When it comes to bestselling erotica, Zane has been a trailblazer. The 44-year-old, Washington, D.C.–based author had sold more than 5 million copies of her books worldwide before anyone had heard of Fifty Shades of Grey. While E.L. James, the author of the latter book, dropped an atom bomb this year on the competition (30 million copies sold worldwide in four months), Zane was indisputably there first. She is known as the queen of urban erotica, famous for its no-holds-barred, raw sexuality, juicier even than more restrained-by-comparison books such as Fifty Shades, a genre which has been labeled as “Mommy Porn” by critics.
Zane, which is a pseudonym (it means “God’s precious gift”), first made her name writing sexy stories on her AOL website, until the company shut it down because of its X-rated content. As her far-flung fans (sometimes known as “Zaniacs”) spread the word, her reputation grew so large that three major publishers pursued her with book contracts. Concerned about demands to tamp down her writing, she initially self-published her work, selling more than 100,000 copies of her first novel, Addicted, in 2001. But finally she cast her lot with Simon & Schuster, and the rest is mainstream publishing history. She has had 14 New York Times bestsellers, in addition to writing and producing a hit Cinemax series, Zane’s Sex Chronicles, and maintaining a hugely popular website, planetzane.com, which features conversations for the “grown and sexy.”
Zane’s steamy first novel, Addicted, which stars Zoe Reynard, a successful married businesswoman who is juggling three lovers, has just been republished. And her beyond-X-rated anthology of other writers, Z-Rated: Chocolate Flava, will be published in August. We caught up with the prolific author by phone on her vacation in North Carolina, gearing up for a book tour that will begin later this month.
TIME: No unpublished writer ever turns down a book contract. Why did you?
ZANE: I had a feeling that if I did this, it was going to be big. Something just told me, and it would eventually end up altering my life. And I wasn’t sure that was what I wanted.
How did you find out that you had a talent for writing erotica?
It’s so funny—I never set out to write erotica…both of my parents are retired educators, so reading was very strong in our house. … I always had a very vivid imagination. All of my teachers always told me that I was going to grow up to be a writer, but I never really believed it, or paid that much attention to it.
Then suddenly, when I was living here in Kannapolis, North Carolina, I got bored enough to start playing around with writing. I wrote one short story, and at the time I was, believe it or not, I was my father’s research assistant for Duke Divinity School. [Her father, a minister, was a well-known religious scholar.] I would be doing my work, and then I discovered AOL, and started hanging out in chat rooms. So I wrote a story, and in the chat room, I came up with the name Zane. I wasn’t going to say my real name, so that’s sort of how Zane was born. It was never about being a writing name.
Anyway, I wrote this one short story called “First Night.” I didn’t know it was erotic; I just wrote a romantic story. And I sent it out to four or five people I had met in the chat room. They sent it out to a bunch of other people, and the next thing you know, I started getting emails from all these people, like “That’s the hottest thing I’ve ever read!”; “Have you written anything else?”; “I want to be on your mailing list.” Honestly, I thought it was all funny. I put a couple other stories up, and within three weeks, I had 8,000 hits by word-of-mouth alone, before AOL took it down because of the content!
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After you successfully published your own work, you started hearing again from New York City publishers.
Publishers started contacting me, and saying, “You’re one of the best writers we’ve ever read, and we’ll offer you a deal today, but we need to tone you down.”
What did your parents think at this point?
They had no idea I was doing any of this. My parents didn’t know for about five years.
Were you astonished by what happened to Fifty Shades of Grey?
I wouldn’t say that I was astonished by it. I think that it was very good marketing: being on the right shows, and getting the right media outlets. I’m very happy for the author. But clearly it’s not the first time erotica has gone mainstream. Even if you take me out of the equation, Sex in the City is a multi-billion-dollar brand.
You got there earlier, theme-wise—why did the author get so much attention for the book?
Well, I’ve never been on the Today Show. (Laughs.) I’ve had three documentaries done about me. I’ve had my picture hanging up in galleries—my picture just left the Smithsonian [it was part of an exhibit called The Black List, which featured celebrities of color.] Swiss Public Television did a documentary about me years ago called Zane, Queen of Erotica. Honestly, I don’t know.
I’ve heard a lot of romance and woman’s fiction writers say that they don’t get enough acknowledgment for what they do. Is that what’s going on? It sounds like you’ve gotten a lot of acknowledgment, too, but is there some you haven’t gotten?
Of course, it would be nice to get it, because I’ve worked very hard for 15 years. I’m very happy with what I’ve accomplished. It honestly was never my purpose to be famous, which is why I don’t write under my real name. I enjoy what I do.
Do you feel you have a lot in common with other African-American writers — a sense of being part of a group?
I am African-American, but I don’t write books specifically for African Americans… I just write stories. Honestly, for a lot of African American writers, we don’t get the exposure, in different chain stores for example. Those of us who have consistently been New York Times bestsellers, when our new books come out, they’re not at the end of the stand with James Patterson and John Grisham and Stephen King, all of whom at one point or another I have beaten on the New York Times list. The same thing goes for Terry McMillan, Eric Jerome Dickey. You go in an airport store, it’s very hard to see our books. I feel like, in a way, it has hindered me, simply because I’m not getting as much exposure as Caucasian authors are getting. It is what it is. I’m very happy with what I’ve done. And I do have a big crossover audience, I do know that…. When I do book signings, it isn’t just black people who come. I mean, I have white men come to my signings and say I’m their favorite author.
Do you think people underestimate how much women like erotica?
I think that it’s still very much a taboo subject, particularly in this country. One thing I am happy about is that people will be, hopefully, with Fifty Shades of Grey, be more accepting of the fact that women can appreciate erotica. I will say that my stuff is a lot steamier! (Laughs.)
Are people surprised that the steamy books are coming from a woman and not a man?
Yes, there are still people who think I’m a man. There was actually a man masquerading as me at book-signings and at book clubs! He even did a book signing in Jamaica.
Have critics or censors ever given you a hard time because of all of the sex?
I honestly don’t listen to the criticisms. I knew going in that I was going to have my critics. For me, I’m just doing what I must do, what I’m passionate about. I use sex as a segue to deal with a lot of deeper issues. I don’t feel like I am a sex writer or even an erotica writer. I would describe myself as a very detailed writer who does not tone down her sex scenes.
Anything sexual you won’t write about?
There are definite things I wouldn’t write about or publish: pedophilia, bestiality. The obvious stuff.
I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you: have you lived out these fantasies?
Some of them. (Laughs.)
- The Guardian, Saturday 21 July 2012
Frank Ocean has had quite the week. “Yes,” he says, smiling, with a barely perceptible shake of the head, as if in mild disbelief. Then he nods: “Yes. But also awesome.” Two things have contributed to making his week awesome. There’s the surprise release of his second albumChannel Orange, a week before it was officially planned, which met with rabidly enthusiastic reviews comparing his idiosyncratic, narrative-heavy reimagining of soul and R&B to Prince and Stevie Wonder. Then there was the post on Tumblr in which he told, beautifully, the story of falling in love for the first time, with a man. “I don’t know what happens now, and that’s alrite,” he wrote.
- You can understand why Ocean might be feeling a little stunned. He’s suddenly the most talked-about man in music, though he hasn’t yet done much of the talking himself. He shuffles into a dressing room behind Vancouver’s Commodore Ballroom nursing a herbal tea, and plays with it nervously, a hoodie wrapped around his neck like a scarf, before politely shaking my hand, all the time avoiding eye contact. He’s 24, relatively new to all of this, and suddenly the world wants to know his business.
Right now the old formula holds true: the less you know about him, the more you want to know. He’s managed to maintain a rare air of pop star mystery. “It’s not formulaic,” he says. “It’s not me necessarily trying to preserve mystique. It’s who I am. It’s how I prefer to move. I really don’t think that deeply about it at all, I swear I don’t. I’m just existing.”
‘Sure, evil exists, extremism exists. Somebody could commit a hate crime and hurt me … but they could do the same just because I’m black. Do you just not go outside your house?’
There’s a sense that impulse has driven Frank Ocean’s career so far. He emerged from two worlds: he was a successful songwriter for the likes of Brandy, Justin Bieber and Beyoncé; and he ran with Odd Future, though always seemed more mature than their mouthier shock tactics. It could be argued with conviction that he’s already eclipsed them. Packing up, broke, and driving away from his hometown of New Orleans, post-Katrina, to give it a shot as a songwriter in LA was a risk. Giving away his first album Nostalgia, Ultra for free was a risk (he put it online in 2011 without the knowledge of his label, Def Jam). Coming out was a risk.
“I won’t touch on risky, because that’s subjective,” he says. “People are just afraid of things too much. Afraid of things that don’t necessarily merit fear. Me putting Nostalgia out … what’s physically going to happen? Me saying what I said on my Tumblr last week? Sure, evil exists, extremism exists. Somebody could commit a hate crime and hurt me. But they could do the same just because I’m black. They could do the same just because I’m American. Do you just not go outside your house? Do you not drive your car because of the statistics? How else are you limiting your life for fear?”
Though he thinks of himself as existing outside of conventional music genres – and the broad ambition of new album Channel Orange touches on everything from Marvin Gaye to Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix – Ocean’s roots are in R&B and hip-hop, neither of which are known for their nurturing attitude towards the rainbow flag. Which makes what he just did seem remarkably courageous. “I don’t know,” he demurs, looking down. “A lot of people have said that since that news came out. I suppose a percentage of that act was because of altruism; because I was thinking of how I wished at 13 or 14 there was somebody I looked up to who would have said something like that, who would have been transparent in that way. But there’s another side of it that’s just about my own sanity and my ability to feel like I’m living a life where I’m not just successful on paper, but sure that I’m happy when I wake up in the morning, and not with this freakin’ boulder on my chest.”
‘I could have changed the words. But why? I feel it’s another time now. I have no interest in contributing to that, especially with my art – the one thing that I know will outlive me’
Frank at Coachella, 2012. Photograph: Paul R. Giunta/Paul R. Giunta/CorbisOcean didn’t come out spontaneously, though. He wrote his letter in December 2011, to include in the sleevenotes for Channel Orange, pre-empting any potential speculation that might arise from some of its songs obviously addressing men. “I knew that I was writing in a way that people would ask questions,” he explains. “I knew that my star was rising, and I knew that if I waited I would always have somebody that I respected be able to encourage me to wait longer, to not say it till who knows when.” He’s not one for playing the game, clearly. “It was important for me to know that when I go out on the road and I do these things, that I’m looking at people who are applauding because of an appreciation for me,” he says. “I don’t have many secrets, so if you know that, and you’re still applauding … it may be some sort of sick validation but it was important to me. When I heard people talking about certain, you know, ‘pronouns’ in the writing of the record, I just wanted to – like I said on the post – offer some clarity; clarify, before the fire got too wild and the conversation became too unfocused and murky.”
Later that evening, when he performs to a near-hysterical crowd, a line like “You’re so buff and so strong, I’m nervous … You run my mind, boy” sounds astonishingly subversive, hammering home how rarely we hear overtly same-sex songs, no matter what the genre. Asked why he didn’t fall back on the generic “you”, he shrugs: “When you write a song likeForrest Gump, the subject can’t be androgynous. It requires an unnecessary amount of effort. I don’t fear anybody … ” He laughs, making eye contact at last, his face lighting up, ” … at all. So, to answer your question, yes, I could have easily changed the words. But for what? I just feel like it’s just another time now. I have no interest in contributing to that, especially with my art. It’s the one thing that I know will outlive me and outlive my feelings. It will outlive my depressive seasons.”
These “depressive seasons”, he says, have been erased suddenly by his recent catharsis, but the bleakness of his music has been one of its most notable qualities. Drake and the Weeknd have peddled urban navel-gazing for a year or two, but Frank is on another level, telling dark cinematic stories with a screenwriter’s eye for character. Nostalgia, Ultra was full of unhappy souls: songs which initially appear to be sexy slow jams crumble under the weight of despair; take the refrain of Novocaine, “fuck me good, fuck me long, fuck me numb”, that final adverb joining grief to lust. Channel Orange has a fascination with decadence in the midst of decline, but its protagonists are equally sad and lost. The album’s narratives take in drug addicts, strippers, but also rich kids ruined by consumerism who end up dead or, at the least, on the receiving end of some vicious sarcasm: “Why see the world when you got the beach?” he sings on Sweet Life.
‘My grandfather was a mentor for NA and AA groups. I used to go to the meetings and hear the addicts: heroin and crack and alcohol. Stories like that influence a song like Crack Rock’
Ocean is unsure about what draws him to the darker side. “I honestly couldn’t tell you,” he finally says, after a long silence. “I would say, those were the colours I had to work with on those days.” Is it drawn from experience? “Absolutely. I mean, ‘experience’ is an interesting word. I just bear witness. For a song like Crack Rock, my grandfather, who had struggled to be a father for my mum and my uncle … his second chance at fatherhood was me. In his early-20s, he had a host of problems with addiction and substance abuse. When I knew him, he was a mentor for the NA and the AA groups. I used to go to the meetings and hear these stories from the addicts – heroin and crack and alcohol. So stories like that influence a song like that.” Some of his narratives are pure fantasy, he says. In the case of Pyramids’ epic first half this isn’t too surprising – it takes place in ancient Egypt – but that, too, twists itself into the story of a stripper providing for a pimp, and turns out to be rooted in real life. “I have actual pimps in my family in LA,” he chuckles. “It was fantasy built off that dynamic … but you can only write what you know to a point.”
The attention to detail that goes into his songs is astonishing. He sings Crack Rock with a hint of fractured breathiness that his sound engineer tried to iron out. “He said, ‘Are we really going to let this slide?’ And I was like, ‘Yes, because that’s how a smoker would sing.’” Music, more than any other art form, demands autobiography: we want our singers to be giving us authentic love or pain; we want to believe it’s first-hand. Fortunately, Frank Ocean is a natural-born storyteller.
When he talks about his music – how this bit here was influenced by Sly And The Family Stone, why that vocal retake happened, even the dying business model the industry is built on – he looks up, becoming animated, lively, and less shy. It would be easy to think that he’s reluctant to be famous – Vancouver tonight marks only his 10th solo gig – but when he left New Orleans in 2005, he changed his name from Lonny Breaux to Frank Ocean because he decided it would look better on magazine covers. (He also cares enough to have personally authorised the cover image for this week’s Guardian Guide.)
“I’ve always wanted to make a career in the arts, and I think that my only hope at doing that is to make it more about the work,” he says. But he could have been a successful songwriter anonymously – if it’s all about the music, why step out from behind the pen? “I enjoy singing my songs in front of people. I enjoy being involved in making the artwork for albums and stupid stuff like that. I wouldn’t be a part of [it] if I was just writing songs for others. And I said more about the music,” he grins, lest there be any doubt that he intends to be a star.
The journalist’s flight to Vancouver was paid for by Universal Records
Frank Ocean’s Def Jam debut, “Channel Orange,” isn’t due for two weeks, but the album has had Twitter abuzz for days.
As the Odd Future crooner previewed the highly anticipated disc for press, attention shifted to his sexuality after one blogger’s brief mention that when he sings about love on a number of tracks he uses “him” as opposed to “her.”
It was that quick line that has dominated the blogosphere.
What was fascinating about the rampant speculation about Ocean isn’t that it spread so quickly (much of this week’s headlines have centered on Anderson Cooper confirming his sexual orientation), but rather how many blogs haphazardly drafted their own analysis, most of them without having heard the album.
Now we know for sure: Tuesday evening Ocean took to his Tumblr to address the spreading headlines. In a preface post, he wrote that he would be posting what was originally meant to appear in the liner notes for “Channel Orange.” He made clear that he lived the lyrics in his songs, which he sings with such an intense passion, urgency and plainness. This was his story.
“With all the rumors going round.. i figured it’d be good to clarify..,” he wrote.
In the letter – actually a screenshot of a note document – he describes the first time he fell in love with a man and how the relationship progressed. He bluntly stated, “I don’t know what happens now, and that’s alrite. I don’t have any secrets I need kept anymore.”
“4 summers ago, I met somebody. I was 19 years old. He was too. We spent that summer, and the summer after, together. Everyday almost. And on the days we were together, time would glide,” Ocean wrote in part of the letter. “Most of the day I’d see him, and his smile. I’d hear his conversation and his silence … until it was time to sleep. Sleep I would often share with him. By the time I realized I was in love, it was malignant. It was hopeless…”
The straightforward letter – which can be read in its entirety here – is undoubtedly the glass ceiling moment for music. Especially black music, which has long been in desperate need of a voice like Ocean’s to break the layers of homophobia. There are plenty of reasons this moment has so much weight. Too many for any single article to explore.
Ocean has never talked at length about his personal life, leaving his music and its often-complex narratives to drive the conversation. But in a culture where the gossip increasingly and frustratingly outweighs the music, Ocean’s casual and candid approach to addressing his personal life, and revealing his personal truth of having loved a man, will be seen as groundbreaking.
There was no cover story, no anonymous sources or PR-orchestrated announcement (though this is not to demean those celebrities who have taken those approaches to this issue). Sure this will be seen as his “coming out” but it should be noted he doesn’t use the word “gay” or “bisexual,” and his letter isn’t about caving to the pressures of the labels we are so quick to pass out.
Ocean told his story on his terms and in his own words, something virtually unheard of in hip-hop and R&B — genres he has already pushed forward artistically with his work, and could push further.
Thursday, Ocean played the disc for a small group of music reporters at Los Angeles’ Capitol Records.
“This will take about an hour of your life,” he said before focusing on the control board and bobbing his head to the album, a stellar kaleidoscope of atmospheric beats, lush harmonies and those complex narratives he’s known for.
“It’s a bad religion, to be in love with someone who can never love you,” he muses over an organ on “Bad Religion,” one of the track’s catching attention along with the Andre 3000-assisted “Pink Matter” and the album’s wrenching closer “Forrest Gump,” where he sings of a boy he once knew.
“You’re running on my mind, boy,” he offers on the track.
The reaction to Ocean’s revelation is still uncertain –- although any negativity can be drowned out by the album’s raw beauty and masterful craftsmanship. The outpouring of tweets supporting Ocean has made it clear that he’s going to get a fair amount of love from fans and the industry, with some already touting him as a hero and a trailblazer. Being someone of his stature will place a heavy burden on his shoulders as being the “first,” but this moment was so very necessary.
Hopefully, in the wake of his letter, the urban community will fully embrace Ocean for his honesty and bravery. It’s impossible he’s alone.