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TIME: No unpublished writer ever turns down a book contract.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.
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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.)
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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.)