Marilyn Jaye Lewis
in film, I found, tended to be less academic-minded and more creativity-minded. They were more about exploring why rules were made in the first place and perhaps stepping outside those rules. Publishing was very rarely ever like that. Only in the smallest presses did they really break the rules. Most of my writing awards came from the film community.
SDk: In 2001 you won two novel-in-progress awards for Curse of our Profound Disorder, but you didn’t finish it, which, for such a prolific writer, seems out of character. Can you tell us why you didn’t finish that novel?
MJL: That novel is on the back burner. I haven’t officially given up on it yet. It was only my second novel and the story I was trying to tell was unwieldy and a bit beyond my grasp at that point in my career. It was about two female backwoods drifters and about how one of the girls is indelibly changed by her encounter with a very spiritual Native American man who gets killed early on in a motorcycle accident. So the second half of the book languished in flashback heaven; I was just in over my head.
SDk: We believe 2007 was a hard year for you, personally. And your publications list for that year reveals you had only two new works published, both of them nonfiction. What happened in 2007?
MJL: The publishing industry began to hemorrhage money and so they jettisoned small presses right and left. On one single afternoon in May of 2007, four of my publishers went out of business. It was grim. And the few presses that were left who were still willing to publish erotica only wanted very specific types of fetish stories or erotic romance novels. They did not want literary erotica; it just wasn’t selling anymore.
The following month, I broke up with my significant other, the man I wrote the novel Freak Parade about – Mikey Rivera. I was devastated when that relationship ended after seven years. Plus, I was back in Ohio because my mom had a number of serious health issues. I became extremely depressed in 2007. I have always had a problem with depression and periods where I drink more heavily than at other times, and 2007 was that for me: depression, heavy drinking, being very much alone and suicidal most days. My “relationships” were BDSM scenes with couples I’d meet on the internet – I really drifted and had no moorings at all. Plus I was still trying to write erotic romances and chick lit novels; that kind of writing was so mentally enervating. That alone, that kind of writing, was making me suicidal.
When things were really at rock-bottom for me, two bright stars appeared on the horizon: I quite suddenly started doing yoga; as if the Universe itself said start doing this now! It saved me, basically overnight. My body began to feel alive again, to push for that sense of balance. I think it became a matter of my body saving my mind, because my mind really wanted out for good. And I also began a life-saving correspondence with the writer/editor, Sean Meriwether. He really helped me heal myself, to put a kinder spin on everything in my past. He was going through a tough time then, too.
SDk: And there were some gaps, presumedly in your output rather than for lack of publishing opportunities, between 1991 and 1997, and, more unusually, in 2009. What happened in these years, especially in 2009?
MJL: In the early 1990s, I was still primarily a singer-songwriter who occasionally wrote short stories. But in 1994, I decided to give up music and concentrate solely on my fiction writing. I began writing my book Neptune & Surf in late 1994. It took me four years to write that (award-winning!) book, and while I was writing it, I also wrote my first erotic novel – which was a disaster but at least I wrote it. And toward the end of writing N&S, I began writing short stories again.
In 2009, I wrote my novel Twilight of the Immortal. It’s about gays, lesbians and bisexuals in the early days of Hollywood (the silent film era). It’s about six hundred pages and took me a year to write and then to revise. I also wrote a couple erotic short stories, “The epicures” and “August on the lake”, as well as an unpublished essay on Patti Smith in 2009.
SDk: More recently, however, publishing opportunities do appear to be diminishing, as you’ve indicated by saying how you’re now having trouble selling your writing; what do you think might be behind this unwelcome trend?
MJL: Money – both a general lack of it and publishers wanting to make a lot more of it than they’re making. They are getting exceedingly cautious and basically do not want to take any risks. (I’m speaking of traditional publishing, not ebooks; but ebook contracts do not come with advance money, and ebook sales go straight to royalties.)
SDk: Looking on the bright side again, you’ve won a number of awards for your writing; which one means the most to you, and what significance do awards have for you generally?
MJL: I love awards! I will never get tired of winning awards. The idea that something I’ve written has so much as crossed somebody’s mind at all is really thrilling to me. Writing is so isolating. I never have a clear sense of whether or not people are enjoying what I’ve written, unless they take the time to write to me. Winning an award means that at the very least that person who gave me the award liked me!
The award that meant the most to me was the Erotic Writer of the Year Award that I received in London, in 2001. Gosh, I loved that. Going to London and meeting all those cool artists. I’m shy, though, so when I actually won and had to go up on that stage in front of all those people, I froze and couldn’t think of anything to say. But I was thrilled and really grateful. It’s a night I’ll always remember.
SDk: You’ve expressed strong opinions on what you see as the decline of literary standards in erotica writing, and a decline in the quality of publishing over the last ten years. Could you please share these views with us?
MJL: Oh my gosh; on the topic of the decline in literary standards of erotica writing, I could go on and on. It’s a case of the amount of money that can be made by selling formulaic genre writing eclipsing by far any money that can be made from selling literary writing.
Traditional genre romance novels are always among the most popular-selling books in any given year. When romance novels started to mix with erotica, to form the erotic romance genre in 2002 or so, the genre quickly outstripped erotica sales because erotic romances were marketed to the enormous sector of romance buyers – people who never bought traditional erotica, or even knew it existed. Suddenly the market was flooded with erotic romances to the point where the buyers for chains like Barnes & Noble and Borders simply wouldn’t buy erotica anymore, unless it could conceivably be packaged and sold as erotic romance.
However, the readers of literary erotica generally couldn’t stomach the formulaic genre writing of erotic romances and steered clear of them like the plague. And it was also a classic situation in publishing (or in pop culture in general, really): a few titles in a particular genre sell really well, so then the editors buy up every book in that genre they can get their hands on, regardless of whether or not the writing is any good. The publishers don’t understand the market; they only want to fill it. Soon the market is flooded with books of questionable quality so the readers stop buying the books.
Then the publishers decided all across the board: erotica doesn’t sell.
Ebooks also helped create the quality problem. Ebooks are extremely easy and cheap to publish; I know because I’ve done it. I did it with the EAA. Publishers of ebooks need constant content. Readers, in general, are much more comfortable buying books of an erotic nature in the anonymity of purchasing online. Much of erotic ebook publishing now is just about filling the hopper; people want erotic content. They also tend to want it cheap, immediate and anonymous.
SDk: Your short story “After hours” has been published in three successive years 2006–08, in three separate anthologies edited by three different, leading contemporary erotica editors: Rachel Kramer Bussel, Maxim Jakubowski and Alison Tyler. Would you say this is a mark of success? How do you view such a wide publication for one short story, and what goes into having a story published so often?
MJL: To be honest, I wouldn’t view it as a mark of success; I’d view it as a story that was simply suitable for a number of different markets, which means it’s kind of a “safe” story. It doesn’t push any buttons or boundaries, so it gets published more easily. I also view it simply as my colleagues still wanting to publish me – thank God. Many of my stories can be considered extreme and a little hard to take. “After hours” was not.
SDk: Maxim Jakubowski is a prolific editor of contemporary erotic writing: you’ve had many stories in collections he’s edited, and you’ve worked with him as co-editor. Do you see eye-to-eye on most things? Can you give us an insight into your collaboration with Maxim, both as a writer and co-editor?
MJL: Maxim is definitely one of my publishing mentors. He really helped put me on the map, internationally, and he taught me the ropes of publishing and editing in my early days. He gave me a lot of publishing opportunities and they all wound up blossoming for me, career-wise. I really cannot overstate how helpful he was to my career. My work has always been better received in England and France and while Maxim wasn’t the sole reason I made inroads there, he was one of the most consistently supportive reasons. (Maxim is both French and British – he was raised in Paris, but lives in London now.)
In terms of our tastes as co-editors, we have very similar tastes in private but Maxim is more likely to publish something commercial and make a nice chunk of money, whereas I am almost always going to go for the unusual work with high artistic merit but a narrow market and, of course, lose my shirt. When we’ve collaborated, I’ve sort of bowed to Maxim’s tastes so that the project could make money!
SDk: How did you get your writing translated into other languages – did publishers approach you or did you actively pursue translations? What was your experience in having work translated, and which work gives you most satisfaction to see in translation?
MJL: While I have actively desired that my writing be translated into various languages, I haven’t really actively pursued it. When it has happened, it has been just thrilling for me. So exciting. Currently, my French publisher is La Musardine in Paris. They will soon be re-issuing the French-language edition of Neptune & Surf in a slightly different form from the original – which was published there by Editions Blanche in 2001. This is the most satisfying, seeing that book not only still in print after twelve years, but to now have it coming out as a classic of erotic literature. Just a slim paperback, but I am really honoured. That book meant an awful lot to me. Neptune & Surf was my first book, but it was also all about love. Even though it’s about a gang-rape in Chicago in 1927, about BDSM nuns in contemporary times, and about racism on Coney Island in the 1950s, for me, as the writer, creating it was all about love.
SDk: Finally, where would you like to be with your writing in ten years time?
MJL: Publicly, I would like it to just be selling, you know? I’m not going to get picky! Privately, I’d like my writing to get more and more satisfying; keep me excited about waking up and being here. Usually, my writing is pretty much all I have.
At this point in my career, my reputation was such that publishers would sometimes give me carte blanche on book projects I was editing.
Publishers simply assumed it was ‘erotica’, slapped a ridiculously crass cover on it; I protested loudly that we had stories of strong literary merit and it wasn’t an ‘erotica collection’.
I was still trying to write erotic romances and chick lit novels; that kind of writing was so mentally enervating. That alone, that kind of writing, was making me suicidal.
On the topic of the decline in literary standards of erotica writing, I could go on and on. It’s a case of the amount of money that can be made by selling formulaic genre writing eclipsing any money that can be made from selling literary writing.
Neptune & Surf was my first book, but it was also all about love. Even though it’s about a gang-rape in Chicago in 1927, about BDSM nuns in contemporary times, and about racism on Coney Island in the 1950s, for me, as the writer, creating it was about love.