portrait Interview with Mitzi Szereto

interviewed by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 64 ~ September, 2002

Mitzi Szereto is the author of the critically acclaimed Erotic Fairy Tales, A Romp Through the Classics (Cleis Press). Born and raised in the United States, where she considers Los Angeles her adopted hometown, Szereto currently lives in South Yorkshire, England.

Szereto has also written a novella, highway, an e-book for Renaissance E-Books and is the editor of the anthologies Erotic Travel Tales and the follow-up anthology Erotic Travel Tales 2 ( a spring 2003 release), both published by Cleis Press. Her work has appeared in the Mammoth Book of Best New Erotica 2002, Wicked Words 4, Joyful Desires: A Compendium of Twentieth Century Erotica, Erotic Review, and Proof.

She has also published several erotic novels under the name M.S. Valentine, including The Martinet (new from Chimera Publishing Ltd.), The Captivity of Celia, The Possession of Celia, Elysian Days and Nights (now available from Renaissance E-Books), and The Governess.

Szereto formally studied art, after which she went on to earn a BA in Journalism with a political science minor from California State University Northridge. However, before that she was a fashion designer, brining out her own line of limited edition women’s apparel in Miami and Los Angeles.

In between working toward her master’s degree, Szereto teaches writing workshops, including erotic writing, in the United Kingdom for regional arts boards, literary festivals, and local councils, as well as residential writing workshops in Europe. She is presently involved in compiling an anthology of erotic writing based on classic Greco-Roman mythology and writing a novel.

Derek Alger: Erotic Fairy Tales, A Romp Through the Classics has been greeted with wide acclaim. How did you get the idea for telling such tales as Red Riding Hood in a sexually titillating way?

Mitzi Szereto: Totally by accident, which is how inspiration usually happens for me. I often tend to operate with a desert island mentality. I think this keeps the process of creating more pure. The idea for Erotic Fairy Tales just popped into my head one day and I began collecting fairy tales that triggered my erotic muse. I literally brought home stacks and stacks of books from the library, zipping through them until something caught my eye and started that little volcano bubbling inside my brain. The strange thing is, I was never a big fairy tale lover as a child. In fact, it’s safe to say I didn’t care for them at all. I thought they were too childish. If I’d only known then what I know now . . .

DA: Same here. How did you transform your inspiration into practice?

MS: I decided to approach this project in a way that the tales could still retain their fairy tale integrity. While it was important to twist and turn them into something entirely new, I made an effort to preserve enough of the original material so the reader could still recognize the tales. As I began the selection process, I became increasingly attracted to the idea of turning this into a multi-cultural project. The book contains plenty of tales that we in the West are already familiar with, but I included material from the Middle East and Orient as well.

DA: You’ve included a brief introduction to each tale telling the history and culture behind each selection. I’m sure most readers were unaware that fairy tales originally had such x-rated themes before being cleaned up for children.

MS: That’s true. Many readers had no idea of what went on in the original versions. Nor did I, for that matter. As you can see, I did a lot of research into the history and culture behind each tale, all of which was done after I had written my versions of the fairy tales.  It was quite a scholarly enterprise, but well worth it, I think. The introductions gave greater significance to the tales themselves and the reader gains a better appreciation of them. I’d like to think that people are not only entertained by the book but enriched through the process of reading it. I approach my anthologies in the same way — by providing material that goes beyond the typical.

DA: You started out writing serious fiction and fell into erotica entirely by the accident. What happened?

MS: I used to read erotica when I was younger — probably way too young to be reading such material! The classic stuff, mostly. I really liked the flowery prose of the Victorians, the elegant language that seems to have fallen by the wayside in contemporary erotica.  I was also a big fan of those gothic-type novels — you know, the “mysterious master of the manor” novels, sort of mass-market Jane Eyre. Take all this and throw in too many television reruns of Pride and Prejudice with Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy . . . well, you get the picture! So, I guess it was inevitable that I should have fallen into writing erotica. I will say that I approach it with all the seriousness of any serious fiction author. I don’t subscribe to a factory mentality of churning out erotica books; in fact, I probably labor over the prose as much or even more than many authors of serious fiction. Just because a book is classified as “erotica” doesn’t mean it has to be disposable literature.

DA: What prompted you to write under the name M.S. Valentine?

MS: In the beginning I wasn’t sure where I was going with this erotica-writing business and I didn’t want to be typecast in a specific genre. Before the publication of my first erotic novel, The Captivity of Celia, I discussed it with my then-publisher Richard Kasak at Masquerade Books, who understood my concerns and agreed that a pseudonym might be the way to go. In retrospect, I think it was a good decision, since the Valentine books are of a specific type, not like the writing I am doing as Mitzi Szereto — although by now most everyone knows that I’m M.S. Valentine. To be honest, I was surprised and flattered to find out how many people really liked those M.S. Valentine novels. I still continue to hear from readers, many wanting to know if there will ever be another “Cecila” book. Hmm . . .

How I arrived at the name is a much simpler tale. Obviously you can see where the M.S. came from. As for the Valentine part — don’t laugh — but that came from one of my favorite films: Shirley Valentine. And of course the word valentine evokes images of love and romance, which fits right in with erotica. Well, in some instances, anyway.

DA: I know you teach writing workshops on the creative process, but there is also a large demand for you to tutor erotic writing. I’m sure a lot of writers would be curious how you approach teaching erotic writing.

MS: Yes, there seems to be a surprisingly large demand for me to teach erotic writing — more than I’d ever anticipated. I would like to think that my work has reassured people that they will get a workshop with a more literary focus rather than being something the guy in the raincoat and black socks might attend. These erotic writing workshops are not workshops I’ve put together by hiring out a venue in which to teach them. I am being invited to tutor them by arts groups, literary festivals and organizations that are in the business of running workshops, so this definitely puts a stamp of legitimacy on the experience.

DA: Erotic writing is a legitimate genre.

MS: I’m extremely pleased to see the fair mindedness toward this area here in the United Kingdom. Back in the States, many workshops dealing with the writing of erotica seem to have a — for lack of a better word — “smutty” feel to them. But I guess the responsibility for this lies with the person running them, since these things tend to proclaim themselves as “smut-writing courses” or “dirty story writing courses.” I’m sorry, but that’s not what I’m about. If it were, I doubt I’d be getting so many calls to tutor these workshops. To be fair, I suppose everyone has his or her way of doing things — a particular philosophical approach. The problem as I see it is that this “smut” mentality tends to cheapen the category of erotica — disparage it, even. Let’s not forget that erotic literature goes back a hell of a long way historically, and there’s some very fine prose to be found here.

In my workshops I encourage participants to stretch themselves as writers by working in an area they might never before have worked in, or perhaps have been too shy or intimidated to work in. Good writing is good writing, and that’s what I try to inspire; in this case it just happens to be writing with erotic content in it. I make no distinctions between the budding Anais Nin or the next Philip Roth. People can use my courses to delve into writing erotica as a serious literary pursuit or incorporate the erotic into another form of writing. Obviously I provide a lecture on the marketplace — it would be remiss of me not to — so the potential of publication is always there for those who want it. I think the most important thing is to help people develop in their writing. When I leave a workshop receiving hugs and kisses instead of getting tomatoes thrown at me, I feel pretty secure that I’ve done my job.

DA: You’re putting together an anthology of erotic mythology writing. Where did the idea come from and what do you hope to see in the final collection?

MS: Another of those volcanoes of the brain that arrived around the same time as Erotic Fairy Tales, A Romp Through the Classics. In fact, I considered writing the entire collection myself right after I completed the fairy tales, but got involved with other projects, then decided that since I was on a roll with my Erotic Travel Tales anthologies, I should pursue the myths from the standpoint of an anthology editor. It was also an issue of time. The fairy tale book took nearly three years to do. I just couldn’t face that time frame again. Besides, it seemed like it would be more fun to see how other writers approach this area from an erotic perspective. Of course, classical mythology contains a lot of the erotic anyway, so . . .

DA: So?

MS: I hope the end product will have lots of surprises for the reader. Granted, I realize that not everyone may be familiar with the myths. For those who aren’t, perhaps this might inspire them to read up on the classic myths just for the sheer beauty and poetry of them, not to mention the sensuality. And for those who already know them, hopefully they will delight in the twists and turns these myths take. As I have done with the Erotic Travel Tales anthologies, I seek out quality material that is unique — that has an edge to it. It is my goal, as it always has been, whether as a writer or anthology editor, to offer readers something different. I don’t see the point in rehashing tired old territory or deliberately parroting other people’s work. Where’s the creativity in that? If you can’t create something that’s your own — that has a stamp of real individuality upon it — then you should unplug your keyboard.

DA: Since you mention Erotic Travel Tales, how did they come about?

MS: Well, I’ll admit that this was my first attempt at an anthology, and I intended to get it right. Granted, I’m a total obsessive/compulsive when it comes to my work, which is probably a good thing. Basically I thought it would be n interesting idea to put together a collection of erotic stories that place a heavy emphasis on geographical location, Although many of the stories involve someone who has traveled to a particular destination. I also wanted to stress the cultural aspects as well as the scenic. In fact, some stories are simply set in a specific place and don’t technically involve any travel at all. But again, the sense of place is very evident, and most of the traveling is done by the reader anyway!

One of the most important aspects for me as an anthology editor is to gather together a wide range of voices in the collection, many from far outside the realm of the erotica-writing world. I think this will be even more apparent with Erotic Travel Tales 2, which will be coming out in spring 2003. I don’t want my anthologies to sound like everyone else’s, so I try to seek out writers from outside the loop. Of course, there are always enough familiar names to satisfy the diehard erotica lover, but I’d like to think that my readers appreciate the interesting mix of people I have assembled — and interesting people write interesting stories. As far as I know, I’m probably the only erotica anthology editor who will have a Royal Fellow of Literature in her book.

DA: One review described Erotic Travel Tales as “like having an affair and a holiday simultaneously.”

MS: That’s true. With Erotic Travel Tales, the reader can live vicariously through the fictional adventures of others, just as any reader of good fiction should be able to do. There’s plenty of escapist fare to be found, if that’s what you’re looking for. However, there’s a lot more than that. Readers of Erotic Travel Tales shouldn’t get too cozy, because the rug just might be pulled out from under them. The whole point of the anthology is to offer the unique experiences of life away from home — the unknown, the craziness, the unpredictable, the sublime, the poignant — all of which have a focus on the sexual.

DA: Do you think erotica is finding more acceptance among mainstream audiences or do we still have a way to go?

MS: To be honest, it really depends on the book. Take for example my Erotic Fairy Tales. It’s a hybrid of fiction and non-fiction, so this defies the traditional classification of what is and is not an erotica book. It can easily be picked up and enjoyed by a non-erotica reader, who might have been put off in the past by the heavier “porn” aspects of some erotic books. So, too, does Erotic Travel Tales fall into this category. I was surprised to learn that the anthology is not only shelved in the romance sections of book shops, but sold in travel book shops as well. I’ve even heard that it’s sold at airports, which goes to show that there’s a much wider audience out there for erotica, providing these works can justify themselves as offering a lot more than just a one-handed read.

So, yes, erotica is definitely finding more acceptance among mainstream audiences. But there is still a distance to go. As in my earlier diatribe about the “smut writing” mentality of some writers and editors, as long as this continues to be prevalent, there will never be the kind of acceptance and legitimacy this classification of literature deserves. It’s unfortunate that the progress achieved from all those battles over banned books, which, by the latter part of the twentieth century, resulted in court decisions that erotic works by authors such as Henry Miller and D.H. Lawrence were not pornography, but literature, should end up being forced into retrograde by the contemporary producers of such works.

DA: Your novella, highway, recently came out as an e-book. What implications do you think online publishing has for the future?

MS: Well, I don’t see it disappearing, that’s for sure. It’s probably the most cost-effective and resource sensitive way to publish. The major publishers are all jumping on the bandwagon, re-releasing their old titles and finding new audiences by doing so. You can also put out a lot more material this way instead of being confined to the traditional book form, which takes so much longer to produce. Of course, there’s also a Warhol-esque aspect to all this. Rather than being famous for fifteen minutes, everyone will be published for fifteen minutes. Which is not to say they will actually be read. My only concern is that the increasing prevalence of online publishing might impact on quality. I think this has already happened in some instances.

DA: In highway, the three main characters, typical middle-aged American men bored with their jobs and families, are fascinated with on-line chat rooms and the computer has become a religion for them. Were they more creations of your imagination or based on observation, or both?

MS: This is definitely a case of art imitating life. One of the characters in highway was inspired by a real person — someone I met when I lived in the San Francisco area. At the time I had no idea that sort of thing was going on — that an educated middle-class, middle-aged married man with teenaged children, a nice house, and a tech job in Silicon Valley, would, after logging off only a couple hours earlier, set his alarm clock for 3 a.m. to go back online again as a lesbian in a lesbian chat room to have lesbian cybersex. It was an obsession that cost him nearly everything he had, much like the character in my novella. I found it frightening that anyone could be so involved in a fantasy existence that every aspect of his reality falls apart. Yet from what I hear there are a lot of “Bobs” out there. I simply tried to get inside my characters’ heads to try to understand why they did this. Once I managed that, their reasons no longer seemed so bizarre.