Maisy Dee’s “The Recipe” and sex in YA lit

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”?

The Recipe book coverIt’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.

Maisy Dee, as illustrated by Jared Friedman

“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.

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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.

You can learn more about Maisy Dee and “The Recipe” at www.maisydee.com or on Facebook.

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…

Author photos and other psychological workouts

I freaking hate getting my picture taken. It sends a current of panic through my entire body. I avoid it at all costs, and when I can’t, I make some horrible joke about indigenous cultures who believe photos steal the soul. Or I secretly crop myself out of a group shot and delete the original. I know, I’ve got some self-image issues. I’m working on them.

Fortunately, in advance of “You Look Different in Real Life,” I had new author photos done by a truly gifted photographer acquaintance. (Book getting published = photo situation you cannot avoid or use passive-aggressive strategies with.) It makes me feel legit somehow, to have pictures of myself out there that were not taken by my husband in the backyard, on our little point-and-shoot camera, with him shouting “Look natural! Smile!” and me yelling back, “Shut up! I am!” through gritted teeth while silently, you know, wanting to kill him.

I love how the new photos came out. Can you tell? I only have then plastered all over this website. There were so many great shots, my agent and editor and I couldn’t agree on just one to use. However, when I look at these gorgeous portraits, the title of my novel whispers a cruel irony. Because “she looks different in real life” will likely be the EXACT thing people will think to themselves if they meet me in person.

I know this is not exactly a shocking revelation, given the whole point of professional headshots, but here it is anyway: I never look this good. If you were to run into me at Stop & Shop, my hair would not flip like that and my skin would not glow, because, duh, I don’t get salon blow-outs and makeup every day. And you might notice my deep frown line, bane of my appearance and subject of much obsessing over by my mother, which has been mercifully Photoshopped out in the photos.

This is actually one of my favorite pictures, but I couldn't figure out an "official" use for it. So I'll stick it here.

But what I adore most about these shots, and I hope it’s the same for anyone else in this photo situation, especially other authors (and brides and grooms, and actors, and anyone else who needs a best-face-forward representation of themselves), is that in a way, I look more like me than I could have hoped for. It is the me in moments where I’m truly joyful about something, and shine from the inside out. It’s the me who worked killer hard on this book and is just incredibly thrilled and honored that people will get to read it. It’s the version of myself that’s proud and strong and completely in touch with who, exactly, I am. It’s my favorite version, really. The one I totally forget is there most of the time, so, good thing I have this reminder staring at me like a magic mirror.

The author photo can be fraught with all sorts of neurotic questions. Is your photo supposed to “match” the tone of your book? If you write for young adults, are you supposed to somehow seem “youthful” or “cool”? Do people expect you to “look” like a writer, and how would that be accomplished, anyway? Even if you’re not photo-phobic like I am, it can be overwhelming to try and figure out how you want to present yourself to people you don’t know personally.

Which brings me back to “You Look Different in Real Life,” and the other irony here. This book is very much about identity, and how we choose different versions of ourselves to share with the world. Between cell phone cameras, social media, and everything else that lets us upload to the cloud consciousness, the possibilities are endless. Sometimes we’re aware of these choices, and sometimes we’re not…and sometimes the choices are made for us by other people.

In the end, I have to laugh at how much work and thought and preparation went into the seemingly simple process of showing you what I look like — the honest, no-bullshit, this is who wants to connect with you through stories me rather than the tired, stressed, is this day over yet me you’re likely to run into at Stop & Shop. Yes, I do look different in real life. Fortunately, wonderfully, so do we all.