Saturday profile: Charlotte Roche

Fearless feminist or porn writer? Her follow-up to the book that broke every sexual taboo is causing fresh scandal. By Tony Paterson

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She is disarmingly small, carefully dressed and speaks fluent, upper-class English with only the tiniest hint of a German accent. Charlotte Roche may be currently enjoying a reputation as the Teutonic literary world's leading exponent of the scandalous sex novel, but at first sight you might be forgiven for thinking she was the product of a prim British convent school.

Roche's demeanour is explained by the fact that she was born in High Wycombe to middle-class British parents. Her family moved to Germany when she was a child, after her father had been given the job of setting up a Mars bar factory in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. The young Charlotte went to German schools from then on. Today, although her English is flawless, her main language is German. She says she feels like the many Turks who arrived in Germany as Gastarbeiter (guest workers) in the 1960s. "Like me, they ended up speaking far better German than their parents," she remarks.

At 33, Roche, already a successful television writer and presenter, finds herself propelled into the headlines in Germany for the second time in four years. Her first novel, Wetlands, an at times excruciating account of how a young woman systematically goes about breaking almost every sexual taboo, sold nearly two million copies, was translated into English and Dutch and is shortly to be turned into a film.

She has now followed up its runaway success with an equally sex-dominated sequel, Lap Prayers. Her debut novel's title, Wetlands – in German, Feuchtgebiete – alludes to female genitalia, referring indirectly to the main subject of the book: the moist parts of the female body. Lap Prayers, or Schossgebete, attempts to do the same.

Wetlands opens in a hospital ward where the heroine is about to undergo surgery after badly botching an attempt to shave around her haemorrhoids. Graphic accounts of anal sex, masturbation, menstruation, lesbian encounters with prostitutes and the role of avocado stones as objects of desire then fill the pages.

The book was, she said, an assault on what Roche sees as the sanitised, Americanised hygiene rules which she claims millions of women obey daily without thought. The book was also an attempt to show how women have become divorced from their bodies. Lap Prayers plays with taboos in the same way. The novel is packed with lurid sex scenes which involve the heroine, Elizabeth, visiting brothels with Georg, her lacklustre husband. The two spend their time watching porn films, satisfying an array of bizarre sexual urges, yet all the time Elizabeth, who wants to keep her family together, hopes that Georg will give his approval for her to have an affair with another man.

Yet the novel's preoccupation with sex soon gives way to a more complex tale about a deeply disturbed young woman, haunted by a father complex and a prudish, man-hating feminist mother who appears to disapprove every time she has sex. Elizabeth struggles to overcome depression, anorexia and a traumatic incident in her past which occurs when her three brothers are killed in a car crash on the way to her wedding.

Many of these later elements in Lap Prayers are autobiographical. Roche admits to having suffered from depression and anorexia; she recently gave up drinking.

The crash is also real. It happened in Belgium in 2001 as her three brothers were travelling to Roche's wedding in Britain in a car driven by her mother. Roche has been trying to come to terms with the tragedy ever since and writing Lap Prayers has been an important step along that path.

"People might think that Lap Prayers is simply 'Wetlands Two' but in reality it's more about depression, losing family members and relationships," she insisted in a recent interview.

Losing relationships has been a theme running through her life. Roche's parents divorced when she was young. Her mother went on to remarry three times. Roche says that the family break-up may go some way towards explaining why she was so rebellious at school and had drug problems.

The runaway success of Wetlands explains why Roche's publishers have pulled out all the stops to give Lap Prayers a promotional bonanza. However, the novel has already created a minor furore in its own right. Its main character takes on the Teutonic equivalent of Germaine Greer: writer and broadcaster Alice Schwarzer.

In the novel, Schwarzer's brand of 1960s feminism is sharply attacked for undermining the key sexual elements of desire and erotic love. Schwarzer has since responded with an acerbic attack in which she accuses Roche of using sex as a "sales gimmick", and alleges that her preoccupation with the subject sets back the cause of feminism rather than advancing it. She also claims that Roche's latest novel has less to do with taboo-breaking than the author's personal settling of accounts with her, at times, oppressively feminist mother.

For her part, Roche insists that the feminists of the 1960s and 1970s "got a lot of things wrong". However, she sees herself as a feminist, albeit as one who likes men and wants to have children with them. She has one daughter from a previous marriage. Her husband now is Martin Kess, a media company director she married in 2007, and with whom she is expecting her second child.

The success of Wetlands was put down to its huge popularity among Germany's twentysomethings. Lap Prayers has not been on the bookshelves long enough for such a clear reader profile to emerge. One of Roche's more recent television appearances to promote her new book was on Germany's prestigious late-night interview slot, presided over by the renowned TV presenter Markus Lanz. He invited six people on to his show; in the end Roche was virtually the only one who said anything. Lanz became so obsessed with the sex side of her book that he deluged her with questions and forgot about his other guests.

Hundreds of viewers turned off their sets in disgust and bitterly complained to the channel. To the delight of her publishers, Charlotte Roche was the talk of the town.

Born 18 March 1978, High Wycombe.

Family Has a daughter, Polly, by writer Eric Pfeil. Married to Martin Kess, the co-founder of a media company in Cologne.

Education Studied in the Lower Rhine region. Left school at 16.

Career After forming a garage-punk band, she went through a period of shock tactics, including self-mutilation. She became a TV presenter and national celebrity on a German music and culture show, Viva. In 2008, she wrote her first book, Wetlands.

She says "I'm convinced that in contemporary society a lot of women have a very messed-up attitude to their own bodies. "

They say "Roche seems to know nothing about the extensive literature of women's sexuality." Sallie Tisdale, The New York Times