Empress of the erotic, Rachel Kramer Bussel, is an icon in the world of erotic fiction and blogging. Her credentials are unsurpassed. Besides contributing to more than a hundred anthologies and having edited sixty herself, her articles have appeared in the hallowed halls of the New York Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, and Time Out New York, as well as in Penthouse, Cosmo UK, and the Village Voice.
Rachel’s passion to encourage other authors has led to her conducting erotic writing workshops worldwide and, for five years, she hosted the In The Flesh Erotic Reading Series in New York City, helping introduce authors to the wide-eyed public. She holds a bachelor’s degree in political science and women’s studies from the University of California at Berkeley.
Here, she reveals what inspires her to write ‘the erotic’, advice she shares with novice authors, thoughts on the current face of publishing and avoiding the ‘formulaic’.
Rachel, what first inspired you towards sexual themes, and what impact did the writing process have on you?
My first few erotica stories were largely inspired by events in my life. I’d been reading erotica for a few years without any intention of writing it. I was just curious. In my college years, just as I was exploring sex, including queerness and kink, dating women, discovering I was bisexual, I found erotica. Some of the earliest anthologies I read were the Best American Erotica series and Shar Rednour’s lesbian first time anthologies Virgin Territory I and II.
I seem to remember the writing coming fast and furious. I’ve always tended to think in full sentences, whether I’m writing fiction or non-fiction. I never plotted back then (and rarely do now), but rather had a vague sense of where I wanted the story to go. I didn’t overthink the writing, or the process of sending it out, or using my real name. All of those could have given me pause, and maybe even scared me into not submitting my work, because I was in law school or had just dropped out.
It’s sometimes odd to me to read or hear one of my early stories, because of course there are things I’d do differently now. However, I like that I just dove right in, without stressing about all the what-ifs. It made it a fun experience.
Have your motivations changed since those first years?
I’m still excited about erotica, but I have to work harder to write it now because I don’t want to be repetitive. As an anthology editor, I read hundreds of stories, so I often look beyond erotica recreationally, choosing mystery, YA and memoir. I do also read within the genre, to remain aware of trends, and it’s great to see so much more erotica on bookstore shelves, as well as e-publishing thriving.
Besides writing to ‘arouse’ the reader, do you have other aims?
I’m interested in exploring aspects of sexuality and attraction largely ignored by pop culture: specifically bisexuality, polyamory, promiscuity, men and women with larger bodies and body image, male submissives, fetishes, or affairs. I don’t sit down to intentionally humanize and eroticize fat people (and those who love and are attracted to fat people) or male submissives and so on; it’s a by-product of the types of characters I tend to write. That’s not to say I don’t also write about people who have seemingly “perfect” or “normal” lives (those terms being subjective) but even then I try to subvert those standards, looking beneath the surface. Their lives may not be so glamorous and carefree, and their erotic (and perhaps other) desires run deeper than the surface.
In what ways has writing ‘the erotic’ empowered you or promoted your self-knowledge?
Writing erotica has made me more open-minded and empathetic. Getting inside the heads of characters who do things I’d never do has been a wonderful challenge and has taught me so much, as has editing similar stories. It’s shown me that humans can eroticize anything.
Foremost, I hope they enjoy the process of reading. I never want them to feel like they’re slogging through my writing. I want it to entertain but I also want to make them think, perhaps even more than arousing them; to think about how they relate to the sexual dynamics of the story, or about what I left out, or about what happens beyond the page. I want to arouse readers but I feel that it’s up to the reader to take away whatever they choose.
Which authors inspire you and in what ways?
I’m a huge fan of L. Marie Adeline’s S.E.C.R.E.T. trilogy, about a group of women who join forces to facilitate women down on their luck in living out their most exciting sexual fantasies. It’s incredibly hot but also about forming a community, supporting women and giving them the autonomy and authority to decide what’s arousing to them. Plus, it’s a progressively developing love story. Even against this highly fictional setting, where women swoop into the lives of strangers and arrange sexual trysts, there was a reality that made the sex scenes even hotter. I truly cared about the characters.
That’s also what I liked about Everything I Left Unsaid by M. O’Keefe. It’s about a woman who’s left an abusive, violent marriage and is in hiding, slowly giving herself permission to explore her own sexuality again. It’s an erotic romance but, true to the character, much of her sexuality in the book takes place by herself, but inspired by her new love interest.
That element of reality is something I also enjoyed about Let It Shine, by Alyssa Cole, a romance set during the civil rights movement, which builds tension and passion between the protagonists, who have a history as childhood friends. Every interaction is laden with tension and a push/pull dynamic. It’s a slim but wonderful book.
On a lighter note, I really loved the humor in Nuts, by Alice Clayton. It’s madcap and zany (when the protagonists meet actual nuts go flying everywhere around them) but very sexy.
Your LitReactor classes (teaching elements of erotic fiction) have an excellent reputation, and have been a starting point for many successful authors in our genre. Which key pieces of advice do you find yourself offering?
Often in my LitReactor classes, beyond any specifics about the genre, the best erotica writing advice I give is that we should believe in ourselves. I think overcoming that hurdle is a vital first step. Even in a small class, people self-censor, or don’t let their imaginations travel freely. They’re nervous or worried about what people will think. I’m sure this hinders many would-be erotica writers. It’s not the same as writing mystery or sci-fi or other genres. Even though there’s now more openness about erotica reading and writing, and about alternative sexualities, it can still be awkward to tell your neighbors that you write erotica.
I face that as well. When I meet someone new and we seem to get along, I never know if I’m going to ruin a budding friendship by outing myself as an erotica writer. So, I totally get that fear. However, I think you have to forcibly set it aside while you write. Pretend it doesn’t exist. You can tackle it when it’s time to decide whether you want to find a broader audience and, if so, what name you want to use.
The processes of writing and submitting work seem to get conflated in people’s minds, as if strangers can immediately see the words as you type them. Nobody ever has to know you write erotica if you don’t want them to, not even your significant other or best friend. Writing, exploring, digging as deep as you can into what turns on your characters, are the building blocks of my online and in-person writing classes.
Varying your writing style is important. It’s helpful to step out of your usual style sometimes, even if it’s just as a “throat-clearing” exercise. Doing so gives you a greater appreciation of different points of view and, I’ve found, can give a story a different rhythm. In my story “The End,” which was published in Best American Erotica 2016, I use a more fast paced tone. I’ve written in first person, second person and third person and all have taught me different things about the storytelling process.
As an anthology editor, this variety is essential. I want the reader to experience a range of sexual practices as well as a range of characters and types of stories: historical, futuristic, contemporary, or from different points of view, using various tenses or pacing.
How far do you think publishers are risk-averse? While commercial success is the bottom-line, in what ways would you like to see publishers pushing boundaries?
I don’t know if I’d say publishers are risk averse, though perhaps they are more so than I realize. I see some pretty edgy content being published by mainstream publishers, like Lilah Pace’s Asking for It, which came out from Berkley in 2015 and is about a woman who has a rape fantasy. There are so many new publishers. Writers can push boundaries (and can self-publish).
The market for what was once considered taboo has expanded since I started reading erotica, 20 years ago. We’ve had many cultural shifts; even the romance market is more open to sexual variation. I believe that’s helped normalize a lot of kinky practices, male and female bisexuality, open relationships and other aspects of sexuality.
You’re extremely open in your persona as a sex-blogger and author of erotic fiction. Do you ever find yourself fielding disapproval?
I don’t consider any of my work a “persona” although there are, of course, aspects of my personal life that I don’t share (though not many). I’ve been lucky in avoiding much negative feedback. Occasionally I’ll write a nonfiction essay or article and have people disagree, or think I’m making things up, as either a storyteller about my life or as a journalist. One notable one was when I wrote about taxicab hook-ups for The Village Voice and someone told me I was lying. Now, obviously, as a journalist, I have no way to fact check people’s sex stories, but I have pretty good radar for knowing when people are telling me a true story. It can be challenging for people to conceptualize that what they know of sex personally is their subjective viewpoint, not a universal truth.
My first story, “Monica and Me” (a fantasy about a woman who’s a barely changed version of me having sex with Monica Lewinsky) is a favorite. You can listen to it on Rose Caraway’s podcast The Kiss Me Quick’s.
Also “Doing the Dishes”, which is about a woman with a dishwashing fetish. I gave a public reading over ten years ago and still have people remarking on it. It was loosely inspired by a real life experience of washing a lover’s kitchen full of dishes, but I took that concept and ran with it. You can also listen to it, here, on The KMQ podcast.
Having edited around sixty anthologies, do you ever feel that you’re on a treadmill? Do you yearn to undertake a radically different project?
While each anthology is different, the basic process of anthology editing is similar. I have an idea, acquire a book contract with a publisher, post a public call for submissions, read all the stories that come in, winnow them down to the ones I think best suit the theme and go well together, and edit and arrange them. What’s kept me from becoming bored with that process is that I’m always working with new writers and receiving submissions from around the world. I love it when a writer completely surprises me, either with an unusual take on a given theme or with a new approach to writing or sexuality that I hadn’t considered before. In that sense, it feels fresh each time.
I have a lot of other things I’d also like to do. I’ve never wanted to only be an erotica or sex writer because I’m interested in a wide range of topics. This year I’m exploring SEO copywriting as well as entertainment blogging. As a freelancer, I never know what I’ll be working on in a week’s time, or in a month or a year. I like the surprise element but plan to edit anthologies as long as I have readers for them!
Because I’m a freelancer, my workload tends to change monthly, and sometimes weekly or daily, so I don’t necessarily know what’s next. I do debate whether I want to keep editing anthologies or try something new, but editing the Best Women’s Erotica of the Year series has made me more passionate about the process and determined to publish as many authors as I can for as long as I have that opportunity. Other than that, I’ll do my best to keep writing for new publications and stay open to new possibilities.
Thank you Rachel for sharing your plans, your motivations and your inspirations.
Find Out More
Find out more about Rachel’s LitReactor classes here, next taking place in 2017
Or her private erotica writing consulting, via eroticawriting101.com
Look out for various events around the release of Best Women’s Erotica of the Year, Volume 2, at the start of 2017. To subscribe for exclusive book giveaways via Rachel’s monthly newsletter, sign up at www.rachelkramerbussel.com