The Beatrice Interview

Karen Moline

"I was lucky in that I don't have any inhibitions about writing graphic material."

interviewed by Ron Hogan

Karen Moline is the author of two erotic thrillers, Lunch and Belladonna. "But still, to this day," she told me over lunch at the newly refurbished Russian Tea Room, "people don't say to me, 'What's your book about?' They ask me, 'Who optioned it?' Nobody. Try to get a Hollywood producer to read a 200,000-word book. And it's a complicated, dense story. I don't write books to be sold to the movies. It'd be great if they were--but if you're going to sit down and write a book to be sold to the movies, write a screenplay." Consequently, her books, while they often contain passages of vivid, cinematic prose, are built around complex psychological structures rooted firmly inside her characters' perspectives. While her sex scenes are many things--graphic, disturbing, compelling--they are never gratuitous, and though Moline clearly knows how her subject matter contributes to the marketability of her books, it's clear from talking to her that she chooses that subject matter for the parts of the human psyche it allows her to explore.

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 Lunch.

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 the blanks.

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 it?

RH: As if it might damage your reputation as an entertainment journalist.

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 Lunch?

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.

BEATRICE Suggested further reading
Susie Bright

All materials copyright © Ron Hogan