by | October 21, 2012 | General | 7 comments

By Lisabet Sarai

Although I’m an American citizen, I
live in Southeast Asia. Approximately once a year, my husband and I
travel back to the United States on a trip that combines business and
pleasure. We just returned from one of these odysseys yesterday (as
my current state of grogginess attests).

Our itinerary varies somewhat from one
year to the next. In 2011 (as those of you who follow my blog might
recall) we journeyed
from Chicago to San Francisco on Amtrak’s California Zephyr
thus had the opportunity to visit friends and family on the west
coast, but usually our perambulations are restricted to the eastern
half of the U.S. We normally fly into New York City and branch out
from there – to Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, Maryland,
South Carolina, or Florida. No matter where our travels take us,
however, we always spend at least twenty four hours in Manhattan, so
that we can visit what has become one of our personal shrines: the
Strand bookstore on 12th and Broadway.

The Strand is deservedly one of the
most famous bookstores in the world. Established in 1927 and still
owned by the family of the founders, it occupies a good chunk of a
city block – about 55,000 square feet – every inch crammed with
books. On our most recent pilgrimage, just a few days ago, I noticed
that they’d done away with the bag check desk that previously
occupied a spot near the front door. Clearly they’d needed that space
for more volumes.

Entering the store, I experience awe
and delight similar to what I feel in Europe’s magnificent
cathedrals. Tables crowd the front area, piled not just with the
trendiest new releases but also with themed collections: staff picks,
seasonal titles, books purporting to be the favorites of various
authors. Memoir and biography, history, religion, politics,
psychology, fantasy – the idiosyncratic groupings mix famous
authors with those who are unknown (at least to me), new books with
classics. Further back, the shelves begin, rank after rank, more than
twice as tall as I am. Barnes and Noble shelves all its books within
easy reach of the customer. At the Strand, ladders are essential.

You can wander for hours among those
shelves, revisiting old literary friends and discovering new
treasures. The discounted prices are merely icing on the cake. If you
have the energy, you can climb two flights to the second story, where
you’ll find additional shelves packed with art, photography,
architecture, children’s books, and much more. There may even be a
third floor. I’m always so overwhelmed by what’s immediately at hand
that I haven’t investigated.

My husband and I come both to browse
and to buy. We know that every purchase will increase the weight of
our luggage, but we can’t resist. This time around we picked up
(among other finds) Umberto Eco’s latest novel The Prague
, Haruki Murakami’s After Dark, Elizabeth
Kostova’s The Swan Thieves,
and a posthumous collection of Philip K. Dick. Although we bring our
latest to-read lists, encountering the unexpected is one of the
Strand’s joys. We keep at it as long as our aging joints allow, until
our backs and knees ache, the books are spilling from our arms, and
we wake up to the reality that we have to lug all our purchases back
to our hotel.

some reason, this year I particularly noticed the people working at
the Strand. Almost everyone I saw was young (but then, compared to
me, almost everyone is). Given the vertical orientation of the
environment, I suspect the job requires considerable stamina. Rarely
have I seen more distinctive and quirky individuals. I found myself
imagining their interactions, roughing out a story set among the
stacks or in the stockrooms. The towering shelves, separated by
narrow aisles, seemed a natural setting for clandestine passion.

realized something else on this particular visit, too. In the past,
the pleasure I took in the Strand was always tempered by a trace of
bitterness. Why weren’t my books among those displayed for customers
to explore? Why was the erotica section restricted to two brief
shelves, hidden away near the bottom of one of the tables? Envy and
frustration used to leave a sour taste in my mouth, even as I was
enjoying the fruits of my literary foraging.

time, those corrosive emotions were absent. I’m really not sure why.
Perhaps I’ve reached a point where I don’t need that kind of external
validation to be proud of my own writing. Perhaps I recognize that I
make as much money on my ebooks as many of the obscure print-pubbed
authors whose volumes I leaf through but then put down. Maybe I’ve
simply accepted the fact that I’m a literary outlaw, that not only is
my work not viewed as art, it’s condemned as immoral trash. I’ve
always had a fondness for outlaws.

In any
case, I found this year’s pilgrimage even more fulfilling than usual.
The Buddha taught that attachment causes suffering. Maybe by
releasing my frustrated desire for literary fame, I’ve moved closer
to enlightenment.

Lisabet Sarai

Sex and writing. I think I've always been fascinated by both. Freud was right. I definitely remember feelings that I now recognize as sexual, long before I reached puberty. I was horny before I knew what that meant. My teens and twenties I spent in a hormone-induced haze, perpetually "in love" with someone (sometimes more than one someone). I still recall the moment of enlightenment, in high school, when I realized that I could say "yes" to sexual exploration, even though society told me to say no. Despite being a shy egghead with world-class myopia who thought she was fat, I had managed to accumulate a pretty wide range of sexual experience by the time I got married. And I'm happy to report that, thanks to my husband's open mind and naughty imagination, my sexual adventures didn't end at that point! Meanwhile, I was born writing. Okay, that's a bit of an exaggeration, though according to family apocrypha, I was talking at six months. Certainly, I started writing as soon as I learned how to form the letters. I penned my first poem when I was seven. While I was in elementary school I wrote more poetry, stories, at least two plays (one about the Beatles and one about the Goldwater-Johnson presidential contest, believe it or not), and a survival manual for Martians (really). I continued to write my way through high school, college, and grad school, mostly angst-ridden poems about love and desire, although I also remember working on a ghost story/romance novel (wish I could find that now). I've written song lyrics, meeting minutes, marketing copy, software manuals, research reports, a cookbook, a self-help book, and a five hundred page dissertation. For years, I wrote erotic stories and kinky fantasies for myself and for lovers' entertainment. I never considered trying to publish my work until I picked up a copy of Portia da Costa's Black Lace classic Gemini Heat while sojourning in Istanbul. My first reaction was "Wow!". It was possibly the most arousing thing I'd ever read, intelligent, articulate, diverse and wonderfully transgressive. My second reaction was, "I'll bet I could write a book like that." I wrote the first three chapters of Raw Silk and submitted a proposal to Black Lace, almost on a lark. I was astonished when they accepted it. The book was published in April 1999, and all at once, I was an official erotic author. A lot has changed since my Black Lace days. But I still get a thrill from writing erotica. It's a never-ending challenge, trying to capture the emotional complexities of a sexual encounter. I'm far less interested in what happens to my characters' bodies than in what goes on in their heads.


  1. Remittance Girl

    "The Prague Conspiracy"

    Please tell us what it is like! I'd love to read it but at the moment have no reading capacity left!

  2. Donna

    Wonderful post! I love the Strand and spent many magical hours there when I visited my sister in NYC. More nostalgic still, back in the late 70's I spent a very memorable night with an older man in an apartment across the street that's made it into a few of my stories in slightly different guises. But the fact that his apartment was right near the Strand made it all that much more special!

    I also find myself feeling less resentful about the treatment of erotica and less dependent on outside validation these days. Some of it certainly is the ebook revolution that has freed us from one particular closed system for reaching an audience. Part of it could also be the wisdom of age–which is good for one's writing as well.

  3. Craig Sorensen

    First, my reluctant admission that, in my many travels to the NYC area, I have never been to the Strand. Someday, I will have to rectify that. Sounds like a wonderful adventure!

    And I appreciate your comfort in outlaw status.

    Zen outlaw. Awesome.

  4. Lisabet Sarai

    @RG – I've also got a big stack of books to tackle before I get to The Prague Conspiracy. But I'll let you know when I do. The last Eco I read (Baudolino) was a bit of a disappointment.

    @Donna – I think I remember that story, in Sex in the City: New York, right? The Strand is definitely a magic place. I encountered it fairly late in life, but I can imagine that it would have truly enchanted me when I was younger.

    @Craig – Maybe it's not worth coming to New York City JUST to visit the Strand… but then maybe it is!

  5. Craig Sorensen

    Hey Lisabet,

    I was thinking more that my next business trip to NYC would include a stop there. Well, unless I get unspeakably rich soon.

    Yeah, I think I'll stop by during a business trip.

  6. Morticia Knight

    I've always wanted to visit there – I was just near Powell's in Portland today, and writhing in the seat because I wanted to stop in so bad!
    Also – I prefer outlaws any day; I'm just glad that you're writing, and I can get your books online. All hail the mighty internet! 😉

  7. Lisabet Sarai

    @ Craig – be sure you have extra cash to pay for a suitcase full of new books!

    @ Morticia – I've never been to Powell's. I gather that it is another legend. Someday! And thanks for your encouragement, too.

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