Janet Capron’s Blue Money is an easy sell. Sex, drugs, and the seventies in New York, when you could rent out abandoned theaters in Times Square to do live sex shows, when you could drink all night and live in any neighborhood you choose. But get past the seductive synopsis, and it’s not the usual book about prostitution, which can be moralizing or unnecessarily maudlin. In Blue Money, Janet chooses prostitution, she enjoys it, and in the most important twist: she doesn’t profess regret for it. It’s also largely about addiction, to drugs and alcohol but also to love, or what feels something like it. Those addictions are the ones that spun her life out of control, not the world’s oldest profession that we love to criminalize.
I met Janet on a Thursday afternoon in the West Village, where we drank lattes at Cafe Cluny and she jotted down my book recommendations in a notebook that said ARTISTS I WANT TO SLEEP WITH. She lives nearby in a rent-controlled apartment, and our conversation unspooled so long that we walked upstairs to keep talking. Her apartment overlooks a leafy, cobblestone street and is sprinkled with inherited antiques, like a grandfather clock that towers near the window and two separate desks: one for regular work and one for fiction.
We talked about sexuality and the misconceptions of it, about society’s need for women to be palatable, and of course, how much of her “mostly-true memoir” is real and how much is fiction. It’s hard not to be curious and desirous of all the most intimate details, but part of what Blue Money suggests is that curiosity and desire aren’t anything to be ashamed of—they should be cultivated, and enjoyed.
Below is our conversation, lightly edited and condensed for clarity. Read our exclusive excerpt of Janet Capron’s Blue Money here.
A lot of Blue Money centers around what the difference is between men and women, and you say in it that, almost in a scientific way, you really want to figure out what the difference is.
That’s the whole point of the book to me, I’m glad that you noticed that. I have always wanted to know what the difference was. Obviously there’s the biological difference of having children, but if you don’t have children, then what is the difference, spiritually, emotionally, profoundly?
I should recommend this book to you — What Do Women Want? Adventures in the Science of Female Desire by Daniel Bergner. I went to the Columbia Writing Program with him. That book is so important, and one of the things that it does is that it debunks all the received opinions about female sexuality. I really think that men are terrified of women’s sexuality. Let’s face it: we have infinite capacity compared to them. Men are prudish. I discovered a lot of this stuff empirically, on the front lines, but it was so nice to have it confirmed by verifiable, repeatable experiments.
I think prostitution can be hard to write about—it’s often sensationalized or used to victimize.
It’s too dishonest, usually. There aren’t many honest depictions of it.
Did you happen to read Problems?
No, I haven’t. Is it about prostitution?
It’s mostly about drug addiction, but at one point she begins trading sex for money.
Mary Gaitskill did that too. She turned a trick. But I think what that does—it’s perfectly legitimate, but what it does in a way is sanctify it. If you do it because you’re desperately poor, or you’re desperately strung-out, or you had some other ulterior motive, that somehow is palatable to the audience. But the way that I write about it is that prostitution can be this big bawdy adventure. And that’s what people take issue with. You’re not supposed to like it or have a good time doing it. If you have a good time doing it, somehow that’s where you really have crossed the line.
Right. In Problems, she does say that she has fun doing it, and she makes the point to say how all women have been in uncomfortable sexual situations with men, even ones they’ve chosen — what woman hasn’t been pressured into doing something she doesn’t want to do? So by taking control of it, she’s still coming out on top.
Oh, I’m so glad to hear that. It’s so true. Back in the 70s, in the dawn of sexual revolution, women were giving it away, happily, gladly, but still forgoing their own satisfaction. Amy Schumer has this great line, which I quote in the essay, which is something like: “Listen, man do you think we just want to be a part of your process? Like we’re just so happy to be here?” I’m very deeply committed to that idea and talking about that, even though nobody really wants to. The point is I wasn’t going to give it away for nothing in return. I had these wonderful gorgeous glorious boyfriends—musicians, drug dealers, bartenders.
Everyone loves a bartender…
In those days, they had followings like rockstars. They would stock their own jukeboxes, so they were DJs too, they were everything. I had real love affairs and romances and whatever you want to call them. But I wasn’t about to just go to bed with some guy and get nothing. If the guy is paying you, it’s honest and straightforward. We’re going to do this for your pleasure and you’re going to pay me.
A lot of problems I had with this book was a reception saying that the character’s not looking for redemption. And I said, yeah, that’s the whole point!
It’s more recent that the public has shown interest in women characters who aren’t looking for redemption.
I think so too, and I think it’s your generation — thank God you came along. Seriously, thank the millennials! When I was at the Columbia Writing Program everyone just assumed I was the kid most likely to succeed. I had agents calling me, and I was told to expect a life in which I could eke out a living writing fiction and teaching, but then editors would read the book and they couldn’t stomach that the character wasn’t looking for redemption. All of a sudden I looked around and I was dead broke, living in a little garret on Jane St, and I realized I had to make a living.
You speak a lot about different types of feminism in this book and what kinds you identified with growing up. How do you look back on that?
When I was 15, 16, that’s when we were all as a rebellion going out and losing our virginities. We were the first generation to openly do that. It’s not that they didn’t do that before, but it was completely secret. Women were supposed to be virgins when they got married—that’s how old I am!
The defiance that I felt was very much against this double standard. I could not stand the double standard. When I was in college, I went to Bennington first. At Bennington in those days, all the students were females and all the professors, with one exception, were male. What does that tell a girl? We were being educated to be dilettantes. I also think in terms of this book, if a man had written it nobody would bat an eye. I do think there’s been real pushback on account of it having a little bit too much defiance, and that whole bawdy thing.
It feels like women aren’t quite allowed to be bawdy yet. I think audiences are only okay with women acting out if it’s in some self-deprecating and clumsy way.
Yes, when it’s devoid of sexuality. I think that’s Amy Schumer’s problem. I love some of her stand-up, I really do, but I feel like she leans away from sexuality in order to be more palatable. And I love “Girls.” I thought the ending was brilliant. I think that was a brilliant show. In the beginning it’s so honest, the sex, with Hannah and Adam. He’s a fuck buddy, a one night stand, and then when they start having a serious affair it lost me. I didn’t buy it. I think she wanted to be the romantic lead—which is okay, I understand that—but I stopped watching it for a while. In the last season, I think it returns to her vision. I think she’d gotten over wanting to be the romantic lead. That desire was so human, I didn’t blame her, but it wasn’t as interesting to me.
When you were writing this book, did you have any pressure to center it around a romantic narrative? To have Michael keep recurring, or to have Eddie be a bigger part?
In terms of the narrative, I was always driven personally by obsessions of one kind of another. I mean, I was really boy-crazy. If it were a real memoir, it would have to be a thousand-page book. Some serious boyfriends of mine only got walk-on parts because there were so goddamned many.
There’s a lot of tableaux vivants, like the live sex show. The Rastafarian was this adorable guy who I just happened to be sleeping with. He said, let’s go down and do this show, and I was like yeah, sure! In the book I thought it was funny when he says, “I don’t go with white women,” and we have to talk him into having sex with me. I wanted to make sure I didn’t seem like a victim, and that was my way of turning it around to the reader, so I wasn’t being pressured. I think that put it in the proper context.
Those actual mystery plays and that character who put them on, who I ended up getting engaged to later, there was so much more to them. He was doing those mystery plays in a huge abandoned theater in Times Square. That’s what the ‘70s were like. These people at CBS would come over at lunchtime and watch.
That’s a detail I noticed in the book, that the executives were coming in at lunchtime, and I thought that was so funny.
Isn’t it funny? I mean, that was all real. You can’t make that stuff up. All the raunchiest stuff is all real. Some of the characters are composite. Otherwise, the characters don’t really come alive on the page. But Michael was real. Eddie was real. And so was my husband, Gunther. So all the main love interests are completely real, based on real people.
Did you stay in touch with any of them?
Michael is dead. Eddie is dead also. My ex-husband and I got to be very close friends, but he just died of cancer. We got to be very close. He looked me up on Facebook after 30 years. I’m friends with his second ex-wife and his kids. I call her my sister-wife.
Are you seeing anyone now?
No, I have a lot of men friends, I’m grateful for that. When I was in my forties and fifties, I still had all these hormones, and that sort of abated, but there was a relief that went with that. All of a sudden there was this world: I could go to museums, there was more time.
Not so tethered by desire.
Exactly! It can be overwhelming. I always confused it with love. I never got those things straight. I really wish I had, because I might have a really good solid relationship. I know a lot of people who are happily married. I think everybody should go for that. I always went for passion, and I had a lot of passion. I was stupid — well, I was afflicted.
Your mother figures heavily in the book, and you resent her a lot when you were younger, but it felt from a reader’s point of view that she was acting a lot of the time in your self-interest.
She’s the heroine of the book in a certain way, because she does save me, like she did in real life. She was the original libertine, free spirit. After the first guy I slept with, she took me out the next day to get me fitted for a diaphragm. There was no hypocrisy, she said, “I don’t understand what all the fuss is about sex, it’s just another natural function.” She also drank a lot, she acted out a lot, wasn’t there for me, left me alone with the live-in maid. She was a difficult person, with a big heart, but could also be wrathful and jealous and competitive. There was all of that. We were ultimately very close after we sobered up.
Did you feel after you sobered up like you’d understood her previous behavior?
She kind of grew up when I sobered up, it was a strange thing. She pretty much stopped drinking and the two of us grew up at the same time.
I lived with her for the first couple years of my sobriety, when I went back to Columbia and got my bachelor of arts. I graduated Phi Beta Kappa and Magna Cum Laude, which is amazing considering five years before that, I was doing the stuff in this book! And it was partly because she was there supporting me the first couple of years: she was making dinners and doing laundry and I had never had that kind of attention before. It was such a great feeling to have that devotion. We were very close until she died 12 years ago—too close in many ways. It was codependent. But love is love, it’s messy.