A candid look at the world of erotic fiction with one of Seattle’s hottest new writers.
Published in August 2012, Sex and Death in the American Novel turned a lot of heads due to its frank depiction of adult relationships. But author Sarah Martinez, a Montana transplant who earned an International Business degree from Seattle University in 1999 and has remained in the Northwest ever since, argues that erotic fiction is about so much more than steamy romance and trashy dialogue. The wife and mother of two believes her milieu – like all other genres of fiction – has the power to move and inspire readers. We recently sat down to discuss American perceptions of sex (literary and otherwise), influential authors and her ambitious second novel that is currently in the works.
When did you decide to pursue a writing career?
I always wanted to write since the time I started to read, and I did write. But I got serious in 2009 and started spending actual money on it – hiring sitters, going to conferences, keeping track of my hours with a spreadsheet, and all that. Before 2009 I was in writing groups, and there were times when I was serious about it, but even then I didn’t think I would actually publish anything.
What’s your writing philosophy?
We’re all trying to do what everybody is going to like, but really readers want something new and different. I always tell writers, do your thing. Do what really turns your crank, and it will turn somebody else’s crank. It might be five or 10 years down the road, but then you will have done something. But it won’t work if you try to do what everybody else wants.
Who are some of the writers that influence your literary style?
Priscilla Long is the one that always comes to mind. If you’re a writer and have serious aspirations, pick up The Writer’s Portable Mentor. She’s the one who tells you to read other writers and collect sentences if you want to be successful. But my need to be readable and have other people connect with me would come from somebody like Stephen King, who I grew up reading. This guy made me feel like I was at home when I picked up one of his books, and I wanted to be that kind of accessible writer. Other writers like Junot Diaz or Marco Vassi were the ones who inspired my need to shock and awe.
How did your role as senior editor of Pink Fish Press prepare you for writing a full-length novel?
All the companies I ever worked for were small, so I learned to be flexible, work weekends, that sort of thing. Before I even started at Pink Fish Press, I had written first drafts of three or four novels – and Sex and Death was close to done. Plus I worked with Andrea Hurst, the literary agent, so I had seen what happens to books in the editing phase and when they go to press. There’s also a feeling of accomplishment when you help good people get published.
Sex and Death in the American Novel was published last August. How have people responded to this work in the last six months?
I had one mommy come up, put her arm around me and say, “You’re a badass!” That’s probably been the neatest thing, talking with mommy groups and hearing the conversations and discussions that came out of that. Also, being able to talk to actual readers. Writers spend so much time talking to each other, or editors. I also did a radio blog interview with Marsha Casper Cook, and had the most outrageous conversation with her about erotica. It was a really good example of the larger discussion of erotic fiction, and why my book didn’t exactly fit in with the rest.
Writers often feel a connection to their main characters. What sort of kinship do you share with Vivianna, the main protagonist of Sex and Death?
Mostly the anger with the father. She gets to be the voice of rage. I had all these thoughts to myself, about whether or not I was writing erotica or literary fiction. And she became the voice asking me, does it matter? That’s kind of neat, when you can say this person gets me – even if he or she isn’t actually a real person.
In your opinion, what are some of the biggest misconceptions that readers have about erotic fiction?
A lot of people feel that erotica is just ‘dressed-up’ porn. I’ve had a lot of discussions lately with people who feel it’s irrelevant whether a book features sex or not. Really, the question is: should I like it, or should I not? Is it good, or is it bad? My porn might be your erotica, and my erotica might be your porn. It depends on a person’s perceptions.
Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James was one of last year’s best-selling novels. In your opinion, is this novel’s success beneficial or detrimental to the erotic fiction genre?
Fifty Shades of Grey has gotten people talking, which is a good thing, and some people are discovering Marco Vassi, Anne Rice, and other writers that I discovered 20 years ago. I don’t like that it reinforces the notion that all erotic writing involves BDSM. One good thing that people don’t give the book credit for is that women are now talking about what they want. I’m not arguing for people to go out and read Fifty Shades of Grey at all, but I think all the hype says much more about the people talking about the book than the book itself. If we’re worried about role models for young girls (which I’m not), then I don’t think the book is anything worse than the made up dolls and teenage soap operas our kids are fed on television, with shows like Pretty Little Liars and so on. Both, it could be argued, encourage girls to favor appearance and pleasing a man over more important concerns.
Do you have any more novels in the works?
Yes! I’ve got seven total that I’ve written – most are first drafts, though. For my next novel, the working title is Lost Dolls. I was working on that when I started Sex and Death, and I’m about halfway done now. Lost Dolls is about an adult film star who runs for Congress. I got the idea from a female adult film star who talked about running for the Louisiana Senate. When you look at the interviews she did about this, she’s actually very well spoken. Also, this woman had sex, on camera, and did it legally. Meanwhile, politicians are getting caught cheating on their wives left and right, and then they deny it. So my goal is to say something outrageous and also make a statement about how hypocritical our society can be.
Who are some other Seattle writers that we should be reading?
There are so many people who are friends of mine that I admire for different reasons. I can’t say enough about Priscilla Long. She has a blog on The American Scholar she posts in every Wednesday. And Jack Remick has a bunch of stuff out there. We bonded over his novel, Blood. Jennifer D. Munro wrote The Erotica Writer’s Husband & Other Stories, a book that gives a really good example of erotic writing that says something.
You recently taught a Pacific Northwest Writer’s Association (PNWA) course titled, ‘Writing Sex: Breaking the Self-Censoring Barrier’, with another Seattle author, Jack Remick. Do you have plans to teach any upcoming classes?
I would love to – that particular class, anyway. I only have one book under my belt, so I don’t really consider myself a teacher. But that class gave me a chance to share a lot of stuff that most people don’t think about as writers. Whether or not somebody ends up publishing any ‘sex stuff’, it’s all about getting past what you’re afraid of to get where you need to go. I will be presenting an hour long session on small press at the Taos Writer’s Conference this summer and in November I will be presenting a three hour class for the Skagit Valley Writer’s League. When any more upcoming classes become official, I’ll post all the information on my website.
What are some tips you have for aspiring writers?
Two things. First, there’s writing well. Read, and read, and read — but also discover who you are as a writer, and then find your community of writers that you want to be like and surround yourself with them. As far as getting it out there, finding a compatible agent is really important if you decide to go the traditional route. Publishers Marketplace is great. Jeff Herman has a guide, and so does Writer’s Market. Both also list small presses. But Publisher’s Marketplace is $20 a month, and you can plug titles that are comparable to yours in and do searches. Also, send out at least ten queries at a time – and don’t wait too long. Otherwise you can lose six months, just like that.
Please visit Sarah’s official website, for information about her upcoming classes and speaking engagements, and check out her blog for more information about the Seattle literary scene (erotic fiction or otherwise). The author also urges Seattleites to check out the Erotic Art Festival, which kicks off in June and is followed by Seduction, a sexy Halloween soiree that is tentatively scheduled for Oct. 26. Sex and Death in the American Novel can be found in bookstores, or purchased online.