When Rachel Kramer Bussel was in Portland last year, she had a serendipitous experience at Powell’s Book Store.
She was at the end of putting together the book Best Sex Writing 2012: The State of Today’s Sexual Culture [Cleis Press], which she edits, and most of the pieces were already finalized. But as she was walking around she saw and bought a copy of Ms. Magazine, because of the article, Sex, Lies and Hush Moneyby Katherine Spillar. Bussel ended up getting the rights to the article, which for her was perfect since she was looking for a piece that touched on politics to round out the book.
“I try to read a lot, but I don’t always see everything,” Bussel said. “So this was a great opportunity for me. I don’t think it’s something you can do when you are just shopping online because you don’t browse a newsstand in that way. It was only because I was standing in front of this magazine. So I’m extra excited to go back to Powell’s.”
Bussel, who is a New York-based author, editor, blogger and event organizer, will be back in Pdx to kick off her West Coast book tour for Best Sex Writing 2012 at Powell’s April 6 at 7:30PM. The event will include a reading and discussion with contributors Tim Elhajj (author of Dopefiend, contributor to Guernica), Kevin Sampsell (author of A Common Pornography) and Lidia Yuknavitch (author of The Chronology of Water). And there will be free cupcakes.
The book is a collection of nonfiction spanning from journalistic pieces such as Camille Dodero’s Village Voice article “Guys Who Like Fat Chicks” to Amber Dawn’s personal essay, “To All the Butches I Loved Between 1995 and 2005: An Open Letter about Selling Sex, Selling Out and Soldiering On.”
What it isn’t, though, is erotica. And a lot of Bussel’s readers are surprised that the anthology isn’t necessarily getting them off.
“It’s true, it’s not a joyful, happy collection,” Bussel said. “Though there are pieces that have some of that, some are pretty intense – they are talking about rape or sexual politics or teenage sex laws, but I think those are really important topics that affect not just us but the whole society. Just because you are not part of the group the story is talking about doesn’t mean you can’t learn something or what that group is going through doesn’t affect you as well.”
Bussel points to the The Village Voice piece which is about men’s desire for “fat chicks” and said she likes to consider pieces that are talking about people with fetishes or special identities that are outside of the mainstream.
“Sometimes we have this idea that straight men only want one cultural idea and that there is such a thing of what all men want in terms of sexuality,” she said. “I don’t think that’s true.”
Topics covered include sex and aging, female pleasure workshops, porn star celebrities, slut walks, teen sex laws and dating with an STD.
There are two pieces of media criticism in this year’s book, which Bussel said is new for the series. However, for her, they are among the strongest pieces because they talk back to two very prominent media outlets – The New York Times about rape and sexual violence and Newsweek about sex trafficking.
“Those are the pieces I am most proud of this year,” she said. “Sometimes people read something in a mainstream news source and think ‘oh that must be correct’ and they don’t bother to think critically about it because of the brand. It’s really important we examine our own prejudices and the prejudices of people who cover them.”
Aside from editing Best Sex Writing since 2005, Bussel edits the infamous Sex Diaries column for New York Magazine.com, and has edited more than 40 anthologies for Alyson Books, Avon Red, Cleis Press, Pretty Things Press, Ravenous Romance and Seal Press. She also conducts reading and erotic workshops worldwide and was the host of in The Flesh Erotic Reading Series in New York City. When she’s not writing or reading about sex, she’s tasting cupcakes and writing about them for her blog, Cupcakes Take the Cake. http://cupcakestakethecake.blogspot.com/
What are some of your favorite spots to visit in Portland?
“I really like Voodoo Doughnuts. I am a relatively new coffee drinker and I don’t have a regular spot yet in Portland, but I like that you guys have a lot of good coffee shops. I really like Powell’s. I could basically spend the whole day there. I always find books that I either rarely see in bookstores or that I wanted to read that I never got around to. Naomi Shihab Nye, she’s a poet and essayist and I got one of her books there last time. My reading goal for 2012 is to read all her work. I’m also getting a tattoo at New Rose Tattoo. I was in Portland, Maine in November for my birthday and I thought it would be fitting to get another tattoo in Portland, Oregon. I think getting a tattoo in a city ties you to that place forever so it’s kind of exciting.”
In terms of the book, how did Susie Bright come to be guest judge?
“We look for someone who is prominent in the world of writing and sex and will bring their own sensibilities to the project – whether that is suggesting authors or helping narrow down the pool of the selection. I worked with her on a couple of other books of hers that I’ve had stories in and she brought a lot of attention to the project and gave very thoughtful critiques of those we used and others we didn’t end up using.”
Has the Best Sex Writing anthology always been nonfiction?
“[Yes] It’s always been. The people who are reading at Powell’s [Yuknavitch, Sampsell and Elhajj] are all from the literary fiction world. It’s really important for me, that we have people from the world of journalism, people from the world of queer politics, people from the world of literary fiction all writing about sex in different ways. I really look for pieces that say something about sex that is new in some way, even if it’s about a topic I’ve heard about before but approaches it differently.”
How does the submission process work?
“I tend to get more submissions for my erotica anthologies than for Best Sex Writing. [For this book I received] 80 to 100 [submissions] but a lot of the pieces that wound up being in the book are pieces that I was specifically looking for online or in print. I am taking submissions for Best Sex Writing 2013 until May 1. You can send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.”
What makes a compelling story?
“Whether it’s an essay or diary or fiction – one of the main problems I see is that people jump right into the sex or kink and they don’t really set a context of who the people are and why they are there. If we don’t know who the people are who are doing these acts, then why they are attracted to person X and person Y or both person X and Y, it’s not as satisfying to the reader. The more personal you can make the story, not necessarily about you personally, but the more you can make a person relate to you and understand where you are coming from … you are not trying to convince them but you should be trying to explain to them why it’s exciting for you.”
With all that you have going on, how do you find the time to write?
“It’s challenging. It all works together because sometimes I just don’t want to write and in that case I’ll read submissions to one of my anthologies or I’ll work on another project. I have a PG cupcake blog that is my outlet away from sex writing. Sometimes I procrastinate on writing and then am like ‘oh I really have to write that story because it really wants me to write it.’ I feel like I have to carve out the time and block out the other projects. If I avoid writing something, it haunts me until I actually write it.”
Rachel Kramer Bussel will be at Powell’s on April 6 at 7:30PM for a reading and discussion from her new anthology, Best Sex Writing 2012. Keep an eye out for “Going Down” an anthology of oral sex stories and Curvy Girls: Erotica for Women released in March from Seal Press. Check out more of her work and upcoming projects at www.rachelkramerbussel.com.
Liz Gold is a freelance writer. She can be reached at email@example.com.