Guest Post by Karen Essex

I am pleased to welcome Karen Essex here today at Book Flame. Also check out her novel Dracula In LoveAnd without further ado:

Why Can't a Book be Smart, Historical and Sexy?
By Karen Essex
During an auction for the audio rights to my novel Dracula in Love my editor forwarded me an email from one of the bidders.  “This book is so hot that I can’t wait to get home to my wife!” he proclaimed, and then outbid everyone else and presumably went home and made his wife happy.  

We were delighted to hear that feedback because during the writing process, we had tortuous debates over just how much sex would be too much.  My most trusted readers are my agent, my editor, and my manager, and each had very different responses.  Without giving away proclivities, two on the team kept begging for more, though what one thought erotic, the other sometimes found terrifying.  The third loved every sensual drop but kept reminding us of the puritanical level of the basic American reader.  She pointed out that the book had the elements that discriminating readers look for in smart fiction: a strong, authoritative voice, painstakingly composed prose, and serious themes.  “This book is too rich to have its seriousness dismissed because of the sex scenes,” our cautionary voice reminded us.  “You know how readers are!  They see some sex on the page and assume it’s a bodice-ripper.”

Let me say that I set out to write something that was both smart and erotic, something that did not hint at searing sex as the chapter closes but truly explored women’s sexual pleasure.  One of my biggest motivations for re-imagining Bram Stoker’s brilliant novel Dracula from the female perspective was the hyper-misogyny of the original.  Today, the book is often read as a cautionary tale against the unbridling of female sexuality at the end of the 19th century. 

In Dracula in Love, I wanted to turn the original story inside out, exposing its underbelly or its “subconscious mind.”  A great part of what could not be expressed in any quarter in the 1890s—or in the whole of literary history, for that matter—was women’s sexual pleasure.  In fact, in my research into the late Victorian era, I discovered case after case in asylum archives of women being committed for having what we today would consider normal sex drives.  Stoker’s prose is rife with fomenting sexuality; the fun in retelling the tale was to express the formerly forbidden aspects. 

Yet I have received huffy complaints from some readers that I did disservice to the book—that I literally cheapened both the book and its female protagonist—by including sex scenes. (By the way, I use no profanity and no crude terms.)   A few readers have expressed “shock,” and others have been upset by “the author’s need to shock.” Honestly, the only shocking thing to this author is this sort of response.

Let’s dissect this.  The point of my books is to give voice to otherwise voiceless females from history and myth; to unlock what has been secreted away in women’s hearts and minds for millennia.  Historically, women have either been reduced to nothing but their sexuality, or stripped of it entirely; the Madonna or the whore.  Are we still obeying the ancient good girl/bad girl paradigm that has bifurcated and inhibited women for millennia?  Is there a knee jerk dichotomy in the minds of serious readers:  No sex, please, we’re too smart?  

Far from wanting to shock, I wanted to delight, to thrill, and to illuminate in ways that were impossible in the 1890s.  I wanted to envelop the reader in the lush velvet of the Victorian era with its contained and corseted sensuality, cloaked with layers of delicate lace, and in some cases, restrained with leather straps and strait jackets.  Thankfully, many readers have expressed praise and appreciation for its dark sensuality.  Several readers have compared the experience of reading it to eating expensive dark chocolate.  Some have admitted to drooling on the pages, while others even hinted at wanting to eat the pages!  

A recent reviewer declared that the sex in Dracula in Love, while erotic, was tasteful, because the writing was more “artistic” than “literary.”  Precisely what that means, I do not know, but if “literary” implies either the absence of sex, or linking pleasure and self-loathing, I’ll take “artistic” any day.

If readers enjoy a writer’s descriptions of place, of food, of all manner of things appealing to the senses, why shy away from visceral, transporting descriptions of sex?  If sex debases women and literature, please tie me up and spank me, then wrap my books in brown paper and sell them from below the counter.

About the Author Karen Essex

Karen Essex is an award-winning novelist and journalist and a screenwriter.  She is the author of the national and international best-selling novel,  Leonardo’s Swans (Doubleday 2006), about the rivalries among the powerful women painted by the great master when he was employed by the Duke of Milan.  Continuing in the theme of women’s influence upon culture and art, her latest novel,Stealing Athena, chronicles the story of the controversial Elgin Marbles from the points of view of two fascinating women, Mary Nisbet, Countess of Elgin, and Aspasia, mistress to Pericles. 

Essex has also written two acclaimed biographical novels about the queen of Egypt, Kleopatra and Pharaoh, published in 2001 and 2002, which she adapted into a screenplay for Warner Bros.  She also adapted Anne Rice’s novel The Mummy or Ramses the Damned into a screenplay for Titanic director James Cameron and 20th Century Fox, and has written a screenplay about Kamehameha, the first king of Hawaii, for Columbia/Tristar.  She has written a dance movie for Jennifer Lopez Entertainment and Paramount Pictures, and continues to develop a variety of film projects.

Essex’s articles, essays and profiles have been published in VoguePlayboyThe L. A. WeeklyL. A. Style, and many other periodicals.  After being awarded highest honors from the Los Angeles Press Club for her thought-provoking cover story about the missing 1950s pinup icon Bettie Page, Essex co-authored the biography, Bettie Page: Life of a Pinup Legend.  Essex is the first and only journalist with whom the reclusive Ms. Page has ever agreed to meet and cooperate.

Essex was born and raised in New Orleans.  She was graduated from Tulane University, attended graduate school at Vanderbilt University, and received an MFA in Writing from Goddard College in Vermont.  She’s appeared on The Today Show and A Word on Words hosted by John Seigenthaler, as well as other PBS and NPR programs.  She’s lectured at the Chicago Museum of Art, and extensively at universities.  Her books are taught in many college courses from creative writing to history to women’s studies.   

Leonardo’s Swans, a runaway bestseller in Italy, won the prestigious 2007 Premio Roma for foreign fiction.  Essex’s novels are published in twenty-seven languages.  She lives in Los Angeles.

About Dracula In Love:

Karen Essex turns on the heat in this transporting and darkly haunting new tale of love and possession that puts forth the question: What if everything you knew about Dracula  ... was wrong? 

From the shadowy banks of the River Thames to the wild and windswept coast of Yorkshire, the quintessential Victorian virgin Mina Murray vividly recounts in the pages of her private diary the intimate details of what transpired between her and Count Dracula—the joys and terrors of a pas­sionate affair and her rebellion against a force of evil that has pursued her through time.

Mina’s version of this timeless gothic vampire tale is a visceral journey into the dimly lit bedrooms, mist-filled cemeteries, and locked asylum chambers where she led a secret life, far from the chaste and polite lifestyle the defenders of her purity, and even her fiancé, Jonathan Harker, expected of her.

Bram Stoker’s classic novel was only one side of the story. Now, for the first time, Dracula’s eternal muse reveals all. What she has to say is more sensual, more devious, and more enthralling than ever imagined. The result is a scintillating gothic novel that reinvents the tragic heroine Mina as a modern woman tor­tured by desire.


  1. Wow, great post! I can see how it would be painstakingly hard to write a realistic, historical novel that does contain some sensual undertones without making some readers shy away from the storyline just because of the inherent steaminess. I am glad you kept them in, as I don't think it could be as captivating without it.

  2. I really have to stand up and applaud this post! It drives me nuts that male authors can be considered lit fic and write some truly atrocious sex scenes but when women put sex in a book it's a bodice-ripper. Brava to Ms Essex for her bold attitude!


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