Before “Sex and the City,” “Girls,” and “Fifty Shades of Grey,” there was “Eat Me,” a novel by Linda Jaivin about the sexual escapades of four successful women in Australia. The book, which starts with a salacious scene involving fruit and no underwear in a supermarket, was an instant bestseller in Australia. Hundreds of thousands of copies were sold world-wide, paving the way for female erotica in the years to come.
Ms. Jaivin’s latest novel, “The Empress Lover,” is based in China. Linnie, an Australian translator living in Beijing, receives a mysterious letter from a dead scholar who promises to unveil the secrets to her family lineage. Part mystery, part historical fiction, part fantasy and with a love story at its core, Ms. Jaivin’s seventh novel switches between a decaying imperial China ruled by the Empress Dowager Cixi and the country today, in all its gritty, polluted, frenetic glory.
Ms. Jaivin is also a respected Sinologist and translator: She wrote the English subtitles for Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai’s movie “The Grandmaster.” The American-Australian revels in the many professional hats she wears.
“In March, I was in Shanghai judging an erotic writing competition. Tomorrow, I’m flying to Canberra where I’m a consultant and a visiting fellow at the Australian Centre on China in the World at the ANU [Australian National University],” the 59-year-old said earlier this year over a pot of tea in her cozy flat in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs, where books are crammed into every nook and cranny.
The author, who sports dyed red hair and tortoiseshell glasses, fell into erotic writing. She was born in Connecticut to a family of Jewish shopkeepers, and in the 1980s moved to Hong Kong and later Beijing, where she met the Australian academic Geremie Barme. They married but divorced after six years.
During the 1990s, Ms. Jaivin scraped together a living as a freelance journalist. She began to dabble in erotic writing and says she sent a short story just for fun to the now defunct “Australian Women’s Forum,” a feminist pro-sex magazine that often featured nude male centerfolds. To her surprise, she received a check for around 2,000 Australian dollars (US$1,860).
That encouraged her to write more erotica.
At the time, the genre was still largely marginal and fairly dicey, Ms. Jaivin said. But today, minds are broader. The author says she often meets parents who have given their teenage daughters, and sometimes sons, copies of “Eat Me,” her first book. “Their mothers wanted them to have a vision of sexuality that included female desire.”
Ms. Jaivin’s books swing between erotica, history, memoirs and novels. Her titles include “Dead Sexy,” “A Most Immoral Woman,” “Rock ’n’ Roll Babes from Outer Space,” “Confessions of an S&M Virgin,” and “New Ghosts, Old Dreams: Chinese Rebel Voices.”
Ms. Jaivin sees a direct link between “Eat Me” and “The Empress Lover,” which was published in April. The latest book, which covers the small details of everyday life in China from a foreigner’s perspective, revolves around a real historical character: the polyglot scholar Sir Edmund Backhouse who lived in Peking from 1899 until his death in 1944. His memoir “Décadence Mandchoue” is an early pinnacle of erotic writing. It describes, in often obscene detail, sex with both men and women, including scenes set in the House of Chaste Pleasures, where young male prostitutes serviced high-ranking officials. Mr. Backhouse even claimed he had an affair with the Empress Dowager Cixi.
“ ‘Décadence Mandchoue’ is so bonkers and so wonderful. Oh, it’s wild,” said Ms. Jaivin, adding that she isn’t convinced about its veracity. “[It is] a little bit hard to believe that palace records would not reveal the presence of this foreign man in Cixi’s entourage. That to me says, mmm, not so likely. But who knows?”
Questions over the memoir’s authenticity didn’t put Ms. Jaivin off using the character of Mr. Backhouse as a starting point for her new novel. The main protagonist, Linnie, is an orphan who is desperate to piece together her background. As the story develops, Linnie’s world begins to collide with that of Mr. Backhouse’s.
“What interests me is how Edmund Backhouse carried off such great hoaxes and scams and forgeries,” said Ms. Jaivin. “The amount of detail that Backhouse invested in his fantasies is extraordinary. I began to think that all writers, all novelists, anybody who makes things up, is an heir of Backhouse in a sense.”
“The book is about the importance of history, of our own history and of greater history and the importance of love,” she added. “And how sometimes, when we can’t face the truth, we end up creating stories.”
Photograph: Jade Muratore