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Author's fans know her on a first- and last-name basis

She goes by Zane, a pseudonym started in her early days writing erotic novels for a mostly black audience.

June 08, 2007|Ben Nuckols | Associated Press

UPPER MARLBORO, MD. — Zane never intended to surround herself in mystery and intrigue.

The author, whose steamy sex novels set among black professionals have propelled her onto the New York Times list of bestsellers, says if she could do it over, she'd have chosen a less provocative pseudonym.

About a decade ago, she was in an America Online chat room and needed to call herself something. She picked Zane because it was the first thing that popped into her head; she's always liked the name.

When she started writing erotic fiction in her spare time and e-mailing it to friends and online acquaintances, it made sense to keep calling herself Zane -- after all, she couldn't be sure who was reading her work. Then she developed a following and discovered she could sell a book, and Zane was destined to stay Zane.

"If I had known that this was going to actually end up being a writing pseudonym, I would have picked something with a first and last name," Zane says.

Plenty of authors don't use their real names, but there's only one successful writer of black erotica with a gender-neutral, one-syllable nom de plume. It makes people more curious about her -- the opposite of Zane's intent.

"It was a total accident. It is kind of cool. But it wasn't intentional," she says. Another drawback: "I'm on the bottom of all the bookshelves."

But don't weep for Zane. After all, as Sean Bentley, the buyer of black fiction for Borders and Waldenbooks, points out, Zane gets a couple of shelves to herself these days.

More than 2.7 million copies of her books are in print, she's a mainstay on the Essence magazine list of bestsellers, and two titles, "Afterburn" and the anthology "Love Is Never Painless," were New York Times bestsellers.

The next frontier for the author: movies and television. She has approved a script for "Addicted," an adaptation of her biggest-selling novel, about a woman who seeks counseling for sex addiction. She's negotiating a deal to turn a collection of stories, "The Sex Chronicles," into a cable-TV miniseries.

She's also a publisher who runs Strebor Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster with more than 50 authors, many of whom get a sales boost from their association with Zane.

Not bad for someone who never planned to be a writer. Zane, the daughter of a theologian and an elementary school teacher, graduated from Howard University in Washington, D.C., with a degree in chemical engineering.

"Whenever I had creative writing assignments and stuff in school, the teachers would almost be shocked at what I turned in because it would be so far-fetched and so imaginative," Zane says. "Most of my teachers told me I should be a writer, but I just never took it seriously until I got bored enough to do it."

Boredom hit in 1997, when Zane was living in North Carolina, working as a sales representative. She began writing erotic stories to pass the time after her children went to bed. (She now has a 19-year-old son, a 12-year-old daughter and a 3-year-old son.)

The stories developed a following on the Internet, and she self-published "The Sex Chronicles" before landing a deal with Simon & Schuster.

Zane tapped into a market that craves her honest, unvarnished perspective on sexuality. Her books send a "Sex and the City"-like message that it's OK to celebrate your libido.

"She's like the Dr. Ruth of our time," said Carol Mackey, the editor of Black Expressions, an online book club with more than 400,000 members that counts Zane among its most popular authors.

Zane's take on sex is hardly revolutionary: It should be safe and pleasurable, and communication is the key to stronger, more satisfying relationships. But her straightforward, conversational prose resonates in the black community, Mackey said.

"It's not openly discussed in most of our homes," Mackey said. "I had to learn from books or friends and big sisters. To have an author come out and broach this, even in fiction, is a breakthrough for us."

Zane's readers agree. Her work "goes right to the heart of modern sexuality," said Harold Fisher, a former Baltimore TV news anchor and one of a few men who joined dozens of female fans at a local book signing. "We all have sex. We just need to relax about it."

Zane's fans talk about her work with fervor; they remember what book they read first and how they burned through the rest. They love her brash heroines, who are unafraid to use men for their own pleasure.

In person, the 40-year-old author is equally assertive -- but she's no vixen. Stylish but not outlandish, Zane looks like the suburban working mom that she is.

She discusses her life and career in the cluttered, undecorated offices of Strebor Books. The location in an office park in suburban Washington suits her no-nonsense personality, and she lives just a short drive away.

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