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"The Art of Lesbian Pulp Fiction."

A conversation about lesbian pulp fiction with: Jaye Zimet who has compiled a new collection of book covers for lesbian pulp fiction: "Strange Sisters: The Art of Lesbian Pulp Fiction, 1949-1969" (Viking Studio).

10:15

Other segments from the episode on December 8, 1999

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 8, 1999: Interview with Jaye Zimet; Interview with Ann Bannon; Interview with Lawrence Block.

Transcript

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: DECEMBER 08, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 120801np.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: "The Art of Lesbian Pulp Fiction": An Interview with Jaye Zimet
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:06

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

"Women Without Men," "The Unashamed," "Warped," "Sinful Desires," "The Evil Friendship," "City of Women," "The Odd Ones," "The Damned One," are just a few of the lesbian pulp novels represented in the new book "Strange Sisters." It's a collection of cover art from lesbian pulps of the '50s and '60s.

You can't accuse these lurid covers, showing scantily clad, buxom women, of being politically correct. My guest is the editor of "Strange Sisters," Jaye Zimet. She's a book designer who collects lesbian pulps.

She says the success of the genre was in part due to the fact that it was marketed to arouse men. But these were also just about the only books with lesbian content available to gay women at the time.

I asked Jaye Zimet to describe some of the plot conventions of the genre in the '50s and '60s.

JAYE ZIMET, "STRANGE SISTERS": The books really kind of had a lot of stereotypes that they conveyed. And one was that a woman alone, like a woman in prison, would surely be corrupted. You know, if you were in a sorority house, there's always some evil lesbian waiting to corrupt the little young thing. And that there were always these predatory lesbians waiting to corrupt little things, you know, the new ones.

There was also a lot of feeling abnormal and sort of trying out lesbianism, and then of course being horrified and running back to the man. Almost every single book ends in a negative of some sort. Either the woman on the far end either kills herself or is committed to an insane asylum, and I don't know which is less evil, or she gets married to the guy that she abandoned in the first place.

So it always had to be some kind of negative issue.

GROSS: Your new book, "Strange Sisters," includes lots of covers from the lesbian pulps. I'm going to ask you to describe a couple of your favorite covers.

ZIMET: One of my favorite titles happens to be "Satan Was a Lesbian." And the art is this -- Satan in the background, this devil in a beard, a Van Dyke, and mustache and horns, and he's red. In the foreground there is a woman dressed in leather with a whip over hand, about to whip the poor little cowering female slave. And there's a man in the background ready to punch her and to defend the poor little cowering female.

So it gives into a lot of different little stereotypes there, one that the evil lesbian is trying to corrupt the good girl, and that she is a devil. They're equating lesbianism with, you know, all kinds of, like, negative things, and that there's a man besides the woman who will be ready to defend her, you know, from this evil lesbian.

GROSS: It's really interesting. You contrast a couple of covers for the same book, you know, the original cover and then the reprint years later.

ZIMET: Right.

GROSS: They're interesting contrasts (inaudible). There's one book called "House of Fury: A Slashing Story of Girls Behind Bars." The 1941 cover has a picture of a young woman praying, whereas the 1959 paperback has a picture of a woman with a dress that has a V down the middle of her chest, revealing plenty of cleavage. Her arms are over her head, wrapped around the prison bars, in a slightly bondage kind of pose, further accentuating the cleavage.

So that's an interesting contrast.

ZIMET: It is. And the one where the woman is behind bars is by one of my favorite cover artists, Robert McGuire. And he always uses the same model over and over again. And this dark-haired model with the short hair has appeared on, I don't know, hundreds of covers that I have, both lesbiana, other kinds of sleaze. He worked a lot for Berkeley and Gold Medal and all sorts of other houses.

And this woman in the dark hair happens to be his wife, and he used his wife over and over and over again for models. It's kind of funny. And sometimes she's a blonde, sometimes she's a brunette. Mostly a brunette.

GROSS: On the opposite side, there are books that pass themselves off, whether they are or not, as scientific studies, like "We Too Must Love: An Honest Book, a Necessary Book to Light Up the Dark Places of Our Society, by Dr. Richard S. Hoffman, World-Famous Author," published in 1958. That's what the cover says, (inaudible).

ZIMET: No doubt, it is a pseudonym, yes. The reason for these sort of psychosexual books that I call, they're -- if they were science, you can have almost anything in them. They would not be banned, they would not be seen as obscene, or they would not be subject to any kind of censorship, so that "The Lesbian in Our Society," by W.D. Sprague, Ph.D., well, this -- obviously this is not a Ph.D. who wrote this. But "It's a problem that must be faced." And by couching it in this negative light, it was able to pass through.

And then some of the case histories are, you know, quite tawdry and quite openly explained.

GROSS: Do you know how these books sold?

ZIMET: These books sold very well, actually. "Spring Fire" was a best seller. It reportedly outsold "God's Little Acre" that was published in the same year. And the reason why they sold is because they appealed to men. And men bought them, and that really helped the sales. But the contribution that it made is that they did find a lesbian audience, and that's the important part, and that's the part that I like to point out.

GROSS: One of the biggest publishers of lesbian pulps was Gold Medal, which was an imprint of Fawcett Books. Tell us a little bit about the -- about that company, why they did so many lesbian pulps, and who the editor there was who handled these books.

ZIMET: Gold Medal was definitely one of the biggest publishers of lesbian books, and Dick Carroll (ph) was the editor there. And they had published "Women's Backs," was a -- which was as reprint of a hardcover, which was translated from the French. Well, because that became a best seller, they decided to do some more.

And one of the people who worked there, a secretary, was Mary Jane Meeker (ph). And I believe Dick Carroll approached her, and they were talking about school, and he asked if there was any kind of lesbianism in school. And she said, Oh, of course there was. And so he wanted her to write a novel about that. And she did, and that was published as "Spring Fire."

And that was the book that really started this trend. And one of Mary Jane Meeker's fans was Ann Bannon, who was living in Philadelphia, and she wrote a manuscript that dealt with some lesbianism, and she sent it in to Mary Jane Meeker. And that eventually got published as "Odd Girl Out." And then that started Ann Bannon's career as a writer. And she's written five novels, I believe.

GROSS: Now, Dick Carroll, the editor at Gold Medal who you mentioned, also edited two really well-known writers of pulp novels, Jim Thompson (ph) and David Goodes (ph).

ZIMET: Right. They did a lot of really famous people who started out as, you know, as these paperback original writers who got paid maybe, you know, $2,000 to write the book, no royalties. And a lot of quite famous artists, writers today, got their start doing these pulp fictions.

GROSS: Now, some of the lesbian pulps were written by people who are now famous, but the pulps were written under pen names. Any famous writers that you want to tip us off to?

ZIMET: Yes, there were several famous authors. Marion Zimmer Bradley wrote several under the pseudonym of Miriam Gardner. Lawrence Block, as you know, wrote many of them. And he wrote under, I don't know, about five different pseudonyms, Sheldon Lord, Andrew Shaw -- I'm trying to think of some of the other ones, tons of pseudonyms. Patricia Highsmith wrote one of the famous ones. It's called "The Price of Salt." It is not a paperback original, it was originally a hardcover. And so I put that in my "Cliterature" section.

And that probably is the first lesbian novel written that has a happy ending, that has a true happy ending. And that was -- it's Patricia Highsmith, and she wrote that as Claire Morgan (ph). And that is really readable today. It's very -- it's more literary, and it just really also speaks to that time, but it's a little bit earlier. It was written in the '30s.

GROSS: And Highsmith is probably best known for writing the novel "Strangers on a Train," and "The Talented Mr. Ripley," which is...

ZIMET: Which is now coming out.

GROSS: ... now a movie, yes.

When you read these lesbian pulp novels now, or look at the covers, do you recoil in their political incorrectness, or do you just really, you know, kind of enjoy the fun of them?

ZIMET: Oh, I enjoy the fun of them. Political correctness is all very well and good, but sometimes it pigeonholes you, and kind of is a little too constraining. And I think these were so innocent. They were done in a more innocent time, and they weren't meant to be, I don't know, degragating of women or anything like that. They were meant to be fun and a little saucy and, you know, a little bit salacious, wink-wink, here we are, you know. It's all very fun, I think.

GROSS: You think it was a more innocent time, or just a more repressed time?

ZIMET: Well, more repressed, but innocent in its outward views of sexuality, I would think.

GROSS: OK, well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

ZIMET: Well, thank you for having me.

GROSS: Jaye Zimet's new book is "Strange Sisters: The Art of Lesbian Pulp Fiction, 1949-69."

Coming up, we meet one of the most highly regarded novelists in the genre, Ann Bannon.

This is FRESH AIR.

(BREAK)

TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 877-21FRESH
Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia, PA
Guest: Jaye Zimet
High: A conversation about lesbian pulp fiction with Jaye Zimet who has compiled a new collection of book covers for lesbian pulp fiction: "Strange Sisters: The Art of Lesbian Pulp Fiction, 1949-1969."
Spec: Literature; Art; Sexuality

Please note, this is not the final feed of record

Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: "The Art of Lesbian Pulp Fiction": An Interview with Jaye Zimet

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: DECEMBER 08, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 120802NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Interview with Ann Bannon
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:18

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

GROSS: Ann Bannon is the pen name of one of the most popular and highly regarded writers of lesbian pulps. Her six novels, published between 1957 and '63, are "Odd Girl Out," "Women in the Shadows," "I Am a Woman," "Journey to a Woman," "The Marriage," and "Beebo Brinker."

Her character Beebo Brinker has come to personify the 1950s bar butch and her ongoing search for true love, according to "The Bloomsbury Guide to Women's Literature."

Bannon was a wife and mother when she wrote these books. She later returned to college, got a Ph.D. in language and linguistics, and became a dean at a California state university. She retired a year and a half ago. She kept her Ann Bannon identity a secret until the feminist publisher Naiad Press tracked her down before reissuing her books in the mid-'80s. She's still uncomfortable using her real name when appearing as Ann Bannon.

I asked what inspired her to write her first lesbian novel.

ANN BANNON: I was inspired by reading a few of them myself. I actually had the experience that so many women have written about in the subsequent years of going into a drugstore and furtively poking around on the kiosks that held the paperback books. And one of them was by a young New York writer who was writing under the name of Vin Packer (ph). And her books were contemporary and sort of college-based, very new, but it aroused a lot of intense feelings in me.

I read the books. It was very hard to buy them too, let me tell you. It is scary to walk up to a drugstore counter with your arms full of lesbian paperbacks and survive the stare from the clerk, pull yourself together, buy them, and walk out with your head held high. And then figure out where to stash them when you get home. It's all a bit scary.

But as I read them, I came to think that I can do this, I can write about this. I had absolutely no experience, but I had the feelings and I had the drive, and I knew I could write. So I had an old typewriter. It had been through fire, flood, and earthquake. And I set it up. I was a newlywed. And occasionally my husband would look over my shoulder and say, "What is that?"

And I typed on, looking neither to the left or the right. And within a few months I had a manuscript. But being nervous and uncertain and very new to this and very young, 21, and since I didn't know any publishers, I didn't know any agents, I sent this book -- I sent notice of it, anyway, to Vin Packer. And I said, "Is there any possibility you can help me out?"

And she said, "Come to New York, bring your manuscript. I'll introduce you to my editor."

GROSS: What happened when you actually met the editor?

BANNON: Well, I got to New York. She -- her name actually is Mary Jane Meeker. And Mary Jane, Vin Packer, Mary Jane, took me to meet her editor at Gold Medal Books. And he was a sort of a jolly Irishman, very savvy in paperback publishing, very clever and successful. And I walked in with this massive manuscript. It was about five inches thick. And -- but I handed it over to him. He read it very quickly, in a couple of days. He handed it back to me and he said, "Take this thing home and rewrite it, and concentrate on the two young women."

Well, I had written a college novel in which I had a standard college romance, but I also had two young girls who were roommates. And in the course of the story, they had become very intense about one another, to the point of actually physically exploring each other and making love, as it wound up.

But at the end, one of the two opted for the classic traditional college romance and married the fraternity boy. And so the editor said, "Throw that out. Your story is the two girls." And that threw me for a loop, because I really thought I had been very subtle about all this, and that somehow that would go unnoticed, and the traditional romance would be the part that everybody would like.

So I pulled up my socks. I went to Philadelphia, and I rewrote the book around two young women named Beth and Laura, and brought it back much slimmed down, and with the two young women as the heart of the story. And the editor, Dick Carroll, said, "This is it."

GROSS: And this was the novel "Odd Girl Out."

BANNON: This was the novel "Odd Girl Out," in which, by the way, you will not find the word "lesbian," because I didn't know it.

GROSS: I have a copy of the Gold Medal paperback in front of me.

BANNON: Oh, where did you ever find it?

GROSS: Sold at the time for 50 cents.

BANNON: Yes.

GROSS: And it says, "Odd Girl Out, a confession of a shocking and forbidden love." Is that how you thought of it?

BANNON: No. I thought it was a little bit unusual, but I didn't think of it as shocking or -- well, forbidden maybe in the sense that one wouldn't ordinarily shout it from the rooftops as one might if one had a conventional love affair. I did feel that it was rare and odd.

I hadn't quite gotten to the point of provoking a reaction in enough people to realize how far afield I had gone with this. Nobody in my family knew what I was doing, except that my husband occasionally, as I say, would peek over my shoulder and see that I was writing. But no one was more stunned than he that I had actually sold the book. And I don't think he ever read any of them, to tell you the truth.

So I didn't have any feedback. I didn't know any lesbians. I didn't know the word.

GROSS: You were a newlywed when you wrote "Odd Girl Out." You must have been going through some pretty confusing feelings. Your heart was in these -- this lesbian novel you were writing, but you were newly married to a guy. So it must have been a confusing time for you.

BANNON: Yes, indeed, it was. I -- you know, my whole family had always been very traditional. I used -- I -- it was a long marriage, too, and I felt that I owed that to my husband and my -- I -- we did have two children. My mother had soldiered on through difficult times. Her mother had soldiered on. I thought that was how one carried the flag for womanhood, you had to do these things.

But it was bewildering. I think I must have known from the age of 6, when I fell in love with the Statue of Liberty, that I wasn't going to be like ordinary kids. It gives you a clue. And I've had a lifelong conviction that you live between your ears, that that's where all the fun stuff is.

GROSS: (inaudible) your imagination.

BANNON: Exactly, and the people who live there. And I'm always telling stories. I don't know, I think that may be the key to a lot of creative work that people do, that somehow there's a life up there that's so private that sometimes it's hard to articulate or hard to share. And in that case you find another way to express it. And sometimes it comes out as a long narrative in your head.

So I would retreat to my own internal story telling when life got a little overwhelming, which it frequently did.

GROSS: What was it like after writing a novel and envisioning what the characters looked like, to then see the covers that the art directors put on the books. Now, these were pulps, these were novels that were sold, in part, by having sometimes lurid covers or very suggestive covers.

Tell us about the cover -- describe one or two covers from your novels.

BANNON: Oh, heavens. Well, two things you have to understand. We were not -- we hacks that were turning out the novels -- we were not allowed to choose our titles, and we were not allowed to choose our covers. And they -- it was a dismaying experience at first, until I came to realize that the lesbians who were looking for these books had learned to read the covers symbolically or iconically, that if there were two women on the cover, and particularly if one was blonde and one was brunette, and even more if one was standing up and one was lying down, that was sort of a code. You could read that as a possible lesbian novel.

And it would only take a few words of come-on, such as "twilight love," or "strange love," or "Society rejects me," or, you know, these code phrases, and you had struck pay dirt. That was the kind of thing you learned to look for. So after a while, you got past resentment of the total inappropriateness of the women on the covers, and you sort of welcomed them, because you knew that they were a way of making the covers, let's say, saleable.

GROSS: Ann Bannon will be back after a break.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(BREAK)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Ann Bannon, the author of several of the most popular and highly regarded lesbian pulp novels of the '50s and '60s, including "Odd Girl Out" and "Beebo Brinker."

I asked her to read an excerpt of her 1959 novel, "I Am a Woman," and to set the scene for us.

BANNON: This is a passage from the second novel I wrote, "I Am a Woman," and it's set in a Greenwich Village bar. The central character is Beebo Brinker, and in fact this is where we first meet her.

And the character with whom she's deeply involved is Laura, who's quite new to all this, a little afraid of where she is and who she's with, and feeling rather sad because she has a crush on her roommate. So she's come to the bar to forget her troubles and runs into this somewhat phenomenal woman who is showing intense interest in her, and -- which disorients Laura slightly.

She's a little afraid to talk to Beebo, so Beebo tries to reassure her.

"`You don't need to tell me about it,' Beebo went on, `because I already know. I've lived through it too. You fall in love, you're young, inexperienced. What the hell, maybe you're a virgin even. You fall up to your ears, and there's nobody to talk to, nobody to lean on. You're all alone with that great big miserable feeling, and she's driving you out of your mind, every time you look at her, every time you're near her.

"`Finally you give in to it, and she's straight.'

"She said the last word with such acid sharpness that Laura jumped.

"`End of story,' Beebo added. `End of soap opera. Beginning of soap opera. That's all the Village is, honey, just one crazy little soap opera after another, like Jack says, all tangled up with each other, one on top of the next ad infinitum. Mary loves Jane loves Joan loves Jean loves Beebo loves Laura.'

"She stopped and grinned at Laura. `Doesn't mean a thing,' she said. `It goes on forever. Where one stops, another begins.'

"She looked around the bar, with Laura following her gaze. `I know most of the girls in here,' she said. `I've probably slept with half of them. I've lived with half of the half I've slept with. I've loved half of the half I've lived with. What does it all come to?'

"She turned to Laura, who was caught with her fascinated face very close to Beebo's. She started to back away, but Beebo's arm around her waist tightened and kept her close.

"`You know something, baby? It doesn't matter. Nothing matters. You don't like me, and that doesn't matter. Someday maybe you'll love me. And that won't matter either, because it won't last. Not down here. Not anywhere in the world, if you're gay. You'll never find peace, you'll never find love with a capital L.'

"She took a drag on her cigarette and let it flow out of her nostrils. `L for love,' she said, looking into space. `L for Laura.'

"She turned and smiled at her a little sadly. `L for lust, and L for the 'ell of it. L for lesbian. L for let's. Let's,' she said, and blew smoke softly into Laura's ear."

GROSS: That's Ann Bannon reading an excerpt of her novel "I Am a Woman."

The covers of your book are reprinted in the new book "Strange Sisters." So let me read one of the covers of the book. This is the original cover for your book, "Beebo Brinker," and it says, "Lost, lonely, boyishly appealing, this is Beebo Brinker, who never really knew what she wanted until she came to Greenwich Village and found a love that smolders in the shadows of the twilight world."

BANNON: That captures it all.

GROSS: So you've got, you know, smoldering in the shadows, the twilight world, boyishly -- Oh, and then she's standing -- she's wearing, like, a skirted suit and sensible shoes, and she's holding, like, a wicker valise, standing on the corner of Gay Street. And there's a sign pointing "One Way."

BANNON: Yes. It was pretty ham-handed symbolism. They left nothing to chance. And of course Beebo has, as pictured there -- I mean, that girl, if she came eyeball to eyeball with my Beebo would have turned around and run screaming down Gay Street in the wrong direction.

GROSS: Why? What did you imagine your Beebo looking like?

BANNON: I imagined her in jeans and a blazer and a turtleneck, with her hair short, and a big girl. I mean, she'd been working on the farm all her life pitching hay bales and riding horses, you know, very sturdy person, big person, and not somebody with a model-slim figure wearing bobby socks. And even the sensible shoes don't cut it. I'm looking at it too, I've got it open here. Pink lettering, beautifully coiffed hair.

It's just -- I think what happened was that the editors sat the artists down and they said, Now, we want a pretty young woman, and it's OK if she looks a little bit like a tomboy. But don't go too far overboard, because we really have two constituencies for these books. One's the women, and they'll buy it anyway. And the other is the men, and that's who we have to appeal to. The women don't care what the covers look like, they just want to find the right books, and they'll read the code phrases and grab them off the shelves.

The guys want to find a woman who would be titillating to watch making love to another woman. I really think that was the guiding artistic principle, if it can be called that, that underlay the cover art on a lot of these.

GROSS: Now, I want to ask you about the -- you know, more about the life you were living while you were writing, you know, these lesbian pulp novels. You know, you were married, you got your Ph.D. in linguistics from, I think, Stanford University?

BANNON: Yes, I did.

GROSS: Raising two children. Was your divorce related at all to these books or to your fantasy life related to the books?

BANNON: My -- well, I suppose underlying it all, you've have to say yes, it was. I think a lot of other factors came into play, but that was one of them. I was never the person in a marriage that I believed myself to be, and I had to strike out and find out who I was. And it was interesting when the books were reissued by Naiad Press, I was a little abashed, thinking that my position at that time was as an associate dean at a university. And I thought, Uh-oh, here goes my job.

But in fact, everybody was wonderful, and all over campus, you know, sort of little lavender flags popped out of foxholes and people said, Good for you, particularly over in the P.E. department. I discovered all sorts of nice people that were very supportive and interested.

So partly yes, it was a watershed time in my life, one of those passages when the marriage ended and I kind of assumed an identity that was more me.

GROSS: What are some of the things women have told you that they learned from your books when they read them in the '50s or '60s?

BANNON: The big thing they told me initially was, Thank God that I'm not the only one, and that's how isolated people were then. But also that it's OK to open up a little bit, that it's -- it can be healthy, it can be a warm, generous, wonderful way to spend your life.

GROSS: Now, were you able to take your own medicine about that? Were you able to believe that about yourself?

BANNON: You know, it's funny, Terry, I think what I did to myself in that long-term marriage and a long-term career, a very scholarly turn of mind, was to learn to live so well in my own fantasy that I never truly got out of it. And that's not to say I haven't reached out and tried. I have. It just never has taken. I have friends who laughingly call me the Ice Queen. I am not the Ice Queen. I'm just someone who may have, in a sense, hurt herself, or limited herself by being so tremendously good at creating a life internally.

I do it wonderfully, if I say it myself. I have to start writing some of this down and sharing it, I guess. But it's satisfying to me, and I live by myself, I'm -- I have loads of wonderful friends, straight and gay. I love them all, I depend on them all. But I'm not -- I guess I -- either I'm -- I don't have a gift for partnership in the real world, or I just haven't found the partner. I don't know.

GROSS: One more question. You know, I'm thinking, like, your books are on the same shelves and the same publishing companies with the, you know, erotic novels of the period and the crime novels of the period, you know, all the pulps. And did you feel comfortable in that literary environment?

BANNON: At first I felt somewhat embarrassed and self-conscious about it. I thought, This isn't worthy of me, and I really wasn't sure how to take it. But then my mother began reading my books, and she said, "Sweetheart, good for you, this is great. I would never have thought this would have been your subject." But, she said, "I'm proud of you." And I thought, Well, dang! (laughs) If my mother is OK with it, bless her heart.

And she was the most proper, lovely Victorian mother you can imagine.

I'm OK, it's all right to be who you are.

GROSS: Well, Ann Bannon, I want to thank you very much for talking with us. How does it feel to be called Ann Bannon? Should I be calling you by your real name?

BANNON: Oh, no, no, please. Ann Bannon. Wonderful, very good.

GROSS: (laughs)

BANNON: I never thought I'd be talking to you, Terry, so this is truly delightful.

GROSS: Ann Bannon's lesbian novels were republished in the mid-'80s by Naiad Press.

Coming up, we meet a famous detective novelist who started his career writing lesbian pulp fiction.

This is FRESH AIR.

(BREAK)

TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 877-21FRESH
Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia, PA
Guest: Ann Bannon
High: Writer Ann Bannon (her pseudonym) has written a number of books of lesbian pulp fiction, including "Odd Girl Out," "I Am a Woman," and "Journey to a Woman."
Spec: Literature; Sexuality; Entertainment

Please note, this is not the final feed of record

Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Interview with Ann Bannon

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: DECEMBER 08, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 120803NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: An Interview with Lawrence Block
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:40

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

GROSS: Our biggest surprise in preparing today's show was learning that several lesbian pulps were written by one of today's best detective novelists, a writer who has joined us several times on FRESH AIR, Lawrence Block. He writes the Matthew Scudder and Bernie Rodenbar (ph) detective series and the Evan Tanner spy novels.

But early in his career, he wrote in several pulp genres under pseudonyms that he has been reluctant to divulge. But he was willing to return to FRESH AIR to talk about his lesbian pulp novels written under the pseudonym Jill Emerson.

His first published book was a Jill Emerson lesbian novel. I asked him why he started that way.

LAWRENCE BLOCK, NOVELIST: Well, it sort of happened. I had been publishing stories in magazines for about a year. This was -- I was all of 19 years old. I was working in New York at a literary agency. I was writing stories for magazines. And I wanted to write a novel. And I couldn't think how to do it. I was much more comfortable with stories, where I could see where I was going before I started out.

And I remember at the time that Gold Medal Books, under their Crest imprint, was publishing a fair amount of lesbian fiction. And I read several books. I read the nonfiction books that Mary Jane Meeker did under the name Ann Aldridge (ph), and I read some by Ann Bannon. And I read other writers whose names I don't recall.

And I just had the feeling that I could do this. I don't know why. I experienced the books as erotic, I suppose, but I was at an age where a streetcar was an erotic experience.

GROSS: (laughs)

BLOCK: It didn't take a lot, you know. But I just -- I had some -- oh, sense of identification with the books that was such that I had the feeling that this was a book I could write.

GROSS: Identification because they were about outsiders?

BLOCK: Maybe. I don't know. Maybe because I figured if I were a woman, I'd be a lesbian. I don't know, I really don't know.

GROSS: Why were you reading them in the first place? Were you reading them because you thought, Mmm, let me see, read all the genres and see what I'd feel most comfortable writing? Or were you reading them for other reasons?

BLOCK: No, certainly not that. I think I read them out of curiosity, originally.

GROSS: So you thought, Let me try my hand at a lesbian novel, I think I could get something like that published?

BLOCK: I just thought I could write it, yes, and I thought I probably could get it published if I wrote it and it turned out well. And I -- it was -- it turned out to be very easy to do. I woke -- what happened, I woke up one morning hung over, as a matter of fact, and -- I don't recommend this as a way for preparing for outlining. But I was, and I -- it was the sort of hangover that was, oh, very speedy in this sense. My mind kept racing faster than time.

And I sat down and just cold-outlined a novel, did about two pages of a chapter outline of a book. And then a couple weeks later I was -- I had left my job and was home in Buffalo and had a few weeks before I was going to be leaving with a friend to go to Mexico, and I sat down and I wrote the novel.

GROSS: Now, did they know whether it was a man or a woman who really wrote the book?

BLOCK: I (inaudible)...

GROSS: You submitted it under your pen name?

SMITH: I don't remember, but I think they probably knew who I was, because I did ultimately meet with them. And I did the one book, and then I couldn't think of another to write. I mean, the logical thing to do would have been to do another book for them, but I just couldn't get a handle on it, so I never did write any more for that publisher.

GROSS: But you did other lesbian fiction?

BLOCK: Eventually. I -- what I did a great deal of for a couple of years was erotic paperbacks, what we would now call soft core, I suppose. And pretty mild at that, by contemporary standards. But they were -- the novels were certainly -- sex was the reason the reader was reading the book.

And I did a lot of those, and they all -- most of them had at least an element of lesbianism in them, but they weren't lesbian novels.

But then a strange thing happened in -- it would have been in about '63, I guess. I had been writing for a couple of markets, all through the services of one particularly -- particular literary agent. And he and I had a falling out. And they were no longer representing me, and the markets that I'd been writing for were suddenly closed to me, they were -- it was a closed shop.

And they -- so I didn't really know what to do. I had a wife and two kids and a -- to support and a mortgage to pay, and I wanted to keep on writing. So I did develop a couple of markets on my own and did manage to keep body and soul together. And one thing I did, I was reading somewhere, one of the writers' magazines, and it mentioned a particular editor at a particular house who was looking for lesbian fiction.

So I wrote a book, and I sent it to him cold under my pen name.

GROSS: Jill Emerson.

BLOCK: Jill Emerson, yes, as a matter of fact, that was a pen name I adopted for this occasion. And I had an office a couple blocks from my house, and I immediately went and put Jill Emerson's name on the mailbox next to my own, so that the -- and the acceptances could find their way to me, or if the manuscript came back.

You know, and it was interesting, because I had written for this publisher in the past. They were not a closed shop. I could have just gone in and stirred up something. But I think I liked the whole idea of subterfuge and being more than one person, I suppose, which is probably one of the reasons one writes in the first place.

Anyway, I sent it off cold with a -- and I got a bemused note back from the guy, I -- John Plunkett, his name was. And he said, you know, How on Earth did I think to send it directly to him? You know, he hadn't even -- you know, he never got stuff directly to him, but he'd read it, and he liked it very much, and he enclosed a contract, and he wanted to publish it.

And it was satisfying to discover that one could just go over the transom this way and get published effectively.

So anyway, this -- I wound up doing two books for Midwood as Jill Emerson.

GROSS: Titles?

BLOCK: Let me see, one was "Enough of Sorrow," which was my title. The other they published as "Warm and Willing."

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: Which was not a title I had -- I don't know what I had called that, but they called it "Warm and Willing," and then -- And I got this correspondence from Plunkett, you know, and he was sort of flirty with Jill, you know. He was talking about, you know, Here's a proof of the cover. He said, I had the job of selecting the model. Tough work, isn't it? Ha-ha. You know, and we sort of joked back and forth.

So that was fun, that was fun.

GROSS: Did he ever find out that Jill Emerson was really Lawrence Block?

BLOCK: Unless he's listening now, he probably doesn't know to this day. No, I -- no, he never did. And I did the one book with him, and then he signed up a second book, and then I guess he moved on, and another editor came in there. And by this time I had relocated. I was living in Wisconsin, and I got that book done. That was the one that was published as "Enough of Sorrow." And those were those two.

GROSS: Do you remember any of the plots?

BLOCK: No, not at all. I haven't read them since they -- since I wrote them. And I don't remember a thing about them.

GROSS: My guest is detective writer Lawrence Block. He started his career writing lesbian pulp fiction. More after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(BREAK)

GROSS: My guest is Lawrence Block, who writes the popular Matthew Scudder detective series. He started his career writing genre novels under pseudonyms. His first published book was a lesbian novel under the pen name Jill Emerson.

Now, when you started to write the lesbian novels, did you say to yourself, Now, what do I need to know (laughs) to write about these characters convincingly?

BLOCK: Well, I probably should have asked myself that, but (laughs) with the extraordinary assurance of a 19-year-old, I just went ahead and...

GROSS: You were 19!

BLOCK: Yes, right, yes.

GROSS: Wow. Did you know any lesbians?

BLOCK: So I didn't know anything about heterosexuality either.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: But you knew heterosexuals. Did you know any lesbians?

BLOCK: Not well. Not well at the time, no. I -- not really, no. I did -- I remember when the first book came out, I got two fan letters, both from women, and from -- one was from Corvallis, Oregon. I forget where the other one was from, but again someplace remote and that. And I didn't know what the hell to do. So I sent each letter to the other and figured maybe they'd get together. What do I know?

GROSS: (laughs) You felt too uncomfortable responding back, or you didn't know whether you should respond as Jill Emerson or Lawrence Block, or...

BLOCK: I didn't know how to respond, yes.

GROSS: I guess maybe it felt too phony to use a pen name in a letter to an actual person?

BLOCK: Oh, I don't know that was a...

GROSS: No, (inaudible)?

BLOCK: ... would have bothered me a lot, Terry, but...

GROSS: (laughs) Now, you also wrote some books under a doctor's name?

BLOCK: I did a whole lot of things that probably need not overly concern us. But, yes, I -- back -- this was in the '60s, and I did a lot of pen name writing.

GROSS: What was your doctor's name?

BLOCK: That's not important, that's not important.

GROSS: Did the doctor write any of those pseudoscientific books about sexuality?

BLOCK: Yes, yes. It was -- and I also did some of those that weren't under a doctor's name, it was just under another name, you know. And actually as the books went on, they sort of evolved into legitimacy in a funny way, because, you know, I started off just making up all of the cases. Jesus, I think everybody does. It was just a work of fiction in the form of nonfiction, essentially.

And as time went by and as I had correspondence from some readers, I actually had meetings and face-to-face interviews with other readers, the later books that I wrote frequently had, you know, actual real chapters in them.

GROSS: Did you do medical research for the books?

BLOCK: No, they weren't particularly medical. They were more sociological, if anything, or -- they were, you know, just case histories of imaginary people. And I wrote a lot of stuff under pen name. And the pen names sort of had -- I think if you want to do this, a mild case of schizophrenia is not a liability. My pen names occasionally dedicated books to one another, for example.

GROSS: (laughs)

BLOCK: And -- well, I thought that was nice. And some of them do have listings to this day in "Contemporary Writers," that resource guide, because someone sent me a questionnaire once and I filled it out.

GROSS: Oh, that's great.

BLOCK: Yes.

GROSS: Now, could you have gotten into trouble for posing as a doctor?

BLOCK: No. The law on that was fairly clear, and that's that you can write under a doctor's pen name as long as you don't usurp any of the prerogatives of the doctor, as long as you do not diagnose or prescribe.

At least that's what somebody told me. (laughs) I say it very authoritatively. I have no idea whether that's true or not.

GROSS: (laughs) It strikes me that this era that you got started in, when you could write under these pen names for different genres, you know, erotic novels and crime novels and, you know, lesbian novels, that era just doesn't exist any more...

BLOCK: No, no, it doesn't.

GROSS: ... you can't get started doing it that way any more.

BLOCK: No, it doesn't. I don't think there's -- I don't think there is any erotic novel market now. If it is, it's just hard-core porn, and no one can learn anything writing that.

No, I think that's all disappeared.

GROSS: Was it helpful to be able to start writing books without feeling that you had to find your own true voice?

BLOCK: It was for me. It was enormously useful. It was an extremely forgiving form. If you could keep a story going, and if you did have an erotic scene in every chapter, so it didn't have to be wonderful, it didn't have to be brilliantly conceived. And it was a way to learn how to write while, oh, making a living.

GROSS: Lawrence Block. He's the author of the Matthew Scudder and Bernie Rodenbar detective series and the Evan Tanner spy novels. His lesbian pulps were written -- were published under the pseudonym Jill Emerson. One of his Jill Emerson novels, "Threesome," has been republished in a limited edition.

Today's interviews were produced by Amy Sallett (ph) with Anne Marie Baldonado and Patty Leswing. Research assistance from Brendon Noonam (ph).

I'm Terry Gross.

TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 877-21FRESH
Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia, PA
Guest: Lawrence Block
High: Before he became a well-known detective novelist, Lawrence Block wrote a number of books of lesbian pulp fiction, under the pseudonym Jill Emerson (and others). Block is best known for his detective novels featuring the Manahatten private eye, Matt Scudder.
Spec: Literature; Sexuality; Crime

Please note, this is not the final feed of record

Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: An Interview with Lawrence Block
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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