open book

Celine Saintclare Writes Her Sex Scenes to Tchaikovsky

celine saintclare

Photo courtesy of Celine Saintclare.

This is OPEN BOOK, a monthly column in which we ask debut authors about their reading and writing habits. Last month, we featured educator James W. Jennings and his gritty work of autofiction, Wings of Red. This month’s protagonist is more of a student than a teacher—Celine Saintclare’s Sugar, Baby follows 21-year-old Caribbean-Londoner Agnes through her initiation from house cleaner to high-end paid companion. When she gets kicked out of her religious mother’s home and befriends a glamorous client’s daughter looking to trial-run her ebook on seduction, she’s pulled into a world of billionaire mansions, Birkin bags, and heartbreak. It’s a witty, vivid socioeconomic commentary on the fast-paced yet short-lived allure of sex work, drawing you right into the model apartment to cheers and chainsmoke with Agnes and her sugar baby confidantes. Saintclare joined us after the book’s release this week to talk iconic literary sugar babies, sex scene soundtracks, and secret feminine desire.


Where do you like to write?

I’ve written pretty much anywhere: in bed, on the sofa, in cafés, restaurants, bars, libraries, planes, trains, balconies, dining tables, gardens, airport lounges. I haven’t written in cars actually, too jerky, roundabouts ruin my train of thought. It just has to be quiet enough for me to concentrate, though sometimes I like atmospheric music. Ever written a sex scene to Tchaikovsky? It really adds something. Editing is different. Editing is like algebra to me and I need to lock myself up in the silent study area of my local university library and turn off my phone and force myself to do it. It’s like a punishment and it goes on for months and sometimes years and there’s no way out, like a jail sentence.

When do you like to write?

Usually first thing in the day when I wake up, after a coffee. I’m anxious all day when I know I’ve got to write. I can’t relax at all unless I’ve done my word count. Sometimes, if the anxiety is really bad, I have a glass of champagne to calm down. Sometimes I have a bit too much and I’ve got to have a nap but naps are wonderful for imagination and champagne naps are even better. Sometimes I like to write in the evening before bed. When it’s fun and flowing it’s the best escapism in the world. I feel like I could write all day but then I reach about 1000 words and the steam runs out. I’m not as strict as I should be but I feel like I get there in the end. When I feel a thrill because I’m so excited about what’s going to happen next in the story, there’s nothing better than that.

What’s the first thing you did after you turned in a draft of your book?

I probably had a lie down for a little while, then got dressed up, went out somewhere nice for a drink and a dance — a few saltless margaritas, enough to numb the pain of my high-heels! I really neglected my whole life in the final stages of finishing Sugar, Baby. I barely left the house at all, so when I did get the chance I think I went a bit wild! And then I would have woken up the next day with an awful hangover, dragged my laptop under the covers with me and started refreshing my email inbox for a response from my agent or editor. Even on a Saturday. I’ve turned in lots of drafts over the years, so much so that the high never lasts very long because I’m always anticipating what’s coming next. After I handed in the final version of Sugar, Baby, it was a couple of days before I was back to working on the next one. I wouldn’t really have it any other way. I’d be lost without a writing project to be getting on with. I wouldn’t know what to do with myself. I absolutely
dread to think.

Tell us about three to five books you read while writing your own, and why?

I read Boy Parts by Eliza Clark, Slow Days, Fast Company by Eve Babitz and Animal by Lisa Taddeo. They were titles that interested me for one reason or another. I’ve been obsessed with Lisa Taddeo since Three Women. Boy Parts I really enjoyed. My editor Sarah was reading it and recommended it to me because she knew I’d like it. As usual, she was right. I loved Babitz’s observations about men and women and love and fame and little phrases just pop into my head from time to time and she’s so funny! Animal, I thought, was quite fragile and unexpected.

Tell us about a formative early reading experience.

I was always in trouble for reading under the covers after lights-out. I read a series about unicorns when I was seven or eight that was so good I hardly slept for weeks. I think my mum confiscated them eventually. I had a beautifully illustrated book about The Nutcracker when I was little and I’ll always remember the descriptions of the river of lemonade and the candy-floss trees and just being tucked up in bed while my mum was reading to me, thinking “WOW, this is magic, this book stuff is genuine witchcraft.”

The last book you loved, and why?

Darling by India Knight. It was a recommendation by Marta/Litulla, a book blogger I follow on Instagram and just adore. She’s great and makes book recommendations based on popular TV and film characters. I think this one was based on Lily van der Woodsen, you know Serena’s mum from Gossip Girl? Darling is a retelling of The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford and it’s honestly brilliant. So funny and clever and warm, and it just guts you. I hate to say I devoured it but I actually did gulp it down without coming up for a breath and when it was over I was really quite sad about it.

The last book that disappointed you, and why?

You know I can’t say or I’ll get myself in trouble.

Who’s the most iconic fictional sugar baby?

Holly Golightly of course, with fifty dollars for the powder room. What an iconic reinvention.

Hardcover or paperback? Why?

Hardback. If I’m going to have something in my bed every night I think I’d rather it was hard than soft. But in all seriousness, I really do prefer hardbacks. They’re bigger, you can see the titles on the spines from across the room, and you can use them as paper weights, doorstops, or even a surface to paint your nails on.

A book you think should be in the canon, but isn’t:

Actually, I quite like Pride and Prejudice and Wuthering Heights, and The Picture of Dorian Grey and Macbeth and Lolita. They’re classics, aren’t they? Is there an official canon? I’m not sure there’s any point adding to the “canon.” The classics will always be the classics because they’ve survived in the culture for so long, they’re historical. I’m not sure our time can ever produce a classic in the same way. If we’re talking about the work that should be studied in schools and universities then I hope James Baldwin is on that list, Anaïs Nin too. We’d have to come up for a new name for all the brilliant books of recent years. Another weapon perhaps? The missile?

A book you think shouldn’t be in the canon, but is:

I have no idea. I’m not sure I’m the one to judge what’s historically significant. I write about sex and parties and on one occasion the two combined. Have a thousand people vote for the most boring canonized work and then ban it from all school English Literature syllabuses on pain of death.

How do you arrange your bookshelf?

I organize my shelf by book height. Whatever can’t fit on the shelf goes under my bed in storage baskets. I’ll confess to leaving the prettiest books out on the coffee table or arranged on the edge of my dresser, even if I didn’t really like them very much. I’m superficial like that. I haven’t really had a home, or a bookshelf, for several months while I’ve been traveling, I’ve just left books behind in the hotel room or the rental apartment I was in when I finished them. There was a lovely library style café in Marrakech that I gave a few books to before I left Morocco. I felt bad because I’d stolen a book on one of my previous visits. I’d got to a really good bit and didn’t want to stop. I suppose I could have just asked them to let me take it, I imagine they would have but I was so worried they’d say no. It was a biography called Siren Song: A Story Stranger Than Fiction by Gordon Honeycombe about a sailor who falls in love with a mysterious, supposedly very beautiful woman, after they become pen-pals. It all turns out to be very dodgy and dangerous. I stole it because I had to know how it ended, but I never did get around to finishing it.

Sugar, Baby is full of guilty pleasures. What’s the most embarrassing book you’ve ever hidden under your pillow?

I was in school when 50 Shades of Grey came out and we used to take turns to go home with a copy someone had smuggled from their mum. I think I kept it at the back of my underwear drawer. It was no fun reading it alone though. It was better passing it around at break-time and laughing until we cried.

If Agnes had a dating app bio, what would it be?

Agnes. 21. Doesn’t pay on the first date. Creative. Trying to figure out if blondes have more fun.

What’s your favorite bookstore(s)?

The West Kirby Bookshop is a gem. They had me there for an event, my first “Evening With” event and they were just lovely. A great selection of books and lots going on. If you’re lucky enough to live nearby you’ve got to pay them a visit.

What do you look for in a reading experience?

Humor and wit, original characters, an exciting plot, lots of delicious description of clothes, makeup and jewelry—that certainly helps. I like to read about subversive female experiences. I fell in love with Anaïs Nin when I read Henry and June. It seemed to be the truest analysis of secret feminine desire that I’d come across, that and desire for an experimental and artistic life. I saw myself on the page in truer words and clearer terms than I’d ever managed to muster, as if I’d been translated accurately for the first time. It changed the way I viewed myself and the way I thought about what I could write. It felt like I had a friend, albeit one who died before I was born. I can’t expect that from every book but I do look for a glimmer of it.