Sylvia Day: The ex-spy bringing romantic fiction in from the cold

And then there is Sylvia Day, creator of the international best-selling Crossfire series who you may not have even heard of but who commands astonishing eight-figure advances. The author of romantic fiction, who is a No 1 bestseller in 28 countries, has done it by tapping into the massive market for mainstream erotica, and did so long before E L James. “It was about six years before 50 Shades of Grey that publishers realised readers were interested in romantic stories that don’t close the bedroom door,” she says.

While that book, by first-time British novelist James was ­notable for its explicit sex scenes featuring bondage, discipline and sado-masochism (BDSM) Sylvia believes it had little real appeal beyond the press hype for most readers – despite selling 125 million copies worldwide.

“I’m graphic,” she concedes, “but I am also one man, one woman, using only the equipment that God gave them.

“My stories don’t include toys, props or BDSM. Instead my characters prefer traditional missionary style.

“This means that my stories offer them the sort of romance and sexuality they are used to, but with more passion and with more detail than standard romantic fiction.

“The genre was ripe for a ­resurgence and 50 Shades revealed a sexual subculture that few readers had been aware of. It got a lot of attention – way beyond the norms for romance writing.”

For three years this trend continued, until it hit ­saturation point. “Everyone was tired of it,” says Sylvia, although she admits that it has helped her too.

“Any time that we can get the press to talk about our romantic fiction genre it attracts new readers to it, so we are all grateful to 50 Shades for that.

“But, unlike that book, my novels are bestsellers in 28 countries precisely because they are actually somewhat tame on the erotic spectrum.”

Sylvia Day

Sylvia Day’s novels have sold tens of millions of copies worldwide (Image: Getty)

Her talent has bought Sylvia four luxury homes in her native America.

She says she writes what she wants to read, and feels “fortunate” in finding a large group of readers who enjoy the same preferences.

Sylvia, 46, has written more than 20 award-winning novels translated into 41 languages and sold tens of millions of copies – and she never struggles with what happens in the bedroom.

“I will confess when I first sit down to write a sex scene, it just comes out. Then I will go back, embarrass myself and tone it down,” she explains.

Her latest, Butterfly In Frost, has just been published and ­follows a three-year hiatus ­during which she suffered burnout after the stress of producing five long novels in four short years while undertaking gruelling international promotional tours and caring for her family.

“There is a huge pressure of expectation,” she admits, particularly so, one imagines, given that the last two books in the series garnered that elusive eight-figure advance for a two-book deal.

“I feel the pressure gets worse with every book,” she adds. “Thriller writers are expected to produce a book every two years, science fiction authors every five. But romance writers are expected to be prolific, and to produce one or two books a year.”

But Sylvia realises just how lucky she is, and helps fund organisations that protect the rights of other writers.

“While I have been very ­fortunate, I do understand that it can be extremely hard to make a living as a writer,” she says.

Sylvia puts her success down to a surprising reason: her work spying for the US military.

Having been trained as a ­linguist and schooled in Russian, she used “investigative skills to grasp information.

“I was trained to be observant,” she says. “My innate skill is that I like to watch people and working in covert intelligence definitely focused that ability.”

Sylvia Day in US military uniform

Sylvia Day puts her success down to her time in the US military (Image: Dominik Bindl)

Despite knowing from the age of 12 that she wanted to write romance novels, Sylvia joined the US army in her early twenties.

“We were facing Operation Desert Storm, and I felt I should be participating in some way so I went to a recruiting station and was subjected to a battery of tests,” she says.

“It turns out that I had a very high aptitude for languages and was sent to a US military language institute.”

Sylvia is not allowed to ­discuss her former career in greater detail, but when she left the military in 2003, at the age of 33, she was ready to start writing. In fact, she was something of a coiled spring.

“I could no longer ignore the urge to write, so I sat down and wrote my first book in a month, and then the next, and the next, and the next.

“I sold my first book after 14 months and within the next two weeks I had sold five different novels. I was up and running,” she declares.

But the landscape is changing. In the three years since her last book was published, the #MeToo movement has taken off. This, she says, has changed the landscape for romantic fiction of all flavours.

Sylvia Day speaking

Sylvia Day at an author event in New York in 2016 (Image: Getty)

“Today’s books are nothing like the bodice-rippers of the 1980s. What we considered a normal come-on from a male protagonist would not work today,” she explains. “Despite the stereotypical view of what romance fiction is, today’s female protagonists are in control of their relationship and their lives in ways they have never been before.

“They are not going to accept a hero who is in any way overly aggressive or fails to respect their independence.”

And she feels that this evolution is long overdue.

“There are a lot of authors who are also lawyers and doctors and scientists – extremely smart, wonderful women who have been writing extremely smart and ­wonderful books.

“But there were some things that were being written that were really not empowering for women, and maybe not something we’d want our young girls to read.”

She remembers a romance novel her mother gave her when she was a teenager which featured “forced seduction”.

“I found a copy years later and it was eye-opening to read it again,” she explains. “The heroine is saying ‘no’ and the hero is absolutely certain that if he can turn her on enough he can get her to say ‘yes’.

“That’s happening less and less frequently in fiction. But it still depends on how plugged in the author is to what’s going on in the world, what they’re paying attention to, whether they can relate to #MeToo and what their own personal values are.”

However, she is quite clear on one point ­concerning the movement to stop sexual assault and harassment. “It’s absolutely going to change things in our entire world and the way we perceive writing about women and their relationships with men.”

Butterfly In Frost by Sylvia Day (Montlake Romance, £8.99). For your copy with free UK delivery, call Express Bookshop on 01872 562310 or visit

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