interviewed by PleaseCain
It is all a matter of suspense and timing: she gives Shipman a few moments to recover, then —
“Whee!” she cries, drawing the feather up from Shipman's ankle to that deadly sensitive spot behind the knee; and Shipman screams. This is wonderful, simply wonderful. She has to do it again, and she does. Shipman screams again. Carter is helpless with laughter for a moment, and this allows Shipman time to recover her wits.
“Just a moment, Carter,” she says breathlessly, as she feels Carter grasping her leg in preparation for another attack. “I screamed.”
“You remember the rules, don't you?”
“Right. Well you've got to kiss me just where the feather was when I screamed.”
“Yes, you're right. That would have been about here, wouldn't it?” Carter pokes the back of Shipman's knee with the tip of the feather, causing Shipman to buck.
“So now you must kiss me there.”
“Hmmm …” Carter turns her head this way and that, wondering how to approach the task. Finally, she puts down the feather and grasps Shipman's thigh with both hands, then cocks her head to one side and moves in with her lips. Shipman's skin is beautiful: lustrous in the dim winter afternoon light that strains in through the little cottage window, its smooth vulnerability is heightened by the discreet tracery of blue veins. And as she nears her target, Carter feels the warmth, smells the delicate scent of clean, fresh maidenhood.
Shipman has been moaning in delight for some moments, for, quite without thinking, Carter's hands have been doing what hands naturally will when presented with a young woman's thigh; and, weakened already, Shipman suddenly becomes aware that her nipples are bursting, her crotch on fire, and the delicate, inquisitive creeping of Carter's fingers – unspeakably delightful – is propelling her toward climax. And then she feels the brush of Carter's hair, and then the kiss – warm, passionate – why, Carter is actually licking her, tasting her! In an agony of pleasure, Shipman rocks her hips, trying to agitate her pubis on the back of the armchair. It is just – only just – enough, and suddenly Shipman is groaning, groaning in a mixture of surprised pleasure and anticipated release from the torment of desire.
Carter is amazed, for all of a sudden Shipman's satin thigh has erupted into a rash of prickles. She draws back, amazed: this is more than goose-flesh. Wonderingly, she runs the palm of her hand lightly over Shipman's rump as Shipman frantically rocks her hips in an attempt to wring out the last drops of sensation — with only partial success.
“Are you all right, Shipman?” asks Carter, unnerved by this evidently violent seizure.
But Shipman can only moan, “My God … My God …” over and over again, twitching and shuddering.
And then Carter looks up, and sees, and is further amazed. For what had been a neatly-cloven peach has swollen, ripened and burst magnificently open. “Oh … perhaps it is like the illustration after all. Wait a minute.” She goes to the table and opens the heavy book at the bookmark. Yes: there it is. She inverts the page, kneels behind Shipman again and looks from one to the other, comparing. “Oh my … why, yours is almost like a flower,” she murmurs.
“Carter, what are you doing?” asks Shipman, annoyed.
“Just having a look. Comparing with the book.”
“O please, Carter, can we not get this done?”
I was going to write a clever opening, but here it is instead: Oosh writes wonderful, intelligent fiction. Anyone who has read it agrees. I am a newcomer, and after only a couple stories, her convert. That about says it.
On alt.sex.stories.d, I eavesdropped on a conversation about the lessons she learned writing her first novel, 2001's Pavlova's Bitches. Her remarks prompted me to locate the work on the Internet and plow right through.
It is the story of the young women of fictional Hepplewhite Academy in 1860s England, who organize a forward-looking science club, led by their idealistic instructor, Georgina Paulson. The sheltered women learn more of the forbidden than merely science. Oosh draws the tale with her trademark droll humor, while scoring a number of significant points — and other not unpleasant effects.
The award-winning novel left me feeling exhilarated and intrigued, and inspired me to interview the author directly, to satisfy my curiosities and explore the work in depth. Over June-July 2002, she answered scores of questions with thoughtfulness, candor and grace.
My hope is that we writers and readers might learn from her generosity, and have fun besides. If you have not read Pavlova's Bitches, I urge you to do so: it is available for free at http://www.asstr.org/~oosh/pavlova.html, and will be worth your while. It is a delightful and provocative novel, representing the best spirit of free Internet fiction.
Thanks, Oosh. Never put down your pen.
— Cain, 2002/08/20
QUESTIONER: How was the novel conceptualized, what was its genesis? You mention another writer, Hecate, in your Acknowledgments – what was her role?
OOSH: Yes, it was in correspondence with Hecate that the idea for Pavlova was born. She mentioned Pavlov's dogs, and I hit upon the idea of a Madame Pavlova and her young women's academy, in which she might scientifically investigate the cause of certain other reflex secretions. That immediately suggested the title Pavlova's Bitches. I began to think about what I knew of Pavlov's experiments – the ringing of the bell: that suggested using a bell first of all to gauge nervous excitement, and only secondarily to excite it sympathetically. Hecate helped me with that thought, and also with the idea that electricity could be used to provide controlled stimulation. The very idea of a pioneering schoolmistress experimenting on her pupils somehow conjured up the idea of Van der Graaf generators and the whole romance of electricity. That prompted me to recall Rachel Maines's fascinating researches into the early (19th century) development of vibrators, and also the use of electric shock machines to perform all kinds of miracle cures. It seemed natural to put the period at around 1860, when these fantastic machines were just beginning to appear and be touted by unscrupulous cure-mongers.
At the same time, I was well aware of the powerlessness of women in the 19th century. In those days, any result Mme. Pavlova might have obtained would almost certainly have been subsumed into someone else's work. (Things aren't very different today. I have heard it said that Dr. Alexander Fleming's discovery of penicillin relied to some extent on a female assistant whose name nobody can remember. And I have a good friend, a researcher, whose every discovery is trumpeted by her organization's world-famous boss.) So I conceived the idea that Mme. Pavlova's work would be taken over, desexualized and made more rigorously dull by a male successor – Pavlov. And that, of course, would require that Mme. Pavlova's ideas would have to go to Russia. That's how the story began to spin itself in my mind.
From that starting-point, Hecate and I began researching and imagining. She came up with Carry, the beautiful and aristocratic Head Girl with a violent crush on Mme. Pavlova. She enriched the vision of Mme. Pavlova by reference to the notable recent biography of Georgina, Duchess of Devonshire. She also thought that the name Pavlova might have the wrong associations – both balletic and culinary. So I englished her into Miss Paulson. Together we prepared a story outline that involved the discovery of the conditioned reflex and also the invention of the vibrator – an idea that would instantly be appropriated and exploited.
Unfortunately, at that point Hecate became quite ill, and so it fell to me to do the actual writing.
Q: You also cite Harriet Taylor. Who was she, and what is her significance? And that of the Mill family?
O: Harriet Taylor was John Stuart Mill's long-time mistress and (two years after her first husband had popped his clogs) wife. She was a highly intelligent woman who more or less gave birth to feminist theory single-handed. Although nearly all of her writing was reworked by her husband, it is certain that between the two they established feminism as a dynamic and polemical force for social change.
J.S. Mill was the moral philosopher of the Steam Age. Just as Brunel wanted to transform England with his bridges and railways, so Mill was not content to theorize, but sought to be an architect of social reform. Mill was a doer. Full of political zeal, he interested himself in social questions of all kinds. As a penal reformer, he designed prisons that are still in use today. When Harriet died, he collaborated with their daughter in producing a magisterial tome which might be considered one of the first feminist bills of rights. He claimed that Harriet Taylor was the inspiration and mainspring of his thought.
It seemed only natural for these pioneers of feminism to loom large in the culture of a progressive academy such as Hepplewhite. And of course I had a certain amount of fun with the Benthamite hedonism that Mill worked up into a surprisingly respectable ethical theory.
Q: I think your book illustrates how the mind and potential of the mid-19th century woman were as tightly corseted as her figure, and yet the work is not overbearing or preachy, owing to your wry humor. Were you striving for an accurate representation of the women and their era, or for something more stylized? In other words, is this book truly dealing with that particular era, or written in response to something of the present day?
O: I was certainly trying to give an accurate representation of the status (one might say “the plight”) of women in the 19th century. And I wanted to raise awareness of the very remarkable courage that was demanded from the pioneers of sexual equality, and from those women who sought to lead independent lives. When people think of feminists, they usually think of universal suffrage or the liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s. But none of those would have been even thinkable without the struggle – often an ideological struggle – of such earlier pioneers as the members of the Kensington Society. One of the most significant advances for women in England, for example, was the Married Women's Property Acts of 1882-3: before that time, a woman lost all her property rights upon marriage. Such advances would have been impossible without the campaigning of people like Mill and Taylor.
Photo (c) Copyright 2006 John Nemeth. All Rights Reserved.
Q: What about those other rather paternalistic obfuscations perpetrated on the young women, did you intend those as accurate? For instance, do anecdotal parallels exist for the unlabeled “Number 18” in the women's anatomy texts, where the author keeps readers in the dark about their own clitorides (ed., I finally used that word in a sentence)? Or Carter bridling against his daughter's need for eyeglasses?
O: I was thinking very symbolically. Nevertheless, close parallels certainly exist. Only today, while researching something for a story I'm currently working on, I stumbled across a sex information website for teenagers. It purported to tell girls (and boys) everything they needed to know about their bodies as they went through puberty. It dealt with a number of issues connected with pain and inconvenience and possible signs of illness and groundless fears. But it never once mentioned the word “clitoris.” It never even remotely alluded to the possibility that some sexual activities might be enormously pleasurable, nor that these might lead to the formation of strong emotional attachments and fixed ideas. There was not a word anywhere to suggest, to the visitor from Mars, why anyone in their right mind would dream of doing something so weird and disgusting as having sex. There was not a word of guidance about emotional fascinations, or how to deal with intense feelings for others. There was plenty about the plumbing and the mechanics, but not a thing about physical attraction, desire or sexual love. One hundred fifty years later, there is a “responsible” website out there that is telling young people that “everything they need to know” does not include the answer to these, the most important questions. For me, this is “Number 18” all over again.
But yes, if you ever find an old anatomical textbook, have a look, and see if you can find any reference to the clitoris. There was a conspiracy of silence that lasted well into the 20th century.
As for Henry Carter protesting against his daughter needing glasses: I'm glad you seized on this, because it is a symbolic point of great importance. I am very conscious of the distinctions people make between “needs” and “wants.” Do people need sex, or merely want it? Do children need affection, or merely crave it? When does a want become a need? Is age relevant? These are questions to which I was certainly not attempting a systematic answer, but I did want to raise them.
Nevertheless, I do find one thing to add to this – after all, Matson's “need” of a bride is tacitly acknowledged in the story. What, in practice, turns wanting into needing, for most people? I think the answer lies in what is expected of people. If your wants must be satisfied in order for you to perform as expected, then those wants are promoted into needs. In the 19th century, women's needs were ignored precisely because almost nothing was expected of them. They were perceived as companions and breeding machines. They were not expected to have hopes or aspirations, or anything momentous to contribute to society. In the story, Lucy Carter has gifts that nobody could have expected or thought to call forth; she has strengths that almost nobody wants; and she has needs that almost nobody recognizes.
Q: Even the female characters fall prey to these attitudes and perpetrate them on each other, as in those poignant scenes when Joanna Carter realizes she has alienated and harmed her daughters, or when even your heroine Paulson at first judges Lucy Carter a dullard because of her unconventional looks.
O: I know. Even in the first scene, I mention one of Lucy Carter's nannies strictly admonishing Lucy never to cross her legs. In shining a historical light on this repression, I fear that I have shone little upon the extent to which we may have contributed to our own downfall. It is quite possible that my own particular orientation and life-experience make it difficult for me to internalize and understand the reasons for this, and I'm sure that others have taken, and will take, these ideas further. Although I admit that I have somewhat demonized some (if not most) men in PB, I have discreetly praised others – such as J.S. Mill, and Georgina Paulson's father. If I have seemed to paint men black, I don't mean to exculpate those women who should have resisted, but did not. I seek, rather, to commemorate those brave souls (men no less than women) who saw the truth that the sexes are “equal in the sight of God.” It required singular courage to oppose what was then an almost universal conviction.
Q: You commented earlier that not only are the women's aspirations discouraged by the men in your book, but even their ideas are co-opted. How relevant do you judge this message to the present? It's significant that even today, women are dissuaded from science and mathematics, as well as sexuality – PB is sharp in drawing the parallel that science, mathematics and sexuality are considered largely masculine arts (girls, for example, aren't expected to do well in mathematics, aren't encouraged toward science, and are admonished from sexuality) — and the women in your story are forced to run away from society to embrace these very things.
O: I tended to run mathematics, science and sexuality together, because together they represent the idea of control and understanding – both of the self and of the environment. Of course, this principle was utterly opposed to the prevailing view that women should be wholly dependent upon men.
This is relevant to the present day, but I wouldn't want to suggest that things haven't changed or improved. I simply thought that it would be helpful to put present issues in perspective by seeing them in the context of the past. Back in the mid-19th century, many people (most women included) thought it perfectly extraordinary that a few bizarre denatured women should strive against Nature and want education and jobs like men. Protesters against the status quo often seem like deranged malcontents to the secure majority. It is only with hindsight that we can recognize how reasonable their complaints were, and how blind and intolerant was the majority. I think that the perspective of history should teach an attitude of humility and open-mindedness which humanity has yet to learn.
Q: We hear about female genital mutilation practiced in certain regions of the world today. Was it practiced in 19th-century England, as depicted in your novel?
O: It most certainly was, though not widely, I'm glad to say. Anti-female hysteria (ironic that I should use that word) did not enjoy a universal reign, and although some of the stuffier members of the establishment may have regarded masturbation as a grievous crime, and female sexuality as shameful, few were prepared to interfere to the extent of inflicting surgery upon an unwilling victim.
Isaac Baker-Brown, whom I mention in Pavlova, was a historical person. (In the HTML rendition, the first time I mention him I give a hyperlink to one of several online references that I found.) He was an eminent London surgeon who took it upon himself to treat disturbed or recalcitrant girls and young women. He believed (or claimed to believe) that masturbation was the cause of all sorts of physical and mental aberrations. His “cure” was clitoridectomy. As I recall, he operated on many hundreds of women and girls during his infamous career. In the end, though, his fanaticism and his unethical conduct left him isolated: he was denounced by his colleagues and became an outcast from the profession.
Q: What comprised “women's education” back then? Might a so-called science club for electrical studies really have existed at a women's school of the time? Would it be the only avenue in which a woman might encounter science or scientific education? Or am I being too literal here?
O: From about 1830 in England, elementary education was gradually being made available to children of both sexes. Secondary education was largely the preserve of the rich, or those lucky enough to fall under the ambit of a local charity. It was very scarce: Cheltenham Ladies' College had been founded in 1841 (amid protestations that women's education would serve men's needs) but it was not until the 1880s that people began to respond to the idea that girls were entitled to secondary education. But even earlier, the first attempts were being made to open university education to women (although they would not be allowed to receive degrees for many years yet). Newnham College, Cambridge, was opened in 1871 and Girton two years later. The first degrees were conferred on women in the 1940s!
Q: It's amazing that women weren't conferred degrees until the Second World War, a full century after the establishment of the first women's colleges. When did women first appear in the post-secondary administration and faculty? When did they begin to influence or determine the curriculum?
O: Without going into too much detail, women only started to make inroads into the academic hierarchy after the First World War — doubtless because of the dearth of young men. It is noteworthy how many of these pioneering women were described as “single.” Professorships only came to women in significant numbers after the Second World War. Mothers of large families, such as the distinguished philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe, were not in the majority.
While I think that a female perspective might do something to alter the balance between the disciplines, I do not think that sexual orientation or sex should determine what is on the curriculum. What is important, and worth learning, is important and worth learning whatever one's sex. My outlook has always been that women are, and should be allowed to be, as able to learn and contribute as men are. Tearing down established structures and imposing radically new ones I have always seen as a particularly masculine strength — if it is a strength. I tend to think of men as revolutionaries and women as evolutionaries — but then, I don't like sexual stereotypes either.
Q: Was the exploration and fleshing of your ideas a satisfactory experience for you?
O: It was sometimes satisfactory. Some things seemed to work very well. But there were a number of wrong turnings and intractable problems. I remember that the episode with the duchess and the head mistress near the start of Part V held me up for over a month. Sometimes I laughed like a drain while I was planning and writing it; at others, I was tearing my hair out.
In the back row, Clark and Penrose clap lazily. Penrose is delighted to have the opportunity to talk to her best friend. Since Clark made her revelation, the uncomfortable sense of something unshared has somehow created an awkwardness between them. And truth to tell, Penrose has been feeling a little jealous of Shipman, who appears to have dropped Carter and now seems to be monopolizing her friend's attentions. Clark is sitting stiffly, as if on the defensive. She does not turn to look at Penrose.
Penrose sidles closer. She takes a deep breath.
“Sarah … I found out.”
“Found out?” Clark half-turns, but does not look her in the eye.
“Yes. I found out why people … you know … do it.”
Clark looks down. She smiles. She takes Penrose's hand gently in hers. She turns now.
“You don't need to feel any woman pains, do you?”
“No,” breathes Penrose. A little anxiety comes into her face. “You don't think it's harmful, do you?”
“Of course not! What about Walmsley?”
“Walmsley?” To Penrose, and to everyone else for that matter, Walmsley is a paragon of youthful health and vivacity.
Clark turns to watch the game, but moves her mouth close to her friend's ear, speaking low. “Benson told Shipman that Milady Walmsley's been doing it for years and years.”
“O Sarah!” breathes Penrose, dazzled. “Even Walmsley!”
“Yes, dear. Especially Walmsley.”
Clark squeezes Penrose's hand gently, and feels an answering pressure. They turn to watch the game.
“You know, Sarah,” says Penrose confidentially after a while, “Shipman did it twice last night. One right after the other.”
“Twice? Hee! Hee!”
“But she's such an idiot, Sarah! She made such a noise. She's going to get caught one of these days, and then she'll be for it!”
“Oh look, here she comes now. I do hope she wins.”
“It looks like Denning's won.”
“Pooh! Who cares about Denning?” They applaud anyway. Denning is jubilant, wreathed in happiness.
“Look, she's jumping up and down! She seems so full of energy today. It must be the electricity.”
Despite losing the toss, Shipman is soon serving. If Denning was swift and elegant, Shipman is formidable: her forehand strong, her backhand assured, her returns frequently unanswerable. Before long, she is leading 10-2. It appears that this will be a short match.
“Isn't she magnificent, Vicky!” cries Clark, bouncing on the bench in her enthusiasm. She does not notice that when Shipman looks up, it is to Lucy Carter, alone as always at the end of the bench, nervously wringing her handkerchief to and fro in her lap, biting her lip with those funny, crooked teeth of hers. And then Shipman's eyes glitter, and she delivers another smooth, devastating service.
“Well, whatever she was doing, it obviously didn't tire her out,” says Penrose.
“Of course not, silly! Oh! Lovely shot!” Clark bounces and claps.
“But don't you think perhaps she's doing it rather too much? Even her marks are suffering. Hadn't you noticed?”
“Her marks? Pooh! They're good enough. Anyway, it's done no harm to my marks!”
“But it's distracting her, Sarah. She must be thinking about it all the time.”
“About what? Oh! Bravo! Fifteen-four!”
“Well, don't you find it … rather distracting? I'm worried that it's going to affect my marks.”
“Oh honestly, Penrose, what rubbish! Why should it?”
“Well … I don't know. Perhaps it's true what they say. Maybe it saps one's energy.”
“Nonsense! Look how much energy Shipman has! Oh! What a return! Did you see that?”
“Perhaps it's the effect of the electricity.”
Photo (c) Copyright 2006 John Nemeth. All Rights Reserved.
Q: You wrote PB in the present tense, which often can be obtrusive, and yet I lost myself in your story, because the present tense vested a familiarity to these women of long ago: a mindset that might seem quaint to modern sensibilities, instead becomes understandable and sympathetic. Did other considerations weigh in your choosing the present tense?
O: To me, the prose tastes of my own saliva. I wanted it to be neutral and flavourless. I found that using the past tense somehow obtruded, particularly with dialogue. Perhaps using the present tense helps me to be closer to what is happening, more involved. I have been greatly helped by reading Doris Lessing, whose prose style has very much impressed me. I think of the tenses as an Indian musician might think of ragas, each one conveying a special mood. For me, the present and the perfect are like the major keys, brighter and more vivid than the aorist and the leaden pluperfect. And I did want to bring the period alive and make it present. I wasn't seeking any period flavour or nostalgia.
You make me very happy when you say that the use of the present tense lessened the distance between yourself and the characters. That was exactly what I wanted. I actually find it very difficult to present dialogue in the past tense. (My parody of The Princess and the Pea began in the past tense, but as soon as the dialogue got going I found myself obliged to move into the present.) Ultimately, I'm trying not to get in the way of my characters and what they think and say. For better or worse, this is my way of doing it.
Q: Did you research background, story or language? Where did you acquire your ear for Victorian language?
O: I didn't research the language. Victorian English was not so very different from our own. Of course, I have read much literature of that period, and as well as the delightful novels of Anthony Trollope, I suppose I should mention Sarah Waters, who brings alive the England of the 19th century as vividly as any writer.
I did have to do some research into dress. Surprisingly little is known about what women wore under their multiple layers in those days. It turns out that there is a very good reason for that: you can't learn very much about nothing!
Although I did a very little research into early discoveries about electricity, I was deliberately frivolous when it came to the science. One very earnest physicist wrote to me chastising me for totally misunderstanding the scientific method. I shamelessly perverted the cause of science for my own selfish ends, and if this is a good place to say that I'm sorry, then I suppose I'd better come clean and say that I'm not.
Q: Did you plot or outline the novel before writing?
O: Yes, I did. The bizarre numbering of the sections shows how my plan went somewhat awry. I must put this down to my inexperience. I simply didn't know how long each part of the story would take to tell. The original outline covered everything except the Shipman/Carter subplot, and that demanded a fuller treatment than I had foreseen.
Q: How many drafts did you write? Are you the type of writer who edits as she composes, or do you concentrate on getting a first draft on paper and worry about editing later?
O: Pavlova as it now stands is the first draft, to be honest. That said, I have been back over it and agonized over it a good deal. I don't write smoothly. I worry about things for ages before I can bring myself to write them, but when I do, I tend to go very fast — so fast that some quite amazing mistakes appear. (After one of these outbursts, I might find questions without question marks, missing quotes, even phonetic misspellings.) Sometimes the result of this very fast writing is so good that I don't want to touch it. More often, it needs a lot of careful tinkering afterwards. So I tend to go back and revise whenever I come to a natural break. In general, there's a great deal more thinking time than writing time.
Q: Did you have an editor or proofreader? You did a great job in presenting a clean manuscript.
O: Hecate insisted that I should enlist Denny W. as a proofreader for this project. I had never used a proofreader before, and to be honest I was very slightly put out at first. However, having once had Denny go over Part I, I recognized how short-sighted I had been. I cannot overstate the value of Denny's criticisms. Since Pavlova I've run almost everything I've written past Denny, and have always had reason to be grateful.
And a close friend, MT, not only spotted a good many mistypes, but came up with wonderful insights that have done a good deal to deepen and intensify the resulting work. As a stumbling novice, I owe a great deal to her. I don't think any amateur writer can get enough criticism.
Q: You created and animated a number of vibrant characters, primary and secondary. I think you would consider Paulson, Carter, Shipman and Walmsley your main people. Were they defined as they were to represent particular types or classes, trends in thought, serve particular roles, etc.? Simply, how did they come to be? Are they by any chance based on real people, or a historical group or incident?
O: I'm glad that you found the characters came to life. They weren't based on anyone I knew, although I suppose that the personality of Miss Paulson was loosely based upon an imaginary conflation of Elizabeth Garrett and perhaps Marie Curie. And Hecate really created Carry Walmsley. To a large extent, they took life on the page. I certainly had clear and distinct ideas of the characters in my mind, although I drew them quite sparingly. Miss Paulson is earnest, idealistic and dedicated; Carry Walmsley is self-confident, wilful and slightly manipulative; Shipman is mischievous and cunning, but also honest – I thought of her as being the strongest character, mainly because of her honesty and her sense of humour. And then Carter is troubled, bitter but somehow determined to make something of herself, to distance herself from the taint of failure that has clouded her childhood.
Some readers like to see really stark contrasts between the characters. One university professor wrote to lecture me about this. He felt my characters were all much too similar, much too easily confused. Not only that, but they didn't develop and change as they should. The episodes of the story could be read in any order, he told me, so feeble was the plot. Well, I like to think I can take criticism, but I couldn't help feeling that we were on different wavelengths. Apparently he was a professor of Administration. I'm sure that I would make a hopeless administrator.
Q: Do any of your characters especially resonate with you, whom you carry with you now, months after the writing? Are there secondary characters you feel strongly about?
O: Yes, and I think in particular Lucy Carter is close to me. But the same is true of most of them: I feel far more for any of them than I have been able to convey in the story. I would love to have made more of Joanna, Lucy's mother. And I have a soft spot for Miller, too.
Q: I enjoyed your Miller character, too! She started as a little mouse, who became funnier over the course.
O: The lovely thing about Miller is that she's just as dangerous as Shipman, and just as radical in her own quiet way. I think even her “Queensland” metaphor betrays a certain degree of knowledge that can only be gained at first hand.
Q: I wonder, do you become so attached to certain characters that you are tempted to reprise them in other adventures? I don't generally read series of books, but I would be happy to see follow-up stories based on a few of these characters.
O: I suppose this would be possible; but these possibilities can be exploited in so many other ways. From my perspective, I have a new set of characters pleading for me to give them life. I have taken Miller, Shipman, Carter and Walmsley, I have lifted them into the air and watched them soar away. There are others, closeted in boxes in my mind, who are pleading with me to define them, flesh them out, free them, release them. I am a midwife, not a mother.
Q: I would disagree with the criticism that your characters remain static. In fact, I would suspect that during the long course of writing, your characters might sabotage a good bit of your outlining preparations. Were there many surprises from your young ladies, where they deviated from your original outline once they began stretching their legs?
O: Yes, my characters did sabotage my original outline, and most effectively, thank you! But they didn't exactly surprise me. Rather, they made the original outline seem irrelevant or trivial, so that I felt deeply ashamed of trying to impose it on them. And I think that this is a significant fact about my inexperience, rather than about them or me.
Shipman and Carter never surprised me. They came to me as a pair destined for one another, complete in themselves. The problem was that my original outline was more about Paulson and Walmsley. Shipman and Carter completely snatched the plot away. It's not hard to see why: Miss Paulson is an important figure, a driver of the story, and bearer of much of its symbolic force. But she's not especially interesting in herself: she's a representative of many worthy women of that time – and particularly, as I've said, a prefiguration of Elizabeth Garrett or Marie Curie. But drama requires a less saintly heroine, and a less totally desirable object than the delectable Carry. While these two characters are important to the plot, and help bear much of its message, they never had the dramatic potential offered by Shipman and Carter.
If I were to give a proper account of my struggle with the original outline, it might be this: that I originally envisioned it as a comedy both of ideas and of people. I was aiming at a satirical piece that would make a serious point through gentle comedy. The point of conflict was that I needed to make it real and believable. That necessitated real people, driven by real ideals – people whom the reader would want to take seriously. My original outline had been drawn around stereotypes; but stereotypes would not be able to give the comedy of ideas the impact that it needed. And so reality impinged: the comedy of ideas was perhaps the true driving force, and the one thing that survived intact. The people that I needed to sustain that comedy commanded my respect, wavering as they did between fallibility, weakness, cruelty and true heroism.
Q: When did you first conceptualize the book? Were you carrying parts of it in your mind in the years preceding the project? When did you begin writing? How long was the writing? When did you publish it?
O: The first germ of the idea can be pinpointed at 4 May 2000, in an e-mail I wrote to Hecate. The only element that I had been gestating for any length of time was the history of the vibrator, in The Technology of Orgasm by Rachel P. Maines. The rest of it came together fairly quickly in the course of correspondence; we had an agreed outline in early June, and by the 23rd I was apologizing for the length of time it was taking me to get started on writing the first scene. I was blocked straight away — rather typically, I now see. But once I did get started, in early July, I moved on quite rapidly. The first part was substantially complete within about two days, and I was already started on Part II within a week. Part I went to Denny for proofreading in about mid-August. Part III was done by mid-September, at which point I received Part I back from Denny and posted it almost immediately. From then on, each part was posted when the next was complete, until the work was concluded almost exactly a year after I started, on 6 June 2001.
Q: Did you have any specific objectives in mind when you first came to the decision that, yes, these thoughts of mine now merit the effort and time-commitment of a novel-length treatment?
O: I didn't think of Pavlova as a novel-length work until very recently, when one of my readers sent me a copy rendered for printing with Acrobat. Until then, I thought of it as an overgrown short story. While I had a reasonably good feel for the overall structure, I had no point of reference to judge its scale. (Even a paragraph can seem enormous when you're close enough to it!)
Q: How long is PB (in word-count or pages — I really have no idea)?
O: I've never looked before, but according to one old program I have, the word-count comes out at 125,389. Given the various bits of titling and prologue, let's say about 125,000 words. It seems to work out at around 400 pages.
Q: I never would have guessed that length, it made for such effortless reading.
O: That makes me very glad.
Q: Is this your lengthiest work?
O: That's an easy one! Yes!
Q: Did the novel represent your total output for that year?
O: No. Occasionally I broke off to write short stories, and in the Pavlova year there were four: The Three Billie Girls Gruff and Confused, Norway were pure lightheartedness, and represented perhaps a relief from the strain of the longer work; Wrestling was a true story; and Alassin was specially for the ASSTR.org anniversary. In addition, I see to my amazement that I produced thirteen poems, some of which are my very best work.
Q: You published this serially on the newsgroups, correct? I have heard that such series or serials attract wide readership.
O: That's right – and simultaneously on my website. I decided to post the parts serially for just the reason that you mention: Hecate suggested that it might attract more feedback if I did.
Q: Did you garner more feedback that way, than your short stories normally do?
O: Comparing the level of feedback to what I have received for other works, I'd say that serial publishing is not a good idea for me. I don't plan to repeat the experiment. In general, my impression is that posting on alt.sex.stories.moderated garners more feedback than posting on one's website.
Q: Reading about your experience of writing a serial, I wonder how the masters like Dickens or Stephen Crane prepared their stories, whether they outlined the entire plot before publishing even the first segment. Had you looked into that, while writing your own?
O: I haven't. I was mindful of it, and full of admiration for people who can write under such pressure.
Q: Are you planning or writing another novel?
O: Yes, I am. Unfortunately, I am writing a novel that means so very much to me that I'd almost rather hand a synopsis to a decent writer and ask her to write it for me. But I have had this amazing responsibility thrust upon me, and I have to try to communicate it, first of all. And in order to do that, I have to write it, even if I write it badly. However, it will be far more organized than PB. Structure is very important in a novel: it's not just a question of having a framework for such a vast undertaking. The reader deserves and will respond to something that is carefully shaped. Whereas in a saga, things happen and keep happening, in a novel it is good if the things that happen have some sort of shape. I'm not referring here to the infantile instant-plot architectures that I've seen touted, such as hope/frustration/resolution. Admittedly, though predictable, they have their charm. But I am interested in a structure where every detail underscores or antagonizes every other detail.
Q: How will you do another novel differently? Do you write differently now, after you've completed PB?
O: I've partly answered this question. But I have some useful advice for myself, having written PB. I wrote PB in instalments, and posted it serially. As each instalment went out, I found myself increasingly constrained by what I'd already posted. I think that if I had written the whole thing, and been able to go back and change earlier episodes, I would have produced a better work. That said, PB is what it is – I managed to find a solution to most of the problems – and now I'd rather get on with the next thing.
If I am ever to post a large-scale work again, I need to understand the mainspring of the plot. Not my preconceived ideas, but the principle that gives birth to the next scene. And this, for me, is the emotional life of the characters. Unless I can see that connecting thread running through the story from first to last, I must not post one episode.
Q: Do you have any particular advice to would-be novelists on how to write or construct a better book?
O: I suppose this is rather like asking a sick person about how doctors could improve. I certainly don't feel as if I am in a position to advise other writers, when I am struggling so very much myself. But I hope that my advice to myself may give other writers a helping hand: we need to know what is the mechanism that makes things happen. We can describe the cogs whirring, and how they intermesh, but in the end, the main thing is the spring that makes the whole thing turn. What is the spring? What are the causal links that make this happen, and then that? What are the motives, desires and intentions that take us from one situation to the next?
Q: Are there any areas of the novel with which you feel you did a good job, technically or otherwise, that you look at now with some satisfaction?
O: I've re-read it a couple of times, mainly because I tend to feel that it's grossly imperfect. It certainly has its flaws, but there are some areas where I feel I have succeeded as well as I could hope. It was hard to write the eleven laboratory scenes without becoming tedious, and quite a challenge to convey the charged atmosphere of a group of excited young women bent on mischief. Nothing is perfect, and I wouldn't want to deny that some pruning might be in order, but I feel that if I have failed, at least I haven't failed spectacularly. Technically, I liked the first battledore match. And in general, I feel that the dialogues flow pretty well. I also think that the few points of symmetry and reflection work well for the story: the two scenes in which Lucy looks down from a window, the two anonymous notes, the two rumours – they help to bind it together and give it shape. In fact, the dramatic shape of Pavlova is perhaps its best feature. If anyone ever made a film of Pavlova I think I'd probably buy a ticket and go and see it. (And probably cry my eyes out!)
Q: Please describe for us your reading life: your early experiences, your current habits, your favorite subjects and writers.
O: I learned to read when I was quite young. At the age of eight, I read Doctor Dolittle in the Moon, and was utterly captivated. Over the next year I read all of Hugh Lofting's output. By eleven I had a crush on Lorna Doone. In my early teens, I developed a short-lived interest in adventure stories – I particularly liked Bulldog Drummond, although his helpless heroines were rather hard to take. I even had a brief flirtation with Doctor Fu Manchu. But then I moved on to Conan Doyle, and in comparison with his steel-minded detective the heartthrob heroes seemed lifeless. It was through Sherlock Holmes that I came to value the power of reason and insight, and savour the relatively subtle but haunting horrors of the twisted mind — infinitely more disturbing than H.H. Munro's Bolshevik baddies in their long black coats.
Of course, Conan Doyle was the expert on the twisted mind: his heroes are always misogynistic, and in some of the Professor Challenger stories the misogyny becomes positively disturbing. Conan Doyle was also a militant anti-Catholic, and if you ever encounter a Catholic woman in a Conan Doyle story you can bet that she's the epitome of darkest evil.
While I still relish Conan Doyle's evocative impressions of Victorian London, I turned against stories with heroes. Paradoxically, I maintained my interest in crime fiction, though favouring the works of women writers, particularly P.D. James and (unfashionably) Dorothy Sayers. Somehow I manage to shrug off Sayers's queasy infatuation with her implausible hero, instead relishing her colourful and well-observed dialogue. She can pinpoint a character in dialogue – a dull-witted labourer, an absent-minded duchess, a scatterbrained cleaning-lady.
I should also make mention of P.D. James. Her work is distinguished by the complexity and depth of her characters and the fascinating way they interact. Whatever interest there is in the crime element is quite eclipsed by the personal dramas that evolve.
Now I must turn from my life of crime and mention the Trollopes: Anthony's delightful Barchester series made a very strong impression on me. If (as some have said) I managed to evoke a plausibly Victorian literary style in Pavlova then I owe it to Trollope. Many of his characters are hilarious stereotypes, but I love his blend of serious moral themes and really sharp wit. He is a master of sarcasm. And then there's his granddaughter Joanna. Quite simply, superb characters, believable situations, serious issues.
I do go on and on, don't I? I cannot mention very many more writers without threatening to exhaust everyone's patience — mine included.
Photo (c) Copyright 2006 John Nemeth. All Rights Reserved.
Q: Name a couple of powerful books, ones Oosh wishes every hungry mind would read.
O: I find this surprisingly easy to answer. My first is The Inn at the Edge of the World by Alice Thomas Ellis. Soon I'm going to read it for the fourth time. No words of mine can do it justice. It's subtle, honest, beautiful, witty, haunting, touching. My second is Sarah Waters's recent novel Fingersmith. I am going to have to read this several times, too. I was particularly struck by the amazing symmetries she weaves in her plot. To blend such architectural symmetry with an atmosphere of thrilling intrigue is a major triumph.
Q: What is on your reading table right now?
O: Love Songs by AnnieMae Robertson; Mind and World by John McDowell. (And a stack of others!)
Q: Can you recommend any books, fictional or nonfictional, to shed further light on the world of PB?
O: This seems a very conceited thing to say: nobody dared to speak of the world of PB until recently, because such things could not be said. People wrote not about how people are, but about how people were supposed to be. In some respects, portrayals of human nature were profound and accurate; but in others, silence was the only option. I think Rachel P. Maines's The Technology of Orgasm perhaps speaks loudest of those silences — and of those who would still preserve them today.
Q: What is your educational background?
O: I'd rather dodge this question. I will say that mathematics, science and English literature did not loom large. By far the most educational experience I have had was falling in love. In comparison with that, as Aquinas said, the rest is just straw.
Q: What is your writing background? Have you taken writing classes? Have you published?
O: I used to write a good deal when I was little – from about the age of eight. I wrote humorous stories for people I liked or admired (my parents, my teachers). All of these pieces are now lost. But I recall on several occasions people laughing until tears streamed down their faces. I remember my mother in agony from too much laughing. I dreamed of being a writer. In my heart I knew that I could reach people through writing. But then I wrote my first novel at the age of eleven. In retrospect, it was a fairly ordinary kids' adventure story, and not at all funny. I was growing up, and started going about writing as if I were an adult professional. I wasn't very satisfied with the result. About a year later I rewrote it. Then I put it away for a while, having worked upon it for weeks and weeks and weeks. And then, at about thirteen, I suddenly lost all ability to write. Whereas once I'd been the dazzling star of English composition, I became cramped, stilted, unimaginative and dismally self-conscious. In short, I was blocked. I remember taking the novel – a two-inch-deep stack of close-typed foolscap paper – and reading the first few pages. I was horrified and totally demoralized. I hurried down to the back door and hurled my work into the dustbin. I didn't write again until late 1999, about 32 years later.
I have never had any instruction in writing – save helpful responsive e-mails from friends – and I have never, and will never, seek to publish anything in print. What I have written, I have written. It has left me now, and it must make its own way. I live only for what I may yet be given to write.
Q: Do you believe in writers block? If so, how do you reconcile that concept with maintaining discipline in the craft? Your writing style strikes me as having required plenty of practice, in spite of any blockages.
O: I had a lot of practice when I was young. But even when I'm blocked from writing, I'm thinking about writing, planning, turning things over, trying out different possibilities in my mind. For me, blockage is a matter of having a good overall idea, but not being able to see any detail, as if I'm seeing “through a glass darkly.” I can only write when I can envisage my subject with absolute clarity. Then, it's a matter of selecting the most relevant details, and trying to find the best words for them.
I've always loved words. My father told me of an incident of which I still have some recall. When I was about eighteen months old, I was taken for an x-ray examination. They carried me into the x-ray room, where I looked around me — perhaps looking for something familiar amid all the strangeness. When I pointed and said “radiator,” the technicians were amazed. Long words were fascinating; I was intoxicated by their power. In my very early childhood I was acutely aware of being powerless, and of needing language in order to gain some measure of control.
Being sensitive to words and their meanings certainly helps in some ways, although I fear that in my case it leads to a plainness of language that deprives it of colour. I don't use very much metaphor, and I don't think I'm very good at it. Those who do, and are, have all my admiration.
Q: Have you held writing or communications positions, or worked in academia?
O: I have worked in academia, but never as a writer. Nearly everything I have written in connexion with my work has been deadly dull — which I suppose is most people's experience!
Q: What are your writing habits? Do you write daily? Do you keep a journal or diary?
O: I think my only writing habit is agonizing. Bellyaching might be a better word. When I truly believe in what I am writing, I write very fast indeed, and sometimes I will not change a word of it ever after. This happens particularly with my poems, some of which come upon me like visions. But with my prose, I will think about a piece for weeks before I begin to write it. Sometimes I'll abandon it after the first page or so, and if I do, I never want to go back. I just delete and forget.
I don't keep a journal or diary. I associate that activity with an unwholesome preoccupation with my own thought-processes. Writing requires openness and selflessness. I try not to write about me, but about what is. What I am inevitably curves and distorts what is – I cannot help that – but I can at least reflect it to the best of my ability. In my writing, I am trying to make something as real as possible. In order to make that happen, I must be as unconcerned as possible about my own petty concerns — and for the most part, they are extremely petty.
Q: Where do you write? What time of day? Do you write in longhand, or at the keyboard?
O: I write in my junk-room, at the keyboard. I learned to type very fast as a child, and later I taught myself to touch-type. I can hardly manage a pen or pencil. When I write, I have to write fast, before I lose faith in what I'm writing. I go cold on my ideas very quickly, and unless I can somehow capture them in the short time that they are alive, they sink to the bottom of the boil — perhaps to be reborn later as something better, or to emerge in another, quite different form.
Q: You have a spare, clean writing style, unencumbered by big blocks of description. Instead, you weave detail into the narrative, to maintain a nice pacing and voice. Whom would you list as influences, including writers, or anyone else for that matter?
O: I'd like to be able to answer this. But I have always regarded it as my personal failing – that I'm incapable of writing the sumptuous detail in which some other writers excel. It would sound very grand to say that my spareness of style was the result of some kind of ascetic self-discipline. But that's not true at all. It is the only way I can write. One day I'd like to be able to give this question a better answer, because it interests me too. For now, I can only say that what I write is as it were forced through tightly clenched teeth, through a process that I don't understand and perhaps don't dare to question. Writing, for me, is like walking a tightrope, and I daren't look down.
I'm going to struggle to say something useful, though. For me, objective reality is unsuggestive and meaningless. When I look at a cliff or at a piece of stone, I am filled with a kind of helpless dread: “what does it all mean?” I want to portray external reality as perceived by somebody: that is what brings it alive.
So this is not a question of choice, nor of influence. I feel it as a personal infirmity, something that renders my whole outlook radically defective and somehow jejune. When I read splendid descriptive passages, I am overwhelmed with admiration for what others can do, but that I cannot. But if, somehow, I can make things come alive and seem real, then perhaps I'm not defective, but simply approaching the world from a slightly different angle – not better, just different.
Q: Your description of your writing career surprises me. You really feel you are teetering over the chasm with each outing?
O: I often do, though not invariably. Occasionally I lose all faith in what I'm doing. It's like telling a joke that you don't find funny any longer. In retrospect, I'm often surprised by the way in which I will turn against a piece, either while I'm writing it or immediately afterwards. Paradoxically, it doesn't detract from my strong sense of duty to finish it. I do know that these feelings are largely groundless. Part of the trouble is that occasionally I seem to achieve a kind of total clarity of vision, and words just write themselves. I often worry that when that very rare condition is absent, I'm incapable of doing anything well.
Q: Your sexual passages are also well-written – what is your approach to writing sex, in contrast to other fictional prose?
O: Again, I like to try to portray sex as it is perceived, rather than as it might appear to the voyeur. I can appreciate voyeuristic writing, but in the end it alienates me. I find it cold and hard and manipulative. These sound like harsh, judgmental words, and I know I should apologize for that. In my brain I know that the external appearance of beautiful reality is beautiful. But in my heart I am afraid of the voyeuristic eye. I have to find a way, somehow, to see the scene through the lens of the eye of the participant.
“Turn away, girls, please. Miller, I want you to take note of what I'm about to show you. For the sake of science, of course.”
There is absolute silence. Clark is pink-cheeked, her eyes downcast. Denning, all obedience, still holds Shipman's other arm tightly. Shipman is weeping softly, the bell still jingling angrily, her ankles held fast by Kershaw.
“What do you think of that, Miller?” asks Walmsley softly as she draws up Shipman's skirts.
“Oh! What's happened to her?” Miller sounds horrified. The others are dying to look. “Is she usually like that?”
“I somehow don't think so, Miller. Just describe, in writing, what you see.”
“Well, I …”
“In writing, Miller.”
“Oh. Just a minute.”
“Haven't you seen enough?”
“Um … well, yes.”
“Very well, Miller, get writing. Up you get, Shipman.”
“Walmsley, I could take it a little longer, honestly,” protests the disappointed volunteer.
“I'm sure you could, Shipman, but if we are to be scientific we have to advance the experiment slowly. We mustn't rush things. We must see what effect such a prolonged exposure to the current has on you. Aren't you in the battledore match tomorrow, by the way?”
“Well, yes, I am, but …”
“Well, then, Shipman, we shall have to see if it improves your game.”
“Oh! I am sure that it will …”
“Clark? Are you in the match?”
“Er … no, Walmsley.”
“Yes, Walmsley. I'm playing.”
“Right. You're next for a dose. Hop up on the table, girl.”
“Does this mean I don't get a go?” asks Clark anxiously.
“Precisely, Clark. In the interests of science, we are going to examine the effects of the electrical current upon our battledore players!”
Denning's eyes open wide as Walmsley's fair hands glide under her skirts.
“You're not frightened are you, Denning?”
“No, but … do you have to do it just there?”
“It is the most effective place, Denning.” Walmsley lovingly applies the electrical contacts.
“How about there, Denning?”
“Ooh! That feels funny!”
“Or how about there?”
“Oh goodness … that's …”
“Or … hang on a moment … what about … there?”
“Eek! Hee hee! Oh gosh!” Denning's voice is a squeak. She tries to writhe, but she is held fast.
“Can you feel the energy entering your body?”
“Oh! Hee hee!” This seems to be all Denning can say, but her expression seems particularly lively and interested, so Walmsley judges that the position must be about right.
“One hundred and four,” intones Clark sulkily.
Soon the bell is ringing merrily – so merrily, in fact, that Miss Paulson leaves Carter bent over her machine and comes to see what is happening.
“Benson! Shipman! Stand still! You girls seem to have Saint Vitus's Dance! Goodness, Walmsley! Where on earth are you placing those contacts?”
Photo (c) Copyright 2006 John Nemeth. All Rights Reserved.
Q: How did you determine to make PB available as an e-book? Did you attempt to publish it conventionally? Did you investigate Internet publishers or self-publishing? When was PB first made available on a website?
O: Originally I intended just to publish it on my website in HTML. The parts appeared from mid-September 2000 until 6 June 2001. Subsequently, I've been encouraged to offer it in different formats – both as an e-book in MS Reader format (courtesy of Bradley Stoke) and for printing on paper via Acrobat (shortly).
I have never intended to publish on paper myself, leaving it to my readers to print out my works if they prefer to read that way. That said, I was encouraged by one reader to approach a regular publisher back in December 2001, and this I did. My two e-mails went unacknowledged, and I don't intend to try a third time.
Q: Have you made any money from the novel?
O: I shall never make a penny from my writing. Somehow that is important to me. If ever money is made from my work, I should like to see it go to a good cause.
Q: Please excuse my forwardness, but I would like to see you make a living from your writing, so that you could devote more time to your craft and become that much more powerful a writer. The old saw goes that even Shakespeare wrote for cash. Would you care to elaborate on your aversion to profiting from your art? Do you fear that your creativity might be compromised in that process?
O: I know that this will seem strange, but I feel as if I have been given something rather like a power of healing, and that it has been given to me together with a very heavy responsibility. I suppose if some rich patron wished to shower money on me, I shouldn't be too averse to that! (Who would?) But I feel that I cannot sell what does not belong to me. Perhaps this will make it clearer: yesterday, testing myself, I tried to read one of my poems aloud. I tried several times, but repetition doesn't make it any easier. I just break down. These pieces do not come out of my substance. I don't make them. They are as far beyond me as the sky is above the sea. They come to me, I don't know where from. I don't pay for them, and I don't feel I can charge for them.
Q: Any idea how many eyeballs have perused your novel? How much feedback have you received? And what ratio from women? What kind of response do you get mostly – to what aspect do readers respond typically, i.e., to the political/social overtones of PB, the sex, the humor, etc.? Did your work strike the chord you'd intended?
O: Really I've no idea of how many have read the novel. It must be thousands, but interpreting download statistics is not easy. Perhaps six people download the complete work per day. What they do with it when they've downloaded it I cannot guess.
I get very little feedback. Apart from those I'm regularly in touch with, PB elicited correspondence from no more than a couple of dozen people, about half women.
Most of the feedback indicated appreciation of the political and social aspects. One or two of the male correspondents seemed wholly interested in the erotic element, but then again, one or two of the women felt that I could have gone more thoroughly into the gory sexual details. I get the impression that most people liked the fact that it was much more than a sex story.
Q: What is your opinion about the future of e-books?
O: I believe in e-books, but it is a matter of blind faith. The majority of writers have the problem of how to make a living from publishing in this format. It's an important problem, very important for the future of the genre. I would like to be more concerned with it than in fact I am, because as I said I am resolved never to make a penny from my writing. I think that we're still living in an ink-on-paper world, and the world of traditional publishing probably views electronic publishing as a threat, one which it would rather ignore. I think this is a mistake: for better-quality work, at any rate, I am convinced that people would gladly pay for an attractively printed book, even if they could read it free online. E-publishing will really take off once it is promoted in the traditional press. But I doubt if ASSTR (for example) has ever been so much as mentioned in print. Probably the poor servers would grind to a halt if that happened!
Q: Can you offer any advice to those writers who wish to promote their work over the Internet?
O: I think I'm the one who should be seeking advice!
Q: How and when did you find alt.sex.stories?
O: I found ASS in 1999 — so long ago now that I cannot even remember how. I was interested, out of sheer curiosity, to see how people would go about writing a story that was intended to be erotic or pornographic. I had never sought out such writing before, although some had come my way by chance. I'd seen some of the most celebrated published writers in the genre, and been left totally cold. And here were (apparently) amateurs attempting what de Sade, the mysterious “O” of L'Histoire d'O and Anaïs Nin had attempted before — and seemingly, with greater effectiveness. That was my impression on first reading. For a couple of months I was mesmerized – more out of curiosity than anything else. And then I began re-reading. It was this that taught me something important. Almost without exception, amateurs’ stories are great on the first read, but fall flat thereafter. I somehow knew that I had it within myself to write a story that would be better on re-reading than on the first. That's not a matter of trickery or complicated technique: it's a matter of bringing an idea, with total persuasive force, into the mind of the reader, and keeping it there by means of a language style that neither distracts nor detracts from what one is saying.
Q: Do you find much support and encouragement from that community, or what do you get out of it?
O: I get a good deal of support from other writers, for which I am deeply grateful. All are polite and candid (to say the least), and I sense a deep fellow-feeling between us. I think we are all aware that there is something lonely about being a writer, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not. This loneliness is at once our inspiration and spur, but also something that we recognize as somehow necessary to what we do.
What do I get out of such companionship? A weapon against despair. Despair has consumed three months out of this year so far, and I'd rather it consumed less.
Q: How much feedback do you receive for posted stories? Do you interact with other writers off-line?
O: It's difficult to say how much feedback I receive, because I don't truly know how many read my work. My poems are the least popular. They are read about once a day — but I don't know if it is by the same person every day, or seven different people each week. (Some, I know, have read my work over and over and over again, and perhaps some of the better things can bear such intense and prolonged scrutiny.) My prose pieces are read from twice to twenty times a day. But when a new work is posted, it might be read by up to three thousand people in the first few days.
Now of course I have a number of very dear correspondents with whom I am in regular contact. I will always hear from them whenever I produce anything new. Apart from them, if a new work evokes five letters I will consider it a roaring success!
I do correspond regularly with a number of other writers; they are amazingly patient of me, for which I am profoundly grateful.
Q: After you won two Golden Clitorides (Best Long Story for 2001; Best Series or Serial of 2001), did you notice more readership?
O: There was a ripple of interest, yes – perhaps a hundred people read PB as a result. I think that the Clitorides do attract readers. They're definitely a good thing.
Q: And other avenues of exposure, like ezines such as Katherine T's Diva (ed., now defunct)? How effective are they in attracting readership for you?
O: Diva had a significant effect on the level of interest in my work. Significant, but I think temporary. The eye seems to notice a moving target rather than a still one, and I get the impression that online readers generally respond to events (such as reposts) more than they trawl archives. I suppose that's understandable.
Q: Were there any other themes or issues that influenced the development of the book?
O: There are a couple of other issues in PB that people might find interesting.
One is the unholy misalliance of Christianity with sexual repression. The dialogue between Carter and Miller in Carter's bedroom explores the conflict between the idea of the loving God and the prevailing Victorian prejudice that if something was pleasant, it was bad for you. I'm alluding to a quotation from the words of Jesus: “what father among you, if his child asked for bread, would give him a stone?” As far as I can recall, this is the the only explicit sexual teaching of Jesus: “anyone who looks lustfully upon a woman has committed adultery with her in his heart.” Earlier in the story, Penrose discusses this with Carter while they are admiring the statue of the goddess Diana in the rose garden.
Another underlying theme is the idea of the good will, and the moral value of autonomy. Of course, there is a very tongue-in-cheek account of hedonism and Mill's Utilitarianism, but underneath there is a serious point, which almost takes the form of a dialogue between Shipman and Carter.
Carter's initial position represents the infantile morality of command and obedience. Mill's Utilitarianism suggests a more adult kind of morality, in which the individual gauges the consequences of his actions and so acts as to maximize happiness. However, Mill's position was anathema to Kant: he saw nothing moral in following one's inclinations, even if they coincided with maximizing happiness. For him, true morality consisted in being prepared, if necessary, to go against one's inclinations for the sake of one's duty. For Kant, an agent is good not simply by virtue of a propensity to maximize happiness, but because he is motivated by moral principle, the good will.
Now it might seem that Carter's conformism is closer to Kant's idea, embracing as it does the idea of self-sacrifice. But Shipman sees that Carter is wholly driven by other people's standards, other people's judgments. Shipman embodies the idea that it is better to make one's inclinations conform to morality, so that one embraces what is good with all the passion of one seeking what she most desires. So she is single-minded, and sets her own standards. In short, she is autonomous. She refines Kant's idea of the good will by implying that there is something cold-blooded about the sense of duty, the selfless overriding of one's own inclinations. Her kind of morality is a matter of warm-blooded commitment. I think Nietzsche would have liked Shipman: she goes for what (and whom) she wants, and even if she makes her own mistakes, she is alive.
Gradually, Carter is won over to Shipman's position, though of course a large part of her quest for autonomy is financial autonomy. She is her father's daughter! Protected by Miss Paulson's solicitude, affirmed and empowered by Shipman's love, Carter comes alive herself. The escape to Russia almost symbolizes the escape from the shackles of conformity into a new life of freedom, self-determination and self-fulfilment. And of course this is what underlies Carter's last words in the story, which I hope my readers feel as strongly as I do:
“I don't want to walk. Not any more … I want to run.”
(Copyright 2002 firstname.lastname@example.org; excerpts from "Pavlova's Bitches" Copyright 2001 Oosh.)
|The Journal of Desire||Volume 3, Number 2|