''I HAD a dark night of the soul after this book went to the printer,'' Chloe Hooper confesses. ''I thought, 'Don't tell me I've just done a literary Fifty Shades of Grey'.''
Let's be clear about this. Hooper's second novel, The Engagement, is not a sadomasochistic romp designed to titillate millions of women readers. It's a sophisticated, many-layered work that combines the headlong appeal of a thriller with a nuanced mystery about our darker sexual and romantic desires.
What it does do, however, is pose much the same questions as everyone is asking about the extraordinary Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon: what is it that women fantasise about, and why? Do they want to be their dream man's bride, or sex slave?
Hooper, a tall, slim woman with clear pale eyes, is best known in Australia for her acclaimed 2008 non-fiction book, The Tall Man, but started as a novelist (her first novel, A Child's Book of True Crime, came out in 2002 and was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for women's fiction). She did her homework after she finished The Engagement and read Fifty Shades of Grey, which she found very formulaic.
''I don't think it's that different from what's been out there as erotic romance for some time,'' she says. ''But there's something interesting to be said about the nature of fantasy. Are most fantasies inherently conservative? Do they spring from some deep well? Is it like myth - are there a limited number we're calling on or find ourselves lost in?''
We wonder if it's possible for a woman to have a progressive-feminist fantasy, and we burst out laughing at the idea.
''I'll have to get back to you on that,'' Hooper says. ''Fantasy can take you to places that aren't politically correct. And I'm not talking about a cheesy, 'Bring on the manacles, Christian Grey'.''
The Engagement is about an affair between Liese, a young Englishwoman visiting Australia, and Alexander, the blandly handsome scion of a family that made its fortune off the sheep's back.
At the start of the novel, they are driving to Alexander's ancestral pile in the Western District of Victoria for a naughty weekend. The reader senses at once there's something odd about this couple. Alexander pays Liese for sex, Liese takes his money and encourages him to believe she's a professional.
In the grand tradition of the Gothic novel, Liese gradually finds herself trapped in the spooky family mansion and also in Alexander's fantasy. Or is it her fantasy? The borders ripple and blur. ''It's a story where two fantasies collide and it's difficult to know who's in charge,'' Hooper says.
''I do love all those Gothic classics - Jane Eyre, Rebecca, The Castle of Otranto, those stories of women trapped in big houses.''
The cover design suggests a period setting and there's a forced betrothal, anonymous letters, knives, guns, gutted animals and a vicar who comes to dinner, but it's a contemporary tale and Hooper has been at pains to make it seem authentic. Alexander's house is based on real homesteads: ''I was lucky enough to enjoy some old-fashioned Western District hospitality. It's fairly Gothic around that area.''
She plays with two classic fantasies: the whore and the bride. ''I like the idea of a fantasy that seems harmless but is actually dangerous. Marriage is one of the last fantasy rituals: you put on a white dress and hire a vintage car and get a cake, and there are reasons to be quite frightened of doing that when a third of marriages end in divorce.
''Even though we talk about people marrying less, and more children are born out of marriage, there still seems to be such a lot of pressure on women to formalise things. Girls grow up with a picture … do you ever get over reading Cinderella?
"We live in times where we think we're very progressive about sex and everybody's reading Shades of Grey
and what's meant to be a whole lot of gymnastics. But, actually, we're mediaeval in our attitudes to female desire and sexuality."
She also liked the idea of writing a thriller. ''When you read a good thriller, you feel a surfeit of emotions. Your shoulders tense up and your hairs are meant to stand on end. But you enjoy feeling anxious. It's almost an S&M experience. That's what gives the genre its spark - and it's also a very good medium to look at the ambivalence about marriage.''
Does this ambivalence extend to Hooper's personal life? Her partner is writer Don Watson, and they have a baby son, Tobias.
''Marriage is not out of the question, but there do seem always to be other things to deal with,'' she says.
They manage parenthood in Fitzroy with help from Hooper's mother and father and a part-time nanny. Do they help each other with their work? ''He reads my work more than I'm allowed to read his. I guess that's just the way it is.''
Her best-known work, The Tall Man, has the narrative pull and urgency of a thriller, but it's a non-fiction account of the death in custody of Cameron Doomadgee on Palm Island, and the subsequent trial of Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley. It won the Western Australian Premier's Book Award and the respective New South Wales and Victorian premiers' literary awards for non-fiction, and had glowing reviews here and overseas. Robert Drewe called it ''the country's finest work of literature so far this century''.
Hooper had started work on The Engagement when she became involved with the case, following Brisbane criminal lawyer Andrew Boe and writing a Walkley-winning report for The Monthly magazine. Then she decided so much compelling material should go in a book, which meant putting her novel aside.
Returning to fiction was ''a terrific freedom … One of the first days I was back, I closed the door on my study and nobody could get me. This character wouldn't hop off the page, there wouldn't be a lawsuit, nobody would ring me and abuse me. It had been so long since my first novel, I almost had to learn how to write a novel again … but writing The Tall Man probably made me a better writer. I've used different muscles.''
There was, however, an interruption - although a very welcome one. Ten months ago, Hooper gave birth to Tobias. She had hoped to get the novel done by then, but it didn't work out that way. ''The book was hopelessly overdue; I had to finish it. In the beginning, I would write when Tobias was asleep. When he was awake more of the time, we needed help in the house. I was lucky that this book was at a place where it was kind of writing itself, so I would … know what to do.''
Hooper's career to date sounds like a dream run for a young writer. She had short stories published while at the University of Melbourne, then at 23 she won a Fulbright scholarship to Columbia University in New York, where she studied creative writing. Her first novel was written as part of the course.
But there was a dark afternoon of the soul. She couldn't find an agent for A Child's Book of True Crime and was running out of money. Philip Roth suggested she show it to his agent, the famed Andrew ''the Jackal'' Wylie, and she sent the manuscript as a last resort. Convinced he wouldn't want it, she spent the afternoon weeping and making plans to fly home. ''I was calling up friends and offering them my sleeping bag. And then he rang that night.''
Wylie sold the novel to 13 countries, including Australia, and did a double book deal for The Tall Man and The Engagement for a reported $300,000 advance in Australia (a figure Hooper's publisher, Ben Ball, has since said is wrong). Hooper doesn't offer a comment on the money, but she's wry about the gossip the deal sparked: ''One of the reasons I wrote this novel was I was interested in writing about women and money and their price. It got me thinking a little about this world we're in, where everything is commodified.
''I've been very fortunate that the stars aligned and I was able to make a career out of writing. It keeps the baby in Huggies. Just.''
Hooper is keen to keep working, although she also loves being a mother: ''It's terribly tempting just to play with blocks and crawl around on the floor.'' She would like to write another non-fiction book, though learning about indigenous lives in the far north of Australia was often a harrowing experience.
''You forget the pain of a book, like childbirth. What's left in terms of pain is the inequities that book details. I think of my son: he's had the best prenatal and antenatal care, he has clean clothes and a safe place to sleep, and that's not the case for a lot of kids I know.''
So what to write next? ''For me, the new challenge is I can't just get on a plane - with a small child, that kind of travel is far more difficult. I have lots of ideas, but they're in far-flung places. I need a non-fiction story in Melbourne CBD between the hours of 10am and 11.30am and 2pm and 3.30pm.'' She laughs. ''That's when he sleeps.''
■The Engagement is published by Hamish Hamilton on Wednesday. Chloe Hooper is a guest at the Melbourne Writers Festival.