Today, I am participating in the virtual book tour for Women in Lust, a new erotica anthology edited by Rachel Kramer Bussel and published by Cleis Press. I’ve written straightforward reviews of erotica anthologies before, as well as using them as starting-points to muse about erotic writing more generally. This time I wanted to mix it up a little and followed up on Rachel’s offer to connect the virtual tour bloggers with anthology contributors for an e-interview.
Writer Donna George Storey was gracious enough to take the time to respond to my emailed questions with her thoughts about writing erotica professionally and what power erotica has to inform our lives. I hope you find her responses as thought-provoking as I did.
Without further ado, here’s Donna.
Anna: You describe yourself as an academic turned erotic fiction writer. Can you say a little bit about how you made that shift? What prompted you to begin writing erotica, and then to make it a part of your professional life?
Donna: As far back as I can remember, I’ve loved to lose myself in a good story and dreamed of writing my own fiction. However, I also internalized society’s messages that few writers make a living from their passion and most become staggering alcoholics, so it was safer to channel my love of words into an academic appreciation of the works of accepted “great authors.” The exoticism of Japanese literature, and the challenge of simply reading those intricate Chinese characters, kept me enthralled for a while, but deep down I felt I was ignoring my true calling. I finally found the courage to write seriously when my first son was born, and I took a temporary break from teaching—which ended up being permanent. Motherhood is supposed to drain you of all erotic and intellectual energy, but for me the opposite was true.
|Donna’s collection of erotic literature and reference books related to Japan.
Photo by Donna George Storey, used with permission.
From the start my stories flirted with sex, but it took about a couple of years of practice before my stories were so steamy, I could no longer submit to proper literary magazines. Yet I found being a “bad girl” immensely liberating to my creative spirit. In spite of the erotica revolution in the 1990s when many talented authors and editors like Susie Bright and Maxim Jakubowski proved that stories with erotic themes could be smart, thought provoking and artistic, many people still assume sexually honest writing has to be poorly written, the kind of thing you hide under the bed. My goal is to write stories that challenge that stereotype, stories that respect the complexity of the pleasures of body and mind. Few mainstream authors are comfortable writing about sex in a way that celebrates its positive aspects (notice how often sex is coupled with punishment, betrayal, violence or other negative consequences in mainstream culture). There are many erotica writers who do it bravely and beautifully—but we need more. It changed my life and opened my senses in ways I’d never imagined, and I highly recommend it to everyone!
Anna: The story included in Women in Lust, “Comfort Food,” uses recipes and cooking as part of the seduction — and the end goal of the seduction, even. Can you talk a little bit about why you chose to write a piece centered around preparing and eating food? What was the immediate inspiration for this particular story?
Donna: When I’m not writing erotic stories, I love to cook, although I spend even more time salivating over beautiful cookbooks, a sort of culinary porn. As I considered your question, I realized that my stories are also like recipes in that I’ll take an image that intrigues me and mix it together with a childhood memory, a touch of a lifelong hobby, and a few juicy tidbits from friends, then add a cup of my own libido to finish it all up. “Comfort Food” is somewhat different from the common sex-and-food story involving lovers smearing whipped cream all over each other–which is fun, but messy! In keeping with the female empowerment theme of Women in Lust, the story deals with a middle-aged woman’s fascination with a young chef and his secret pudding recipes. He poses a challenge for her, but of course she gets everything she wants in the end.
There’s one line in this story that’s a particular favorite: “My desire made me more interesting to myself.” One of my many discoveries as an erotic writer is that sensual pleasure doesn’t have to be confined to the genitals. Appreciating the sweetness of a ripe berry can be equally bewitching. Yet enjoying food without guilt is as frowned upon in our society as enjoying sex without guilt, so that parallel also drove the story. Last but not least, anyone who has a passion is very sexy to me, and good cooks by definition care about what they do. Cooking is a form of communication, and I swear I can taste the love and dedication or lack thereof. I once had an absolutely amazing dish of butterscotch pudding at a fancy restaurant in San Francisco called Fifth Floor. I didn’t ask for the recipe, but I wish I had.
Anna: When I write about erotica and pornography as a blogger, I often get comments asking me for reading/viewing recommendations that are “women friendly” or “feminist.” Where do you go for good-quality erotic literature? Any suggestions for my readers about places to seek out reading matter?
Donna: Yes, I definitely have some recommendations. Cleis Press and Seal Press publish smart, well-written and very hot anthologies that celebrate female pleasure—anything edited by Rachel Kramer Bussel, Violet Blue and Alison Tyler are sure bets. Online magazines are a great place to sample different authors without commitment. Clean Sheets (www.cleansheets.com) tends toward the literary, you can always count on good, sexy writing. Oysters and Chocolate (www.oystersandchocolate.com) is edited by two wonderful women, Jordan LaRousse and Samantha Sade who embrace all varieties of stories. Since I began writing, I’ve come to appreciate the sensibility an editor brings to an anthology. It’s more than just fixing typos.
Anna: One of the things I’m fascinated by as a reader/amateur writer of erotic fan fiction and original erotic stories is the relationship between peoples’ sexual identities/experiences and the type of erotica they write or choose not to write. For example, there are straight and bisexual, even lesbian, women who write/read almost exclusively m/m erotica. I’m curious whether you write exclusively female/male erotica or whether you write other pairings (or groupings), and why you choose to write the pairings (or groupings) you do.
Donna: I’m fascinated by the same relationship myself. Interestingly enough, the second most common question I hear after “are you published?” is “are your stories based on real life?” I actually do make use of material from my experience for many of my stories, but I take a lot of liberties with the facts, and none are strictly memoir. No matter how realistic, erotic stories are fundamentally erotic fantasies. Even if you aren’t peeping into the author’s actual bedroom, you are definitely getting a peek into her imagination and what really turns her on. In a way, my readers are more intimate with me than many of my lovers have been.
When I write, I’m aiming to get at the hidden truths of sexuality, which is why I write mostly what I know, heterosexual sex, and why the wilder couplings are often explicitly presented as fantasy rather than reality. On the other hand, it’s a big turn on to write and read about something you would never, ever do in real life. That’s the power of fiction, to try on different lives. So I have also written stories way outside of my experience. I’ve noticed a trend of scenarios where a woman sleeps with two men, her maidenly reluctance completely overcome by her lover’s insistence that she enjoy sex with a hot stranger. How can she say no to the man she loves, especially if he’s ordering her to be a slut? It’s the perfect way to have your pudding and eat it, too.
Yet, I value authenticity and honesty in erotica. I’d rather read a story written by a lesbian that gives me insight into her sensibility and experiences than something churned out by a guy who’s getting paid a penny a word for some hot girl-on-girl action. Perhaps it’s my grounding in 70’s feminism, but part of me feels it’s a violation for a straight person to impersonate someone with a different orientation unless they approach it with great respect and sensitivity. GLBT voices have been silenced for so long, it’s time to celebrate the chance for those who’ve been marginalized to tell it like it is.
That said, I have written a couple of lesbian stories that seemed to pass as believable. My favorite is entitled “Ukiyo,” about a Japanese literature professor who takes a jaunt through Kyoto’s pleasure quarters with a colleague as an honorary man and finds herself becoming intimate with a female dancer. I drew upon my own genuine curiosity and attraction to women, as well as a few actual drunken nights in Japan where my usual inhibitions were especially soft. There was enough truth and genuine desire, I suppose, that Susie Bright chose the story for Best American Erotica 2006.
Anna: Are there any particular tropes in modern erotica that you wish would just go away?
Donna: I do have a particular pet peeve, which also happens to be a very common scenario in erotic fiction. You lock eyes with a stranger at the bus stop or in a club, immediately retreat to an alley or public restroom, and have the most mind-blowing sex of your life without a word spoken. I understand why this sort of zipless fuck is a popular fantasy—seduction is hard, knowing someone intimately is harder–but this particular type of story leaves me cold, bored, and unable to suspend disbelief. I like to be warmed up first, even in fiction.
Anna: What are some of the things you wish we would see more of in erotic writing?
Donna: What I’d really love to see more of doesn’t have to do with a particular theme or kink, it’s about who writes erotica and why. Until I started writing erotica myself, I thought of sexually arousing material as “out there,” images created by Hollywood or the porn industry, or naughty letters in Penthouse. But writing erotica encouraged me to pay attention to my sexual response and my lover’s in a whole new way. It was a tremendous awakening and took us to a new level of intimacy and enjoyment. I realized how much sexual power and creativity was within me, not out there.
|Donna George Storey
Photo by Laura Boyd, used with permission
The stories that blossomed from my imagination were an education as well. Because of my writing, I’ve come to realize that sexual fantasy is not just a straight reflection of what you desire, it’s like a foreign language you have to decode. Getting turned on by being dominated, as in the example above where the husband commands the wife to sleep with another man, does not mean you literally like or want to be dominated in all aspects of your life. I now read this fantasy of mine as a way for my libido to borrow power relations in real life, where a good woman is only allowed to be sexual in relation to a husband. But then something cool happens in my heated brain—the authority figure is transformed into someone who now allows and insists on pleasure. The same is true with exhibitionist fantasies, which are really about showing a hidden sexual self, not breaking genital exposure laws. Sexual fantasy might seem taboo and outrageous, but at the heart is permission and acceptance of one’s eroticism. That discovery has been very reassuring for me. Even if you aren’t into this kind of analysis, just paying attention to what turns you on is fascinating. How do you set up a gateway into your erotic world? What point in the story is the climax? How are figures in the real world transformed? (You’d never recognize my high school principal!)
As for the why you write, there’s lots of emphasis on publication as the test of a “real” writer, but the most meaningful erotica can be a private gift to yourself or your lover. So, yes, I’d love to see more people exploring their erotic imaginations and writing lots of hot stories. The world would be a much better place for it.
WOMEN IN LUST: You can read more about the Women in Lust anthology, and find excerpts of several stories contained therein, at the anthology website as well as purchasing copies from a variety of online booksellers including Amazon, Powells, or Cleis Press.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Donna George Storey has taught English in Japan and Japanese in the United States. She is the author of Amorous Woman, a very steamy novel about a woman’s love affair with Japan (check out the provocative book trailer). She’s also published over a hundred literary and erotic stories and essays in such places as The Gettysburg Review, Fourth Genre, Women in Lust, Best American Erotica, The Mammoth Book of Best New Erotica, and Penthouse.
Cross-posted at the feminist librarian.