Ann Bannon, Queen of Lesbian Pulp Fiction: The Autostraddle Interview

click for other “the way we were” posts

June is LGBT Pride Month, so we’re celebrating all of our pride by feeding babies to lions! Just kidding, we’re talking about lesbian history, loosely defined as anything that happened in the 20th century or earlier, ’cause shit changes fast in these parts. We’re calling it The Way We Were, and we think you’re gonna like it. For a full index of all “The Way We Were” posts, click that graphic to the right there.

Previously:

1. Call For Submissions, by The Editors
2. Portraits of Lesbian Writers, 1987-1989, by Riese
3. The Way We Were Spotlight: Vita Sackville-West, by Sawyer
4. The Unaccountable Life of Charlie Brown, by Jemima
5. Read a F*cking Book: “Odd Girls & Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in 20th-Century America”, by Riese
6. Before “The L Word,” There Was Lesbian Pulp Fiction, by Brittani
7. 20 Lesbian Slang Terms You’ve Never Heard Before, by Riese
8. Grrls Grrls Grrls: What I Learned From Riot, by Katrina
9. In 1973, Pamela Learned That Posing in Drag With A Topless Woman Is Forever, by Gabrielle
10. Trials and Titillation in Toronto: A Virtual Tour of the Canadian Lesbian & Gay Archives, by Chandra
11. Ann Bannon, Queen of Lesbian Pulp Fiction: The Autostraddle Interview, by Carolyn
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Ann Bannon in 1982 / photo by Tee Corinne

Lesbian pulp fiction was at its peak in the 1950s and 60s, and author Ann Bannon is one of the reasons.

At a time when gender binaries were rigid and queer representations difficult to find, lesbian pulp fiction revealed the possibility of a less mainstream life (read Brittani’s discussion for more details). The books — called pulp because of the low quality of the paper they were printed on — were mailed out like magazines and available in corner stores and bus stops, and to avoid being classified as pornography, many early books had suddenly tragic endings tacked on in the last paragraphs. Though not filled with unicorns and rainbows, Bannon escaped such a fate. Her books — Odd Girl Out, I am a Woman, Women in the Shadows, Journey to a Woman, and Beebo Brinker — are still in print and have earned critical recognition and a place on modern bookshelves.

I spoke to Ann Bannon about lesbian pulp fiction, writing, and being unconventional in the 50s and 60s.*

What distinguishes lesbian pulp fiction from other types of pulp fiction, besides the lesbians?

I guess that would have to be it. I think we were writing in the same era and with the same assumptions that the people who were writing westerns and detective stories and science fiction and romance were writing. There were certain conventions — they weren’t laid down as rules, but you knew that this was supposed to be ephemeral literature. […]

There were a lot of men who were writing those books, and they would write them mainly for a male audience and mainly as an excuse for sex between women, which has always been fascinating to men. But when the women writers — and there weren’t very many of us, fifteen or twenty were active during that period — when we wrote the books, it was of far more interest to us to explore the characters themselves, the feelings and the emotions and the interconnectedness and the struggle to communicate without offending. There were a lot of things that had to go into those stories to retain the realism of the time, and the difficulty, but at the same time to communicate the humour and the joy of finding someone. All of that I think played a much bigger role than just simply plotting. If you were writing westerns, it was going to be in all likelihood an adventure story and there would be the ranchers against the farmers, or it would be the cowboys and the Indians; if it was a science fiction story it was all about inventing an intricate different world with a different culture and different rules and exploring space; in the police novels it was about plotting and making things happen in quick succession. In the lesbian pulps, it was adventurous in its own way but it was more about the characters and personality and people being able to find each other in such a hostile environment. And that was a critical component.

Who were they meant to appeal to?

Women who were writing wrote them for women. But the authors generally — if you threw in the great many men who tried to make money in this genre, there is no question that we had an enormous crossover audience of men. […] It was inevitable I think that men would express interest and find those books and read them, and for all the complaining about that, it’s probably what make the lesbian pulp genre a viable one. It gave a financial security that wouldn’t otherwise have been attainable if the books had been pitched exclusively to women. That doesn’t excuse the excesses of the male writers, and the total lack of sensitivity in their approach, but it does explain the financial success and the reason why editors and publishers promoted the books the way they did. Word got out to an enormous nation-wide audience that became an international audience. It put them on the shelves in the bookstores and the newsstands and the bus stops, right alongside all the other genres, and allowed us to find a much larger audience and to make a success of the books. Lesbian pulps might have died if that hadn’t been the case. But you do have to distinguish between the approach the male writers took and the approach the women themselves took.

When they came out, how much did they sell for?

Some were sold for 25 cents but I think my first one was 35 cents […] It sounds like a very small amount of money, and it was, even for those times, though you could buy a lot more with 50 cents then, but it got them out to a mass audience, and that was live or die for the paperbacks. […] [Publishers] paid you upfront, a flat fee, whether the book sold well or not. It was something like $2,500, which was a lot of money back then. And then royalties were 15 per cent […] but you sold millions of them. You actually could make a living writing paperback novels.

You’ve been called “The Queen of Lesbian Pulp Fiction.” How did you get your start?

I was a newlywed and I was living in Philadelphia while my husband was working, and I sat down at the dining room table and started writing the story that became Odd Girl Out. It was a rather long manuscript and little bit clumsy but there were some good things in it. I had begun a correspondence with the first really successful lesbian pulp writer — her pen name was Vin Packer and her real name was Marijane Meaker. (Marijane is still living and still writing.) And I wrote to her because she was the only one I could find who was doing this kind of work. It turned out she was living in New York, and was working on a lot of other books at the time, still really successful, and she said, “Well, if you can get up to New York, I will invite you to meet my editor, and you can bring your manuscript and we’ll see if he likes it.”

I was just extremely lucky that she took an interest and I bamboozled my husband to let me go up to New York by myself and I met Marijane Meaker and we hit it off very well, and she took me over to the Gold Medal Books offices and introduced me to the editor in chief there, who was her publisher. We had a good talk. And in fact within two days he had read the book, and he sent me home with instructions. He said, “It’s gotta be half the length it is, and you need to tell the story of the two young women.” And this was hard for me to hear because I thought I tucked the two young women away in a corner where they wouldn’t be noticed, and he said, “No, that’s your story.” I went back to Philadelphia on the train with my manuscript, I sat down, and I began to trim. It was rather hard for me to do, to bring the two girls to the fore. I had a hard time thinking of how I was going to tell my mother about this. I was really a little tentative about the whole thing, but on the other hand I wanted to get published, and my heart really was in those stories, so I did it. I shortened the manuscript, I told the story of Beth and Laura […] and so I took it back, and the editor, whose name was Dick Carroll, read it, and by the time I got home there was a note in the mail saying, “We’re going to publish it.” And they didn’t change a word. It was kind of an amazing piece of luck that I had established a correspondence with Marijane Meaker; that she and I kind of enjoyed the correspondence, and that she was willing to give me that entry.

Are any elements of the books autobiographical?

“I think a lot more young women today are a lot more self-confident about stepping out into the world on their own. They expect to work, expect to find a place in the world outside the domestic sphere. And in the 1940s and 50s and 60s, it was not that way. You were expected to conform. And a great many of us did.”

Well, yes. The first book is set in a college sorority, and when you’re very young, you write about what you know. I had just come out of that life within the year prior to writing the book, and so it’s not that I was Beth or I was Laura, but I think there were a lot of elements of both of those characters in me and in the life I was living then, and I also had the opportunity to observe, of course, as all writers do. You’re participating in life, but you’re sort of taking mental notes all the time simultaneously. I suppose in ways I would be more like Beth, because she was the one who held back, she was the one who when the crises came chose to marry a young man and live a more conventional life, at least initially. And so while I would have loved to have done what Laura did, to go to New York and try to find myself, I did the more conventional thing, and I think I was not alone in that. There were a great many of my age-mates who, under the pressure of conventional thinking at the time, knuckled-under to that. For a lot of young women in your teens and your twenties, the pressures from your family and your friends and your colleagues all around were so heavy on you to get married and have children that a lot of us found that hard to resist. It seemed as if that was all we could do and that everything would turn out OK. Society was sending the message that even if you have doubts, the doubts would all be resolved if you followed this mainstream path which sort of laid out a blue print for you, and if you’re rebellious about this, your life will fall apart, you’ll have a lot of trouble, you’ll never settle down — you just got that from all sides. From the medical establishment to college professors to religious leaders of the time to the federal government, everyone was telling you, “Live a normal life and everything will turn out OK.” So a lot of us did. And I can’t regret some aspects of it — I am certainly delighted to have my two lovely daughters and my grandchildren, so there were some rewards, but I don’t think today I would have done that. I think a lot more young women today are a lot more self-confident about stepping out into the world on their own. They expect to work, expect to find a place in the world outside the domestic sphere. And in the 1940s and 50s and 60s, it was not that way. You were expected to conform. And a great many of us did.

Do you have a favourite pulp fiction novel?

I still have some affection for Marijane Meaker’s book Spring Fire; that was the first of the lesbian pulp novels and she really does get credit for that, although that book had a very bad ending. It was published in 1952, and she was required by the publisher at the time to end the book in such a way that it would not suggest happiness as a possibility. In other words, you couldn’t have a lesbian story in which the two women end up happy in one another’s arms. So to her great distress and embarrassment, she wrote a love story, and practically on the last page, one of the girls goes crazy and the other one says, “Well, I wasn’t serious.” It was very strange. But the reason was the books were distributed just like magazines by the US post office. They weren’t shipped in trucks from warehouses by publishers, they were distributed like newspapers and magazines. And the US post office said, “We will not deliver your books to your markets if they have happy endings,” and the reason they wouldn’t do it was that Congress had passed various laws that restricted the dissemination of what they thought was pornography. Their concern was that in reading about happy gay and lesbian lives, children would be persuaded to become gay or lesbian. So you had to show them that if you had those feelings, they had to be smothered, otherwise your life would be a tragedy and you could never be happy or normal or stable. So the restrictions were very severe. Five years later, when Odd Girl Out was published, things had begun to loosed just a little bit and I did not have to do that. I did send Beth into the arms of Charlie, but normally I would have had to throw Laura under the train. Instead, I put her on the train and sent her from the college town to New York city to make a new start in life, and somehow we got away with it, and the book sold very well.

It’s very hard to pick a favourite novel. There was Price of Salt, by Patricia Highsmith, published as Claire Morgan, and Patience and Sarah, Valerie Taylor was writing, and Paula Christian. Many intelligent and thoughtful women were doing good work, but I guess since it was the book that suddenly crystallized for me what I would like to write, I would have to pick Spring Fire.

Do you have any plans to write anything else?

I have started a memoir, because people have been interested in how I lived my life, but I don’t think I would do another novel. I actually did write one in the late 80s and early 90s and I don’t think it was what I would have liked it to be, so I’m very dubious about doing that again. I think the time for that came and went. There was a tremendous swell of interest in lesbian pulps, and their era was really the 50s and 60s, and then there began to be other outlets. The feminist movement came up and electrified everybody. People continued to write but it was in a different vein. Bit by bit, television and film began to do a lot more adventurous work. The role that lesbian pulps had played in educating women and serving as sort of travel guides and providing insight into life as it could be lived as a lesbian — that role was diminished and taken over by theatre and film and popular magazines that really replaced the need for the lesbian pulps. I don’t think I would try to write another book in that vein, it wouldn’t be appropriate, but if I ever get back to my desk, I might get the memoir finished. […] It’s a little difficult with six grandchildren and other people in my life who would have a hard time dealing with this, so I’m not sure if it will ever come to pass.

*This interview actually happened October 14, 2010, but has not been published until now.

Carolyn Yates is the NSFW Consultant, and was formerly the NSFW Editor (2013–2018) and Literary Editor, for Autostraddle.com. Her writing has appeared in Nylon, Refinery29, The Toast, Bitch, Xtra!, Jezebel, and elsewhere. She recently moved to Los Angeles from Montreal. Find her on twitter.

Carolyn has written 941 articles for us.

12 Comments

  1. Ann Bannon is so fascinating to me. She wrote lesbian pulps while she was married to a man! What?! I’d love to read a memoir.

    Really enjoying these pulp fiction articles. Btw though, there’s a spelling mistake. See “dong”.

  2. I really appreciate this, Carolyn. Ms.Bannon should know that some of us remember searching out these books, even as we succumbed to convention, and they did their work. For me the result was divorcing and coming out at age 31, as surreal and terrifying as it was at the time. It started with “Patience and Sara”, and then Olivia Records, and finally meeting some real lesbians.
    There is a sadness to this interview that I can’t quite place. She sounds wistful and a bit regretful still.
    I hope she does finish her memoir. I hope she does give herself (and us!) that.

  3. This is amazing. I’m interested in the memoir too… and I agree that there’s some sadness in this interview, but ultimately it’s about women giving other women opportunities during this period. I wonder how the Highsmith got to have a happy ending. I’ve read that it was the first lesbian novel that did. It’s an amazing book and was more recently released as a “legitimate” or “literary” novel.

  4. i loved the beebo brinker chronicles when i was first coming out. they kind of gave a window into what the lesbian community was like back then, and i think her books were well written. great interview!

  5. Even if it’s a little sad, the main thing I get from this is about strength in women who are dealing with what options they have, and I loved that. I would really love to read that memoir, if it ever does come out.

    Last term I found out that my university has a surprisingly huge collection of lesbian pulp novels, and I spent a lot of time holed up in the library special collections room reading through them. I ended up doing a project for an editing class where I put sections of Spring Fire and Beebo Brinker together for an edition (never have hours of research been more fun), just kind of coincidentally, so it was really interesting to hear her talk about the personal influence of that novel.

    Thank you so much for this! It was really wonderful to read. c:

  6. Thank you so much for this interview!
    The Beebo Brinker Chronicles will always have a special place in my heart. I think Ann Bannon seems like an amazing woman.

  7. I just re-read Beebo Brinker this past weekend and found this interview today. I must admit that Ann Bannon was a turning point for me. I found her books in the newstand and believe it or not in the grocery store book rack, when I was sixteen. They answered so many questions and I knew there was another way than what everyone seemed to expect of me. I collected every one of hers, and others I could find. They made my life. I am forever grateful she found her market and wanted – needed to write these stores.

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