By Lisabet Sarai
Breathe... Moist, ripe, heavy, laced with the scents of jasmine, garlic, diesel fuel, the tropical air was strange but welcome after the stale atmosphere of the airplane cabin. Kate O’Neill stepped off the jet way and filled her lungs gratefully. Even in business class, the twenty hour flight had been grueling. Kate ran her fingers through her tangled auburn curls and tried to smooth the wrinkles from her practical cotton skirt as she joined the crowds queuing at Immigration.
She felt a bit dazed. Only a month ago, she had answered the advertisement in the Boston Globe, and now here she was, half a world away, surrounded by foreign faces, buoyed by the musical rise and fall of Thai and a half-dozen other Asian languages.
Thus begins my first novel, Raw Silk – with a re-creation of my own sensory impressions from the first time I got off a plane in Bangkok. Actually, back then, in the nineteen eighties, there were no jet ways. I recall clambering down the steel steps and walking along the tarmack to the terminal, assaulted by the muggy heat even at eleven at night, breathing air that smelled as though I'd landed on another planet.
Like Kate, I'd come to Asia for a new job. I was easily as bewildered and overwhelmed as she by the vagaries of an alien culture. I used my own recollections to bring verisimilitude to Kate's experiences. But is Raw Silk autobiographical?
Yes, and no.
Threads of truth weave through the narrative fabric. The book could be viewed as a fictionalization of my own sexual explorations, especially my initiation into dominance and submission. I borrowed scenes, sexual activities, character traits, even specific items of dialogue from my interactions with my real world master. When he read the novel, he definitely picked up on at least some of my references.
Probably he would have been annoyed at my disclosures, if flattery hadn't won him over. After all, how many men have lovers who immortalize them in best selling (well... sort of) erotic novels? And anyway, my shy, nerdy, sensitive master is barely recognizable in the arrogant, crude, savagely sexy hero Gregory Marshall.
Unless you stop and listen to what the character says...
I'm a writer. That means I'm a professional liar. I take bits and pieces of reality and spin them into fantasy. My fiction abounds in people, situations, and settings drawn from my life and history. Although I might start with the truth, though, I leaven the facts with substantial portions of imagination. And I mix things up – locations, personality traits, sexual adventures – until I really don't need to worry much about the original subjects' complaints about my revelations.
Certainly I don't want to antagonize anyone from my past. However, the primary reason for embroidering upon the truth is simply that real life is rarely as interesting as fiction. I could write about that totally arousing visit to the Renaissance Faire – but in fact I didn't really end up with the bawdy wench and her swain, much as I would have liked to. That solo cross-country rail trip could have involved a quickie in the top bunk – but alas, things never progressed beyond flirting.
Many of my stories begin with actual experiences or relationships, and then spin off into the realm of fantasy when I start to ask “what if”. What if my master and I lived together? (We never have.) What if my mid-western boyfriend in grad school had been interested in BDSM? What if I found a Victorian diary detailing a society woman's sexual adventures? What if I'd met my master after decades of being married to someone else?
In fact, I've only written two or three stories that closely track real events, and even then, I manipulated the outcomes. And I find that as I've gained more writing experience, my tales have grown further from their autobiographical roots. Still, I do return again and again to a few primal scenes, the ones that touched me most deeply, telling the story from different perspectives, reliving the intensity through my characters.
I sometimes wonder whether readers can tell. Do the scenes closer to the “truth” somehow feel more real? Or am I as skilled a liar as I believe?
Let's try a quiz. (Of course this will only work for people who are somewhat familiar with my books...) Which of the following scenes from Raw Silk is mostly closely based on real life?
- The infamous sex with chillis scene
- The scene is which Kate masturbates with the knob from the end of her hotel bed
- The scene in which Kate has sex on stage with a Thai go-go dancer
- The scene in which Somtow pleasures Kate with a ripe mango
- The scene in which Gregory sodomizes Kate for the first time.
Am I going to give you the answer? As I consider the list, I'm not sure I can. I know which of the items above I intended as the right selection, but when I review the others in my mind, I realize each one has a core of truth, even if I modified the background details.
In fact, the more I write, the harder I find it to distinguish between things that “really” happened and things that occurred only in my fiction. I know this may seem bizarre, but my most exotic sexual adventures took place decades ago. Looking back now, I find they have a dreamlike quality – not very different from the way I remember my stories. The imaginary settings in my novels feel as tangible and detailed as the places I've actually been – perhaps more so, because I had to observe them more closely in order to describe them for my readers.
At this point, truth and lies intertwine so intimately in my fiction that even I can't distinguish them. And I suppose that might be viewed as dangerous, to some.
But I've always lived my life more in my head than in my body. The products of my imagination have at least as much substance for me as the so-called real world. Dangerous or not, there's nothing I can do.