Dorianne Emmerton is a writer, theatre reviewer and radio host. Recent publications include stories in Friend. Follow. Text #storiesFromLivingOnline and Issue #1 of Beer And Butter Tarts, as well as a personal essay in A Family By Any Other Name: Exploring Queer Relationships. Her passions include summer, furry animals, and craft beer. She stopped by the blog this week and answered few questions about her work.
BWS: Your story, “A Series of Tubes,” (in Friend. Follow. Text, Enfield & Wizenty, 2014), plays darkly with the cliché that internet trolls are just lonely people who need love. And in “Barista Knows Best,” published in S/tick not so long before, your protagonist is on a date arranged over the internet. What is it about people’s online interactions that motivates you to write about them?
Dorianne: Primarily, it’s simply because I, and most people I know except for my parents, live in a world where the internet is significant. It is where we date, where we meet friends and grow friendships, where we stay in touch with those who may not live in the same city. I’m writing from experience. Even though a story like “A Series of Tubes” isn’t at all realism, it was inspired by my own life. I spent a good portion of my 20’s very active on an electronic-music oriented message board, and that’s how I first became aware of the elaborate maliciousness that goes into a troll persona. And it fascinated me: I was there because I had been very insecure and anxious and depressed and then I had a nervous breakdown that was very well-known about in my university program. I joined this message board and I could interact with new people without all of that baggage. Some of them became strong friendships that I still have and hopefully always will. When I met people in person and already had an established dynamic it took so much of the stress out of socializing. (The fact that we were usually dancing and on drugs probably didn’t hurt.)
So seeing trolls coming at the message board from pretty much the opposite direction was so interesting to me. They weren’t there to make friends, they were there to make enemies. They weren’t there to express themselves in relative safety, (which is how it seemed to me back then: now, of course, we know that the internet can be very dangerous indeed); they were there to make others feel less safe. I wanted to dive into that psychology, to feel empathy for the troll without excusing them for their behaviour, and I wanted to posit the internet as a place as valid as any other.
BWS: We learn later in “Barista” that the date has been arranged in order to find a sperm donor for the narrator– a fiction that sets off some echoes in your essay “I, Didi,” (A Family by Any Other Name, Touchwood, 2014), about your own relationship to parenting and your girlfriend’s choice to have a baby on her own. How different were the challenges of using this material in fiction versus non-fiction? Was it more difficult in one piece than in the other?
Dorianne: In “Barista”, I was exploring the similarity – and the difference – between online dating and online sperm-soliciting, and how it feels to be doing the latter when the former is so much more common. I guess I was working out the weirdness of it, but I was also imagining it from a straight woman’s perspective. Since I had been so assured that I would be childless, I hadn’t expected to ever think about fertility, and suddenly I learned all sorts of things about it. I realized that us queer people talk about this amongst ourselves quite openly and straight women don’t always have that. They’re expected to conceive within a relationship, and if they can’t – because of physical issues or because of the lack of a relationship – there’s a stigma, and that must be hard.
In my world right now, it’s: trans single dads, adoption, donor embryos, poly parents — there are a million ways for a family to exist! — so no one inside that bats an eye when they find out I don’t live with my partner and son. But then there’s the outside world, and we all have our challenges dealing with that. So I thought this character must exist, this single straight woman who wants a child so badly, but is all alone in that situation. I felt a lot of compassion for this character, so it was easy to be invested in her story.
“I, Didi”, on the other hand, was torture. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever written. It’s also been the best-reviewed, so hey, maybe crying over your keyboard works. I had to relive some very hard times. And it wasn’t fiction: everyone reading it would know that it really was me, and judge me accordingly. And I was also very anxious about writing about my son when he was too young to be able to consent to that information being made public. My partner read it and gave it her blessing, so I went ahead, but he is a whole different person. And the entire piece is about how I didn’t want him, and I’m putting it out there in the world where he can someday read it. Hopefully we’ll have a strong relationship by then, and will have communicated a lot and it will be fine, but still: terrifying.
(When “I, Didi” was written I still considered the kid to be my girlfriend’s and not mine, but now I identify as a parent – even though I live separately.)
BWS: In addition to your literary fiction, you write for the screen and the stage; your play Obscuring Jude was mounted at Gay Play Day in 2013, and past shows have been produced by Looking Glass Theatre (New York), Buddies in Bad Times Theatre and Erindale Fringe. How does writing for the stage inform the fiction you write? What can a prose writer learn from writing plays or screenplays?
Dorianne: Dialogue! I always notice when I read a book whether the characters talk in full sentences and never interrupt each other, or whether they go on tangents or break off like actual people do. I also notice when they all speak the same way: different people talk in different ways, and to fully flesh out characters they have to have distinct manners of communicating. And that helps create interpersonal dynamics as well: characters are better or worse at understanding each other depending on the similarity or difference of their communication styles. It also makes you really think about a character’s background, since that’s what will inform the way they speak.
I think experience playwriting also helps with immediacy, with cutting down on exposition. In theatre, you’re writing, “This conversation happens, this action happens, this moment happens” — it’s all very immediate. Exposition has to come from dialogue, or monologue, and you don’t write anything someone wouldn’t actually say. So when I’m writing prose and I get into exposition, I’ll ask myself, “Would any of my characters say this? Can I embed it in the action? If not, do I really need it?” Half the time I need to know the backstory, but the reader doesn’t.
BWS: You also write erotica, proudly, which might make you something of an exception among “literary” authors. Do you ever encounter a stigma related to your work in this genre? What might a “literary” author learn were one to take a crack at erotica, and how has it helped your literary fiction develop?
Dorianne: I think if the stigma is there, it gets to me before I know it. The information is on my website — if anyone thinks about publishing me, looks it up, and then emails the rejection letter instead, I have no idea that’s what happened. I don’t care, though; I’ve made a decision to not to hide or compartmentalize parts of my life – mostly because I’m terrible at it – and it’s much easier for me to navigate each day this way. I’m proud of my erotica, although I have to admit that it’s not as much work for me. I usually write it in between other stories, like ginger in between pieces of sushi, to cleanse my palate. I can’t just stop writing for a while when I get to the point where I need a piece of literary fiction to sit, or I’ve sent it out to readers and need to wait to see what they think, so instead of taking a full break, I take a porn break.
And I hate to think I’m trivializing the work of other eroticists, but that’s what it is to me. I don’t have to labour over, “Where is this going?”, because I know – one or more people are going to orgasm. And I don’t have to worry about what it’s about, because I’m just writing whatever scenario has been playing out in my brain during recent times of self-love. There is other erotica out there that is far more sophisticated than mine. But hey – I get paid for it more consistently than I do for literary fiction. So there’s that.
Dorianne Emmerton visits the Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, July 9, 2014 — full of beans Coffee House & Roastery, 1348 Dundas St. W., Toronto (7pm, PWYC) — along with S. Bear Bergman, Kirk DeMatas and Tamai Kobayashi. Come early, too (6:30) for a special talk by literary agent Monica Pacheco, entitled “Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Literary Agents *But Were Afraid to Ask”!