Whiskey Blue is the author of Brooklyn Love, a collection of literary erotica or ‘fine lesbian smut.’ She is also a contributor to Psychology Today, advice columnist extraordinaire for Everyone is Gay, and has published with The Huffington Post, The Atlantic, AfterEllen, Curve Magazine, Bitch, and more. You can follow her at @topshelferotica.
Whiskey reached out to me two years ago when my older sister, her close friend, told her that I’d been accepted into UBC’s Creative Writing Program. Her genuine interest, sincere advice, and impressive range of publications stuck with me and made her an obvious choice to interview, years later. Luckily, the Brooklyn-based writer moved back to Vancouver in 2014, and we were able to meet for coffee at Turks on Commercial Drive. It should also be noted that Whiskey is a very savvy dresser, and took the time to discuss our mutual love of the television series Broad City once the interview was done.
I’ve been struggling how to word this question so that it doesn’t sound like I’m encouraging kids to do drugs and not prioritize school. In your article “Coming Out” in Psychology Today, you describe your adolescence as hard—not because you’re a lesbian, but because being an adolescent sucks for everyone. You also describe experimenting with ketamine and frequenting raves at that time. After high school though, you went on to work in a law office and wear power suits, and now you’re a successful writer who people seek advice from in columns! I guess I was hoping to hear your take on the anxiety many students feel about not being successful enough, or the best in their program, sleeping in, drinking too much, etc. Do you that your lack of focus on a specific career, perfect resume and cover letter, etc., affected how you became the writer you are today?
When I was in high school I was a really bad kid. I was doing bad things: drugs, dropping out of school—it took me a very long time to get my high school diploma. I was always feeling like a little bit of an outlaw. By my late teens and early twenties I was so off the grid that I wasn’t really worried or thinking about getting a degree and going down a certain path to get a certain job. I’m not saying it’s a good thing to exist in these parameters but it was definitely my reality. When I did go back to school, I never felt like taking creative writing would make me a writer, I just wanted to go to school instead of bartending and working so many jobs, and have X amount of hours a week for writing. School allowed me to spend X hours in class, surrounded by peers who are also thinking about writing, and be with mentors and teachers who know more about writing than me. I felt like that would create inspiration and opportunity but I never really saw university as a track to a career in the way one might if they’re taking engineering. A part of what makes writing so difficult and annoying is that there isn’t really this straight line or path. I think that a lot of the writers that I’m interested in didn’t take a very straight path either though. To feel on the outside is a pretty valuable and, I think, very typical experience for a writer. To feel like you don’t know what you’re doing, or feeling bad for sleeping in or not doing enough, that’s part of the experience. It’s good for a writer to be a little bit of a fuck up.
So how would you describe your trajectory from that frame of mind of your teens and early twenties to your current self-driven one?
Before going back to school at 21, I worked in the service industry, a law firm, a bunch of shelters on the Downtown East Side…just a million jobs. I guess those experiences are good in the sense that I met different people with different backgrounds and heard stories to fire into my notebook and steal from other people’s lives. But I could never find the time to write, and never felt like I really was in a universe that supported writing. Going to school provided a frame work to study writing, and carve out time for it. I felt validation that what I was doing was legitimate, because I was writing, at school, and was going to get a degree. Then I really liked it and didn’t want to get out of that world. When I did my masters, the idea was the same—I just wanted more time to write, and it was a nice antidote to the flailing around I did lots of when I was younger. That’s not to say I’m not flailing around now, but it’s nice to find that kind of environment and kin who are also neurotic and asking the same weird existential questions that no one likes to talk about.
What has your exploration of genres been like? You were saying that you started with nonfiction and are now writing what you describe as “fine lesbian smut.” Where else have you dibbled and dabbled?
Actually, the first thing I got published was a stage play in Victoria, which was terrible. When I came to Vancouver to go to UBC I took nonfiction, fiction, poetry and all the genres. When I went to graduate school I did a degree in Nonfiction, and after graduating my goal was to build up my publication credits. I mostly had a background in nonfiction and writing personal essays, but I was an unknown 27 year old and didn’t feel like anyone would care about my personal essays. That compelled me to start doing interviews with other writers who had books and were successful. I never considered it something I wanted to do, but it became one of my genres and most of what I publish today. I don’t really know how I got into literary erotica except that I wanted to combine nonfiction and queerness and create a product that I could sell online. I still write nonfiction but haven’t published any yet.
There’s a quote at the beginning of your erotic short story collection, Brooklyn Love, that goes: “I like immersion journalism. Honestly, the rest bores me: government policy and political kerfuffles, generic war reports; I just can’t seem to engage. I need a story I can hyper-focus on. I need something right there in front of me. I need movement and beauty: eyes, lips, tongue, hands.” It immediately made me wonder how much of your “fine lesbian smut” is driven by character vs. your own views and experiences?
I think characters drive my stories for sure. In terms of that quote, if I’m reading something that really strikes me, that I remember, it’s usually something that’s sensory. You know it’s a very specific description or details of how something smells, tastes or feels. If you can describe something specifically, or give details of how something smells, tastes or feels—that’s good writing. That’s what interests me.
Do you have a pattern of pulling more from outward experiences or internal experiences for your writing muses?
My background is nonfiction, so I definitely lean towards personal essays. For Brooklyn Love, I was writing a lot about personal experiences I had while living in New York. However, because it’s creative nonfiction, and there’s such a wealth of images around the city, I used my artistic license to draw more out of the mythology of New York. It’s easier for me to write about there than, say, a place like Vancouver that doesn’t have as much myth and magic around it. You can say Central Park or the West Village and people will have something to say about it, and it’s easier to write in settings people can attach to.
How does your setting affect your writing?
I’ve only ever really written about New York in terms of paying attention to setting and making that a part of the story. I grew up in Montreal, and I’ve lived in Vancouver, Toronto and New York so those things inform my experience in some way. I’m in Vancouver right now but I’m writing a lot, a lot, a lot about New York which I left two years ago. I think this is because I need two or three years to get enough remove to feel like I have an insightful angle or perspective where I can write about it. I’m not usually writing about the moments as I’m living them, which I guess means I’m not writing about the place that I’m in. Location affects me in retrospect.
Would you describe your writing as cathartic over escapist or vice versa? A little bit of both?
Definitely a bit of both. I’m drawing a lot on personal things in my writing, but creative nonfiction gives me the opportunity to take certain experiences I’ve been through and reimagine them into stories that makes more sense. I can take something painful, scary, or complicated and work through it in a more linear way than it might have happened in real life. I can contain it in a way where there’s a beginning and a middle and an end. Writing definitely feels escapist too since I don’t like living in the real world. I don’t feel comfortable, it irritates me. So it’s nice to just go into my own imagination and play where no one else can get in the way. I feel like most writers are nostalgic, sentimental types who enjoy rewriting a story, which is cathartic, but also reliving it.
How have you balanced it in relationships when your partner may have been uncomfortable with things disclosed in your writing?
That’s definitely something I struggle with, wondering what people are going to think. For me, having a pen name gives me a psychological sense of freedom and separation. It may not be based on anything concrete, but it gives me a sense of being a character and going into an alternate dimension. Writing is very personal. It’s not the same as going to your office job where you’re drawing on your experience. I’m constantly trying to figure out how I feel about that. The best way I can think about it is that if your partner is a lawyer or a designer, it wouldn’t be acceptable for you to go into their world place and say “I don’t feel comfortable with what you’re doing, I don’t think you should do it.” Same goes for my job. When I’m writing, that’s my 9-5, it’s sacred and it’s intact. Certainly people will have their opinions and feelings, and that’s something that needs to be balanced or thought about, but at the end of the day this is my work, no one can touch it. I’m thinking about that all the time while trying to legitimize and draw on personal experiences. You don’t want to hurt the people that you love but you sometimes don’t want to say nice things about them either and talk about things that hurt. It’s a fine line, but at the end of the day—fuck it.
When you’re in your writing process and frame of mind, how much of your work do you share with people, regardless of the genre?
For many years I never showed any of my work to anyone. Then I went to workshops at school where you have other people looking at, talking about, and treating your work in a way where it’s not just this secret thing you’ve been hiding in your room. They treat it like a legitimate thing, like a piece of work. That was terrifying, validating and also sort of heartening. In terms of talking about my work when I’m in the process of working on it though, I’m pretty private. I want to internally get a sense of how a piece feels, and protect it like it’s this little bird before I expose it to the elements. Once I’ve written a few drafts, I have a handful of friends that I’ll send the drafts to, not so much because I want their feedback on what they think the story should be, but just to tell me when my verb tenses are wrong or when something doesn’t make sense. I feel comfortable sharing when it’s at a point where the story or the piece that I’m writing is quite done in terms of content because I don’t want it to be vulnerable to other people’s experiences except for a select few. I’m very very private.
Who do you get your inspiration from?
Right now, most of what I read is stuff online that other friends are writing. I try to keep my other artist friends close by staying in the loop of what they’re doing because I like to know what’s going on at the amateur level that I’m at. I like to know what kind of new stuff is out there: who’s getting published and who’s performing, but is still kind of making a name for themselves. It’s either people who I think are emerging like me, or it’s the opposite like Anne Lamott, Sheila Heti, Miranda July or Joan Didion. Like the real established great writers. So it’s the two extremes in a way. I like contemporary America Literature and a lot of online stuff like Salon, The New Yorker, The New York Times, and Lena Dunham’s Twitter feed.
Because I interview as a freelancer, I only approach people I’m interested in. I try to pick a person who has written a book that’s coming out, has recently come out and is contemporary, or someone whose work I like, and then I try to read everything they’ve written. I also read other people’s reviews and interviews with them because I like asking about the process and having larger cultural discussions surrounding an author’s work. Once the book is out I feel like I can get my answers from just reading the book, but I like to know what the author thinks about the critical reception or how they’re being portrayed. I always go to writers whose work, politics or public persona I like, which means that if I interview someone, I’m usually approaching them from a place of admiration and genuine interest. I think that’s the number one thing to doing an interview. I actually want to ask the person questions that they feel comfortable being vulnerable and answering. I want them to feel safe knowing that I respect their work. I think some people like to take a more combative approach.
You’re a regular contributor for a lot of publications! Psychology Today, Everyone Is Gay, and you edit for In My Bed… How do you manage your time between proposals, personal projects and general mental wellness?
It’s always a struggle, and I’m just very recently figuring our how to make a schedule for myself. It’s hard. I’ll try to get up at an early-ish time and work on erotica or manuscripts. Then, after I’ve done that for four or five hours (typically, ideally, on a good day), then I’ll go check my email, Facebook, send pitches, and do that kind of busy work. If I do it in the opposite order, it kind of scrambles my brain and I get anxious and can’t focus. I schedule things really obsessively, like in my moleskin I’ve planned what I’ll be writing for the next couple of weeks. I’m super anal and very inflexible about that sort of thing because otherwise I feel like I’m flailing and there’s too much going on for me to know what to do. It feels more manageable if I lay it all out. Oh, and a little weed is a nice way to relax after a day of writing.
How does it feel to be an advice columnist for Everyone Is Gay? Were you honoured when they asked you?
It actually started when I emailed Kristin Russo and Dannielle Owens-Reid who run Everyone is Gay because I wanted to interview them but they were on some kind of tour and didn’t have time to do it. Then they read some of my work and asked if I wanted to be one of their advice people. I mostly respond to questions from the parents of gay teens or parents who think that their child may be queer. It’s really interesting reading letters from parents that are so sensitive, conscientious and paying attention to the nuances of their kids gender and sexuality in a way that is beautiful and baffling to me. I can’t really relate to it. My parents were alright but there wasn’t that kind of really intense attention.
You’re working on a second e-book right now—what should we expect, a complementary or contrasting sequel? What will separate this version from Brooklyn Love?
It’s the same format that I invented for myself in Brooklyn Love. The new ebook is called “Old Hollywood” and involves three stories, about 3,000 to 4,000 words each, smutty and relatively (hopefully) literary. When I wrote the three stories that were in Brooklyn Love I didn’t really have a template for how to write an erotic story. A big part of the writing process was just figuring out what kind of structure, word count and shapes the stories would take. I was coming out of this very sad, heartbreaky breakup which really informed the images and the sentiments in the stories, and the book had a very New York-ish feel. This time, the stories take place in seedy burlesque clubs, so it’s going to draw more on the physical details, ambiance, and atmosphere of a cabaret!
Any advice to aspiring writers? A writer’s version of Dan Savage’s “It gets better”?
(Laughs) It kind of is a parallel. Working as a writer is a different kind of avenue to take, and I think it’s a struggle. I’ve always wanted to be a writer. It’s something I’ve always felt inclined to do, but simultaneously had a great level of self-doubt around. I kept thinking “This isn’t a real job, how are you going to survive? Who do you think you are that your opinions matter?” All the questions I think writers struggle with. I still ask myself those questions, but the most interesting development for me, thus far, in writing has been through spending a lot more time actually writing, and less time thinking about whether I want to be a writer. My main conversations with myself these days are “What time do I have to get up tomorrow to get that draft done to the point where I want it done?” It can seem like it’s not going to pay the bills or isn’t a viable avenue, and those are general concerns, but I think for me I just had to start treating it like a legitimate job and a legitimate goal. It’s hard to do that, especially when you’re asking yourself the big questions like “Is this what I want to do? Where am I going to be in five years?” Finally I just decided, well I want to write, so fuck it: I’m just going to carve out that time.
Becca Clarkson is in her final year at UBC, and plans to flee in May with a BFA in Creative Writing. She is a certified yoga teacher who spends her free time reading, writing, singing, cycling, chasing cats, petting cats, and perfecting domestic stereotypes. She is grateful to her family, friends, and boyfriend, who remain an active priority in her life even though she writes about them constantly.