Author Wendy Perriam talks to us about her daughter Pauline on that day that Americans celebrate Mothers’ Day

“WHAT A LUCKY MUM I WAS – SPOILED ROTTEN ON TWO SEPARATE MOTHERS’ DAYS!

From the time my daughter, Pauline, married an American and went to live in Seattle, she never forgot our British Mothers’ Day, whilst also observing the American one. So, on the fourth Sunday in Lent, my first delivery would arrive, followed by a second in mid-May, usually a luxurious bouquet or stupendous hothouse plant – a far cry from the toilet-roll-tube bunnies and wonky home-knitted scarves she had given me in childhood. One of these Mothers’ Day plants is still exuberantly flourishing after twenty-odd years and has even propagated four offspring, filling my flat with ice-white blooms and lush green leaves.

Tragically, Pauline herself failed to flourish and, after a long, courageous battle with cancer of the tongue, died in 2008. Both Mothers’ Days died with her, of course, and part of me died, too, since she was my only child, conceived with great difficulty after two miscarriages. In fact, even during the pregnancy, there was a horrendous scare at twelve weeks, when the obstetrician declared the foetus dead in the womb. I was rushed to hospital, where, extraordinary as it sounds, the foetal heart restarted and Pauline made it through to her birth-day, New Year’s Eve, 1965, the best day of my life. My devoutly Catholic mother, who’d been fervently praying that I’d finally have a child, saw this as her personal miracle. So, much later on, when I dedicated my fourteenth novel, Lying, to my daughter, the dedication read: “For Pauline Maria, Grandma’s miracle”.

However, the only time I’ve ever drawn on her illness or death in my work was in a short story called Worms, based on my younger grandson, Will. I was in Seattle, looking after Pauline’s two small boys, while she underwent another operation and, one day, when I was taking him to school, he kept stopping to pick up dozens of worms we saw stranded on the sidewalk. “Worms mustn’t die,” he told me, desperately, but I knew he was really saying, “Mom mustn’t die.” And no wonder, when the last time he’d seen her, she was linked up to a scary array of tubes and drips, her face scarred with radiation burns.

Worms appeared in my fifth short-story collection, Little Marvel (the Little Marvel of the title being not my grandson, but a variety of garden pea!) I have recently published my eighth collection, Bad Mothers Brilliant Lovers, where mothers, I’m afraid, don’t always get a good press. Many Mothers’ Day sites insist that love for one’s mother is rock-solid and universal, but, as a writer, I’m more interested in how jealousy, resentment, dislike and even fury can co-exist with love, and I’ve frequently explored the complicated mother/child relationship in my work.

However, the bad mothers in my new collection are balanced by some truly good and loving ones, and also by several brilliant lovers, so I hope it may appeal to American Moms for their Mothers’ Day on 10 May. In contrast to the long-established British Mothering Sunday, the American version was instituted as late as 1914, when a feisty Virginian called Anna Jarvis appealed directly to President Woodrow Wilson to have the day officially sanctioned and written into law. Ironically, she was arrested towards the end of her life for protesting against the very holiday she’d helped create! Her protest was fuelled by the way the day had been hijacked by rampant commercialism; she also deplored the laziness of children who could no longer be bothered to make their own Mothers’ Day cards and gifts.

But arrests and laziness are pretty depressing subjects, so let me end with a poem by David Harkins, which was read at Pauline’s funeral and seemed to strike a chord. Many people asked me for a copy, warming to its message that mourners should dwell on the joy the living person had afforded, rather than on their death. I myself will re-read it on American Mothers’ Day, to celebrate the fact that my daughter lived for forty-two radiant years, rather than a truncated three months in the womb.

You can shed tears for her, by David Harkins

You can shed tears that she is gone,
or you can smile because she has lived.
You can close your eyes and pray that she’ll come back,
or you can open your eyes and see all she’s left.
Your heart can be empty because you can’t see her,
or you can be full of the love you shared.
You can turn your back on tomorrow and live yesterday,
or you can be happy for tomorrow because of yesterday.
You can remember her only that she is gone,
or you can cherish her memory and let it live on.
You can cry and close your mind,
be empty and turn your back.
Or you can do what she’d want:
Open your eyes, love and go on.

Find out more about Wendy Perriam’s latest book Bad Mothers Brilliant Lovers here

Wendy Perriam: ‘Mother’s Day – And we’re all awash with schmaltz’

Wendy Perriam on mothers in fiction.

‘“Mothers are angels in human form, divinities on earth”; “God moulded my mother’s heart from gold and put shining stars in her eyes”. Such tributes paid to mothers online are surely only fitting for unbelievable paragons like Marmee in Little Women. Most psychologists agree that the mother/child relationship, and especially the mother/daughter relationship, is often intractable and fraught. According to research, women only finally appreciate their mothers after 183 rows and 164 door-slammings. (Don’t ask me how they record such things!) And serious mother/child disruptions are all too familiar in literature, from Ancient Greece to modern times – think Oedipus, Medea, Hamlet, Mrs Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, Madame Bovary, or Lolita’s mother who puts her own sexual satisfaction above the safety of her daughter. And most crass and vile of all mothers must surely be Matilda’s, depicted by Roald Dahl as neglectful, idiotic and tyrannically abusive.

Even some of my close friends are in constant daily conflict with their daughters, or despairing of children who seem distant, recalcitrant or downright bolshie. So we’re faced with a dichotomy: angelic mothers, on the one hand, hymned and praised in treacly Mother’s Day cards and, on the other, the unwelcome truth of slammed doors and family rifts. Last year, I asked my Creative Writing students to write a one-page study of their mothers and was shocked by the number of callous harridans who nagged and scolded from those pages.

And, when it comes to me and mothers, I didn’t have the best start in the world! Born in the middle of the war to a highly anxious mum, who already had an underweight toddler, born prematurely and still giving much cause for anxiety, the last thing she wanted was another child. And who can blame her, with my Dad away, bombs raining down on the family home, and us forced to sleep in the cramped and smelly air-raid shelter under the dining-room table?

Even my actual birth was far from serene. Mum’s labour started in the middle of a horror film, precipitating a mad dash from cinema to hospital, where I emerged in an undignified rush, sickly-yellow from jaundice. One look at my ghastly hue and satanically dark hair was enough to convince my parents to change my name from Angela to Wendy – I was clearly more devil than angel. But, since Wendy isn’t a Saint’s name, the nuns who schooled me from age 4 to age 21 disapproved of it intensely.

Those same nuns constituted a whole troupe of alternative “mothers”– scary forbidding figures with, apparently, no hair and no discernible bodies, just long black gliding robes. Nor could one expect much mercy, let alone mothering, from such strict, judgemental disciplinarians, who regarded touch as dangerous and pleasure as a one-way ticket to Hell. My schoolgirl diaries record how often we were told we were “vegetables”, “hopeless failures” and “miserable worms”, who would never amount to anything.

9780709093862So perhaps it’s little wonder that my latest short-story collection has Bad Mothers in the title. However, I didn’t consciously set out to write about mothers, good or bad, and it was only when I re-read the whole collection that I realized how many bad mothers feature in the stories. The thing about short stories is that they require much less pre-planning and structuring than novels, and seem to arise spontaneously, often prompted by childhood experiences. And, certainly, as a child, I was in frequent trouble both from my mother and the nuns. The latter eventually expelled me and told me I was in the devil’s power – the most frightening moment of my life, since Satan seemed totally real and terrifyingly evil.

In the story A Cuppa and a Biscuit, I recreate a younger version of my troubled schoolgirl self and re-enact her dread of Hell and damnation – still with me at the age of 74! This story is based on a real-life incident, when I was told by Reverend Mother (the most daunting of all mothers) not to keep fainting at Holy Mass. But how could I stop what she called “this pernicious habit”, when it seemed to happen automatically and I’d find myself blacking out and slumping to the floor? Truth to tell, I was probably just weak and hungry, since we girls ate nothing from early supper to post-Mass breakfast the next day.

However, as a counterbalance to punitive Reverend Mothers and cantankerously critical real mothers, there are some benign and gentle mothers in my new short-story collection. The title-story, Mouse, for example, features a kind and decent mother, whose only fault is her fear of mice. (This is an extremely common phobia, judging by the statistics, so I hope musophobics readers aren’t unduly alarmed by the book-jacket!) And Debs’ Mum in Presents is genuinely loving and caring, a supportive figure who cooks her daughter proper porridge in the morning; has her supper waiting when she returns knackered after work; makes her a hot-water-bottle if her period-pain is bad; sews new eyes on her old, balding teddy bear, and offers to make her curtains if and when she moves away from home. And the reason Debs doesn’t move, despite her desire for her own flat, is because of the very strength and solidity of that love, which she now sees as a precious gift – a gift of time, effort and devotion

And talking of gifts, I hope that, despite its title, Bad Mothers Brilliant Lovers will make an apt and unusual present for Mother’s Day. After all, if a few of the mothers prove alarming, the brilliant lovers may well compensate!’

Order your copy of Bad Mothers Brilliant Lovers here 

Wendy Perriam: ‘All set for Valentine’s Day!’

Wendy Perriam talks to us about Valentine’s Day and romance in her recent works.

‘Brilliant lovers sound just the ticket for Valentine’s Day! If we’re lucky enough to have one in our life, we can expect a profusion of hearts, flowers and chocolates on 14 February – and of course fireworks in the sack!

9780709093862But, in my new short-story collection, Bad Mothers Brilliant Lovers, romantic relationships don’t always pan out quite so well. Even in the story Unbelievably Wonderful – again a title promising rapture all the way – Frances can only respond to her, yes, truly brilliant lover, Duncan, by pretending he’s someone completely and utterly different: her first teenage love, Josh, whom she’s never forgotten and regrets ever having left. So, in her mind she changes the tall, distinguished wealthy, high-powered Duncan into small, shabby, impoverished Josh – and, against all the odds, it does result in a “unbelievably wonderful” sexual encounter.

Another story, Venus, also takes an unexpected turn. Although Poppy is turned on, at first, by Leon’s erotic expertise, when he actually undresses she’s devastated by the sight of his spindly, withered body. Only then does she realize the full implications of the 60-year age-gap between them – something she’s chosen to ignore on account of his fame and distinction. But no amount of distinction can transform him into a virile young stud, so, appalled, she flees from his bed, while he, for his part, reacts with surprising venom.

As a writer, I’ve always been more interested in unworkable couplings and tempestuous liaisons than in quiet, contented relationships. After all, Cupid carries two different sorts of arrows: sharp ones of pure gold, which fill a person struck by them with uncontrollable desire, and blunt, lead-tipped ones that wound their victims with an overwhelming feeling of aversion. And I’m very much aware that, beneath the showy petals of Valentine’s Day red roses, lie sharp and dangerous thorns, and that even the most luscious of chocolates can sate and glut and stale.

None of the stories in Bad Mothers Brilliant Lovers actually takes place on Valentine’s Day, but I’ve included it in earlier books. For instance, the two protagonists in my novel, The Stillness The Dancing, find themselves, on 14 February, staying on a remote Scottish Island, where David is researching the life of a seventh-century Celtic Saint. He suggests they mark the occasion by re-enacting the ancient Roman Festival of Lupercalia, which was celebrated on the same date as Valentine’s Day and thus claimed by some authorities to be historically linked with it.

So, after beating the bounds of the island and singing to a tame seal, the couple return to their windswept cottage for a ritual meal symbolizing fertility and fruitfulness. Yet, when they go upstairs for their first attempt at sex, it all goes disastrously wrong, & Morna lies miserable and frustrated, secretly enraged by the Catholic conditioning that has taught them both that sex is sinful and an instant passport to Hell.  Suddenly, though, she explodes in a wild tirade against nuns, priests, Popes and all those prissy celibates whose teachings have restricted her life and David’s so severely.  And the tirade itself finally ignites his passion, thus saving their offbeat Valentine’s Day!

In another novel, Second Skin, newly widowed Catherine has arranged to meet the handsome but troubled poet, Will, for a meal on Valentine’s Day. When she arrives, attired in her best but worryingly late, she finds him shabbily dressed, frozen stiff and distinctly grumpy – hardly a good start to the evening. And further problems and jealousies erupt during what she hoped would be a romantic dinner. In fact, it’s only when she actually takes the initiative and demands a kiss from the unforthcoming poet that, again, all is eventually resolved, since fortunately he obliges with full, red-blooded exuberance.

So what of my own Valentine’s Day this year? At the ripe old age of 74, I can hardly expect a passionate encounter, except perhaps in fantasy – one of the main resources for any writer. But I won’t be alone in my celibacy. According to recent research, 79% of us Brits would rather have a good night’s sleep than have sex with our partners, and more than one in five women would prefer to kiss goodbye to their sex-lives than have to give up chocolate. In fact, 33% of females obsess about chocolate during the day, compared with only 18% who fantasize about sex.

Beetles and gastropods, however, put us humans to shame. Recently, I was researching the sex-lives of lowly creatures (don’t ask why!), and it appears that the sex-crazed ladybird can mate for up to nine hours every day, and garden-snails aren’t far behind. The latter rub and bite each other in untiring sexual marathons, lustfully waving their eye-stalks, and even firing mucous love-darts at each other.

So perhaps I was mistaken in not including a ladybird or a snail or two in Bad Mothers Brilliant Lovers. Nonetheless, Cupid’s love-darts are certainly present in the book, so I hope it will make an appropriately diverting gift for Valentine’s Day. If nothing else, it will undoubtedly last longer than chocolates or red roses!’

Order your copy of Bad Mothers Brilliant Lovers here

Wendy Perriam: ‘My new short story collection, Bad Mothers Brilliant Lovers, is published today!’

Wendy tells us about her latest collection.

9780709093862‘The title may seem a tad blatant but, in my 35 years as a writer, I’ve been continually fascinated by the key influence parents exert over their children’s future development and life-chances, and also by the power of sex to enrich and exhilarate. Yet I’m equally aware of the darker side of sex, which, if violent or exploitative, can damage and debase. Taught by the Reverend Mother of my convent boarding-school that one single act of incontinence could land me in hellfire for all eternity, I was conscious from a tender age of the dramatic dangers of “the world, the flesh and the devil”.

Bad mothers certainly feature in this collection – negative, critical, or cantankerous – but I wanted to balance them with some positive, upbeat element – hence the lovers, who, although by no means all ‘brilliant’, engage in enough passionate and transformative sex to justify the adjective. However, there are also more troubling liaisons, for instance, an 82-year-old professor’s attempt to seduce a post-graduate student 60 years his junior. The encounter begins promisingly enough, as the Prof runs through his repertoire of erotic expertise but, when it comes to the crunch, he proves just too offputtingly ancient and the girl flees his bed in panic and disgust.

Another, much younger lover – a data analyst obsessed with numbers, algorithms and mathematical formulae – seems incapable of sexual spontaneity, adhering to a rigid sexual system, as if his every timetabled move is dictated by a dispassionate cyber-brain.

But many of my characters lack any kind of lover: essentially lonely souls, such as 93-year-old widow Primrose, divorcee Sarah, or single, childless Ellen. Yet, each of the three achieves redemption and reprieve – another recurring theme in my work. The basic notion of redemption was instilled in me, very early on, as a Roman Catholic child and I found it appealingly compassionate in that every person on earth can be saved, so long as they seek forgiveness. Of course, redemption for my fictional characters is rarely a religious matter; indeed, is sometimes achieved through bizarrely secular means – in businesswoman Helen’s case, a self-indulgent glut of marshmallows, or, for shy loner Ken, a home-made Christmas pudding – but the basic concept holds good, in that it remains a regenerative and liberating force.

As always, many of the stories sprang from personal experience: the fake gold ring I was offered in a scam; my encounter with a colony of mice at Clapham Common tube station; the bridal couple I saw posing for photos in the Lost Property Office, of all places; my horror as a pious child when I fainted during Holy Mass and believed I was plunging into Hell.

And that terrifying incident brings me back to mothers and lovers. Reverend Mother, who deplored my habitual fainting and refused to call me Wendy on the grounds it wasn’t a Saint’s name, was undoubtedly a ‘bad mother’. Yet I sought solace in God the Father, whom I regarded as a lover, in the sense of a powerful, life-enhancing Presence, demanding worship and surrender.

Oppressive mothers and unobtainable fathers have characterized much of my work since my first novel in 1980, along with Catholicism, of course, which has left indelible traces in the fibre of my being, like letters lingering in a stick of rock until the very last lick. And, in many of my books, I explore the struggle between rebellion and submission, and the drive for self-fulfilment in conflict with the pernicious lure of self-destruction. All these themes recur in Bad Mothers Brilliant Lovers, yet, in the interests of fairness, I’ve also included a few good mothers in the stories, as well as some downright crappy lovers. Take your pick!’

Order your copy of Bad Mothers Brilliant Lovers here

Wendy Perriam tells us what Christmas means to her and her characters

Dear Father Christmas, what I’d really like for Christmas is some joy …..

9780709093862No, not the anguished plea of an unhappy child, but a letter from 55-year-old Ken, posted in the big red mail-box in Santa’s Grotto at his local shopping centre. Ken, the protagonist of the second story in my new short-story collection, Bad Mothers Brilliant Lovers, is struck by the rarity of joy in his life, almost non-existent since his childhood. Yet the story ends on Christmas Day with him in euphoric mood, relishing the best Christmas dinner he’s ever experienced to date.

The short-story form itself could be described as joyous, in that it is so much less laborious than novel-writing. All these 15 new stories came easily and effortlessly, prompted by some small incident or even an offhand remark – the dismissive “Just yourself?”, for instance, with which I was greeted by the snooty manager when entering a restaurant on my own. Before I’d even glanced at the menu, a story took shape in my mind: unmarried, childless Ellen, receiving the same grudging welcome – and on her 40th birthday, of all days – feels unloved, unwanted and an all-too-obvious failure. Yet, by the end of the story, she, too, is considerably more upbeat and even has a ring on her finger!

Yet Christmas can be a challenging and lonely time for those without families or loved ones. The widowed, childless Primrose in my story, Lost, dreads what she sees as the “long, benighted days of the so-called Festive Season” and has to draw up a plan to make Christmas Day more endurable: a nice boiled egg for breakfast, a short walk to the Common, then back for the Queen’s Speech, a couple of mince pies, and an evening watching television – hardly very exciting, but at least it fills the empty hours.

And in Magical Numbers, young bride-to-be Lynne lands up in hospital in mid-December, with a badly broken leg, and faces the prospect of a pain-ridden, immobile Christmas in a ward full of elderly invalids. However, in her case, her spirits are high, because something magical has just occurred in that very hospital bed: “serendipitously, and in the nick of time, she has managed to “escape an onerous life-sentence”.

I personally detest Christmas, with its fake good cheer, the increasingly crowded shops and increasingly irritable shoppers, and the obligation to spend, spend, spend, cook, cook, cook, and tirelessly celebrate this season of hype and hysteria. I may sound like a Scrooge, but when Christmas catalogues begin arriving as early as July, one gets heartily sick of glitter, baubles, reindeer, robins, recorded carols in the supermarkets, and all the razzle-dazzle rest of it, by the time Christmas Day actually arrives.

However, on 14 January, when Bad Mothers Brilliant Lovers, is officially published, I’ll be truly celebrating – not just the new book, but the fact that the days are getting longer, the mornings lighter, the first snowdrops are in bloom, and Christmas is over for another 345 days!

Bad Mothers Brilliant lovers will be published on 14 January. Pre-order your copy here.

Ebook Spring Sale Titles

Spring has arrived and with it some great new books for your e-reader, currently on sale for under a pound!

EVT saleHead to the country with two of our most beloved authors. Three titles from the great E.V. Thomspon are available: God’s Highlander, Blue Dress Girl and The Bonds of Earth. Alternatively, head further north to Yorkshire and try two reads from Nicholas Rhea, the author of the Constable… books: Constable Across and the Moors and Murder at Maddleskirk Abbey.

kitsonIf crime fiction is more your style, two of Bill Kitson’s Mike Nash crime stories are part of the sale: Depth of Despair and Chosen.

Author Wendy Perriam heads to Broken Places for her story but if you prefer things a little more regal then don’t despair – A Crown of Despair by Jenny Mandeville is also part of the sale.

Sh! A Vow of Silence by Veronica Black is available, or you could enjoy a Star-Crossed Summer with Sarah Stanley.

Nicholas RheaIf the spring has made you want to travel the world, you can head to Berlin with The Boy from Berlin by Michael Parker or see for yourself what living in Venice is really like with Polly Coles’s The Politics of Washing: Real Life in Venice.

If you like your stories dark then try The Pershore Poisoners by Kerry Tombs or wartime fiction The Lambs by Peter James Cottrell.

For those with a Nook, there are also two great Maggie Lane titles available on Jane Austen.

Jane AustenHappy reading and here’s to more great weather and reading outdoors!

Competition for library lovers: Win Broken Places by Wendy Perriam

Broken Places by Wendy PerriamWe here at Robert Hale Ltd LOVE libraries. They are magical places that transport us into the wonderful world of books.

We were delighted then when our author Wendy Perriam wrote a book about a librarian.

For your chance to win a copy of Wendy’s book Broken Places for yourself, simply tell us why you love your library or librarian, either in the comments or by tweeting us at @roberthalebooks.

You may love Eric – or want to shake him! Passionately idealistic about his work as a librarian, he’s also ruefully aware that he’s not exactly Superman. Forced to hide his mysterious background and his mortifying fears, he’s a man with secrets – withheld even from close friends. His once homely wife, now a fashionista, has abandoned him, to live in Seattle with a high-powered corporate kingpin, taking their only child, a moody minx-in-waiting, about to turn thirteen.

Yet, against the odds, Eric sets out to prove himself – indeed, even to find a soul-mate. Whether braving ‘Choco-Love’ Speed-Dating; running Wandsworth Prison readers’ groups; attending an American Church that champions the Gospel of Prosperity, or rescuing his daughter from near-rape – he finally comes to epitomize the truth of Hemingway’s words: The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.

Shortlisted for the MIND Book of the Year, Broken Places combines laugh-out-loud comedy with an examination of fear: the most common – and most frequently concealed – of all our human emotions.

Praise for Wendy Perriam:

‘…one of Perriam’s strengths as a novelist … is to confront the fault-lines in human experience and roll about in them…’ The Camden Review

‘Broken Places is a great and adventurous read. The main theme of the novel – that life is fundamentally unfair – is explored with verve, energy, relish and humour. Perriam can be very, very funny’Fay Weldon

‘Perriam writes brilliantly about fear and grief, and the lives of children in care, but she is also savagely, hilariously funny about everything to do with sex.’ The Times

Happy reading!

This competition closes at midnight GMT on 31st March 2014 and is open to UK residents only.

The Camden Review call Wendy Perriam’s ‘An Enormous Yes’ big, bold and brassy

An Enormous Yes by Wendy PerriamThe Camden Review have reviewed An Enormous Yes by Wendy Perriam, dubbing it ‘big, bold, [and] brassy’, adding that ‘…one of Perriam’s strengths as a novelist – and this is her 17th – is to confront the fault-lines in human experience and roll about in them…’

The review goes on to say that ‘the struggles make for rich reading, sometimes tragic, sometimes hilarious’.

For the full article, head to the Camden Review.

An Enormous Yes by Wendy Perriam is available to buy now with a limited time only discount of 30%. Click here for an extract.

The Sunday Express says an enormous ‘Yes please!’ to Wendy Perriam’s latest

An Enormous Yes by Wendy PerriamThe Sunday Express has reviewed Wendy Perriam’s new novel ‘An Enormous Yes’ dubbing it ‘beautifully crafted and carefully paced’.

They go on to say: ‘It’s Wendy Perriam’s skill at characterisation that transforms this story from a good read into an outstanding one…All the characters avoid becoming caricatures thanks to Wendy Perriam’s descriptive powers and her ability to write such engaging dialogue.’

An Enormous Yes by Wendy Perriam is available to buy now with a limited time only discount of 30%. Click here for an extract.

For the full review, head to the Sunday Express site.

Wendy Perriam on writing sex-scenes

An Enormous Yes by Wendy Perriam‘Often, she would go to a dinner party with ten young men or more, and would lie with each one, in turn. And when she had reduced them all to a state of physical exhaustion, she would then copulate with their thirty or so servants, but, even then, her lust was unsatisfied.’

No, not an extract from the latest mummy-porn, but an account written in the sixth century AD, by the historian, Procopius, describing the antics of the Empress Theodora. But, although, sex-scenes have a long history, they’re fiendishly difficult to write. For one thing, there just isn’t the vocabulary. Most of the words seem either too crude or too clinical – hard porn, on the one hand; biology text-book on the other. We don’t even have a suitable word for the sex-act itself. ‘Intercourse’ is too formal; ‘sleep with’ seems wrong for a brief session, with no actual sleep¬ing; ‘make love’ pre-supposes love; ‘screw’ is just plain vulgar; and ‘bonk’ more suited to the Daily Mirror. Perhaps we need more words for sex, like the Arabs, who have several hundred different words for camels, or the Eskimos, who have at least thirty for snow.

There are, of course, hundreds of slang words, including over 600 for the penis, but ‘tummy-banana’, ‘tickle-tail’ and ‘blue-veined piccolo’ are definitely more comic than erotic. Even the Kama Sutra doesn’t help. Calling the penis a Heavenly Dragon Pillar, or the vagina an Open Peony Blossom would jar in most modern fiction!

In my new novel, An Enormous Yes, I tried to get round this problem by having the protagonist, Maria, reflect on her own unease with all the anatomical words. She’s lived most of her life with her devout and prudish mother, for whom even words like ‘bottom’ and ‘breasts’ are taboo. So when Maria finally strikes out on her own and embarks on an affair, she feels a thrill of mingled shock and delight when she hears her artist-lover, Felix, refer unblushingly to his ‘cock’. And still more of a thrill when she watches that ‘cock’ stiffen in what she sees as glistening insolence.

This is the first sex-scene in the book and I deliberately chose Felix’s studio as its setting, with his dramatic paintings ranged around the ramshackle bed, and the smell of Jessop and white spirit lingering in the air. One of the reasons some sex-scenes fail to ignite is that they take place in a limbo, some vague and unspecified place, lacking vivid detail. We writers need to use all our different senses – sight, smell, sound, taste – and try to experience our characters’ sensations through our own skin and soul and nerve-endings.

So, later in the book, when Felix makes love to Maria on the remote Northumbrian Moors, I tried to convey to the reader how this would actually feel: the tingle of the breeze against their skin; the springy prickle of heather above the hardness of the ground; the plaintive cry of plovers; the faint, peaty smell of earth and still fainter whiff of sheep. This, I hope, adds truth to the encounter – and truth is an important concept when it comes to writing about sex. Yet too much truth can be hazardous, if we dwell merely on the smells, sweat and secretions of the sex act, and fail to give our prose some of the power and thrust of sex itself.

I tried to do this in my sex-scene on the Moors by using the imagery of Whitsuntide – the rushing wind, the tongues of fire, the sense of stupefaction – because the encounter takes place on Whit Sunday. I often fuse religious and sexual elements in this way, to add a sense of transcendence, of going beyond one’s usual boundaries. In my first book, Absinthe for Elevenses, the protagonist always makes love to church music, claiming sex is a sacred activity that gives us a taste of the eternal.

But this brings me to another problem with sex-scenes: the risk of offending the reader. Religious people might find such passages blasphemous, and some readers hate sex-scenes altogether. The reason I write them, however, is that I’m interested in the enormous range of human emotions the sex-act can include – not simply love or lust, but fear, greed, resentment, embarrassment, masochism, even contempt. I always try to remember that, besides the couple’s thrashing bodies, there are two disparate and complex minds.

Some sex-scenes fail because they’re just too blissful to be plausible. In The Thorn Birds, for example, the Catholic priest, Father Ralph, proves an ace lover in his very first sexual encounter, despite having being celibate all his life. This struck me as so unlikely that, in my own novel, After Purple, in which Thea seduces a Franciscan friar, I made their coupling a frustrating, two-second fiasco. The poor embarrassed friar even forgets to take off his green nylon socks!

I often include such bad sex in my novels – men who can’t get it up; women faking orgasms; couples experiencing intense loneliness, despite being physically coupled – because these things are common in real life. Indeed, Maria herself feels a sense of extreme isolation, when, later in An Enormous Yes, her sex with Felix is fuelled not by passion, but by ferocious animal fury. And although she and Felix climax simultaneously, she then starts sobbing uncontrollably, appalled by her own extremes of emotion.

However, there are times when I deliberately ditch realism for romanticism – for example, when Felix and Maria are alone at midnight on a moonlit Cornish beach. Elated by their new happiness, they race towards the sea, tear off their clothes and plunge into the icy water. ‘Come off it!’ jeered a friend. ‘They’d freeze to death.’ But I wanted to make it a passionate encounter, with Maria revelling in two simultaneous lovers: ‘the icy grope and tingle of the sea, and Felix’s scorching bush-fire of an embrace.’

OK, it’s over-the-top, but that only goes to prove my point – whether we err on the side of stale and tepid cliché, or of disgracefully purple prose, sex-scenes are notoriously difficult to write!

An Enormous Yes by Wendy Perriam is available to buy from today with a limited time only discount of 30%. Click here for an extract.