In 1975, a novel of mine, written under the pseudonym of “Joan Lea,” was published by Atheneum. This was an experiment. At that time, the best-seller lists were dominated by Sidney Sheldon, Jacqueline Susann, Irving Wallace, and Harold Robbins. These stories, you will recall, were basically about sex. I believed I could write one of these and write it better than they had, which is to say that what I wrote would be better written and far sexier than anything published to date. The reason for the use of the pseudonym was to protect the success I had experienced writing children’s books. We didn’t want to cloud the waters.
I had attended a writer’s luncheon at a Los Angeles restaurant where one of the other writers volunteered to give me the story line of a novel she was writing but doubted she would ever finish. Not only that, she promised she would give me all her contacts in order to help me research the book. Better than anything, she handed me also the title: TRADING UP.
I was on fire. I started writing immediately, and made appointments to meet with her sources, women of means who had successfully married upward on the social scale, starting (for example) with, say, a young woman from the Midwest who married her high school sweetheart, left him to marry a local lawyer, through whom she was introduced perhaps to a banker, then to an industrialist, then (even) to a politician. The progression was not only social, but monetary and a matter of power. All of these women who spoke with me were proud of their upward mobility and of their progress, and spoke very very freely about how they went about climbing the mountaintops that would lead them towards happiness and position. Further, many of these women knew one another; they formed an informal but supportive group by means of which they could not only keep tabs on their own progress, but also, if necessary, block the progress of others deemed not good enough to be in the game.
To write TRADING UP was not easy. Imagine having to insert a sex scene in every chapter that was new, erotic, arousing, and yet maintain my mission, which was to write these scenes better than others before. Equally important to me was that I had to go further than Sheldon/Susann/Robbins in physical detail. I did.
Joan Lea’s TRADING UP was published. The New York Times called it “slick, gossipy, and thoroughly tasteless.” One couldn’t have imagined a better review.
Just as exciting as the review was the news that came from Atheneum: it had sold the paperback rights to the novel for what was then a record sum for a “first” novel.
Ah, I thought, my fortune is made.
Not quite. While I had been able to do what I set out to do, and was pleased with the result, the very next offer I received to write a novel was for the same kind of novel, i.e., another sex tome. The money offered was staggering, but all I could think was the agony of having to do this again. (I made a mistake, clearly, here in my thinking: I would have been well-advised to establish a “brand” and ride into the sunset along with Sheldon, Robbins et al and the writers who followed in their footsteps.
But TRADING UP was only an experiment, not a story about which my emotions were engaged, nor a story that in the long run would prove valuable to readers, either as literature or as support.
Besides, early in my career (here comes another mistake) I had decided that I wanted each book I wrote to be different in setting, character, story line, motivation, value. Rather than follow EDGAR ALLAN and his family with a series of worthwhile and meaningful adventures, I wanted to start afresh, with a new family, new conflicts, even new locations. I stayed with this decision.
Recently, I lent a copy of TRADING UP to friends who were traveling. What a minute, said I to myself, I’d better reread this to see what they’re reading. To say I was horrified would be an understatement. To be sure the book is well-written. It is also embarrassingly dirty, point blank. Hence, my dirty little secret, now exposed, is also a moment of relief. Yes, I can write for adults, but also yes, I still want what I do to have “redeeming social values.”