Sunday, March 09, 2008

The Seduction of Words: An Interview with EllaRegina

Everyone told me that MySpace was the place to be to promote my novel, but an unexpected benefit has been the chance to connect with other erotica writers, many whose work I've long admired and some who are emerging talents in the field. EllaRegina was one of the first new erotica-writing friends I made on MySpace. I was immediately intrigued by her photo—a ghostly white Washington Square Arch wrapped in apocalyptic gloom. It wasn't until I got my contributor's copies of Best Women's Erotica 2008 that I understood the connection. EllaRegina's fabulous, and I mean fabulous, story, "The Lonely Onanista," is about a woman who lives inside the Washington Square Arch as part of the interior décor project she's been hired to complete for the Department of Parks and Recreation. Her commission: to wallpaper the vertical surfaces in dollar bills and pave the floor with quarters, edge to edge. So, New Yorkers, if you were wondering where your government was spending your tax dollars... When the Lonely Onanista isn't busy wallpapering, she entertains Park Rangers and one particularly special visitor, but hey, I'm not going to give anything else away—you have to read it. And when you do, you'll thank me for introducing you to one of the most exciting new voices in erotic fiction.

It's not just Park Rangers—everyone really does love "The Lonely Onanista." The story is in the Best-of-Craigslist archive, earned a coveted nod from Violet Blue for her best-selling anthology, was featured on Clean Sheets and now has been declared a finalist for the prestigious Rauxa Prize. I've asked EllaRegina to stop by and answer a few questions about her super-hot story.

"The Lonely Onanista" was originally part of a series of personal ads in Craigslist's Casual Encounters. Could you talk about that?

Wow! Thanks for that lovely introduction. I'm virtually blushing. Your description of the MySpace photograph is uncanny—I am ghostly white and wrapped in apocalyptic gloom!

"The Lonely Onanista" began life as the ninth of eleven pieces posted anonymously on Craigslist over a six-month period: Lonely Onanista Living in National Monument Seeks Assistance - w4m. I like to imagine the protagonist as forever inhabiting the cybersphere of their Best-of archive, masturbating (among other things) in perpetuity.

The project started as a kind of personal dare—a challenge. Violet Blue dubbed it "guerrilla erotica" in her initial e-mail to me, a pretty accurate interpretation. The endeavor was part sexual exploration and part seduction experiment combining my erotic imagination with the written word. It was one wild ride. For months I was completely consumed—either writing (and editing and re-editing and re-editing), posting, or dealing with replies. It was exciting, exhilarating and unpredictable. There was instant gratification, which one does not get with conventional (print) publishing, the possibility of receiving immediate reader feedback and the opportunity to respond. It was often titillating.

Initially, the posts were composed as proper ads, then morphed into "vignettes" and ultimately became full-fledged stories. By the fifth ad I incorporated "illustrations" placed beneath the text. Inserted as visual clues, they referred to items described in a story and were arranged in order of their subjects' appearance within the tale. I was inspired by André Breton's Surrealist novel Nadja, which similarly presents object portraits—a rebus keyed to the narrative. As this undertaking was wholly Internet-driven, I limited source material to images found online through Google searches, which I sometimes altered in Photoshop. To my knowledge, these were uncredited photographs of items from product catalogs, and so on, or are in the public domain.

Here, the pictures comprised a sepia-toned 1950s view of the Washington Square Arch; a George Washington quarter dollar heads- and tails-up; a white metal cot with blue-sheeted mattress jutting out from a dark concrete corner; and a pale pink linen "O"-monogrammed handkerchief.

The images were arranged like this:

What was your inspiration for the story?

One day I noticed a little door on the Washington Square Arch, wondered where it led and who had access to whatever lay beyond that lilliputian portal. A staircase and attic space do exist, features unknown to me when I wrote the story. (Marcel Duchamp staged a rebel performance piece atop the monument in 1917—illicitly camping there with a group of artists and actors, declaring Greenwich Village an independent nation—a riotous incident I knew nothing of until a Craigslist reader thought the male character's beret was my sly homage to that famous French Dada/Surrealist artist/chess player. Funny, the things you learn about your own work from other people).

The actual seed for the tale sprouted during a playful e-mail repartee I was enjoying with a particular bachelor on an Internet dating website. He was asking where I lived—was it in this or that place, all of them funny and unlikely locales, growing exponentially more implausible as his guessing game continued—and, being in an especially improvisational no-holds-barred mood, I replied:

"No, actually, I live in the Washington Square Arch, in a little spartan room at the top. There are no windows so it's a bit tomblike and claustrophobic but on the rare occasion that I need oxygen I seek the great outdoors. I egress and enter through a secret opening in George Washington's left jacket pocket, something not patently obvious to the unwitting onlooker."

As you can see, that is the opening paragraph, almost word-for-word. It was truly a proverbial lightbulb-over-head moment and the story just erupted from there. Unfortunately, the bachelor in question inexplicably dropped off the grid several e-mails later. I guess he found my living arrangements off-putting.

Finally, this piece was essentially a love letter to a specific man—one of several "beta-testers" reading these works as I wrote them—and the thought of him propelled my typing fingers.

What sort of feedback did you get there?

In its tenure as a Casual Encounters ad Lonely Onanista Living in National Monument Seeks Assistance - w4m received 157 responses. Like all e-mail replies this project elicited—a total of 1910, to be exact—the range was wide: from the good, the bad to the very ugly. Some were hostile: "See a DR and get some RX PLZ." Homophobic e-mails troubled me the most. For whatever reason, there are male Casual Encounters readers who think women posting in the "w4m" category aren't genuine vagina-owners. A photograph or telephone call was requested of me now and then to prove my alleged gender. Once I quelled a man's doubts by volunteering that my period was due in three days. There is infinite madness and hatred out there. It stunned and depressed me.

Some men read this post as my sexual fantasy and were very sweet and eager to help me fulfill it. There were quite literal interpreters: many requests for the map with its key location. One reader divulged that he was even wearing corduroy (the Arch visitor's trouser fabric); another would bring the beret. I was promised Champagne, pizza and unimaginable levels of pleasure...

Eventually I realized, especially after getting e-mails from men in places as far-flung as London, that Casual Encounters is trolled, not necessarily for NSA [No-Strings-Attached] liaisons, but for arousing reading material. In the string department I'm practically a marionette factory so this was fine with me. With the scenario then shifted towards a more literary direction, I found myself cast as the Mother Theresa of Casual Encounters—scribe variant—providing selfless public service to those in need of sexual release; ultimately, all that mattered was the power of words.

Readers who saw the piece exclusively as a work of fiction thanked me for the erections it produced:

"I've never had more nut on my hands from just reading an erotic essay."

My favorite feedback for this ad: "It put wet my cock."

There were compliments; flattering artistic comparisons—Kurt Vonnegut, if he wrote Penthouse Forum letters, for example; a funny counterpoint e-mail "from the Eiffel Tower." I was sent lengthy erotica—some inspired by mine (one continued where my story left off, "exquisite corpse"-style)—and erotic drawings, in reciprocation. Several "commercial propositions" were relayed.

In the midst of my Craigslist activity a reader told me about other people posting stories: one woman, with a certain following, clued her "audience" in (literally) to new ads via a designated word consistently embedded within every text, so that a keyword search turned up her latest offering. In November The New York Times reported on a related phenom, and its unofficial Craigslist blessing. Jim Buckmaster, their CEO, said "If you haven't established an audience, you can do worse than Craigslist." Given the trajectory of my erotica writing career so far—considering it was jump-started by a short experimental Casual Encounters ad, placed as a dare to myself—I would tend to agree. If I lived in the Bay Area I would buy Messrs. Buckmaster and [Craig] Newmark a few rounds of drinks. What monuments do you have there? Ah, the Coit Tower! Hmmn. All that's missing is "us."

The story has so many wonderful, surprising details. Some I'll never forget: the thin cotton handkerchiefs the narrator must place between her body and her fingers when she pleasures herself; the condom full of quarters her favorite Park Ranger leaves in her posterior orifice as a souvenir; the dozens of George Washington's eyes on the dollar bills watching the lovers at their pleasure. Can you give us some background on one or all of these delicious images?

Well, they say "write what you know!" And what I don't know I can very vividly imagine.

I do happen to have a vintage thin cotton handkerchief in my possession, a bygone birthday present. It even has my initial on it!

I put quarters in my wallet but they could lodge inside a condom placed within one's posterior—why not?—and be safe sex besides. Also, it's "Green"! There must be mountains of discarded lifeless plastic vibrators in "waste management" areas everywhere. Now that won't help us with global warming!

Dollar bills (and quarters) contain portraits of George Washington—logical ornamental motifs for the story's "interior décor project." French toile de Jouy wallpaper scenes bearing silhouetted women in long black coats walking poodles through Washington Square à la Henry James would not have worked in this story. The moving eyes are clearly the result of too many hours spent watching cartoons and "Addams Family" re-runs: "the walls have ears"—eyes in this case; voyeurism greatly interests me, although this tale isn't told from President Washington's point of view. I'm not much of an historian.

Do you really live inside the Washington Square Arch? What do you think of people who assume your writing is autobiographical?

I do not. But a number of Craigslist responders genuinely believed I did. One was amazed I had wireless Internet service! Another pondered how I managed to post the ad, being "cooped up" in there.

Regarding autobiographical writing, this series was tricky because I did, after all, first present these stories as ads on Craigslist, as myself—in some shape or form—so it might make sense for readers of those writings (viewing them online in Casual Encounters), to assume they were autobiographical, but not all did. Best Women's Erotica 2008 provides a different context for the story—and perhaps those readers are less inclined to make such an assumption. However, I think writers of erotic works are regularly faced with this issue—it's often taken for granted that their stories are based on personal experience, which surely isn't a supposition made with writers of other genres. Yet, speculation frequently occurs even with "regular" writers—that fiction is based on things which really happened; and conversely and paradoxically, that memoiristic works contain invented parts...

I know you write literary fiction and have done work in the visual arts. How is writing erotica a different experience for you?

The key ingredient fueling whatever I do is my imagination, which is overactive. And, regardless of media, the same tools are at my disposal: an eye for detail; my peculiar brand of humor, irreverence and sarcasm; a disregard for keeping my crayon within the lines, so to speak; meticulousness and a sense of self-discipline bordering on the Fascistic. With erotica writing another factor comes into play: my erotic imagination; my own fantasies and arousal can become part of the writing process itself—one feeding the other in a sort of hypno-erotic Moebius strip—a distraction, albeit pleasant. This was especially true of the Craigslist posts.

Describe your dream writing project (marketability doesn't matter here)—and what is next for you as a writer?

This covers both questions:

Two book proposals based on my Craigslist adventure—polar opposites as far as concept and execution. I'd like to do either; it would indeed be a dream to see both to fruition. One has potential legal obstacles that may prevent its optimum realization.

About a dozen stories (or scraps thereof), erotic and otherwise, are cooking on the back burner (I have a very large stove).

An idea for an erotica anthology—my first venture as an editor—which I have not formally proposed to anyone. I find its premise and theme exciting and interesting—I'm hoping there is a publisher who agrees with me.

Name a writer (or two, living or dead) you'd like to have dinner with...

(I'm expanding your question beyond writers exclusively. I hope you don't mind.)

An intime soirée mixing the following improbable guest assortment:

Dorothy Parker, though neither of us would get a word in edgewise.

John Lennon, definitely the most fun. Bonus: post-prandial singing!

The Marquis de Sade, but with the request that he leave his sewing kit at home.

Curious George would be the ideal dining partner since we probably share compatible eating habits but, should the meal lead to "more," there's that pesky bestiality issue, and the fact that he's too young for me—pedophilia alert!—(though technically, at 67, too old for me), too hairy and uncircumcised—pet peeves, both.

Someone you'd most like to trade talents with...

A test pilot.

One you'd most like to invite inside the Washington Square Arch to re-enact the scene from "The Lonely Onanista"?...

Henry Miller would know what to do with me. Or Man Ray. Perhaps they'd come together.

Finally, describe a perfect meal that would be guaranteed to seduce you—at least into an intimate discussion of the writing life by candlelight, if not a re-enactment of the climax of "The Lonely Onanista." (Although I'm sure you'd have a few chefs willing to put out in hope of that reward!)

Veuve Cliquot Champagne would be the libation of choice. I don't eat very much—remember, I just wrote a story about a woman who subsists on Balance Bars, Park Rangers' semen and falafel. A formal menu with real food would likely involve grilled wild salmon and vegetables. I suppose that's not very exciting for a food specialist such as yourself. Aphrodisiacs such as oysters and caviar are not on the list of comestibles—I eat neither. My "Happy Meal" is an atypical one but perhaps the ideal candidate to prepare it is waiting in your imagined chef line-up. He can e-mail me a sample menu. I've always had a thing for those toques and checkered pants. If nothing else we could have a costume party.

Thanks for chatting with me, EllaRegina, and best of luck with your new projects.


Anonymous said...

Excellent interview of an outstanding new writer. "The Lonely Onanista" is truly a one-of-a-kind story, but it will be only the first in what, I am sure, will become a remarkable body of works.


Jeremy Edwards said...

EllaRegina is a gift to erotica that keeps on giving! First we have that amazing story, an instant classic of the genre. Then we get the backstory, which is fascinating in so many ways. And the interview about the story and the backstory (and so much more), revealing layers of a uniquely brilliant (and staggeringly imaginative and witty) mind. And then, I expect, we'll soon see more stories, and more backstories ... Hurrah!

Brava, EllaRegina! And thanks, Donna--what a delight!