Author Lauren Sanders Discusses Porn, Euthanasia, Masturbation, Etc.


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Anything labeled queer fiction used to frighten me. Lauren Sanders' Kamikaze Lust, put out by Akashic Books last spring (287 pages, $14.95), falls under that gay heading, but after the first page my fear was vanquished. It could be the Bjork of crossover books. It's funny, daring, freaky and way cool. And yeah, there's hot lezzie action too. This book is made for Oprah's book club.


Sanders comes to New York City this Saturday with the Glam Lit Tour to give a reading at Tonic.


Kamikaze Lust takes on some "controversial issues" (pornography, euthanasia, masturbation, homosexuality). Were there any particular goals you set in dealing with these issues?


For me they're questions more than they're issues. I didn't set out to write a book about any one of those things, they just came up as questions in the main character's world. Rachel is a journalist, so many of her cultural referents are filtered through the mainstream media, which tends to view things pretty simplistically. Everything is black and white. You're either pro-euthanasia or anti-euthanasia, for pornography or against it. This is so reductive. If you look at euthanasia, for every one of Kevorkian's cases, there are thousands of people who privately chose to end or prolong their lives. A few people, after reading the book, have told me some very personal stories about euthanasia in their families, stories that have nothing to do with the issue and everything to do with their lives.


What inspired you to write about pornography and specifically X-rated movies?


I've always been fascinated by pornography. When I was in seventh grade I had this horny and sexually precocious little boyfriend who showed me Debbie Does Dallas one night after his parents went out to dinner. I couldn't believe you could actually own a movie full of people having sex. Since then, it's been a lifelong obsession.


Have you ever been involved in the porn industry?


Never. I used to have fantasies about being on The Robin Byrd Show. A lot of the genesis for Rachel's character grew out of those fantasies. I started thinking what would it be like if you took someone who's completely repressed and stuck her in a highly sexualized environment. I thought there might be an interesting tension there.


Rachel invents a porn-star identity for herself, Silver Ray, and this frees her up to do all kinds of fantasizing and eventually to act on these fantasies. Why is the alter ego so important for her?


Again, Rachel is so sexually repressed in the beginning of the book, she can't even come if anyone else is in the same room. Needless to say, she's not too thrilled with the few romantic relationships she's had with men, and she can't even fathom there might be something else out there. Of course I'm talking about her desire for women, but I'm also talking about the kind of sex that might turn her on if she were at all in touch with it. When Silver Ray enters the scene, Rachel is finally able to let herself go, even when the sex gets a bit unfamiliar or violent. Silver Ray is her crutch. Somehow she feels safe saying, "It wasn't me, it was her." But Silver Ray completely deserts her when she falls in love.


Pornography is such an issue for a lot of people. Were you at all concerned about the responses you might get?


Absolutely not. I had some people in writing workshops respectfully say they couldn't read such graphic sex scenes, and once a woman told me that by writing about these people, meaning porn stars, I was harming the world. Then there were people?old-school feminists mostly?who told me pornography was a dead issue, that we'd been through it all in the 80s. I thought that was ridiculous. Perhaps it isn't the political litmus test it used to be for feminists, but pornography exists in the world. It's a multibillion-dollar industry, and statistics show that since the advent of video more and more women have become consumers. I find that fact alone very interesting as subject matter.


You're a journalist. How did your work in this field bleed into the novel?besides the main character being a reporter?


Well, I think my journalistic training gave me a jump on Rachel's psychology, although I've never worked on a daily newspaper, and I don't think I'm the best reporter in the world. Martin Amis in one of his essay collections said there were two kinds of reporters: one group that made the extra phone calls and turned over every page of research to get the story right, and another group that went more for the essence of the story and tended to make up for what they didn't get at the typewriter. Rachel is the first kind of reporter. I am definitely the second. I will add, though, that journalism can be great training for writing a novel. You learn how to get to the source of a story and how to edit your work. You also learn how to finish something.


How much of the book is autobiographical?


People ask me this all the time, and although it's a fair question, I find it a bit odd. What difference does it make in terms of the book how much of it is true? If you believe it, then it's true. If not, then I haven't done my job. Having said that, the truth is, the entire book is autobiographical, especially the sex!


Did you set out to write an "erotic" novel?


Not really. I wanted to write a novel about sex and pornography, and I knew I couldn't do this without having sex scenes in the book. It was really important to me that the sex was never gratuitous and that the characters used sex to express something they couldn't express in other ways. I was actually surprised when Best Lesbian Erotica 2000 published an excerpt from the book, because I wasn't sure whether it was erotic or not. I know it doesn't feel like a lot of erotica I've read, but then my favorite erotic books are usually not on the shelves under "Erotica." When I think of erotic novels I think of books like The Lover, Written on the Body, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Story of the Eye, books that are as much about love and loss and death as they are about sex.


Kamikaze Lust is great fiction, but a lot of folks are probably going to put it in the "Lesbian Fiction" category. How do you feel about that?


I'm not sure most people would categorize the book as "Lesbian Fiction." Maybe booksellers or the media will say that because the central relationship is between two women, but I've never thought about the book in those terms. In fact, I was at a queer writing conference last year and in a panel discussion on this very subject an editor from one of the gay presses said that in the books they publish you had to know the main character was gay within the first 10 pages, and then the book had to involve gay themes and issues?whatever that means. I remember thinking I couldn't send these people my book if I wanted to. Rachel is ostensibly straight to begin with, and throughout it she still finds herself attracted to men. But she also falls hopelessly and obsessively in love with a woman. So is it a lesbian novel? Maybe.


Does putting it in the "Lesbian Fiction" category have any extra positive or negative aspects?


You always run the risk of being ghettoized and narrowing your audience, but, as I said, I'm hoping that won't be the case with this book. Also, given the un-lesbian aspects of the book, I've been really heartened by the response of the gay press and the gay community. There's been a lot of interest in the book, and I think this shows that maybe publishers don't have to pander to such a narrow view of what constitutes a lesbian or gay novel.


What's the story with your current book tour?


I've joined forces with a couple of poets who have books out on independent presses?Elena Georgiou and Cheryl B. We've created a summer book tour called Jezebelle2000: The Glam Lit Tour. We're sort of modeling ourselves after some of the spoken-word tours already out there, and on Lilith Fair, but in the style of the old David Bowie or Queen shows. We're traveling to 15 American cities, reading in bookstores, sex shops, clubs. Basically, we're trying to stay in independent bookstores and have guest readers in each city who are also with independent presses to create some kind of solidarity and to have fun. Literary readings are not usually too much fun and that's where the Glam Lit philosophy comes in. We're treating each reading as if it's a single glamorous event, which is great because we get to wear high heels and body glitter. I think this is how most work should be read. We also have a Jezebelle CD called Sinful Idolatrous Rituals, which was produced by the House of Diabolique here in New York. I'm hoping to be the first novelist with a piece of her book set to house music.


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