I am excited to share this interview with Malin James, author of Roadhouse Blues, a collection of linked erotica stories set in the same town. This collection (and Malin’s erotica in general) is full of complex characterization, strong voice, and gorgeous writing. This book grabbed me by the throat. Roadhouse Blues is the kind of erotica that’s intent on making you feel a wide range of emotions, and illuminating the ways sex can be complicated and scary and vulnerable and messy and hot, sometimes all at the same time.
As a heads up, this interview discusses queer hatred, writing trauma survivor characters, the author’s trauma history and recovery, and writing consent into erotica.
We first met at your first public reading, where we were both reading our erotic short stories. Now you are publishing a collection! Tell me about how you developed this collection of linked stories. What was challenging? What’s been fun?
First of all, thank you for having me. I really appreciate being here. And yes! I remember that reading! I was so young in the genre, really just feeling my way around, and the story you read opened so many doors for me. Suddenly, I saw how powerful erotica could be. I think it’s fair to say that your work, as well as the work of one or two others, changed the way I approached the genre moving forward. I’ve been meaning to thank you for that for a long time now, so thank you.
As for how I developed this collection, I’d love to say that I planned the whole thing from start to finish, but that would be a lie. All I knew when I started was that the stories were going to be linked. I didn’t know how, and I wasn’t even sure why. I just knew that they had to be. From there, I just started following threads. In the first story, “Flash, Pop”, Debi is still getting over a messy divorce, so I followed that thread and it led me to Krystal and “Krystal’s Revenge Fuck”, the woman Debi’s ex left her for. Then Krystal led me to Vanessa in “The Waitress” and Vanessa led me to Luke in “Truck Stop”, who led me Sarah in “Love in the Time of War”, and that story led me all the way back into the past to “Natural Mother”, “Down and Dirty” and “The Things You Do” and so on. It was a really organic process, and one of the most challenging things, as well as one of the most fun, was trusting that process.
How would you describe yourself to a new reader just discovering your work?
Oh…I have no idea. I’m all over the place, really. I don’t tend to slot into a neat, describable category, so it would probably be most accurate to say that I’m a character writer. It took a while to get comfortable with it, but I’m what a good friend called a “marmite” writer – either you like me or you don’t. There isn’t much middle ground. Getting okay with that freed me up to write from a very honest place. In the end, my intention is just to put the stories out there, and hope they will find the right reader to resonate with.
Tell me about the queer characters in the book. Do you have a personal favorite?
One of the things I wanted to do was explore how fluid sexuality can be. Cassie, in “Love in the Time of War”, openly identifies as straight but, much to her own surprise, finds herself having profoundly moving and sex with her dead lover’s widow. Sarah, the widow in question, has no attachment to the gender of her partners. It’s about the person’s humanity and how they relate. As a bisexual woman who was lucky enough to grow up in San Francisco in the 90’s, Sarah, more than any other character in the book, reflects my relationship to sexual identity.
That said, sexuality, gender and identity run on a spectrum and it was important to honor that spectrum, especially in a socially conservative setting. In fact, one of the reasons I set the collection where I did is because I wanted to explore how queer people across various spectrums might navigate their sexual identities in a potentially hostile environment. That’s where Luke in “Truck Stop” came from. He’s gay but passes as straight because it’s safer that way. For him, sex is an indulgence, all the more so because it holds an edge of danger. The fear of being caught in the act of being gay is a real threat in large chunks of the country, and I didn’t want to ignore that.
Conversely, I didn’t want to lean on trauma and fear to define the queer characters in the book. That’s where Sam in “Good Love” came in. She’s a trans woman, and she is, hands down, one of my favorite characters in the book. Lana and Jake at Go Deeper were instrumental in helping me portray her in a way that was true to her experiences as a trans woman, but that didn’t flatten her into a stereotype. She is, quite possibly, the most psychologically healthy person in the book, and one of only two characters who get and stay out of Styx. She was a bright light in my mind as a I wrote, not because she’s trans or queer, but because she’s an amazing, strong, compassionate human being.
I know you decided to put content warnings on this collection, something that’s fairly unusual in erotica. What led to that decision?
First of all, I want to thank you – the content warning you wrote for your (freaking powerful) collection, Show Yourself To Me was the template I used for the one in Roadhouse Blues. I always assumed I’d include one in the collection, but yours really helped it take shape.
The question of whether or not to put content warnings on sex writing is a hard one. In the end, I think it’s an issue of context and responsibility. Triggers take so many different forms. Half of my own triggers are impossible to anticipate, so a content warning would do them no good. That said, some topics are more likely to trigger than others, and it’s part of my responsibility as the author to consider how potentially difficult subject matter might effect on the reader.
For example, I probably wouldn’t put a trigger warning on story about happy car sex because the probability of it triggering someone is relatively low (not impossible, but low). On the other hand, stories that contain rough sex, trauma recovery and certain kinds of BDSM or D/s play have a much higher probability of causing a reader unexpected and unwanted pain. Some of the stories in Roadhouse Blues fall squarely into the second category, and I felt that it would be irresponsible of me not to put a content warning on them, just in case.
It’s clear that one of the core things you wanted to do in this book was to center the sexual experiences of survivors of violence and abuse. Can you tell me about why that’s important to you?
Absolutely. More than anything, I think I needed to play out the survivor’s fantasy of life beyond the thing you survived.
I was able to process the psychological damage done by an abusive relationship in my twenties, but it took me much longer to start grappling with the trauma I experienced as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. The effects of violence are deeply individual. It’s undeniable that trauma causes damage, but the nature of the damage is the product of how a lot of different factors come together. Because I experienced trauma at such a young age, a great deal of my development was shaped by it, like a vine climbing a crooked trellis. As a result, recovering from that trauma has meant digging deep into my own development. The recovery process, while necessary and positive, can also be intense, isolating and overwhelming. The feelings that emerged as I began to heal became central to the collection.
As a result, it became very important that I portray survivors as being strong and complicated, not as perennial victims forever defined by their trauma. While there are, very often, literal and figurative scars, people who suffer from PTSD, depression and anxiety as a result of sexual or physical violence are more than the sum of those scars. While I needed to show the effects of violence, I wanted to do it as honestly as I could, without the generalizations that so often accompany portrayals of abuse. It would be a lie to say that recovery is easy, but it is possible. More to the point, you are still a full, complicated human being, not a personified reaction to violence.
My favorite story is the very last one, which centers an adult survivor of child sexual abuse and a trans woman who was her best friend when she was a child. It feels like it’s very much about honoring consent in complicated ways. Can you tell me more about consent in your writing, and how you navigate the complexities of it?
I’m so happy you enjoyed “Good Love”. It was the hardest to write, and the one I am most proud of. Portraying consent in all its complexity has always been important to me. I’ve been in situations where my consent was neither sought nor given, and it is no exaggeration to say that those experiences underpin my relationship to power, control and trust in all aspects of my life and work. It’s something I take very seriously and want to explore in different settings and situations.
For Leigh and Sam, the repeated act of asking for and giving consent is a critically important. For a person with a sexual history free from abuse, the care Sam shows wouldn’t be necessary, but because Leigh is an adult survivor of childhood sexual trauma, and because she is still deeply caught in the struggle surrounding that abuse, Sam’s repeated requests for her consent form a safety net around her. Leigh has no experience voicing her needs and desires. The fact that Sam not only wants to hear them, but makes her feel safe enough to voice them is a turning point in Leigh’s life, and it’s what the story hinges on. Consent is a powerful thing. It can literally make the difference in whether or not a person is able to risk moving on.
Of all the stories, the one I most wanted to imagine continuing was Good Love; is there a possibility that story or another in the collection might be the spark for a novel?
Absolutely, yes. In fact, I have three stories about Sam tucked away in a file. There’s something about her that pulls at me, and I have a very strong sense that I’ll work with her again, possibly in another collection, but more likely in a novel. Of all the characters in Roadhouse Blues, her story is the one that stretched far beyond the scope of the collection. I’d like to come back to her and see where she takes me.
You have multiple sex worker characters in this collection, and the stories center their erotic experience, which is rare. What led to these stories in particular?
There’s an awful cliché about sex workers having a flat, performative, transactional relationship to sex, as if the way they make their living cancels out the possibility of their having a sexual private life. I’ve never liked seeing sex workers in fiction portrayed as being defined or destroyed by their professions, so Maybelline (from “Marlboro Man”) and Krystal (from “Krystal’s Revenge Fuck”) gave me an opportunity to dig past that stereotype into the emotional reality of two women who just happen to be strippers, but who are not defined by what they do.
For me, the fact that they’re sex workers carries as much weight as another character being a waitress, or an actress, or a PhD candidate. Yes, it’s an identifying factor, but it isn’t everything – not even close. As I was writing, Maybelline and Krystal defined themselves through their emotional and sexual landscapes. What they do for a living was just a practical fact.
That said, it would be disingenuous of me to imply that I didn’t make a conscious effort to undermine and subvert sex worker stereotypes once I realized how reflexively they might be defined solely by their professions, but my intention was always to focus on the immediacy of their interior lives, rather than on how they pay their rent.
What’s next on the horizon for you?
A small break, I think. A lot went into this collection and I need to recharge my emotional battery. After that, I’m not sure. There are a couple of projects clamoring for attention, but I have a feeling something is going to come to me in that quiet time, and whatever that something is, is going to be next. I think my biggest priority at this point is to make sure I’m ready for it.
Blurb for Roadhouse Blues:
Welcome to Styx—a blue-collar, American town where people can do whatever they like, so long as they don’t advertise. From a 1950s diner to the back of a rocking Camaro, the stories in Roadhouse Blues reveal sex that is by turns romantic, raw, triumphant, and desperate. Meet two women grieving the same man, a bartender looking for anything but love, and a hot, brash newlywed who knows she married a cheat. The local garage is run by a kick-ass woman who gives as fierce as she gets, and the strip club is a place full of whiskey and smoke, where memories are exposed as easily as skin.
“In the end,” writes author Malin James, “sex is about people, and people have motivations, and sometimes those motivations surprise them.”
This is Roadhouse Blues. Surprise is just the beginning.
Bio: Malin James is an essayist, blogger, and short story writer. Her work has appeared in Electric Literature, Bust, MUTHA, Queen Mob’s Tea House and Medium, as well as in podcasts and anthologies for Cleis Press, Sweetmeats Press and Stupid Fish Productions. Her first collection, Roadhouse Blues, releases this summer (July 11th!) with Go Deeper Press.
Find a longer biography at malinjames.com.