Arts Desk

Bobby Blanchard, Lesbian Gym Teacher: A Q&A with Pulp Satirist Monica Nolan

When volumes of erotica land on our book review shelf, there are a couple of options: 1) find the most ungainly sex scenes, excerpt them, and move on; 2) scoff at the salacious cover, pretend to recycle it, and then retrieve it when no one's around (I'm looking at you, J.L. Fischer!); and 3) upon discovering a gratifying dearth of ungainly sex scenes, probe further until it becomes apparent that the author has—hey!—a sense of humor.

Option three kicked into effect in the case of Bobby Blanchard, Lesbian Gym Teacher, the latest installment in Monica Nolan's series of lesbian pulp send-ups. (Previous entries include the landmark Big Book of Lesbian Horse Stories and Lois Lenz, Lesbian Secretary.)

Nolan's approach is to combine a hygienic, Nancy Drew-style mystery with simmering, but not sizzling, scenes of sapphic coupling. I reached Nolan by phone yesterday to discuss her lack of a pseudonym, lesbians' ability to laugh at themselves, and Lynne Cheney.

Q&A below the jump.

How'd you get involved in the whole satirical lesbian pulp thing?
I've always been interested in parody and that sort of thing. I went to film school and made a short film my first year called World of Women, a parody of film noir, imagining a lesbian film that might've been made in the '50s and what its trailer would look like. I'm just fascinated by these two genres of literature that kind of seem opposite but, I think, have a lot in common. Take lesbian pulp from the '50s: Odd Girl Out; Women in the Shadows; Spring Fire—and then also the teen girl books from the '50s, which I grew up reading because the library hadn't purged them yet.

Purged them?
You can't really find them any more—books like Senior Prom, A Date for Marcie, they're huge collectibles on eBay and places like that. And then when I discovered lesbian pulp, freshman year of college, I loved the melodrama, the soap opera—they're like precursors to Dynasty, just out-of-control drama. And I wanted to capture that quality without the sort of self-loathing that often went along with it in the '50s. Or at least make fun of the angst-ridden soul-searching.

That's interesting. So do you think the "self-loathing" and "angst," in the '50s, were bound up with the sexuality—an added turn-on—or was it an overlay?
Well, lesbian pulp in the '50s is really interesting. It was hugely popular, and yes, some of it was about titillation—the titillation is what attracted the audience, and the punishment and self-loathing element were what publishers put in to avoid pornography charges. When you read interviews with pulp authors from that period, they say that publishers insisted that one girl would commit suicide, or the other girl end up in a madhouse, or this other girl go back to her boyfriend in the end, because of concerns that they would get prosecuted. Of course, that changed eventually, and you started to see what they called "happy endings"; but it was very hard-won happiness. You have to remember too that while  a lot of the pulp authors were lesbians, it was also a hugely lucrative field, so some were in it for the money. Lawrence Block, an incredibily prolific mystery writer, wrote lesbian pulp under the name Jill Emerson.

horse1So what do you think of Lynne Cheney's contribution to the canon? Ever dabbled?
Oh, that! No, I haven't. She wrote some sort of lesbian bodice-ripper, right?

I think so. I've never read it.
Well, I always assumed there was no parody in it. I mean, I have no problem with that. If she was writing one of those pseudo-anthropological books that were also popular in the '50s, I might object. But if she's writing bodice-ripping fiction...I mean, why not? A lot of slash fiction or fan fiction, it's people imagining themselves into other sexualities. That said, this is no endorsement of that book. But fiction should be pretty much an open frontier.

So how do you choose your motifs? I mean, the horse thing: did you just dream up the title and then say, "wow, that's too good not to use"?
Well, the horse thing is definitely a take-off on the whole girl-horse story cliché. I mean, that is just a cliché that almost everybody has heard of— girls get into horses at a certain age! I grew up on the Marguerite Henry books. The gym teacher book actually has a specific target—there's a series of books I collect, published in the 50s, and they were fiction but published so girls could know what professions were possible for them. So there are tons of nurses, but also more obscure professions, and the interesting thing is they sort of ran from the late '40s to the '60s, and in the '40s you get things like Linda Jordan, Lawyer and Lady Architect, and then in the '50s Patty Lewis, Home Economist

Wow.
I know! I love that one; it has recipes in the back that are basically how to use mixes. And at a time when women were going back to work in huge numbers! So I love looking at it through this lens of what lit was telling teen girls about it in that period.

secretary1Have there been complaints about the lack of totally salacious sex scenes?
Yes. Definitely in The Big Book of [Lesbian] Horse Stories, there were a couple of reviews that said, "this was fun, but based on the cover we thought there'd be more going on!" So I tried to up the sex with Lois Lenz, and even further with Bobby. The thing with porn is you're either doing sex scenes strung together with a dash of plot, or you're writing plot; you can't really do both. There are times I wish I were writing under a pseudonym.

So, when you're writing, who's your imagined audience? Are you targeting mainly women?
Gosh, that is such a good question because I'm working and I'm thinking, who the hell besides me finds this stuff interesting? But I think in the lesbian community there's been a huge growth in our willingness to laugh at ourselves and look back at our past and be able to make fun of it. You know, I have straight friends who love these books, who are my age and sort of came of age and recognized those clichés. Gay men seem to love it, so i don't know...I guess it's the whole camp aspect.

And your background is in film. Is there any pressure to adapt Lois Lenz, say, for the screen?
I've had some tiny nibbles from people in Los Angeles who were looking to get something started, but it's never come to anything. I'd be happy to have someone else do it, but it's not a project I'd undertake. If I went back to film I'd do shorts or documentaries. Film is a burnout business—I burnt out practically just getting through graduate school. And the nice thing about writing is I don't have to fundraise to do it.

Are you already writing the next lesbian-professional book?
Yes, I think it'll feature Maxie, one of the characters from the first book.

What's Maxie up to?
Well, I think Maxie would go into journalism. I'm thinking, Maxie Mainwaring, Lesbian Reporter. She's a high-society girl, and she'd get cut off from her income and have to go to work. And I think that'd be a great excuse to dive into the burgeoning alternative journalism world of '60s New York. It'd be an excuse for some really fun research.

As we await Ms. Nolan's next effort, keep one eye trained on The Sexist, to whom Nolan's publicist has already mailed a copy of the classic Big Book of Lesbian Horse Stories. Giddyup!

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