Not Your Mother's Beach Book

Timothy Archibald

Like many women in their 30s, Nyree (Rabushka) Belleville and Jami (Way) Worthington juggle conflicting priorities. These former Stanford roommates chitchat about toddlers, husbands, career paths—and how to write a truly hot, steamy sex scene.

“Sometimes our language can be so foul,” Belleville says, laughing heartily. “We’ll walk ourselves through a scene and you simply think of it as your book and you’re just trying to write it. But we have head-turning, eye-popping conversations when we’re in restaurants.”

The two Bay Area residents speak on the phone an hour or more daily, exchange e-mails frequently, and get together at least once a month. Their rapid-fire conversations jump from the effective use of dream sequences and flashbacks, to size, structure and other details about intimate areas of human anatomy.

“You want it to be more than just a play-by-play of body parts and what’s going on where. You want to be sure you’re inside the characters’ heads; what she’s thinking and what he’s thinking,” explains Worthington. “And yet you also have to pay attention to ‘What’s that leg doing on that shoulder?’ It’s exhausting.”

Belleville and Worthington, both ’94, are part of a publishing trend: erotic romance. Gone are the formulaic storylines leading to sex scenes masked in euphemism. Now heroines eagerly indulge their sexuality in anatomically correct phrases, often with an earthy, streetwise ring.

“It freed me up as a writer to be able to use the real words,” Belleville says. She publishes as Bella Andre (Take Me, 2005; Tempt Me, Taste Me, Touch Me, 2007; and Red Hot Reunion, 2007, Pocket Books). Worthington’s pseudonym is Jami Alden (Delicious, 2006, and A Taste of Honey, forthcoming in April, Kensington Books).

Romance novels, which generated $1.2 billion in sales and accounted for 54.9 percent of mass-market fiction sold in North America in 2004, are evolving to reflect the tastes of readers accustomed to the titillating scripts of television shows such as Sex and the City and Desperate Housewives. The erotic romance trend started around 2000 with Ellora’s Cave, a website providing books in electronic and paper formats. Ellora’s Cave proved readers were willing to plunk down money for sexual stories that don’t necessarily end in marital bliss.

Mainstream publishers took note. Traditional tales still abound, but now there are options. Berkley/Jove, a division of Penguin Books, launched its Heat imprint in May 2005. Harlequin Books introduced Spice last June, and HarperCollins followed with Avon Red. Kensington Books debuted Aphrodisia last January, and sales are better than projected, says Kensington editor Hilary Sares. Erotic romance books “are in Borders, Barnes and Noble, Walden Books, you name it, and they’re selling fantastically well,” Sares reports.

This isn’t porn or erotica. Plots and characters are as integral to these books as the sex scenes. “Women love narrative. Women want a relationship. Body slamming is not what they want,” Sares explains. “The story may be quite untraditional. Aphrodisia doesn’t tend to picket fences and bouncing babies. It’s about the complexity of human relations. If that’s not there, women aren’t interested.”

And men? “Men are reading these, too,” Sares adds. “Not in huge numbers, but once they find out what’s going on between those book covers, yes they are. Some couples read them aloud.”

There’s more to romance books than most people assume, says Abby Zidle, ’91. She began a PhD on romance novels, but found she was much more interested in reading the books than in writing the dissertation. “I went to good schools, I was a good little liberal, and I felt I was a feminist, so I was wondering what I was getting out of these books.”

The answer is affirmation and empowerment, says Zidle, now an editor at Harlequin Books. Traditional romance novels reassure women they can demand emotional satisfaction and find happiness as a wife and mother. With the proliferation of sensual images in all types of media, it’s a natural evolution to more explicit and diverse stories.

“This is the logical extension of what romance novels have been doing for years, which is modeling behavior for women and saying, ‘Is this what you want? Is this what you need? Then go for it,’” Zidle says. “The publishing industry is in some ways really nonjudgmental in that if enough people will buy it, we’ll print it.”

Some erotic romances, like Belleville’s Take Me, feature a sensuous, plus-size heroine. Others offer fantasy elements, such as the ability to change into an animal. Storylines also include masturbation, consensual bondage, sex toys, or a ménage à trois or more.

Despite their frank anatomy discussions, Worthington and Belleville are somewhat conservative in their genre. They prefer one-woman-one-man plot lines. “To me, romance is the important part,” Worthington says. “They may be having hot monkey sex all over the place, but I still want to know that they’re falling in love. I think we write really romantic stories that happen to have a lot of sex in them.”

They met as freshmen at Stanford. “We just clicked,” Belleville recalls. “We were the only two in our 100-person dorm who didn’t rush a sorority or a fraternity. We had the same crude sense of humor; we liked the same music.”

And they both loved romance novels. Being roomies in their sophomore year seemed like a good idea, but it wasn’t.

“We had the girl break-up,” Belleville says. “As we like to put it, we were both selfish you-know-whats.”

After graduation, they lost touch. Worthington worked in marketing and dabbled with a historical romance novel. When layoffs hit, unemployment fueled her writing efforts. Belleville spent 10 years as a pop-folk musician, then joined a writing group and published a nonfiction book about the music industry. One day in 2002, on a whim, Worthington used her cell phone to play an on-air radio game. Belleville happened to be surfing the dial and tuned in while Worthington was talking.

“She didn’t say her name, but I knew the voice,” Belleville recalls. “She made a joke and I said, ‘That’s Jami.’ I knew I needed to track her down.” Belleville found Worthington’s phone number on the Internet. “I left the gooniest message on her answering machine.”

Worthington immediately returned Belleville’s call. They discovered they were both working on fledgling romance novels. Eventually they set up a critique/support group with another Bay Area writer. Belleville was the first published, initially with Ellora’s Cave, then through Pocket Books. Worthington hooked up with Kensington Books’ Aphrodisia line. They both feel they’re in the right place at the right time for the erotic romance trend, which fits their open-to-just-about-anything attitude.

“I’m sure my husband will tell you that I have a fairly filthy mouth and Isometimes say things that shouldn’t be said in mixed company. So it’s nice to have an outlet,” Worthington says happily. She loves creating male characters who are just average guys.

“Guys are not thinking about ‘her soft flesh.’ They’re thinking in more crude terms,” she explains. “It’s nice to not have to make a guy think, ‘Oh my darling,’ because nothing pulls me out of a story faster than that. I grew up with guys. I’m married to a guy. My husband doesn’t think deep, poetic thoughts about my beauty, but he’ll tell me I’m hot.”

Belleville also appreciates the frankness of their genre. “I’ve been able to tap into a creative part of my brain that happens to be tied into sexuality,” Belleville says. “I feel this is a real feminist thing that I’m doing, embracing my body. My books start off with a bang. If you can make it through chapter two, then you’re not fainthearted.”

Both writers are mothers. Belleville has a 2-year-old son and a newborn daughter. Worthington has a 1-year-old boy. They commiserate on managing multiple life roles. “It can be a little weird,” Belleville says, “like when I’m changing my baby’s diaper and thinking about the choreography of sex scenes.”

Wherever they are and whatever they’re doing, Belleville and Worthington pursue their literary craft in style. “Our preferred method of brainstorming ideas for a new book is to go to the Stanford mall and walk around,” Belleville says. “Being at the mall sort of frees up our creative juices. Walking frees up your mind. Shopping obviously does the same for us, too.”

PATRICIA LYNN HENLEY is a writer in Sonoma, Calif.