Writers & Company

For Valentine's Day, six writers on love, sex, passion and desire — in life and literature

In 2001, Eleanor Wachtel was joined by Ian McEwan, A.L. Kennedy, Clare Boylan, Rosemary Sullivan, Shyam Selvadurai and Esta Spalding to talk about romance and writing.
Clockwise from top left: Rosemary Sullivan, Esta Spalding, Ian McEwan, A.L. Kennedy, Shyam Selvadurai, Clare Boylan. (Susanna Gordon, Denise Estes Photography, Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert, Geraint Lewis, Kevin Kelly, Liz Robbins)

In honour of Valentine's Day, Writers & Company presents a special program from the archives: a lively discussion about romance and writing called Love in the Afternoon. Eleanor Wachtel was joined onstage by Ian McEwan, Clare Boylan, A.L. Kennedy, Shyam Selvadurai, Esta Spalding and Rosemary Sullivan at the 2001 Literary Arts Festival in Victoria. This episode originally aired in 2001. 

Kennedy's 2007 novel, Day, won the Costa Book of the Year Award. She wrote about the powerful forces of infatuation and love in two of her works — the short story collection Indelible Acts and her novel Original Bliss. Her latest books are The Little Snake and We Are Attempting to Survive Our Time

Spalding is a screenwriter and showrunner and the co-writer of the upcoming Netflix feature The Last Letter from Your Lover, based on the bestselling novel by Jojo Moyes. She was previously a writer for Masters of Sex, an award-winning drama series about Masters and Johnson, the pioneers in the study of human sexuality. 

Selvadurai's first book, Funny Boy, won the W.H. Smith/Books in Canada First Novel Award and the Lambda Literary Award for LGBTQ fiction. Adapted for the screen by Selvadurai and director Deepa Mehta, the film version premiered on CBC in late 2020. His 2013 novel, The Hungry Ghosts, was a national bestseller.

Boylan was the author of six novels, including Holy Pictures and Room for a Single Lady, about three adolescent girls coming of age in 1950s Dublin. Her last book, Emma Brown, is based on an incomplete manuscript by Charlotte Brontë. Boylan died of cancer in 2006, at 58. 

McEwan is the author of 16 novels. He has had enormous success with his book Atonement, which he was finishing at the time of this discussion. A tale of passion, betrayal and redemption, it was made into an acclaimed film starring Keira Knightly, James McAvoy and Saoirse Ronan. McEwan's most recent works are Nutshell, Machines Like Me and Cockroach.

Sullivan is a celebrated critic and biographer. Her 2015 book, Stalin's Daughter, won the Hilary Weston Writers Trust Prize for Nonfiction, the RBC Taylor Prize and the B.C. National Non-Fiction Prize. The theme of this discussion was inspired by Sullivan's 2001 book, Labyrinth of Desire: Women, Passion and Romantic Obsession

Rosemary Sullivan on romantic obsession 

Rosemary Sullivan is a Canadian poet, biographer and anthologist. (Counterpoint Press, Susanna Gordon)

"I suppose I thought that we look at love one-dimensionally. Love is supposed to be this ecstasy or this agony. It doesn't include the messiness, the humour. When I started to write about it, I had written a couple of biographies about women who were obsessed, and I thought, 'What is this about?' 

Love is supposed to be this ecstasy or this agony, and it doesn't include the messiness, the humour.- Rosemary Sullivan

"So why did I write about it? I guess I wanted to deflate the myth and affirm the experience."

A.L. Kennedy on the danger and thrill of falling in love 

Alison Louise Kennedy is a Scottish writer, academic and stand-up comedian. (Vintage, Kevin Low)

"If you think about the nature of love, one of the fundamental elements is that it makes you a person you've never been before.

Love is very sympathetic to a novelist.- A.L. Kennedy

"Everything is new, and you make your beloved someone that they've never been before. Love is very sympathetic to a novelist. 

"It makes things fresh — unless you're going to write about children forever, you really want a protagonist that's suddenly seeing trees that have never been so green."

Esta Spalding on mending a broken heart

Esta Spalding is an American author, screenwriter and poet. (Amy Sussman/Getty Images, Showtime)

"I take a forensic approach to love.

Once everything is destroyed and once shrapnel is everywhere — then I go back and piece it together and see what it was that these two people had. But to write from the starting place isn't really possible for me. 

I take a forensic approach to love.- Esta Spalding

"It's that detective work of going backwards from the fallout, to begin with the ending."

Ian McEwan on the fascination of love going wrong 

Atonement is a novel by Ian McEwan. (Knopf Random Vintage Canada, Annalena McAfee)

"It's notoriously difficult to write about love. Literature often engages itself most interestingly with things when they go wrong, so love going wrong is bound to be an infinitely interesting subject. 

It's notoriously difficult to write about love.- Ian McEwan

"The complications of love are both tragic and hilarious, and I think it's in there that most novelists choose to find their material.

"Writing about love becomes an ambition, and I wonder if it doesn't become more of an ambition the older you become. 

"The older you become, the more your responsibilities lie towards continuity and joy, and the more you sense that the bleakness of outlook you developed at the ripe age of 22 was a kind of recklessness you could afford, because you were never going to die."

Clare Boylan on why we don't recognize true love

Clare Boylan was an Irish author, journalist and critic. (Hachette, Liz Robbins)

"A lot of contemporary writers set out to use love and sex to explore personality and character. I would eventually like to come to the point of really writing about love — I would consider it a great achievement. Up until now, I think the thing I've written about is missed opportunities. 

A lot of contemporary writers set out to use love and sex to explore personality and character.- Clare Boylan

"The thing I've written about most is how, in defining our own desires, we all have in our heads the shape of the person we will love.

"When the real lover comes along, we miss out or we're unable to relate to them because our expectations are so firmly set."

Shyam Selvadurai on finding the perfect word

Funny Boy is a coming-of-age novel by Canadian author Shyam Selvadurai. (Kevin Kelly, McClelland & Stewart)

"It's really difficult to write about sex. I remember spending an entire day with my editor, trying to decide how we were going to describe somebody's buttocks.

"And finally, both of us were just hysterical with laughter because we couldn't think up the word that would fit the text and the mood. 

It's really difficult to write about sex.- Shyam Selvadurai

"With love, you have to have conflict. You have to keep them apart as long as possible — if you can keep them apart forever, even better! 

"You'd be amazed how your prose sort of lifts when it's getting to that moment where they are parted forever."

​The panellists' comments have been edited and condensed.

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