“You can write erotica about anything,” Rachel Kramer Bussel tells me over brunch at Hash House a Go Go. “You could even write about that Bloody Mary,” she says, pointing to our friend Tess’ cocktail. The drink has such a commanding presence, with its thick slice of bacon, red slab of tomato and protruding celery stalk, it almost needs a table—or a room—of its own.
Before I know it, I’m spinning a tale in my head about the busboy, the waiter, the waitress and cook, a tangle of arms and legs, a not-so-secluded pantry off a busy kitchen and … well, you get my point: Anything, from food to feet, can be eroticized and used as a jumping-off point for a hot, steamy tale of sexual seduction and arousal.
At least that’s what Kramer Bussel thinks. She has edited 39 anthologies of erotica—with six more in the works—that explore everything from plane sex and hotel sex to spanking and bondage. She’s written dozens of short stories, including “Monica and Me,” her first published piece of erotica based on her fantasies about former White House intern Monica Lewinsky. The world is her erotic muse, and it’s clear from talking with her that she wouldn’t have it any other way.
Kramer Bussel, 35, who lives in Brooklyn and works full-time as a senior editor at Penthouse Variations, was one of 90 people from various parts of the world who attended the first-ever Erotica Writers Conference in Vegas over the weekend. For members of the Erotic Authors Association, the idea to hold a conference had percolated for years before finally coming to fruition. As conference co-organizer Kathleen Bradean recounted via email: “At one writer’s conference, a presenter pointed to several erotica writers in the audience, and admonished us to write something that matters instead of wasting our talent on trash.” For Bradean, it was a wake-up call. She realized that erotica writers needed a space of their own where they could “talk shop without judgment.”
The point of erotic stories and novels is to arouse and entertain. And given just how wide a spectrum there is when it comes to sexual desires and fantasies, there are as many different kinds of erotica as there are sexual activities. If you can imagine it, someone has probably written a story about it. Do chemistry labs turn you on? Vintage cars? Thunder storms? What about libraries? Zombies, vampires, frat boys, pretty boys? Paranormal activity? How about Godzilla? If so, there’s a world of erotica at your fingertips just waiting to be discovered.
But what makes for good erotica? I asked this question of almost everyone I came into contact with over the course of the conference. First and foremost, they told me, a story needs to be well written. Good sex writing is a process of translation, turning an event, or a fantasy, into a story. It needs to have a strong story arc, characters that readers are invested in and a clear sense of motivation. In other words, readers want to know why that woman in a fancy restaurant is so turned on by the sight of a juicy hamburger on a stranger’s plate. The only limitation is a writer’s imagination.
During one panel presentation, “Your Sex Life as Story Fodder,” an audience member asked a question that was likely on the minds of many: “Do you need a diverse and interesting sex life in order to write erotica?” The panelists responded with a resounding, “No!” As one person put it: “Did Agatha Christie kill all those people in order to write her books?” Of course she didn’t. And while experiential knowledge, the kind one gets from being tied up in Chinese rope bondage, might find its way into a story, it’s not a requirement. You can research any sexual subject, according to the panelists, be it erotic nipple play or sex machines, through books, videos or the Internet. And if your historical novel is set in the 17th century, it’s best for the sake of accuracy to not also reference a car park.
According to Brenda Knight, an associate publisher with Cleis Press, which specializes in “how-to” sex guides and erotica, the market for erotica has seen an uptick during the recent recession. In the year following the onset of the economic downturn, which started in October 2008, Cleis’ sales jumped by 56 percent, a byproduct, Knight told me, of “recession sex.” People were staying home and looking for inexpensive forms of entertainment. For many, erotica became a source of sexual inspiration, something they could use to enhance their sex lives for relatively little money.
Sexuality affects so many different areas of people’s lives, and when writers can bring elements into their stories that go beyond sex, whether its intent is serious or playful, Kramer Bussel finds that especially interesting. “I’ve read stories that deal with cancer, body image, breakups; but they can also deal with your job or your family.” In erotica, the more the messy world of real life intrudes, the better, more believable and interesting the story.
“My favorite story [from a reader],” Kramer Bussel tells me, “involves someone who bought one of my books. She got home and discovered that a story had been ripped out. She returned the book to the store, and they told her this happens a lot. I thought it was so fascinating, that someone liked that story so much, they shoplifted it.”
She looks at me without missing a beat and says, “I could turn that into a story—a bookstore employee catching that person and reprimanding them.” I could see the wheels in her head spinning. And so were mine.