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Fun, feminist and filthy: Anoushka Warden, the debut novelist rewriting female sexual desire

Anoushka Warden: ‘I want it to feel like something helpful that isn’t a self-help book’  (Portrait by Helen Murray)
Anoushka Warden: ‘I want it to feel like something helpful that isn’t a self-help book’ (Portrait by Helen Murray)

First, there’s the title. Anoushka Warden’s debut novel is called I’m F*cking Amazing. Fun to read on the Tube, maybe, but weird to ask for in a bookshop? Then there’s the sex scenes. Let’s just say don’t lend the book to your gran. “In my head, I’ve written the dirtiest, sexiest novel ever,” the writer tells me, with a slight wince. “I know it’s not, but that’s how I feel.”

Has Warden written the dirtiest, sexiest novel ever? Well... it is quite rude. Certainly by the standards of what female novelists have historically got away with. The book follows a young woman in her twenties and thirties as she falls in love with Serious Boyfriend Number Three. Everything’s going great, until her body stops cooperating – as she puts it, she develops a “faulty fanny” that no longer “gets wet”. What follows is the story of her quest to fix it, as she navigates infatuation, marriage, emotional abuse, divorce, abortion, deceit, desire, a lot of thinking, and even more shagging. It is not for the fainthearted. The word “fanny” appears 113 times.

But the novel, a fictional story with some of the real Warden thrown in, is also frank and hilarious, and full of self-discovery. It reads like a giddy, galloping diary entry, Warden’s nameless narrator jotting down musings on everything from her “Top Humps” to the scent of her vagina at different times of the month. We speak one week before the book’s release. And Warden’s nervous about all the rude bits. “Any time I read over the sex stuff, I feel physically sick,” the 40-year-old says, her hands over her face in her publicist’s office. “I don’t want my dad to read it and I don’t want my brothers to read it. I’d rather no male that knows me read it. But that’s ridiculous!”

Warden wrote the book two years ago, originally intending it to be her third play. Her first, My Mum’s a Twat, was loosely based on her real experience of her mother joining a spiritual cult, and was performed by Patsy Ferran at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 2018. Her second, My Dad’s a C*** (yes, she has a knack for eyebrow-raising titles), was a fictional, feminist riposte to her first, and won the Platform Presents Playwright’s Prize, with Aimee Lou Wood performing it on camera during lockdown. But when Warden sat down to write I’m F*cking Amazing, she found that she couldn’t stop. Before she knew it, it was hundreds of pages long. “I realised that if it was a play, it would be a woman on stage, for 12 hours, knobbing on about whether her fanny’s wet or not,” she says with signature bluntness. “I was like, I just don’t think people want that.”

The writer has a sprite-like, scatty energy in person that matches the bouncy fizz of her writing. Between us on the table lies her dog-eared notebook, which contains scribbled to-do lists with reminders from “don’t forget to hang up washing” to “buy Dr Gross’s face LED mask when I can afford it”. “I write notes like crazy because I don’t have a good memory, which is quite freeing in many ways,” she smiles.

When Warden sent the first draft of I’m F*cking Amazing to someone in the industry for their professional feedback, they told her: “I don’t think anyone wants this.” Warden sighs at the memory. “I’m sure she didn’t mean it that way, but I felt incredible shame. I kept it in a drawer for a year because she didn’t react well to some of the scenes.”

One particular passage about an abortion drew a strong negative reaction. “Because nobody else had read it, I was like, ‘Oh, God, I’m a monster. What have I created?’” At the time, Warden had just read Charlotte Roche’s 2008 novel Wetlands, a bestseller so graphic it reportedly had people fainting at readings (it includes a thorough topography of a woman’s haemorrhoids). She eventually felt brave enough to show it to someone else, and had a much warmer response from her male writing mentor. “He read it and was like, ‘I want my 14-year-old daughter to read this now.’ She couldn’t have, because it’s X-rated or whatever, but that made me feel not like I’d done something gross or weird.”

There’s a sad, pointed irony to the fact that Warden was made to feel gross or weird for what she had written – the novel is designed to stop women and girls feeling embarrassed for the questions they have about their bodies and relationships. “I want it to feel like something helpful that isn’t a self-help book,” she says, explaining that there were lots of things she was confused about when she was young that she’s attempting to untangle in the story.

“When me and my friends were teenagers, being fingered was just people shoving their fingers up your hole,” she says, laughing. “I wonder if younger generations are more like, ‘Oh, no, we go straight for the clit now,’ but we didn’t know that when I was a teenager, because there wasn’t social media or really the internet.” She also had questions about how common it is to orgasm from penetrative sex (not very) and whether it’s OK to use an electric toothbrush to masturbate. “It all comes down to: ‘Am I a freak and is something not working right?’”

Warden with her bold debut novel ‘I’m F*cking Amazing’ (Orion Books)
Warden with her bold debut novel ‘I’m F*cking Amazing’ (Orion Books)

I’m F*cking Amazing also explores sex in long-term relationships, with the protagonist seeking physiotherapy for her vagina when her arousal for her partner begins to wane. “In my early twenties, I was sort of obsessed with knowing how long couples had been together,” says Warden. “I’d be like, do you still have sex? How often? And it always seemed like, after five or six years, it was not such a big thing.” In the book, she wanted to interrogate whether that sexual decline is inevitable, and what to do about it.

Warden reckons she was more clueless than most women about all of this stuff because she grew up in a small town in Devon, where she “didn’t have access” to open, progressive discussion. She is the youngest of an extended family of seven brothers and sisters, with her mother leaving when she was young to join a spiritual cult (the subject of her first play).

She calls being a novelist her “third career”. Warden started out acting, before moving on to a “proper job” doing PR for the Royal Court Theatre. Then she began writing in her thirties. “I think writing came through osmosis of being in the Royal Court building,” she says, “because I had never given two s***s about it before.” She’s definitely got the bug – she has already written her second book and is working on a film.

I don’t write my feelings down ever. I wonder if that’s why, starting writing in my thirties, it’s been kind of non-stop. Maybe everything is just exploding

Although the novel is fiction, I’m F*cking Amazing does have strong crossovers with Warden’s real life. Both Warden and the protagonist worked for a scientific company, and have mothers who moved away. Both love shopping and copious note-taking. Both speak in an infectious, uncensored way. “If I had to have the book laid out in front of me in a detective room and circle it [the parts that are autobiography and fiction], that would be an impossibly hard thing to do,” she says.

While I’m F*cking Amazing feels like a diary, Warden has never kept one. “I don’t write my feelings down ever,” she says. “I wonder if that’s why, starting writing in my thirties, it’s been kind of non-stop. Maybe everything is just exploding.”

One of the endorsements on the cover is from Deborah Frances-White, co-host of podcast The Guilty Feminist, which is apt given that the show revels self-mockingly in the hypocrisies of modern feminism. The book is full of admissions such as being pissed off that a guy wants to split the bill, and sentences like: “I did a lot of reading about places in the world where women didn’t have access to free abortions and it really got me upset. I didn’t do anything about it, though.”

I’m F*cking Amazing ends on an agonising cliffhanger, and Warden says she is “desperate” to write a sequel. “I want to, but there’s no point spending a year doing it when we don’t even know if people like book one,” she says, though the novel’s already been optioned for TV, with Warden writing the script. “I bet men who would write the same thing wouldn’t even be feeling like this. I need to not be apologetic and embarrassed about it.” She laughs. Unashamed female desire, and being open about it, is a work in progress, after all. “And I hope in six months, I’ll have found a way to not feel sick when I think of all the blowjob words I wrote!”

‘I’m F*cking Amazing’ by Anoushka Warden was published by Trapeze on 21 March, £20