When the world went wild for Fifty Shades of Grey, I couldn’t understand why. The book did nothing for me. I could appreciate that it was exciting to read about sex while riding the subway, surrounded by strangers, but the words on the page didn’t inspire any tingly feelings. Jowita Bydlowska’s writing, on the other hand, definitely elicits a bodily response.
Jowita’s best known for her hard-hitting memoir Drunk Mom, which was one of the first books to address how alcohol is used to escape the pressures and loneliness of early motherhood. In her new book Possessed, fans will be reunited with Jowita’s raw and gritty style, but this is a novel, not a true story, wherein Jowita uses supernatural elements to explore mental health, codependency, and a woman’s unhealthy obsession with an ex lover. In and amongst the heavier themes, there are many juicy and erotic bits to be savoured. Jowita doesn’t hold back.
I connected with the best-selling Canadian author to ask her about sex writing and how to do it well.
What was the first piece of writing to really turn you on?
A book called Justine that sat on a high shelf in my childhood home that was full of things I wasn’t supposed to see or play with. Did the writing turn me on? Not exactly. But the fact that my mom hid the book, the fact that the book did seem to be about sex and the fact that I had to read it in secret, very carefully so as to not break its spine… that was what was extremely arousing. I was turned on by the whole forbidden pleasure of reading something that I wasn’t supposed to. To give you an idea what kind of a book Justine is, after its publication, Napoleon Bonaparte ordered de Sade to be arrested and imprisoned for the rest of his life and the book itself was to be destroyed.
What’s great writing advice that has always served you well?
The best writing advice is to be a reader first. And another great advice is to not be too precious about your writing, in other words, make peace with having to lose some of your best stuff to editing. Finally, just write the story/ book you yourself would want to read. Don’t think about your audience too much; you’re the most important reader. I wrote both Guy and Possessed for myself first of all.
You write a lot of hot scenes, what are your top three tips for steamy dialogue? Or descriptive writing about sex?
I’ve been aware of Bad Sex in Fiction Award (defunct since 2020, when we lost our sense of humour) so whenever I write my sex scenes I’m always asking myself if whatever I’ve written would qualify for this award—an award I do not want to win. This means that I try to avoid weird descriptions of body parts and activities and turns of phrase, and usually don’t go too poetic on a scene and not too clinical either, although when I was writing Guy, from the point of view of a male, I wanted my character to have a certain obsessive-compulsive habit of methodically reporting on what exactly he was doing to the women he would fuck. I also try not to make it too serious—although I avoid slapstick humour. As for dialogue and what my characters say to each other during sex or in sexual situations, some of it is lifted from porn, some of it from real-life, from sexting, some of it is just made up, what I specifically wouldn’t mind hearing or saying.
In Possessed, what was important for you to convey, regarding Josephine’s desires?
I think Josephine’s desires are like all of our desires—messy and sometimes overwhelming and sometimes really troubling. Josephine is obsessed with a fuckboi and at the same time is in an on-off thing with a retired fuckboi and she knows that neither of those men is good for her. Yet she wants what she wants, from the first pages she acknowledges this (“It was relentless, a fever that wouldn’t let up”) and she is somewhat unapologetic about it even though she feels humiliated by her desires. I wanted to show Josephine’s internal conflict with wanting what she wanted and feeling guilty about it, but then wanting it even more. I also wanted to show that in her weakness there was strength. Her obsession is just like any other addiction and the only way to conquer addiction is through recovery that has to be of a similar magnitude.
In your opinion, what is good sex writing? What does it have to do to really stand out? (There’s a lot of garbage out there.)
I think good sex writing has to be like any other writing… good. Just because it’s sex, that shouldn’t lead to strange word choices or turns of phrase. Unless the whole book is some wonky literary tale or it’s supposed to be funny and there’s a reason to compare a vagina to a chrysanthemum or a piggy bank (as one of the contenders for bad sex writing had done) just write plainly and maybe think of your lover and all those things you’d like them do to you to propel you into a bit of authenticity and possibly some poetry.
Not shying away from words is important too although I know some people find the words “cunt” or “cock” offensive but the substitutes can be so much worse (famously E.L. James referring to a vagina as “my sex,” which sounds weirdly prudish in a supposedly very sexually open book).
I know people think that self-published erotica—and erotica in general—is full of bad writing and while that might be true in some cases, I’ve come across some really impressive, hot writing in shape-shifter romances or Omegaverse. Some of those authors are real masters at dirty talk and writing scenes that are more useful than porn clips if you try to get yourself in a mood. As for whose sex writing stands out, we have a lot of great writers here in Canada—which I know has a reputation of being a bit of a prude—such as Barbara Gowdy or Sheila Heti. And Tamara Faith-Berger is a master; she’s able to write high-brow and weird and it’s porny too, and explicit.
What arouses you?
I find that good sex writing doesn’t necessarily equal writing that is arousing—to me, but like anything my preference is just my preference. Since I first found out about hot sex through writing, naturally I gravitated towards reading as source of my inspiration but I found lots of erotica to be beautifully written yet not necessarily hot, such as some of Anais Nin’s writing, which I adored. When I was really young and I wanted to arouse myself through reading, I would actually write out these elaborate, often taboo scenes on a piece of paper and I’d fold it repeatedly and hide it under my bed. I’d dig it out weeks later and read what I’ve written and blush and feel horny and guilty (I was a little bit Catholic back then) and masturbate.
What was the most satisfying aspect of writing Possessed?
The most satisfying aspect of writing Possessed was what I find most satisfying about writing fiction in general, which is the freedom to create entire universes and characters and scenes that have nothing to do with me. My first book was a memoir so I really wanted to move away from writing about myself. Fiction allows me to do that.