Published on 13th August 2015 in paperback, Ava Marsh’s novel ‘Untouchable’ is one of the best books I’ve read this year. Set in the sex trade with a high class call girl as a protagonist ‘Untouchable’ raises some important questions and I was delighted to be able to ask Ava about how she came to write a story based on what can be a socially taboo subject. I think you’ll agree, there are some interesting answers:
This is a socially difficult topic. Why did you choose to write about the sex trade?
I’m intrigued by people who live outside the normal parameters of society, I suppose; people whose perspective on the world differs from most of ours. I was curious, too, about what insights they would have, as high-class escorts, into the hidden worlds of the rich and powerful.
I’m also interested in society’s attitude to sex work – why are we so judgemental about it? I think a lot of it is still largely to do with the taboo around female promiscuity. In many ways Untouchable explores whether someone can be a ‘bad girl’ in the eyes of wider society, but fundamentally a very good, moral person. That’s the paradox we live with: we can have very corrupt people in positions of great power – just look at all the recent accusations of sexual abuse by celebrities and politicians – and very decent, kind people who are written off as debauched and immoral because they work in a profession we don’t approve of.
How did you carry out your research for the book?
I’m an ex-journalist, so very used to digging up info on all sorts of things. There’s plenty out there – escorts can be quite a loquacious bunch. Many are actually proud of what they do, and pleased to talk about it, online or otherwise. And yes, I have known people in the business and they’ve been very open with me about their experiences.
Was there a particular message you hope readers would get from reading ‘Untouchable?’
Absolutely. I hope they would see that most of the women – and indeed the male clients – are just ordinary people. They’re not necessarily bad or depraved. A lot of women who go into sex work have come to the eminently practical decision that they enjoy sex and need money, so why not combine the two?
Grace/Stella is a highly educated woman. How important was it to you to show the variety of women within the sex trade?
Very important. The escorts I’ve met are all intelligent, university-educated women who’ve taken it up for sound reasons. I was chatting about this once to a male psychotherapist, who said, ‘yeah, I know another therapist who escorts on the side.’ It’s more common than people realise because, quite understandably, women tend to keep it quiet.
I also wanted to combat the idea that all women involved in escorting are drug-dependent, trafficked, have a history of sexual abuse, or are controlled by pimps. Yes, that might well be more true at the lower end, but it is only one perspective on sex work. Happy hookers are not entirely a myth.
This is very much a book from a female perspective. Do you think a male writer would have taken a different approach and how might they have written Grace’s story?
Very difficult for me to say. Men tend to be consumers in the sex trade equation, though of course there are male escorts as well. (Actually a story from that perspective could be very interesting too *makes notes*) I guess male writers might be more tempted to portray prostitutes simply as desperate victims, rather than intelligent women with agency over their own lives, but I’m wary of generalising.
The story is multilayered. How did you go about plotting it? Did you have everything organised before you wrote, or did some of the narrative evolve naturally?
Half and half. I planned the main plot elements, then set about writing, which inevitably threw up different ideas or problems, so I had to go back to the drawing board every now and then and rethink things.
I was always clear on Grace’s perspective on the world, but it took me a while to dig down to her backstory. I remember the idea for her former career – forensic psychologist –popping into my head from nowhere. I had to Google it to make sure there was such a thing, and if so, what exactly they did. It’s very odd when things happen like that; I can’t even begin to explain it rationally.
You don’t flinch from sexual detail. What was it like to write those scenes?
I know a lot of writers struggle with sex scenes, but I don’t mind them. Sex is like anything else, as far as I’m concerned – just something people do and you can describe. But I guess it helps to be in the mindset of a character who sees sex as completely ordinary and everyday – it takes away the embarrassment factor.
I suppose the most difficult thing is judging where to stop. You don’t want to go too far. The sex in Untouchable isn’t meant to be erotic, so I don’t want it to feel gratuitous.
Do you have other challenging themes that you will be writing about in the future?
Yes! My next book, Exposure, focuses on the porn industry – another closed, taboo, and in many ways much darker world. I’ve been reading a lot of ‘porn memoirs’, getting a feel for what it must be like working in adult films. As a writer, inhabiting the head of a porn star is much more challenging, because most of the girls working in porn are very young and in many respects have a far more naïve world view than Grace in Untouchable.
Huge thanks to Ava for providing such detailed responses.
I can’t wait to read Ava’s next novel, ‘Exposure’.
If you would like to read my review of ‘Untouchable’ you can find it here.