Hillary Jordan & Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, ANONYMOUS SEX

Hillary Jordan & Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, ANONYMOUS SEX

Co-editors Hillary Jordan and Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan join Zibby to talk about their anthology, Anonymous Sex, which features stories from 27 bestselling and award-winning authors, all published anonymously. The three discuss the confidentiality agreements that made this project possible, how Hillary and Cheryl’s individual paths led them to collaborate on this during the early days of quarantine, and what messages they wanted to send about sex and connection during a time when everyone was far apart.


Zibby Owens: I am very excited today. I have two authors, Hillary Jordan and Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan. Did I say that right, Lu-Lien Tan?

Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan: Yes.

Zibby: Anonymous Sex, amazing anthology with a super unique concept, which I am just in love with. It’s so cool. Will both of you introduce yourselves? Then please explain how this project came to be.

Hillary Jordan: Cheryl?

Cheryl: This is Cheryl. Originally, I’m from Singapore. I have written fiction and nonfiction. My first book was A Tiger in the Kitchen. It was a food memoir about going back to Singapore to discover the food of my grandmothers. Then my novel was called Sarong Party Girls, which was about what it’s like being a modern woman in Asia. Both were international best-sellers. Now we have Anonymous Sex.

Zibby: Congratulations.

Hillary: I’m Hillary Jordan. My first novel, Mudbound, was the winner of the Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. It was made into a movie that did pretty well. It got four Academy Award nominations.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, my brother produced that movie.

Hillary: Oh, really? Which brother?

Zibby: His name is Teddy Schwarzman. He’s from Black Bear Pictures.

Hillary: I met Teddy.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, too funny.

Hillary: I met him at the shoot, actually. He gave me a lift back to New Orleans. That was really exciting. My second novel is called When She Woke. It’s a dystopian novel that’s sort of coming true. I’m also a screenwriter. This project started because Cheryl and I love food. We also love erotica. When we were introduced many years ago by Julia Glass, who was our very first contributor who signed up for this wonderful project, we discovered we had these shared interests. Over dinner one night, we were just talking about, why isn’t there more really great erotic like D.H. Lawrence and Anaïs Nin? We thought, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we made a book like that? We did it with some of the very best writers in the world all writing at the top of their game. Then it was a matter of, okay, how do we get these amazing people like Louise Erdrich, Paul Theroux to sign onto this project? We thought, well, what if we just list their names but all the stories are anonymous so you have to guess who wrote what? We would call this project of ours Anonymous Sex.

Cheryl: Even though we came up with this idea about seven or eight years ago, time passed. Hillary would say, “Hey, let’s do that project now.” I would be busy working on a book. I’d be like, “Hey, I’m free now.” She’d be working on something. The stars never really quite aligned until the pandemic happened. Suddenly, it was summer of 2020. We were all on lockdown. I was at home in Singapore in my childhood bedroom in my mom’s home in this strict lockdown for two months. I was on a FaceTime call with Hillary, who was then in her own isolation in Maine. We were like, “Why don’t we do it now? We really have the time now.” We thought if there were ever a time that the world needed to be reminded of intimacy and sex, at a time when you couldn’t even hug your own friends, couldn’t see them, this would be it. We thought, okay, let’s see what happens. We invited Julia Glass. She was the first ask. She was an immediate yes. I called her on FaceTime from Singapore. From then on, we just made a wish list. We dreamt big. We managed to get so many of the names that we had on that list. We were so amazed. I think it was partly because it was a time when people were really seeking connection.

Zibby: I’m just going to read the amazing contributors, if that’s okay, for people who do not have the book in front of them. Your contributors include Robert Olen Butler, Catherine Chung, Trent Dalton, Heidi W. Durrow, Tony Eprile, Louise Erdrich, Jamie Ford, Julia Glass, Peter Godwin, Hillary Jordan, Rebecca Makkai — she was on my podcast — Valerie Martin, Dina Nayeri, Chigozie Obioma, Téa Obreht, Helen Oyeyemi, Mary-Louise Parker, Victoria Redel — I’m sure I’m butchering all these names — Jason Reynolds, S.J. Rozan, Meredith Talusan — I did an IG Live with her — Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, Souvankham Thammavongsa, Jeet Thayil, Paul Theroux, Luis Alberto Urrea, and Edmund White. How did I do?

Cheryl: That’s amazing.

Zibby: Thanks. That is quite a list of literary superstars. That’s amazing. By the way, Julia Glass, I loved the novel Three Junes. Same Julia Glass, right?

Hillary: She has a new one coming out, Vigil Harbor, on May 3rd. You should have her on too.

Zibby: No way. Shoot, how did I not know that? I’m writing that down. A long time ago before I even had kids, I went to some sort of literary event for her at someone’s home in Brooklyn Heights. I didn’t have kids. Everybody, the whole dinner, was talking about their kids and their schools and Saint Ann’s and this and that. I was sitting there being like, I don’t understand. I have nothing to add. I want to hear about the book and all this stuff. Now that I’m a mom, I’m like, oh, I get it. It was just a bunch of school moms with a fabulous guest. I don’t even know what I was doing there, come to think of it. I have no idea. Maybe it was a PEN event or something. Anyway, I was such a huge fan. I went and met her. It was so cool. It’s one of my favorites. Now it’s all coming full circle. Here you are. Now I’ll have to have her on. Amazing.

Cheryl: She is the nicest person. Her story in the collection is wonderful, but we can’t tell you which one it is, of course.

Zibby: Have you revealed who wrote what to anyone on the planet?

Hillary: We’re not allowed to. We’re all contractually bound to keep it secret a year and a half after publication, what our story is. In fact, there are a handful of people who know. Our editor, Kara Watson, knows, but she actually read all the stories blind. She wanted to come to it the way a reader would. She was really confident that she would be able to guess a lot of the names because she’s obviously very familiar with many of these authors. She got two out of twenty-seven right. Other than Kara and our editor in the UK and the payroll person who cut the check, there’s almost nobody who knows any of the names.

Zibby: How does it feel for you guys to walk around with a big secret like that? I have a really hard time keeping secrets. It kind of weighs on me.

Cheryl: I don’t know about Hillary, but I have armed personnel now following me around in case I get kidnapped and interrogated. We’re not hiding the secrecy or anonymity. At the same time, it’s this fun literary parlor game. Some of the contributors say they never want to reveal it just because it’s kind of fun to be in this bubble of secrecy and not having people know.

Zibby: What happens after a year and a half? Then you’re going to tell everybody?

Hillary: People’s right to publish it in an anthology reverts to them. There’s not going to be any sort of big announcement. Personally, I’m going to take it to the grave. I hope a lot of the other writers follow suit because the more that are identified, the easier it gets to identify the remaining people. I think most of our writers are approaching it in this sense of, we’re in this together, and it’s a secret.

Zibby: In the introduction when you described why you did the project and all that, you had something that was super interesting about love and sex in the pandemic which sort of echoes what you were just saying now. I loved this last part of it too. This is not what I was talking about, but that’s okay. It doesn’t matter. “In thinking about how to describe the collection, we kept coming back to the last line of Altitude Sickness, the fourth story in the anthology. ‘She grabbed the man’s hand and kissed him without shame as the plane began to tilt.’ While the world has certainly been more atilt than usual recently, the truth is, it’s always tilting in ways large and small for each one of us. Sex can be a grounding force in that day-to-day pitch. It can also be part of the upheaval. Either way, it’s a connection many of us both want and need, a way to reach across the divide and know that we aren’t alone, which is what inspired us to take this leap together. We hope you enjoy every eloquent, provocative, delicious word.” I love that. People don’t often talk about it that way, that it’s unifying, that it’s something that we have to hold onto.

I had an anthology that I worked on at the same time called Moms Don’t Have Time To: A Quarantine Anthology. I originally just put essays out on my website because it was supposed to be another project. Doesn’t matter. Anyway, one of the essays was by Claire Gibson, who’s an author. It was about her sex life with her husband and how he was such a germaphobe and how that affected their relationship. The part of it that really stayed with me is just their glooming onto each other and how those moments, those intimate, physical moments, stopped time, in a way, and stopped all of the panic and the uncertainty and everything and got them back in the moment so much. The power of that, which of course, is throughout the story — although, you have lots of very salacious things in here. That theme, it is so important. That’s one of these joking things why I have Moms Don’t Have Time to Have Sex as one of the things in my anthology. Without those moments of reconnection to the people you love, without it — I mean, without it, there might not be people. Now we have advanced science.

Cheryl: It’s true. We have a lot of different kinds of sex in there. We have sex with ghosts, holographic sex. We have bad sex, bondage sex, good sex. We have a lot of good married sex too. One of my favorite stories in the book involves a teacher. She’s in school. She catches her daughter having sex in the supply closet. Then she comes home. She’s really frazzled. Then she’s just like, ugh, I have all this grading. Then her husband is in the kitchen holding a piece of cheese. He’s like, let’s go. If you want to read the story, you have to buy the book. It’s a hot moment between this really happy married couple. It’s this stress point in her life that suddenly just gets lifted.

Zibby: Also, in — what was the name of this one? History Lesson, about the two people at the conference, where Michael — I think his name’s Michael — was threatening to reveal all these videos of the two of them when both of them are basically cheating on their partners, some sanctioned, some not, and then revealing on Twitter this very intimate moment and having to go back to the conference, this is my worst nightmare. I can’t even think of anything more terrifying than having your most intimate — the scene where she’s pulling off her necklace, like, oh, no, maybe the necklace is going to give it away. When you got that story, for instance, how did it happen? Did they send it to you in Google Docs? You got it on email? Did you read it on your computer? Were you just like, oh, my gosh, this is amazing? Then how much editing went into it? What was that all like?

Cheryl: That was actually a joy to get. Actually, all of them were. When we commissioned this, we invited people — we didn’t ask for people to submit blindly. We invited people specifically. We said, “We want a sex story between one thousand words and eight thousand words.” That’s all we told them. We were kind of worried when it got close to deadline, what if we get twenty-five stories about the same kind of sex? What if we get twenty-five stories about sex in a park in New York? Then, you know, we invited such a variety of writers. They’ve been finalists for the Booker Prize. They’ve won the Pulitzer Prize. They’ve won the National Book Award. We have a children’s author who won the Carnegie Medal in the UK. Obviously, we ended up getting a huge range. When we got that story, we were like, wow. We were blown away by all of them. That one, we were like, okay, this is really steamy. It’s really hot. It really is. I know this writer. I can’t reveal who it is. I was just like, wow, this is really something like nothing I’ve ever read from this person before. It made me feel really happy because it was exactly what we wanted to do. We wanted to open the door to ask people to go down a road with us that perhaps they’d never gone before, and ourselves included. Hillary and I both have a story in it.

Zibby: You’ll never say what yours is either?

Hillary: Never.

Zibby: Okay, you guys are good. You’re really good. Tell me for a second about the cover. The cover, for people listening, is bright red. There is one plump, delicious-looking strawberry right in the middle with its little green leaves at the top. Tell me about that, how much input you had, what you wanted it to look like, and how that came to be.

Hillary: That is one very wicked-looking strawberry, for those of you who haven’t seen the cover of the book.

Zibby: I will hold it up.

Hillary: It does quite a lot of different things, we think. We really like that it was suggestive in multiple ways. There was one other cover that they showed us, which was actually two lemons, but we loved our wicked strawberry because it’s fun. That’s also part of what this project was. In addition to intimacy and connection, we wanted it to be fun. We were all, all the writers, craving something fun during that time. This was before vaccines, when we started conceiving this and when people were writing these stories. Sex is fun. It helped me get back into writing. I was pretty paralyzed the first few months of the pandemic. I’m single, so I was by myself for a long time. Cheryl and I have talked a lot about how this project really helped get us through. For me personally, I hadn’t written a word of fiction until I began my story. It was a fun project. It was just delightful. We love that the American cover reflects that.

Cheryl: The UK cover is very different.

Zibby: Ooh, look at that.

Cheryl: A friend of mine, he said, “I tried to scan this QR code, and Tinder popped up.” I like how you turn it around and you keep seeing different things.

Zibby: That’s cool.

Cheryl: We have two wonderful covers. The strawberry, what I love about it is it’s inclusive. It’s very broad. It could be thighs. It could be behind. It could be the front. It could be anything, really. It’s very inclusive.

Zibby: Yes, very inclusive. Interesting. Never eat a strawberry the same way again. Tell me, though, about both of your backgrounds a little more not related to this book and what your projects are now not related to this, but screenwriting or if you’re doing another book yourself and all that. Now I have to go back. I really want to read your memoir. I love food-related memoirs and all of that. I have to go back. I will do that. I’m excited to and really excited about Mudbound and all the rest. Just tell me more about your careers and basically how you became writers.

Cheryl: Do you want to go first?

Hillary: Sure. I actually started out as an advertising copywriter. I spent twenty years writing disposable sentences. I did some good ads. I was in my early to mid-thirties. I was living in Texas. I was married to the wrong person. I just woke up one day. I was working sixty-hour weeks and making a lot of money. I just woke up one day. I said, this can’t be my life. It just didn’t feel worthy of how I wanted to spend my time. I went back to school. I went to Columbia and got my MFA and started Mudbound. I actually started both of my novels in the same workshop, January of the second workshop I took. I didn’t know what to do with the other one. I wrote Mudbound, which was very loosely, very loosely based on family stories of my grandparents’ farm where they lived after World War II. The cast of characters is actually pretty similar in terms of the makeup. There’s a couple with two young daughters, a crotchety father-in-law, and this handsome soldier who comes home from the war a little bit traumatized. That much is true. Nobody killed my great-grandfather. Although, I think my grandmother might have liked to. And other things that happened. That book was my first novel. It just did so well. It won an award and sort of changed everything. Then while that was happening, I wrote the second one. Years passed, obviously. When Mudbound got made into a film, I caught the screenwriting bug. I actually have done an adaptation of When She Woke, which is now searching for a director, if you know anybody. I’m about to embark on another screenwriting project about the Texas Prison Rodeo. I’m also working on a third novel, so quite busy these days.

Zibby: Wow. How do you go back to the intensity of into the characters’ lives when you’re doing so many — it feels like novel writing takes a certain mental headspace. It’s not the same as an essay. Not that that doesn’t. How do you go back and forth?

Cheryl: I read somewhere once that Philip Roth spent most of his time towards the end in his house in Connecticut, when he was writing anyway, because he said he needed to be in touch with his characters every day. It was hard to do that in New York because you get distracted. You go to Zabar’s. It’s exciting. I can kind of see that.

Hillary: Residencies help a lot, artist residencies. Cheryl and I both have done those. I’m actually going back to one that we have in common, Yaddo, in a few weeks for a month. You get a month where it’s just, . That helps a great deal.

Zibby: I went to the Yaddo benefit right before the pandemic where they were reading all sorts of letters by the most iconic, amazing authors who had been there in the past, and not just authors, but all sorts of so many amazing, notable people, and what Yaddo had meant to them. It was crazy. It was like sitting through a history thing. It was just so cool. Yaddo, I really would love to go at some point just to take a little tour or something.

Cheryl: Yaddo was a huge turning point for me. For me, I always knew I wanted to write books. I grew up in Singapore in a very traditional Chinese family. When I said I wanted to write books when I was five or six — I’d been reading Enid Blyton and Judy Blume. I wanted to write things like that that could take people somewhere else. My parents were like, “How do you make money doing that? No, you’re going to be a lawyer.” I said, “What if I figure out how to make money with writing?” I was like, I’m going to become a journalist. They have regular paychecks. I went to journalism school. Loved it. Worked for The Baltimore Sun, went to InStyle magazine. I was a fashion editor there. Then The Wall Street Journal, I covered fashion. I had been covering fashion for ten years and living in US. My family’s all in Singapore. I was starting to really miss eating food of my family. Especially, I think it was particularly acute because I was surrounded by people in an industry, in fashion, where they were actively avoiding food and eating. All of a sudden, I started really craving my grandmother’s food and my mom’s food. I was like, I’m just going to take a break and go home and learn how to cook with my aunties for a weekend. As I did that, I wrote an essay.

An editor from Penguin called and said, “Let’s turn this into a book.” That’s literally how everything started. I got the book contract. I had this book to write. I didn’t know how to write it. I remember saying, if you ask me to write 1,500-word story in an hour, I can do it, hands down. You ask me to write a ninety-thousand-word book in a year, I have no idea where to start. Going to Yaddo really, really helped me because it cleared my head. It showed me how to be an artist because I was around other writers. I saw how disciplined they were and how they worked. That really helped me. I was actually at Yaddo for seven weeks. I wrote A Tiger in the Kitchen, my first book — it was a food memoir — at Yaddo. Then before I was done with that, I started writing what would become my first novel, Sarong Party Girls, which is also set in Singapore. It’s about young women in Singapore and just how difficult it can be to be a woman in modern but patriarchal Southeast Asia.

Zibby: Wow, so amazing. You two are so accomplished. This is so inspiring. What a story. How about you? What else is coming up for you?

Cheryl: I’m working on my next novel right now. Apart from Anonymous Sex, all my books have been set in Singapore. The next one is too. I’m not saying very much about it, but it’s got some sex in it.

Zibby: In the meantime, you help your boyfriend with his restaurant.

Cheryl: I write there every day. If you come to Manny’s Bistro at 225 Columbus on the Upper West Side, I am literally at the little table by the door. If I look busy, if I’m typing and I have my earbuds in, don’t talk to me. If I don’t have my earbuds in, it’s okay to talk to me. That’s where I work on my book these days because the tea is free-flowing. Anytime I’m hungry, the kitchen is right downstairs.

Zibby: That’s so neat. I’m not even kidding, I’m going to just come and have dinner there tonight or something. You’ll be surprised. Are you there at night, too, or just during the day?

Cheryl: I’m often there at night too.

Hillary: Cheryl is the hostess with the mostest. She’s the most social person. It’s just the perfect thing for her.

Zibby: I love it, oh, my gosh. That’s always been a dream, that you could have a restaurant and just hang out there and greet everybody. Very neat. From both of you, what advice do you have for aspiring authors?

Hillary: My first piece of advice would be to read a lot of great books. I feel like reading authors, Judy Blume, Roald Dahl, as a child and right on up to Jane Austin and Kazuo Ishiguro, to name two of my favorites — I don’t see how you can become a writer without doing a lot of reading, and reading good stuff. That’s my number-one piece of advice. The second thing that I always tell people is to read your stuff out loud because your ear will pick up wrongnesses that your eye will not catch on the page. Those are my two big ones.

Cheryl: I would second both of those. Definitely, read a lot of. I read a lot as a kid. My family had to pool their library cards to get the maximum amount each week just for me. Also, the reading aloud thing, particularly because my first book — in Singapore, we speak a kind of patois that’s a mix of Chinese, English, and Malay. For me, I sometimes read aloud as I’m writing just because I need to hear it. Also, I think the main thing is, listen. Be a great observer of life. I think that’s why a lot of journalists make really good novelists, because that’s what we have to do. We have to bring a scene to life on the page. For me, when I read a book and I’m like, something’s not quite right, this character — it’s because this person hasn’t understood the character or doesn’t understand the environment or doesn’t understand the community that they’re writing about. They’re just sort of inserting themselves or their beliefs into it. To me, I always enter a thing going, I don’t understand what this world is, so I have to know everything. I have to know what the wallpaper is, what it smells like, what this woman likes for breakfast. What’s her favorite ice cream? What you see on the page has to be the tip of the iceberg because you have to really understand that world. You have to listen to your characters in order to actually bring them to life. Otherwise, they’re going to come across as false.

Hillary: The other thing I would say off of what Cheryl just said is that I always start novels with a question as opposed to an answer. The process of writing a book is a process of asking questions. What would it be like if you’re this educated woman with two little tiny children and your husband just moves you out into the middle of BF, Mississippi, where you don’t even have running water? What would that be like? I feel like going into a book, as Cheryl said, with curiosity and not knowing and being determined to know and to make discoveries allows your reader to do that eventually as well. When I’m sensing that in a novel, that the author went through that, that’s always really exciting to me.

Cheryl: Also, if you live anywhere with a public transportation system, that’s one of my favorite places to get ideas for either images or facial tics or whatever or dialogue. I’m always on the subway. I look at people who are not looking around them or have their earbuds in or they’re talking to each other. I go, you’re missing out on this grand pageant, this pageantry of life around you. Listen. You’re going to hear dialogue. You’re going to see people. You’re going to see outfits and everything on the subway that you’ll never see anywhere else. You wouldn’t have to make it up. Just write it down.

Zibby: It’s so true. There’s a lot to be learned just from watching and listening, paying attention, observing. Secret weapon. Maybe not for erotica, but I don’t know. I’ll just leave that floating out there. Now I want to go back and try to, now that I feel like I know you two a little bit, figure out which essays you wrote.

Hillary: Good luck.

Zibby: Good luck, yeah. I probably will never be able to tell, which is probably good. Whatever. Anyway, great to meet you. I hope to meet you both in real life since we’re all in the city. I’m sorry you weren’t here. I have to start booking in-person interviews again. Who knows? I’ll probably just show up at the restaurant.

Cheryl: It’s lovely to meet you.

Zibby: Lovely to meet you too.

Hillary Jordan & Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, ANONYMOUS SEX

ANONYMOUS SEX by Hillary Jordan & Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan

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