Rachel Kramer Bussel is the editor of the book She’s On Top as well as over 25 other erotic anthologies including Spanked, Bottoms Up and The Mile High Club. Rachel also writes the bi-monthly sex column The Lusty Lady for the Village Voice and is the senior editor at Penthouse Variations. As an erotica writer, Rachel’s work has appeared in over 100 anthologies including Best of the Best Lesbian Erotica 2 and Best of the Best Women’s Erotica. Three of her books have won Independent Publishers Awards and she continues to write and produce thoughtful, sexy and salacious erotica at an amazing rate. This week Rachel graciously agreed to be interviewed by sex educator CoCo La Creme.
All photos of CoCo La Creme and her very willing bottom taken by Jorge Antonio Vallejos.
CLC: Why Erotica?
RKB: The short answer is because I found that I liked it and was good at it. The first erotica story I wrote was called Monica and Me and got published in Shar Rednour’s anthology Starf*cker and Tristan Taormino’s anthology Best Lesbian Erotica 2001. That early validation was so thrilling for me and showed me that the ideas in my head could translate onto paper. From there I started writing more and more, and I think part of it is that I like to do things that come easily to me, and erotica has, for the most part, since the beginning. But it’s also that the erotica market is made up of so many short story anthologies, and that was accessible to me as a beginning writer. I didn’t have much experience with fiction but I’d read lots of erotic stories and thought, “I want to try this.”
I’m pretty sure that’s how a lot of people come to erotica (and other genres), and what I love about it is that you could submit a story today and a year from now it’s in a book. That’s still exciting and I’ve kept up with it because I’ve found ways to recreate that initial thrill; I feel that every time I open a box of my books and marvel that the covers that looked so beautiful on my computer screen look even better in actual print. I just got a Nook and am enjoying it, but to me there will never be any reading experience that can rival holding a book in my hands. I’m the kind of person who reads everything—the copyright, the blurbs, the back cover, the acknowledgments. I love books, and so getting to work on them and keep innovating and keep publishing new authors as well as ones I’ve worked with extensively is as exciting as it was the first time.
CLC: Who are your influences?
RKB: Susie Bright first and foremost, because her Best American Erotica series was the first erotica I ever read, and my biggest honor has been being included in several of her anthologies (and she was the guest judge of my upcoming anthology Best Sex Writing 2012, out in January). What I also greatly admired was that Susie covered both fiction and nonfiction in her work, and while one was clearly erotica and one clearly personal essays and sexual politics, she worked and works in both arenas, and for me I can’t imagine doing only one or the other. I love writing erotic fiction, and often find I can tell truths in that form that in nonfiction sound dry and dull, but nonfiction is my true writing love. So Susie has been such a role model for me on many levels.
And Tristan Taormino as well, both for her pioneering work in the erotica field as well as editing a book about zines to her business savvy, and also straddling various fields, from porn directing to sex education to writing and editing. I have learned and continue to learn so much from Tristan. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that both these women are ones I admire on many levels, and I think it’s because they live their feminism and their belief systems thoroughly. I admire anyone who can make their art part of their life and their life part of their art without sacrificing a fundamental part of themselves.
And more broadly the whole community of the sex world that I discovered, via reading and exploring, from around 1998 on, when I moved to New York. I love meeting authors who I’ve published in person and getting to put a face and voice to their words, such as I recently did in London. The fact that there are so many talented, prolific, extremely creative people in the erotica world, and more joining us all the time, inspires me greatly. I learn a ton from reading the work that’s sent to me; for instance, in Best Bondage Erotica 2012, out later this year, there are two stories about self-bondage! I didn’t even know that was a thing, and while it’s not my personal thing, those stories were both outstanding and made me think about the topic and people’s motivation for being into bondage in new ways, and I hope they do that for readers as well.
CLC: You are very prolific. How do you continue to find new inspiration and fresh ideas?
RKB: I’m often inspired in unexpected ways from unexpected sources. Rarely when I’m sitting down to write or, say, googling something specific do I come up with a story idea, but it’s in hearing about friends’ lives, reading the news and blogs or just walking and browsing or watching movies that I find inspiration. It’s not always so direct, though sometimes there’s an image or event that prompts a story, but usually it’s a topic and a spark of an idea that converge. I wrote a story called Bed-In that was inspired in part by walking by fancy furniture stores and in part by John and Yoko’s famous bed-in…in this case, it’s about models hired to pose in a bed in a window on full display.
CLC: What about your anthologies? What kind of process do you go through to come up with an idea and create a cohesive collection?
RKB: I try to think about what’s not on the market, or what I could cover in a new way, or a topic that is near and dear to me and popular with readers, like spanking, and then I bring the idea to my publisher (Cleis Press, though I have worked with other companies as well) and once we settle on a topic that we both find valuable, I put out a call for submissions and try to disseminate that as widely as possible. Authors then have a few months to send in stories, and ideally I will be reading them as they come in so that I can start making early selections and seeing how the anthology will be shaped. There was one instance where we simply didn’t get enough submissions that met my vision for the book, so we didn’t put that one out. I’m pretty reliant on authors to hone in on the types of stories I’m looking for, but also to surprise me. With my anthology Orgasmic, I got lots of submissions about sex toys and the G-spot, both great topics, but the ones I find most memorable were about chemistry and horse riding, probably because I know almost nothing about either topic but was still drawn into those stories.
CLC: Your anthologies usually cover a very specific theme. Does that make it more or less difficult to curate submissions?
RKB: A little easier and a little more difficult. The easy part is that I can hone in on a specific topic, like bondage or spanking, and see such a range of approaches and takes on it. The challenging part is that because they are often such narrow topics, there can be a lot of overlap in what gets sent in, and maybe I really like two stories but if they are too similar to one another, I can’t use them both in the same book because it would be redundant. I might have another book I can publish one of the stories, but that is one of the challenges of writing to a themed anthology, and the more you can think outside the box, the better, like the story Wing Walker by Cheyenne Blue in The Mile High Club: Plane Sex Stories. That took the topic of plane sex and shifted it in a sexy, thrilling way.
CLC: As a woman of color I often hope to see myself represented in erotica but it usually doesn’t happen unless the collection is specifically about black women. I know you’ve talked before about wanting to see more diversity in the submissions you are sent. Can you comment on how submissions skew and why you think that may be?
RKB: As an editor I’m largely at the mercy of the stories that I receive, though I will sometimes seek out specific kinds of stories from authors I know can turn around a high-quality story quickly. I try to create a range of stories, and that includes everything from race to age to storytelling styles; I prefer a mix of present and past tense, first and third person.
CLC: How is your work and process feminist?
RKB: That’s hard to quantify, but I think the short answer is that I’m a feminist, and I think I bring that sensibility to my work. I don’t want to say “X story is feminist because…” since that can be a slippery slope, but I do think the fact that I write about strong female characters, who are often kinky, often bisexual, often bold and brave and outspoken, is a way of talking back to the idea that women shouldn’t be any of those things.
CLC: Are there times when being a feminist has worked against you or caused a conflict as an erotic writer/editor?
RKB: I can’t think of an instance where being a feminist has worked against me. I don’t necessarily expect every story I select for every anthology to conform to my or someone else’s idea of what “feminism” is, although I don’t include stories that are non-consensual or that I feel are misogynistic, but I haven’t faced any problems or opposition in that regard.
CLC: Are there times when it has been an asset?
RKB: I think so, in the sense that my main publisher, Cleis Press, is a longstanding feminist-run press, and I also work with Seal Press, which is also feminist. I don’t think they wouldn’t work with me if I didn’t identify as feminist, but I enjoy working with both of those presses because I want to read almost their entire catalogs (and do read most of their output). I enjoy working with businesses whose work I support and where it’s a collaborative and mutually beneficial process, whether that’s publishers, venues where I hold events, vendors I use for things like promotional book postcards, etc.
CLC: The publishing industry has had a hard time of it lately. How has that affected erotic books?
RKB: I don’t know how it’s affected the genre as a whole, but certainly ebooks are changing the landscape for all kinds of books and especially erotic material. I haven’t noticed any decline in sales attributable to the economy, and I think for people who read, perhaps they’re becoming more discerning, but they are still reading. I think books will always be around, but there’s more onus on authors to get out there and market themselves, and lots of people are doing an amazing job of it. In September, the Erotic Authors Association is holding its first conference (http://eroticauthorsassociation.com/EAA/conference/about-the-conference/); I’m speaking on 3 panels and also co-hosting a reading with an open mic portion on September 9th, so I think that’s a sign that erotica is still thriving.
CLC: We usually like to keep our fantasies secret. I know you’ve hosted some public readings of erotica. What happens when you bring the private into a public setting?
RKB: I ran an erotic reading series called In The Flesh for five years, and I think there is a very different feel to reading erotica or sexual nonfiction in private and reading it or having it read to you in public. You can’t hide your reactions live, and there are pros and cons of that. One of the most popular segments I hosted was called True Sex Confessions, where audience members also had the chance to participate by anonymous sharing their brief sexual anecdotes on index cards. I think even though sex is treated as a private topic, it’s one that also brings us together and there’s a universality to our experiences; even if the details are different, everyone’s had a first sexual moment or been nervous about sex or whatever, and I think the biggest thing I learned was how much people simply appreciate having open, safe spaces to share sexual thoughts.
One of my favorite memories was early on, when my friend Jessica Cutler read and then “re-enacted” flinging her tampon into the crowd. Unfortunately we don’t have that on video. I also loved The Burlesque Handbook author Jo Weldon giving a pastie-twirling lesson that involved a topless man.
CLC: What can we look forward to seeing next from you?
RKB: I have lots of books on the way, and several I’m presently editing, with September 1 deadlines (you can find my calls for my erotic spanking anthology and my bisexual women’s anthologies at the following URL, and there are more on the way: http://lustylady.blogspot.com/2011/08/my-two-current-calls-for-submissions.html).
In the immediate future, I have Women on Top coming out in late October/early November, and Best Bondage Erotica 2012, and in the nonfiction department, a book that’s very near and dear to my heart and I hope will appeal to feminists, sex nerds, political junkies, queer people and anyone wanting to learn about the varied world of sexuality and culture, from SlutWalks to elder sex to the Meatpacking District to being kicked out of the military for being gay to what it’s like to be a sex worker.
CLC: Any last words?
RKB: If you think you want to write erotica (or anything else, for that matter), do it! You aren’t under any obligation to show it to anyone, and what comes out might surprise you.
CLC: Thanks for the fabulous interview Rachel!
COCO LA CRÈME is a dazzling shaker and maker who performs burlesque both as a solo artist and with Skin Tight Outta Sight. She has a reputation as a go-go dancer of legendary stamina and sex appeal. CoCo teaches burlesque at the Good For Her sex shop, is a published poet, has moderated the panel at the Feminist Porn Awards for the past six years, and writes a column Love CoCo at http://www.metanotherfrog.com.
Tune into BlackCoffeePoet.com Friday August 24, 2011 for a video of CoCo La Creme reading a story “She’s On Top” while topping a very willing bottom.