Romantic, sexual love–eros– hits whenever it hits; sometimes you are actively looking for it, other times it arrives like a tidal wave out of nowhere, knocking you down and sending you to kingdom come, washed up against an unfamiliar shore.
The novelist knows this, exploits it, dissects it. What is it that makes love such a “must” in most novels, novels of any genre? Its humanity. As humans, we need love, and we need pairing. Some of you will loudly proclaim that you prefer to be alone, master or mistress of your choice of living–that the last thing you want is a “relationship.” But this is now; few of you will admit that you have never, ever sought or relished love, that you were not at one time transported by it, torn apart by the violence of it, turned on your head and consumed by it. It’s in our genes, this mating, this merging. And we all like to read about it, either because the lovers on tablet screen or page make you remember when passion ruled your own mind, body and soul, or because you wish you had it right now, and can live vicariously through the emotions and actions you are reading about.
Love is seldom quiet, no noise, no friction, no highs and lows. A psychiatrist told me once that when you are in love, you are actually physically sick and out of kilter with your natural rhythms. You weep more easily, feel more deeply, act impulsively, sometimes recklessly. You think of your lover at inopportune times, or all the time. You ignore your obligations and your friendships because he, or she, is eating up your equanimity. You are happy, in pain with happiness; you are doubtful and fearful; you see colors more brightly, smell flowers more intensely, hear music all the time in your head, or keep replaying old tunes that brought out sexual fantasies when you first heard them. You watch sexy movies with extra relish; you reread old favorites; you sleep less, and concentrate much of your time daydreaming instead of working.
A writer remembers those times when he or she felt the fullness of passion, and transmits this on the page. At least, I do. I write much better, much more clearly and insightfully, when I’m in love. It hasn’t happened often; I may fancy a man and think of him, but mostly, this has been like grabbing a Big Mac because your stomach is empty. A gourmet meal, carefully prepared by a five-star chef…well, that’s being truly, wholly, capaciously in love.
When we’re in love, we become superstars. Love is a drug. If your lover matches your lust, your dreams, your notions and intellectual pursuits, you are both superstars. One plus one is no longer two, but gets enhanced to three. Philemon and Baucis became one tree, and we become a two-headed demon. Arguments become life-threatening, terrifying. What if he leaves? What if she’ll always be this way, a shrew or a nag or a contrary bitch? The same kind of quarrel with a friend would be resolved at once, laughed over, and forgotten; but we know our friends have their own lives, and we are seldom shattered by their personal desires. Our own lives take precedence. You listen, you care, and you go home. But romantic partners don’t go home; they are creating an entity called “US.” If it isn’t real love, you sigh and shrug and walk away. But if it’s real, it becomes interesting and worth fighting for.
What do our readers want to read? They want friction, trouble, and ultimate resolution of one kind or another. Placid love doesn’t work in a novel (or, for that matter, on screen). I have a friend whose conversation bores the nose off me. She talks about her husband’s stinginess and lack of passion as facts of life, and isn’t bothered when her husband never brings her flowers or makes passionate love to her. She says, “Jerry and I just aren’t that way. We’re comfortable.” And I want to tear all the curls off my head. Because I, the ultimate romantic, the seeker of fireworks, the risk taker, could never live like that with any partner. And no one, even this woman, could read about such placidity without hurling his or her tablet or “real book” at the nearest wall.
We want love to change the course of our protagonist’s life. We want him to crash and burn and then to rise like the Phoenix. We want him to question all his values, to be foolish, to make messes we cringe to read about. We want to identify, but from the safe distance of our own lives. We don’t want Vronsky to discard Anna, or Rhett to go away. But as much as we love these characters, we don’t want to suffer their fates.
As I’m sure you’ve gathered by now, I’m in love. I feel nineteen. I claw the wallpaper off when I can’t see him. I weep with ecstasy just being near him. And the fact that he feels the same way is the greatest aphrodisiac of all. We speak to each other in our heads, or to our cats, all day long.
How does this affect my writing? It clarifies it, makes it sharper and edgier. My characters play out my feelings, fulfill my “what ifs?.” I’m fully alive, and so are they. When I’m not in love, writing is more laborious, and the result duller.
The love story subplot in Irrevocable Trust, my courtroom thriller, came to me much more brightly and irrevocably once I’d met my fiancé. I changed some scenes around. I made the clashes more painful and the exaltation more… exalted. I wept and screamed with my lovers, where before I had been a cerebral writer, not feeling their emotions with true empathy. This book is not a romance, it’s not a love story per se. But love makes this story a sexy read, and I don’t mean that there is graphic sex in it at all. Just human love.
And I think you can tell, certainly in my writing, that I’m in love. Now go reread your favorite novels and figure out whether the authors were in love when they wrote them, even if their affairs of the heart were notoriously ill-handled. It doesn’t matter that Lawrence beat his wife. It matters that he knew how his characters felt in Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Women in Love. Writers aren’t always good people. But did they ever experience the irrevocability of eros and agape, rolled into one? Read Abélard and tell me this wasn’t a man possessed, a man who’d loved. You don’t need to know one thing about his life to know this as a fact; and he wasn’t even a novelist.