Desiree Holt had settled into her weekday afternoon groove—typing up a steamy sex scene for one of her erotica romance novels—when the phone rang. And rang. So, she broke away from fantasy to answer the demands of reality, or more specifically, whoever was calling.
"You're not interrupting me," Holt said, "but Logan and Rebecca are naked in bed, and they're really upset about it."
"I'll talk to you later, mom," her son replied.
"I love razzing my kids," says Holt, 76. Her son recently turned 50.
"They won't read anything I've written ... too much of an ick factor."
Desiree, as you may have guessed, is not her real name, but it's the one she's known by in her small town in Texas Hill Country and on her website, where she's pictured wearing a Texas-sized cross around her neck with a dark streak through her white hair.
Her mission: to empower women to feel sexually free, healthy, and fulfilled. Her inspiration: her late husband, who taught her how to feel that way.
"There's a little bit of him in every one of my heroes," Holt says, describing her husband as a "total alpha male, but so comfortable in his own skin that he could encourage my success and be proud of it."
"He got such pleasure out of the fact that I could take what was good about our relationship and translate it" for other women, she says. She promised him she would continue writing, and she relies a great deal on her own experience to show readers what's possible in a loving partnership—"how to be un-selfconscious and unrestricted and all of those wonderful things."
[See How to Make Love Last.]
Holt always wanted to write fiction, but didn't try it until retirement. She'd been too busy, raising kids and holding a variety of jobs—from running a public relations firm to working in the music business. At first, although her husband loved whatever she penned, not everyone else did.
After a slew of rejection letters, she considered a fellow writer's suggestion about an open submissions call from Ellora's Cave, which publishes romance reads on a scale from "Blush"—less explicit—to "Exotica"—more explicit—and, more recently, an imprint geared toward male readers. Among the publishers in this genre, Ellora's Cave pioneered the approach of releasing stories first by e-book and then in print, says Deb Werksman, editorial manager for Sourcebooks Casablanca, an independent book publisher based in Chicago. That's key, since this readership was the first to adopt e-books, she says. "And for obvious reasons, right? You don't have to worry about the covers of the books." Sourcebooks Casablanca, incidentally, publishes erotic romance, which Werksman defines, with a chuckle, as love stories where "it's as much about the emotion as it is about the orgasm."
The same could be said of Holt's stories, which now number more than 100 since the 2007 publication of her first piece, a Valentine's-themed tale. It was an appropriate start, since Holt's stories, at their heart, are about love—the risks people take to claim it and the circuitous paths they may find themselves on to get there. "It must have a happy ending," she says.
Intertwined with the love story, of course, is some rather graphic material. Holt's characters dabble in uncharted sexual territory, often trotting out bags of sex toys, experimenting with pain, pleasure, and power, and acting out the sexual fantasies they've been too timid to talk about. Holt is currently working on a piece she calls her "grittiest" yet; in the world of "BDSM,"which stands for bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, and sadomasochism, her submissive heroine learns about love with a dominant partner.
If it seems odd that a woman in her 70s can write this stuff with such apparent know-how, that's due to her own reporting—in writing about BDSM, she's visited dungeons and interviewed many practitioners—in addition to her own sexual explorations. She and her husband would enjoy shopping at adult toy stores—"then we'd come home and open a bottle of wine and play with the toys," she says.
Her most recently published story is highly autobiographical. Bedroom Eyes features a woman who suffers from a rare condition that afflicted Holt for years, causing her eyelids to drape heavily over her eyes. "My mother used to tell me I had bedroom eyes," she says, "and I, like my heroine, wore tinted glasses all my life." Ultimately, both of them had corrective surgery. But in each case, it wasn't necessary. "I want you to know that I love what's inside," the hero tells the heroine at the story's end. And in Holt's case, her husband reassured her that he loved all of her, bedroom eyes or not.
Accepting one's body image is a theme that threads through Holt's work and her life. "I don't say that everybody has to have a model's body, because we don't. I certainly don't. But you first have to have a really healthy attitude about life. You have to have a healthy attitude about sex," she says, and that means taking care of your body as you age.
Holt, who is of the "age-is-just-a-number" mindset, uses a treadmill for one hour each day ("Some days it's like eating glass, but I do it anyway," she says), and regularly goes to the spa, and puts on makeup, the way her daughter has shown her. "If you look good, you will feel good," she says.
Right now, Holt is working on a series that takes place in a retirement community "like the villages of Florida, where you have to be at least 55 to live there," she says. "Sex doesn't stop when you turn the big 5-0."
Meanwhile, Holt plans to keep writing provocative stories with a goal in mind: "I want women to understand that sex is beautiful, that it is physically rewarding, that there is nothing to be ashamed of or afraid of as long as you are with the right person."
And once one is firmly ensconced with the right person, Holt suggests—in a spicy analogy—that people can explore sexuality by easing into it. "It's like eating a jalapeno pepper for the first time," she says. "Just bite off the tip, let the seeds explode in your mouth, and, if you don't pass out from the heat, take another bite."