Mary Anne Mohanraj
Interviewed by Gavin J. Grant
Mary Anne Mohanraj is the editor of two anthologies of erotica, Aqua and now Wet. These two stand out from other anthologies by being printed on waterproof paper!
Mohanraj also writes, paints, makes neat things, and has founded two of the more well-known e-zines, Clean Sheets and Strange Horizons. She currently lives in Chicago, IL.
BookSense.com: Whose idea was it to do these anthologies, Aqua and Wet, of erotica on waterproof paper?
Mary Anne Mohanraj: Actually, it was the packager, Melcher Media. Melcher specializes in putting together unusual and beautiful books -- they do a lot of art books, for example. When they heard about this waterproof paper, they started brainstorming good projects for the stuff. They came up with cookbooks, kids' activity books, little bath books, and more. They decided to lead off with the erotica book -- it's a gimmick, but a charming one, don't you think? They contacted me and asked me to edit it, and then they convinced Crown (a division of Random House) to publish it. Good deal all around.
Have you or the authors done readings from the book in any odd places? (Aquariums, fountains, swimming pools!)
Heh. We talked about it, but we haven't managed it yet. We're pretty geographically scattered, which makes it tricky to organize big readings. There's been some talk of trying to do one in a San Francisco bathhouse -- not sure if that'll actually happen, though. I did end up reading from it at a science fiction convention once, from the swimming pool. Some people looked really distressed to see a book come anywhere near a swimming pool!
Why do you think the idea caught the imagination of writers and readers?
Well, as noted previously, it's a cute gimmick. But in addition to that, water and sex are a natural pairing. Water can trickle over your body, dampen your skin, wet your thighs. You might be caught in the rain; first a sprinkle, then a drizzle, then an engulfing downpour, a torrent, a tempest -- which suddenly dissipates to a fine mist, leaving you drenched, deluged, flooded. I think if you spend two minutes just thinking about water and sex, scenarios just naturally start coming to mind...
We did talk about doing fire and sex as a sequel -- but a fireproof book would probably have to be made out of metal, and then it'd be really heavy. And it's a little harder to come up with a variety of story ideas that don't mutilate or kill the participants.
Erotica has moved from the back to the front of bookstores in the last 10 years. Why do you think that is?
Maybe we're just tired of being coy about it? It's been a fascinating shift for me to watch -- when my first book came out in '97, we were still having trouble even getting it printed. My stories were paired with self-photographs done by Tracy Lee, and the printer my publisher usually used refused to print the book because it showed (gasp!) nipples. He had to go to six other printers before he found one that would do it. And once it was out, it was mostly filed way in the back somewhere in bookstores. These days, you can find Aqua Erotica in most Borders and Barnes & Nobles -- and in a lot of stores, it's right up front, with the rest of the new and popular books. Maybe in a country where we discuss our president's sexual peccadilloes in graphic detail, the hypocrisy of hiding the erotica just got to be too much for people to take?
More likely, when bookstores saw the book was selling well, they moved it up front so it would sell better. Similarly with other erotic anthologies and novels. It's all about the money in the end, isn't it?
Do you have any ulterior motive in editing and publishing erotica?
Heh. Well, sure -- you ready for a rant? Why I write erotica.
It's a complicated answer, and has a lot to do with identity politics, sexual politics, sociology and of course personal psychology. To simplify -- mainly I write it because I think it should be written. Sex should be written about. Our culture (American culture especially, but I think it applies to most of the world) has an unhealthy fear of sexuality, in my opinion. We punish people for enjoying sex, for celebrating sex, for having sex with people of the wrong religion, race, gender, or even having the wrong kind of sex.
I was born in Sri Lanka, and maybe as a result, the whole sexuality thing has been more clearly demarcated for me. My parents had an arranged marriage; they didn't necessarily expect that of me, but they did expect me to marry a Sri Lankan man. They would phrase it in terms of culture, rather than race, but still -- that early pressure to marry Sri Lankan (and, of course, that meant to be heterosexual, and to stay virginal until marriage) threw these questions into sharp relief. I've been thinking about sex and taboos and boundaries for a long time -- I had to.
Safe, sane and consensual are the bywords of the S/M community, and as far as I'm concerned, those are the only restrictions that should be placed on sex. They cover just about every situation, and every taboo. Consider specifics -- is interracial sex safe, sane and consensual? Yes. Homosexual sex? Yes. BDSM? Yes. All of the previous assume that the parties involved use appropriate precautions (safe), are in their right minds (sane), and are both willing and old enough to decide they're willing (consensual). There are, of course, some fuzzy areas -- where do we draw the line for children who are having sex? I'm generally inclined to draw it lower than governments are, but that's a whole other argument. But it does seem to me that the general guidelines should be quite clear -- and it frustrates the hell out of me when interfering busybodies presume to tell me and mine (or thee and thine) how or when or with whom to have sex.
So I write these stories as part of my own private attempt to change the world. I write stories with strong consenting women, to remind people that strong women are sexy and that consent is crucial. I write stories with queer characters, to spread a little awareness. I write stories dealing with taboo subjects. Mostly, I try to write stories with real people -- people who love and hate and sometimes even have sex for all the wrong reasons, and who have lives beyond the immediate sex act.
Ditto all that for editing. I just finished copyediting Herotica 7, which will have a focus on interracial and intercultural sex; I was delighted to serve as consulting editor on that volume, and I hope it helps broaden the scope of the field. In some ways, it's even more important to me to edit this stuff than to write it -- as an editor, I can facilitate many different people, different voices, speaking their own truths about sexuality. And as far as I'm concerned, the more of us talking about it, the better (and healthier) we'll be.
What kind of story were you looking for when you were editing Wet? Are there any stories you will instantly turn down or accept?
First and foremost, I was looking for stories that we hadn't done already in Aqua Erotica. It's the challenge of the sequel volume -- not repeating yourself too much. Stories that did something new and interesting with water were particularly appealing to me -- pieces that didn't just use a watery setting, for example, but really incorporated water into the story.
I had some constraints dictated by the mainstream nature of the publisher. I love speculative fiction -- everything from rocket ships to dragons. But we knew that this was going to be primarily pitched at a mainstream audience, and so the publisher was pretty resistant to anything that was too speculative in nature. I did manage to slip a few in there: Loren MacLeod's "Giselle" has some lovely surreal elements, and Cecilia Tan's "Rite of Passage" is pure high fantasy (in an A.N. Rauquelaire sort of way). We carried two mermaid stories in the original Aqua Erotica -- the publisher made it clear that we were close to the limit on mermaids this time around.
Another constraint was regarding sexual orientation. If it were entirely my choice, there'd be a lot more diversity of orientation in the book. I find it more interesting to read a volume with all sorts of pairings (and triplings, and more). But the publisher felt that the audience for the book was primarily heterosexual (or at least, primarily interested in heterosexual fiction). We have a few queer stories in each volume, but not as many as I would have chosen. That's frustrating for me, but it's part of the business, and I can't say for certain that they're not right about how that affects sales of the books.
I would have loved to have received more stories with ethnic and cultural diversity at play. I have a predisposition to liking such stories -- in part, just because they're different from what I usually read. Whenever you edit an anthology, variety is a key element, and so really anything that strikes me as different or unusual is going to have an edge in the selection process.
All that said, mostly I just wanted good stories. I just flat out love some of the stories in here -- Mary Gaitskill's "The Ugly Cock Dance," Jeffrey Chapman's "On the Uses of a Bathtub," and J. Hartman's "The Flood" are all among my favorite stories that I've read in the last year. And I read a lot of stories. Stories with complex emotional interactions, with subtle characterization; stories that are tightly plotted and beautifully written -- that's what makes an editor jump for joy. This editor, anyway.
Do you think more people are reading erotica at the moment?
Hmm...compared to when? There have certainly been other time periods in which erotica was widely read -- consider the massive amounts of Victorian erotica that were published and consumed (The Pearl is a fine example of the genre). But if you mean recently, in America, then yes, I'd say that there's been a definite resurgence of interest in reading erotica. One can just measure the amount of shelf space it's taking up in bookstores -- it used to be confined to adult bookstores, with perhaps a single work by Anais Nin appearing in a mainstream bookstore.
Now, both chain bookstores and independent booksellers tend to carry quite a bit of erotica, and it's often not even consigned to the nonfiction Sexuality section -- it shows up in its own erotica section, or mixed in with other anthologies -- and sometimes even in the displays at the front of the stores. It's been delightful for me to walk into a Borders or Barnes & Noble and be able to find several copies of my books -- and even better, to see that they often carry the entire Herotica series and the Best American Erotica series. In the last five years, readers have become much more willing to admit that they read erotica -- people even walk into the bookstore and ask for my titles by name.
How has the explosion of online erotica affected erotica books and magazines?
I'm not sure if you're referring to online booksellers or online fiction. I'll answer both:
The availability of online booksellers has undoubtedly helped propel sales of my print books. Shy readers don't have to ask a real live person for my book -- they can order it in the safety and privacy of their home computer, and no one but a computer tracking system need ever know. Online selling has been a boon for slightly embarrassing purchases across the board -- erotica is only one example of such. Everyone may have a sex drive, but not everyone is ready to admit it.
I think that online erotic fiction, generally free (as with my own sites and with the magazine I started, Clean Sheets), has really helped grow the print market as well. Free online erotica has made it possible for a far wider range of readers to sample material and see what they like -- once they find authors and editors they like, they can go out and purchase more. This was especially useful in the days before erotica appeared in mainstream bookstores; many people who would never dream of visiting an adult bookstore will quite happily browse the free fiction online. As well, online erotica's popularity has shown print publishers that a wide and thriving market exists for erotic fiction (from the very mild to the very wild). Publishers like to know that before they invest cash.
My own sales are entirely due to my online presence. I started writing fiction online; I published it there for free, simply to share it with others. Before too long, the positive reader feedback convinced me that I could sell these stories to anthologies and magazines. After a few years of that, I realized that there was a hungry market online for erotic fiction -- I created Clean Sheets to help fulfill their needs. The Aqua Erotica publishers found me through my editorship of Clean Sheets -- they liked what I was doing there, and especially liked our readership numbers (at the time, we estimated about 30,000 readers -- it's grown in the two years since then).
At this point, I'd argue that an online presence is absolutely essential for authors, especially authors who are just starting out. Give readers a chance to get to know you, offer some samples of your work, start an e-mail newsletter or an online journal so they can follow your activities. Readers will get invested in you as well as in your books! And it's marvelous, as an author, to get a chance to talk directly to my readers; the feedback is invaluable.
Is there an international audience for erotica? Does erotica tend to cross national boundaries, or have you found there are specifics within countries that do not play in other countries?
There's absolutely an international audience. And some countries (like Sweden) have far more thriving markets than ours. It's fascinating, though, to see what differences there are between markets. An easy way to compare is to look at erotic comics -- compare ours to British ones to Japanese ones, and you'll see some startling differences! But despite those tendencies, fiction tends to be read and enjoyed across the board.
What, for you, is the difference between a good erotica story and a bad one?
I'm all about character. So my first criteria are the same I'd have for any story -- do you give me interesting, believable characters? Do they struggle with real concerns? Can I care about them? Can I fall in love with them?
Beyond that, though, an erotica story should arouse. That's its primary purpose, and if it fails to do that, then it's failed as erotica, just as a tragedy that doesn't make you want to weep has failed as tragedy -- and a horror story that doesn't horrify you has failed as horror. (Though I'll add the caveat that readers differ amazingly in what they find arousing, and that all an erotica anthology can hope for is that each of its stories will arouse a significant percentage of its readers.) Erotica is designed to engage your emotions, your mind, your body. If you pick up one of my anthologies in a bookstore, start browsing, get caught up in a story and so turned on that you decide you'd better buy it right now and finish it at home -- well, that's a success, in my book.
What are you reading?
Heh. My reading's mostly assigned at the moment. On the one hand, I'm a judge for the Tiptree Award (given for work that expands our ideas of gender in science fiction and fantasy), so I'm reading tons of wonderful new speculative fiction from this year. I'd tell you the specifics, but I think I'm supposed to keep those confidential until the judging process is over.
On the other hand, I'm also a Ph.D. student studying for qualifying exams (in April -- wish me luck!), so I'm deep in the midst of post-colonialist theory and literature. Theorists like Benedict Anderson, Homi Bhabha, Gayatri Spivak are all wonderful.
And for fiction -- so far my favorites include Haddawy's translation of The Arabian Nights, the R.K. Narayan Ramayana, Ginu Kamani's Junglee Girl (also with some fabulous erotic scenes), Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, and Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy. But there's 120 books on the list, so I've got quite a ways to go.
When I'm taking a break from all that, I tend to read epic fantasy -- it's my guilty pleasure. I'm addicted to the novels of Michelle West and Kate Elliott. I also highly recommend Laurell K. Hamilton, especially if you like both magic and sex.
If you worked in a bookshop, what would be on your staff picks shelf?
Oh, oh, oh -- that's too hard a question! I have 10 bookshelves at home, going up seven feet high. I can't pick, I just can't.
Do you have a favorite bookshop?
Lots. My two favorite speculative fiction bookstores are The Stars My Destination (in Chicago) and The Other Change of Hobbit (in Berkeley).