The Rumpus Interview with Elissa Wald
Author and Rumpus contributor Elissa Wald made a name for herself over a decade ago, with her powerful BDSM-themed short-story collection Meeting the Master and her novel Holding Fire. They were fueled by the themes of dominance and submission, yet weren’t limited to a specific genre. When Meeting the Master was first published in 1995, I was just starting to tiptoe into the world of reading erotica. If I’d read it then, I’d surely have been shocked by some of the ideas about power play and control. I don’t think the concepts of eroticizing control and “the darker side of desire,” as the cover copy puts it, would have made sense to me.
I believe books find us when we most need them—and vice versa. So I’m glad I didn’t try to read Wald’s work when I was, in hindsight, innocent to an extreme, unaware of my own inner masochist. But as I inched my way into the world of New York kink after college, just as I started penning my own erotic stories, those concepts started to click. I’ve never met Wald, but I feel a kinship with her work. I’ve been impressed from afar with her ability to go deep into the world of dominance and submission in ways that defy cliché and probe the psychological elements as much as, if not more than, the physical, for this is where my greatest interest lies.
Wald’s latest is new for her, as she enters the noir genre with a paired collection of novellas, “The Man Under the House” and “Abel’s Cane,” joined in the Hard Case Crime release The Secret Lives of Married Women. Its racy cover shows a naked woman smiling as she’s blindfolded with a tie over her face, and the novellas, especially “Abel’s Cane,” deliver on this promise of kinky thrills. Leda seems to have a stable suburban life—new home, husband, baby—until a worker next door starts to become a too-frequent visitor. Her sister, Lillian, is a high-powered attorney used to baby-making sex on the clock, until a new case starts to unlock a hidden side of her sexuality and leads her to visit a dungeon to investigate the former professional submissive whose story fascinates her. The siblings’ erotic secrets begin to unravel as they each come to terms with the desires these unexpected circumstances unearth.
Much of the sexual drama here is, to my reading, the psychological element, the longings mixed with fear and uncertainty of possible outcomes. I asked Wald about the inspiration for the novellas, becoming an “Accidental Noirist,” and the erotic power of service.
The Rumpus: How did the idea for the first novella, “The Man Under the House,” come about?
Elissa Wald: Well, several years ago, my husband and I bought a house, and there really was a worker next door who was very overbearing. My husband didn’t like him, and at first I laughed this off, and then by the time I no longer thought it was funny, I was reluctant to tell my husband what was going on. I didn’t want a war with someone who was essentially our neighbor for the foreseeable future.
I think most writers have the experience of being simultaneously a participant and observer in their own lives. On a personal level, this experience was wildly uncomfortable, but the writer in me was fascinated by the way it was creating an emotional wedge between my husband and me. Though I spun the story into something much more dramatic and drawn-out than anything that actually happened, the seed was there in real life.
Rumpus: I will come back to the secrets, but first, I know that after Hard Case Crime agreed to publish that novella, you decided to write the second novella, so I’m curious about what that process was like for you compared to the first, and if there was anything in your life or in the news that prompted that story idea.
Wald: Well, a long time ago, I did have a blind boss on whom I had a wild crush. The story was based on my own fantasy. I had notes and material for that story for years and years. Noir was really the perfect vehicle.
Wald: Because there are so many elements of this story that are so over-the-top. A blind boss, a professional submissive, a Carmelite convent, a house of domination, the twists in the trial and afterward. It would be hard to use all those elements in a self-consciously highbrow, literary way. Noir and the pulp angle gave me permission to just include all these wild elements that felt natural to me.
Rumpus: To me, Nan is actually the most compelling character, because her devotion to Abel is so strong, and because in literature, the physical aspects of BDSM and submission are so much more prominent than service is. That connection between Nan and Abel, at least from her to him, is incredibly gripping. I felt like I could have read a whole novel about her. Was there ever a consideration that the story be from her point of view?
Wald: Thank you so much. I deeply appreciate your depth of feeling for Nan. I know what you mean about the service aspects of BDSM receiving short shrift in literature. I myself feel that I occupy the quaint little place on the BDSM spectrum reserved for the etiquette- and service-driven submissive, and it’s a subtle place. For instance, I consider The Remains Of The Day the most erotic movie I’ve ever seen, and there’s no sex in it. Though Nan’s story is not written from a first-person perspective, I do feel the story is told from her point of view. She’s my heart’s darling.
Rumpus: I want to talk about Nan and her growing up in a convent. The connection between that religious upbringing and her need for service and submission was fascinating to me, and the parallels you drew with her desires and the nuns’. Would you say there’s a religious or spiritual element for her to service?
Wald: I think the average reader might see Nan as unhinged: after all, she’s invested her mind, heart, and soul in a relationship where she believes—but can never be sure—that an unspoken understanding has been established. But any reader who believes in God probably makes a daily practice of loving and praising and worshipping and consulting and begging and thanking an entity which has never been seen or heard. Is Nan any more or less crazy than anyone who believes in God? I don’t think she is; I just see her as having chosen a different source of spiritual sustenance.
Rumpus: One thing that struck me is that Leda and Lily both outwardly seem very normal, for lack of a better word—one, a pregnant wife and mother; one, a powerful lawyer. Yet part of their secret lives are their kinky desires that are pretty much hidden to the outside world. To me that’s why Lily is so fascinated by Nan’s work as a submissive—because she isn’t as secret about her desires. I’m thinking about this in terms of Megan Abbott’s New York Times review, where she writes:
But what makes “Secret Lives” more than slavish homage or winking kitsch is the prominence Wald gives to intimacy among her women — still a rarity in this traditionally masculine genre. In pairs, in shy, tricky confidences, her female characters share much about themselves but never everything.
Do you think part of their fascination with BDSM is the taboo aspect of it—the fact that they have trouble talking about it or don’t want to admit or reveal this aspect to their husbands or each other?
Wald: Well, I think Lillian feels that her submissive desires are at odds with her feminism and her politics. Leda is more comfortable with her sexuality, because she has no trouble keeping it compartmentalized; she knows that her bedroom identity has no bearing on her personal agency and autonomy in real life. For her, it gets tricky when it gets real, when she finds herself aroused by real violence. And I do think that would be a lot for anyone to grapple with.
Rumpus: In terms of secrets, which is in the title and which permeate the book, it seems to me that while each woman is keeping secrets from either her husband or, in Nan’s case, Abel, they are also, to some degree, either keeping secrets from themselves about their sexuality, or else not fully realizing or embracing their sexual desires until well into the story. I’m curious if you could comment on the thread of sexual secrets and the role they play (without giving too much away). Would you agree that there’s an element of these women’s sexuality that’s hidden from themselves, as well? And how much of keeping the secret close to them, especially with Leda, is part of its erotic appeal?
Wald: Yes, I do agree that aspects of these women’s sexuality are secret even from themselves, and that wild card, that mystery, is such an exciting part of sex and sexual alchemy. Certain partners tap us in ways that others never can or will. Certain partners reveal us to ourselves.
Rumpus: Since 1995, when Meeting the Master was published, there’s been more S&M in pop culture, even before Fifty Shades of Grey hit it big. How has the greater ease of accessing BDSM affected how you approach the topic, if at all? Do you think readers now have more of a working knowledge of the kinds of topics you gravitate towards when it comes to kink?
Wald: Well, you know, in my very early adulthood in the early ’90s—when I was in college, for instance—I still felt that feminism frowned upon the idea of females identifying as submissives. I felt politically defensive around my collegiate peers. Now there’s this thing that people are calling third-wave feminism, and whether or not you position yourself as a third-wave feminist, I think there’s much more acceptance of the idea that one’s submission in the bedroom has absolutely no bearing on one’s feminist identity.
Rumpus: Did that sense of submission being frowned upon affect your own actions? And was that in any way part of what pushed you to want to write about it?
Wald: Well, it didn’t make me less overt about my S&M identity; it just made me feel less identified with the feminists I knew. I don’t feel any conflict identifying as a feminist today. I felt I didn’t belong back then.
Rumpus: People often ask me why there are so many women writing erotica, specifically, but also women writing about sex in general. There are definitely men writing about sex and BDSM, but my sense is that sex and especially kink/BDSM are so much more fraught for women. I don’t think we’ve fully gotten rid of the idea that erotic submission is in some way a sign of weakness, which came up in some major media outlets last year with the rise of Fifty Shades. Do you see this gender divide playing out in the world of literary fiction?
Wald: Now that you ask this, I’m realizing that all the erotica I’ve loved has come from women and gay men. I think that erotica is just considered a “female” genre, as romance is.
Rumpus: What about your readers—do they tend to be predominantly male or female?
Wald: I think with my readers there’s been an even split and I’m not sure why this is. Maybe because I’ve had naked women on the cover of nearly all my books, and that’s pulled in some of the guys? But you know what, Rachel? When I said “erotica” and “romance” in the same breath above? I think it’s undeniable that most romance has been super soft-core BDSM-esque. Don’t you think? If Fifty Shades didn’t have the S&M paraphernalia, all the elements are there: the tough-yet-tender billionaire who’s screwed up, the pure virginal woman who both resists him and submits to him and saves him.
Rumpus: I think there’s a lot of overlap in terms of tone between traditional romance and erotica. I’m curious what you make of the popularity of Fifty Shades; some people seem to see it as the second coming of women’s interest in BDSM and submission. But I see it as, like you said, coming from a more traditional romance reading audience, just with more overt kinky elements and sex toys. It’s very blunt and to the point, but there’s actually a lot of very intense BDSM in some modern romance.
Wald: Yes, I’m with you on the latter interpretation. I think it’s just a convergence of—as I understand it—the Twilight craze and a spiced-up version of the tried-and-true, older-than-the-sea romance formula.
Rumpus: Do you feel you’re trying to reach a certain type of reader, whether regarding gender or experience/interest in BDSM? You wrote in Meeting the Master that you hoped it would serve people who’d been drawn to BDSM material from an early age, so I’m curious if you see your audience as having changed since you started publishing.
Wald: I actually don’t write with any audience in mind whatsoever. I think writing with an audience in mind is the kiss of death.
Rumpus: Have you ever either held back on writing something related to sex or been asked to pull or tone something down due to its explicit content? I would imagine you haven’t, but I’m curious. I read a blog post by, I believe, a mystery author recently, saying she’d been asked to remove some sex scenes because of the recent issue over online booksellers removing certain books from their stores.
Wald: You know, I don’t think I have, but that’s because I was “ghettoized” early. My first published work was Meeting the Master, and so offers and/or invitations to submit came from places like Nerve and the Mammoth Book of Erotica.
Rumpus: Lately it seems like BDSM is such a hot topic that lots of writers are writing about it for the first time. What advice would you give someone for incorporating it into fiction?
Wald: I actually wrote an article about this recently for LitReactor. The thrust of it was that I think sex writing should be taken seriously. Sex is a serious topic, and it deserves the same effort, restraint, and depth that we generally want writers to bring to anything they write.
Rumpus: Have you ever felt trapped by that label of “someone who writes about sex”? Or do you find it freeing?
Wald: I guess I feel that while my books are erotic—at least to me—I really don’t think they belong in the “erotica” section of bookstores, where Meeting the Master was often placed. No one is putting Secret Lives in that section—but that’s because it’s in the noir section.
Rumpus: I read a review on Goodreads that called the book “Fifty Shades of Hard Case Crime,” which, to me, made it sound like the sex was tacked-on or gratuitous, whereas I saw them as intertwined, especially in “Abel’s Cane.” So I wanted to get your thoughts on merging sexuality and BDSM with noir, and how you see them intersecting in the novellas.
Wald: Well, I certainly don’t think noir and BDSM are mutually exclusive. I bring my preoccupation with dominance and submission to nearly everything I write, so noir wouldn’t be any exception, but I haven’t made nearly enough of a study of noir to say anything smart about it. In fact, I’ve started to call myself the Accidental Noirist, because really, I kind of stumbled into this territory without intending to.
Rumpus: This may be more a comment than a question, but what also fascinated me and somewhat frustrated me about Nan is that all her service kept her on the edge of getting what she wanted but never quite reaching it, at least with Abel. I felt like she probably, more than Leda or Lillian, knew what she wanted, but it was out of her reach, save for a very brief time.
Wald: I completely understand, and yet, I think that deprivation was part of what she wanted. A wise man once told me that wanting is better than having, and while I think most people would disagree with him, it’s a pretty apt description of my erotic life. To me, sexual tension is better than sex. Traditionally, it’s been what I’ve thrived on and where I’ve preferred to live. To put it another way: sex is Christmas morning, but everyone knows Christmas Eve is better.