Alison Tyler's characters like a good smack on the bottom. Some are bad, bad girls who need to be punished. Others are awakening to forbidden desires. They play with riding crops. They focus on the clitoris. Occasionally, they solve crimes.
But don't think that just because Tyler writes prodigious quantities of smut -- her word -- for pay, her life is all vinyl dresses and strap-on dildos. She did not produce 23 sweaty novels (among them, Learning to Love It, Sticky Fingers, and Something About Workmen) by spending days naked beside the pool, diddling herself silly with a Fukuoku 9000. She did not get four hundred steamy short stories published in Playgirl, Penthouse Variations, and countless anthologies by prowling San Francisco nightclubs in search of ingenues to take home and discipline. She did not edit fourteen erotica collections in the past year and a half (with another, Naughty Fairy Tales from A to Z, due out this August) by lounging around the house in a red satin robe and marabou slippers, watching porn and jotting notes in a journal with a padded velvet cover.
Tyler cultivates the image of a trollop with a laptop -- "a shy girl with a dirty mind." But in her work habits, she more closely resembles Anthony Trollope, the 19th-century novelist who cranked out 250 words every fifteen minutes. "I can write anywhere," she says -- not bragging, just stating a simple fact. "I can write in a noisy bar. I can write in an airplane. I can write ten thousand words a day. I don't do that every day, but I have no problem sitting down and putting words on a page."
When she isn't conjuring up her own salty stories, she edits others'. New from San Francisco's Cleis Press, the anthology Heat Wave brings together nineteen unpretentiously lewd tales of hetero and lesbian summer lust of which four, counting Tyler's, are by Bay Area authors. In Thomas Roche's "Tan Lines," a couple enjoys a weekend tryst on the patio of a San Francisco cafe; the three vacationing gal-pals in Sage Vivant's "The Yacht" pick out hard-bodied crewmen for an afternoon's delight; and a grieving man broods over a doomed affair in M. Christian's melancholy "The Waters of Biscayne Bay."
Also included in the collection, Tyler's "Girls of Summer" tells a hazy coming-of-age story about a teenage girl's crush on a 27-year-old bad boy with a penchant for handcuffs and spanking (he's based "not too loosely" on Tyler's first boyfriend, she says). It is less graphic than her previous work but more subtle too. "It doesn't have a whole lot of sex," she says, "but I think it's a very sexy story. Early in my career, I tried to put several sex scenes in anything I wrote. In this one, I just wrote what came naturally."
As the editorial director at erotic imprint Pretty Things Press, Tyler sees a lot of porn by writers who are trying too hard. They strain to come up with creative vocabulary (like the author who described a woman going down on her partner's "51-year-old salami") and focus too much on the sex act itself. "Some people think in order to write a sex scene, they have to provide close-up shots, like in porno movies," she says. "I don't believe that makes a good sex scene. I don't think it's all about the in and out." She approvingly cites the late theater critic and paddling enthusiast Kenneth Tynan: "He believed that for the masochist, the pain isn't as important as the fantasizing about the spanking beforehand, the dressing for it, all the preparations that go around it, and afterwards, the looking in the mirror at the mark, relishing the bruises. That's exactly how to write a good sex story."
Tyler is a topsy-turvy interviewee. She chats happily about intimate details of her fantasy life but balks at basic biographical questions. She doesn't want to say exactly which Northern California city she lives in, politely deflects questions about where she went to high school (the Peninsula, she says), and declines to provide a photo for this article. "I'm not hiding deep, dark secrets," she says. "I'm just trying to make life easier for people." She says that some of those close to her -- not her parents -- know she's a writer but don't know what, exactly, she writes. Apparently they aren't keen Googlers.
She also has her personal safety to consider. She gets fan mail from prisoners. Less of it, however, probably comes these days from Texas' Beto Prison. Officials there recently censored Tyler's Naughty Stories from A to Z on the basis that it would -- in their words -- "encourage deviate criminal sexual behavior."
But Tyler says there is nothing the least bit "deviate" about her work. Her parents are proud of her. She's not ashamed. And she doesn't need to slap a fancy label on her writing to make her feel better about it.
"People try to make you feel bad by saying, 'You write porn,'" she says. "But I won't feel bad for it. I won't feel I'm a better person if I tell people I write erotica than if I tell people I write smut."
Edited by Alison Tyler
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