes had to be distinctive. This challenged me to dig into my characters: Why were they having sex right now? What did they want from sex? What turned them on? How did the person they were having sex with change their experience? Were they kinky or vanilla? What made them insecure or embarrassed? A sex character study. This ended up being incredibly useful (and so much fun). It’s also a great topic to brainstorm with friends.
Anything else you want to share about Party of Three that I haven’t been clever enough to ask? Go on, I’m sure there’s something.
There is a threesome in this book, I promise.
You may have noticed that I work for the publisher. You’d think that this would give me a leg up when it came to things like marketing, but the better part of a decade of publishing experience did not outweigh whatever insanity it was that made me choose a title and a cover that shouted threesome and then write a book that wasn’t actually about threesomes at all. What the hell was I thinking?
Anyway, by the time I realized that any person with three brain cells to put together would expect a threesome after buying this book, it was too late to change the title or the cover. So I got super creative and managed to work a threesome into the story. I mean, in all honesty, it’s still not about threesomes, sorry. But at least I can point to page two hundred and whatever and say “Hey, there you go, I wrote one!”
Off-topic, what’s your favorite way to spend your time outside of crafting sexy stories or holding down the fort as senior editor at Bold Strokes Books?
There’s time for more? Who has this elusive time and where do I find them? Actually, I have a pretty boring life, which suits me perfectly. I go to the gym (to check out my gym crush, obviously!), I read lots and lots of books, many of which are non-fiction, and every now and then someone drags me out of the house for a movie or dinner. It’s a good life.
Once again, Sandy, great job on this book. Party of Three is a truly impressive debut novel, and I can’t wait to see where your fantasies take you next.
Thanks. You’re going to call me for that skill building session though, right? I’ll bring the wine.