Today, I'm thrilled to be bringing you an interview with one of my favorite writers and people, Donna George Storey. Donna is already a literary superstar in the world of short story erotica. She's had stories appear in Best American Erotica, Mammoth Book of Best New Erotica, and Best Women's Erotica. Her debut novel, Amorous Woman, will be available this summer.
I've already read and reviewed the book, and I loved it. It's a sexy trip through Japan that's not just sensual, but also incredibly smart.
So please meet Donna George Storey.
1)Clearly, Japan was a big inspiration for Amorous Woman. Do you have any memories of what first attracted you to Japanese culture?
My love of Japan can be traced back to my first big crush in high school. Of course, I was too shy to even talk to the guy, but I noticed he was reading James Clavell’s Shôgun, so I picked up a copy as a way to get closer to him—reading the same book is a rather intimate act. The crush passed into history, but my interest in Japan remained. At a loss for what to do with a BA in English literature, I went to Japan to teach English and that’s when the spark burst into sizzling flame. So much of Japan was truly exotic, but in other ways I felt very much at home. Unlike extrovert Americans, the Japanese appreciated the depth beneath my quiet exterior. Not to mention my small breasts suddenly seemed quite adequate…
2) Lydia, the main character in Amorous Woman, kind of goes down the sexual rabbit hole when she gets to Japan. Was the Japanese setting more conducive to her sexual experimentation than an American one would have been? I guess what I'm getting at here is this: As a broad statement, would you say that Japanese culture is more open, frank and adventurous with its sexuality than American culture? If not, where do you think it gets that cache of "exotic"?
The foreign setting is definitely more conducive to sexual adventure for Lydia, as it is was for me and most people, I imagine. The folks back home aren’t around to judge, plus the language barrier makes it all the more appealing to try out nonverbal forms of communication. Many Japanese are interested in making foreign friends, so there’s lots of opportunity for a Westerner who wants to go a little deeper into the culture. Lydia was sexually “exotic” to them as well, and she took full advantage of this situation!
In some ways Japan is definitely more relaxed about sexuality. Rather than a “sin,” it’s seen as a natural human urge, a form of “play” (literally, that word is used) to be enjoyed in its proper context. There’s a long tradition of a separate entertainment district where (mostly) men can indulge the playful desire for female attention—for a price. The contemporary “floating world” is impressively imaginative. There’s always a new gimmick—bars where you get a blow job with your drink, coffee shops where you can ogle waitresses in skimpy French maid outfits, clubs where men can play doctor or “sexual harasser” or subway pervert with a college girl moonlighting for extra income. The popularity of pornographic comics and internet-driven sex services and the ubiquitous photos of women artfully bound in rope certainly fuels the idea that Japan is kinkier than the US.
On the other hand, a double standard still persists there as it does here. A “nice” woman doesn’t even let a stranger hear her urinate—they really do have special white noise machines in public restrooms to drown out that shameful sound. I wonder how easy it is to shift from well-mannered lady to slutty, uninhibited vixen? Not to mention studies I’ve read where the hard-working, long-commuting Japanese report a lower level of sexual activity than US respondents.
It’s interesting to me that while we think of Japan, and to some extent Europe, as being more laid-back about sexuality than Puritanical, God-is-always-watching-you America, they think of us, especially our liberated women, as being super-charged in our sexuality. Bottom line--I think the “Other” always seems to be having more fun in bed than we are.
3)Amorous Woman is your debut novel, which is a great accomplishment. However, you've been writing wonderful short stories for years. What made you decide to tackle the novel format?
Actually, I always thought of myself as a would-be novelist. When I first started writing eleven years ago, I figured I’d try a few short stories as “practice” for a longer project. As it turned out, I found it easier to work on short stories in conjunction with my “day job” of raising my two kids. But most foreigners who’ve lived in Japan feel they have a book in them, so when a respected editor approached me about doing a novel for Orion’s Neon erotica series, I realized this was my chance to write my own “love letter to Japan.” And I guess I did have a book in me, because it poured right out!
4) I love how you're able to use language in your writing. You're fluid and graceful, and have a propensity for plucking an unexpected word, which ends up being perfect, to describe things, and yet it seems effortless. Do you work and re-work the language to get it so perfect, or does it flow easily for you? What do you think is your greatest strength or asset in your writing? Your biggest weakness or flaw?
Effortless? How I wish! I’ll tell you a secret—my first drafts really are really “shitty,” to quote Anne Lamott. I do a lot of editing, both at the computer screen and then on the sofa with a red pen. The pages are bloody with scribbled changes. My greatest strength…hmm, I’d say sleep. I always think my latest writing project is horrible and hopeless in the evening, but after a good night’s sleep, I usually wake up with the plot problem solved or a better ending. My biggest weakness? I try to cram too much into a sentence or a scene. Especially endings. Most of the time the ending of a published story is about a third as long as the endless original draft.
5)Who are some of your favorite writers and how do you think they’ve influenced you?
The top of my list is Alice Munro. I just love the texture of her work, the complexity and realism of her characters. Mary McCarthy’s The Group is the novel I wish I’d written—a smart, witty examination of sex and love and lies and ambition in women’s lives—plus it made tons of money. Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a novel I read every few years (it’s way better than the movie). It’s hilarious and tragic and pithy all at the same time. Right now my favorite Japanese writer is Tanizaki Jun’ichirô—he captures the allure of Japanese tradition so well in his novels and there’s plenty of sexual obsession. Not that I need nudging in that area, but he’s an inspiration.
6) When did you first get the feeling not that you wanted to write, but that you could be so successful at it? What are you working on now?
I’m not sure I’ll ever be “successful” at writing in terms of money or fame, but I do know the act of writing enriches my life and engages me in a way nothing else has, so in that respect, I’ve “succeeded” in finding work I love. That keeps me going through all the bullshit and silliness of the publishing biz, but okay, if we’re talking public validation of my scribbles, two moments in particular stand out. One is when I got news of my very first publication, a personal essay for a parenting newsletter. As modest a beginning as it was (although I got $150 for it which is way more than the going rate for erotica) I put on my favorite disco CD and danced around the kitchen in delight. The other feel-good moment was when Susie Bright informed me she’d chosen my story “Ukiyo” for Best American Erotica 2006. For a minute there I thought, “Hey, maybe I don’t suck?”
I’m just about to start my second novel, which will be a sort of historical erotic romance, a peep through the bedroom keyhole of twentieth century America. Working title: “The Secret History of Lust.” I think it’s going to be fun to write.
7)Other than fiction writing, what's the biggest lie you ever told?
This question really got me thinking and stirred up all of that Catholic guilt I’ve tried so hard to banish from my psyche. I’ve spent too much time in Japan to trouble myself over polite lies like “Gee, I love your new haircut”—yours looks GREAT, by the way—but there have been a few lies I’ve told that I excuse as diplomatic, mostly having to do with sex. Like if a guy I’m seeing has a girlfriend back home, is it really his business if I’m sleeping with someone else on the side, too? But probably the biggest lies I tell are to myself. And by definition, I can’t really be sure what those are. Is this answer squirmy enough for you?
8) Stock question: Dinner with anyone, dead or alive. Who is it?
I don’t like to disturb the dead, but you know, I would love to get together with Jimmy Hoffa and ask him what really happened. I was a kid in Pittsburgh when he disappeared and it was big news—my first history mystery. Maybe it would be the first of many dinners I could host to set the record straight?
9) Stock question 2: One book, one CD, one DVD. What are they?
This is for the desert island, right? I’d take Mary McCarthy’s The Group, because it’s like bringing along a whole crowd of quirky girlfriends. I could listen to Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark over and over and for viewing, The Godfather, Parts I and II (I know part Part III comes with the set, but I’ll only watch that one when I’m really bored).
10)Suppose you can't have both: Would you rather have respect from your peers and critical acclaim (but not making cash from writing), or would you rather be a bestselling author with the fat coin?
I’ve always chosen love over money, and really, have you ever met a rich person who’s as happy as he should be? But by choosing to write erotica, I’ve already lost the respect of hoity-toity literary types, so it’s hard to pledge allegiance to that crowd. On the other hand, I also strive to be a good storyteller who can entertain my readers which is what you’re really referring to with the “fat coin,” but the ones I’ve seen so far are rather thin. The truth is, whenever someone tells me they read Amorous Woman and enjoyed it, I feel rich and acclaimed all at the same time. So I guess that means my answer is—neither!