May 29, 2013

Wherein I Interview Rachel Kramer Bussel

I've known Rachel Kramer Bussel for years and think she's fabulous.  I love her books and have been lucky enough to be in a few of them.  Rachel's very open about her life in many ways, but there were still things I didn't know and really was curious about, including her work with Best Sex Writing so I was really happy when she agreed to let me interview her about this year's edition of Best Sex Writing (2013), among other things.  So, here we go...

Hi Rachel.  I’m sure people would like to know more about you.  Can you tell me a couple of things about you that people don’t know? 

I used to play chess as a teenager; I played in probably hundreds of tournaments, including one in Brazil. I was too lazy to truly devote myself to studying it, so eventually I reached a plateau and never moved beyond that. I don't play these days, but I do feel like the skills I learned as a chess player apply to writing in some ways. I also go to trivia nights and love word games. I grew up in New Jersey (Teaneck) and now live in New Jersey again (Red Bank) for the first time in twenty years.

When did you start writing erotica and why?

I started writing erotica after reading lots of it during my misbegotten years in law school, and thinking, "I could try this." So when I saw the call for submissions for celebrity erotica stories by Shar Rednour for her book Starf*cker, I took my real-life crush on Monica Lewinksy and turned it into a short story. I think I was more intrigued by the idea that I could write fiction, which I never had before, and once that first story got published, both the excitement and gratification of that, and the fact that I was starting to explore my own sexuality in new ways, kept me writing. I fell for the short story format and the worlds that writing about sex opened up to me. My first stories were about characters very much like me, and sometimes I still write ones like that, but for the most part, I've grown and expanded in my erotica. I still love the feeling of coming up with an idea, often inspired by a photo or story or image or sex toy or event or person, that I then twist and contort until they're almost unrecognizable, even to me, in the final story.

How did you go from writing erotica to editing erotica anthologies?

My published erotic short stories led directly to being asked to co-edit erotica anthologies, and then edit my own anthologies. I had built up a small body of published stories, as well as written many book reviews. My first short story was "Monica and Me" and it appeared in both Shar Rednour's Starf*cker (Alyson) and Tristan Taormino's Best Lesbian Erotica 2001 (Cleis). I enjoy the process of writing, which is very solitary, but also the more social aspect of editing anthologies and getting to work with authors from around the world. I've edited 52 anthologies since I started in 2004, and there are more on the way.

How long have you been editing Best Sex Writing and, as a well-known writer and editor of erotic fiction, what made you want to work on a book with a more journalistic approach to sex?

I was asked to start editing the Best Sex Writing series with the 2008 edition, based on my nonfiction work, including my former Village Voice sex column Lusty Lady. Nonfiction is my first love, and I still feel as if erotica is something I luckily stumbled into. I think fiction, erotica included, can say very powerful things about sexuality, but nonfiction, speaking our truths and investigating the many worlds and subcultures and mores and laws around sex, is just as, if not more, important. Sex doesn't have its own section of the newspaper, but it permeates the news, from the front page to the business section to arts and sports and travel. It's everywhere, but it's still sometimes treated as something less than, as if it's a breeze to write about sex simply because it's supposedly salacious. I think good writing about sex can be challenging, and what I love as an editor is discovering writers who've rose to this challenge. One of the best pieces I've ever published, in my opinion, is novelist Stacey D'Erasmo's essay "Silver-Balling" in Best Sex Writing 2009. I hold that up as a standard of what sex writing can do—question, unnerve, provoke, challenge, amuse.

My feeling is that this book is more than just entertaining.  Why do you think a book like this is important and whom do you hope will make up your readership?

Some of the feedback I've gotten, perhaps because people know my erotic writing, is that this series isn't erotic. And it's not, necessarily, though occasionally there have been some pieces that might qualify as literary erotica of a sort. But the intention is different; these are intended to be more in line with other annual Best Of collections that capture the best of the previous year of writing on a given topic. I try hard to create a range of writing that spans what most, or even all, readers would come across on their own. It's likely if you read a lot of the same publications I do you may have read a few of these, but I hope it's still worthwhile to have them collected together, playing off of one another, occasionally speaking to each other. My dream readership is someone who has never heard of anyone in the book (with the exception perhaps of Jonathan Lethem) and has never read a book about sex. Certainly, the core audience is probably people predisposed to be interested in the topic, but I think sex is such a universal topic that it could speak to anyone. I try to stay away from overly academic language that might be too dense for both me and the average reader, and keep the writing provocative and intelligent but also accessible.

This year, the foreword was written by Carol Queen, an icon in the study and culture of sexuality.  In case all my readers are not familiar with her, can you tell us a little about her background and why she was such a good choice for the foreword?

Carol Queen's book Exhibitionism for the Shy and Real Live Nude Girl were incredibly powerful for me in terms of learning about sex-positive culture. They are highly personal as well as political and educational. They are about sex, and sex work, and shame, and blasting sexual shame apart. She's a pioneer, but she is also out there, now, writing and teaching, both as Staff Sexologist at Good Vibrations, a columnist for BUST, a speaker and a person. Her books too I'd recommend to anyone interested in learning more about sex, whether they've read anything similar before or not.

As both a writer and an editor, I’m really curious about your process for finding/choosing articles for Best Sex Writing.  I know you take submissions, but knowing how incredibly well read you are, I figure you see an awful lot of what’s out there.  When you come across something special, do you also approach authors with a request for an article you’ve read?  And just how does that Editor/Guest Editor team work?

When editing the Best Sex Writing series, I'm always on the lookout for good writing about sex, especially writing by people who don't normally write about the topic. I'm also trying to look for timely topics, such as "Porn Defends the Money Shot" by Dennis Romero from LA Weekly. I consult with the guest editor, asking for input on pieces or topics I should include, and they narrow down my initial round of selections. It's a collaborative process.

There’s a whole range here.  Everything from memoir to news.  Does the work, itself, frame the theme or is there a theme?  How do you decide what to include?

I don't necessarily think the pieces have one unifying theme, though others do; Laura Anne Stuart in SEXpress suggested it's "the normalization of BDSM, sex work, polyamory and sexual orientation." But I do think taken as a whole they make some powerful statements about the role of sex in our culture and on individual people's lives. Several of the pieces here speak to sexual subcultures, such as Lori Selke's essay "Dear John," written as an open letter. I firmly believe that the deeply personal is often the most accessible. Even though it is highly specific, as Selke's essay is, I think there's an element to it that's about far more than sex; it's about community and fitting in and feeling left out and claiming a place within a group. Perhaps that is true of all the pieces; that as much as they are about specific aspects of sex, from polyamory to age play to aging and sex to nude art modeling to vibrators to Tim Tebow's virginity to BDSM to sex work to bisexuality and beyond, each is also about something more than sex. That's not to say everything written about sex needs to be about something more than that, but I think it speaks to the quality of the writing and insights therein that these pieces highlight sexual situations but each of them are also about what we as a culture bring to the conversation about sex. So Jon Pressick's "Holy Fuck" is about Tim Tebow's virginity, but also what sports culture thinks about virginity, what values we imbue virginity with.

Jon Pressick; I was just on his Toronto radio show.  What an interesting, smart, well-read guy.  Thanks so much for the interview, Rachel.  Readers: here are some links you may find of interest.

Here's the books page on GoodReads
Here's a link to the Best Sex Writing 2013 website


  1. Regrettably, the general public will be more familiar with 50 Shades than BSW13.
    BSW13 will hopefully generate a lot more discussion about alternative sexuality, marginalized members of a community, etc. than 50 Shades.

  2. Thanks so much for the interview! I'm a huge fan of the BSW13 series, and it's really cool to get some insight into the selection process.

  3. Hi Diane:

    What a fabulous interview! I have been a fan of Rachel's erotica for quite a while; specifically her collections devoted to female domination. In fact Her Majesty bought me a copy of "She's On Top" at our local Barnes and Noble which I thought was very romantic! Sounds like the "Best Sex Writing" series is definitely something I would enjoy reading!