In my life as an author, I’ve not yet had to tackle the question of whether or not to include a sex scene in something I’m writing. This wasn’t a conscious choice but rather, a result of sex simply not being necessary or organic to my story, and I was not compelled to go there. I’m definitely not squeamish about it. Au contraire, mes amis. (Right now I’m moving my eyebrows up and down teasingly in an effort to be alluring, but it really just looks dorky. I’ll stop.)
However, I’ve been thinking about this topic lately as I brainstorm my next project, and after reading Kelly Jensen’s excellent post “Sex, YA Books, and Some “E” Words” on the Stacked blog. Then, a friend gave me a copy of a book she just loved and thought was a great example of how sex in YA lit can be authentically portrayed: “The Recipe” by first-time author Maisy Dee (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform). In “The Recipe,” longtime friends Craig and Emily fall in love and explore their first sexual relationship, with all the awkwardness, sweetness, anxiety, and pleasure that go along with it. This was a great read for me because it was so refreshingly honest and tender and real. It’s the kind of book that can be the exact right thing someone needs to read at the exact right time in his or her life, and really make a difference. I’m a sucker for those kinds of books.
In pursuit of a larger think on the subject of sex in YA lit, I had some questions for Maisy; fortunately, she had some answers. And also fortunately, the Kindle version of “The Recipe” will be available as a FREE download starting tomorrow, February 1, through Sunday, February 3, so I’m really happy to help this book get some well-deserved exposure. To nab it, visit this page on Amazon.
What was your original inspiration for “The Recipe”?
It’s hard to pinpoint my original inspiration. I was bringing my kids to the children’s library a lot, and started picking up books for myself in the YA section. I found tons of fantasy, of course, and lots of realistic fiction that had kids in tragic or troubling situations. And the romantic and sexual situations in these books sent two distinct and conflicting messages to young readers. You have so-called “paranormal romance” which literally makes sex, well, superhuman. Or you have horrible situations like rape or abuse—or consensual sex that is punished with a bad reputation or regret and self-loathing. I thought, gosh, where are the books like Judy Blume’s, where it’s normal to have urges and it’s okay to act on them in a responsible and very human way?
They’re out there, but can be hard to find. Tell me a bit about your journey with this book, and why you ended up self-publishing it.
Self-publishing allowed me to make all the creative decisions regarding the book and its packaging. Once I decided to go out on my own, I had a lot of fun with it, because I was lucky to know both a fantastic editor, Deborah Bancroft, and a top notch book designer, Jonathan Lippincott, so I had the resources to produce a really professional-quality book. I also had the freedom to choose and hire an illustrator. The creative process of collaborating with the artist, Jared Friedman, was really fun. I took a big risk with illustrations that are not typical of the YA books you normally see, but I think, like the story, they are honest in their quirkiness. So far, I’ve gotten very positive feedback. I really expected more backlash because of the explicit content, and perhaps that will come as the book gets broader readership.
There are definitely more and more examples of sexual intimacy in YA lit than back in the days of Judy Blume’s “Forever.” What have you seen out there that you think is great? What’s not-so-great?
There are a few YA books out there in which the female characters are more sexually liberated. They make decisions to explore their sexuality on their own terms and for their own reasons — sometimes as an expression of love or sometimes just to experiment, or even to relieve stress. I think that’s good because it’s a reality of life. Sexual experiences, good and bad, are just that — experiences. I’m not in any way talking about sexual violence or trauma here. I’m talking about making the decision to do something that might not turn out to be perfect, and that’s okay.
But the sexually liberated female is still too rare in teen books. There is too much emphasis on “losing” (or “saving”) your virginity or equating sex with power. And, to be honest, teen sex — when it’s consensual — is generally represented as being way too good! I’m not saying that it can’t be fun, but it’s much more awkward than that.
Yeah, I agree. Everybody loves some escapism, but when you’re reading about “perfect” sex in an otherwise “realistic” story, it can create an off-note. So if an author wants to write a detailed sex scene, to whom or what should his or her responsibilities be?
I believe that a writer’s greatest responsibility is to the characters and the story. I admit that I had a bit of an agenda in writing this book, because I felt that there are a lack of stories out there that are honest about sex — I knew I wanted to tell a story that represented it in a positive but realistic way. So I did have the reader in mind. But once I got to know the characters, I had to let them take the story where it would go, realistically. I had to let them make mistakes and figure it out. The sex shouldn’t be gratuitous; it should be a place where the characters would go naturally.
In “The Recipe,” I think you do a great job of writing sex so that it’s sensitive and realistic, and doesn’t jolt the reader out of the story. Was that difficult to accomplish?
I just tried to stay true to Emily and Craig. They explore their sexuality both alone and together, and I wanted to be honest about that. So many books go only so far and then slip into vague metaphors. And very few even mention the clitoris — which is a pretty big omission, I think! So, yeah, I went there, but I just tried to reflect what they were thinking and feeling during those moments. As long as the characters are headed in that direction, I think you can follow them. If you’re just trying to spice up your story, then you can get yourself into trouble. There really are only so many ways to describe an orgasm. You can’t go into writing a sex scene with the single goal of making it more amazing or sexier or kinkier than anyone else’s and succeed in telling an honest story.
“The Recipe” is told from the alternating POV’s of Craig and Emily. Was it challenging to write the development of Craig and Emily’s sexual relationship from a guy’s perspective?
Yes and no. I did talk to some guys (adults) about their teenage sexual experiences to gain some insight into a guy’s perspective. But while guys and girls have to deal with different societal pressures and expectations, in the end we have very similar feelings and insecurities. I just tried to put myself in Craig’s shoes, as a human being, and ask myself how would I feel in this moment? What would I do?
What would you like readers to take away from this book?
At one point in the book, Craig confides in his father his anxiety about sleeping with Emily, that he won’t be very skilled because he’s a virgin. His dad responds that “sex isn’t a performance, it’s a conversation.” And like any good conversation, there is give and take, passion, laughter, and respect. Sex in real life isn’t choreographed or perfect, it’s a part of creating an intimate connection with another person.
I have to say, I adore the idea of “a conversation” here. It’s so important. I’ll take that with me into my own process when it comes to writing about sex in the future.
I’d love to compile more recommendations of YA books that represent the range of ways in which sex is portrayed. Please share by posting a comment here…