The release date for my novel Enemy Queen had grown close, and the Editorial Project Manager at SparkPress, the book’s publisher, asked me if I’d like to contribute a Behind the Book post for their website. She suggested the topic: “how to plot an erotic thriller.”
As soon as I finished reading the email containing this kind offer, I curled up in the cushy chair at my computer desk and laughed. For at least a minute or two.
Please don’t misunderstand. I very much appreciated the offer, and absolutely wanted to contribute a post. And although Enemy Queen could probably just as accurately have been labeled “a dark satire,” or “a licentious comedy of manners,” it had indeed been characterized by the publisher as “an erotic thriller”—and that’s certainly as accurate a tag as any.
Still, the request posed a huge problem.
I had absolutely no idea how to plot an erotic thriller.
How then did Enemy Queen come to be? A series of unlikely occurrences, and odd tenacious recollections, appear to have been the culprit.
I’ll try to explain.
A couple of years ago I was visiting a close friend, and I asked him if he intended to produce another opera. My friend sang a bit when he was younger, and over the years had produced a number of splendid community operas in the Bay Area. But it had been a good while since he’d produced a show, and I was hoping to hear that he planned to give it another shot. He was, then, in his early seventies.
“No,” he said wistfully. “I’d like to, but at this point it’s just too much for me to take on. There are singers, instrumentalists, a conductor, a venue—it’s just too hard now. But actually, I was thinking of maybe producing a straight play. You know, no music, just a play.”
That idea struck me as very interesting. “You know,” I said, “I was thinking of writing a play.”
And I had been. Sort of.
Actually, I was exhausted. Psychologically and emotionally. I had written two very serious, ambitious novels during the past few years. I’d invested huge chunks of my soul in them. And they had drained me. What I was really looking for was a writing project that was a bit lighter—funnier—without all the research and the gut-wrenching mining of my inner being. It didn’t have to necessarily be a play—in fact, I hadn’t written a play since high school (and my graduating class had just celebrated its fifty-year reunion). But a play sounded interesting.
“How about if I write a play, and you produce it?” I ventured.
“That’s a grand idea!” my friend exclaimed. “You write a play, and I’ll produce and direct it. Listen, I want to keep expenses to a minimum. So write a play with just three characters. Two of them will be middle-aged men—you and I can play those two roles. And we’ll need some pulchritude…” (he loves the word pulchritude, he uses it often)… “so make the third character an attractive young woman.”
Over the next couple of days I pondered what sort of play I could concoct within those parameters. I started with the characters—beginning with one my friend could portray. He had performed in local operas and a couple of Gilbert and Sullivan productions, so he could handle a range of roles.
And then I remembered that professor.
It was back when I was a junior in college. I had wound up in the professor’s creative writing class. He was a big handsome man—and must only recently have been appointed, because he appeared to be in his late twenties or early thirties. He had a deep voice, broad shoulders, thick black hair, and an almost cocky swagger. The college was in upstate New York, and he had an incongruously rich southern accent—which he somehow made sound refined, articulate, and even scholarly. It was hard to fathom how he pulled that off. The young women in the class were hopelessly entranced by him. And although we young men in the class resented him deeply for that, we all found him oddly captivating too. I knew nothing else about him, but imagined him to be a bit of a rogue and a womanizer. I remember that, even back then, I thought that he (or at least what I imagined him to be) would make a great character in a novel.
So I called my friend, and asked him if he could do a southern accent.
“I can do a splendid one,” he announced.
So he’d be the professor. An older version.
Now, for my role. Unlike my friend, who had a good deal of stage experience, I hadn’t been in a play since high school. The role for me needed to be closer to home. So, I cast the other male character as a short, wiry, politically progressive Jewish New York attorney—a bit contentious and paranoid. Although I’ve lived in San Francisco for over forty years, I did grow up in Brooklyn, I’m from a Jewish family, I’m not especially tall, and I briefly considered going to law school. I could pull that role off.
Now, where to set it?
Another recollection came to mind. During our nation’s nearly-forgotten Y2K escapade, I was doing healthcare technology consulting work. I had an extended engagement at an academic medical center in the deep south, and that experience stuck with me as something I’d someday want to write about. The south is beautiful country—but more intriguing to me was the human interplay I experienced. I was treated with warm and even elaborate southern hospitality and charm. But there was an unspoken undercurrent always in play—I was a politically progressive Jew from New York by way of San Francisco—and the way in which that contrasted with the provincial, Christian, deep-seated conservatism in the town where I worked each day—was profoundly palpable to everyone involved.
So, the play would take place in the south, at a University in a smallish town, and these two men would be close friends, in fact they’d share a house. And they’d be sexually inept and frustrated, having been through multiple failed marriages between them.
Which led to two big questions: Why on earth are two such dissimilar men friends? And what do they decide to do about their sexual frustration?
The answer to the first question, about the basis of the men’s friendship, came to me from another recollection. I played a good deal of chess as a kid, and I recalled watching, with great interest, the 1972 world championship chess match between the American, Bobby Fischer, and the Soviet champion, Boris Spassky. Although, like most Americans, I had rooted for Fischer in that match, my perspective changed greatly in ensuing years. Fischer revealed himself to be a raging, anti-Semitic lunatic, whereas Boris Spassky turned out to be a mellow, sensitive, appealing man. I saw an interview with Spassky years later, where he talked about how wonderful it was to be able to play chess while drinking wine with friends, without the pressure of tournament play. That comment stuck with me.
So that would be the basis of the men’s friendship. Playing chess and drinking wine.
As for what to do about their sexual frustration—given that I needed to incorporate a young actress into the production—that answer came pretty easily. The men coerce a beautiful young woman to move into their home, and offer her free room and board. Perhaps she’d do a bit of housework—but the real intent would be to exploit her sexually. She’d be a sort of go-between, enabling these two men to consummate their friendship erotically, while still remaining heterosexual.
The narrative twist I envisioned, however, was that the young woman would turn out to be far cleverer, and more diabolical, than either of the men, and she would gradually subjugate them, and take over full control of the house.
Until she suddenly disappears that is—and one of the men is suspected of murdering her.
That’s all I had at that point, but I thought this was a great premise for a play, and I pitched it to my friend. Sadly though, he said that after much thought, he’d decided he didn’t have the desire or energy to produce a play after all.
But I loved what I’d come up with, so I decided to write it as a novel—a dark licentious comedy—with a bit of a murder mystery thrown in. I’d expand the plot and add more characters.
I got right to it.
Writing the book was a joy. I laughed incessantly as I came up with absurd situations, and improvised the plot as I went along. And although this may seem implausible, I wrote nearly the entire book without any idea how it would end. Because I was having so much fun, this dereliction of planning didn’t really bother me. And I think, in retrospect, my not knowing how the murder mystery would be resolved, enabled me to write it in a manner that enhanced the suspense for readers too, since both they are I were equally uncertain about the outcome.
Finally, though, it became clear that the story had only forty or fifty pages to go, and I needed to write an ending. I had to at last figure out how the murder mystery would be resolved. So I took a few days off from writing, and just thought about it. I thought about it while I took long hikes with my dog. I thought about it while I showered and shaved. Even while I tried to fall asleep each night.
The problem was that there were so many possibilities—and each of them made as much sense as the next.
Ironically, in the end, it was the fact that I had actually written the book rather than just outlined or plotted it, that turned out to be the key to my decision. Any outcome would have worked as a narrative device. But having actually written the book, and edited it as I went, the novel had acquired a tone, a perspective, a sensibility—it had become an actual being of its own. And when I finally considered that, it became obvious only one ending would work for that book.
And so I finished writing Enemy Queen.
And this long-winded confession makes one thing abundantly clear:
I have no idea how to plot an erotic thriller.