Szereto has nearly a dozen books to her credit, including the
critically acclaimed Erotic Fairy Tales, A Romp Through the
and the Erotic Travel Tales anthologies. She's also penned
several best-selling erotic novels under the name M. S. Valentine,
Captivity of Celia, The
Possession of Celia, and Elysian
Days and Nights. Aside from having pioneered the erotic
writing workshop in the UK and Europe, this transplanted Californian
is a well-known fixture on the interview circuit, appearing on
television and BBC radio. She also travels in academic circles,
having presented her critical paper on erotica at the 'Great
Writing 2003' creative writing conference at the University of
Wales, Bangor. Her outspoken views on the erotic literary scene
have made Mitzi a trendsetter, earning her a reputation as an
author and editor who has put the "literature" back
into erotic literature. When not writing or editing, she's a
university creative writing lecturer in the UK. This summer she'll
be conducting residential erotic writing workshops for Skyros
(at the Skyros Writers Lab) and on the Greek island of Kythira
(for The Greek Experience). Her latest anthology Erotic Travel
Tales 2 (which features a Royal Fellow of Literature) is
available now, with her upcoming release, Foreign Affairs:
Erotic Travel Tales, due out in autumn 2004.
Erotic Excursions: An Interview
with Mitzi Szereto
You have published a varied assortment of erotica, both as
M.S. Valentine (The Captivity of Celia, The Governess)
and as Mitzi Szereto (Erotic Fairy Tales, two volumes
of Erotic Travel Tales) and have made quite a successful
career out of your literary exploration of this genre.
The question has to be asked though youve been asked
it time and again why erotica? What prompted you to take
this riskier route to writing fulfillment instead of going more
mainstream and, say, spicing up a more conventional work of fiction
with something a bit lacy and racy? For that matter, why not
write romances with risqué subtexts or more
explicit sexually charged scenes?
What makes you think I didnt go the more conventional
routes first? Id written three mainstream novels in the
early 1990s, all of which could be considered on the racy side.
I had no takers. I came close with all three manuscripts, with
major agents and publishers expressing an interest. But the deals
never closed. I felt like I was getting jerked around. For one
of the novels I had a major New York agent saying she thought
it had tremendous potential, then offered some suggestions to
improve the work, at which point shed consider representing
it. Mind you, shed actually telephoned me on her dime,
which seemed very encouraging. So I incorporated her feedback
and resubmitted the novel only to have her say the complete
opposite of what she said the first time! I was getting disgusted
and desperate and wondering what the hell to do next. Enter my
foray into erotica. Id read the classics like Fanny Hill
and the Victorian works, so it wasnt a genre I was unfamiliar
with. During my adolescence I was also a great fan of the gothic
novel those brooding masters of the manor things. I couldnt
get enough of them! I suppose I incorporated this form of literature
into the Victorian-style erotica and created my own, resulting
in the M. S. Valentine novels. Apparently they call me
or rather M. S. Valentine the queen of Wuthering
Heights erotica. I guess the title fits.
So in order to survive and make your way in the world as a
writer, you turned your talents to something more lucrative than
garden-variety fiction. Clearly, you work hard at your craft
and are pretty darn prolific. You also seem to be adept at marketing
yourself - - something not all writers are skilled at. Youve
parlayed your literary erotica venture into quite
a successful career. You lecture, teach courses, appear on television
Are you pleased with the way your career has turned out? Do you
ever just kick back at night with a cuppa and say, Damn,
Girl. Ya done good!?
Where did you hear that erotica is lucrative? If you believe
that, Ive got some swampland in the Florida Everglades
to sell you! Seriously though, you have to work very hard in
this field to get anywhere first, because youre
already coming from a disadvantaged position on the literary
scale; and second, because there are so many people out there
looking to purloin your ideas. I think every writer needs to
learn some marketing skills. You cant sit back and wait
for the adulation to come knocking at the door you must
get out there and fight for it. Yes, I have definitely carved
a niche for myself with this strong focus on erotica as literature.
Before it seemed no one dared to use the L word in
connection with erotica, now suddenly everyones realized
that maybe what Im saying has some validity to it. As for
being pleased with how my career has turned out, I still have
a long way to go. The publishing business is a tough one, plus
it takes a lot of work to put out a quality product. If I think
of all the hours I put in, well, lets just say that Im
definitely operating in the red! I work all day every day. I
never take time off. Even if I go on a holiday I make sure to
get some business mixed in there too. How I wish I could just
kick back and pat myself on the back, but I wonder if that day
will ever come. It seems Ill never be able to slow down
in fact, I feel I dont do enough. I probably wont
be still until I get to my grave! No, Ill likely be kicking
around in there too, working on some project or other. Erotica
For the Dead. Hey, there you go! An all-new market to tap.
Language clearly matters to you. Theres an appealing
mix of a dear reader old-style diction and tongue-in-cheek
cheekiness in your work the quaint and coy and the cutting.
You often seem to be amusing yourself with your own words. Its
as if you know your literary history and are at once paying homage
to and tweaking your predecessors. Why the stress on literary
erotica? How do you distinguish pornography from erotic writing?
Are there lines you wont cross? Are there lines you think
should not be crossed?
Why the stress on literary erotica? Well, I believe erotica
is literature, therefore it should be written as literature.
Theres a tremendous difference between erotica and porn.
One need only measure whether the work has lasting value and
artistic integrity. Porn does not. Nor was it intended to. Unfortunately
a lot of what is classified as erotica these days is just plain
porn. Its important for there to be more of a distinction
between the two so that those who write genuine erotica are not
lumped in with the low-end smut. As for lines I will not cross,
yes, I have those, obviously. Sexual violence is one, as are
incest and bestiality. Ive rarely had to address these
issues, but you did ask the question, so
. I will say that
if you are working in mainstream fiction, you can get away with
anything. However, if a work is classified as erotica,
youll find that certain rules apply. I suppose its
because we have more watchdogs, so to speak. Theres a perception
by those whod prefer to censor anything to do with sexuality
and eroticism that we as writers and editors are advocating something
that is not socially acceptable. You dont find this in
other genres. Would anyone accuse a crime writer such as Val
McDermid of promoting murder because she writes about it? But
focus on sex in your work and everyone gets antsy.
Since Im probably more uptight than I should be, there
was a certain duh-factor for me when I scoped out
the seeming boundlessness of the erotica publishing terrain.
There are how-to books and book clubs, how-to courses and history-of
courses, sub-genres galore and e-zines to match. Golly gee, sex
sure does sell! From suburban sex toy parties to Sex
in the City, the illicit continues to wend its way into the
murky mainstream. What was forbidden is now, in some circles,
fashionable. What was whispered is now on prime-time TV. What
changes have you seen in your field since you started writing
In one way this boundlessness is good, in that everyone can
have her or his tastes catered to. From a negative stance, some
of these materials and activities tend to take away from erotica
and its legitimacy as literature. When you lump erotica into
the same category as swinging parties and sex toys or even how-to
. Sure, all of these things have something to do with
sex in some shape or form, yet I never hear of crime novels being
lumped into the same category as prisons or executions! Why is
Since Ive started writing erotica, its been moving
more into the mainstream. I feel this is important, since it
takes the stigma out of it. It also improves the quality, in
that you might get more books geared toward readers who can actually
read with two hands! Its about time erotica writers and
publishers realize their readers have a brain in their heads
and producing books that have moved off the top shelf
onto the front tables at your local Borders is the best way of
doing it. Yes, you can write hot steamy erotica without dumbing
down to your readers. And it can actually be literate, too!
You began writing erotica as M.S. Valentine and continue
to write pseudonymously while also publishing as Mitzi Szereto.
Is there any advantage to writing under two names? What distinguishes
a Valentine work from a Szereto work?
Actually, I havent donned my M. S. Valentine cap in
quite some time. It only seems like Im still writing under
the name because the Valentine books have been given a new life
thanks to my publisher Blue Moon and the Venus Book Club, whove
been publishing special hardcover editions of the titles. The
last official M. S. Valentine book I wrote was The Martinet,
which was picked up by Chimera in the UK. I do feel it has been
an advantage to write under the two names, in that M. S. Valentine
has become somewhat of a brand name. These erotic novels are
of a particular type very sexually explicit, but with
a literary flair. Most of them read along the lines of a gothic
novel, which I mentioned earlier. I wanted them to have a Wuthering
Heights feel to them, as well as a slightly Victorian flavor.
The only Valentine book that departs from this is Elysian
Days and Nights, which Ive heard being compared to
T. C. Boyles Road to Wellville. Mind you, Boyle
got pretty kinky in his novel I just took it a few steps
My work as Mitzi Szereto is more oriented toward the mainstream.
Yes, the books contain sexually explicit prose, however, these
books are equally as comfortable on the erotica shelves in bookstores
as they are alongside works by mainstream and literary authors.
My Erotic Fairy Tales, A Romp Through the Classics is
a popular title in public libraries, which demonstrates its mainstream/literary
appeal. With the Szereto titles, I want to produce work that
can be enjoyed by readers who are looking for something more
substantive with their sex i.e. a two-handed read.
As a woman writing erotica for women, how do you respond to
the old-guard feminist criticism (Dworkin, MacKinnon) that any
male-dominant/female-submissive stance whether real or
imagined - is inherently demeaning and oppressive to women? Is
it liberating, do you think, for women to own their sexual fantasies,
even if those fantasies re-enact and possibly fortify male dominion
- and male brutality against women?
Well, I dont actually write erotica just for women
I write for anyone who wishes to read my work. Im proud
to have crossed the gender and sexual orientation barriers. From
what Ive read of Dworkin et all, I believe they were speaking
about pornography, specifically films and magazines, which has
historically been a male-dominant fantasy festival. I would be
very surprised if they found my Bakewell, Revisited story from
Erotic Travel Tales 2 in any way demeaning or oppressive
to women. Even the M. S. Valentine books, specifically the Celia
novels, has the female protagonist turn the tables on the man
who supposedly oppresses her, thus becoming the dominant figure
in the relationship. Having so many women writing in the field
has removed much of this negative attitude toward sexually explicit
literature. Obviously its liberating for women to write
about sex and the erotic from their point of view, but it has
also significantly improved the genre in that theres less
of a chauvinistic attitude toward sex and womens role in
sex. Theres more of an engagement from a psychological
and emotional level, not just genital A meets genital B
and away we go! With regard to male dominion in womens
sexual fantasies, this is a part of sexuality and eroticism as
well; its up to the writer to portray this in a manner
that clearly indicates it is something welcomed, not forced.
When you write erotica, you have to continually do a balancing
act. As I said earlier, you can get away with a lot in mainstream
literature, but when something has an erotica label on it, there
are all these taboos and things to worry about.
You dont, then, write primarily for women. Can you give
us a profile of your audience? Who, do you think, are your readers?
Are they the same people who take your courses and come to your
I have a good cross-section of readers, from what I hear.
As I mentioned earlier, I have readers of both sexes or
should I say all sexes?, and all sexual orientations and ages.
The work seems to attract readers of erotica, romance fiction,
and mainstream/literary fiction. Its probably safe to say
that the majority of my readers are college educated and
people who read fairly widely, I suspect. Those on my courses
probably fit in here as well, since it makes sense theyd
want to read what I produce if theyre coming to hear to
me speak or be taught by me. Plus I anticipate attracting an
all-new audience with the multi-genre anthology Im currently
You write in the tradition of the grand old gals of Goth like
Radcliffe with her fainting, put-upon heroine Emily St. Aubert
and, of course, the lugubrious sisters Bronte. Are you
conscious of working within this stylistic framework? Do you
intentionally pay homage to -- as well as intentionally send
up -- these romantic works of yore? Can you name any other literary
antecedents and influences?
Lugubrious? Surely not! In all honesty, I wasnt aware
that I was working along these lines until some years after the
Valentine books were out and comparisons began to be made. It
was purely instinct theres that word again!
for me to write in this fashion. As I said before, I was weaned
on the gothic novel, and the only erotica Id read was Victorian
and pre-Victorian. The fusion came about naturally. In a way
this style works really well for erotica, particularly the erotic
novel. So many contemporary erotic novels have a Hustler feel
to them, if you know what I mean. Instead of being erotic, they
sound like a conversation between college boys trying to outdo
each other on the sexual conquest front even the ones
written by women. I came across a book review of The
Governess that said it puts the genitals into Jane
Eyre. Enough said.
As an American ex-patriate living now in England, do you have
any observations about the famously staid British and their attitudes
toward sex? Is there any discernable difference between the British
and American erotica markets?
The British staid? What British are these? Theyre
a lot more open about sex than we Yanks are. Just look at British
television. The stuff they show youd never get away with
in a million years on American TV. Having said that, the British
do have a bit of a wink wink, nudge nudge attitude toward sex,
a sort of behind the hand snicker, if you will. However, that
doesnt mean they arent up to whatever comes their
way. Theyre a pretty adventurous lot. And that doesnt
just apply to sex either.
As for erotica publishing, Im afraid the British are
way behind. The problem is, theyre still too top-shelf
oriented. The kind of books I put out would be a tough sell here,
as far as publishers are concerned. Ive had this discussion
with other erotica writers in the UK, and they agree. In fact,
theyre thrilled to submit to my anthologies, because it
gives them an opportunity to write something with a more literary
bent their regular publishers would never go for. Part of the
problem is that UK publishers seem to be unaware of whats
going on in the erotica market outside of the UK, so they keep
churning out their mass market paperbacks with disclaimers on
the inside telling readers to practice safe sex. Now Im
not disparaging the mass-market paperback many of my M.
S. Valentine books are mass-market paperbacks, but whats
with this safe-sex warning business? Theyre novels, for
Christs sake! Do you find warnings inside an Ed McBain
novel telling readers that they shouldnt murder anyone?
Apparently these publishers must think their readers are so stupid
they cant differentiate between a book and real life. If
that isnt dumbing down, I dont know what is.
Heres the thing about all genre fiction: something billed
overtly as horror, supernatural, erotic,
etc. is notoriously difficult to write well. How do you
infuse a piece with its genre-specific elements without sabotaging
the integrity of the work as a whole? In other words, do you
sit down and say, I shall now write something erotic
or do your writerly instincts work more freely within whatever
parameters and proscriptions the genre dictates? And, come to
think of it, what are those parameters and proscriptions?
Im not that premeditated! It really is pure instinct.
Of course if I know Im writing a piece of erotica then
I know that there must be sufficient erotic content in it to
make it qualify as a piece of erotica. Its probably easier
for me to answer this question with my editors hat on.
Ill often get in a piece of writing that needs some sexing
up, in which case I advise the writer where I feel this is needed.
Conversely, I get in work with way too much sex almost
porn. Then I must do the opposite and instruct the writer to
sex it down. Its a matter of instinct and experience to
know how much is enough and how much is too much. I dont
think consciously about this with my own work, but I do with
the work of others. I keep my focus on the story and advise
writers to do the same. The sex shouldnt overshadow the
story, but be a part of it. Albeit, an important one.
Whats on your professional horizons? Do you have any
current projects and research interests? Any plans to do another
volume of erotic fairy tales? Any non-erotica-specific-works
in your future?
Funny your mentioning the fairy tales, because Ive toyed
with the idea of doing another volume. But Id hate to do
those introductions again they were grueling! I do have
some new titles coming out. Late summer will see the release
of Foreign Affairs: Erotic Travel Tales, and in autumn a double
volume trade edition of the Celia books from M. S. Valentine.
In 2005 my anthology of speculative erotic fiction featuring
famous historical characters will be released Im
not set on a title for it yet. Im currently putting together
my multi-genre anthology entitled La Petite Mort: Tales of Sex
and Death. The response from writers on this has been overwhelming,
and the quality of material coming in top drawer. I have another
anthology of erotica currently being shopped, the theme being
classical mythology. I also work on my novel The Wren when I
can, which is not erotica, although it does have erotic elements
in it. Ive got my residential erotic writing workshops
in Greece this summer, the first with Skyros in June, the second
with The Greek Experience in September. And Im going to
be featured on a panel of authors at the West Hollywood Bookfair
in Los Angeles in October. What else? Seems like something new
crops up every day. Im off this weekend to the Lake District
to do a reading and teach an erotic writing workshop. Plus Ill
probably do another reading in London sometime this summer, and
possibly a workshop. Oh, yes Ive decided to finally
create an online presence for myself. So hopefully by the end
of summer youll find that Ive become a dotcom. In
a manner of speaking
Can you leave us with a list of your favorite writers -- and
any tips for a beginner who might want to write erotic literature?
( Besides Its harder than it looks
Well, it is harder than it looks! My advice to beginners is
to rid yourself of the mindset that youre creating a sex
aid. Theres enough one-handed drivel around, and it does
nothing to elevate erotica, let alone the reputation of serious
writers. If youre really serious about writing, then you
should write something you wouldnt be ashamed of putting
your name to. I always try to talk my contributors into using
their real names, unless theyre already established under
a pseudonym. Maybe Im naïve, but I assume that if
someone writes a quality piece of prose, they would like to be
acknowledged for it. My other advice: read widely, and aim high,
Favorite writers Margaret Atwood, Arundhati Roy, Vladimir
Nabokov, Ruth Rendell, Martyn Bedford, T. C. Boyle, Theodore
Dreiser, Kathryn Harrison, Alice Walker, Michel Faber, Joyce
I especially enjoy multicultural literature.