Forget Fifty Shades—at least until the movie comes out. Here's what you should do instead: Get to know Elissa Wald.
Her most recent book, The Secret Lives of Married Women (Hard Case Crime), concerns two women: identical twin sisters. One a sexually repressed defense attorney, the other a former softcore actress now living in suburbia. As one sister prepares for the trial of a blind man, his S&M-loving assistant and their various criminal entanglements, the other fends off stalkerish advances from a construction worker laboring on the house next door. Both sisters find themselves pushed to the edge and confronted by discoveries that shock and disturb them.
Elissa Wald is the author of Meeting the Master (Grove Press) and Holding Fire (Context Books). Her work has also been published in various journals and anthologies, including The Mammoth Book of Erotica, Nerve: Literate Smut, The Ex-Files: New Stories about Old Flames. Wald’s also worked as a stripper, run away to join the circus and spent a summer working on a Native American reservation.
Wald talks to Playboy.com about BDSM, sex scenes and happy endings.
Playboy.com: I just finished reading your novel, The Secret Lives of Married Women. I liked it, and I was happy to discover your writing in general—I really enjoyed both stories you published on The Rumpus: “Real Men” and “Night Shifts.” I'm looking forward to reading more of your work.
Wald: Thank you so much!
Playboy.com: Can you tell me a bit about how you started writing The Secret Lives of Married Women?
Wald: My husband and I bought a house several years ago, and there really was an overbearing worker next door whose attention made me very uncomfortable. Though I wasn’t alarmed by him at first, my husband was, and I’d kind of laughed this off. Then by the time I no longer thought it was funny, I was hesitant to tell my husband how I felt because I didn’t want to create this instant enmity between him and a person who was essentially—at least for the time being—our neighbor.
I think most writers have the experience of simultaneously being a participant and an observer in their own lives. On a personal level, this experience was wildly uncomfortable, and yet the writer in me was fascinated by the way the situation was creating an emotional wedge between my husband and me.
Though I spun the story into something much more drawn out and dramatic than anything that actually happened, the seed of it was there in real life.
Playboy.com: I don’t really know anything about noir fiction. Is this something that’s influenced your work? If the book reminded me of anything, it was Mary Gaitskill’s Two Girls Fat and Thin. Are you a fan? Also, I wondered whether the first line of your novel, “Before that summer, the summer of fear,” was an allusion to Chris Kraus’ Summer of Hate.
Wald: I don’t really know anything about noir fiction either! I’ve started to call myself The Accidental Noirist because I’ve never read any noir, nor did I set out to write it. Something that has fascinated me with the release of Secret Lives is that so many people have imagined all kinds of influences that simply weren’t in the equation for me. I’m not familiar with Chris Kraus, for instance (though Summer of Hate sounds very intriguing), nor with James Cain, as was assumed by the writer who reviewed the book in The New York Times.
I must say that noir feels like a very natural fit for me, now that I’ve stumbled into it. I’m very drawn to the dark underside of society, to what we keep hidden and secret, to what lies beneath.
I do like Mary Gaitskill, though I don’t think of her as an influence.
Playboy.com: Twins—are they the best foils? How did you think of making them more than mirror images with opposite personalities (à la Sweet Valley High’s Elizabeth and Jessica)? I thought they were both complex, nuanced, and while they spoke of their twin link and of being each other’s better halves, they were very much individuals to me.
Wald: Regarding the device of twins, I often think of a Latin phrase attributed to Aristotle: alter ipse amicus—a friend is another self. I actually have a new novella, not yet published, that I constructed around this phrase. Lately I’ve been fascinated by the idea of split selves and parallel lives. Twins lend themselves readily to this kind of exploration and I tried to take full advantage of that in Secret Lives.
Playboy.com: People are making a big deal about calling this book a sexy book. And it is, but there’s really only the one money shot. Why are people making such a big thing of this? Is it the cover?
Wald: Something I regularly grapple with is the fact that BDSM often doesn’t involve what we think of as sex. It doesn’t even have to involve bodily contact. There are people whose erotic gratification comes from being whipped or polishing boots or serving as a maid. I believe that people think of me as a sexual person, and I think of myself that way as well, but the truth is that, while I enjoy sex, it’s not the main event in my erotic life.
A smart friend of mine recently remarked that as a culture, we have a very narrow definition of sex. I think my writing tends to be intensely erotic without many graphic sex scenes and I always hope that this offers people a different way to think about sex and the BDSM spectrum.
Playboy.com: Let’s talk about the cover. Can you tell me a bit about your choices and your collaboration with the artist who created it?
Wald: The cover is an interesting story. One very cool aspect of Hard Case Crime is that they commission an original painting for every cover and they have several different artists with whom they work regularly. The most popular and sought after is apparently Robert McGinnis. The publisher of Hard Case, Charles Ardai, told me that he’s even had authors say things like, “I’ll sign with Hard Case if you can guarantee me a McGinnis cover.” But for whatever reason, the McGinnis aesthetic doesn’t speak directly to me and my favorite Hard Case artist is Glen Orbik.
Ironically, for some reason, McGinnis was more readily available at that particular moment and would have been the more convenient choice for Charles, but I begged and pleaded for Orbik and luckily my wish was granted. This was as far as my own influence could go, however. The artist creates one painting and that’s the one that gets used, because there’s neither the time nor the finances for endless retakes.
It makes me happy every single day that Orbik created the cover that he did. I think it’s a knockout. I’m wildly happy with it.
Playboy.com: I felt like the book’s BDSM hotspot, Nutcracker Suite, was very civilized, almost cinematically so. It made me think of that movie Sleeping Beauty…although they’re not the same types of erotic underground worlds. Maybe it’s that very pristine, controlled aspect to it. I’ve never been in any S&M digs. Are they fancy? Seedy?
Wald: Some are fancy and some are seedy! Which I believe is as it should be, because of course people crave both.
Playboy.com: Tell me about the secretary reading a bodice ripper at the law firm. The Secret Lives of Married Women is no bodice ripper, but I thought that scene was a nod to a kind of freedom in reading genre fiction—reading for pleasure, not for posturing or education. What are your reading habits?
Elissa Wald: I think there’s absolutely great writing in every genre, writing that simultaneously belongs within and transcends its genre. Stephen King, for instance, writes such vivid, visceral and richly imagined horror—usually within such an intensely familiar and true-to-life context—that he’s more than just a horror writer. He’s simply a very good writer, period. The same can be said of Scott Turow within the legal thriller genre. My most devout wish as a writer is to do something comparable within and beyond the genre of erotica.
And yes, that scene with the secretary and the bodice ripper was meant to assert the primacy we accord to pleasure, in our reading choices and in the rest of our lives. Regardless of what’s supposedly good for us, what we’re supposed to do or what we believe we should do, most of us will do what we most want to do.
My own reading habits are all over the map. I especially love short fiction, essays and formal poetry.
Playboy.com: While the book addresses women’s power and lack of in such a variety of ways, from the power and powerlessness of motherhood, to being stalked, to being a willing submissive, to participating in (albeit soft-core) porn, to fighting porn for its dehumanizing qualities, it’s also about marriages that work out well in the end, and these complex, often darker undercurrents are resolved in an almost Shakespearean-comedy happy ending lauding family life. What was the purpose of wrapping up those loose ends? Do you think even the most benign relationships harbor or mask a giant undertow of conflict and violent fantasies?
Wald: I do think that even the closest relationships have those dark undercurrents. At the end of Secret Lives, while I believe there’s no doubt these marriages will endure, I also think there’s been a certain loss of innocence all around, and that this is a necessary condition for intimacy to thrive. In each marriage, the husbands and wives have had to relinquish certain lofty notions about themselves and each other in order to go on. I think too that by the end of the book, there’s a certain clarity about our essential aloneness, even within the context of a good marriage. In the final scene, the husband slips a blade back into his boot just before toasting family life. So I think that even as the ending does laud our cozy domestic arrangements, there’s a certain irony and equivocation in the mix.
Hard Case Crime publishes hard-boiled crime fiction by Stephen King, Donald Westlake, James M. Cain, Michael Crichton, Mickey Spillane, Max Allan Collins and other greats. The Secret Lives of Married Women, by Elissa Wald is only $5.97 on Amazon.