I am a fan of journalist, humorist and erotica writer Polly Frost—and I’m one of many. Among her other fan groups, Polly has the most devoted circle of Facebook friends—and deservedly so. She has created a brilliant concept, Polly’s Questions, which is like an online salon. Polly knows great people with interesting things to say and she poses wonderful questions—making the whole experience far superior to the average date with FB.
Polly’s answers to my questions, by the way, provide some excellent advice to young and struggling authors or, for that matter, older authors striving to re-invent themselves in a tough economy. Forward this link to the writers and other creatives in your life.
SexyPrime: So my first question to Polly—As an admirer, I want to know--
How did you get to be you?
POLLY: Thank you so much, Susan! I’m a huge fan of your writing. Your honesty is super hot and super smart. I also love how you combine being so sharp with being compassionate.
If there’s any “me” there that’s worth knowing, it’s because of the people who’ve so generously helped me to find the best in myself.
My husband Ray Sawhill is a brilliant writer who has taught me a huge amount about writing. I’ve also been very inspired by his interest in other people and how he finds something fascinating in everyone he meets. Ray is much better than I am at asking people questions!
I was also fortunate to meet generous people in the arts who showed me what it really meant to live a life as a creative person. To give but one example: when I was in my early twenties I studied music with an incredible teacher in L. A., Leonard Stein. He didn’t just teach me about music, he introduced me to composers and performers who were living the arts life. He drove me around L. A. and pointed out where my music idols -- Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg -- had lived, and where they ate and even where they played tennis. In other words, he made being a musician a living, breathing reality to me. Even though I quickly realized I didn’t have enough talent to be a professional musician -- I mean, Leonard’s students had included Marni Nixon, Frank Zappa and Anthony Newman! -- still, Leonard taught me about the kind of tenacity and commitment it takes to be a creative person and that carried over into writing for me.
Too often we think of being an artist or writer as this heroic struggle of a solitary individual. I have learned that being an artist or writer is really about being part of a community. No writer does it all on their own.
And that’s why I like to ask my questions on Facebook. Social networking is not just about self-promotion, but about building community. I hope that people enjoy the discussions around my questions—and the questions bring them together with other people—and that they come away thinking new thoughts.
SexyPrime: Sex and humor--tough combo, but you do both. (I think that is harder than smart and sexy by far.) How do you manage to write well in two genres? (Any secrets for emerging writers?)
POLLY: Susan, being smart and sexy is really difficult! But thank you so much for the compliment. Humor and erotica come pretty naturally to me. The two genres are all about having an effect on the reader or audience. And I’m nothing if not an audience baby.
Making people laugh and turning people on are very similar skills. For example, we’ve all known guys who may not be that great looking but use humor to seduce women. And that makes them very cocky and confident, as if by making a woman laugh, they’ve essentially gotten her in bed. (And often they have.)
The case could be made that humor is, in fact, one of the most aggressively seductive genres you can write in. Great satire says to the reader, “This is how you like to think you are, but I’m going to show you what you’re really up to -- and you’re going to love it!” A humorist is essentially undressing the reader, taking away their pretensions, and pleasing them all at the same time.
One of the best things writers can do, especially when they’re starting out, is to work in different genres. Writers are often told to “brand” themselves, to work in only one genre so they’re identified with it. But in today’s ever-changing world of writing, that’s a mistake. It’s better to have two or three kinds of writing you can do because you’re more likely to have something you can sell.
Also, working in different genres is like cross-training as an athlete. I have learned so much about comedy writing from my erotica writing and vice versa. I’ve also written a great deal of journalism -- reviews, interviews, articles -- and that is wonderful training for fiction writers. You learn to make deadlines. You learn to get to the point and to get your information across.
My biggest tip for an emerging writer would be this: try out different genres in small ways, through writing short stories, rather than novels. Don’t be too critical of your efforts. Realize that what you learn from working in a new genre will enhance your other writing, even if you don’t become a master of it.
SexyPrime: Polly, that is great advice, especially about avoiding “branding” if you can. I was branded without consent decades ago. Thank god for ghostwriting so I can tackle different subjects occasionally.
As I started the first story in Deep Inside: Ten Compelling Tales of Supernatural Erotica--I thought, omigod, she is writing about sex and schoolgirls. How tricky is that? and so it is my question to you—
How tricky is that?
POLLY: Thank you! To be honest, it wasn’t tricky at all because I wrote that piece as a theater monologue. Several actresses read the story in front of different live audiences. So I had a chance to see how it worked. The initial reaction that I could actually heae was often just like the one you had, “Omigod, she is writing about sex and schoolgirls!”
Then I’d start to hear laughter and see nods of recognition from those same people in the audience. People would come up to me afterwards and tell me I’d really captured the inner schoolgirl in them!
I have to say that doing readings of erotica in front of live audiences is the best way to test your material. And working with really good actresses is also wonderful. Great actresses are fearless. They just get into the material in a completely non-judgmental way.
SexyPrime: Why do you think all aspects of sex and the supernatural are hot now? I don't quite understand the rise of this super trend.
POLLY: A lot of Americans are more comfortable with eroticism when it comes in a supernatural package. They can accept erotica -- not to mention their own kinky sex fantasies -- if there’s that extra layer of unreality. But I think the best supernatural erotica has a strong element of recognition to it, no matter what dimension it takes the reader into.
SexyPrime: You nailed that one. As soon as you said, I thought, of course, she’s right. Switching gears again, were you always funny?
POLLY: I always wrote funny, but I wouldn’t say I go around being funny every day. In fact, in real life I’m better at moping than I am at being funny. My husband will attest to that!
When it comes to writing: yes, I always wrote funny. Yet for a long time I didn’t want to be a funny writer. I wanted to be a serious literary figure -- somebody like Kathryn Harrison or Susan Minot or Deborah Eisenberg. I wanted my book jacket photo to look wonderfully glamorous and yet moody and deep, the way those writers look in theirs. I wanted to write searing memoirs about the traumas I’d gone through or novels about people on their deathbed or political short stories about Central America that would get me a Genius grant.
But I’m just awful at writing serious literature. My attempts at that kind of stuff have just made readers giggle. I’ve reconciled myself to the fact that I’ll never win a Genius grant. Still, I often have moments when I think, “Goddammit, am I never going to be taken seriously?”
The answer is: probably not. Those women are very good at what they write, and I love getting depressed by their books. But it’s my karma to be a funny writer, and I think it’s bad form to argue with karma, so I’ve learned to go with the funny and leave the serious stuff to the Minots, Harrisons and Eisenbergs of this world.
SexyPrime: Ah, yes, I too once longed to be a literary writer depressing the women who loved to read them. Sigh. But I LOVE One Eye Open, your humor collection. I laughed out loud in public places while reading it. (Readers, buy this book.) How much of this book is really your life vs. imagination or exaggeration?
POLLY: That’s a really interesting question. The relationship of imagination and exaggeration to humor is key. Were I to teach humor writing, it’s one of the things I would concentrate on.
On the one hand, humorous material is all around us. You just have to be observant enough to get it down. But as a humor writer you have to bring your own comic perspective to the material.
Some of the greatest satirists have used extreme exaggeration in order to make their points. Jonathan Swift comes immediately to mind.
And there are humorists who are really good at seeming to just record what happens to them. David Sedaris is a genius at that. I’m also a huge fan of Dave Barry. Erma Bombeck was brilliant at getting what’s funny about everyday life. But if we examined their comic personae, I think we’d see exaggeration in the way they’ve crafted the humorous perspectives of “Dave Barry,” “Erma Bombeck” and “David SedarisThe answer is that there’s always exaggeration in satire. But what marks the really good humorists is that they seem to be telling it like it is. I hope that’s the case with my humor writing!
SexyPrime: Yes, it is definitely the case. Those of us who write about, i.e. cannibalize, our lives put out vast reams of personal material. Yet we are not just that. Maybe we are not that all because we have moved on from the position while others are still fighting it out on the internet, taking sides for or against us.
Can you get the real Polly Frost to stand up when you want her to? And what happens to the avatars?
POLLY: I agree with you, Susan. We writers do use our personal lives. Yet the act of writing about something deeply personal makes it public property. And writing about it frees us from it so we can move on, while our audience is reading about where we were! So it all can be kind of confusing and writers can end up with more avatars than they know what to do with, as well as having to defend something they’ve moved on from.
However, the kind of writing I do is different than the kind of writing you do. I really admire the way you’re out there in your essays. You’re much more exposed than I am, really.
It’s not that I don’t put personal experience into my humor. I do. And it’s often not pretty stuff! My humor is generally inspired by anger, sorrow, frustration, annoyance -- by negative emotions, in other words.
Yet writing humor is transformative. That’s the beauty of it. I think every humor writer knows that feeling when they transform pain into laughter.
The end result is very different than if I were to write an essay on the topic. People don’t respond to my humor by taking issue with it the way they would with an essay on the same topic. They either laugh or they don’t laugh.
It’s the same with my erotica writing -- they’re either turned on and excited by it, or not. That’s why I love the kind of writing I do.
SexyPrime: I have to take the last word here: Brilliant!
Polly Frost, you are brilliant. Thank you so much.
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