We all know about Fifty Shades of Grey, the erotic romance novel by E.L. James that took the world by storm. But writing about sex is perhaps as old as the deed itself. So we are fortunate enough to have our own home-grown, talented writers from this genre as the Dark Desires talk proved.

The session at the Sydney Writers’ Festival featured Krissy Kneen, author of the erotic adventure, Triptych and the Sydney Morning Herald Young Novelist of the Year recipient and “resident sex girl”, Emily Maguire. The two opened the discussion with readings from their latest works. Maguire’s novel is Fishing For Tigers and is about a 35 year old expatriate called Mischa Reese. She had been in a long-term, abusive marriage but she finds solace in having an affair with an 18-year-old, Vietnamese-Australian boy.

Steeplechase is named after a dangerous childhood game and is Kneen’s first non-erotic book. It’s a coming-of-age story about two home-schooled sisters who are allowed little contact with the outside world. It explores what happens when they grow up and meet each other after some time apart.

Kneen was funny and over-shared a little when she said she’s had to resist the urge to lick people’s necks on public transport before (I’m not even sure how this came up). It should also come as no surprise that she often makes inappropriate jokes and enjoys giving advice about sex because she thinks it can be a funny act at times (no least because it can be awkward and self-conscious but add to it the fact that you’re both naked, making strange noises and the list goes on).

Maguire’s book is about a taboo relationship. It’s not about “dark desires” per se. The relationship is not an illegal one but it’s certainly not ethical. Writing about Vietnam was flavoured by Maguire’s experience living in Hanoi and working there as a translator. The title comes from the idea of feeding off another individual’s energy in much the same way as the Vietnamese believe you can fish for tigers by using meat as bait on a hook. Kneen’s book was also inspired by a trip abroad- when she stayed in Beijing with a friend.

Both women write sensual novels that are beautifully crafted. The pair also retains even hands even though they are often writing about characters dealing with uncontrolled passion and those seeking to extinguish primal urges. Maguire says what she writes about often feeds what society wants- a character they can live vicariously through. It’s much easier to allow a character to descend into madness or serious darkness then for you to allow your own life to spiral out of control. It can be hard to write something that is so brutally raw, but the women did quote a famous author who said if what you’re writing isn’t scaring you, then you’re not doing your job.

Both authors spoke a little about how they write and agreed that they did not consider the readers’ reactions when they wrote about sex. They sometimes might even pretend their families are dead because it’s best not to think about these things until you have to speak about it publicly in a forum like this one. It’s a tough gig, no least because readers often assume the author is writing about a sexual experience they’d had (yet, readers of crime books never apply this logic when they read about a fictional murder scene).

Dark Desires was ultimately an interesting discussion from two honest and knowledgeable women. Their two novels sound like they’re great reads by two people that know a lot about human behaviour. And their talk proved there is always room for some forthright discussion about sex.

Originally published on 27 May 2013 at the following website:

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