I’m pleased to welcome novelist Nikki Gemmell. In 2003, Nikki wrote her first erotic novel The Bride Stripped Bare. She explains why she chose to write the book anonymously and what transpired when her identity was revealed.
Why did I do it?
Behold a cautionary tale of writing, refuges, and worlds to be free in.
Once upon a time I had a brilliant idea. Well, it seemed like it at the time. The plan was simple: to write a novel that was an examination of marriage with a forensic, unsparing eye. But book writing has always been a process of gradual disappointment for me; the grand ambition of each project contracting over time as I realise that what is emerging on the page wasn’t, quite, what had been envisaged at the outset. To be blunt; my novels slip away in the process of creation, become something else. And so I’d just try again, and again, to get it right; that was the rhythm of my novel-writing and each subsequent book. Early on, this tetchy new book – my fourth – about sex and marriage was not going to plan. I had a title, The Bride Stripped Bare, and not much else. The disappointment was gathering force heart-sinkingly soon into the process. Six months in, in fact. The story just wouldn’t lift off. The prose was resistant, leaden. Trying to write it was like wading thigh high through a river rushing headlong into me. Definitely not a good situation to be in with a newborn baby by my side, my first, and another little one on the way (the lesson here: do not believe those who tell you it is impossible to conceive while breastfeeding.)
Then one day, in the thick of new motherhood, I chanced upon Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. It was the type of book I hadn’t read for a while, drowning as I was under my stack of baby-manuals, and I seized that clear, sharply intelligent prose; remembering a woman I once was who devoured books like this once. Woolf described anonymity as a ‘refuge’ for women writers. “For most of history, Anonymous was a woman.” And with that simple sentence, my recalcitrant novel was unlocked.
It was as if a lightbulb were suddenly switched on in a room of sickly light. My name would be removed from the project. Simple. I’d write with brutal candour about a women’s secret life – and brilliantly, no one would be hurt in the process. Myself, of course, but also those closest to me in that precious little corricle of early parenthood we were floating in then, that tiny boat of nappies and naptimes and leaky breasts and wonder, endless wonder, that contained just my husband and our child and our new one soon to join us. Because I knew that if was going to write something with eviscerating honesty there would be reverberations years down the track, for all of us. People have always confused my fiction with autobiography; I’ve always had readers assume it was people close to me who were in my book, and judging them as well as myself. I was seized up by a fear of that; that they would mistake fiction for fact. And as I’d struggled to make that sodden first draft work I’d felt clogged up with caution – afraid of too much honesty, of showing too much vulnerability, and afraid of hurting people close to me.
The door was flung open, gleefully, when anonymity presented itself. “The world was made to be free in. Give up on all other worlds except the one to which you belong,” the poet, David Whyte wrote. Oh yes. The Bride Stripped Bare was brewed in a blazing little world far removed from any other. It shone with light, and truth, and power; a deep and thrilling sense of satisfaction amid all the exhaustion and uncertainty of new parenthood. It was my one certainty, my anchor. I didn’t want publishers breathing down my neck. Didn’t tell them about it. Agents and publishers had written me off into babyland for several years at least, perhaps longer. In their eyes I’d disappeared.
Gloriously. Mischievously. Writing became fun again, exhilarating. Gabriel Garcia Marquez said every person has three lives: a public life, which is known to everyone in the spheres we move in; a private life, which perhaps just a partner or close family member knows; and a secret life. That was the one I was fascinated by. Who dares to presume they know anyone else’s secret life? I wanted to write about a woman’s secret world – any woman’s, if you like, every woman’s. Wanted to write about the raw underbelly of a woman’s thinking in all its complexity, all its shocking ugliness as well as its beauty. It could only be done with the gift of anonymity, the egoless existence that liberates you from what people think, frees from the indignant eye of public opinion, from judgment. And some of this book would be eviscerating. Why not just go for it? Say whatever I wanted to, all those things I’d been thinking, feeling, for years but had never had the courage to voice. Not to girlfriends, and certainly not to partners. The whole idea of it fit snugly into that egoless existence of early parenthood, when all your wants/needs/desires are subsumed by someone else. Basically, at this point in my life, I just didn’t care a jot about my name on a book because I had bigger things filling up my days. And the glary business of selling your work – emotionally investing in its precarious journey into the world – was just too swamping to think about within the thick of the babymoon. I write within what feels like the glow of candlelight, a world that’s still and quiet and vividly alone, but selling a book, as the author, like a sudden blast of fluorescent light. I’m a writer who doesn’t enjoy that side of the business; in fact, gets a knot of agitation at the thought of it. Anonymity was my rescue.
The words came strong. Fast. As I was writing Bride I was high on hormones, flushed with a sense of womanly invincibility. It felt easy. This manuscript would be the child conceived and carried then let go of at the orphanage gate, checked on now and then from afar. The perfect plan. I wrote with an unflinching veracity. Wrote of sex that was bursting with light and life; all the magic and messiness of life as we know it. It wasn’t porn in any way, the opposite of it in fact. It was a brutally honest take on sex, from a woman’s perspective. I wanted a book driven by love and truth; a book where women would respond “oh, that’s me!” and where men would respond, “oh my goodness, did my partner write this?” Having “Anonymous” bold on the cover felt crucial to that sense of enchantment, cheekiness, artifice, honesty. Removing the author’s name meant the book carried with it a shock of universality. This could be anyone’s story. Not wasn’t just “so and so’s opinion” but anyone’s, everyone’s. It felt audacious and authentic and absolutely right.
For after all it’s hard, in a relationship, to be completely honest; to show your partner your secret self. Vita Sackville-West described herself as an iceberg, said that her husband could only see what was above the water’s surface and that he had no idea of the huge mass below. She speculated it was the reason their marriage worked. What relationship can survive the shock of absolute candour? For me, brewing my little secret during baby naptimes, the jolt of Bride would lie in the protaganist’s very ordinariness. She’d be the woman you don’t give a second glance to as she walks down an aisle in the supermarket or waits patiently at the school gate, the woman who’s completely disappeared into her role as “the little wife.” I, too, had found it difficult to be completely sexually honest in the past, and was fascinated by the capitulations and silences that can stain a relationship – but also knit it together. Why is it still so hard for some women, basking in the glow of so many feminist advances, to be more candid about sex? To say such simple things to our sexual partners as, “No, I didn’t have an orgasm,” or “I don’t like this,” or “sometimes I find it monotonous when you make love to me,” or “sometimes it hurts.” Why are so many women still so subservient to their partner’s pleasure at the expense of their own? Because we don’t want men to turn away from us, perhaps. Because we want our partners to think we’re someone else. Because sometimes we’re willing to put up with a lot; to snare a relationship, to keep it steady, to have children.
The aim was to be as merciless in print as a Chuck Close painting or a Ron Mueck sculpture – but as far as I know, those artists do not often turn their extremely critical eye upon themselves. I was suddenly like a woman on a foreign beach who’s confident she doesn’t know a soul and parades her body loudly and joyously without worrying what anyone thinks of her. A lot of us can’t face the thought of people seeing us as we really are – for it means losing control of the public persona we’ve so carefully set up and maintained. And we never get closer to the truth of our dark, vulnerable, messy selves than with sex. Perhaps that’s why the prospect of being unmasked as the author of this book was so very difficult to bear. Perhaps if I was alone, without family around me who I deeply cared about, it would have been easier. Another reason for the anonymity was that it came from a deep love, a deep sense of compassion – I wanted to protect so much.
So there I had it. A vivid little manuscript with “by anonymous” on its front page. It was The Bride Stripped Bare. My identity was unmasked before it was even published, to my enormous distress. Stress rushed into my world in a greedy, ruthless way. Stress has a lot to do with an inability to dictate circumstances around you – uncertainty, in whatever form it takes, is extremely destabilising. And there was so much uncertainty over this book. When the book was published, and took off among readers, the stress only intensified. Of course my publishers wanted me to explain it; the Good Author did what she was told. The Good Author got a bucketing. Often the loudest attackers hadn’t read the book. Maybe if they had they would’ve understood. I said to them back then and I say it now: why don’t you attempt to write about sex with a ruthless, unflinching honesty – and put your name to it. All those things you may think but never say, especially to your partner, your friends, your family. It’s exhilarating if you’re anonymous, but highly traumatic if you’re a wife and mother of boys, not to mention the daughter of two gently bewildered people in their sixties.
A girlfriend remarked, within the thick of the maelstrom, “Nikki, you will look back on this time at your grave, and you will laugh.” I couldn’t see it then, but gradually, over the years, could. Because what I found in the long run was that honesty connects; that there’s an incredible potency to telling to the truth. People respond, movingly. It was empowering to have women say things like “thank you for writing my words,” or “thank you for saying the things I’ve never been able to articulate.” They did, for years afterwards. In fact still are.
Have you toyed with the idea of writing anonymously? Would it enable you to write with abandon?
Tech guru Pat Haggerty returns on Monday, January 27th.
- Making History with Geoff Knight
- Writing for a Small Print Publisher
- In Praise of Slower Writing with Maggie Bolitho
- A Good Editor – Don’t Leave Home Without One – Donnell Bell
- The Pros and Cons of Self Publishing