Saturday, June 18, 2016

Preserve or Rebuild?

by Jean Roberta

Like Sacchi and Lisabet (and possibly others here), I’ve been writing erotica for long enough to notice that some of my earlier work could benefit from some revision.

Actually, some of my earlier work now looks like historical fiction, and when/if I give it a makeover, I’ll have to decide whether to bring it up to date or to preserve its period flavour.

Here is the opening scene from my out-of-print novel, Prairie Gothic, completed in 1998 and e-published in 2002:

The ugly concrete building in the warehouse district looked deserted, and it wore no sign of any kind. If Kelly hadn't seen glimmers of light from between the shutters at the windows and heard the bass thump of recorded music, she would have thought the address in the newspaper was a misprint.

In her second year of university, the fresh-faced young woman was developing a taste for research. She was learning that you could find out whatever you wanted to know if you looked in the right places. On this breezy spring night, the place she wanted to check out was the Den, more often called the club or the bar by the regulars. It was the only gay bar in town.

As Kelly pulled open the heavy front door, a blast of music hit her in the face, carrying the smell of beer and cigarettes. A spasm of anxiety made her breathe faster, and she wondered again how smart it was for her to come here alone. Bars didn't attract her as a rule. Booze and guys usually lost their appeal for her by the end of an evening, and hanging out with a horde of increasingly drunk and loud fellow students seemed like a waste of time to her.

However, the girl craved adventure. She hoped that this bar would be more like a decadent jazz club in Berlin in the 1930s than any of the hangouts she knew. She believed that she could best explore this exotic milieu without the burden of anyone else's fears or desires.

Kelly noticed the huge area in the wall of the entranceway where the plaster had been kicked in during a famous fight. Two months later, it had been badly fixed by a hung-over dyke who claimed to be a drywaller by trade. Since she had donated her time and was currently dating a woman on the board that ran the bar, no one complained openly about the look of the wall.

A very tall, very thin young man asked Kelly for ID, but he looked friendly. Besides, she told herself, she could never be intimidated by a man wearing lipstick and mascara, even if he did apply them better than she could.

The interior of the bar was so dark and smoky that it took a minute for the young woman to notice the eyes watching her. A young man in tight leather pants turned from the cigarette machine to look over the newcomer. Once his cool gaze had skimmed over her breasts, his narrow hips swivelled back toward the faded jeans of a much older, heavy-set man who stood beside him like a guard dog protecting his turf. Both men radiated a sensuality that Kelly had rarely noticed in males, and she felt strangely miffed by their indifference to her. She remembered wishing that guys would leave her alone. In this place, she thought, they just might.

A squarely-built woman with sand-coloured hair turning to grey watched Kelly without turning her head. She took in the young woman's short, shiny brown hair, her dark-framed glasses, the big shirt that couldn't hide her small, perky breasts, and the girlish hips under loose black pants. Pat, the older dyke, took another drag on her cigarette. Her blue eyes sparkled.

Kelly felt conspicuously tall, as she usually did in a new place. As she strode toward the bar, she noticed an adjoining room where two women of about her own age were playing pool. One was a graceful, fine-boned native woman with waist-length hair that twitched behind her like a tail. The other was a plump, joking blonde whose laughter sounded like gunfire. A slim girl with red hair watched the game and gave advice to the players. Feeling very alone, Kelly thought of approaching this group and asking to join their game, even though her pool-playing was far from impressive.

"Kelly!" squealed the tenor voice of a short boy with a lively face and mouse-coloured hair that fell in his eyes. "It's Neil." Kelly didn't need to be told who he was. The sight of her classmate looked to her like a sign from the Goddess.

Following Neil to his table, Kelly felt both disappointed and hopeful. She had come here to meet women, not men, but she hoped that little Neil, the class clown, could serve as her guide to this culture, like Beatrice guiding Dante through the underworld.

This scene was loosely based on my first venture into the local gay bar in 1982. So much has changed since then! Now, LGBT watering-holes are clearly marked with signs, and the regulars don’t feel like outlaws – unless they are smokers, in which case they have to practise their perverse habit outdoors, regardless of the weather.

I’m unreasonably fond of this novel, especially because it captures a moment in time that will never come again. If I don’t bring it up to date, though, I’ll have to play up its retro qualities. I don’t want to leave it mouldering in my "Documents."

So when my year-long break from teaching starts on July 1, I’ll have a look at all my orphan pieces, including this one, and decide what to do with them.


  1. Wow, I love this. I feel enormously nostalgic for the 90s in general, and fascinated by previous times in queer history in specific. So I'm in favor of playing up the period qualities.

    Have you seen Cecilia Tan's Daron's Guitar Chronicles? It's set in the 80s and it was only in reading that series that I realized that the 80s are historical fiction now.

    It's been great in my reading of queer books to get a sense of time and history because it's definitely not anything I learned any other way. I was out as bisexual in the 90s but I was really young and had no idea of what was going on outside of my immediate queer community. I like reading stuff now that gives me a larger context to what I felt and observed.

    Anyway, whatever you decide, I'll look forward to you reissuing this! :)

  2. "A very tall, very thin young man asked Kelly for ID, but he looked friendly. Besides, she told herself, she could never be intimidated by a man wearing lipstick and mascara, even if he did apply them better than she could."

    Great paragraph!

    I agree, I really like this. And I don't think you should try to update it. It would lose its impact.

    I wrote Raw Silk in 1999. No cell phones. No Internet porn (to speak of). Bangkok in that era had no public transit other than buses and taxis.

    When I re-edited and re-released it earlier this year, I had to decide what to do about the time period. I decided to leave it as is, around 2000. I added some references to historical events a few years prior (such as the Asian economic crisis of 1997) to anchor it in time.

    On the other hand the last time I re-edited Exposure (yeah, the book has been published three times...) I did update the time period. Or at least, I added cell phones. I figured my main character, who was working class in a working class town, might not have an iPad!

  3. Thanks for weighing in, Annabeth and Lisabet. I agree with you -- trying to bring my novel up to this year's technology and zeitgeist would require cutting out too much. If my central character, Kelly, had really been born in 1998, she would now be almost as old as she is in the novel. I'll soon have a chance to see what I want to revise, if anything.

  4. I'd regard period flavour as a feature, not a bug. The kind of historical fiction written from personal experience rather than research is especially valuable, and there's certainly some market for it. Lee Lynch has a considerable following for her books set in the times she remembers personally.

  5. Hah! Reminds me of a time back in the 70's and I had gone to "Sutter's Mill", (a venerable old gay bar in the SF financial district, with a friend for lunch. As we were leaving, I heard somebody yell "Hey!" and my first name. I looked at someone in the gloom. He says "It's Richie! From high school." I'm sure rumors ran rampant back in PA, 3,000 miles away

  6. Oh yes, rumors can travel an incredibly long way. Sacchi, I thought of Lee Lynch, and you're right: she's famous for the authentic flavor of her stories set in a time she remembers, but many younger readers don't. This feedback is helpful.


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