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Tess Vigeland: There’s something in all of us, I’m pretty sure, that at some point, just wants to chuck it all and go fulfill an alternate destiny. A life we’re sure would be better — or at least more interesting. Last week, we brought you part one of a series in conjunction with CBC Radio in Canada. It’s called “Money Changes Everything.”
Today, part two. Probably not a story for our younger listeners, by the way. About a guy named Sean McNeely, told by CBC producer Kathleen Goldhar.
Kathleen Goldhar: I first met Sean about 10 years ago when we both worked for the same newspaper. But we became much better friends a few years ago when my son and I started driving him to work.
Sean McNeely: Hello!
Kathleen Goldhar: Morning.
McNeely: Sorry to make you wait.
And Sean is always complaining about this day job.
McNeely: And you feel like screaming and saying, “People! People!”
He’s a writer and a really good one. Years ago, he worked as a travel writer, jetting off to glamorous places. But he got laid off after 9/11 and ended up as a communications manager for a group that helps turn new technologies into businesses. He works in a cubicle, doing really more pencil pushing than writing. And yet it’s such a high stress environment that it actually had a physical affect on him at one point two years ago.
McNeely: I started having real trouble breathing. I started to sweat profusely. I started to kinda shake a little bit. And I remember thinking to myself, “Is this a heart attack?”
It was a panic attack. His doctor made him take five weeks off. And he and I talk about him quitting altogether all the time — going freelance, being his own boss. But it’s just been too scary in this economy. And then, not long after his stress leaves, a woman propositioned him — in a business kind of way.
McNeely: So when she first approached me, honestly, I jumped at it the idea of being to write about and talk about sex was great. I couldn’t wait to do it.
Sean started writing erotic fiction. Steamy on-line stories and novels for women that cost anywhere from a dollar to $7 a piece. Here’s a sample…
McNeely, reading: Lisa felt so alive. Paolo brought her drinks and rubbed her shoulders and her arms, touching her often, whispering in her ear and drawing her hair off of her face.
It gets a lot more musky from here. The “she” Sean mentioned earlier is his friend, and now writing partner, Marie Fraser. She has a Ph.D in neuroscience.
Fraser: So I could easily lobotomize anybody in the room and you could walk away, but no. That’s not my calling in life.
Instead, her calling seems to be dreaming up carnal fantasies for women everywhere. At first, Marie just did it for the money. But then she realized she had a talent for it. And it was fun. A lot of fun.
Fraser: Then, through meeting Sean and realizing, “Ah ha, he’s a pretty good writer himself,” and asked him to edit something for me for which I paid him. It was a true business deal, and it came out so good.
Goldhar: The writing or the sex.
Fraser: The writing. (Laughs) No, the writing. Hi mom. The writing.
Fraser and McNeely both laugh
To be clear, Sean and Marie are just friends. Marie’s mother knows that she writes about sex, but she doesn’t know how graphic the stories are. Sean’s in the same boat.
McNeely: I’m a little concerned, because my family keeps asking to see some examples and I don’t quite know what to do.
Because there is no doubt about it, these stories — stories with titles like “The Invisible Touch” and “The Sheriff and the Widow” — they’re all about the sex.
McNeely: People don’t buy erotica for plot lines. They don’t buy erotica for character development.
Goldhar: What have you learned makes good erotica?
McNeely: Well, I’m still learning. One of the things is the build up — whether it be tension, whether it be lust. Something has to build before things actually happen.
Goldhar: Just like real life!
McNeely: Yeah, which is funny, because as a male, I’m like “Huh, what do you mean?” But apparently, this is the case.
But what’s really amazing is how much money these guys are making. Since the release of their first novel two years ago, Sean and Marie have been receiving regular royalty checks. At the beginning, they were getting over $2,000 a month; now, it’s about $1,100. And that’s just for one story. They have a book short stories sold but not out yet. Two under consideration. And Marie handed Sean four to edit the day that I visited.
Fraser: Women are buying this stuff. ‘Cause you could be up at one o’clock in the morning, you can’t sleep, find a website, boom, there’s a story.
Goldhar: It’s a platonic relationship, but you’re still sharing your fantasies… with Sean.
Fraser: Well you know. It can get a little awkward, but we can override that.
McNeely: Yeah, at the same time, ultimately, we want to make the best story. And so believe it or not, that trumps everything. And we’ll kind of argue and bicker and debate and say, “No, no, they shouldn’t have sex in this room, it should be in this room” and “No, not, it shouldn’t be in this position, it should be in that position.” And we almost look at it clinically, and it makes me laugh, because there are times when I think “Oh my God, I can’t believe what we are discussing like this.”
Fraser: I think it’s a good way to picture your living.
Goldhar: And you see it as a transition away, like you were saying.
Fraser: Yes, because I’m constantly saying to Sean, he’s going first. We’re transitioning him first, and then me. I fully expect to be doing this as a full-time career in the next probably two to three years.
Whereas Sean is planning to quit his day job this fall. It’s a wonder he stuck with it this long. During his stress leave last year, a therapist told him he should quit immediately. But he thought he’d just be trading one stress for another — fretting about “how will I pay the bills? How will I pay the mortgage?” And he’s definitely been having some of those thoughts now.
McNeely: Oh yeah, I am worried to death actually. There’s no such thing as a benefits package for erotica writers. It doesn’t exist, as far as I know. There is a chance I’m going to have to change my lifestyle to a great degree. There’s a chance I might not be able to live in such a nice place or I might have to move from owning something to renting something. I mean, there is that element to it and I’ve made my peace with it. I’m going to do that.
Because in the end, he says, he’ll once again be able to look people in the eye and say he’s a writer. Lots of people can say that and mean it — but somehow it’s different when you’re getting paid. And somehow, even though it’s not exactly high art, the checks Sean gets from writing about Lisa and Paolo mean more to him than the ones he gets from his day job.
McNeely: I remember thinking, “I can cash this. This is real money! It’s not fake. It’s not like Monopoly. I can actually pay, this is money!”
McNeely, reading: She started to tell him about her practice, but he interrupted, “No, carita. Tell me more about Spain. Tell me what you loved about it.”
In Toronto, I’m Kathleen Goldhar for Marketplace Money.
McNeely, reading: Stories about clients and billing turned to tales of sunsets, wine and art. Her eyes lit up as she spoke of such things.
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