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How to write the perfect modern-day sex scene

Hollywood, Harry Styles and turning 40 all inspired actress Robinne Lee to write her cult millennial romance The Idea of You

Hours before I speak to author and actress Robinne Lee, I google Harry Styles, the pop star who most swiftly comes to mind while reading her book The Idea of You. Hayes is 20, British, and the “swagger” one from internationally famous boy band August Moon. In The Idea of You, he seduces, and then falls in love with Soléne, a 39-year-old gallerist and mother to Isabelle, a 12-year-old August Moon fan. Their romance becomes public after paparazzi catch them together on a yacht. As for Harry Styles? That morning the headlines were full of photos of the 27-year-old pop star with his new girlfriend, 37-year-old Olivia Wilde – also on a yacht.

When Lee comes on the video call, I tell her about what Harry’s been up to, and that since reading her thoroughly enjoyable romance romp, I’m incapable of thinking about Styles in the same way. “You’re not the first person to say that to me,” she says, with a patient smile. For Lee, Hayes, Soléne and August Moon have been part of her imagination for the best part of a decade – it took a pandemic for the rest of the world to catch up.

The Idea of You was released in 2017 but became one of the pandemic’s greatest sleeper hits. While the world was locked down, Lee’s immersive narrative whisked the reader away to luxury hotel suites, glittering art fairs, coastal views and Caribbean beaches. And steamy liaisons. A lot of steamy liasions.

'You're kind of considered invisible, you lose your value. I wanted bump up against that and present a woman just as she's kind of hitting her stride or coming into her power'

Hayes and Soléne’s love story has inspired its own fandom of #HaySolNuts, who unite online and in private Facebook groups; you can track the characters’ love nests on virtual maps and buy August Moon T-shirts. The Idea of You is the kind of book you immediately press into the hands of a friend, mostly so you can discuss it with them afterwards.

Lee, now 46, says she was thinking a lot about “turning 40” while writing The Idea of You, which influenced the character of Soléne – 39 when we meet her. “I've been an actress in LA for the past 20-plus years and realised that, at a certain age, as a female in this business the doors kind of close to you,” she says, from her hotel room in Paris. “You're kind of considered invisible, you lose your value. I wanted bump up against that and present a woman just as she's kind of hitting her stride or coming into her power. I also wanted to do it in a way that she was kind of reclaiming herself and reclaiming her sexuality.”

Part of that power is in Soléne’s sexuality, Lee says. “I wanted to write this book as if it was me, writing in a journal, and to be very forthright about everything that she's going through and her experiences. And to be honest with the sexuality in the same way.”

While there are many sex scenes in The Idea of You, Lee stresses that she wanted each one to be grounded in the characters’ emotional arcs. “I didn't want to put a sex scene on the page that wasn't revealing something about them as individuals, or that they weren't revealing something to each other,” Lee says. “I didn't want it to feel like the sex didn't exist, because I think when you're in a new relationship, that's a big part of it. And for her, that was a big part of this attraction.”

'I wrote my first novel at 14 – by hand – and it was Duran Duran fanfiction'

Until the publication of The Idea of You thrust Lee into the world of romance novelists, she admits to not having read much of the genre. Instead, she looked to the books she had read as a teen to deepen her own sex education: those by D. H. Lawrence as well as academic non-fiction on sexuality and psycho sexuality. Lee plays Ros Bailey in the Fifty Shades of Grey films, and admits that she hurtled to finish her manuscript before reading the EL James bestseller “because I didn’t want anything in there to possibly leak into my subconscious – I just wanted to do my own thing.”

What did help with the writing, especially of sex scenes, was Lee’s previous writing. “I wrote my first novel at 14 – by hand – and it was Duran Duran fanfiction,” she laughs. “So I felt very fluid in the language of British bands and in British guys of a certain age.” Lee also referred to her journals. “While I was still in my twenties I dated a 20-year-old, and I looked at my journals: in the beginning of a relationship you are writing all the little details down, all the sex stuff, the romance, whatever.” These informed the scenes in the book.

“I'm very straightforward about what's going on, but I stay in the characters’ minds,” she says of writing the scenes. “Sometimes it’s about the physical but often I went on other tangents: what’s going through their heads, what’s happening in the room or outside the window, who’s walking down the hallway, and the sounds and the smells. It’s not just two people in a vacuum.”

As for Hayes, I ask: was I right in thinking Harry Styles was an influence? “I definitely borrowed some of Harry,” she says, “but I feel that Hayes Campbell’s a combination of lots of different people: Prince Harry, Prince William, Eddie Redmayne, Benedict Cumberbatch, my husband and about four different ex-boyfriends, they’re all in there.”

What did you think of this article? Email editor@penguinrandomhouse.co.uk and let us know.

Image: Ryan McEachern / Penguin

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