Summer of Love: An interview with Rochelle Siemienowicz

[This article was first published in The Big Issue #485, May 2015]

With the growth of digital publishing, it appears erotic fiction is experiencing its own increase in popularity, due to the anonymity e-reading devices provides. Coupled with the childish sniggers often directed at people reading softcore paperbacks like 50 Shades of Grey on public transport, this all points to a lasting backwardness in today’s society; specifically, that reading about sex is a shameful act best done in private to avoid judgment or embarrassment.

Rochelle Siemienowicz rejects this limited worldview. Her sensual debut, Fallen, a fictionalised memoir that took eight years to write, lived in a drawer for a long time – but not because of its subject matter. The delay was due to the difficulty that accompanies the writing process, especially one which demanded mining her personal life.

Fallen recounts a dizzying summer holiday in 1996, in which the then 24-year-old Siemienowicz (or ‘Eve’ as she calls herself in the book) visits her hometown of Perth. Away from her grey life in Melbourne, and the growing strains of her open marriage, Eve feels recharged by the Western Australian sun. And, like her namesake, she blissfully falls into a number of temptations.

As its title alludes, religion has played a huge role in Siemienowicz’s life. Raised in a Seventh Day Adventist household, her missionary parents were strict in their beliefs. Siemienowicz explains that SDAs (as they’re colloquially called) believe the end of the world is imminent and that it’s their job to try and convert as many people as possible before that happens. While Siemienowicz has long since left the flock and now identifies as an atheist, she still considers the Bible a source of creative inspiration: “The things I love about the bible are the poetry and the rhythm of it. The story of Jesus is amazing.”

One of the many things Siemienowicz cannot abide by, however, is the Bible’s linking of sin and extramarital sex. “I struggled with that idea even when I was very young and still in the church,” she reflects. “It affected the whole way I lived my life; I felt I had to be with the first person I slept with. It determined the way I got married at the age of 20 when I definitely wasn’t mature or experienced enough to know whether that was the right thing to do. And it made me feel really quite dirty and guilty when I failed to live up to those standards.”

Siemienowicz is also painfully aware of the guilt that shadows women who openly discuss sex. “It’s quite a radical act for women to write about their own sexual desire, but I wanted to do that,” she says, with determination. “A lot of people call me brave and courageous for doing this… Why is that? In this supposedly liberated age where sex is ubiquitous, we still think it’s so out there for a woman to say ‘I like sex, I have a body, I enjoy it’.”

Siemienowicz is a widely published film critic and her impressive 20-year career helped the author capture her life story. “I think I’m very visual; I remember things quite clearly, they way they look; the way they sound; the way they feel. I think in scenes. I can see my book being like a film in my head. But books and writing and words were always my first love. I didn’t even go to the cinema until I was a teenager and going to the movies was an act of rebellion as well, because that wasn’t really allowed.”

Most writers agree that writing about sex is difficult – which is why all those ‘Bad Sex Awards’ handed out to authors seem a little unfair, and again, a sign of society’s inherent prudishness. Siemienowicz relished the challenge: “I loved writing about the sex; I found it easy to go into that headspace where I’m remembering what happened,“ she explains.

Siemienowicz offers the following advice to writers: “I think really good writing about sex goes into the psychology of what’s going on. It’s not about mechanics; it’s about emotion and what things mean to us. The details that are maybe ugly or awkward or off-putting make it feel more real. Sex is such a beautiful and amazing way that people communicate with one another.”

Like sex, Fallen is a book which deserves to be openly discussed and celebrated. To hide it away on an e-reader is to do a huge disservice to its gorgeous cover. In a hazy, sun-drenched photograph, a twentysomething Siemienowicz stands on a Perth beach, her eyes peering over her sunglasses, nudged slightly down her nose in a flirty manner. The image of her bare feet on the sand recalls a beautiful passage from Siemienowicz’s book: “All I want to feel is a succession of moments with my feet shifting under me, according to the movement of the waves.”

Reading Fallen inspires a similar sensation of letting go, of being seduced by the power of words after the ache of so much longing.