Single women in the 1830s might have needed a chaperone to hang out with men in public, but that doesn't mean they didn't love a good scandal now and again. This is the idea behind romance novelist Sarah MacLean's delightful Scandal & Scoundrel series, each of which follows the exploits of a young woman attempting to save her reputation while also falling in love with a man who's all wrong (or maybe just right) for her. In her latest, A Scot in the Dark, Lillian Hargrove is nearly ruined by a scandalous painting she thought would never see the light of day. Her only hope is to get married as fast as possible, but a problem arrives in the form of a brawny Scottish duke who will either help her or make it all worse. Sarah - who also happens to be great at super-steamy book recommendations - recently talked to Cosmopolitan.com about romance's reputation as a genre and the real-life inspiration behind Lillian's situation.
What makes a good sex scene?
Well, first it has to be relevant to the book. Sex should not be on the page just for sex's sake. That makes it porn, and that's a different article. The reason why it works so well in romance and why so many women come to romance for kink is because invariably in romance, sex scenes are wrapped up in character. It heightens the conflict, it makes the characters really identify with each other, it brings them closer together, and it makes the reader really feel like they're a part of that breathless experience of romance. At the same time, sex scenes in romance never shy away from conflict in the sense of - and I don't just mean bondage - that idea of sex being complicated. It's about trust and taking a risk and really making a choice to explore another person, and that can be really weird; in fact, usually it is the first time. It can be funny and sexy and sometimes just not work at all, and romance always lays all those options out and never shies away from them.
What's the hardest part of writing a good sex scene?
Making it sexy, believe it or not. That's a ridiculous answer, but that is really the answer. When we look at bad sex scenes, and god knows we've all read them, it can feel so "slot A, plug B, perfunctory, get it done" and move on for the plot. The most challenging thing is figuring out where to put them in the sense of making sure that it makes sense that the characters would be having sex right now and that it will complicate things, but also just making sure that it's going to make a reader take a breath and feel that emotional connection.
The whole Scandal & Scoundrel series is inspired by contemporary celebrity culture as much as it is the past. Were there any specific celebrity scandals that inspired A Scot in the Dark?
A Scot in the Dark is my sex tape book. I was plotting the series when Jennifer Lawrence's phone was hacked and I was thinking about the initial response. The kneejerk response from people was very much, "Well, why on earth would she have salacious photos of herself on her phone? That's just stupid." I started to really think about that as a concept. What are we saying about women when we ask that question? What are we saying about women and their ability to have sex and be sexual beings? I knew I wanted to play with that boundary of what are we willing to forgive a darling like Jennifer Lawrence that we might not forgive somebody who embraces her sexuality in a different way, like a Kardashian sister? I wanted to think about women having to apologize for being sexual beings.
At the same time there are all sorts of other little nods. Like, I'm a big Tom Hardy fan, and Tom Hardy is sort of famous on the internet for hanging out with dogs all the time, so there's a dog named Hardy in it. In [the previous book The Rogue Not Taken], it begins with the heroine discovering her brother-in-law having sex with [someone besides his wife], in an elevator-like location. That's obviously a nod to Beyoncé, Jay Z, and Solange Knowles at the Met Gala. It's not the same, but it's a little nod to it. There are five sisters who are all named interestingly spelled 'C' names, but they are all spelled with an 'S,' so that's my little Kardashian nod. There's a little Kanye West nod with an artist in the book.
Is he Derek Hawkins?
Yeah! He's the greatest artist who's ever lived! As I was writing it, Kanye West ... gave an interview that said he was Da Vinci and Steve Jobs all rolled into one, and I was like, "This character is not new." There's always been that guy in the world who thinks he is a genius and claims genius for himself. Gossip translates so well to the 1830s in large part because that's when gossip sort of started, in the 1800s - gossip magazines and gossip columns and scandal sheets. The aristocracy was a very small world that people couldn't access so easily, so they became really fascinated by it, as is the case now with the royal family.
I'm so embarrassed I didn't catch the Kardashian connection.
Sesily, who is the sort of dominant sister in this particular book, is my Khloé Kardashian. The [Talbot sisters] are not exactly the Kardashians, but it's my little homage to them because I love them. In the last one, one of the Talbot sisters was dating Derek Hawkins, so that was my Kim Kardashian nod. Really I just took the alliterative sisters. I love the Kardashians. There's something really powerful about them ... I love how bold they are. I love how proud they are. I love how loyal they are to each other. The Talbot sisters are desperately loyal to each other, and that fully pulls not just from the Kardashians but the royals, and these groups of people who are so wrapped up in celebrity that they have no choice but to be loyal to each other because of how disloyal the world can be to them, when something happens like their cell phone is hacked or there's a nude painting revealed of them. It was my girl squad book too - Taylor Swift and all her friends in Rhode Island.
You've been a passionate defender of romance novels, and in recent years, there have been a lot of "in defense of romance" pieces. Do you think the genre has finally become more accepted and less of a punch line?
I do. I'm not sure it's less of a punch line. Romance is low-hanging fruit for a lot of cheap humor. In part that's because there is a general sense in society writ large that women's sexuality is terrifying, and women taking control of their own bodies, lives, desires, and will is scary to the world. We see that in politics; we see that played out all around us all the time. That is why romance is low-hanging fruit for comedians, because fear engenders that. That said, I would be remiss in saying that something like Fifty Shades of Grey didn't change the world. Romance has been a financial juggernaut for publishing houses for 40 years, since The Flame and the Flower was published in 1972, but for a long time, it was just that dirty little secret. It was women's books. They bought them in the line at the supermarket when they were checking out with their husband's checkbook. What Fifty Shades did is blew the doors off and said, "Hey, there's this world of women who adore romance and love stories, and this is their media and it's incredibly powerful." I don't really think it's relevant anymore how people feel about Fifty Shades as a book. Thank goodness for it, because it did shine a light on the rest of us here who've been writing for 40 years - for women, by women, about women.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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