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Paige Nick

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

What James Ellroy said

Here’s the third in the series of notes from the Cheltenham Literary Festival I went to this month.

James Ellroy is a talk I’m only kind of looking forward to. It happens at the very end of the same day as talks by A.S. Byatt, Bernhard Schlink, and three Canadian authors talking about ‘creating landscapes’, so he has a lot to live up to.

The only work I’ve read of his to date is The Black Dahlia, which I enjoyed, but didn’t love. I felt too young for it. It’s mainly set in the fifties, so some of the themes, language and references hadn’t really resonated with me. 

From the very first second he stepped onto the stage, he owned me and the other two hundred people in the audience. He stood at the podium and preached for the first ten minutes in a booming and slow considered drawl.

He waits a beat before he says each word, as if he’s considering whether that’s the right word to use. Which you might think would be irritating, particularly with the thick American accent, but somehow it’s not. Somehow it punctuates his every sentence with meaning, be it danger or comedy.

From the podium the first thing he does is to make the audience an offer they can’t refuse. He says he has a once off special deal for everyone, brought to you by his publishers, Random House. He says that if every single person in the room buys one thousand copies of his new book tonight, they will be able to go and have sex with every single person they ever desire to have sex with in this world without consequences.

AND, he continues, if every person in the room buys two thousand copies of his new book, every single one of us will be able to have sex with absolutely every single person we ever desired to have sex with, every single day for the rest of our lives, without consequences, and still get to go to heaven for all eternity.

AND, he continues, if every single person in the room buys three thousand copies of his new book, then not only will we all be able to have sex with absolutely every single person we ever desired, every single day for the rest of our lives, without consequences, and get to go to heaven for all eternity, but on top of that The British Empire will rule forever as the greatest nation on earth.

When the laughter and applause from the very British audience finally subsides, he launches into a series of quotes by TS Elliot. I don’t manage to get them all down, but he says something about being ‘…the death dog of American Literature.’

As he speaks he emanates the strongest scent of God complex of anyone I’ve ever heard. But somehow it’s endearing.

He finishes off his rant of quotes with ‘…and tonight this rat hitches you to his star.’

Then he goes on to give us a brief narrative of his life so far. He’s there selling his latest book, ‘The Hilliker Curse, My Pursuit of Women’ which is pretty much his life story as it relates to women, so it’s relevant. But you get the sense that his past is relevant to everything he writes (and does).

‘… in 1958, when I was ten, my mother, Jean Hilleker, was murdered, East of downtown LA in a sex deal gone bad. Three months prior to that my parents were newly separated and I wanted to go live with my father. My mother wouldn’t let me go. We argued. I told her I wished she was dead. Three months later she was murdered. In my mind, as a ten year old, I had wished her dead, and so had mandated her murder.’

My Dark Places was a book Ellroy wrote in 1996, about his return to LA as an adult, and his attempt to solve the case of his mother’s murder. The case remains unsolved to this day.

He believes gender bias destroyed his mother. ‘…she was a woman hungry for love in the 1950’s…’ He goes on about how a man hungry for love could survive in that era, but a woman hungry for love was prayed upon.

 He speaks of a nervous breakdown he had at the end of his second marriage. You can feel, just listening to him, that he’s deeply damaged, and feels on the edge of some kind of eruption at any given second.

He says; ‘..the story of Jean Hilliker is a love story, not a murder story.’

A couple of other gems that come out of him over the next hour include:

 ‘… I have never been left-wing for a moment. Not even in my sleep.’


 ‘I’m a single-minded guy. I know three or four things, but I know them well.’


 ‘I have had many conversations with Beethoven, which have been problematic because, one, he’s stone deaf. Two, he does not speak English. And three, I don’t speak German.

 Ellroy is obsessed with Beethoven. He says:

‘The first time I heard Beethoven, I heard dun, dun, dun, dun, and I’ve been fucked ever since.’

 He worships Beethoven like a God. He says:

‘If you’re going to worship someone, why not go right to the top?’

When he eventually sits down and begins to be interviewed by a lady from the BBC I feel as though I’ve stepped into one of his private therapy sessions. It’s almost voyeuristic. She prods at his psyche and tries to unravel his crazy one question at a time.

She asks him quite a bit about religion, which seems important to him, but not in the traditional sense. (Nothing about this man is traditional.)

He says; ‘I have a pastor who looks askance at me. He read half a book of mine and then put it down.’

The interviewer reminds him of a comment he made in an interview in The Paris Review:

‘I don’t want to die, and I’m not going to.’

When the interviewer asks him what he’s working on now he says:

‘It’s my most maniacal, megalomaniac work yet.’

 He says his characters are all men on a journey from dark to light, invariably saved by women.

The house lights come on now, the roving mikes come out and the audience are allowed to ask questions.

Someone in the front asks the standard question all the authors are asked. Does he plot, or does he just write?

He responds: ‘I can extrapolate and improvise within individual themes but I do not go away from the plan.’

Another member of the audience asks what he thinks of the movie LA Confidential, which was based on his book.

‘I’ve seen it thirty two times,’ he says, ‘I’m tired of it.

Someone else in the audience mentions Joyce Carol Oates, a famous American author who has published over fifty novels and who raves about Ellroy’s work. He admits to never having read her. Ellroy exclaims at the amount she has written in her time and says with a naughty smile:

‘In other words the quality varies greatly.’

 As the session winds down, and the queue to get him to sign his latest book winds around the street corner, I’m struck by the thought that he’s pure crazy and completely clinically fucked, which is probably what makes him such a genius.

What Bernhard Schlink said

As I mentioned in this post over here, I went to a literary festival in Cheltenham this month and got to see some phenomenal authors talking about how they do what they do. 

I took a book-full of notes and thought I’d share some of them with the kind of like-minded bookies (you) I thought I might find here.

From what I can gather Bernhard Schlink has written eight novels. He’s a professor of law and has been a judge. So, busy guy. His most famous book is ‘The Reader’, which was translated into English and made into a movie in 2008.

He steps onto the stage, to a packed audience of over 200 people. He is tall and slim and speaks with a heavy accent in that considered way that people not speaking in their first language have.

His latest novel is called The Weekend. It’s about a terrorist released from prison after 24 years behind bars. The terrorist, Jorg, is invited to go away with his sister and a selection of other characters for a weekend. And so the story unfolds over that weekend.

The story is very much based on tales of terrorism and terrorists from the seventies and much of his research is based on the stories of the Baader-Meinhof Gang. Their actions, their arrests, their prison sentences and for a few, their more modern day releases.

Schlink says that one of the seeds of the idea came from something his mother said to him back in the 70’s, when terrorism was topical (as it is now).

HIS MOM: I’ve figured out what to do if you become a terrorist.


HIS MOM: You can stay for one night, but then you must go.

Questioned by the BBC interviewer about his thoughts on terrorism, Schlink says: ‘Terrorists have this idea of a pure world. They have an unwillingness to accept the messiness of our world, how slowly things happen, if they happen at all. This unwillingness to accept, this is something all terrorists have in common.’

Interviewer: Do terrorists have remorse?

BERNHARD SCHLINK: (His responses here are based on his research on the members of the Baader-Meinhof Gang) Many of these terrorists wake up one day and realise that they’ve lived twenty to thirty years in vain. It must be hard to realise that it was just nothing. Six years being terrorists and then twenty years in jail. So they try to find meaning. They make excuses. We just wanted to do something good. We didn’t realise what the outcome was. The bigger picture. And then the way they are treated in prison, the terrible repeated beatings, the hunger strikes, the bad conditions, this gives the terrorists more anger. And so all of this doesn’t create remorse. They don’t want to apologise for what they’ve done.

In response to a question asked about his opinion on Irish Terrorists, Schlink comments; ‘The secret of peace is exhaustion.’

A member of the audience asks him his opinion on the difference between Northern Ireland’s Terrorists and the terrorists in Germany back then. Schlink believes the German terrorists didn’t really stand for anything, and that’s what set them aside.

He also says: ‘Looking back is looking at a fuller truth.’

Another comment Schlink makes is: ‘Memory is painful.’

The interviewer asks him, in response to this comment: ‘Is that a German thing?’

‘Perhaps. I’m sure there are happy nations. You won the war, then you won the next war.’ The British audience loves this. There’s a big laugh.

Then we get to the questions from the audience segment. Ninety percent of the questions are related to his book The Reader. And true to festival form, the one chop question comes early:

CHOP IN AUDIENCE: What do you think the book is about, other than the holocaust?’

Bernhard Schlink looks at him and furrows his brow in confusion.

CHOP IN AUDIENCE: If I can make some suggestions… (Then ‘Chop in Audience’ lists about five different possibilities of what other overly analytical themes the book could be about. The audience groans.)

CHOP IN AUDIENCE: (When he’s finally finished his list) Do you agree?

BERNHARD SCHLINK: Whatever problems or topics the readers find in my books, well… fine… (he waits and thinks). But no. The book is about the Holocaust. I’m sorry to disappoint you.

Everyone laughs. I hope Chop feels embarrassed.

Shlink is now asked a question about the movie. How he feels about it? Whether it does the book justice?

He says: ‘As an author you must not expect to find the images in your mind to be on the screen. But I do think he (the director) found very good images.’

‘Our world wants justice. We don’t accept fate anymore.’ He uses a bad harvest as an example. ‘A hundred years ago if you had a bad harvest, it was fate. Today we demand subsidies. We do not accept fate.’

Then we get another chop question.

CHOP IN AUDIENCE NUMBER TWO: Did you consider swapping an older woman and a younger boy, for a younger woman and an older boy?

BERNHARD SCHLINK: I didn’t consider that.


BERNHARD SCHLINK: It’s hard to explain why I didn’t consider what I didn’t consider.

Someone else asks if he writes using a plot or simply with stream of consciousness. (This question is asked of just about every author I see, and I’m amazed at how many different answers I hear.)

B.S: I always write with plot. When John Boyne wrote The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, he wrote it in a frenzy in two and a half days, with no plot. I don’t do that. Then he says: ‘I am not interested in my own process of writing. It was the opposite when I was a lawyer.’

He says one of the overriding themes in all his books seems to be the conflict between loyalty and justice. Someone asks him a question about how he feels about the translation of the book into English. He says he has some issues with it, but they are mostly unavoidable.

For example, the title of The Reader. In German it’s called ‘Der Vorleser’, which means a reader, but also means, ‘someone who reads aloud’. And there is no single word for that in English. So already the title is a compromise for him.

He also says that in the English translated version she calls him ‘kid’ all the time. In German, the word he used was ‘jongseun’. (Sp? Sorry, my German is crap to non-existent.) He says there’s a tenderness in the word ‘jongseun’ but there is no decent english translation, which is how they ended up with the word ‘kid’. Which he personally finds quite violent and not endearing enough.

He’s a fascinating man, and my hour with him ends too soon. I spot him the following day, as I sit on the pavement outside a venue, drinking a take-away tea between sessions. He gets into a car two feet away from me. I grin like a mad woman and wave at him. He smiles politely at me and is then whisked away by his publicist. I feel lucky.

What Salman Rushdie said

A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to find myself at The Cheltenham Literature Festival. The town itself is about two and a half hours outside of London, by train.

I spent nine days there, and got to see so many of my very favourite authors talking about how they do what they do. It was astonishing. I also stalked Jim Crace a little, but I’m sure it’s nothing he hasn’t experienced before.

Not being much of a photographer, and not even owning a camera, I spent my entire time, head down in the sessions, taking copious notes. It was what I would imagine conscientious students are like.

So I thought I’d try decipher some of my handwriting (perhaps I could have been a doctor) and type up some of the author’s comments as verbatim as possible and share them with a group of people I thought might appreciate them. Ie: you lot.

Salman Rushdie comes out onto stage with the interviewer, someone from the BBC. The theatre is packed, there are maybe two hundred people. When the interviewer reminds everyone to please turn off their cell phones for the session, Rushdie gets a surprised look on his face and then digs in his inside jacket pocket, pulls out his cell phone and turns it off, with a naughty smile. That gets a big laugh. I think we’re all so daunted at the sight of this legendary man standing in front of us, that we’re just relieved he’s human and that we’re allowed to laugh.

He starts out reading from his new book, Luca and the Fire of Life. From what I can gather it’s part fairy tale, part fable. I soon realise I could listen to him read that entire book. He’s flawless. I’m sucked into a chapter about riddles. The characters in the story have many many lives, like in a computer game. And they are constantly hunting for more lives, and losing lives in the process. It’s clearly allegoric on so many levels, but so simply put.

The interviewer asks him about the genre of the book and he says it’s a ‘quest narrative’.

Two of the characters are ‘Bear the dog’, and ‘Dog the bear’. I find that so charming, it makes me laugh out loud (and probably a bit too loudly) every time he says it.

He says this book operates in the space between adult and children’s books.

Here are a few other things he says that I write down as best I can, because I like them:

‘…why do people compulsively ask what it is? It’s like the Wizard of Oz, you don’t ask if it’s for children or for adults.’

‘Computer games exist so children have a way of feeling superior to their parents.’

The interviewer asks him how he feels about having his life threatened by writing something offensive. He says:

‘Well, it’s my view that Dan Brown should live. He can’t be killed for writing something that offends.’

Then they invite the audience to ask questions. Some chop in the back stands up and asks:

‘When you write, how do you do that?’

The audience erupts. Throughout the festival I discover that there’s at least one ‘stupid chop’ question in every session I go to.

But he answers with grace after only a mild and contained grimace:

‘It’s about sitting there till you’ve done something. It sounds a little lavatorial.’ he says. ‘I think sitting down is very important. Does that help?’

The audience erupts once more.

 A few more snippets:

‘Writers have a little bundle of pain that drives them.’

On how people of different ages and levels of experience write, he says:

‘The old have control and fake fire. But the young, have fire and fake control.’

On a question about writing magic realism he says:

‘Writing doesn’t have to be a photograph. It can still be a portrait of the world, but a non-literal portrait. It all just depends what the story demands.’

People are fascinated by the Fatwa placed on his head after he wrote The Satanic Verses and most of the questions are about that.

He says that before the uproar over that book he was a big success in the Middle East. He says they even filched his third book, ‘Shame’. He says they stole it and published a pirated version of it in Farsi. Which they totally would have gotten away with, except they went and gave it a big Farsi book award and contacted his publisher to invite him to accept it.

He said he recently met a man who had been an active and violent protester back when they were having mass burnings of The Satanic Verses. The man said to him after they had chatted briefly, that he had only recently read the novel, and he couldn’t see what all the fuss had been about.

Rushdie responded: ‘Asshole, you were the one making the fuss!’

‘Yes well, you know,’ the ex-protester said, ‘books aren’t really my thing.’

He was incredible to listen to and transcribe as fast as my pen would allow me. What a legend.

Pencil pusher

I don’t know if writers are the only people who feel this way, but there is something incredibly pure and true about the pencil.

In my opinion it’s one of the most perfect inventions ever.

And it’s not just pencils I feel passionate about. Stationary just does something to me. Glitter pens, clutch pencils, the fountain pen… let’s just say I’m a fan.

So when I saw this I felt a swoon coming on.
Dalton Ghetti is an artist who sculpts pencils.

Here’s his alphabet series – there are 26 in the set. One for each letter of the alphabet.

He says it took about a month to make each one.

He’s from Brazil and I think his work is just unbelievable.

He can craft the nib of a pencil into just about anything.


Even Elvis gets a look in.

According to an article I read on him over here, he refuses to work with a magnifying glass and he only ever uses three tools – a razor blade, a sewing needle and his sculpting knife.

Discussing his process Dalton says: ‘I use the sewing needle to make holes or dig into the graphite. I scratch and create lines and turn the graphite around slowly in my hand.’

The article also says that he’s never sold any of his pencils. He’s only ever given them away to friends as gifts.

I’m so wishing right now that he was one of my friends. What I wouldn’t give to own one of these pencils.

Each project takes him several months to complete. He says the pencil below, with the interlinking chains, took him two and a half years to finish. It’s so intricate that people often don’t believe that he made it using only one pencil.

Must have good eyesight, this guy.
In another interview over here, Ghetti (49) says; ‘It’s like I’m removing specs of dust at a time because the scale is so small. If there’s a little bit of dust on my table at the end of the day and I didn’t break it – that’s a good day’s work.’
When Ghetti was a young boy in Brazil he used to sharpen his pencil with a pocket knife, but when he finished school he started working on big pieces. Working with wood and stone. Then he spent some time honing his craft on soap and candles, and even broom sticks, and eventually found his niche carving pencils about 25 years ago.
‘The pencil has been kind of like a challenge to myself,’ he said. ‘I can do anything really big, but the small stuff is really difficult, so I was like, let me see how small I can go.’
The tragedy is that his day job is as a carpenter and he carves these pencils in his spare time.
‘When I’m inspired, I can sit down and things just flow,” he said. “You can’t force yourself to do those things. I do it just for fun, it’s pretty much like a hobby, a kind of meditation work that I do.’
His work is so intricate that many of his pieces never make it to the finish line intact.  He has a box which he calls the cemetery collection, made up of all the damaged, broken and unfinished pencil sculptures he’s worked on.
I even heart these little fallen pencil soldiers.
Looking at all these pencils reminds me of this crazy art director I once worked with. He believed that each pencil only has one really truly brilliant idea contained in it. So he kept a jar of brand new, perfectly sharpened pencils on his desk, and once he felt he’d had a great idea from each pencil he would fling it across the room and be done with it, then start with a new pencil.

I couldn’t stand it. I think every single pencil is full of infinite possibilities. I used to crawl around our office floor on hands and knees collecting abandoned pencils and resharpening them to their former glory.

You’ve got to love a pencil.

This post first appeared on my blog,

How long do you give a book?

Some months ago I took a book out of my book club. It had won a Booker and four friends raved about it, so I nabbed it.

48 pages in I found myself bored and restless. I persevered for another three pages and then I did something I very rarely do (particularly with a Booker), I gave up on it.

The following week I returned it to The Good Book Appreciation Society, defeated.

More recently I tried the first book in ‘The’ Trilogy. You know the one. Please don’t make me mention it by name and admit to picking it up. Anyway I read the first sixty odd pages, but there were all these strange Swedish names and the story line was so all over the place that I just couldn’t do it.

Concerned I’d become the kind of person who can’t finish a book, I phoned a friend. She told me I needed to persevere and that it got really really good around page six hundred. I instantly gave up on principle. That trilogy will have to remain unread by me. Call me a quitter but I simply refuse to ‘persevere’ for five hundred and forty pages.

I totally get that sometimes a book doesn’t grab you at first, and I’m all for giving it a good go until you get into it. But at some point I think one has to call it quits and not feel too guilty about it. The question is – when is that point?

 How long do you give a book?

I did a survey around some of the other writers at work. One said that he will generally give a book till half way. You see, for me that’s too far. Once I hit half way I reckon I’m over the hump, and then I’m committed for the long run. 

Another said she never gives up. When she starts a book, she always finishes it. Show off! 

Another writer I know never finishes a book. He’ll review the entire thing with a knowledgeable tone while scratching his beard thoughtfully, but when pressed we always discover he didn’t actually make it past page 56, the last page and the back cover blurb. 

As an author I know that most readers will pick my book up in the shop, read the first page and then decide whether or not to take it. Based on that I guess a vast majority readers will give up on a book after the first page. Sheesh, tough crowd.

I suppose it’s all a matter of time. We all have so little of it, and there’s so much to read, why should we ever have to ‘persevere’, even for just a page?

But still, every time I don’t finish a book there’s that little nagging voice, what if I’m missing something amazing that’s just lurking around the very next corner?

Another friend has a theory that specific books come into your life at a certain time, and for a certain reason. Like you can pick a book up on a dark Tuesday in September and can’t make it past page sixteen. But pick it up the following February on a Friday afternoon and it’s an entirely different story. The book speaks to you then. It’s the right book for that time and place.

So, not to be defeated, I took that Booker back out last week. I whipped past page fifty with ease and next thing I knew it was 2am and there was no way I was putting it down.

So now I’m thinking I might have to review how long I give a book.

5 things I love about fiction.

1. Three minutes, or even just a split second can take pages to describe. Or a day can be done in a line.

2. There’s material in every breath.

3. You get to take things that have happened to you and try them out with alternative endings. Real fact of life is really just a suggestion.

4. Research. It’s a great excuse to do all sorts of crazy shit you would otherwise never get away with. Forget to change your top for four days while you were writing? Research for a character. Slept with a 24-year-old by accident? Research for a character. Ate KFC? Research for a character.

5. Someone bothering you? Write them in and give them either greasy hair, strange sexual tendencies, an odd smell, or a violently bizarre and gruesome (yet somehow deeply satisfying) death.

I’m on the hunt for more reasons to love fiction. Please feel free to add your own.

And if you’re in the mood, please check out my blog, it’s over here:

Keep calm and read this blog post.

Is it just me or are things particularly mad right now?

The crazy state of life in general got me thinking about this poster:

I’m sure you’ve seen it before.

According to Mr and Mrs Wikipedia it was produced sometime around 1939 at the beginning of WWII by the Ministry of Information (not related to the Ministry of Sound - I checked).

Don’t worry, this will be a short history lesson. And I will spatter it with dirty words to keep things interesting.

It was kind of a ‘last case scenario’ thing. They printed two and a half million posters, (nipples) but they were only gong to use the poster to keep morale high, if the Nazis managed to invade Brittain. But of course (penis) that invasion never actually happened. (Big-breasted twins.) Nobody knows who designed the poster, but it was one of a seris of three. (Anal sex.)

The other two being: “Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution Will Bring Us Victory” (of which they printed 800,000 copies).

And “Freedom is in Peril” (400,000 printed).

Yeah, you can kind of see why those other two never caught on, can’t you. (Bum)

So ultimately the Brits weren’t invaded, the posters were never really used properly, and everyone lived happily ever after. (Soapy tit wank.)

Fast forward to the year 2000.

A copy of the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ poster was rediscovered in a second-hand bookshop in Northumberland. It’s no longer in copyright, so the store owners started to reprint it and boom (butt plug) it exploded.

I suppose something about it appeals to the global state we’re in or something. I don’t know what it is, all I know is that I dig it.

And of course where there’s a great idea, there will always be a spoof of that great idea, and so the parodies have sprung up all over the place. I dug up a few out of the internet for your viewing pleasure: 


clever friend, Sue, found that one outside a cake shop in London. Too wonderful.

and another addition from Sue:

Love that. It’s eloquent, and simple, don’t you think?
British? Have a problem? – Turn to tea.
Or beer!
What a great idea for a calendar. Too clever by half!

See there’s even one for computer geeks.
And knitting geeks.
I want that one on the wall above my desk at work.
Not sure what that’s about. Swine flue perhaps. But how can you stop yourself sneezing? it’s impossible, your eyeballs would pop out!
That one’s for my granny.
Ah this next one is my own personal favourite:
So there you go, from The Ministry of Oh Bugger There’s a Lot to do Today, here’s some advice for today:

Happy Thursday everybody.
This post originally appeared here on the blog - A Million Miles from Normal.

The sex scene dilemma.

I wouldn’t ordinarily spend too much time thinking about what to call my private parts, not usually finding a need to mention them in my day to day life. But I recently had my first novel, A Million Miles from Normal, published by Penguin, and as it’s a romantic comedy about sex, drugs and advertising, the storyline has its fair share of sex.

Deciding how far to go was the first challenge. Did I want to simply allude to sex vaguely? Or rather show my characters kissing and doing some light fondling, and then cut to them waking up together the next morning with sheets pulled tightly under their armpits, so as not to show any naughty bits. Or did I want to go the whole hog, with full frontal nudity and actual sex?

It wasn’t such a tough decision. In the end I chose a version of the latter. I wanted to use the sex scenes to develop my characters further and having them kiss chastely and then fade to black wasn’t going to help me do that.

For the most part, writing the sex scenes was excruciating. Partly because I kept imagining people I know, like my mom and my boss, reading them and immediately assuming that that’s how I have sex. But it was mainly excruciating because I kept running out of things to call my main character’s private parts. ‘Vagina’ is hardly the most romantic word in the English dictionary, and ‘penis’ isn’t that much better.

We start off as toddlers being taught to call our genitals easy, harmless names like ‘pee-pee’ and ‘wee-wee’, and things don’t really progress too much from there until, during our teenage years, we leap straight from sweet and innocent to just plain ugly.

As with most things in life, men have it a little easier than women. There are tons of names out there for men’s thingies, from the completely crass to the downright boring (‘Manhood’, for instance, which is ever popular in romantic fiction). Then there are the more creatively descriptive terms to choose from, like pork sword, love monster or trouser snake – none of which are particularly romantic sounding and hardly roll easily off the tongue.

That being said, these man-part descriptors are mostly a lot less cringeworthy than what we have to deal with. As women we seem to be stuck with a collection of words that seem to be the result of genital writer’s block. In our arsenal of available synonyms for the vagina I feel we’re left lacking and I shudder to type most of them. For some reason they always feel derogatory – in particular the ever hideous and unacceptable ‘C’ word, which is way too loaded to even write out in full.  

So while I was writing my sex scenes I felt like I could never quite find the perfect way to word them – the last place you want to gross somebody out is when you’re trying to be sexy. I would get as far as ‘he ran his fingers over her …’ and then I would freeze. Type in a word. Blush, blush, blush. Backspace. Try another word; hang my head in shame; delete that too. I felt like as soon as I thrust one of those words into the scene developing on the page in front of me, the sex I was writing about instantly became hard around the edges.

I even tried getting scientific with it, but all you’re left with is synonyms like vulva or labia, and those really won’t do.

So where does that leave us as writers and readers? Eventually I ended up using one or two choice synonyms a couple of times. But more often than not, to keep things tidy, I avoided naming my characters sexual organs altogether. It was a bit like when you bump into someone whose name you think you remember but you’re not sure, so you do the safest thing possible, which is to not mention any name at all.

You know, Eskimos have over 200 words for snow because it plays such an important role in their lives. You’d think that as part of a culture as obsessed with sex as we are there’d be more than just a handful of words for the penis and the vagina.

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