10 Questions with LitReactor Instructor and Erotica Writer Rachel Kramer Bussel
For a lot of writers and readers, their knowledge of erotica begins and ends with stuff like cheap bodice-rippers and Fifty Shades of Grey.
The thing is, erotica is a big, diverse genre. And it's a genre I've been wanting to cover in our workshops for a while now—so I was excited when I came across Rachel Kramer Bussel, a seasoned writer, editor, and teacher of erotica.
Rachel has been writing erotica for over 15 years, and has edited over 50 anthologies, including Hungry for More, The Big Book of Orgasms, Fast Girls, and Cheeky Spanking Stories, and is the Best Bondage Erotica series editor. Her short stories have been published in over 100 anthologies, including the Best American Erotica, Best Women’s Erotica, Best Gay Erotica and Best Lesbian Erotica series. For five years she ran the In The Flesh Erotic Reading Series, and has conducted readings and taught erotic writing workshops across the country.
Writing sex is tough. It can so easily come off as cheesy or hyperbolic. But sex can be an incredible tool for revealing character, or motivation, or digging into a real depth of emotion. This is a great opportunity—not just for people who want to explore a new genre, but for people who want to write sex with deft and grace.
In anticipation of her class Between the Sheets, which starts next week, we posed to her our patented ten questions...
What was the first story you ever wrote, and what happened to it?
The first fiction story and first erotica I ever wrote was called “Monica and Me” and was my first erotica sale to the anthology of celebrity-themed erotica Starf*cker, edited by Shar Rednour. That book is sadly out of print now but the story lives on; it was republished in Best Lesbian Erotica 2001, recorded for audio by Rose Caraway and will appear in my forthcoming erotic short story collection.
When you sold your first piece of writing, how did you celebrate?
I actually cried when that story got published, holding the book in a bookstore. That was my first piece of fiction writing I sold and that moment is one I try to hold on to when I start to doubt myself.
Tell us about your process: Pen, paper, word processor, human blood when the moon is full... how do you write?
My first choice is my laptop, next is typing notes into my iPhone that I later email to myself and clean up. Save for journaling, I only write with pen and paper when I don’t have anything else handy.
What's the biggest mistake you've made as a writer?
Not believing in myself and doubting I have something original to say.
What kind of catharsis did you achieve from your latest work?
I wrote several new essays for my ebook collection Sex and Cupcakes, out this month from Thought Catalog Books, that are about my current and last few relationships. It was a relief to be able to talk about some of the tensions between my politics and my personal life, such as believing monogamy is not for everyone and that our culture pushes too many of us into monogamy by default, and how I balance my sometimes polyamorous inclinations within a monogamous relationship, which I covered in my essay “Monogamishmash.”
Which fictional character would you most like to have a drink with, and why?
Z, from one of my favorite novels A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo. Since so much of the book is about her absorbing a new language along with a new culture, I’d love to just have a conversation with her and see how she uses all the new words she’s picked up.
Where do you buy your books?
Everywhere! I buy from my local bookstore River Road Books in Fair Haven, New Jersey. I often shop at The Strand in New York City, and when I travel I do my best to hit up local bookstores. In September I bought books at Elliott Bay Book Co. in Seattle, The Booksmith in San Francisco and Sherman’s Books and Stationery in Portland, Maine. I also shop on Amazon for eBooks and print books because I’m ridiculously impatient and the minute I decided I want to buy a book is usually the minute I want to read it.
How do you handle a bad review of your work?
Sometimes I stop reading once I can tell it’s bad, but when I’m feeling more mature I try to read them and see what people are objecting to. Usually I find it’s someone who didn’t read the description and feels cheated, like the person upset that a book of spanking erotica isn’t a how-to or offended that there are male/male stories in a given book. If the review has genuinely constructive criticism I will read it and engage with it, but if it’s just someone who didn’t do their homework or simply didn’t like it because of personal taste, there’s not much I can do about that.
What's the worst advice you hear authors give writers?
I’m going to answer this a little sideways. “Write what you know” is good advice up to a point. I think sometimes though, writers get so caught up in what they “know” that it hinders them from telling a story in the best possible way. Just because you lived through something doesn’t mean there’s only one right way to tell that story, or one truth to it; maybe that truth is better portrayed in fiction than nonfiction, or done in a different style than you’re used to. With erotica specifically, I think it’s not always the best advice because you can use all the tools you have as a writer to write about aspects of sex you don’t know about firsthand. You can research and watch videos and read books and blogs and posts on FetLife and other places. Maybe it’s about what you know emotionally, which is just as important as what you’ve done physically. If I’d only stuck with writing erotica about what I “know,” I’d have lost out on the opportunity to tell lots of different kinds of stories about characters who aren’t like me. I don’t know how common it is, but I’m sure there are some aspiring erotica writers who think they haven’t sowed enough wild oats to do justice to the genre, and I don’t believe that’s true. I’ve never been a transgender boxer or run an oral sex restaurant or arranged an orgy as part of my hotel concierge job or stayed at a nude hotel or used a webcam or met Monica Lewinsky, but I’ve written erotica about all those things.
WILDCARD: You're a seasoned instructor of erotica. What's the most surprising thing you've learned teaching erotica workshops? And what has teaching workshops taught you about yourself?
The most surprising thing I’ve learned is that most people taking an erotica writing workshop already have lots of great ideas, they just don’t always realize it. I love the light bulb moments when people realize they’re onto something good. People sometimes approach erotica with a lot of assumptions about what it “has” to have and I do my best to try to show them the wide range of types of erotica out there. Teaching erotica has taught me that just when I think I’ve seen almost everything, I never have, because people are endlessly creative.
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