You could call it the ultimate romantic gesture.
Last February, Andrew Shaffer, a writer who had recently moved to Lexington, picked up Fifty Shades of Grey, writer E.L. James' global publishing phenom that has introduced 20 million readers to the world of bondage, dominance and sadomasochistic sex.
Shaffer was appalled, as many have been, by the puerile plot line, wooden dialogue and shallow characters in the story of stalker-billionaire Christian Grey, who sweeps dim young college student Anastasia Steele off her feet and into his sex dungeon, more or less.
Shaffer was offended not just as a writer himself but as the boyfriend of Tiffany Reisz, who was the reason he moved to Lexington and who happened to be a very good erotic BDSM author herself.
So Shaffer, the author of the non-fiction Great Philosophers Who Failed at Love (Harper Perennial, $12.99 in paperback), sat down and quickly wrote a parody, Fifty Shames of Earl Grey (Da Capo Press, $13.99 in paperback), in which Ana Steal and Earl Grey enter a world of half-wits and another kind of BDSM: "bards, dragons, sorcery and Magick."
"I was offended," Shaffer said of Fifty Shades, "because I thought the writing was pretty terrible and I've read other BDSM novels that were so much better, including Tiffany's. On the other hand, it's all turned out pretty well for us."
"Pretty well" is an ending that could show up in a romance novel: For Shaffer, it means a book deal with a sizeable advance, interviews with The New York Times and NPR, and another book, Literary Rogues, on the way from Harper Perennial.
"Pretty well" for Reisz means a huge bump of publicity for her recently released BDSM novel, The Siren (Harlequin Mira, $13.95 in paperback) — with a first printing of 60,000 copies — as millions of titillated Fifty Shades readers look for their next fix.
Shaffer and Reisz met cute on Twitter and then met in person at the Romance Writers of America conference in New York. (Their first date was when Shaffer escorted Reisz to a Manhattan dominatrix; for a full accounting, check out Reisz's column on The Huffington Post.) They now live a modern-day literary life, white Mac notebooks constantly humming in different rooms of their Harrodsburg Road condo, a running Twitter conversation open in one window, the next book chapter in another.
Reisz, an Owensboro native and Centre College graduate, has worked on her writing for a long time, and she seems bemused by success in both personal and professional fronts happening at the same time.
"It's the best thing that's ever happened to me," she said of Shaffer and his move to Lexington. A pause. "Apart from the book deals." She laughed. "Spoken like a true writer."
Religion and sex
Reisz, 34, whose degree from Centre is in English, had always been interested in religion, and fascinated by the ritual and mystery of the Catholic Church. In 2002, as a recent Catholic convert, she was enrolled at seminary at Asbury in Wilmore. But she was bored to death, and then a friend showed her some BDSM fan fiction online.
"I thought I could write something better and sexier than that with my eyes closed," she said. "Just to prove it to her, I did, and posted it online and people went crazy for it."
(Fan fiction, in which fans take a plot line from a book, movie or TV show and write their own stories, incidentally is how Fifty Shades of Grey got started, a piece of fan fiction based on Twilight. That might explain Christian Grey's pale skin and Anastasia's general blandness.)
Reisz started writing and posting even sexier pieces, although most of the Web sites that hosted them were blocked at Asbury, so she had to head to the public library. Her fan base was growing, with some of her stories were getting more than 1,000 comments. She started to think it wouldn't be so bad to make a career out of something she enjoyed so much.
"The best part was I went to tell my adviser I was dropping out of school to become a writer, and she met with me to try to talk me out of it, and by the end, she was saying, 'Go for it; you can do this.'"
Reisz left Asbury, got a job at Joseph-Beth Booksellers and started working on what would become The Siren, the story of Nora Sunderlin, an erotica novelist and hard-core dominatrix who also plays the role of a submissive to her one true love, a Danish priest named Soren.
In high school, Reisz was first inspired by the Sleeping Beauty erotica trilogy by Anne Rice, first published in the 1980s and recently re-released, thanks to renewed interest in BDSM. As she started her new career, Reisz found Bondage.com, set up a profile on the online fetish community and began talking to dominants, submissives and everyone in between.
She even met a man from Frankfort and started a relationship with him.
"I learned a lot from him, and he inspired quite a few of the scenes in the book," she said.
By 2010, she had a day job at eCampus, where she still works, but most of her free time was spent writing. She had sold Harlequin Mira two books, including The Siren and its sequel, The Angel, due in late September. On her Web site, Tiffanyreisz.com, she keeps fans engaged with free stories about all her characters, "the Original Sinners," as she calls them.
"It was a hard sell at the time because of the hard-core BDSM, but now that's made me kind of an It Girl," Reisz said, giggling. "I hope my editor (Mira's Susan Swinwood) gets some credit for buying this before it was hot."
From serious to silly
Meanwhile, Shaffer's literary career started in his home state, Iowa, in the shadow of the famed Iowa Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa.
"I was trying to do this very serious, literary thing, Philip Roth or Raymond Carver," Shaffer, 33, said. "I was writing like I was a 50-year-old divorced man and former alcoholic, and the perspective was not me."
He gave that up and started writing greeting cards, "to get the humor out my system," he said.
He wrote Christmas cards for atheists, valentines from Nietzsche, which ended up featured by The Colbert Report and Fox News. One example: A picture of Charles Darwin with the words "What? You expect me to say something snarky just because it's Christmas and I don't believe in God?" Or the card with a scene of Jesus in the manger: "'He has my eyes,' Joseph said. 'It's funny you say that,' his wife replied, 'because there's something I need to tell you.'"
The cards got him an agent, and his greeting card research showed him that the profound musings made by many famous philosophers didn't lead to success in their personal lives. Thus, Great Philosophers Who Failed at Love was born; it was published last year.
His idea for his next book was to look at happy love stories, which led him to romance novels. He began writing reviews for RT Book Reviews, an online magazine for fans of romance and erotic novels. He went to his first Romance Writers of America conference in 2011, met Reisz and moved to Lexington, where he read Fifty Shades. It took him 10 days to crank out Fifty Shames, written under the cheeky nom de plume Fanny Merkin. His agent sent it out; it was quickly accepted by Da Capo Press, with an initial printing of 20,000.
Shaffer's next book with Harper Collins, Literary Rogues, will be out in February. It looks at the lies and legends behind some of the world's most notoriously cool writers. Such as: Did Dylan Thomas really fall off his bar stool and die after 18 shots of whiskey? Well, no, but it makes a better story. "What happens when writers become celebrities," Shaffer said ruefully. "They act like other celebrities."
He is now thinking about his next project and maintaining his busy online brand with his Web site, Evilreads.com; The Order of St. Nick, his greeting card company; and various freelance magazine articles. He also maintains three Twitter accounts, @andrewtshaffer, @evilwylie and @ emperorfranzen, the last of which is solely devoted to mocking the solemn literary presence of best-selling author Jonathan Franzen.
Writing the real thing
These days, however, both authors spend a lot of time talking about the Fifty Shades phenomenon. Shaffer and Reisz agree that the insidious genius behind the best-seller is that it skirts around BDSM but in the end is really a romance novel.
Reading it, Shaffer said deadpan, "was like watching the Pamela Anderson-Tommy Lee sex tape — what happens when two really stupid people get together? ... Nothing good. Nothing good."
Except that's not exactly true. In August, Shaffer and Reisz returned to the RWA conference, where Reisz got a four-book extension to her original contract with Harlequin. Executives at the publishing house told her that The Siren had received the best reviews of any Harlequin book for a quite a while. The next two in her series, The Angel, comes out Sept. 25, and The Prince in November. She plans to make some local appearances after all three books have been released.
Reisz thinks her books offer much more authenticity than Fifty Shades: "This is hardcore BDSM. It doesn't have a happy ending; it has a cliffhanger ending. It's not just erotica and it's not romance," she said. "I think people like secrets, and the BDSM community is a secret community. It has its rules, its hierarchy, its rituals. It's like the Catholic Church. This is yet another secret world that people are starting to get a glimpse into and discovering how fascinating it is because it's foreign but it's also next door."
The Catholic Church has a personal connection for Reisz, who attends Mass weekly. "I feel like God has given me a gift," she said. "You can find a balance between believing in God and respecting the church but not feeling like a slave to its 2,000-year-old edicts about what men and women should be doing in their private lives. You have to have your own relationship with God and find our own path to walk with him."
Reisz and Shaffer have a good understanding of their "brands" — and the nearly constant online presence required to keep them alive. So they live in Lexington —in a red- and black-hued condo with two cats, Buckley and Honeytoast — but they deeply inhabit their online spheres.
"Sometimes we'll be sitting across from each other with our computers like freaking Battleship, and we'll be tweeting back and forth to each other because Twitter is on the record and people can watch and laugh at us," said Reisz, who has nearly 3,000 followers, most of them ardent fans.
"In some ways, we have more roots online," said Shaffer, whose main Twitter account has nearly 5,000 followers. "It's a way to take different communities with you."
The couple have talked about working together, combining sex and parody, possibly a spoof of her Original Sinners series, only this time called "Original Spinners," set in a gym and with bikes and bondage. For all the derision, they're grateful to E.L. James for the ways she has affected both their careers.
"It's both thanks in part to Fifty Shades," Reisz said. "That's completely changed the course of our year."