Saturday, December 31, 2011

Facing the Inner Lesbian with Lawrence Block

Some time back, dear friends, I invited vintage erotica writer, Lawrence Block/Jill Emerson to contribute and share a little bit with my former blog.  I've decided to transplant the post here so that my newer readers can enjoy it as well. You're in for a real treat with this. I've reviewed Jill's work myself, and I'm happy that Lawrence agreed to share her with us.
Thanks, Lawrence! ~Rhiannon Mills

By Lawrence Block 

Jill Emerson was born in 1963, when I was a twenty-five year old guy with a wife and two kids and a mortgaged home in a suburb of Buffalo, New York.  For several years I’d been supporting all that by writing—crime stories for magazines like
Manhunt and Trapped and Guilty, crime novels for Gold Medal and Belmont, psychosexual case histories for Monarch Books, and a ton of soft-core sex novels for Nightstand and Midwood.  
Then my agent and I had a falling out, and my most important source of income, Nightstand, turned out to be a closed shop, committed to buying only from that particular agent.  I had to scramble to make ends meet, and in the course of so doing I decided to develop a new persona and write a lesbian novel.
So I sat down and wrote a book called Warm & Willing,  very generously reviewed not long ago on this very website, and sent it in over the transom to Midwood Books.  The byline was Jill Emerson, and that was also the name on the cover letter.  They bought it by return mail, and I wrote a second novel for them, which I and they called Enough of Sorrow.  (I’m not sure what my title was for the first book, but I know it wasn’t Warm & Willing.)
And Jill Emerson was born.

This was not my first contact with my Inner Lesbian.  My very first novel, completed within a few days of my twentieth birthday, concerned a recent college graduate’s sexual identity crisis in Greenwich Village.  It, too, sold to the first publisher who saw it, Fawcett Publications’ Crest imprint.  I called it
Shadows, and had a female pen name picked out.  Rhoda Moore, I think it was. But the publishers changed the title to Strange Are The Ways of Love, and slapped the name Lesley Evans on it.  (Strange are the ways of publishers, believe me.)
So here I was, five years later, back in touch with my lesbian self.  I very much enjoyed being Jill Emerson, and the editors at Midwood never found out I was anybody else. That’s how they addressed mail to me, and that’s the name they put on my checks.  (Those were more innocent times.  I could endorse a third-party check, simply by writing Jill Emerson on the back, and then deposit it in my own account.  Nowadays the whole business would be a lot harder to manage.)
I know I got a real kick out of the deception involved.  Years earlier, I’d written eight or ten books for Midwood, and it would have been much safer and more certain to approach them under my own name;  they weren’t a closed shop, and they’d have given me a warm welcome.  But Jill Emerson was a character I was creating, as much as any of the characters within my novels, and I was having fun.  

Cut ahead a few years.  I was living in Racine, Wisconsin, when I wrapped up
Enough of Sorrow; we’d moved there when I took a real job as editor of a magazine for coin collectors.  I was there for a year and a half, writing nights and weekends and getting a couple of books done.  And then I resigned to return to the New York area; by then I had a new agent and a couple of book deals, and concentrated largely on crime fiction.
I guess it must have been 1969 when Jill got back in the game.  Another paperback publisher— Berkley Books, a cut and a half above Midwood—was starting a new line of well-crafted erotic novels, and my agent got me a deal. The money was decent—$5000 a book, if I remember correctly—and what they wanted was not Nightstand-type sleaze but literate erotic realism.
From a sexual standpoint, the late 1960s was an interesting time in American fiction.  A lot of silly taboos were lifted, and plain speech and candid description were suddenly to be found in novels that got reviewed in The New York Times.  
Everybody’s books got hotter, and a writer like John Updike could suddenly write a book like Couples.  
And Jill Emerson wrote Thirty and Threesome and A Madwoman’s Diary.   
These books were not specifically lesbian fiction, although I’m certain each had a lesbian component.  Nor was the publisher under the illusion that the books were written by Jill Emerson.  (Or indeed by a woman at all; my agent had made up a male cover name for me.)
There was almost a fourth Jill Emerson book for Berkley.  I wrote, in a Dexedrine-fueled four-day stretch, an epistolary novel consisting of the letters from and to the lead character, one Laurence Clarke.  I got various friends to read the manuscript, and they all found it screamingly funny and insisted it was too good to waste its fragrance in the paperback-original desert.  My agent sent it to Bernard Geis, who brought it out in hardcover as Ronald Rabbit is a Dirty Old Man, by Lawrence Block.
That made a sort of sense, actually, in that all of the Jill Emerson books had female protagonists, while both Laurence Clarke and Ronald Rabbit were unmistakably male.  But in another sense it was very much a Jill Emerson novel, in that I wrote it with utter certainty that it would bear that name when it saw print.
Ronald Rabbit didn’t sell many copies, but it represented a triumph of another sort.  As I noted in the copy I inscribed for my mother, “for years I’ve written dirty books under pen names.  Now I’m able to present you with a dirty book with my own name on it.”

Jill Emerson, however, was not to be denied a hardcover novel of her own.  Berkley, Putnam’s paperback line, had decided to spin off its own hardcover imprint---called, imaginatively, Berkley Hardcovers.  And someone there remembered Jill (whom they thought to be some guy) and called my agent.  They wanted a Peyton Place-type novel, a hot multiple-viewpoint book set in a small community somewhere.  
I proposed Bucks County as a setting.  My then-wife and I were living nearby, in New Jersey, and for a year I’d had an art gallery across the river in New Hope.  The place was hip and trendy, and a writer named Edmund Schiddel had spent some time on the bestseller list with The Devil in Bucks County, a novel rather like the one they wanted me to write.
It was something of a departure for Jill---and for me as well, a big sprawling book, longer and more complex than anything I’d written.  Looking back, I think it’s rather like the curate’s proverbial breakfast egg:  parts of it are very good.

If Jill was edging toward respectability (and I suppose that depends how you define it) she got there with her seventh book,
A Week as Andrea Benstock, published in hardcover by Arbor House and serialized in Redbook Magazine.  It was technically ambitious, telling the story of ten years of a young woman’s married life in seven chapters, each chronicling the events of a single representative day during that decade.  And it was artistically ambitious, in that Andrea was a Jewish girl living in Buffalo, and I was using my own background as I had never done before.
Don Fine owned and ran Arbor House at the time, and my agent sold him the book, and he thought he was going to meet Jill Emerson only to have me show up.  He tried his damnedest to get me to put my own name on the book, insisting that critics would take it more seriously if it was a man’s work.  (I always felt this said more about Don and his own personal feelings about women writers than it did about the business.)  My own opinion, which I was not at all shy about defending, was that, Madame Bovary notwithstanding, a book about a woman would get a more sympathetic reading if people thought a woman wrote it.
I believed what I said, but looking back I think it had little to do with my insistence.  This was, you see, a deeply personal book---and I felt more comfortable being somebody else when I published it.

All seven of Jill’s books vanished over the years, pretty much without a trace.  But now, through the genuine miracle of ebooks, they’re all available again.  
And come September they’ll be joined by a brand-new novel.
Curiously enough, a couple of years ago I thought I was finished with book-length fiction.  I’ve been writing the stuff for half a century, and the sixty-plus books published under my own name are only a fraction of the writing I’ve done.  I figured enough was enough; I’d go on writing the occasional short story, plus the columns I do for Linn’s Stamp News and Mystery Scene, but maybe it was time to leave the heavy lifting of novels for the boys and girls with stronger backs.  
Well, shows what I know.  In May, a new Matthew Scudder novel is due from Little Brown, and a scant four months later, in September, Hard Case Crime will publish Getting Off as its first hardcover book ever.  The subtitle is “A Novel of Sex & Violence,” and the byline reads “By Lawrence Block writing as Jill Emerson.”
I like the idea of a transparent pen name; that same byline is the one I chose for Open Road’s ebook editions of Jill’s first seven works.  And I like very much that Jill’s name is on this new book, because it is very much a part of her oeuvre.  
The protagonist is a bright and attractive young woman who meets men, goes home with them, has highly enjoyable sex with them—and then takes great delight in killing them.  She is the sort of girl who ought to have a curl in the middle of her forehead, because when she is bad she is very very bad indeed, and you might even call her horrid.  But I have to tell you I flat-out love this girl, and never had more fun writing about anybody.  Getting Off is blazingly erotic and furiously violent, and I blush to admit how much I like it.
Jill Emerson.  Will there be more books from her? Well, I dunno.  I never know what I’m going to write next, or, at this stage, if I’m going to write anything at all.  But I hope we’ll hear more from Jill.  I for one would love to hear what she has to say.


LAWRENCE BLOCK is a Mystery Writers of America Grand Master, with a string of awards to show for his efforts.  His Jill Emerson novels are all newly available as Open Road ebooks for all major platforms:  Kindle, Nook, Apple, Kobo, Sony Reader, etc. 

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