Today was the book release date for Never Easy, a collection of erotic novelettes by Johnny Murdoc, Natty Soltesz, and Rob Wolfsham. These have been three erotica writers who I have greatly admired for a while, having works published in various anthologies, including the long-running Best Gay Erotica series. To celebrate this release Johnny Murdoc excerpted "Local Legends" on his blog and Natty Soltesz excerpted "My Boyfriend's Horny Brothers." Read them and see why I really like them! And then of course buy the book. The three authors were kind enough to let me interview them here about writing, the erotica genre, their literary influences, and what's up next for them!
Johnny Murdoc: Two years ago, I had just started having work published in anthologies, and I had just heard that I was going to have a story in Best Gay Erotica 2011. I was flattered. Having my work published by a "real" publisher was certainly validating, and having it collected in a Best anthology was even better. However, I was quickly realizing that, if I wanted to actually make money writing gay erotica, I was going to have to figure out a new system.
I grew up with the DIY ethos of the punk movement, and I lived by the Robert Rodriguez ethos of (I'm paraphrasing) if you know how to do everything yourself, no one can stop you. I'm a good writer, and I have a functional understanding of graphic design and typesetting, so I started making my own 'zine, a hand-stapled collections of short stories called Blowjob. Those weren't exactly moneymakers but the reaction was really positive from readers. I was able to make the connection between doing that and publishing my own work on a larger scale.
One day, out of frustration, I wrote Rob and Natty, both of whom I admired immensely as writers. We'd chatted back and forth a little before, but I sent them this lengthy proposal on how I wanted to challenge the existing publishing paradigm for gay erotica. Anyone who's been paying attention knows that this has been happening across the publishing industry, but I don't think erotica publishing exactly matches what's happening with the rest of the industry. The erotic book market is actually expanding despite the economy, thanks to the proliferation of ebooks, but erotica publishers are still paying writers rather embarrassing, sub-professional fees for their work. So I said "fuck it, why don't we do this ourselves?" Rob and Natty were both really excited and energized by my letter, and both immediately agreed to take part in it.
Two years later, Never Easy is the result of that email. It took a lot longer than any of us would have liked. We were all working in our spare time, struggling with jobs and life. In some ways, I'm glad that it did take so long. In that time, I self-published a handful of ebooks and a print book collecting fiction, essays, and photography called Blowjob 3. That book was really my training ground, and I was able to take all of the lessons I'd learned and use them to make Never Easy a better book. In addition, I've realized that I want to expand QueerYoung Cowboys into a genuine publisher, so we're officially open to submissions.
Natty Soltesz: Johnny suggested it to me and Rob. We wanted to try something DIY and see how it worked out. We'd all been published in the anthologies at that point and I know I was feeling disillusioned with them. I was lucky enough to start publishing in the gay porn magazines right at the tail end of their existence, which paid quite a bit more than the anthologies. At that point I was feeling like the anthologies were the only game in town. I hadn’t yet discovered ebooks. It felt like time to try something new.
Rob Wolfsham: Johnny Murdoc emailed me. He said he liked my writing and asked if I’d like to try something new. This was shortly after he and I had stories selected to be in Best Gay Erotica 2011. He said something like how selling stories to these bigger publishers who do anthologies pays shit so let’s do it ourselves with no middle man and let's do it better.
YFLAR: Would you call your work erotica or pornography? What's the difference?
MURDOC: Man, two years ago I would have loved to have been part of this debate, but I think I'm starting to recognize that not only is there not a right answer, but I don't think it's the right question. My work is undeniably erotica by marketing standards, and I think it's porn, too. I've written stories specifically to give my readers orgasms. The sex is only one part of the stories, though.
Sex is one of the few human experiences that's utterly universal but also completely boxed off, culturally speaking. My characters have sex, and I'm happy if that turns people on, just like I'm certain that Stephen King is happy when his stories scare people, but sex isn't the only thing I'm writing about. Genre labels make finding books in bookstores convenient, but I don't think they capture the myriad of concepts found within those books accurately. I mean, any system that puts Agatha Christie and George Pelecanos in the same section is inherently flawed, right?
SOLTESZ: I call it both depending on my mood. Alan Moore says the only difference between pornography and erotica is the income bracket of the person reading it, so I’ll go with that.
WOLFSHAM: It’s interchangeable for me. I'm not shy about calling my work porn. I write fiction. I don't pan to the curtains when people start to fuck. A lot of things are porn. A book like The Hunger Games, where beautiful teens chase each other down and stab each other with knives and there are descriptions of vomiting blood and it’s producing this visceral panicked reaction in the reader, that’s porn too, a more acceptable kind.
YFLAR: Why write erotica/pornography?
MURDOC: Sex is universal but, despite the proliferation of sexual imagery in marketing, sex is something that we desperately need to explore and talk about on a deeper level. Storytelling is one of the great ways that humans explore ideas and feelings, and writing about sex is my way of doing that.
That's the intellectual response, but there's more to it: I don't feel like I have much choice. I don't believe in any overly romantic or mystical notions of writing, but these are the stories that my brain creates. I turn myself on by writing fictional narratives. I'm constantly doing it, my brain is constantly building and destroying scenarios and characters and themes. The stories I write just happen to be the ones I managed to get down.
On top of that, I think I'm adding a greater good to society by arousing people than I would be if I was scaring them or terrorizing them. Don't get me wrong, I'd certainly like to write my fair share of crime stories, sci-fi stories, Great American Novel stories, etc... but right now I'm having too much fun turning people on. I like knowing that I’m playing some small part in their erotic exploration.
SOLTESZ: Because it turns you on, for one. There’s much to be said for writing purely for your own pleasure. There’s a therapeutic aspect to exploring your fantasies in detail and finding out just what you like and what you don’t like. Also, assuming you don’t write anonymously and you do write honestly, writing erotica can be a radical act. In a culture where there’s so much shame and fear around sex you are putting yourself out there and saying “This is what turns me on, and I don’t care if you think it’s weird, fucked up, or dangerous.”
WOLFSHAM: It pisses off prudes. I think there's something really punk about writing porn. It pissed off a creative writing professor who thought I was wasting "creative energy." It pissed off boyfriends. It pissed off
friends who I'd put in stories for fun. It pisses off my mother and it would piss off my father if he knew. Brainy reviewers ignore it. I have no anxiety about the process.
YFLAR: Is erotica still needed/important in the digital age where porn is easily accessible with the likes of video-on-demand, pay-per-view, and user generated content? What role does erotica play today?
MURDOC: Erotica plays same role that everything you just mentioned play: to turn people on, to arouse them, to exercise their erotic imagination. I think that erotic prose can offer a lot more than random porn clips on the internet tend to (although there are people out there making smart, short porn films). As writers, we have the opportunity to build characters and worlds without worrying about whether or not we could find actors who are talented enough to portray them or find the budget to pay for them. Not everyone wants a quick wank; some people like to give their imaginations a workout.
SOLTESZ :I suppose it plays just as much a role as any written content in an image-saturated culture. It’s an option.
WOLFSHAM: I think written erotica and a social streaming porn site like Xtube are in two different universes. But I'd like to bridge that gap by maybe doing a nude erotica reading on Xtube or Cam4. Erotica is freely available in places like Nifty.org or Sticky Pen. The difference is those websites look stuck in 1998. Maybe written erotica just needs more love from web designers and programmers.
YFLAR: What role do you feel erotica plays in the gay community, if any?
MURDOC: Erotica has played a huge role in the gay community in the past, especially in gay writing. Gay pulp erotica books were some of the first being produced about gay characters, for gay readers. I do think the erotica/literature line blends more in gay writing, as a lot of gay literature tends to be very sexually frank (and because most bookstores don't bother to separate the two in their tiny gay fiction sections). I think what's more impressive is the role gay erotica plays in the straight community: it's no secret that straight, middle-aged women make up the bulk of gay romance/erotica readers. I can't help but feel that has to be helpful in humanizing queer people, and normalizing gay relationships.
SOLTESZ: I’m not sure that written erotica plays any specific role in the gay community, though personally it played a role in coming to terms with my own sexuality. Queer culture and queer acceptance are ever-changing, but when you feel afraid to be a sexual person because your culture doesn’t accept it, writing your sexual fantasies down is a good way to own them.
WOLFSHAM: I put this question into google and the first result was a Christwire article titled "Is Skyrim Teaching Your Children How To Perform Rim Jobs and Other HomoSex Maneuvers?" So maybe that's my answer. I don't write to define the gay male experience. I put down my weird fantasies or channel my anxieties surrounding men, sex, the past or future into a story.
YFLAR: Of course you three are my favorite erotica writers. It's a lot more than just sex in these stories. It's plot, it's character, it's language. Why do you think erotica gets a bad name despite good literary works being produced?
MURDOC: "Of course," he says. Haha, don't get me wrong. I'm very happy to hear that. You're very flattering, and I've always appreciated your support.
I think the bad name comes from the aforementioned "boxing off" of sex in our culture. We love to talk about sex as though it's a different kind of human function, either sacred or profane but it's not. It's just human. We insist on partitioning this part of our lives, and the result is ghettoization and a bad reputation. I would like to think that I'm working to fight that, by writing about sex but telling stories about characters and worlds and showing that sex fits in that world, not outside of it.
SOLTESZ: People are afraid of sex so they cast it as gross or base, even though it’s what produced them. Any stigma toward pornography is an extension of that.
WOLFSHAM: Thanks. I didn't realize erotica got that bad of a rap. Maybe I'm in a bubble. Female erotica seems to be doing well while gay male erotica is more overlooked. I don't think a lot of people realize how much erotica is out there for them. I think when they think "erotica" they just think Fifty Shades of Gray or old Harlequin novels. A lot of erotica does blow because it's too focused on exhausting mechanical descriptions of sex and not enough build up or character. Most people are prudes too.
YFLAR: What are your literary influences? Where do you find inspiration?
MURDOC: It's hard to pinpoint my influences. I've been a voracious reader my entire life. I have enough books in my house that a full wall of bookshelves aren't enough, and my partner occasionally threatens to give me an ultimatum: the books go or he does. Not that he doesn't love books as well, but he doesn't seem to care for the precarious stacks positioned all over our house.
The first erotica story I released, "Julius, Hipster Boy" was blatantly influenced by Chuck Palahniuk's writing. I really like that first person, present tense, minimalist style, and I wanted to see it applied to a dirty story. I think I've grown away from that to some extent. My reading takes me across the spectrum, from Neil Gaiman to Joshua Mohr to Joe Hill to Douglas Coupland. I just read Don Winslow's Savages and that book blew me away. It's a crime thriller, but it was written with such stunning poetry, almost like it was meant to be spoken word. I wish I could have half as much fun writing as I'm certain Winslow does.
As far as inspiration, well, I live. Like I said, my brain is making up stories constantly. There's never one thing, but a clash of things that happen to stick with me and make me think. Hell, "Local Legends," the first story in Never Easy, came to me while I was watching an episode of True Blood, but it's filled with years of memories and thoughts about growing up in a small town, being attracted to unattainable men, and feeling like you can never live up to the expectations of others. I just happened to be looking at Ryan Kwanten's bare chest when it all came crashing together.
SOLTESZ: I like strong voices and strong characters. Any story or novel that seems like it’s somebody sitting next to me on a barstool, telling me how it went. Stephen King, Larry McMurtry, Ray Bradbury – those guys are born storytellers, and that’s something I aspire toward. On the other hand I’m amazed by writers who have a strong command of language and can tweak it to create trap doors and mysteries, and I’m thinking specifically of Dennis Cooper here, or A.M. Homes.
WOLFSHAM: One influence is Octavia Butler, a science fiction writer who passed away in 2006. Her writing is spare, minimal, visceral, and very queer. I read the Xenogenesis trilogy when I was a teenager and loved it along with the awkward sexual tensions and tri-gender aliens. I took a studies in Octavia Butler course in college and read more of her books and learned why I liked her. I used a lot of that narratological study to help me be a better writer. Blair Mastbaum is another writer I like. His writing is snappy and minimal. I related with Sam in Clay’s Way, this angry sort of lost punk poet. Some classic writers influence me, especially short stories like Gustave Flaubert's "A Simple Heart" or Katherine Mansfield's "Miss Brill" or Raymond Carver's "Cathedral" or Anton Chekhov's "The Lady with the Pet Dog." I like minimal writing I guess. I find inspiration from a lot of my time in college. I went to school in Lubbock which is a very isolated and conservative town in west Texas. I had some intense, weird or depressing experiences there, some with straight identified conservative men. I was very depressed for much of the time I was in Lubbock. So a lot of my writing I feel like I’m still exploring frustrations and scenarios from that time period.
YFLAR: There is a lot of talk about erotica growing in the digital age: what do you see as the future of erotica writing and publishing? Does the growing market dilute the erotica genre? What problems do you see within the genre?
MURDOC: I think the future of erotica is very much the same as the past of it was; people are always going to be telling each other dirty stories. How those stories find their audience will almost certainly change, but the stories themselves won't.
We're seeing a lot of interest in erotica thanks to ebooks, racier romance titles, and, most recently, 50 Shades of Grey. We're definitely in something of an erotica bubble, but people are always going to be interested in sex, and I think the market can bear a lot more growth before erotica becomes just another genre (like it deserves to be).
I think part of the problem is that the market is already diluted. Because erotic writing exists on the sidelines, there's not a lot of discussion about the genre, and there's not a lot of real criticism. Right now, it's possible to pick up an anthology and find both astounding writers and uninspiring writers in the same book. For a lot of people, erotica is erotica, and I don't think many people are looking at things critically.
While I don't mean to trash talk 50 Shades of Grey—to be clear, I haven't read it—the general consensus is that the actual writing is missing something on a technical level. I worry that all of the attention on 50 Shades could hurt other erotica writers if people assume that's the high bar of erotica, and they have every reason to assume so. It's certainly selling like it's the Second Coming (haha) of Twilight. (Which is another book that found amazing success despite the author's inability to string a coherent paragraph together.)
I can hope that, as the genre grows in exposure, we'll start to see serious examinations, and really great writers will get their chance to shine.
SOLTESZ: I hope there is still a market for physical books, but I just don’t know. Most of what I read comes from the library, the books that I buy are typically comics and graphic novels or anything that feels like a fully realized/fetishized object. As far as dilution, there’ve been tons of anonymous writers doing their thing and putting it out there for years now, pretty much since the internet started. It’s fully diluted. The fun is sifting through the pile and finding something good. The growing market just means people are starting to make money off of it, which is fine by me.
WOLFSHAM: I think ebook readers and micro-publishing are the future. With an ebook reader you can read porn on the bus, train, or plane without being embarrassed by a cheesy or porny book cover. Though I don't own an ebook reader, maybe because I'm not book cover shy. I don’t think it dilutes the genre to open it up to self-publishing people who want to share their fantasies or sell their writing. Consumers will decide who’s good and who isn’t.
YFLAR: What tips do you have for people who want to write erotica?
MURDOC: Tell honest stories. I don't mean true stories, but stories that are emotionally honest. Standard jock stories are great (and I've written my share) but your story will be 100 times better if you can find a reason to relate to your characters. Find a way to break your reader's heart, and then find a way to mend it. Learn to write. Don't think you're better than writing instructors or how-to books. There are a lot of hack books out there, but writing is a craft and you can always learn to be better at what you do. I struggle with plot. It’s easy to think “Hey, as long as I get to people fucking, it will be a good story,” and it’s just not true.
SOLTESZ: Give yourself a boner. Or a lady-boner. Chances are if it turns you on, it’ll turn somebody else on. But turning yourself on should be your primary concern.
WOLFSHAM: If you want to publish short story erotica, you can always find new calls for submissions on the Erotica Readers & Writers Association website. Never Easy's publisher Queer Young Cowboys is now open for submissions, too. Read a lot of erotica or anything really. Find a writer you like and study why you like them. Start a blog and write pointless things on there. Be an observer. Have good sex occasionally or watch good porn.
YFLAR: What's next for you?
MURDOC: Oh, boy. Too much for my own good. Right now I'm knee-deep in writing a commissioned story. I'm also doing a second draft on a script for Class Comics; Joseph Hawk released a book in Italy that he had written and drawn, and Class Comics hired me to rewrite it, to build and expand on it for the English-language translation. And I'm working on a novella for an anthology that Richard Labonte invited me to do.
On top of all of that, I'm very serious about Queer Young Cowboys. I would like to find and publish the gay writers that stand out above the crowd. Stories that don't easily fit in themed-anthology molds.
I'm as exited as any smart, artsy gay about the proliferation of post-Butt Magazine queer print culture and the wild, wild west of gay art on Tumblr, and I'd really like to bring that energy and attention to gay fiction.
SOLTESZ: I’m working on a novella that I’m probably going to self-publish as an ebook. I’m going to keep plugging away at my ebook business and see where it gets me. It’s been such a relief and a gift to actually make money from my writing again: respect to Amazon where it’s due for getting all these people to buy these devices and then spend even more money on files for them. In the fall I plan to start work on a non-erotica project that I’m really excited about. I think I’ll always write to turn myself on, but lately I’ve been chomping at the bit because I want to write about women. I like women. I’m sick of writing about dudes all the time. So that’s what my next big project is going to be about – expanding my repertoire a bit and trying something different.
WOLFSHAM: Never Easy occupied much of my time the past few months, so I’m glad it’s out. I’m working on some things, one is a novel with lots of sex and painful experiences that will be finished some day. I'm working on a novella for a Bold Strokes Books anthology. I have a story coming out later this year in a Cleis Press anthology, Uniforms Unzipped, edited by Richard Labonte. I spend way too much time on Tumblr posting random things and photos I like, so that's always going on.