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3am Interview





SEX IN THE BRAIN: AN INTERVIEW WITH MITZI SZERETO



"There does seem to be a sexist undercurrent in some of the erotic literature written by men -- or should I say heterosexual men, to be specific. Here in the UK you'd probably call this blokeish writing. Maybe it's too much testosterone, I don't know. For those who do write with their penises instead of their brains, perhaps these writers can't move beyond themselves -- which is what you need to do when you write fiction, especially good fiction, be it erotica or otherwise."

Richard Marshall interviews Mitzi Szereto

COPYRIGHT © 2002, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED


3AM: Can you tell me how you got started writing and reading erotica? Was it something you've always been interested in. I mean, I've always liked the stuff but never had the nerve to write it myself. So where does the confidence to approach this writing come from?

MS: Don't know if it's confidence -- maybe my fiery Hungarian blood? Loath as I am to admit it, I started reading erotica at a precociously early age. I was introduced to one of the classics The Romance of Lust when I was in the latter part of the fifth grade in upstate New York. Probably not the best reading material for someone that age, but it must have sewn the seed for my future writing career! Of course I never got to finish the book; my mother found me reading it -- I'd stuck it inside a biography of Abraham Lincoln. I guess I must have appeared too engrossed in Honest Abe's life story and she got suspicious. Many years later I picked up the reading of erotica again, although not to any great degree as you might expect. A classic here and there over the years -- that was about it. I'd never read much in the way of contemporary erotica until I started editing the stuff for my own anthologies.

How I ended up writing erotica is a stranger tale. I'd done a BA in journalism and then realised that I didn't want a career as a journalist. The writing itself wasn't a problem -- I'd had a knack for creating stories ever since childhood, but had put it aside for a career as an artist. What the journalism studies did accomplish was to return me to my roots and also give me the courage to try to write again as a serious pursuit. I didn't start out in erotica at all. It never even occurred to me to write erotica. As it happens, I'd moved from Los Angeles to the San Francisco area and was invited to a Christmas party. I met this fellow who proclaimed himself to be a writer of sci-fi erotica. When I admitted that I too, was a writer, he ran out to his car, where he kept a collection of his short stories in the boot. Don't know if he kept a spare tyre and a jack in there . . . Anyway, he held me prisoner in a bedroom until I read his work. God, it was dismal! I tried to be encouraging, but it was definitely not my cup of tea. I didn't think much about it after that, but the idea of writing erotica must have taken hold in my brain, because one morning I woke up with a scene in my head. I figured it was nothing and ignored it. But this kept happening nearly every morning, with new scenes running like an ongoing soap opera, until finally I had to sit down at the computer and start writing the thing. These scenes ended up coalescing into my first erotic novel The Captivity of Celia. And it just took off from there.

3AM: How far do you subscribe to a distinction some will make between erotic writing and pornography? Is this a meaningful distinction for you?

MS: Yes, it's a very meaningful distinction! We could probably devote an entire issue to the discussion of erotica versus porn, but there are some people who see them as the same thing for the sole reason that both deal with sex and sexuality in an explicit manner. They are not the same thing at all. And it isn't just a matter of giving one a more upmarket label than the other. In a nutshell, pornography does not have any real artistic value -- it's brainless and disposable. It's simply a tool to sexual stimulation. Junk food for the libido, if you will. Erotica involves the brain. It seduces the reader, whereas porn masturbates the reader.

At the risk of sounding pompous, I am trying to create and perpetuate art. The erotica I was weaned on is of the Fanny Hill variety -- poetical prose, lushness of language. Unfortunately a good deal of writing these days that calls itself erotica is falling over the line into porn. Much of this is the fault of editors and publishers who think that this is what the reading public wants. Perhaps some readers may want this, but probably significantly less than might be believed. In the process of dumbing down to this readership, we've lost a lot of that wonderful lyrical quality in an attempt to sound contemporary and with-it. I've been working very hard to change that, although it isn't always easy to buck the status quo. Publishers and editors are very set in their ways and don't like it when someone comes along and says that this is not the way erotica should be. This stress on the one-handed read really offends me as a writer. I defy you to find a dictionary definition of erotica that says: 'A replacement for when the batteries in your vibrator go dead.' Of course there is an arousal factor in erotic literature -- that's a given, but it shouldn't be the be-all and end-all of it! Granted, you can as a writer be very sexually explicit with your material, but that doesn't mean you must sacrifice good prose and intelligent content in order to do so. I think I've achieved a balance between the two with my M.S. Valentine novels and, perhaps even more so, with my work as Mitzi Szereto, which has crossed over into the mainstream fiction market. I feel it is extremely important to break into the mainstream, for this will further differentiate erotica from pornography and ultimately preserve its integrity as an art form.

3AM: Can you tell us something about your own work: where do you get your ideas from? Is it imagination or experience? What do you consider your best work?

MS: That's one of those loaded questions -- does the erotica author write from her own experience? I have yet to hear a murder-mystery author being asked the question: 'how many people have you killed and buried in the garden today?' As a writer, it's my job to invent stories, experiences, people. Obviously we all draw from our own experiences to some degree. It could be a flirtation we've had or the shape of someone's nose -- these little things that get filed away in your brain for later. I was inspired to write an entire erotic novel, The Governess, just from seeing a television drama set in the Orkneys -- and no, Alan Bates didn't get up to anything remotely like the activities my male character did! My newest M. S. Valentine book The Martinet came from out of nowhere, with just a vague snippet of an idea about doing a period piece involving the aristocracy. So you see my inspiration comes from everywhere and from nowhere. It's my job to create something from nothing. I feel that if an author gets bogged down in only writing from her own experience, she will have a short life span in the profession -- or else end up becoming very boring and repetitive, not to mention labelled as only being able to write a certain type of material. It's important to remove yourself from your work to some degree, since how many people can possibly claim to be so fascinating to be the star of their own literary works time and time again? As I say, we all draw from our lives somewhere along the line, but when it becomes your sole source of inspiration, that can be very limiting.

3AM: When you read other people's work, what are you looking for? Who are the writers you admire and are there writers who have worked as models for the writing you do?

MS: In my role as an anthology editor I try to look for people who can write prose that has real literary value to it. I want something unique, writing that is fresh, not hackneyed, stories that are interesting -- that have some kind of an edge to them. Granted, this isn't always easy to find. That's why I search -- and I do mean search! -- for writers from outside of the usual loop as well, which will become even more apparent with my follow-up anthology Erotic Travel Tales 2. It's good to have a variety of writers on board, not just people from one specific area. It makes for a more interesting collection of stories. If you can believe it, I've actually heard some erotica anthology editors say that they select stories based on what turns them on sexually. That has absolutely no bearing on what I do as an editor. In fact, I find this kind of subjectivity way over the line -- that one person elects her or himself as arbiter of what is sexually exciting. I would never have the hubris to inflict my own personal sense of the sexual on the reading public. All I want is to provide readers with some damned good erotic fiction and with writing that is of the highest standard to be found in this area. Oh, and give them something they can't find anywhere else. Give them a run for their money, so to speak.

In all honesty, there really isn't anyone in the erotica world who has been a model for me as a writer in the genre -- unless you count those authors with the name 'Anonymous' on their tombstones. Well, them and John Cleland, who wrote Fanny Hill. As I said earlier, the erotic literature of the past has influenced how I approach the writing of erotica. However, I do have authors whose work I very much admire -- people like Vladimir Nabokov (I think Lolita is one of the most erotic books ever written), Arundhati Roy (The God of Small Things is a materpiece!), Alice Walker, Kathyrn Harrison, Ruth Rendell, Martyn Bedford, Lesley Glaister . . . The latter four are great mood crafters, which is something that really attracts me. I especially enjoy material that crosses cultural boundaries or mixes them together like what you find in the work of Hanif Kureishi and other Asian and Middle Eastern authors. This cultural aspect has had an influence on my short story collection Erotic Fairy Tales: A Romp Through the Classics and my Erotic Travel Tales anthologies, along with the novel I am presently working on. But then, I've always lived a multicultural life anyway.

3AM: I guess there's always an element of humour in erotica -- how do you see the role of humour in the work you're interested in?

MS: What erotica have you been reading? The usual rule is that humour is an anathema to erotica. However, I have broken this rule with Erotic Fairy Tales: A Romp Through the Classics. One reviewer from the Library Journal actually called it downright hilarious. Too many people take the writing of erotica far too seriously, in my opinion. In my erotic writing workshops I hand out guidelines from various publishers and they nearly all say that humour has no place in erotica. Bullshit! I've yet to meet anyone who doesn't think that sex is funny. Okay, maybe not all of the time, but you've got to admit that there is some humour to be found in it. This nay-saying attitude toward humour in erotica probably stems from the one-handed read philosophy, which is pretty self-explanatory. If you are reading with one hand, obviously your goal is not to be uplifted and entertained by fine prose and a good story line, but simply to get off. If you are more interested in a two-handed read, then you shouldn't have a problem with a bit of humour.

3AM: There's also a strand of thinking that sees erotica as liberating, as subversive , a radical gesture towards freedom etc. How far does this kind of thinking inform what you do? Do you see yourself as subversive?

MS: Funny, but I see myself as subversive only in my philosophy toward the writing of erotica -- that it is literature, not smut or dirty stories or porn. That tends to be a subversive attitude when juxtaposed against that of many other erotica writers, editors and indeed, publishers. Literature and substance seem to be subversive concepts in themselves when they pertain to erotica. But I see your point about erotica being liberating. It is liberating, especially when you apply it to women writers, who are only in recent years being recognised as having the ability to write sexually-explicit material alongside the blokes -- better, in fact. I understand it was quite a big deal here in the UK when Black Lace started out -- that people couldn't believe women wrote this type of material. I find that amazing. I truly don't understand why the public was surprised by this at all. Hadn't they ever heard of Ana´s Nin? Erica Jong? The author of The Story of O was a woman -- and that was written in the 1950s.

3AM: Do you work in genres other than erotica? If so, what? If not, why not? I guess I'm wondering about the place this work has in relation to any other cultural activity you're involved in eg music, film etc

MS: Yes, I do. In fact, I'm working more and more toward the production of non-erotica projects. I already have a novella called Highway out as an e-book. It's sort of a psychological mystery/social commentary about people who go online pretending to be something they're not. I am writing a novel The Wren, which has as its unifying force the parallel lives lived by two women from different eras. It contains some very contemporary themes: the class system and racism and homosexuality in Britain, the effects of unwanted pregnancy, forbidden love, the fickleness of the London art world -- all those fascinating things that make for a good read, or what I hope will be a good read! I've got a screenplay idea in the works: a television comedy, which I plan to flesh out in script form. I am also paying a return visit to my old journalism days by writing some non-fiction articles, although these admittedly pertain to the subject of erotic literature. When the computer is switched off (rarely!), I teach creative writing. In fact, I appear to have pioneered the erotic writing workshop here in the UK. So even though I drift away from erotic writing, it keeps coming back again in some form or other.

3AM: Do you see this type of writing as pro- or anti-feminist agenda? I know there are many agendas for feminism, so I suppose I'm wondering how you would portray this writing: is it empowering of women or not? And does any of that matter to you? As a woman working in this area, are you comfortable with men working at the genre, and is there a difference between erotica written by men and that written by women? And related to this, do you think gender makes a difference to the way it is read and if so how?

MS: I think it's impossible to say whether erotic writing is pro- or anti-feminist. You really need to look at each individual piece of writing and judge it accordingly. Everyone writes about different things and indeed, has a different voice and attitude toward their subject matter. I think being a woman writing erotica is a very feminist thing in itself. There used to be this mentality that sex could only be written about with any authority or voice by a man. Obviously that is absurd. However, there does seem to be a sexist undercurrent in some of the erotic literature written by men -- or should I say heterosexual men, to be specific. Here in the UK you'd probably call this blokeish writing. Maybe it's too much testosterone, I don't know. For those who do write with their penises instead of their brains, perhaps these writers can't move beyond themselves -- which is what you need to do when you write fiction, especially good fiction, be it erotica or otherwise. Interestingly enough, some of the best writing I collect for my anthologies is written by gay men. I don't have a problem working with men in the field of erotica, but I think that those with whom I do work are tuned in to what I am trying to accomplish and are generally of a like mind.

I've often been asked who my readers are: men or women? I am assuming that it's both, from what I've had in the way of feedback. However, it would be interesting to know statistically. I don't feel that I write for a specific gender. And I would hate to think that gender plays a part in who reads or doesn't read my books or indeed, that of any other woman author. I've heard that a lot of men will not read a book written by a woman. I hope this isn't true, since this would be very limiting to them as readers. But there are some statistics that seem to corroborate this. I am speaking in terms of general fiction rather than erotic fiction. Although it's quite likely that some men may have preconceived notions of what erotic fiction written by a woman would be like. Granted, there is some erotic fiction written by women that should probably only be read by women. But that's not the kind of work I do. I don't think my erotic writing speaks in a 'woman's' voice, whatever a woman's voice actually is. It speaks in the voice or voices of whoever the characters happen to be.

3AM: Tell us a little about the anthology you are putting together. Is there something about travel that is particularly stimulating for the erotic imagination? Who are they aimed at? What makes it a good anthology for you? It's a follow up to the first Erotic Travel Tales -- how do they differ?

MS: I am working on the final stages of my second volume in the Erotic Travel Tales series, which will be coming out in spring 2003. The idea of travel in itself -- of leaving behind the known for the unknown -- is a very erotic concept. Things happen when you travel that might never have happened when you're at home. You become a different person: after all, you're in a place where nobody knows you. You can be free to explore your location as well as yourself. Having said all this, I also place a heavy emphasis on the sense of place -- atmosphere, culture, geographical detail. I also include stories that are not travel pieces in the typical sense of the word, but instead are set in a specific location. Again, it's all about the place and what happens there in a sexual context. I am very enthusiastic about Erotic Travel Tales 2 and feel it will be a worthy successor to the first book. In fact, I've even got a Royal Fellow of Literature slotted in! Volume two will be an anthology that can be enjoyed by readers looking for light entertainment as well as a more literary read. Men, women, straight, gay, young, old: there's definitely something for everyone.

To me a good anthology is one that incorporates all those elements I mentioned earlier: great prose, interesting stories, a unique theme that unifies the whole, and a real mix of writers. It appears that I must have accomplished this with the first Erotic Travel Tales better than I expected, since there seems to be a slew of copycat books suddenly cropping up. But I guess there will always be those who take the easy route by riding on the coattails of other people's successes instead of trying to create their own niche.

3AM: You are careful to lay down very firm rules as to what can and cannot be in your anthologies: you say you don't want any non-consensual activity described. I guess that rules out the De Sade school of writers. What are your views about De Sade and that side of writing about sex? I guess Dennis Cooper would also be out -- too much violence?

MS: A lot of what are now erotica classics wouldn't see print today, except perhaps from an underground press. I mentioned earlier The Romance of Lust. Although a classic from Victorian days, it contains some very hardcore incest situations that would never be allowed in a work of contemporary erotica. Since my work tends to lean more towards the mainstream fiction market than the alternative, obviously I don't want to produce material that is way over the top into violence or degradation. Besides which, that isn't something I wish to align myself with. You must remember that De Sade was into anything that was anti-establishment, so obviously his political agenda had some bearing on his subject matter. I don't operate with any type of political agenda -- unless you call trying to elevate erotica to what it once was, i.e. literature, a political agenda! I think when you work in erotica, you have a responsibility to maintain a standard of what is acceptable to the contemporary readership. There are so many areas to explore and so many ways of exploring them that it really isn't necessary to travel down these murky roads. Just about everything is sanctioned in erotica anyway, so I don't see it as at all restrictive to a writer to avoid such areas as violence, incest and bestiality.

3AM: The future: what projects are you hoping to set up?

MS: Well, there's my novel and my television script, of course. I am also putting together a couple of other erotica anthologies, which are looking quite promising. Further to this, I am doing more teaching in the area of creative writing, including my erotic writing workshops, which are an on-going thing. Then there's my postgraduate work. Seems like every day something new crops up. I sometimes wish I could clone myself. Just imagine how much I could accomplish!




ABOUT THE AUTHOR

An anthology of erotic mythology is currently being assembled by author/anthologist Mitzi Szereto for print publication. "Classic Greco-Roman mythology has always contained a strong undercurrent of the erotic. It is my goal as editor to take this to a further erotic realm, fostering the creation of a new myth based on the classical. This will be more than a collection of short stories, but a literary and entertaining study of myth as erotica and erotica as myth. Select your favourite myth and go to where your imagination takes you!"

Specifications:

  1. Stories can be of any length, but generally no longer than 8,000 words.
  2. A high calibre of writing is expected.
  3. Explicitness is fine; crudeness is not.
  4. No underage or non-consensual encounters.
  5. No hackneyed descriptions or dialogue.
  6. Stories may be of any sexual orientation.
  7. All stylisations are welcome.
Previously published material will be considered, providing you have the rights or can get the rights. (Indicate where and when published, plus rights status.)

Submission requirements:

Stories must be submitted in typewritten hard copy, double-spaced (with a Windows-compatible file available on request). Manuscripts not chosen will be discarded, so do not send your only copy. Include with your submission a brief author bio and your e-mail address.

For questions and information on where to send your submission, please e-mail.





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