An Interview with Erotic Writer Polly Frost
(DaRK PaRTY can be a bit of a prude. As a result, we don’t read much erotica – a fancy word for “dirty sex books.” Remember when “erotica” used to be sneaking a look at the topless natives in National Geographic? Well, it’s evolved. But curious as we are DP wanted to learn more about erotic. Help us, you know, stop being so damn repressed. So we turned to Polly Frost, a writer who recently published a collection of erotic tales called “Deep Inside.” Polly and her husband, Ray Sawhill, co-wrote and produced the comic and, well, raunchy Web series “The Fold” (due for release this summer). Also with her hubby, Polly co-wrote the X-rated and funny radio play “Sex Scenes.” Polly and Ray are working on two horror movie projects. Recently, Polly was kind enough to give DP a tutorial on all things erotic.)
DaRK PaRTY: How do you personally distinguish between erotica and pornography?
Polly: The usual joke is that erotica is what arouses me and porn is what arouses you. I like the way it points out what porn and erotica share in common, which is an intention to arouse the audience. Me, I really like art that's arousing, and I respect and enjoy the intention to arouse. Arousing-ness is a big part of why I love the arts generally. Speaking purely personally, though, I tend to take "porn" to mean arousing art that's blunt where "erotica" tends to imply arousing art that's fancier and more veiled.
As for my own work: While I love to turn my readers on, I really think of myself as a satirist who writes subversive, x-rated comedy. And I don't see how you can write satire without writing about sex! I mean, how can you live in this country and not write about the conflicted, crazy attitudes Americans have about sex?
When I first started out as a writer, I wrote humor pieces, for The New Yorker and for other publications. I loved writing humor, but I also found writing humor pieces for mainstream publications very limiting because I couldn't write explicitly about sex.
When it comes to the term "porn," I'm not offended if that's what some people call what I write. I don't think it's the case, but that's just me being picky. Besides, I'm a fan of a lot of porn filmmakers and stars. When Tor, the publisher of "Deep Inside," asked for me to get blurbs for my book, the first person I sent my book to was Ron Jeremy, who's famous as the porn star "The Hedgehog."
I think Ron is incredibly smart and witty, and an important pop-culture figure. People in their twenties all know Ron Jeremy. He's like a rock star or a comedian to them. So I was thrilled when Ron loved "Deep Inside" and praised it in porn terms. He said it gave him a boner. That's high praise, and from an expert source!
There's always been a connection between porn and cutting edge entertainment and art -- whether it's the stand-up comedy of Lenny Bruce, or the art of Jeff Koons, or the current thriving burlesque scene as practiced by artists like Dita Von Teese, Nasty Canasta, and Julie Atlas Muz, or the sex satire in "
DP: What writers do you think write excellent erotic fiction?
Polly: I think the best erotic fiction is written from within the characters, and therefore isn't moral (or romantic or uplifting) about the characters. The scheming couple that Choderlos de Laclos wrote about in "Dangerous Liaisons" is a delicious and riveting creation. That story has remained popular because Laclos doesn't shy away from the differences between men and women when it comes to sex, love, and affairs. It's cold, it's objective, and it's true.
Some others ... Junichiro Tanizaki wrote some of the best erotic fiction. I love his sly masterpiece about masochism, "Naomi." My husband and I -- we often co-write together -- are both huge fans of Terry Southern, who wrote the exuberant sexual satires "Blue Movie" and "Candy," as well as ribald scripts for some of Hollywood's best movies of the '60's.
"The Story of O" by Pauline Reage is essential erotic fiction reading because it captures a female archetype: the modern independent woman who longs to be dominated. Reage doesn't excuse her character's drive, or romanticize it, or turn it into something "sex positive." It's just there, and she puts it on paper once and for all. I also think that "The Story of O" is a deeply religious book about a woman who's on a spiritual quest. I'm a fan of Erica Jong's "Fear of Flying." If you think of it as a dated piece of '70's feminist ranting, read it again! It holds up beautifully and it's hilarious.
I also think some of the best erotic fiction writing was done by bestselling authors of the '60's and '70's: Jacqueline Susann, Harold Robbins, people like that. They wrote about sexually ruthless characters in frank and powerful ways.
There's a big reason they were popular: Their characters resonate. I love it that Robbins and Susann don't soften their characters or try to make them likable. The preoccupation with "likableness" in today's popular-culture world drives me crazy. And it's not very sexy. Since when do you have to like someone to be turned on by them?
Among the contemporary erotic fiction writers: Maxim Jakubowski writes amazingly hot and smart novels himself, and he edits the indispensable "Mammoth" series of erotica anthologies too.
I'm also looking forward to reading "Diana: A Diary in the Second Person" by the Canadian writer, Russell Smith. I love "Lie With Me" by another Canadian writer, Tamara Faith Berger. I think Zane is a wonderfully hot writer, and enjoyed Anne Rice's "Beauty."
DP: How do you judge what makes a good erotic story when writing your own fiction?
Polly: I'm hoping that what turns me on will also turn on some of my readers. It's a gamble but what else are you going to do? Besides, part of what I love about erotic fiction is the subjectivity factor. People generally can't fool themselves about what turns them on, while in higher-minded art they can lose themselves in fantasies about worthwhileness or "art." They can talk themselves into thinking they love something that they don't really love.
Meanwhile, in erotica, a book or painting or film either works for you personally or it doesn't. While I know that some people see the subjectivity factor as a reason to look down on erotic fiction, I take it to mean that erotic fiction is like suspense fiction: it's the ultimate artistic high-wire act.
I do a few things to keep myself tuned in to other people's minds and desires, though. I like to have actors read whatever I write, for instance. I'm lucky to know some of the best actors in
I worked with lots of actors, in lots of different venues, in front of all kinds of audiences. I think that was one of the most important things I ever did for my writing because it gave me the chance to experience audience reactions. Honestly, I think all fiction writers should spend five years giving readings. It's hard to put into words what you get out of seeing your work performed live, but it certainly sharpens your audience sense. Too many writers live purely in their heads, it seems to me.
And the actors themselves are fantastic resources. Any really good actor knows if a character is working or not. They know if the moment is true or not.
My favorite response as a writer is laughter accompanied by arousal, which I'm happy to say we got a lot of at our readings! But we've also had couples make out during readings, and we've had people talk back to the stage. There was this one moment we really cherished when one of our actresses was reading a passage in praise of anal sex, and a guy in the audience kind of groaned and moaned and said, "Oh, it's a beautiful thing, baby!" Our actress was very quick and said right back to him, "You know it is." It was a great moment. That was a real highlight of our writing lives!
DP: What are the biggest public misconceptions about erotica?
Polly: The biggest misconception is that erotic fiction is somehow a different creature than fiction-fiction, and that it should be shelved away from the rest of "literature." In book publishing, if you write something with a lot of sex in it, there are two main ways they'll market your book today: either as "sex positive" fiction or as "spicy romance." "Literature" itself has become something that's written -- as my poet friend, Michele Madigan Somerville says -- "from the neck up."
It's really annoying that mainstream publishing views erotic fiction in this way.
The "sex positive" thing is a small peeve of mine. "Sex positive" books are meant to make readers feel good about their sexual desires, whether it's S and M, or for a polyamory lifestyle, or for being whipped. I don't want to sound unfeeling, and it's not as though I don't care if my readers feel good about themselves sexually.
Of course I do. But honestly, that's something for them to take up with a therapist. I'm a fiction writer and my task is to write about the world as I actually see it. And the world -- and sex, and sexual experiences -- often have dark and even negative sides to them. Sometimes those dark and negative sides are even a big part of what's sexy.
The "sex positive" movement has also had the effect of genderizing erotic writing, which is too bad. Erotica books have become largely written by women for women. Guys -- who used to be enthusiastic readers of dirty books -- are barely catered to at all these days. When was the last time you heard a man say he needed to feel positive about his sex drive?
And I like writing for men as well as women. In fact, the audience for my writing has turned out to be largely male. Guys are the biggest fans of what I write. I'm thrilled!
But it's sad that book publishing and bookstores do such a lousy job of appealing to men. Hey, book-publishing people: Men love reading fiction with sex in it. But they do not want to venture into the romance section to find a book!
One of the reasons that "erotic" books are sequestered is that bookstores are terrified of complaints from the damn soccer moms and librarians. God forbid that teenagers should pick up a book with a sex passage in it, become engrossed in reading, and develop a taste for books. I don't know that I'd be much of a reader myself -- let alone a writer -- had I not started off my reading life looking for dirty books, and for the dirty passages inside mainstream books.
I'll give a personal example. Have you ever heard of the spy novel "Lotta Drum and the 69 Pleasures?" I didn't think so, but I found it instead of a Gideon bible in a hotel room once when I was twelve and couldn't stop reading it. I'd never read anything like the lesbian bamboo torture scenes in it. They also got me reading anything else that had the aura of sex around it, and that includes some great literature, like Henry Miller and Philip Roth. So many thanks to the author of "Lotta Drum" -- whoever you were under that obvious pseudonym -- for turning me into a reader!
DP: You recently published "Deep Inside" that you define as supernatural erotica. Can you describe that concept and what you were trying to accomplish with the book?
Polly: I wanted to write stories that were like the '60's and '70's horror movies that I love: movies like "Barbarella" and the Italian "giallo" films, or like such Japanese movies as "Onibaba" and "Woman in the Dunes." I wanted to write dark and disturbingly arousing stories with dangerous women at the center of them. Another was to develop genuine story lines. In other words, I wanted to create living-breathing characters and put them in highly-charged situations, and I wanted the sex to both create and grow out of those situations.
I wanted each 20 page story to feel like a complete little movie, in other words. I also hoped they'd make people laugh.
As it turns out I've been really pleased by the way people have responded to "Deep Inside." I've heard over and over from readers who have said the stories in "Deep Inside" affected their fantasies, or that they found themselves having dreams about the stories weeks after finishing the book.
I'm also pleased when people write me and say they didn't think they'd ever be interested in erotic fiction until they read it, but that the situations and characters resonate with them.
I never mind if a reader writes me an angry email or pans "Deep Inside." I've had readers say they were disturbed and upset by the book. That's okay with me. I like strong reactions.
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