An Interview with Ella Boureau by Whiskey Blue
May 27, 2014
Ella Boureau writes erotica. She also runs the online magazine and reading series In the Flesh. Earlier this year, Boureau co-edited The Uncensored Collection: Lesbian Erotica by members of Private Commission. Along with Samantha Barrow, Diana Cage, and Claudine Lanthenay, Boureau belongs to the writing group Private Commission. The anthology they put out contains work that has been considered too controversial for more mainstream venues like the longstanding anthology Best Lesbian Erotica. Boureau sent a story to Best Lesbian Erotica before putting together this anthology; in fact, the guest editor accepted Boureau’s story for publication. Then the head editor rejected it. The story is called Cottonmouth. It tells the tale of young cousins who share a sexual experience. It also features a snake. It’s worth a read. In this interview, Ella Boureau waxes philosophical, and political, on queer literature, what makes fiction erotic, and Best Lesbian Erotica’s curious treatment of Cottonmouth. It turns out that, since rejecting Boureau’s piece, BLE has updated its submissions guidelines with a number of “Don’ts” that seem to have been pulled straight out of Cottonmouth.
Whiskey Blue: When did you start writing erotica?
Ella Boureau: Cottonmouth is my first piece of erotica actually. I have written erotic passages in my stories before, and I am working on a play that involves quite a bit of BDSM, but I had never sat down and written an entire story of erotica before this. I have a queer writing group that I started with a friend, Alexis Clements, in fall of 2012 and some months ago we decided to release an e-book of lesbian erotica as a way to pay for snacks for the group. The theme of the book was originally going to be “Southern Gothic dykes”, and so that is how Cottonmouth came about.
Whiskey Blue: Is there a difference between writing erotica and, say – fiction? Is the process different?
Ella Boureau: I don’t think the process is different, erotica is fiction. The only difference I can observe is that it seems to make the writer feel looser. That was what I noticed among the group. This is a bunch of writers whose work I have gotten to know well over the past year, and seeing their erotica was like seeing a much more playful and confident side of them that I didn’t know existed. Probably this is because the stakes of erotica are so low, and it’s clear what eventually has to happen, people are like “nobody cares! I’ll write what I want, I’ll break with convention” and that makes it interesting. I mean there’s something so great about a form that is just so unapologetically trashy. We’re talking about smut! Cheap porn! You can actually do whatever you want. Be as silly or dark or perverted or out there as you choose. I think it sucks that there are so few publishers out there (who have any kind of promotion power) that recognize this. But then again, maybe that’s why it’s so freeing to write in the first place.
Whiskey Blue: Which queer writers do you read? Erotica writers?
Ella Boureau: Oh my god, okay, the list is long. I am going to answer this question a little differently: some of the most influential people on my erotica are: Dorothy Allison, Truman Capote, James Baldwin, Patrick Califia, Linda Smukler, Anne Carson, Toni Morrison, Amy Winehouse, Lucinda Williams, early Nicki Minaj, Kathy Acker, The Myth of Persephone, Violette LeDuc, Pan’s Labyrinth, the writings of St. Teresa of Avila, Bikini Kill, Patricia Highsmith, Sally Mann, David Wojnarowicz, Volver, Bernini, chanteuses Edith Piaf and Barbara and all these old French bawdy songs from the turn of the century… I’ll stop there because I could literally just go on and on. But it’s clearly a very fey list.
Whiskey Blue: How did the idea for Cottonmouth come about?
Ella Boureau: Well I had been teaching a high school English class where we were supposed to focus on British and American literature pre-20th century. I gave them Frankenstein, thinking they would like and recognize the Gothic style, since it’s in all the pop culture. It missed the mark, the language was too hard, it was too long. The complaints were endless. So I ignored the rules of the course (private school!) and updated it to Southern Gothic. Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor and Truman Capote. Like I say in the article, there was a scene in Other Voices, Other Rooms that really caught me. I mean the whole book is about hiding desire and miscommunication and the ripple effects of erotic lies, but this scene where the narrator and his companion are in the woods and come across this snake, it’s just very hallucinatory and it struck me. It’s interesting because it’s Capote’s first novel and so I think he wasn’t able to tell that story narratively, there isn’t really a plot, the passages are extremely poetic and you can get unmoored easily in his dreamlike prose, but there’s something so true in those hallucinations. It’s like he is trying to give voice to a queerness he hasn’t found a language for yet, he is trying to verbalize the unsaid, the secret heart. For me, that was just such a rich novel, it was easy to make it more explicitly erotic. So when we decided to do the e-book in the writing group, it was all set in my head, I knew immediately what I wanted to do.
Whiskey Blue: How did you first learn Cottonmouth was being picked up by Best Lesbian Erotica?
Ella Boureau: Sarah Schulman asked me to submit something, and I did. She liked the piece, but then she emailed me saying she was arguing with her co-editor about the bestiality in the story. I thought that was odd and thought it would probably get rejected. Then I got an email from Sarah’s co-editor saying I had been accepted where she sent me a contract and then we went through line edits.
Whiskey Blue: What was your correspondence with Sarah Schulman like when she first read your piece? Was the incest addressed? The scene with the snake?
Ella Boureau: The incest never seemed to be an issue, funnily enough!
Whiskey Blue: How, if at all, did the tone shift (in your correspondence with Schulman) once Cottonmouth was being passed along to higher-ups for reconsideration?
Ella Boureau: I’ve known Sarah for a couple years, so it didn’t really shift, she was just explaining the situation and the weirdness at the press, and we talked about what we should do.
Whiskey Blue: What was it like when you learned of the decision to censor the story?
Ella Boureau: Well, it was confusing. I just couldn’t figure out why. And I felt bad that Sarah had been removed as editor for the whole thing. But then I did some research on Cleis (my knowledge of them was really dated, I just knew them as tied to people I think are righteous—Susie Bright, Annie Sprinkle, Tristan Taormino, Patrick Califia) and it became so obvious to me that they were changing their audience, but very quietly, so that they could continue to trade on their image of being outsider boundary pushers. Which, when that kind of image becomes stripped of its content, is very exoticizing I think.
Whiskey Blue: You say in your essay at prettyqueer.com that Cleis Press was once the place to go for outliers, and that now it’s closing its own walls on difference. Why might Cleis want to limit the breadth of its material and, by extension, its readership?
Ella Boureau: I don’t know, I don’t work for Cleis and I haven’t been able to eavesdrop on their sales meetings lately. But my suspicion is that it’s a question of who is being marketed to. With their erotica in places like Walmart and Barnes and Noble, Cleis gets a broader audience, they make more money, they get accolades, but if their content is perceived by these places as being too out there, they might get dropped. So they start playing by different rules. It isn’t just me that this has happened to, with the article I wrote, other erotica writers have opened up about this very thing happening to them for BLE specifically. The guest editor picks them, they get a contract, go through line edits, and then the Publisher nixes them, and the reasons why are always nebulous and ever-changing. I wrote this article not because I want to single out Cleis Press, but because I think writers, especially young writers who are emerging in a publishing industry that is falling apart and in denial about that, accept a lot of shit. And I want to talk about that. Already we don’t get paid for our writing, and we accept that, or we get paid next to nothing. We are expected to promote our own work and create an online persona (my article was picked up on HuffPost, and in the terms and conditions it was like “we don’t pay our writers but the upswing is that we have a huge platform so you will get your name out there.” And then five sentences later they say “you are responsible for bringing in your own audience, use facebook and twitter, etc.”. And it’s like what the fuck?! HuffPost has so much material that if you aren’t on the main page, you will never get noticed. It is actually benefitting HuffPost so much more because you are bringing in the hits for them, but it’s your audience, not the other way around, which is so twisted. But there are some stragglers who make their way onto it, and again, everyone knows about HuffPost, it’s a name, so you accept it. If you want to get published and be paid for your work and keep your integrity as a writer, and be queer on top of that, well best of luck. The situation is hard to feel positive about, but there are really great publishers out there, navigating the waters. Topside Press publishes mostly transgender fiction and they print on demand. They are out at every event, they send their authors on tour, they have a great aesthetic, a strong community and they publish interesting stuff. Feminist Press is great, Arsenal Pulp Press is still doing interesting stuff, Seven Stories Press, Seal Press, Semiotext(e), City Lights.
Whiskey Blue: Do you think this attitude puts Cleis Press at risk of falling behind in terms of contemporary relevance? Of being avant-garde?
Ella Boureau: I think it’s more than being at risk, I think it’s been years since they’ve done anything innovative, and it’s not because good work isn’t being sent to them. What bothers me is that this is just a tacit thing. It’s silent. It’s not being acknowledged. I mean okay, this is your business, by all means, change direction, but don’t pretend like that isn’t what you are doing.
Whiskey Blue: Where does a writer of queer erotica send a story once it’s been turned away from Best Lesbian Erotica?
Ella Boureau: I mean there are a ton of queer presses out there, but none with the reputation of Cleis who are just doing erotica (especially with a bunch of queer women running it). There’s Lethe, Bold Strokes, But we’ve lost a ton of presses, book publishing is changing (or refusing to change, but the conditions are changing) a lot of places are just doing e-books now. It’s hard to know what all is out there.
Whiskey Blue: Will you read the next edition of Best Lesbian Erotica?
Ella Boureau: Hell no.
Whiskey Blue is the author of Brooklyn Love, a collection of literary erotica available everywhere ebooks are sold. She also writes an advice column for Everyone is Gay. In her other life, she is a contributor to Psychology Today, and has written for The Huffington Post, The Atlantic, AfterEllen, Curve Magazine, Bitch, and more. Whiskey holds erotica in the highest regard. Follow her @topshelferotica.
Ella Boureau is a writer, teacher and translator living in Brooklyn. She is the recipient of the 2013-2014 Queer Art Mentorship and runs the online magazine and reading series: In the Flesh (http://www.inthefleshmag.com/). You can see her work there, as well as on The Rumpus, Tin House, Pretty Queer, Fullstop, the Huffington Post and in the erotica anthology The Uncensored Collection by Private Commission.