Interview by William Dean
Marilyn Jaye Lewis is one of modern erotica's cherished icons. Currently co-editor of The
Mammoth Book of Erotic Photography, she was before that president of
EroticBookSociety.com, the online community's largest bookstore dedicated to books,
periodicals, videos, and collectibles on all aspects of sexuality from around the globe. She
also designed their monthly Erotic Arts & Literature Forum, where she was editor-in-chief
until March, 2000.
Her first full-length book, Neptune & Surf, a collection of erotic novellas published by
Masquerade Books in 1999, was called "a sensational debut" by London's popular
newspaper, The Guardian. Her short stories have been widely anthologized, with many of
the books becoming featured selections in Doubleday's Venus Book Club.
As head writer for RomAntics, Inc. in 1997, Marilyn helped create the first bisexual CD ROM game, the award-winning Dadahouse, featured on HBO and selected by AVN as
Best Adult CD ROM 1997. Her explicit original bisexual stories posted weekly on the
Dadahouse web site were called "...kinkily engaging..." by Entertainment Weekly and
selected by them as Best Soap on the Web for that year.
Her award-winning web site, Other-Rooms.com, was the first non-commercial erotica site
to be entered into Playboy's Online Hall of Fame (Summer 1998). The same year, as
president of Marilyn's Room, Inc., she sponsored and/or produced live video and audio
Webcasts in conjunction with Broadcast.com and Pseudo.com, and was executive
producer on dozens of erotic spoken word recordings for other erotica authors and poets.
She's been interviewed on international television, radio, and Internet radio. Her views on
the current climate for erotica in America have been sought by reporters from such
prestigious media sources as The New York Times and The San Francisco Chronicle.
Marilyn Jaye Lewis lives and writes in New York City.
CS: With your "Other Rooms" Website, you were one of the earlier pioneers of high-quality online erotica. Though it's now gone, what insights did putting together "Other Rooms" give you about the potential for erotic literature on the Internet?
MJL: I started Other Rooms in 1997 primarily because of Mark Pritchard. He and I had exchanged many emails about the shrinking sex zine market -- magazines devoted to literate hetero or bisexual erotica. It was getting harder and harder for writers like us to get in print since magazine publishing was -- and is -- so expensive and almost always a losing venture. The zines were disappearing. The ones that were left were either strictly gay/lesbian or BDSM oriented.
I decided to start my own non-commercial website and start publishing my friends and myself, because I can't stand sitting around waiting for life to happen. As luck would have it, I launched Other Rooms only a few days after a project I had been head writer on was selected by Entertainment Weekly as one of the 30 outstanding Web sites in the world. Even though the web site was quite sexually explicit, Entertainment Weekly got off on it because it was very artsy, as well. I used that achievement to jump start publicity for Other Rooms and it really worked. It took a lot of time and my own money to promote it, but it was a labor of love that really paid off. It became very popular almost overnight, because I did have access to some really gifted writers, of all sexual persuasions. Plus, it was at a time when lots of new people were getting online everyday and they needed destinations. So I printed up simple, easy to read, humorous direct mailings that were not sexually confrontational in any way. I used regular mail -- not email -- to reach people. I simply said, "Come visit us. We're always in our rooms." It worked. Visitors came in droves. Of course, I primarily targeted office workers. People who could get online for free at work, who were most likely bored and probably wanted sexually explicit content. From there, it was word of mouth.
I think Other Rooms worked because I've always been comfortable taking risks, I don't mind publishing something that's too sexually challenging. I published traditional gay and straight erotica, but I also published stories about extreme fetishes that happened to be well written, scat, piss, pregnancy, nonconsensual rape and incest, snuff, bestiality; it was all in there to a degree. I wasn't like some small press who might have had to worry about losing funding. In fact, every one of my online ventures has hemorrhaged money. I lost my shirt on all of them because they were always entirely free. But I got great press and I helped get a heck of a lot of talented writers published. Almost everyone I published on Other Rooms got traditional publishing opportunities that stemmed directly from their exposure on my site. Regardless of whether they were new to the field or established erotica writers. I learned a lot about the power of simple, direct promotion from Other Rooms.
CS: The impression we have from the general media and social critics is that the majority of erotica readers are located in the American metropolitan cities, like New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and that erotica is mostly a "big city fad" that will fade like any other. What are your thoughts about that impression?
MJL: I don't think it's a fad so much as a cycle. I think a majority of the writers are in the Metropolitan cities, but I strongly disagree that that's where all the readers are. The readers are everywhere, thanks to the Internet. But traditional publishers go through cycles regarding their decision to publish erotica or not. And that cycle is based on society's perceived morals at any given time. It's all supply and demand.
CS: You've recently been nominated for Best Erotica Writer of the Year in the United Kingdom. Do you generally think European erotica readers are more sophisticated than their American or Asian counterparts?
MJL: I don't know the Asian market at all, outside of their tastes in porn movies or erotic animation. The Europeans don't strike me as having a need to segregate erotic literature from other types of literature. If they like reading a book it doesn't seem to matter if that book has a lot of sex in it.
I, naturally, prefer that attitude to the one that has prevailed in America until recently. But Americans are coming out of the closet that's for sure. I don't think it's fair to always fall back on the idea that Americans are Puritanical. One very noisy, very wealthy segment of our culture is Puritanical -- but that's strictly about greed and control. All of the Americans that I know personally, like sex. They may not like to see it exploited in our media, or in our entertainment. They may not like to have it foisted onto their emotionally vulnerable kids. But that doesn't mean they aren't sophisticated about sex. I think the American media is dangerously immature about how it uses sexual imagery, but that's more of an out of control "advertising machine," not individual Americans.
CS: Curiously, we're starting to see a kind of backlash in erotica from gay and lesbian authors and publishers who will not make a discrimination between erotica and the clearly exploitative pornography. Do you think that will harm erotica's striving to be accepted as an influence for literary and social change?
MJL: I don't see that as a "backlash." That segment of extreme pornographic publishing has always been there. It helped pave the way for what we now term "literary erotica" and I think it was what caused some very profound literary and social changes itself. The only way literary erotica will have a significant impact is by taking it into the mainstream, as is being done now, and exposing it to the people at large. Placing it side by side to other works of literary quality and see how it compares.
Most of what happens beyond the fringe in any artistic medium, stays beyond the fringe because it lacks long-term commitment to the human race overall. Fringe art tends to be focused on highly personal, very narrow artistic expressions. Artists who are interested in shock for the sake of shock create a notoriety that's usually short-lived. The public has a short attention span for that kind of self-involved artistic expression simply because the public's needs are cut out of the equation. A piece of writing that has substance, that adds something unforgettable to a reader's heart or mind (be it happy, sad, angry, violent, etc.); a piece of writing that addresses timeless needs in human beings, is what will help influence literary or social change. Regardless of the amount of sex that is or isn't in it.
CS: It's been said that all erotica is basically a love story in the process of being sexually consummated. Is that a fair description or is there more to it?
MJL: That's crazy. That's like saying that all of life is a love story waiting to be sexually consummated. A lot of people have a lot of sex in the course of living their lives. And plenty of those people are never in love. Sex and love don't necessarily go hand in hand. People have sex for a lot of complex reasons. I think erotica addresses all those reasons. There are so many types of erotic literature being written out there today, and each type attracts its own specific audience. From the romantic to the extremely carnal and violent.
With that said, though, I personally do write love stories. No matter how highly implausible they seem, my stories are always about love at some level. I write because I'm trying to express my connection to God, the love between humans and God and the gift of sexuality. I'm not a traditional romantic by any means. I've been very dissatisfied in both love and sex in my life, plus I was raped at a young age, which helped skew everything. I write to try to create what I would consider a perfect (incredibly sexually fulfilling) world.
CS: One of the more unique things developing from erotica publishing is public readings and presentations. What's it like for an author, like yourself, to publicly get people turned on from reading aloud to them?
MJL: I'm not sure that I turn people on by reading aloud to them. I hope I engage them, I hope they're actually listening to me -- because my ego is huge! Ideally, I want an audience to hang on my every word. But I don't know if they do or not.
I was on my way to do a reading with M. Christian the other night, and we were remarking about how it feels to read aloud, in general. I told him that sometimes when I'm in front of an audience, while reciting one of my more hardcore stories, I start thinking, "Jesus, this is filthy! What the hell was I thinking of, choosing to read this? This is so fucking personal!" I never think about turning an audience on. I only think about how foolhardy it is to tell a bunch of strangers every detail of my intense sexual needs, while they get to remain safely in their seats, usually with a cocktail in front of them!
CS: Are mainstream publishers finally becoming aware that erotica is a valid market niche or is it still an uphill struggle to sell them on a manuscript?
MJL: Erotica is making a lot of inroads now in traditional publishing. I think that by the end of this year, the small press market is going to be absolutely glutted. It's mind boggling, the amount of erotica being published out there, but it must be selling because it's finally making its way into the mainstream.
Selling a manuscript to the mainstream, though, still hinges on the bankability of an author's name. Do they have a history of sales, do they have a following, will they get out there and promote? There's nothing esoteric about it. Once the talent walks in the door, it's still going to be about money.
CS: Other opportunities seem to be opening up for writers of erotica, such as graphic novels, adult comic books, more online erotica magazines, and CD-ROMs. Might we soon see Marilyn Jaye Lewis works in other mediums or are your next writings in the traditional hardcopy of the book trade?
MJL: I'm almost 41 and I've been writing sexual fiction for going on two decades already. I came up the hard way in this industry. Several years ago, I quit my day job and set out to make the best living I could by doing the writing I loved most -- sexually oriented fiction. Because of that, the only paying jobs I could get were in CD ROMs, adult computer games, and online stuff. I did those jobs to get my name out there and to get paid, to have my type of fiction taken more seriously. My true love is fiction writing in the traditional sense of writing books. That, thankfully, is where my career has been steadily heading and I hope it stays there. I have no desire to go off on any more exhausting forays. I have real attitude problems when I have to work too closely with people.
CS: As an erotica writer, what's your overall view of sexuality in the U.S.? In the global society? Are we headed, do you think, for more openness about alternative sexual lifestyles or facing a return to more Puritanical points-of-view as a backlash against pornography?
MJL: I sort of touched on this earlier, the alleged Puritanism in America. Unfortunately, I don't see it as being that simple, as a backlash against porn. I see it as hopelessly interwoven with a certain very well organized, very powerful political agenda based primarily on greed. For instance, here in New York City, Times Square went from being a haven for sex shows and sex shops, to being a new home for Disney. It has nothing to do with the morals of New Yorkers. It has everything to do with the value of Real Estate, with where the most money will come from.
And we have to remember there's a lot about alternative sexual lifestyles that have nothing to do with actually having sex. It's about freedom of choice, freedom of expression, free will, in general; the pursuit of happiness; the gradual redefinition of the norm that occurs in every society. Hence, it can be political more than simply sexual. I really can't break down my view of human sexuality into different countries -- the U.S. versus Global. There will always be shifting political tides everywhere that make sexually explicit work more available at certain times and less available at others. I'm not really concerned with that. Human sexuality exists beyond any social or political construct. Human sexuality fascinates me on so many levels: the spiritual, the philosophical, the psychological, and the physical. For me, it's a window into the nature of reality. I would still be obsessed with writing about humans having sex even if I couldn't get any of my work traditionally published. I can't speak for other writers, though.