The raunchy Netflix hit is based on a true story. But author BB Easton thinks some elements should be kept as fantasy, writes Rebecca Reid
I watched all of Sex/Life on Netflix without realising that it was based on a book. And not just any book – a sexy, readable, very lovely one entitled 44 Chapters About 4 Men, by a woman called BB Easton. Even more excitingly, the book was based on the true story of Easton’s own marriage.
To be clear, Sex/Life is not a faithful recreation of 44 Chapters, nor was it intended to be. When I speak to 39-year-old Easton, who lives in Georgia in the United States, she is in the middle of moving house but looks impeccable and appears on camera framed by an impressive display of the many translations of 44 Chapters. From the outset, she is direct about the fact that the Netflix show and the book are two different things.
“[Netflix] thought, ‘Oh my God, we could take this and we could do a TV drama with it,’ and they really went in their own direction,” she says.
For some authors, seeing their work turned into a show that has little shared territory with the original might be upsetting, but Easton is far too unsentimental for that. “It was kind of nice to let somebody else do the work for a while,” she tells me. “So I was like, ‘Okay, you guys have fun. And I’m just going to sit over here in my pyjamas and write and hang out with my kids.’ It was awesome, honestly.”
That said, the show sticks to the book where it matters. Her pre-marital hook-ups really were that wild, she tells me. “My sex life before kids was just as exciting as you see on the show.”
Dull but wonderful motherhood is also a common theme between the book and the show. A few years ago Easton, like the show’s protagonist Billie, found herself in something of a rut. She had a small baby and a young child, she was living in the suburbs, and her sex life wasn’t exactly flourishing. “That first episode is really the story of the identity crisis [brought on by] being home with a 4-month-old baby, 3-year-old pre-schooler, having to learn how to juggle all of that.
“Your husband has a stressful job and you become like roommates. It’s a different kind of a relationship where you know that love is still there, and that dedication is still there, because you are juggling so many things and helping each other out. But the relationship gets completely put on the back burner. And that is exactly what we’re watching [Billie] go through in the first episode. That’s exactly where I was.’
Breastfeeding is another huge part of the show preserved from Easton’s original story. I ask her about that juxtaposition between sex and motherhood and she seems pleased that I’ve brought it up, saying: “When I read the pilot script, I noticed the shot that cut between showing Billie’s husband’s mouth on her nipples, to the baby’s mouth on her nipple. And I was like, ‘Stacy [Rukeseyer, the show’s creator] gets it. This is the crux of the book.’
“There’s a scene in the book in which I nurse my daughter and then I go downstairs and finally have an opportunity to spend some quality time with my husband and his mouth ends up there. And I realised: ‘There was a baby’s mouth there just five minutes ago …'”
In Sex/Life, Billie becomes so frustrated with her sexual drought and so nostalgic for her hedonistic heyday, when she made use of the freedom to sleep with anyone she fancied, that she starts writing a diary about her previous sexual encounters – which her husband then finds and reads. This part is absolutely true to life.
Easton explains: “I was so sleep-deprived when I started writing – it was in between late-night breastfeeds and dealing with a 3-year-old all day – that I just left my laptop out with the journals open. I assumed that Ken [her husband] wouldn’t have any interest in what was there …
“I never saw him read my journal,” Easton adds cheerfully. “I just suspected, because I heard my laptop close one night and then he started acting weird. And then the next day he took me on a date. Because I’m a psychologist, I watched his behaviour and realised his changes were directly related to what he had just read. And I thought, ‘This is amazing – I’m going to keep it going.'”
“Subliminal spousal bibliotherapy” is the name given to this approach by Billie’s best friend, Sasha. It was texted to Easton by her own real-life best friend.
Perhaps the most significant difference between Easton’s real-life experiences and the show is that she very firmly kept her sexual encounters with men she wasn’t married to in the past. “No,” she says, when I ask her whether she had considered an open marriage. “Absolutely not.”
Was she was bothered by this rewriting of history? “All of the changes Netflix made were really done with the audience in mind. Like, how are we going to make this the best, most shocking, most relatable, wildest ride of a TV show possible? And Netflix knew the best way to do that was bringing the ex-boyfriend into the present-day situation. As the viewer, you want to see them hooking up in real time, not just as flashbacks. So I thought it was a brilliant decision. But in real life? Not a good idea.”
I wonder, hearing all about how Easton’s marriage was revitalised by the sharing of private confessions, whether it’s a method she would recommend to other people. I am surprised when she answers with a fast and definitive, “No.”
Easton says, “It’s really not for everyone. I’ve had a lot of women message me saying, ‘If I did that, my husband would kill me. He would burn the house down.’ For most people it’s going to be better to say things like: ‘This might be fun’ or ‘I want to try this’ rather than ‘My ex used to do this to me.’ It doesn’t feel good to be compared to somebody else.”
Easton clarifies that in her case, it wasn’t just the erotic memoirs that changed her relationship, it was the re-centring of her relationship within her life.
“I’m so happy that I mustered the courage to publish the book, because it was the best thing to happen to my relationship. We went from being two stressed-out individuals trying to keep our heads above water to going on dates, and to book signings every weekend. My husband has these fangirls who come to see him, which made him feel better about himself. It also forced us to take all of these little weekend vacations together and we are having so much fun now. Our lives weren’t fun before this book happened.”
Prioritising your relationship, she says, “is so hard to do when you’re both busy adults and you’re both working and you have kids. But it’s so important at the same time because your relationship is what started it all. This whole life and these children and this house and everything is built on that relationship. And if you don’t keep that flame alive, it will burn out.”
I tell Easton that when I worked as a sex writer, I was constantly asked whether it was possible to ‘get the spark back’ and that I’m still not sure whether the answer is yes. Easton is more optimistic: “Absolutely [it is],” she tells me. “I think that’s the main point of the book, that love is still there, you can find your way back to that passion. You can make it work, as long as that desire to make the other person happy is still there.”
So there you have it, from the sexual anthropologist herself. It’s perfectly possible to revamp your sex life – and you don’t even need to resort to phoning an ex to do it.
– The Telegraph
Sex/Life: 44 Chapters About 4 Men, by BB Easton (Hachette NZ, $25) is available now.
Sex/Life is screening now on Netflix.
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