Careers rarely go according to plan. In Job Hacks, we shake down experts for the insights they cultivated on their way to the top of their field.
Name: Tiffany Reisz
Original Hometown: Lexington, Kentucky
Job: Author of erotic fiction. Her internationally bestselling Original Sinners series has won multiple awards and been translated in nine languages. For more on her journey from seminary school to erotica writing, see her piece in the Huffington Post. For more from Reisz and some fellow erotica writers, see Inverse’s previous article on erotica.
How did you get your start?
When I was in high school, I wrote erotic fan-fiction stuff like all nerdy teens do. I wrote literary fiction in college — I still wanted to be a writer but I more wanted to be a college professor. I ended up in seminary school. I wanted to teach theology. While there, one of my best friends sent me an erotic fan fiction she read that she thought was sexy, but when I read it, I thought I could do better, so I did. I posted a story online and people liked it, so I dropped out of school and worked in a bookstore while I wrote. Eventually it led to getting an agent. The Siren wasn’t particularly erotica or romance at the time; it was mainstream fiction that happened to have a dominatrix as a main character. My agent loved it but said it would be a hard sell. I could either add more sex scenes and she could sell it as erotica, or I could add more romance and sell it as romance. I added more sex and sort of fell into writing erotica.
So you kind of shaped your book to the market?
It wasn’t one of those “You need to compromise your art to make it more commercial,” it was more suggestions to make it better. I was happy to do it.
The sexy lead of your series is a priest. Does that have any roots in your background in seminary school? And were you concerned about any backlash from the religious community?
It was a Methodist seminary in Kentucky, and I wasn’t Catholic at the time, but when you’re in seminary, you have a lot of theological issues on your mind. In the rough draft of The Siren [the heroine] was Catholic and hung out in churches. She had a mysterious ex — I knew I didn’t want him to be some rich billionaire trust fund baby, that would be boring, and him being a priest explained why they’re not married and why there’s all this secrecy. There are people who will leave the book a bad review because that’s a hard limit and they didn’t know he was a priest. There are others who will say, “Are you serious, there’s a Catholic priest in erotica? Can I read it, where is it?!”
The Catholic Church is a little busy right now, so I don’t think one person writing a sexually active priest is on the pope’s radar.
Since your books concern the BDSM subculture, were you worried they wouldn’t have mainstream appeal?
I did not expect to have vanilla readers, I didn’t think they read kinky books. I guess I just assumed all kinky books were read by kinky people. I was hugely surprised and grateful.
And now that 50 Shades of Grey has made it more mainstream, do you think that’s a positive thing or a bad thing?
Like anything, it’s good and it’s bad — if your only exposure to BDSM is 50 Shades of Grey, you probably have a skewed idea of it. The truth is, most kink is done by people like your dad, your uncle, the women look like your mom, your aunt – you look around a BDSM club and you don’t see supermodels, it’s normal average people. I think its great more people are aware and talking about BDSM, but if it does inspire an interest, do your research. The real world is not the same as fiction. I get a lot of recommendations through 50 Shades of Grey, like, ‘if you thought 50 Shades was poorly written, here’s well written BDSM.’ I never read it, I read the first paragraph and knew it wasn’t for me, I don’t like first person present tense and the heroine sounded fourteen.
You mentioned before that you used to dabble in fan fiction. Did you ever consider changing the character’s names and publishing that, the way the author of 50 Shades of Grey did?
Having been a fan fiction writer, I know how easily you can get a massive fan following when you’re writing characters who are already known and beloved. If I had pulled to publish my story, I would have brought an audience with me, but I thought that was unethical. It never occurred to me that anybody would ever do that — change the names and sell it. It seemed so wrong to me, and it’s become the number one way to sell your books now.
What do you think are some misconceptions about erotica?
This idea that erotica is porn. You’re kind of splitting hairs because it depends on your definition of pornography, but porn is typically more visual. When people think erotic romance is porn, they’ve certainly never read one. Mine have thriller plots and romance plots and complicated characterization.
What about misconceptions about erotica authors?
Probably that we’re sex-crazed and having sex at the time. I’ve lost count of the amount of people who volunteer information about their sex lives and think I want to hear it. I don’t want to hear it any more than if you go to the dentist, you’d want to hear about his sex life.
Your author bio specifies that you write erotica under your own name and not a pen name. What was behind that decision?
I thought, men don’t use pen names, Thomas Harris didn’t do it to write Silence of the Lambs. People were worried about me, that fans would do something crazy, but nobody’s shown up on my doorstep or done anything weird. Nobody cares, they just think its great, they’re happy for me. My mom is proud, she has friends in her real estate office who reads my books.
Is being a well-known erotica writer the kind of profession where you get unusual presents from fans?
I get crazy stuff. It’s endlessly entertaining. Every year around November, I get inundated on Twitter and Facebook. There’s a company that does a calendar of naked priests and people think I’m dying to see this. I have the internet, I’ve already seen it, I’ve heard Take me to Church by Hozier, I know about the naked priest calendar, but I’ll literally get 200 to 500 people sending me links. It doesn’t do anything for me — I don’t have a priest fetish, they’re just characters in a book. People can have trouble separating the writer from the creation. I don’t think Stephen King has tried to re-animate a dead pet — but you never know.
Have you ever been afraid to write something because you thought it went too far?
People have their triggers, they have their little things that bother them. One of my fans loves bloodplay, and you’d think someone okay with bloodplay — which is much more extreme than fisting — would be okay with that, but she doesn’t like fisting. In eight books, I’ve twice had to adjust a sex scene. My editor has come back to me and been uncomfortable twice. Once was a scene with snowballing — that’s when people kiss with semen in their mouths — and in The Queen there’s a daddy-play scene that made her uncomfortable. I don’t do things to push buttons, I do what seems right for the characters. It’s more, “If I know these characters, this is how they would act.”
This is the question I get asked most often by aspiring writers. They’re worried they’ve written something too naughty or embarrassing, or a publisher wont let them get away with it. Write it first. Write what you want to read. You’ll be surprised by how open-minded editors and readers can be. Write the book you want to read.