Bisexual cupcake-enthusiast Rachel Kramer Bussel is the busiest writer in the entire world.
For starters, she’s edited over fifty anthologies of erotica and sex writing, such as Best Bondage Erotica 2012, Best Sex Writing 2012, Dirty Girls: Erotica for Women (the first story in Dirty Girls is by Riese, the Editor-in-Chief of Autostraddle), Glamour Girls: Femme/femme Erotica, Up All Night: Adventures in Lesbian Sex, and Gotta Have It: 69 Stories of Sudden Sex — also, her own stories and essays have appeared in dozens more.
You can also find her writing on The Daily Beast, The Frisky, The Hairpin, Jezebel, Lemondrop, DIVA Magazine, GO NYC, Mediabistro, The Huffington Post, The New York Press, Playgirl, Salon and The San Francisco Chronicle. She’s been a columnist for SexIs Magazine, The Village Voice and The New York Blade, as well as an editor for Penthouse Variations and New York Magazine‘s Sex Diaries.
As part of NSFW Sunday’s Bondage Month, I spoke with Rachel about writing, editing, and BDSM.
When did you first become interested in erotica, and specifically in bondage erotica?
I was living in New York and going to law school in the late nineties, and at the time I was exploring a lot of things like sex parties and BDSM, and that’s really where my interest in erotica sprang from — wanting to write about things I was doing and things I was fantasizing about.
Bondage specifically is a really interesting topic. First of all, you can incorporate so many different material items. You can pretty much tie someone up with anything, so as erotica, I think that’s interesting. And the other part — what I’m most interested in, both personally and in writing — is the psychological side. Bondage especially lends itself to writing about the kinds of reasons that people want to be restrained or want to restrain someone else. When people can do that really well, it speaks to people who are into bondage, but it also speaks to a wider meaning, because it taps into so much more than just our sexual side — it taps into ideas about power and giving up power and who you’re willing to do that for and why. I really welcome the challenge with the Best Bondage Erotica series to incorporate as many points of view about that as I can. I’m editing Best Bondage Erotica 2013 right now (the deadline is May 1), and I always need more stories: more lesbian stories and just any interesting stories. The reason there’s a Best Bondage Erotica series is, as much as it’s an old topic, it’s also a topic that can be reinvented.
As an editor, what makes a story interesting?
For me, you really have to start off strong — you really have to grab the reader, but you also have to keep it going. Especially when we’re talking about bondage, it’s so important not to talk only about what’s happening, so and so is tying up so and so and how they’re doing it. I think people get really into the process of exactly where each rope is and how someone’s positioned, and for me — this is across the board for any erotica — I want to know why the people are there, why this person versus that other person, what are they thinking about, what brought them into the situation. And I think if you can do that well — not ask the questions and sound like an essay, but explain why they’re there in a hot way — then that really adds to the story.
In terms of editing a whole anthology, I look for excellently written stories that are both hot, but also varied. I want the point of view of a top and the point of view of a bottom or the point of view of someone who’s always been one and suddenly wants to be the other, and why is that, or someone who’s playing with gender roles and bondage. I think also BDSM especially lends itself to playing around, not just with power, but with all sorts of other things we might take for granted in our every day lives, and as much as we can subvert those, that can be interesting. But really, just a good story. It doesn’t have to be anything new — at the end of the day, there’s not really anything new in BDSM, but I think you can tell it in a fresh, compelling way. I think a good short story will make you want to reread it or keep thinking about it, and just remember it and like it.
Is there ever an issue with reconciling bondage with feminism?
Not so much for me. I would say I try not to put stories in my books that are anti-feminist, and I do get what I would call misogynist stories sent to me — I’m not saying the authors are necessarily misogynist, but depending on point of view, if you’re talking, say, verbal degradation, you have to make it clear that they want verbal degradation as part of their play, and I think people who fail to do that come across as misogynist. That would be the main way that I think there’s a tension.
I think, especially for women who submit to men, there is still a tension for a lot of them if they identify as feminist as to whether that is OK, but I think that’s one of the internal struggles, and I do see that played out sometimes in stories. It’s an interesting topic, but it’s tricky sometimes to incorporate it into erotica, because it’s not always sexy, but it is important to people, and how they approach their sex lives.
In general, it’s sort of antithetical to sexual pleasure to be policing your fantasies. That doesn’t mean that you can’t think about them and explore where they come from and why you have them, and I think that people should do that, but at the end of the day, you can’t [do that every time]. To me, one of the goals of feminism is sexual equality, and I think that men have had more free range to explore their fantasies, whatever they are, and that women are catching up to that now and in the past ten, twenty years, and that’s been a really important part of feminism and certainly one that’s been controversial. Going back to the sex wars, I think some of that still lingers in terms of women trampling other women about what they do with their sex lives, what they do with sex work, and how they present themselves. That’s more of a cultural tension that I see less in erotica, but I do think it’s important. [...]
But in general, I think a lot of feminists like my erotica but I wouldn’t say I’m trying to put out “feminist erotica,” because I think the minute you try to slap that label on it, then the stories aren’t serving their first purpose, which is to arouse and entertain people. If it makes you think in addition to that, that’s wonderful, and I’ve read some amazing stories that are hot and thought-provoking and make social commentary, but the sexy part has to be more prominent.
You’ve been hugely prolific because of your blog, Lusty Lady, your former column in the Village Voice, writing about sex in multiple places, and editing a ton of anthologies. What’s been behind your longevity?
For me, dropping out of law school, which I did in 1999, is part of my motivation to be really prolific. It pushes me both in terms of student loans that I’m still paying off, but — I didn’t graduate from law school, and a lot of people say, ‘oh, its doesn’t matter, you don’t want to be a lawyer anyway,’ which is true — but not having graduated still feels like this negative thing, so I feel like every time I edit a book or write something new or produce something, that’s validation that I made the right choice. I also like it. In terms of the anthologies, at the end of this year, there’ll be over fifty of them. It’s still exciting for me, every time I get a new book in the mail or every time I get to send out author contracts or deal with people publishing their first erotica story or their first erotica story in one of my books, it’s so totally exciting, so I always say I’m going to keep doing that until I get bored with it, and it’s been ten years and I still haven’t gotten bored with it.
I think the topic of sex just lends itself to writing about so many different things. I feel very lucky and I get to hear so many people’s stories and people tell me things they might not tell someone else. I get a huge reward out of doing what I do. I still have ethical questions about writing about my personal life, and I think there are downsides. — I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to everyone to write about their personal sex life using a real name, I think you have to measure whether that is worth it to you, but for me the rewards have outweighed the negatives.
What is the most challenging part of writing about your sex life for you?
I think it’s trying to figure out how much the writing informs what I’m actually doing. For me, writing is really the way I express myself the best, and I think that’s a great thing for my writing and my career, but it can be challenging because I might be writing about something that I wouldn’t necessarily say to someone’s face that I’m dating because it just wouldn’t come up or there wouldn’t be a need to tell them in that form, but I still feel the need to express it. And for me, the person I’m dating is not really my target audience for what I’m writing, but it’s so important to me to get that out there. It’s interesting because two of the stories I’ve written that are some of my most personal, and I think some of my best, stuff are break-up erotica, and one of them was best lesbian erotica and best american erotica, and it’s called the end, and it’s about the end of our relationship, and the person who it’s about read it, and I’m sure that was not necessarily a comfortable experience for her, but I think she knows me well enough and understands that that was something I had to do, and we’re friends now.
It can be a very cathartic process, but it’s very challenging, and I think it’s always challenging to write about things that involve other people, especially sex and relationships, because that’s the person probably the closest to you.
Do you have a favourite author or writer?
I have a favourite book: The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls. It’s a memoir, and it takes the story from as she’s growing up in this extreme poverty which is to some extent by choice — her parents decided they wanted to have this really artistic bohemian lifestyle, and that’s one part of it, but I think it’s also about love and family and what it gives them that wasn’t about money, and especially it was about the mother daughter relationship and about her relationship with her mother. I love that book and I’ll reread it and pretty much recommend it to anyone no matter what kind of book you read, what you’re in to, I think there’s something universal about that, even though it is about her growing up.
Jeannette Walls — I interviewed her, and I remember she told me that memoir should be universal, and in a really personal story, people might take from it something you never even thought they would take from it, and I think that’s something that I remind myself about when I’m writing personal pieces. I think the bonus about writing about your own life is that no one can tell you that’s wrong, that’s not how it happened, that’s not how it was, because you’re just talking about how it was for you. I’m always really appreciative of what people get out of the things I write, whether it’s about having a panic attack or about my sex life.
What are you working on next?
I have a couple of erotica books coming out. I’m really excited about Suite Encounters, which is another hotel erotica book, because I love hotels. We’re also going to do a hotel erotica ebook, and I’m hoping that if I can find someone to partner with, I want to give away a hotel stay as a promotion for it, I just think that’d be really fun.
And I have a book called Curvy Girls coming out from Seal Press in April, which is plus-size erotica, for lack of a better word, but it really takes the word curvy and it’s not just about who you would think curvy girls would be — there’s butches and there’s a woman with big calves from running, and that one was really fun to work on. I’m working on, for next year, a book of all my erotica short stories, so I’m writing some new ones for that. It will probably be out in early 2013. And Best Sex Writing 2012 which just came out, Susie Bright is the guest judge, and there’s a lot of very queer, very feminist content and that, to me, I really enjoy working on because even though I love erotica, non-fiction is really my first love when it comes to writing, so I really like getting to look at politics and sex and how they intersect. I’m doing a little book tour for that in April on the West coast and also in New York, and there will be free cupcakes. All the details about that should be at bestsexwriting2012.com.