Talk about an untold story: two foster family brothers track down their long-lost foster sister— the object of their teenage lust— to find out she's become a porn star.
The story is "What Happened To That Girl," by Marie Lyn Bernard, one of my favorite new authors from next year's Best American Erotica 2007. I get so excited by work like this from someone who's entirely new to me. Roll tape!
Listen to the whole book: Link
I was delighted to discover Marie's writing through Bill Noble, one of the editors at CleanSheets who sent me the story the moment he finished reading it, scribbling, "You can't miss this." He was right!
I soon learned that Marie works for a literary agency in NYC, and gets to fondle her own share of unsolicited manuscripts...
SB: How did you get the idea of explosive sexual tension and consequences between a group of "foster kid" siblings?
MLB: At the risk of opening with one of my least favorite writer-cliches, I'm not sure where I got the idea— it just came out of me!
I'm familiar with the foster care system through family and friends—and I've learned more recently through my involvement in the gay marriage debates, since gay families are stepping up nowadays as the best foster families one could hope for.
I made my characters as foster siblings to up the stakes, to make the personal connection between the characters more compelling.
SB: Your porn star "sister," Christy, has a lot of secrets. Have
you experienced this situation before, where someone you knew from the
past turned out to be in the sex biz?
MLB: While I was in college in Michigan, I worked... "as a show-girl on my own personal webcam"— Alas, NO! I have no porn experience. In reality, I was employed for almost three years, at a corny corporate Italian restaurant where employees had to wear zany ties. I worked with a couple girls who, together, formed my rough inspiration for my porn star character Christy.
One of them was named "Jenna." One day in the kitchen, "Ken," another coworker, said that Jenna was on a pornographic website called facialhumiliation.com, based out of Florida. I kinda despised Jenna, so I eagerly went home, doled out $7.95 for a trial membership, and logged on to witness the promised facial humiliation.
There she was: Jenna, clad in a "Dorothy" outfit. She confessed her virginity, was rammed up the ass, received her requisite cumshot, and exclaimed, "I love facial humiliation dot com!"
While fucking her, the men said things like, "Not so innocent anymore, are ya?" She looked totally out of it, and reminded me that when I'd asked Ken why she was in porn, he said he assumed she needed money for drugs because she had a problem once upon a time.
I'd wanted to laugh at Jenna because she was such a bitch, but
instead I felt sick. I was haunted by it, and thought of it every time
I talked to her.
If I hadn't known Jenna, or if I'd known she went into it with sober intention, it wouldn't have turned me off so much, though I doubt it would have turned me on. She looked like a fucked-up girl getting fucked. It wasn't about her pleasure, obviously.
Employee Ken eventually was scolded by a manager— Jenna complained that he was telling everyone about her video, and she wanted her past as far from her present as possible. It made me feel gross just to think about it, and I wondered how she felt knowing that we all knew.
SB: What about your narrator, the brother who's his mom's only "bio-child" in the family. He pines for Christy from day one of her adolescent appearance.
MLB: He's turned on by something morally ambiguous, but his desires
and his pleasures are pure. There often isn't much about life or sex
that's clear-cut or ethically un-ambiguous. We need stories that
reinforce the reality that everything occurs in specific context, that
blanket dogma is absurd, and that sexual consciousness is strange and
unpredictable— and therefore also very lovely. And important.
SB: Every year, as I collect manuscripts, mostly unsolicited, for BAE, I notice trends that the authors themselves may not be aware of. This past year, the theme of older/younger generation wars, with every age and incest-related sexual taboo lit up like a pinball machine, was the common flashpoint.
MLB: It's funny that you mention incest, because when I started this story, which I realized was dancing on that line, I thought of course of Kathryn Harrison, who's in this anthology.
It's possible that erotic writing has reached a certain popularity where we're getting to the point that writers are looking for new stories that haven't been told yet, because so many already have.
Personally, my story was, first and foremost, a desire to do
something different, a story that wasn't based on an experience or
fantasy of mine—even putting it on the West Coast, doing a Male POV,
employing male homoeroticism, using anal sex.
We've had enough of shock value for shock value's sake. Talented writers are looking at the shock value material—like what John Cameron Mitchell is doing with his film Shortbus — and saying, "this might shock, but it's real, and it's compelling, because it's about human beings and love and emotion and so much more than 'people are fucked up.'"
I'm fascinated by the underbellies of the human imagination, the things that we only share when we are naked and captivated by desire, the things that embarrass people, the things we don't say out loud— most of all, the things we understand but refuse to say out loud.
I'm pretty crass sometimes, and no one has ever referred to me as
polite. There's a lot of commercial attention right now in facade, in
appearances— and so now, more than ever, we're interested in what
people are hiding under the bullshit, and often it's rooted in
something personal or sexual. When I talk about sex, I try to talk
about moments where bullshit is difficult if not impossible.
We're at an interesting juncture where age is easily considered "just a number," yet when it comes to sex, age does mean something, biologically. We have 16-year-olds who've undergone emotional developments that a 28-year-old still living in his mother's basement hasn't begun to experience—nor, for that matter, the 40-year-old who was stoned for most of his twenties and is just now getting around to finishing college. The range of options available for people at various times of their lives makes "youth" hard to pinpoint right now.
SB: You work in a literary agency, where you too see an enormous slush pile and acres of manuscripts. What themes have you seen working overtime in the past year?
MLB: The stories I'm seeing these are big on "second chances," on small-town gumshoes solving "the murder at the creek," stories about re-birth, and on starting again in mid-age.
People are, more than ever, writing epic tales about....themselves. Nothin' special. Just themselves. Their life. Whatever it is.
Terrorism, bio-terrorism, eco-terrorism, financial espionage,
government conspiracy are also big. So are novels of men having
mid-life crises which involve fishing and thinking about the man's
divorce/lackluster marriage which curiously take place in the same town
where the middle-aged male author lives. Then there's "The DaVinci
Code" rip-offs, and five-volume epics involving mythic lands and
SB: From your vantage point in this line of work, what do you wish most authors knew about getting published, that they don't?
MLB: Sometimes we see great manuscripts—solid writing, interesting plot—and, every now and again—impressive writing credits. If it was a writing class, the author would get an "A," no question.
But that's really not enough. You have to have an idea and/or a writing talent that is so remarkable, so stunning, that it will defy the odds of the marketplace, and will stand out as so fantastic and so fresh that the agent will have editors fighting over it. The agent is just the first step—there's an editorial board after that, so even if the agent likes it, they can't necessarily take it on if they know it won't sell. It's not a seller's market right now.
I'd advise all aspiring writers to check out the "query letter drinking game," which I mostly wrote myself along with some agents I will not name, on my website.
SB: Oooo, that's good...and clearly needs a designated driver. Thanks, Marie...