Meet Treva Harte. She sells sex in the suburbs.
During a recent stop at the Pentagon City Costco, I notice that they are stocking more copies of Fifty Shades of Grey than any other book. I grab a copy and head to the register.
“Have you read it?” a woman in the checkout line asks me.
“No,” I say. “You?”
“Of course,” she says. “You have to.”
A few days later, I find myself recounting this conversation to Falls Church resident Irene Daisy Williams. Although Williams has no direct affiliation with the steamy trilogy, she says it’s been good for her business. Known by the pen name Treva Harte, she’s the author of about 20 erotic romance novels. She’s also a co-founder and editor-in-chief of Loose Id, an e-publishing house that specializes in the genre.
“This is where I run my empire,” says Williams, 53, opening the door to a tiny room off of her master bedroom. It may be small, but it’s the quietest room in the house, she explains—made even quieter by the fact that her daughter recently graduated from George Mason High School and left to start her freshman year at Randolph-Macon College. (Her son, who is 21 and has autism, still lives at home.) Stacks of books sit on a chaise longue in the corner. Antique guns and her husband’s old fencing swords hang on the wall.
Eight years ago, few would have pegged Williams as a likely publisher of erotic romance. After earning both a master’s degree in English literature and a law degree from the University of Virginia, she spent 20 years as a federal attorney for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Right around her 40th birthday, she decided it was time to write a novel. She launched Loose Id (as in Freudian “id” on the loose—get it?) with three co-founders in 2004. We asked about her double life, her work and what we should be reading next after Shades of Grey.
You previously worked for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Did you enjoy it?
Some stuff was interesting. Like when I had to argue that “Barbara’s Bush” (a proposed name for a Chia Pet) was, in fact, scandalous and we couldn’t trademark that. It was easy to prove, but terrifying. I was afraid I was going to have to argue it in court.
Really, you were embarrassed? You write erotica.
At the time I wasn’t doing that.
Why do you write under an assumed name?
I want to disassociate the erotic romance from my family. You can get hassled for it, and I didn’t want my kids to be upset about it. Also, I don’t particularly like marketing myself. So instead I market Treva. She’s a lot more fun than I am. She has a much more interesting life.
Why did you wait until your 40s to start writing?
I started reading romance novels at 13 and I thought I’d be a romance novelist. In my early 20s, I submitted a couple [manuscripts] and they were promptly rejected. After that, studying English in grad school really knocked any desire to write creatively out of me. I didn’t write again until around the year 2000.
What do you like about romance novels?
It’s really about women—what they want, and what they like.
Four years after its launch, Loose Id grossed $1.3 million. Not bad.
Yes. And we have nearly tripled since.
Are you making more than you did when you were a government lawyer?
Now I am.
How many writers write for Loose Id?
Last time I counted it was close to 300. Writers either love us or hate us, because we edit really hard. Not a lot of erotic romance publishers edit.
You’ve said that one of the things you like about writing is feeling like you’re in control.
Yeah. I can plan out my characters in terms of what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. Novels have an internal logic. There’s foreshadowing and preparation. You know how the characters will respond. In real life, things crash into you out of the blue.
Do you follow a boy-meets-girl pattern that’s similar to my grandmother’s Harlequin romances?
All romances follow a certain pattern. The characters meet, they get to know each other, there’s a crisis, a dark moment, and you think they’re going to break up. And then they stay together. Because it’s erotic romance.
And they get naked?
Does anybody in your family read your work?
No. My husband thinks it’s icky, which is fine. My daughter is embarrassed because some of her friends are curious. The idea of her mother doing anything remotely interesting—much less related to sex—is just too weird. I’m an only child. Some of my cousins know, and some don’t. Most of the ones who know find it sweet and amusing and bourgeois. The ones who are fundamentalists, I don’t talk to them about it.
What should fans of Shades of Grey read next?
One of our authors, Cherise Sinclair, has been mentioned in Rolling Stone as a BDSM author to watch. We have other really good BDSM authors too, like Roxy Harte—not a relation.
Bondage, dominance/submission and sadomasochism.
How do you feel about what you do? You seem shy talking about it.
I think most authors are introverts. I love to talk about other people’s writing or writing in general. If I have to, I’ll talk about Treva’s writing.
It sounds like Treva is similar to Beyonce’s alter ego, Sasha Fierce.
Exactly. When I’m on, when I go to conventions, I channel Treva as much as I can.
So you don’t think of the books as yours? You think of them as Treva’s?
Put it this way: If I sit down to write and I’m thinking, Gee, I wonder if my daughter would approve of this?, it wouldn’t get written. Because she wouldn’t.
Wendy Kantor is a freelance journalist who lives in Arlington with her husband and two dogs. She teaches at GMU.