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The Writer’s Hot Seat: Emily Southwood on Porn and Relationships

18 February 2014 on Blog, The Writer's Hot Seat   Tags: ,

Interview by Sarah EarleEJS_Author

It was eight a.m. on a gray Tuesday when I caught up with Emily Southwood, author of the memoir, Prude: Lessons I Learned When My Fiancé Filmed Porn, published in 2013 by Seal Press.  Eight is perhaps a bit early for a conversation about pornography—on Skype no less—but Southwood, relaxed at home in Quebec, didn’t look perturbed by the hour.  Chalk that up to her being a new mom, or to the fact that she’s been writing about porn and its effects on relationships for a few years already, for the likes of Betty Confidential, and more recently Time Magazine.  Either way, Southwood was cheerful and game to get down to business.

The storyline of Prude is this: the Canadian-born Southwood finishes her MFA and moves to Los Angeles, where her fiancé, Robbie, has a job filming porn for a reality TV show.  Southwood, adjusting to a new city and life, is challenged daily by stories Robbie brings home from the set, including 30-year-old MILFS, money shots, and “hooker-hot” lead girls.  What follows is an intimate and often hilarity-inducing memoir of how one woman and her man navigate their feelings and consequent conversations about porn, and how their relationship prospers through it all.

Barnstorm:  You knew when you moved to L.A. that your fiancé was filming porn, so did you arrive with your pen and your notebook ready to take notes?

Emily Southwood:  Not at all!  The furthest thing from it possible.  There were moments where Robbie and I were having arguments, and he at one point said, “You’re going to write about this one day,” and I was like, “No way!  Absolutely not.  One-hundred percent no.”  I did not see it as fodder at the time.  I just kind of had my head down.

B:  At what point did you start taking his comment seriously?

ES:  After the job ended and we got married, and we went to France on our honeymoon, I felt that the chapter was closed for a while.  It was probably sometime between six months to a year later that I started to think, “I could definitely write a funny article about this.”  I started writing for this website Betty Confidential, and putting together some kind of humorous articles about the experience, but they didn’t come close to the kind of honesty that the memoir has.  They were still like, “Ha-ha! Porn jokes, puns!” And there’s still a certain element of that in the book for sure, but it was a very long time to get to that place of—honestly just being able to say that it was a really hard experience for me.  I couldn’t say that for a good year afterwards.  After I started writing a couple articles about it, I thought maybe it could make a book.  Then I put together a pitch and started looking for an agent, and eventually acquired an agent.  But it was a tough sell; it took us a while to sell this book.

B: How long did it take to sell?

ES:  I wrote the proposal over three times, pretty significantly, so I would say the whole process took two and a half to three years.

B: You really bare a lot of personal details in Prude.  Were all those details in the first version?

ES: No, the book is the process of stripping away many layers.  And being pushed by my agent, and then eventually by my editor at Seal Press, who was so amazing.  She was like, “OK, you need more here.  You need a sex scene here, and we need to know everything.” So that the final product is many, many people’s influence of “more more more more.”  It’s a funny thing, I was being very honest, but I was still withholding a lot of sexual details just thinking, “Oh, no one wants to know that,” and my editor was like, “Oh, yes they do.  You’re writing a book about sex, you have to go there 100%.”

B:  Were the chapters-as-porn-categories, “Hand Job, Threesomes,” etc. something that came along in the process of structuring the book? 

ES: Yep, that was in the third version of my proposal.  The categories were about trying to figure out ways to structure the book and give it a frame to hang off of.  They all started as accurate YouPorn categories, and then at the end, they morphed a little bit to fit the content.

B: Was there ever a point where you were like, “oh my God, this is going to be published”?

ES: Yeah sure.  I think that happened more right as the book was coming out.  It doesn’t really concern me at all that people I don’t know are reading these things about me, it’s more the family and friends, knowing that they’re going to go through a bit of discomfort about it.  But they were good about it for the most part.

B:  I loved the whole waxing discussion: it’s so frequently glossed over, and it can just be so weird.  Also, you talk about porn’s fixation on anal sex.  What were the categories that you personally felt really strongly about pursuing in the book?

ES:  Those were definitely two of them, because they came up through Robbie’s job, but they were also themes in our relationship.  When I talk about the Brazilians—for whatever reason I really had steered pretty clear of porn, so that wasn’t the normal aesthetic for me.  Literally, the first time I went bare I was borderline in tearsI was like, “I feel so naked and vulnerable.  This is not sexy to me.”  Getting used to that aesthetic—or being able to see it as sexy, or seeing it as he sees it—was definitely a transition.

B:  And in keeping with your funny tone, you so honestly describe the aspect of pain.

ES:  Right, right.  And the anal sex thing too—these are some themes of what we put ourselves through to be sexy.  It doesn’t have to be a bad thing, it can be fun and experimental and all that, but if you’re going into it because you think that’s what men expect and you’re not having any kind of dialogue about it, maybe not.

B:  What kind of dialogue has come out of this book being out in the world?

ES:  Porn is just so polarizing.  I’ve found it isn’t really acceptable to be someone who accepts parts of it, but has certain issues with other parts of it.  You’re either totally pro-sex and porn is great and fabulous, or you’re Gail Dines, and you’re vehemently anti-porn.  It’s not that acceptable to be somewhere in the middle.

The Time article that I wrote [“I won’t Be Banning Porn for My Son”] has 70 comments or something, but I haven’t read them.  I wrote it to be somewhat inflammatory, though.  It’s not like I’m going to say, “Here you go son, here’s some hard core porn.”  No.  Not in a million years.  It was more like, “Ok, I don’t think as a parent I’m going to be able to keep you away from this entirely, and I’d like you to have some context or framework for how to think about it.”  It took me thirty years of my life to be able to contextualize porn.  Banning it is an easy way not to talk about it.

B:  You wrote this book in the States, and your publisher, Seal Press, is from Seattle.  You’re Canadian--how has this been for publicity in both countries?

ES:  I wrote all the book proposals and the first three chapters in L.A., and then we actually moved back to Vancouver for a winter where I ended up writing a bunch of it, and then I finished it in Montreal.  The book has an American publisher, and my agent is Canadian.  Overall, I’m getting more press in Canada, which is interesting because we had a hard time selling the book in Canada, and my agent had the perspective, “Oh, Canadians don’t know what to do with sex books.  American publishers are a little more willing to pick up a book like that.”  But it’s getting a lot more press in Canada than I expected, given it’s not a Canadian publisher.

B:  What are you working on now?

ES:  I finished writing Prude last March/April.  I wrote a big chunk when I was pregnant with my son, and then he was born, and I finished it up in this crazy flurry of newborn, and—

B:  You finished it after he was born?  That’s really impressive.

ES:  Actually it was really fun because it gave me this little mental break away from being a full-time Mommy.  Robbie was able to help me.  He would take care of Harrison in the morning, and I would go write for 3-4 hours, and then back to it.  So I actually really enjoyed it, but after all of that I was like, “Ok!  Take a breath.”  My brain is starting to percolate a little bit more.  I think it would be a lot of fun to put together a book of personal essays right now.  The working title I thought of the other day was “Meditations on aging, marriage, and motherhood from an occasional narcissistic lunatic”? Something like that.

B:  Where else can readers find your work?

ES: At the moment I am amalgamating my website and blog to feature more of my articles and the press from my book. It’s at www.Imarriedapornographer.com.

B:  Do you have any parting advice for MFA students about to graduate?

ES:  Well, side income is important, and you have to prioritize writing in a huge way.  I’ve been extremely lucky that Robbie has been so supportive: both emotionally and, frankly, financially.  Robbie got a job in Vancouver, and the company put us up in a house for six months.  I was able to push this project to see if I could get a book deal, and that’s when it happened.  I rewrote the proposal again, and I was able to really focus on it.  I was super lucky to have that time.  Wherever you can, make time in your life and prioritize writing.  Follow what you’re passionate about.

This interview has been condensed and edited.  Photo courtesy of Emily Southwood.

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