The Life Erotic

updated 02/14/2005 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/14/2005 AT 01:00 AM EST

Back in 1997, after tucking in her two kids with a story, a bored single mom who worked as an insurance saleswoman near Charlotte, N.C., would sit down to write her own stories—about what grown-ups do at bedtime. As it happened, those tales were ultra-grown-up—and anything but boring. "I e-mailed one to friends, who e-mailed it to people they knew," remembers the now 38-year-old writer, who goes by the pseudonym Zane. "I started hearing from strangers who said it was the hottest thing they'd ever read."

From e-mail to postings on a Web site to self-published books, Zane got thousands of pulses racing, not least those of the publisher Simon & Schuster, which in 2001 signed her to a two-book deal (today up to 14). Now that she's sold 2.7 million copies of such erotically charged novels as Addicted, Nervous and her new bestseller, Afterburn, the author has become the synonym for bold erotica starring African-American females. Not that the category even existed before Zane began spinning her sisters-on-top fantasies. "These are not coy romance novels, where sex is danced around in polite language," says her editor, Malaika Adero. "The women are in charge of the sex."

As her characters get buck wild on the subway, in a Jacuzzi or under the Christmas tree, though, Zane leads a quiet life in suburban Maryland with her husband, Wayne, a marketer for an electronics design firm, and André, 17, Lizzie, 10 (her children from a previous relationship), and their own son Jax, 21 months. But if her household is big, her creative empire will soon be huge. Aside from her novels, Zane has written two books of short stories (Gettin'Buck Wild and The Sex Chronicles) and started up a publishing company called Strebor Books International, with a stable of 35 writers. Last year she opened a Baltimore bookstore called Zane's Endeavors Books and Gifts, and she's working on a line of merchandise that may include lingerie. "Women should feel sensual throughout the day," she says. "I plan to take the freak out of the bedroom and into the boardroom."

At the same time, Zane is working on film adaptations of her work with producer Suzanne de Passe. Will her steamy stuff pull in audiences of color? Says de Passe: "We're talking about a tremendously underserved audience. On Desperate Housewives, we have not got a black 'desperate housewife.' "

True enough. But Zane also knows that desperation comes in many forms. The youngest of three daughters of a teacher and a theologian, the author grew up with a strong sense of social justice. Though she studied chemical engineering in college and worked in sales when she graduated, she has a missionary's zeal for helping others. On her drawing board: a nonprofit foundation to help disadvantaged women change careers or extricate themselves from debt. "There are so many who have given up on life," she says.

Zane has lived through awful times herself: In 1993 her 5-month-old daughter Jewell, to whom her 2003 novel Skyscraper is dedicated, died of a heart ailment. "It was devastating," the author says. "It was the worst thing that can happen to anybody."

Wayne, whom she wed in 2002, has helped heal her old wounds. Her biggest supporter, he says he initially "struggled with [her success]" but now he's grateful: "I don't have to be out there working two or three jobs." Their sex life doesn't make it into Zane's books-but her sexuality does. "I don't walk around like a sex kitten," she says, "but as a woman I'm a sensual person."

Still, at first she wasn't sure she wanted everyone to realize that. She didn't tell her parents about her writing until she was in a drugstore with her mother in 2001 and saw a copy of Essence, which featured her on the bestseller list. "I said that I was Zane and my books were erotica. She said, 'I never professed to be an angel.' My father said that's not what he would choose to write, but he has no problem with it."

Will her kids have a problem with it? She is sticking with her pseudonym ("the first name that popped into my head") in part to protect them. "I have no interest in being famous," says Zane, who moved the family to a new home last year because "people found out where I lived."

She knows teens read her work, and "I'm not so crazy about that," she says. "I want to start a line of books for youths." Her teenage son André, though, is right at the age when young men are fixated on one thing. "Actually, I haven't read her books," André says. "I'm more interested in cars."

Kyle Smith. Susan Schneider Simison in Washington, D.C.

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