East Bay erotica writer Donna George Storey is also a wife and mom who carpools and bakes cupcakes.
“Sex doesn’t have to be stupid,” Donna Storey says. That’s Dr. Storey to you: a nationally acclaimed erotica writer with some 80 published stories and essays to her credit, the Berkeley author also holds a Ph.D. in Japanese literature. “Erotic literature shouldn’t be something you have to hide away; it should make people talk about sex,” she proclaims. And so, on a bright Sunday afternoon in June, Storey (a petite, mid-40ish blond, attired today in an ankle-length silk sheath that sets off her observant blue eyes) has convoked a gathering of like-minded Japanophiles, advanced degree collectors, writers and mom buddies to discuss Amorous Woman, her just published, distinctly dirty first novel.
In a friend’s sun-drenched living room high in the Berkeley hills, the ladies chat about love and literature over sushi and mimosas while three very quiet husbands hole up in the kitchen. Copies of Amorous Woman are artfully arranged on a glass coffee table next to a dish of Japanese rice candy. The cover photo features a lissome Asian beauty in black lingerie—although, as Storey is the first to point out, her prurient protagonist is a Caucasian. Publishers, she shrugs. What can you do?
Loosely modeled on The Life of an Amorous Woman, a classic erotic novel by the 17th-century writer Ihara Saikaku, Storey’s book depicts the picaresque adventures of Lydia Yoshikawa (née Evans), a young American with a passion for all things (and most persons) Japanese.
Set in Japan in the 1980s, Amorous Woman is partly autobiographical, Storey says, but not in the way you might expect. The “texture” of daily life in the floating world—the taste of a blowfish dinner, the smell of tatami, the “toaster-oven heat” of Osaka in the summer—such sensual details are “100 percent true,” according to the author, who kept a comprehensive journal during her own youthful exploits in the East. Lydia’s numerous, often improbable loves, however, are largely the product of writerly imagination. Still, Storey does admit to a certain fascination with Japanese men, the “college students with gorgeous skin,” the “young salary men with worried expressions,” whom she encountered during her stint as an English teacher in and around Kyoto from 1983 to 1985. (A subsequent year of language studies in Yokohama as a Stanford doctoral student wasn’t quite as much fun, Storey says with a twinkle, “because by then I was married.”)
Any reader who has ever watched a porn film—or, for that matter, negotiated certain portions of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales—will recognize some time-honored tropes in Storey’s text. One is not enough, once is not enough, and the more unlikely, the better. Yet Amorous Woman also details “real-life situations and emotions,” as Storey points out a few days before the Berkeley hills bash, in the course of a conversation that starts at a kitchen table and winds up, hours later, over tea and tapas at César. Unlike the standard stroke-book protagonist, Storey’s heroine encounters some unexpected obstacles along the path of sexual pleasure—a sincere but failed attempt at married monogamy, an agonizing decision about abortion—that transform her into a deeper, more battle-scarred human being. In other words, Storey says, “The book is not just a one-handed read.”
And, it should be noted, Storey is not just a one-handed writer. “I also have a depressing-personal-essay hat,” she says. “I have a trying-to-figure-out-what-literary-magazine-editors-want hat.” (That humorous, self-deprecating tone notwithstanding, Storey regularly scopes out editorial inner desires; one of her non-erotic efforts even received a special mention in the Pushcart Prize Stories 2004.)
She writes a monthly feature, “Cooking Up a Storey,” for the Erotic Readers and Writers Association—“that’s my charming-witty-columnist hat.” She sports a jaunty mom-of-two hat as the carpool-driving, cupcake-baking mother of fourth- and eighth-grade boys. And then there’s the devoted-wife hat. Last year, she and her husband of 21 years renewed their vows in a Las Vegas ceremony conducted by an Elvis impersonator, promising (as Storey notes in her blog, “sex, food, and writing”) “not to treat each other like hound dogs or step on the other’s blue suede shoes.”
Domestic existence and artistic endeavor don’t always make compatible bedfellows, but Storey says that the “creative act” of giving birth to her first child in 1995 gave her the confidence to launch a long-deferred writing career. Years earlier, working toward a creative writing minor at Princeton, she worried that she “didn’t really have anything that interesting to say.” E.L. Doctorow, her favorite writing teacher, autographed a copy of his bestselling Loon Lake for her: “To Donna: Keep writing!” But for the next 14 years, she attempted nothing non-academic (though she did produce a doctoral dissertation, “Speaking the Unspeakable: Images of Madwomen in the Works of Furui Yoshikichi, Murakami Haruki and Yamamoto Michiko,” later published, in part, under the title Child of Darkness.)
Then came Baby No. 1—and at precisely the stage when many other women hang up the artistic towel for good, Storey got started. “Having a child is the hardest thing,” she says. “This little helpless infant you have to do everything for! If only they could start you with an 8-year-old. So once I had a child, and knew I could do that, I was like, okay, I can write.”
To Storey’s surprise, a writer’s life didn’t require withdrawal from the world, but intense engagement with it—a full-bore exploration involving not only ideas and feelings, but also tangible, sensual detail. A lot of tangible, sensual detail. “It was like the Wizard of Oz, where I was living a black-and-white life,” Storey recalls. “Then I started writing, and everything’s in color. I’m noticing everything. What does that coffee smell like? What is the sound of the voice of the man at the cafe? When I’d eat something, I’d think, how would I describe this taste? And so I’d eat slower, thinking, what’s happening in my mouth?” At the heart of all creative writing, she realized, was “a question, a mystery, a wondering why.” Six months after rededicating herself to the vocation she’d abandoned, Storey nabbed first prize in a Stanford Magazine fiction contest for alumni.
Then one afternoon, while tidying up a bureau drawer, Storey (who is not, she points out, “an accessories kind of girl”) came across a beautiful but never-worn scarf, and started asking herself questions. What did that strip of silk really feel like? What in the world could you do with it? The result was the “electrifying” experience of writing her first erotic short story, “The Blindfold.” Though it took nearly a year to polish and publish the piece, she knew she had found her niche. Gilding the lily, the spouse of the newly-minted eroticist proved an enthusiastic on-site research assistant. Today, Storey is still riding the current, with sizzling new stories appearing regularly in prestigious sex anthologies, including Best American Erotica, Best Women’s Erotica, and The Mammoth Book of Best Erotica.
“Living in Berkeley, California, most people are fine with what I do, ” says Storey, who grew up in various East Coast locales. “That’s one reason I publish under my own name. If I lived in a small town in Pennsylvania, it might be different.” And indeed, in the Bay Area, where a certain earnest, near-evangelical approach to sexual expression thrives right alongside a more commercial view, risqué is not necessarily synonymous with raunchy. You could almost take grandma shopping at the local sex toy emporium Good Vibrations, with its quasi-educational, nice-girls-do gestalt. And remember the Kensington Ladies Home Erotica Society that flourished in the 1980s (and whose whimsically-masked, well-coiffed members even made an appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show)—well, wasn’t that cute?
Location is everything, as they say, but timing is everything else. Traditional romance novels currently outsell every genre in the United States except religious and inspirational books, and since 2006, when several American publishers launched pioneering erotic romance lines, sales of sexually explicit love stories (where the heroine has orgasms instead of metaphors) have burgeoned. Contrast that spirit of approbation to the tenor of the times during, say, World War II, when U.S. publishers gave the cold shoulder to the arty but graphic fiction of French-born author Anaïs Nin. Temporarily, Nin resorted to self-publishing. (At about the same time, the Japanese government banned Saikaku’s The Life of an Amorous Woman as “a danger to public morality.”) Yet some 30 years later, in the liberated 1970s, Nin loomed large as a feminist icon. And by the end of that decade, when Storey entered college, sexual exploration à la Lydia was considered cool, even politically mandated, in many circles.
“I’m going to do it just like a man,” Storey recalls thinking in that age of innocence. “I’m going to have sex without being involved. Men are on top, and I want to have that male privilege, too. That must be how you get it.” But though she did her bit in bed for the feminist cause, egalitarian utopia failed to ensue. “From what I read,” she says, citing Peggy Orenstein’s Schoolgirls, “there’s still that slut/good girl thing in full force today. It’s not like, ‘Wow, you really know what you’re doing in bed. That’s a great skill.’ It’s more like, ‘Oh, you’re one of those skanky girls who does that.’”
Although she’s no longer on the front lines of the futon-hopping revolution, Storey says that producing her particular brand of erotica is, in fact, a feminist act. Like anyone with an abiding interest in sex—or equality between the sexes—she’s made quite a study of the dynamics of power play. And even when her libidinous heroines get themselves into a jam (or, more aptly, some sort of exotic bondage device), she says, “they are always the ones in control.” Superficially, it may not look that way. “But,” Storey explains, “there can be great power in supposedly giving up your power. After all, the submissive person gets all the attention of the dominant person.”
There’s nothing like dipping into a little BDSM literature (an erotica sub-genre focusing on the psycho-sexual practices of bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and sadism and masochism), she says, to make you realize that much of the allure of sex springs from the mind, not the genitals.
As for her own predilections, Storey admits to a strong streak of voyeurism—though not necessarily in the boudoir. “The best vantage point for a writer,” she says, “is to be off to the side, not right in the middle of the action.” In fact, she speculates, the 11th-century Japanese noblewoman Lady Murasaki might never have penned The Tale of Genji (a work some scholars consider to be the world’s first novel) had she enjoyed a more glittering position at court. Merely “the daughter of a minor official,” she was ideally situated to observe others rather than to be observed by them.
Just at this moment, though, Storey—the self-proclaimed voyeur—is experimenting with a more dominant role. As the mimosas take full effect on her guests, she initiates a rousing round-table conversation about (what else?) sex and power, as well as the misunderstood role of geisha, the vagaries of the publishing industry and a particularly memorable dinner she enjoyed in 1983 with two Japanese dentists. The word “blowfish” floats out of her mouth in a delicate cloud of innuendo. Many women appear rapt. But looking around the room, you notice that some of them are focusing not on the flow of words, but on the panoramic view from the picture windows in this bright and cheerful room. Who can blame them? From this elevated vantage point, you can see the Golden Gate Bridge, and the bay that opens onto the ocean that extends all the way to Japan, and beyond.
Join Donna George Storey for a reading and discussion of Amorous Woman and a free workshop on sensual writing (warning: chocolate is involved) on Thursday, Oct. 30, 7 p.m. at A Great Good Place for Books, 6120 LaSalle Ave., Oakland, (510) 339-8210; www.ggpbooks.com. Visit www.donnageorgestorey.com.
Autumn Stephens is the Berkeley-based author of several books of women’s history and humor, as well as a freelance editor. She also teaches private writing classes and leads healing writing groups. To sign up for fall workshops, contact Autumn at email@example.com.