RH: What inspired you to start writing fiction?
KM: I was an entertainment journalist, mostly doing celebrity
and pop culture stories. My life was at the mercy of the dreaded
subspecies of humanity known as the Hollywood publicist. I was
very good at my job, and loved interviewing people, but I got bored.
When you're on the circuit, doing press junkets for films, after a few
years you're interviewing the same people over and over again. So
I'm sitting at a junket with my idiot colleagues, most of whom should
not be writing for newspapers or magazines, and said to myself, "If
I'm still doing this in five years, I'm going to shoot myself."
That was the impetus. I was so bored with my journalism, fed up
with spending 95% of my energy on the politics, the paperwork, the
begging for stories--all the crap we had to put up with to get access
to these people for twenty minutes. I knew I had to do something
else, but I'd never written a word of fiction in my life. I was in
London, having lunch in a basement restaurant called Orso, with one
of my magazine editors, and a girlfriend of mine came in with a
group of people, actors who had a film in the London Film Festival.
One of the men at the table was a large, very buff person; he sat
back, folded his arms, and stared at me for an hour and a half. It was
desperately creepy, but at the same time sort of flattering.
And as I'm sitting there having lunch with my editor, I'm trying to
think about an interesting way to start a book about obsession...and
there it was. A woman in a restaurant, and a man looks at her and
decides that he has to have her at all costs.
So then I thought about how I could make this man be so powerful
that he could get this woman, until I told myself, "You idiot, Karen!
You interview celebrities all day long; make him a Hollywood
superstar." By the end of that day, I had my whole plot figured out,
but I'd never written any fiction, and I didn't know if I could do it.
All I knew was that I wanted a story about obsession, base the
character on a composite of all the people jerking me around, and so
I started writing.
RH: Were you nervous as you started writing? How about
when it came time to write the sex scenes?
KM: I told very few people I was doing this. If I failed, nobody
would know. What did I lose? A year of my life, and even then, it
might make my journalism writing better. And I found, when it came
time, that sex scenes are difficult to write, but they came naturally to
me for some reason. I saw it as a technical challenge: to detach
myself from the words I was writing. Contrary to public belief, this
woman [in Lunch] is not me; Belladonna isn't like me. The
sexual experiences these couples go through--there were little bits of
things that I've experienced, but it wasn't me, it's not my lifestyle.
I'm not into S&M, roleplaying, all that stuff. I approached it as a
journalist. I interviewed a couple dominatrices... and I had a
boyfriend for a very short time who was really into it. He wasn't into
it with me because I wouldn't let him, but he was happy to talk
about it. Several of the things he told me he'd done ended up in
Once I got going, it was simply, "What did he do to her last time? This
time it has to be worse." And I was able to detach myself from it. I
didn't want to get too anatomical, because I think that's really boring.
It's what makes sex scenes puerile and uninteresting. There's
actually not that much description of the sex act in the book; I'm
more interested in the power issue, the fear issue, and the impulsive
nature of relationships. I was lucky in that I don't have any
inhibitions about writing graphic material. There's a really strong
line between what's erotic and what's pornographic.
RH: In both novels, the sex isn't necessarily as compelling
as the mind games.
KM: It's like the movies--how many humping scenes can you
see in movies? To me, it was so much more interesting in the old
days, when they'd fade to black and you could imagine the
characters going off to shag each other silly. I don't need to see
Kevin Costner's butt. It's why Blair Witch Project was so
successful; they don't show you anything. Your imagination fills in
RH: The narrators of your two novels have both been
male, and both...
KM: ...very damaged? (laughs) M [the narrator of
Lunch] could have sex, he just didn't feel like doing it. He was
physically capable... I don't know where he came from. I needed an
omniscient narrator, and once he sprang into my head, he was fully
formed. He didn't have a very good sense of humor, though. I tried to
make Tomasino [in Belladonna] funnier; he's very fey. I
wanted him to be damaged not because I have any vengeful feelings
towards men, but he needed to be physically damaged in the way he
is for Belladonna to be able to trust him. She knew he could never
touch her in the way she'd been violated. I felt really bad, and was
quite angry with myself for coming up with a story where I had to
do this terrible thing to my character, but it did fit the book.
RH: There's been an erotic boom the last few years; even
mainstream fiction is becoming more erotic.
KM: Or trying to be. Trying to be more sexual at least.
RH: And while that's good in some ways, it also leads to a
lot of really bad books getting published. And really bad
stories about sex, bad descriptions of sex.
KM: There's a certain kind of sexual behavior that's sanctioned
in fiction. It's "Oprah sex." Oprah sex is okay to have as long as you're
"damaged": from a poor background, battered,
abused, something terrible happened to you blah blah blah. I'm not
exaggerating. People are now writing books just hoping to be an
Oprah book. To me, it's like, "Why bother?" She never has a book for
her club that's a really sexual book, true and honest.
Most people are terribly afraid of sex. I had a lot of problems with
Morrow when they published Lunch, because all the people
who acquired my book--editor, publisher, editor-in-chief, publicist--
they all left the company after the book was bought. The new people
didn't care about the book, and I heard years later through the
grapevine that one of the new top honchos had hated my book. If a man
hates Lunch, it means that it's tapped into something he
doesn't want to deal with. It's not a hateful book. I got a lot of angry
mail from people, and it boiled down to this: they were reading about
violent sexual behavior, it turned them on, and they couldn't live
with that, so they blamed me.
If you have a person at a large corporate publisher who doesn't like
your book because of its sexual content, how is it going to get out in
the marketplace? So, even though there's more sex in books, it's still
very mainstream. As soon as you get out where it's a little
dangerous, they don't want to touch it.
RH: And when they do touch it, you become a marked woman for
having written it.
KM: Nobody says to the guy who wrote Memoir of a
Geisha, "Oh, were you a geisha girl?" But if you're a woman
writing about sex, it's always, "Do you do stuff like that?" I'm not like
my characters. You're supposed to use your imagination. That
stupid phrase, "Write what you know"--if people just wrote about
what they knew, there wouldn't be any books, because people
basically don't know squat. What's the point of telling the same old
same old? I want to be taken someplace I've never been when I read
a book. The books that work for me are the most magical journeys,
where I will get down on my knees and bless that author until the
day I die for taking me out of my head.
It's really weird. We have such screwed up notions of sexual
behavior in this country. We're such hypocrites. A lot of people said
to me that I should write under a pseudonym. If I'm writing this
story and afraid to put my name on it, what's the point of doing
RH: As if it might damage your reputation as an
KM: No, they were thinking more that crazy people might
come after me.
RH: Oh. Have crazy people come after you?
KM: I get some funny email sometimes, but no. They can't be
bothered. And writers are the cockroaches of pop culture anyway.
We're not valued.
RH: Does the book you're working on now push you as
harder technically as Belladonna did after
KM: Yeah. Lunch is very simple; I didn't realize how
simple until I started Belladonna. When I started writing it, I
couldn't find the narrative voice for a very long time. And then
Tomasino just appeared one day, and I realized that I must bow to
his will. It made the storytelling much easier to have everything
filtered through his unique perspective. The book I'm writing now
has a third person narrator, and it's taken me forever to get off the
ground. But I've finally figured it out, and now I've written a lot of
dream sequences, a lot of chapters written from one character's point
of view, so I can write them in their voice.
It's not as overtly sexual, although there's sex in it. But I don't want
to do the same thing over and over again, or pigeonholed as an erotic
novelist, as proud as I am about my erotic fiction. But I've done that,
and why would I want to do it again? People suggest that I write a
sequel to Belladonna, but I'd shoot myself before I'd do that.