By Lisabet Sarai
Quite a lot happened to me in the nineties. I turned forty. After more than a decade of considering ourselves married, my husband and I overcame our distaste of government meddling in our personal affairs, went to a Justice of the Peace, and legalized our relationship. The company he and I founded together received a federal research grant. We traveled in Italy, in Indonesia and in the Philippines. We lived for a lovely year in the historic Boston district of Beacon Hill.
However, from Lisabet's perspective, the last decade of the twentieth century was most significant because that was when I wrote and published my first novel. And like many major turning points in our lives, a minor incident was responsible for triggering the chain of events that led to the 1999 release of Raw Silk.
After years of my enjoying my husband's tales of Hagia Sofia and the Grand Bazaar, we'd finally managed to make it to Turkey. We stayed in a tiny boutique hotel in the heart of old Istanbul, two narrow houses that had been converted to serve a handful of guests. The hotel, which adjoined an ruined haman (bathhouse), featured a boulder-strewn, cat-filled garden and a view of minarets and the Sea of Marmara from the window of our fourth floor room. In the white-washed stone lobby, above a divan spread with rich embroidery, I found a book swap shelf, a common feature in traveler's locales around the world. Leave a book, take a book – we cycle our reading and share our passions. Having run low on reading material, I picked up a slim black and gray volume. The cover featured a moderately discreet image of a couple in an ecstatic embrace. Gemini Heat was the title, authored by Portia da Costa.
The novel was published by a UK imprint called Black Lace, whose slogan was “Erotic fiction for women”. A benighted American, I'd never heard of Black Lace. At the time, I hadn't read much erotica. My master had “assigned” me The Story of O and Anne Rice's Beauty trilogy, and I'd sampled a few bawdy Victorian titles, but for the most part I was innocent, from a literary perspective at least. I'd been penning my own D/s erotic fantasies for a while, copying them by hand into greeting cards and sending them across the country for my master to savor (following in Pauline Réage's footsteps, though I didn't know it at the time). However, I'd never considered sharing those fantasies with the world.
Gemini Heat astonished and aroused me, with its intelligence, its erotic diversity and its unabashed heat. Identical twins Deanna and Delia Ferraro look enough alike to fool most people, although their styles and personalities could not be more different. Deanna is brash, bold, even a bit wild, a freelance artist with a penchant for hippie-style clothing and a taste for adventure. Delia is shyer and less experienced sexually, but more polished and organized, as accomplished at her job in corporate middle management as she is in cooking or home repair. One evening, with busy Delia's blessing, Deanna attends an art opening using an invitation intended for her twin. The paintings on show turn out to be of the erotic variety, stirring her hot blood to the point that she allows a seductive stranger to fuck her on a balcony overlooking the crowd. Only the morning after do she and Delia realize that her partner was Jackson Kazuto de Guile – millionaire businessman, unabashed sybarite, and Delia's boss – and that he'd thought Deanna was in fact his employee Delia. And now, despite her more cautious personality, Delia wants her turn with the delicious and demanding Jake.
The story piles one erotic episode on top of another, as Deanna and Delia pretend they are the same woman, alternating in the role of “Dee” and discovering new dimensions of their sexuality. There are sex clubs and opulent mansions, Jacuzzis and massages, exhibitionism and voyeurism, lesbian and gay male interactions, bondage and beatings, lovely fetishistic articles of clothing that get torn to shreds in the throes of lust, and lots of intense orgasms. Jake involves a cast of co-conspirators (especially the notorious red-headed author Vida Mistry) in his education and sexual conquest of the twins.
The book was a perfect fit to my own erotic inclinations. It pushed all my personal buttons. I was delighted to discover the existence of Black Lace (though the other Black Lace authors I sampled did not come close to Ms. Da Costa in their ability to excite me). And after I'd calmed down a bit, I began to think, “I'll bet I could write a book something like that.”
I sent away for the Black Lace author guidelines. (Nobody had websites then, remember.) The document I received was unbelievably intimidating – ten pages long at least, written with severe precision, and focusing far more on what they didn't want than what they did. Nevertheless, still inspired by Gemini Heat, I started working on a novel about a woman's sexual odyssey, set against the sensual backdrop of exotic Thailand. In a matter of weeks I'd penned three chapters. I sent the chapters off with a synopsis (by snail mail – no email submissions in those days!) to editor Kerry Sharp. Then I more or less forced myself to forgot about the matter. Although I'd had great fun writing those chapters, the chances of being accepted seemed totally remote.
About four weeks down the road, I received a post card acknowledging my submission and warning me that due to the volume of manuscripts Black Lace received, I might not hear anything further for several months. I shrugged and filed the card with the guidelines. I was not surprised or disappointed.
Three days later, Kerry Sharp emailed me, enthusiastically declaring that Raw Silk was just what they were looking for, offering me a contract and asking me when I could deliver the full book.
You could have knocked me over with a feather. When could I deliver the full book? I didn't have the foggiest idea.
I've written elsewhere about the process of writing Raw Silk, how easy it was, how I poured all my fantasies uncensored onto the page, most especially my cravings for submission and surrender. I've also talked about how naïve I was concerning the publishing business, how I imagined imminent glamor, fame and fortune, press conferences and release parties, book tours and free trips to London. I didn't realize how most publishers, even back then, operated on a shoestring. I learned, though. When Raw Silk went out of print, I reclaimed the rights and placed the book with another publisher. The novel is on its third publisher now, but I still sell at least a few copies a month.
I should mention that this whole incident was totally beginner's luck. Kerry Sharp flatly rejected the next two proposals I sent her.
I'm reprising this now because I just finished rereading Gemini Heat. (Yes, the same dog-earned black and gray paperback!) I wanted to know if it could still move me now, after I've published more than fifty single author erotic titles of my own and read at least three times that many by others. Would it seem clichéed or silly? Would I find it tame?
I'm pleased to say that I still would place this novel among my top ten or top twenty erotic books. Ms. da Costa excels at describing the internal state of her characters. The sexual encounters that occur in Gemini Heat are far less extreme or outrageous than they seemed upon my first reading, but their impacts upon the characters (which is really what counts in my view) remain intense.
Meanwhile, in these days of sub-genre tyranny, I value the diversity in Gemini Heat more than ever. These days, erotic romance reigns. (Black Lace officially rebranded itself that way a few years before it folded.) The thrillingly sensual lesbian interactions in Gemini Heat would probably get the book rejected now – not to mention the description of the M/M sex show at Club Seventeen. Then there's the hero's decidedly non-alpha appearance and behavior. Sure, Jake is a Dom, but he is not tall, gruff and muscle bound. He's slender, graceful, elegant, as one might expect from someone who is part Japanese, with long, silky hair and smooth, mostly hairless skin. Ms. da Costa is perfectly comfortable with a hero who shows some feminine characteristics, but I suspect that many of today's readers might reject such ambiguity. In fact, despite his adeptness at power games, Jake is a switch – that becomes quite clear in the final chapter of the novel. I loved the breadth of the author's sexual imagination, but I'm willing to bet that if she submitted this novel today, the publisher would want to attach all sorts of Reader Advisories.
I didn't realize when I first encountered Gemini Heat that it was one of Portia da Costa's very first erotic novels. Now I suspect that her experience writing the book must have been similar to mine – that the book is an uncensored outpouring of her personal favorite fantasies. I've read and enjoyed a lot of her later work, but with the exception of the brilliant Entertaining Mr. Stone, none of these novels has made the same impression on me as her tale of the horny twins and their diabolical seducer. Her writing has become smoother and more controlled, technically more accomplished, but rarely reaches the same level of raw heat.
People sometimes say the same thing about my work. Raw Silk has many flaws that are all too visible now to my more experienced eyes: excessively verbose descriptions, repeating words and phrases, horribly stilted dialogue. Nevertheless, I've received more praise from readers for that book than for anything else I've written. I know why. It's the pure emotion I poured into the pages. The novel is my personal journey, mostly imagined though studded with bits and pieces of my real life. In a sense, Kate is me – not in terms of her personality but in her desires and her reactions. And readers sense this.
At the same time that first book, released at the very end of the nineties, was just the start of my journey, the first steps on the road to becoming Lisabet Sarai. Now, fifteen years later, I still have no idea where that road will ultimately lead me.