BOOKS
05/22/2013 12:55 pm ET Updated May 25, 2013

Marie Calloway Pushes The Boundaries Of What's Printable

Sitting in a New York bar on a recent Friday, Marie Calloway abandons her usual coy demeanor, pauses, twirls her hair and poses an unusual question.

"Do you watch porn?" she asks. "I used to really like Japanese porn because the girls don't look fake."

At 23, Calloway belongs to the first generation of writers to grow up with the Internet as an everyday tool. She honed her writing style by blogging on LiveJournal, met boyfriends in chat rooms and learned about sex through online pornography.

"I didn't really know how to act during sex," Calloway writes in a story about losing her virginity, "and I had the gaps filled in by pornography."

Her first book, What Purpose Did I Serve in Your Life, just published, includes Facebook messages, emails and texts that bluntly relate the details of Calloway's sex life. These digital correspondences -- which reveal both lustful dalliances with men met online and the romantic residue of passionate love affairs -- form a cyber trail: Left behind on the byways of the Internet are catalogues of relationships.

Calloway has been both commended and chastised for using her personal experiences to create fiction far more X-rated than E.L. James's Fifty Shades of Grey. Unlike fans of that best-selling trilogy, Calloway's readers don't have to imagine the bruises created by illicit sexual activity; she puts hers on display in photographs.

What Purpose is a collection of short stories strung together to create a narrative. It tells the story of a 20-year-old, stuck in London with no money who becomes a sex worker, a 21-year-old who falls in love with an older writer, and a 22-year-old who has her first ménage à trois -- all events Calloway claims actually happened to her.

"To be naked is to be oneself," John Berger, the influential art critic, wrote in Ways of Seeing. "To be nude is to be seen naked by others yet not recognized as oneself. A nude has to be seen as an object to be a nude."

Calloway has fascinated some and infuriated others because she writes from Berger's "naked" perspective. Though some readers deem her views depraved, she makes no apologies for them: To her, they're only natural. If readers find her nudity offensive, it's in part because she's not ashamed to express her nakedness. Her depictions of sex are not airbrushed. Instead, as in Lena Dunham's HBO show, "Girls," they're unvarnished, lewd and brimming with vulnerability.

"I'm interested in writing about power dynamics between men and women," says Calloway. "And when you have sex, gender differences become very heightened."

The explicit sexual content of What Purpose caused problems leading up to its publication. Three printers refused to make the book's galleys, claiming it bordered on pornographic. "Dr. Phil" invited Calloway to appear as a guest, only to cancel the segment after deciding her book was too provocative to promote.

Calloway first gained attention for a titillating tale about her relationship with a well-regarded 40-year-old journalist, whom she dubbed "Adrien Brody" to protect his privacy. First published in 2011, the story is now What Purpose's backbone, holding the book's narrative together.

The two met online after Calloway, then a 21-year-old student in Portland, Ore., emailed Brody to compliment his work. After exchanging a few messages, she made a frank confession. "I would love to sleep w/ you," she wrote in an email.

To her surprise, Brody responded with interest. Weeks later, Calloway flew to New York City where she and Brody met at a bar, discussed cultural interests and, after a few Sierra Nevadas, flirted.

"I just wanted to meet you because you seemed really smart," Calloway recounts saying.

"Well," he replied, "prepare to be greatly disappointed."

Eventually, she posed a provocative question: "Do you want to go have sex?"

Six months after meeting Brody, Calloway wrote a 15,000-word account of their affair, including racy details. She sent it to Tao Lin, a novelist and poet with an extensive online following.

Lin promptly replied, offering to publish the work online through Muumuu House, his publishing company. However, he suggested Calloway treat the story as fiction, not memoir.

"I don't think there is nonfiction, only perspectives and choices on what to focus on," explained Lin, whose third novel, Taipei, comes out next month. "Concrete reality cannot be reproduced with language."

After Lin published Calloway's tell-all, the story quickly became the talk of the town. The New York Observer published a 1,700-word article. Gawker ran a scathing review. Calloway's inbox flooded with hateful messages. Though a few journalists came to her defense, ad hominem attacks in the blogosphere abounded. Some messages even threatened harm.

"I incessantly ruminated about all of it to the point of mental exhaustion, working myself up to a panic attack which finally culminated in me hiding from my parents' Christmas party in the guest bathroom," Calloway writes in the book. "There, I curled up into the fetal position and hyperventilated."

Because "Calloway" is also a pen name, her conservative, Catholic parents don't know much of anything about her career, she says. In fact, they think she's a virgin. The first time her mom asked to see her writing was after she got the book deal for What Purpose.

"I went to the New Yorker website, copied a short story and sent it to her saying I had written it," Calloway says. "She had no idea it wasn’t my work." Because her parents are not well-versed in the Internet, she doesn't think they'll find out the truth any time soon.

At first blush, Calloway seems more reticent than risqué. But back in the New York bar, she's beginning to show a glimmer of the seductress depicted in her stories. She takes a sip of her Sierra Nevada and says she has no plans for rest of the night.

"I guess it's because boys don't like me," she remarks, coquettishly.

As for the ones in her stories?

"That stuff doesn't happen as much as people think."

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