Live from the Lilith Blog 1 of 2

May 9, 2012 by

My Writing Roots in Porn Lit

By Anonymous

Gypsy Rose Lee seated at typewriter/ World Telegram & Sun photo by Fred Palumbo via Library of Congress.

The year was 1979. Ronald Reagan was in the White House, Leonid Brezhnev was in the Kremlin, and I had just tumbled, fresh-faced and clueless, from the idyllic confines of a Seven Sisters college in the mid-Hudson valley. I had a plan–graduate school at Columbia University in September–and my very first apartment, a shabby walk-up on 107th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, then a sketchy neighborhood just south of Harlem. But I needed an income, so I found a job as a waitress. On my first day I inadvertently charged one customer $14.60 for an iced coffee, splattered another with gobs of cheesecake from the slice I dropped, and was fired by the end of my shift. Time for plan B. I pored over the want ads in the Village Voice. Telemarketer? Nurse’s aide? Nothing clicked until I read this one:

STAFF WRITER
ADULT FICTION

I called the number and spoke to a woman who was far more interested in my typing skills than my literacy. She told me to write the first chapter of School Girl Crush, a playful, Sapphic romp set in an East Coast boarding school. “It should be around 20 pages long,” she said. “And it shouldn’t take more than four hours.” I’d written a lot of term papers over the past few years, but I had never churned out 20 pages in four hours. Then I thought: East Coast? Girls’ school? Hey, I was a natural. I conjured my own college campus: the scenic pond—where I had three characters go skinny dipping—and the gym’s communal showers—where two others had a passionate, lesbian encounter—and pretty soon, the chapter was written. The next day, I sat across a desk from Flo, a zaftig middle-aged woman with a head of corkscrew ringlets and a big, toothy smile. As she read my chapter, the smile got even bigger. “This,” she said, “is perfect.  When can you start?”

My new office was on the East Side of Manhattan in the mid-30’s. This was a surprise; I had expected it to be in Times Square which was, in that pre-Disney era, a sleazy area filled with X-rated theaters, X-rated books stores and X-rated, sticky-floored peep shows. But my surroundings were perfectly pleasant: with its sisal carpeting, laminate desks, and obligatory plant in the corner, the company I now worked for could have manufactured industrial lighting or zippers. Instead, it was the single largest distributor of pornographic material in the tri-state area, churning out between eight and 10 new titles a week. There was also a lively mail order business (12-inch dildo, anyone?) and a “newsletter” consisting of photos sent in by readers: think dumpy blondes wearing only high heeled boots and Saran Wrap and you get the idea.

To meet this voracious demand, writers worked two shifts–8:00 to 4:00, 4:00 to midnight–cranking out a book every two days (no wonder Flo was so concerned about my typing) on clunky, early-model word processors. Typos could be corrected by a laborious task called stripping (which involved cutting out the mistake with a straight razor and pasting in the corrected copy by hand) but manuscripts were only proofread, not edited. Finished manuscripts were 160 pages long; too short and a hasty “spinout”— new text glommed on at the end—was required; too long, and it was simply lopped to fit.  Books for straight guys could include lesbian sex but no sex between men. Gay books were men-on-men only. No one could die in a sexually related act, and there was no sex involving children or corpses–ever.  Animals were permitted, but only in bestiality themed books. As long as I adhered to those guidelines and included at least one sex scene per chapter, I was home free.

Initially, it was a thrill. I was getting paid to probe my fantasies and explore my own nascent desire. Threesome on the beach? Check. Seducing a young and questioning priest? Check. Sex with tall, dark strangers, with lean, tousled-haired surfers, blue-eyed Swedish hotties, cute British boys and soulful French ones–check, check, check. I was always an eager reader, and it seemed to me that from reading, my own writing was born. So I wrote for the reader in me, as if I were the only one reading; lo and behold, the words just kept on coming.

When I actually paused to draw breath, I found myself wondering–OK, fantasizing–about my co-workers. Apart from Flo, I was the only woman on staff. Several of the other writers were gay, but there were still many straight–and potentially available–men. A porn factory was hardly the ideal place to troll for guys, but when you are 21 and stoked by the heat of writing about sex all day, such insight falls by the wayside. I spent the summer pole-axed by lust. Everyone in that office did. I developed a mega-crush on the office manager. With the dazzlingly white T-shirts that showed off his tanned, well-muscled arms and his green-gold gaze, he was definitely a piece. The flirtation turned more serious but when I learned that he was living with someone else, I was crushed. Call me naïve, but I thought this was the start of major romance; instead, it was only a porn-induced romp. There were other intense office flirtations and other equally intense disappointments too. I began to feel that I wasn’t quite real to these men; instead, I was a 3-D incarnation of a character in one of my books–or one of theirs.

Clearly, I was getting an erotic charge from this scenario, yet it was also beginning to take its toll. Still, I kept writing novels like Heated Nymph, Bondage Brat, and Stable Mistress, as well as a pseudo-sociological study called S & M Nurses in Training and a collection of historically based erotic short stories that took place mostly in castles and dungeons; that class in medieval history certainly came in handy.

Something else significant was happening as well.  Even though I had entered into my new professional pretty clueless about men (and pretty much stayed that way) I began to understand that I wanted, and more importantly, could actually become, a writer.  The discipline of putting words on the page, and sentence by sentence, chapter by chapter–— that was an unexpected delight.  Yes, the novels were tawdry and formulaic.  But debased as they might have been, they were still novels, with beginnings, middles and ends.  Although no one else cared whether I devised plausible plots or characters (and most of my coworkers did not bother), I found I was unable not to try to adhere to these time-honored conventions.

My budding consciousness as an author seemed to require a nom de plume.  I spent an inordinate amount of time devising these names. Lena LaTour, inspired by my senior thesis on the images of Mary Magdalene (surely the most famous Jewish girl to have entered the world’s oldest profession) by French painter Georges de la Tour was one.  Velveeta Louise—just because I liked the improbable lilt of it—was another.  But the finished books ended up with Anonymous or some other dull name on their covers; there might even have been a Jane Doe.

My work was getting attention from Flo, and from Bruce and Kyle, the gay couple who ran the company. They all praised the context I was able to create in my books, and the erotic tension I sustained. I didn’t know it yet, but I was on my way to becoming a “real” novelist. The X-rated books, with their one-line plot descriptions and utter indifference to all literary criteria, were giving me not only sexual but artistic license which was perhaps the most powerful aphrodisiac of all.

Then Kyle asked me if I would consider performing in one of the movies the company made: $500 a day, five days of work. I’ll confess: The money was mouth-watering. I was being paid $128 per book and averaging a book and a quarter a week. Compare that with $2500 for the same week’s work; it wasn’t hard to do the math. But even in my lucre-induced fog, I understood that writing about sex for money was quite different from engaging in sex for money. The former was, in its essence, a private act; the latter was prostitution. I politely declined the offer, but inside, I was fairly pulsating with relief, as if I’d dodged a bullet.

By then, the summer was winding down. I agreed to write a book in which the Nazi guards at a concentration camp had sex with each other, with the inmates, and with just about anyone else they encountered. I received a $10 bonus for my effort (no one wanted to write those books and the extra cash was meant as incentive), and with that as my swan song, I called it quits. I’d had a great fling as an X-rated writer, but it was time to say good-bye, and to separate the “heated nymph” who cavorted on the printed page from the real, live woman-child who had invented her.