So you want to write erotica
A 'sex-mad' professor reveals all about his upcoming workshops on erotic writing. Neil Western went along for the ride
SITTING BEHIND HIS desk in the grey uniformity of the prefabricated, open-plan City University offices, assistant professor Julian Lee looks like anything but someone whose life is devoted to the pursuit of sex. Like the environment he blends into, Lee is remarkably unremarkable; a spindly figure with a side-parting, narrow moustache and circular-framed glasses. He looks more dull teacher than sex-mad professor.
It's no surprise Lee's devotion is to books and film. But the only clue to his obsession, initially, is a poster for a Moliniere exhibition. The picture is a kaleidoscope image of a woman, naked but for stockings and suspenders, her buttocks thrusting outwards at every axis.
Since I'm here to chat about the art of erotic writing, this comes as some relief. I wonder whether he'll be coy, with a quaintly archaic approach to the art of seduction.
'I don't write about love, I write about sex. No, not even sex. One-night stands,' he fizzes before the question is fully out of my mouth. 'To write good erotic novels you need to get a lot of experience first hand.'
Not just straight sex either. Before long he's talking heterosexual, homosexual, sado-masochism, voyeurism . . . the more taboo the better for this lecturer, author and film-maker.
It becomes clear that experience is what Lee - writer of five erotic stories and maker of the sexually explicit movie, The Accident - has spent much of his life obtaining, living a Bohemian lifestyle in New York and across Europe, seemingly experimenting in any way he can with whomever he can.
Now he is to share his thoughts with a bunch of adult pupils at three creative workshops he is hosting this month on the erotic writings of Serge Gainsbourg, as part of the Le French May festival. Gainsbourg was the French provocateur whose explicit songs and films created scandal during the 60s and were frequently banned. He also famously told Whitney Houston live on television that 'I want to f*** you'.
Gainsbourg is Lee's hero, but Lee has some of his own stories to tell, and who I am to stop him. Besides he's talking so fast and furious that he doesn't really hear my questions anyway. Before I met him, it was clear Lee was no shrinking violet. His self-penned promotional material described him as 'a man of all talents', he called at midnight on a public holiday to confirm this interview and offered to e-mail portrait photographs of himself for publication. The assistant professor at City University's School of Creative Media has a background in photography, video-making, and writing and directing.
'My students ask me 'why is there always sex when you are writing a novel or story?' ' Lee says, gesticulating wildly. 'I tell them that sex is a self-initiation. After sex you will change, or at least you think about why you are there, what happened to you. Sex is necessary because after you change identities, something will happen. I'm not writing these sort of novels for pleasure, like soft-porn. I'm writing about the exchange of identity in a very short time . . . one-night stands.'
Lee despairs at the state of erotica in the SAR. It is virtually non-existent, for which he blames the broadcast media, restrictions on cable channels and the sleaze-factor (rather than erotica-factor) of the press.
'It's the first time in Hong Kong for this no-go area,' Lee says. 'Nobody teaches erotic writing in Hong Kong. There are no erotic Chinese novels.'
Lee's erotic explanatory tour accommodates 25 people. As of last Friday, 17 places had already been taken. The 10 men and seven women will watch Gainsbourg's 1976 movie, Je T'Aime Moi Non Plus, listen to his songs and dissect his controversial lyrics (which, incidentally make Eminem sound like Charlotte Church). 'Pornography is pleasure of reading to get excitement. The function is finished. You don't want it to be complicated. Eroticism is to know more about yourslef and your world. It doesn't end at stimulation. The sex scheme is a means, not the end.'
His workshops will supposedly demonstrate how life becomes art, or more specifically how experience becomes erotica. For Lee, both are a work in progress.
'The concept for eroticism is that after a sexual encounter, life will never be the same again. My writing is based on my own experiences in New York for six months and around Europe for eight years. From all these one-night stands I have amassed - well, not too many actually - I have tried to experience myself and know my possibilities and limits.'
Writers sometimes use 'research' as an excuse to live out fantasies. Does he deliberately engineer one-night stands for novel material? 'Not in that way. But it may be there's somebody I don't really like, yet I want to grab them in the discotheque and just do it. Once I was in Buenos Aires, I had a chance but it was not the right person for me. I missed the chance of my one and only experience in South America.'
Lee sees sex as a cross-cultural exchange. 'It [sex] can be a way of knowing different cultures, there is something this Belgian would do, a French person wouldn't, things Italians would and Spanish wouldn't. The Spanish are very carnal, but the French talk about romantic things and even with a one-night stand they care about packaging; about the dinner before, the setting.'
But Gainsbourg, who died 10 years ago, was French - and he dwelled on savage love rather than romance. Lee calls Je T'Aime Moi Non Plus the most erotic film of all time. In it, the Frenchman's long-time love, British actress Jane Birkin, acts out a Lolita role for her gay lover and is sodomised. 'I didn't see it until 1990 and I was still shocked,' Lee says.
This admission astounds me in light of the nitty-gritty of our conversation. But he shows me still images from the film and it is clear that shock has led to admiration. He eulogises the Frenchman and is using him as the medium to nurture erotica locally.
'I'm not Gainsbourg. I have an academic boundary. That's why Gainsbourg comes with me. Through him I can say what I want to say. I totally agree with him.'
Lee says his course is not 'a counselling class'. 'It is to tell participants to look at sex from as many creative angles as possible. It can make you understand yourself more. I cannot tell all my sexual experiences. It's private and I'm at the university.'
Though Lee repeats that he's not a marriage counsellor, there's no doubt he sees sexual adventure as a panacea for relationship problems. He suggests that tying each other up will enhance a couple's relationship. Being married or monogamous is no bar to being an erotic writer, either, provided the couple generate their own adventures.
'You can video it. You can pretend to be somebody else, create a name. A husband can pretend to be someone else and seduce his wife as a secret lover. I would advise every couple to buy a video camera and act it out for the movie. Then you can be an erotic writer. It's a creative thing and a power play.'
Lee started writing his first erotic work in the mid-1990s, 'the most promiscuous period of my life', before he returned to Hong Kong in 1997. As inspirations, Lee cites the Marquis de Sade, Annabel Chong, who had sex with more than 200 men in one day and made a movie about it ('I adore her courage'), Anais Nin and Madonna. What he considers bad erotica boils down to two areas - cliches and plagiarism. Originality rules and personal experience is the key.
'Ask yourself how many one-night stands can you take? 10? 11? If you can't take 11, don't, you can still write about the other 10.' He has other tips too. 'Do keep a diary - I always keep a note pad and pen by my bedside - even if you're with someone, and I use a video camera.
Is he a sex addict? 'No, I would say I'm addicted to know more about myself. Sex is a means to achieve this purpose. I hate people talking about love. I'm talking about the land of eroticism. Don't mix it up . . . You can do it with your wife or husband. But how can you write about it if it is always the same? I'm not trying to be controversial. I'm doing it because the cinema theme of Le French May is Body And Desire.'
Lee says he does not equate his teaching role with his writings and course.
'I make movies and write novels, but I'm also a university lecturer and you have to be decent. You don't try to pop things into them [students] which they can't swallow. It's not everyone's cup of tea.'
The students are welcome on his course, he says, though most who have signed up are from outside.
'I hope people come from different walks of life and that it gives them a new way of looking at their sex life.
'Take a bold step. If you don't like it, forget it. If you find you have talent, can keep a diary and like it, go ahead. If you find you don't like it, don't be a writer. You don't even have to have sex. You can have a happy life without sex.'
Maybe so, but you can forget about being an erotic writer.
Workshop on erotic writing: three classes on three consecutive Saturdays, starting today. Price: $150. Time: 2.30pm to 5pm. Venue: Hong Kong Arts Centre, Wan Chai. Tel: 2582-0268. The workshop will be conducted in Cantonese