Daisy Buchanan: Putting the sexy back in literary sex scenes

'Women have appetites and as they sometimes rage out of control, the worst thing we can do is repress them'

If disaffected, slightly confused female narrators who are feeling emotionally and socially stuck and looking for a place to land in life is your literary thing, you’ll have no shortage of reading material from which to choose.

Thanks to the success of books like Candice Carty-Williams’ Queenie and Dolly Alderton’s Ghosts to Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest & Relaxation, bookshelves are positively heaving with relatable anti-heroines. Finding elbow room in this particular subset of successful new female writers has become no mean feat.

And yet, British journalist Daisy Buchanan has somehow managed to distinguish herself from the pack, with a novel that's both smoothly observant and brilliantly, giddily filthy. Insatiable has been billed as a "love story for greedy girls", and the end result is a Molotov cocktail of shocking and tender. Orgies, threesomes, masturbation – all of it is presented in its raw and candid glory, in an astute observation of female desire and longing.

In fact, Insatiable is so salty that, despite the age-old adage that sex very much sells, some publishers didn’t quite know what to make of it when it landed on their desk.

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“I’ve always been an easy mark when it comes to sex; if sex is selling, I’m buying,” Buchanan laughs. “I’m a bit of a sex geek. I’m like a 14-year-old boy in the 1970s, drawn to anything that’s thrillingly forbidden.

“I had an idea that I’d write this book, not really knowing what it was, or even if it was anything,” Buchanan adds. “I showed it to my husband and close friends, then sent it to my agent. It could have gone either way but she loved it.

“There was even more sex in the first [draft],” she says with a mischievous laugh. “Part of me felt this story hadn’t been told before and I don’t know why. The editors were a little freaked out and overwhelmed. A lot of them said politely, ‘We wouldn’t know where to begin with this.’ Others asked, ‘Why have you sent me porn?’”

Although Insatiable bears a resemblance to many of its fellow fiction titles, the book has the potential to join a glittering firmament of ground-breaking “sexy sex” books; the sort of titles that get passed around classrooms with passages highlighted, like Judy Blume’s Forever, Jackie Collins’ many bonkbusters or Jilly Cooper’s Riders.

"I can only dream of being in that club," Buchanan enthuses. "I've loved Jilly's books all my life – this fantasy and sex and romance. A Jilly heroine lives in a world that's weirdly moral. As someone brought up in a strict Catholic family, sex was often seen as a little shameful [to me]. But Jilly Cooper was for women who love sex, although sex would always have consequences in those novels.

"Jilly was one of the first writers, and Marian Keyes has done this too, to acknowledge that women have appetites and as they sometimes rage out of control, the worst thing we can do is repress them."

Naturally, we also talk about EL James’ Fifty Shades of Grey.

I suppose I've become quite good at writing filthy, filthy sex, mainly after sending flirty messages to boys in my youth

“There is obviously a very sexy book of recent times that lots of people get upset about. That book was not for me, but that book made me think that a lot of women like me want to read this and I don’t think they’re as well served as they might be,” Buchanan says.

Did she worry about writing “bad sex” or was she ever self-conscious about writing perhaps badly about good sex?

“I simply wanted to see how I went and where I went with it,” she replies. “It reminded me of always being a little worried about the physics of sex scenes. I suppose actually I’ve become quite good at writing filthy, filthy sex, mainly after sending flirty messages to boys in my youth.”

As she wrote Insatiable, Buchanan was heartened by other titles being published.

“I was well into writing the book when I read [Lisa Taddeo’s] Three Women, and [Raven Leilani’s] Luster. I mean, I read them and wanted to give up writing almost immediately, but I also remember being so thrilled that there was a flowing scene of brilliant voices and it’s amazing that they’re being taken seriously.”

Buchanan was immersed in writing Insatiable just as the #MeToo movement took off. In a bid to focus on writing, she temporarily deleted her Twitter account, meaning that she hadn’t seen the movement gain traction on social media in real time.

Sex was another thing we had to be good at. We were there to be desired. What we wanted didn't come into it

“I don’t think I could have found the headspace to write about desire and lust and sex as audaciously if I’d seen #MeToo rolling out,” she reflects. “I think I would have felt much more conscious about the way that sex is weaponised, and the way sex can make people intensely vulnerable.

“Even when I was 15 back in 2000, and there was this feeling as though feminism had gotten sorted out,” Buchanan says. “I was really feeling that every time sex was mentioned, it was always bad news, or a crime, and that something awful was happening to women. Even in other magazines, sex was another thing we had to be good at. We were there to be desired. What we wanted didn’t come into it. And what hope did we have if no one was saying, ‘I’m horny’?”

In fact, a seismic sexy book has been a long time coming, and certainly for the Insta generation. Readers in their 20s and 30s may have a wealth of porn readily available to them but, as Buchanan herself wrote in an opinion piece for the Guardian back in 2015, they’re not as sexually liberated as you might think (Buchanan also wrote a non-fiction book on navigating the minefield of online dating back in 2015).

“Millennials don’t have sex? Of course we don’t,” ran the headline. “We’re a generation so worried by sex ed warnings and so anxious about looking good that we can’t let ourselves feel good,” she wrote. “It’s time for another sexual revolution.”

Today, she reflects: “I do believe millennials have a lot of inherited anxiety and it’s difficult to desire when you’re worried all the time. Real-life sex is messy and awkward and uncomfortable, but the lovely thing about sex when you do have it, in my broad personal experience, is that it does take you away from your body in a way that allows you to escape your mind.”

I really hope that in everything I wrote, and I keep writing, I want it to feel kind

It would seem that in some ways, Buchanan’s formative career as a journalist informs much of her fiction writing. After a long and gruelling internship (“I joke that I’d have paid to work there, and I practically did”), Buchanan spent many fond years on the features desk at Bliss magazine, breaking down topics like sex, body issues and lust for the magazine’s largely teenage audience. Then, as now, she took that responsibility seriously.

“Bliss really was about wanting these young women to go out into the world – although I hate the word – empowered,” Buchanan recalls. “I started in Bliss in 2008 as the internet was getting quite big, and our readers had a lot of unverified places to get their information. We knew they would be taking everything to heart, and I really hope that in everything I wrote, and I keep writing, I want it to feel kind.”

Sex aside, the book also explores the idea that “great” looking lives aren’t always as perfect and glossy as they might initially seem. Also in the mix is disordered eating and eating disorders, written with acuity.

Buchanan admits it’s the most autobiographical part of the book for her.

In her 2016 non-fiction book The Sisterhood: A Love Letter to the Women Who Have Shaped Me, Buchanan wrote about her relationship with her five sisters, all of whom are quite different from each other in many ways.

“Culturally, as women, we have always been encouraged to compare ourselves with other women and having sisters is a really concentrated version of that reality,” Buchanan observed at the time. From a young age, Buchanan grappled with eating disorders, enthusiastically asking for Slimfast as a present for her sixth birthday.

“After writing for a teen mag, I was very aware of the science and thinking around it, and thought it was something I’d left in my teens,” Buchanan reflects. “Yet in my 20s and 30s, I would really abuse food and alcohol when I got stressed.

“And when I was deciding I wanted to finish the novel, around 2018, I knew that something wasn’t quite right about the way I was living. I was in a complicated place, being heavier than I wanted to be and not fitting in my clothes.

My dream reader is someone who finds the sex sexy, but also feels uplifted and moved, and seen

“That’s really when I picked up with Insatiable. I really wanted to take some control about how I was nourishing myself. I realised that every time I felt sad or angry or stressed, I’d been losing the ability to sit with those feelings instead of resisting them, then snapping. And so much of writing is sitting down with your thoughts.”

For now, all that remains for Buchanan is to enjoy the reaction to her story, and her writing about sex, from readers.

“The terrifying and exciting thing is that I have no control over how people will react to it,” she says. “It’s a real Marmite book, I find. Violet might be the worst kind of millennial to some people, but I’m more fond of her than I ought to be. My dream reader is someone who finds the sex sexy, but also feels uplifted and moved, and seen.

“Some people might be a little upset about the sex without having read the book. I’m also being a bit cagey with my parents about it. I’m trying to not encourage them to read it.”

Insatiable by Daisy Buchanan is out now via Sphere books.