This week I interviewed author and Pennsylvania native Mary Jarrett Wilson. She has a B.A. in English from Penn State University. There, she was an Arts writer for The Daily Collegian. Her most recent work, Edge Play X, is her first full-length novel. She has written short fiction and science articles for a major curriculum publisher.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that this talented writer is also my sister-in-law.
Your first book, the novella, King of the Dust Mites, was literary fiction, inspired by things that happened to family and friends. Why did you switch from that kind of writing to writing erotica? Do you intend to write more literary fiction?
My primary interest is literary fiction. King of the Dust Mites was an extension of that interest in literary fiction. I was drawn to the idea of boiling down language to where it was difficult to differentiate prose and poetry. The non-linear book is appealing.
The switch to erotica happened somewhat accidentally. My brother died in the summer of 2007 after a long struggle with mental illness and I was having a difficult time dealing with his death. I hadn’t written any fiction for a year. I told a friend of mine, an editor, that I was feeling the itch to write again but that I couldn’t write anything dark or serious like my first novella. There is an element of darkness in that book. I joked that maybe I’d write erotica. The idea seemed very hilarious to me.
But then my friend and I started to discuss the great works of erotic literature, and I began to read classic erotic works along with modern work. While the classics impressed me, much of the modern work was simply terrible. It got me thinking a lot about erotica, about what it was, about what made it good and what made it bad. So much of it was lacking the basic components of good writing, but I learned a lot by reading those works. It isn’t that I think a good book has to have a plot, plenty of masterpieces have barely any plot, but I became very interested in trying to pin down the difference between erotica and pornography. I guess I identified the difference as this: the goal of pornography was simply to give the reader material to get off to, while erotica might arouse a reader but also had some artistic merit.
There are a limited number of ways to describe the anatomical merging of two human beings, and the description isn’t all that interesting to me. But the factors that lead people to desire another person, and then what they are willing to do because of that desire, well, that is much more interesting. That was a compelling topic to write about.
Your first published erotica, Submission: Interactive, got a lot of positive response from readers. How did you develop that idea?
I wanted to write an erotic story as a kind of catharsis, but also as a rebellion, my way of saying that I was going to write anything I wanted, even if it was in the most derided of genres. And I was going to write it however I wanted to write it, in whatever twisted or silly way I found appealing. The idea came to me as I was brushing my teeth. I liked the idea of submission and dominance in erotica, but I wanted to extend this to the reader being submissive to the writer. Every reader is a slave to the book, wouldn’t you say? So I would give the reader a choice, make the reader submit to my will as the writer and create an element of interaction by writing the book in second person so that I was writing directly for the reader.
So if I say that I wrote Submission: Interactive mostly (but not entirely) as a joke or a parody, I hope that won’t be held against me. I had just read Sade and Sacher-Masoch at the time and I was truly interested in erotica. I was also reading Soap by Ponge over and over. It was the only book that could give me any comfort. The problem is that next to my literary streak there runs a silly streak and a punk-ass streak and I suppose that the book was an extension of all of that.
So much of the erotica (perhaps it is better to term it pornography) that I read was just crap. I don’t have anything against pornography, I don’t want to sound like a prude because it is neither here nor there for me. Achieving pornographic literature is a truly artistic juxtaposition but it happens very rarely. I suppose I was sadistic in writing Submission in that I wanted to string the reader along and not give them the ultimate sex scene that they might be looking for. This was very funny to me, the parodying of erotica and genre fiction. Probably not many people will get it or appreciate it, but I don’t really give a damn. Submission gave me a reason to get out of bed in the morning.
What was the writing process like for Submission? How different was it from standard storytelling?
It was difficult to keep the storyline straight. I had to draw a map. Also, the brevity of the chapters made it difficult. I wanted to keep the language simple, like in the Choose Your Own Adventure books. But I liked the limitation of form. When you limit your form as a writer, it forces you to be very specific in your choices.
Your most recent book, Edge Play X, blends erotica with the thriller genre. What was your inspiration for this combination? How was it different to write from your other books?
Edge Play X is my first full-length novel. After I wrote Submission, I kept finding myself thinking about the character of X, the dominatrix. I would find myself wondering how she had turned out the way she had; there was some kind of back story there. When I started writing Edge Play X, I had only the idea for the first chapter. I didn’t know what the plot would be. And that’s nice, when the plot surprises you as a writer.
Much of the fiction that I read had the same plot over and over: a submissive gives themselves over to the dominant and then the story details all of the ways that they are treated, which is an outcome of the success of Story of O. Venus in Furs is the same essential plot but earlier and a very good work. It left me thinking that there were many other potential plots involving submissives and dominants that were not being explored. The psychology behind these relationships is very interesting.
There is a rule in BDSM of safe/sane/consensual. However, when one goes back to the source, back to Sade, one finds that he certainly does not put this modern rule into play in his writing (and didn’t in his life, either), which is a large part of what makes his writing so controversial and pornographic. I don’t want to write like Sade, there is only one Sade and there will only ever be one Sade, but I like the idea of breaking the rules.
When I was researching BDSM while writing Submission and Edge Play X, what fascinated me the most about the whole shebang was the practice of edge play. What makes it so interesting is that the practice often mixes sex and death. The combination of these two drives makes for another good. But even with this practice, ideally, there is still the consent. It got me thinking of this idea: what if there wasn’t consent? I was driven to write a compelling story that explored the topic of consent without having any murder or rape in the book while still exploring the practices of edge play, things like gun play, kidnapping, interrogation, branding, erotic asphyxiation, and blackmail.
Who are your favorite authors? What inspires you?
I like Delillo, Denis Johnson, Dostoevsky, Eric Laurrent, Nabokov, Ponge, Beckett, Bukowski, Neruda, and Joyce. I enjoy some pulp writers and several lesser known writers. I am inspired by other mediums like paintings and sculpture and music. In every city I am in, I seek out the museums.
Mostly what inspires me, regardless the medium, is the undercurrent of the artistic work. I am drawn to subversive, particular, and peculiar works. Part of what makes art ‘art’ is that it is original. It’s not a mass produced thing. When you see a work of art, whether it is writing or painting, and it is obvious that this is a very unique piece, that it is an extension of the peculiarities of the artist as a human being, that is impressive. Of course a truly good work also shows a mastery of technique. Those works set themselves apart and inspire me.
How did you first become interested in writing? Are there other ways you also express yourself creatively?
I was always drawn to reading early on, but I remember very vividly the first time I ever thought about being a writer. I had gotten a little workbook from school, and being the nerd I was, I had saved it and pulled it out of my closet that summer. It had an activity that was the kind of thing that gave you a little plot scenario, and then you had to finish the story. It was about a couple of kids who were in a boat and got stranded in a cave. I was unable to complete the exercise. It occurred to me that I could make anything happen in the story, that I could tell it in any way I wanted, and the power of this was overwhelming.
I started writing some poetry in junior high and then some poor fiction in college. I didn’t think of myself as a writer or even really want to be one even though I was an English major. I mostly liked the reading and the discussions about the works. But then in my mid-20s, I started writing and I couldn’t stop writing, the way some people can’t stop knitting, I guess. There are days when I think it would be better to not write. It takes a lot of time and energy and the payoff is very small generally. But it is something I have accepted about myself and something that I seem unable to stop doing.
Years ago I did a lot of metalworking. But what shifted me more into writing was the fact that I could create something that no other person would create in exactly the same way. It is precisely the irreproducible aspect of good writing that draws me to it. I don’t want to read the same book over and over (and I mean this in a general sense, because some books I do read over and over), and I don’t want to write the same book over and over, or an imitation of a book that already exists.
As a mother of two small children, how do you find the time to write? Any advice for other mothers trying to balance family with writing or other pursuits?
Before I had children, I was able to do very detailed work that took a lot of concentration. But as any parent of small children knows, having them around is kind of like having ADD. I had to let go of that need for control of my time that I used to have.
The good thing about a book is that you can write it a sentence at a time. What I do feel relatively sure about is that every writer approaches a work differently. In that way, I am lucky that I have a rather fragmentary approach to writing. There are times that I have written three or four thousand words in a sitting, but mostly, I might write a few paragraphs, or just a sentence, even. But that gives me a lot of time to think about particular sentences or chapters. When I am writing a work, I tend to become completely consumed by it. That probably sounds neurotic, and maybe it is. It takes up a lot of mental real estate.
When I was a teenager, I used to wonder how people could write novels. But now I know that the way people can accomplish it is obsession. Personally, I become obsessed by particular sentences. Certain combinations of words have a resonance. When I find this in other writing, I become obsessed with the other writer’s sentences, too. There is a vibration that happens when this combination is achieved. I wish I could be more articulate about it but I can’t. When a writer achieves that resonance through the entire piece, then it’s a masterpiece. This is where you have Joyce and Dostoevsky and Beckett or the French Eric Laurrent.
Writers do need to be dedicated to keep writing, whether they are mothers or postal workers. Or obsessed at least, ha ha. That’s a good substitute for dedication in my experience.
Your most recent book is available as a Kindle book, which you formatted yourself. How difficult was that to do? Do you think it’s worth the time and effort?
I wish I could say that I had another option, but I didn’t. With Edge Play X, I queried at least 50 or 60 agents. I lost count at about 40. Some of the agents who gave me feedback wrote that my work was very good but that it simply wasn’t the kind of thing that they represented. And for the agents who did rep erotica, I think that maybe my work wasn’t dirty enough because it didn’t start off with a dick in a mouth, excuse my bluntness.
I did format the book myself, and it wasn’t really very difficult. I just had to check the formatting in htm. The book is currently offered on Smashwords, as well, and there it is available in a few other formats.
Where do you see the future of books? Are readers going to opt more and more for electronic versions? Will that change the nature of what authors produce?
The book is certainly changing, and this is a good thing. It is going to open up possibilities in what is written, and read, that were shut off due to the nature of the publishing industry. The publishing industry functions primarily on what will sell. And when that happens, you get works with a mass-produced feel because the industry is trying to appeal to the masses. But ask yourself this, would you rather eat a Twinkie from Wal-Mart or a dessert made by the local baker?
Writers will no longer be a slave to the agent or the publisher. But the problem of this is that it will be difficult as a reader to sift through everything and find what is valuable. I see the future of the publisher as a kind of branding for fiction. If you like a certain type of fiction, science fiction or literary fiction or whatever, you will go to this or that publisher because you will know that those works have been “vetted.”
But overall, the digital revolution is going to be good for writing, especially in America, where the publishing industry has severely limited the scope of what is available. Every revolution that has increased the availability or distribution of the written word has impacted the form of those words. You could say that the artistic possibilities expand to fill their container. And sadly the American container has been formed by a bunch of pseudo-literati douchebags. It’s time to break that container. Certain writers will rise up through the churn in the same ways that certain bands rise up through the churn, artists who don’t fit an existing niche, like Nirvana did in music.
What projects are you working on next?
Currently, I am working on a postmodern piece where I am attempting to achieve my own particular juxtaposition with a little mind-fuck silliness thrown in for good measure. We’ll see how that goes.