Zoetrope writer and accomplished eroticist Donna George Storey has recently had her novel, An Amorous Woman, published in the UK and the USA – she’s had an interesting journey in many senses, on her way to publication, so I caught up with her and asked how she’d got into the writing business:
How did you get into writing erotica?
That’s an interesting question for me, because my initial response is that I didn’t get into writing erotica—erotica somehow got itself into me. For as long as I can remember, I’ve always wondered what happened when the love scene faded to the candle flame, which was exactly when the interesting part was about to start. But I wasn’t comfortable enough with my sexuality or my writing skill to attempt to tell that story myself until I started writing “for real” in my mid-thirties. I quickly noticed that I couldn’t seem to write a story without a sex scene. No matter how hard I tried—and I actually did try to stay “clean”—erotic elements would creep into the story and that’s the part I found most fascinating to write. But still I tried to resist those urges. Then one day, I was cleaning a dresser drawer and found a pretty scarf my sister had given me for Christmas. I was wondering if I should keep it because I’m not an accessories person, and suddenly I was thinking up with all kinds of ways a couple could use it for bedroom games. These daydreams became my first erotic story. I totally abandoned myself to the experience of writing in a way I never had before—I woke up at 5 am to write more, cooked up new scenes as I did dishes, revised it endlessly, made my husband act out some of the scenes…. Eventually editors seemed to like my effort, too. “The Blindfold” (later revised into “Blinded”) has appeared in five publications. I’d found my calling!
Japan plays an integral part in your novel An Amorous Woman – what’s your relationship with that country?
Japan and I go way back. My family used to sing on car trips and my mother had a favourite song which had a line “those faraway places with the strange-sounding names are calling, calling to me.” They called to me, too, and the voices took on a decidedly Japanese accent when I developed my first big crush in high school. The object of my passion was reading James Clavell’s Shogun and since I didn’t have the nerve to actually speak with him, I figured the best way to get close was to read what he liked. The crush faded, but my interest in Japan remained. Later, in college, my favourite place to study was the Asian Languages library—it was practically deserted and the old books with all the strange writing smelled old and mysterious. There I saw a bulletin board advertising a program which helped students find English teaching jobs in Asia. I was feeling very unemployable as an English literature major and thought I’d give it a try. I studied Japanese my last year in college and loved it—the soft sounds, the layered honorifics, the flowing kana and almost martial Chinese characters that made me feel I was learning an ancient, secret code. When I actually arrived in Kyoto and started teaching and having lots of adventures, I was surprised at how “at home” I felt. In Japan, quiet, reflective people are thought to be deep, not boring as they are in the States! I stayed for two wonderful years, returned to the US to study Japanese in grad school and spent another year in Tokyo. Now you may be wondering how much of An Amorous Woman is based on personal experience. (I was, of course!) Plot-wise, the answer is maybe 25%. In terms of the sensual details or what you might call texture, every last bit comes from places I’ve visited, dinners I’ve eaten, people I’ve known both casually and intimately. As I was writing the novel, I was surprised at how vividly it came back to me. I felt exactly the same sense of yearning and loss as my protagonist, Lydia. Like her, I realized I’d had a love affair with a whole country.
What’s the best thing about being a writer?
Getting to sit at the computer in my pyjamas and make up stories stitched together from memory, fantasy, a glimpse of a man’s sexy hand at the coffee shop, a strange adventure a friend told me about last week….
And what’s the worst thing?
Rejection. I’ve gotten better at dealing with it. It took weeks to recover from my first—a nasty rejection of a translation the editor called “wooden.” Now the punch-to-the gut sensation lasts more like minutes, but it still stings.
What’s the one mistake you made, when starting out, that still haunts you?
After my academic book got a brief review in The New York Times, Will Allison from the now-defunct STORY magazine called and asked if I had translated any short stories he could consider for publication. I sent a translation and, at my writing group’s suggestion, sent one of my own stories as well, a rather half-baked one. But I’d just won a fiction contest with a piece I thought was really good and I realize I should’ve sent that to show him what I could do. He wouldn’t have accepted it anyway, but as a newbie, I thought I had a chance and I’d get in trouble (not to mention I could’ve withdrawn from the contest if the impossible had happened and he wanted it). His rejection was nice as they go, but I still felt I’d blown a good chance. But STORY is gone and I’m still writing, so I guess it’s okay!
What advice would you give somebody who is thinking of becoming a writer of erotic fiction?
I could go on and on, but I’ll pick two. First, all the rules of good storytelling apply to erotic fiction as well—you need conflict, complex and interesting characters, vivid detail. A touch of humour doesn’t hurt. Beginners are often so carried away by the taboo-breaking excitement of writing an erotic scene, they end up with a blow-by-blow description of a sexual encounter that offers little else. We all need to go through that phase, and then we need to move on.
The second bit of advice is to create a “safe” space for yourself when you’re writing sex. No one is watching you: no parents or teachers or ministers. Not even God—She’s on coffee break. Then when you’re all alone, you can tell the truth and get wild!
And what advice would you give writers hoping to be published in this field?
As in all writing, research the markets, and be honest with yourself if there is a match between the kinds of things they publish and what you write. The Erotic Readers and Writer’s Association Call for Submissions page is where I began to educate myself. It’s an excellent resource. The other thing I still tell myself over and over is to focus on the writing. If you write about things that fascinate you, if you write with passion, editors will eventually pick up on that and they’ll publish you. It may take a while, but persistence does pay off. The business might not pay so well, but it does feel very rich indeed to see your by-line.
Publicising works of an erotic nature can be complicated; it requires you to be sensitive to issues that more ‘mainstream’ writers don’t have to address, like the age of potential views of your material. You’ve put together quite a programme for yourself – can you explain what you’ll be doing to let the ‘right’ people know about your book?
The programme is just beginning—we’ll see how it goes! Book promotion is quite a job. In my case, I do need to tread carefully because there are age issues and some people are offended by sexually explicit material. For the most part I’m approaching reviewers and bloggers in the erotica community, although I do think my novel offers a literary experience as well. To me that means, my story challenges assumptions about sex and intercultural relations in a way that hopefully arouses the mind as well as the libido. My inspiration for the novel, the 17th century novel The Life of an Amorous Woman by Ihara Saikaku, mixes in plenty of social critique and humour with the sex and I tried my best to do the same. So I’d love to get the word out to a larger audience and show them I’m offering more than a one-handed read. If anyone has any good ideas, send them my way.
Is there something else you can see yourself doing if you weren’t a writer?
I’d run a tea room where people could sit for hours, reading, chatting and trying out my “taste test” treats—say three small dishes of custard made with different vanillas or three different chocolate cookies. There’d be healthy food, too, lavish salads and thick soups made with seasonal organic vegetables. Running a successful restaurant is one of the few things more difficult and exhausting than making a living as a writer, so I wish my alternate life was more financially reliable—working as a plumber or something–but I do believe you have to follow your passion!
If you were abandoned on a desert island, with just one book for company, what would it be?
I’d have to pack my NIHON DAI SAIJIKI (Dictionary of the Japanese Seasons), an illustrated dictionary for writers of Japanese haiku. It’s divided into five sections—one for each season and one for the new year season. Each entry has several examples of classic poems and each page has several full-colour photographs or reproductions of artwork. It’s candy for both the mind and the eye. It would certainly take a while to work through all 1648 pages and I’d learn a lot while I was waiting for that rescue boat!
You can buy Donna’s book via: Waterstone’s, Maxim’s Murder One, and online at Amazon.co.uk and Blackwell in the UK, while in the USA you can order it from her direct http://donnageorgestorey.home.mindspring.com/aw.html#buy – even before it hits the Amazon.com shelves!