L.J. Sellers is an award-winning journalist who is now a full time novelist with seven books on the market. She writes gritty controversial novels and is the author of the Detective Jackson mystery suspense series.
Her novels have been highly praised by Mystery Scene and Spinetingler Magazines, and all five are on Amazon Kindle’s bestselling police procedural list.
She met me at The Slaughterhouse where we talked about theocracy and revenge.
Why do you think your novel ‘The Sex Club’ was deemed to be controversial and do you think the reasons reflect on the publishing industry and gender bias?
I wrote The Sex Club during a more conservative administration, and in fact, I wrote the story partially in response to the U.S. government’s decision to spend taxpayer money on abstinence-only sex education. So right off the top, the subject of sex education and access to birth control is controversial, regardless of how the plot developed or how I approached the issue. My first objective, though, was to tell a great story, so I believe my treatment of the subject was subtle and sensitive, although few conservative readers would disagree.
Adding fuel to the fire, the sex club participants and victims are young teenagers, thirteen and fourteen years old. You can imagine how editors and marketers at the major publishers reacted to that element. “I loved the story and read it one sitting, but the victims are so young. The marketing department will never approve it.” Some readers find the ages disturbing as well, and I don’t blame them. Although I didn’t include any sex scenes on the page, some of the conversations were graphic and difficult for me to write. Yet most readers realize the story is realistic and based on actual news events.
The fact that these issues are controversial at all is rooted in the American culture and the dominance of religion, which tends to suppress sexual freedom. As for the publishing industry and gender bias, you’ve made me think. Are male authors allowed more leeway in writing about sex, at least in crime fiction? Maybe. Women can write about sex as long romance is involved, but this story is definitely not romantic, so that may have worked against me. More important, I think the gender bias comes into play with my characters. I focus on the girls in the group because they become the murder victims, and I think it’s difficult for many adults to conceptualize teenage girls as sexual beings. If the young characters/victims had been male instead, publishing houses may not have characterized the book as “controversial” and “hard to sell.”
Fortunately, readers are open-minded as long as the story is compelling. The Sex Club is selling very well as an e-book and has ranked at #3 or #4 on Kindle’s police procedural list for the last five months.
Do you think America is bordering on a theocracy and which political powers are steering it towards a religiously influenced patriarchal fear of female sexuality and the need to control it?
Thanks for throwing me a softball question this time, so I can just breeze through it. Yes, during conservative presidencies or even when conservatives come into power as governors, the US federal and state governments are definitely influenced by religious convictions, and they produce legislation that suppresses sexuality (and reproductive choices) for anyone who is not a married male, and that includes woman, gays, and transgendered people of a kinds. The repression of sexuality, like the repression of certain ideas or ethnic groups, is rooted in fear—fear of change, fear of the unknown, fear of losing control.
Socially conservative politics are a power grab, based on the need to keep people in their places. When women are given socially acceptable choices—to marry or not, to reproduce or not—they often chose “not.” When women choose not to become wives and mothers, it disrupts the conservative family ideal that places men at the head of households. Thus religious conservatives get excited/upset when socially prominent single women like Natalie Portman chose to have a baby without being married. But the important issue, and one I dealt with in my novel, is the conservative agenda to cut funds for teaching sex education to teenagers and to eliminate funding to groups like Planned Parenthood, which provides contraception to young people. The result, as we saw in the U.S., is a rise in teen pregnancies after decades of decline. The irony is that the end result of their polices is more single moms and higher rates of abortion, the very things they oppose. They forget to factor in the human impulsive to engage in sex.
I hope I’m not making this novel sound too political. It’s really a police procedural with a realistic investigation into the death of a young teenage girl. The subplot is a secondary investigation by a Planned Parenthood nurse to track down the members of the sex club and give them information about safe sex practices. Their stories overlap and eventually come together in an explosive ending.
Tell us about your involvement in stand up comedy.
Years ago I decided to write a script based on my novel The Baby Thief. I had so much fun doing it, I wrote four more scripts, three of which were comedies (and two of which almost sold.) During that phase, I took a comedy writing class to sharpen the humor in my stories. The first thing we had to do was write about the most painful experiences in our lives, because that’s the source from which you draw the best personal comedy. So, much of my humor is about growing up in an overweight, alcoholic, dysfunctional family, and I also squeezed some material from my job at the time as an editor of a pharmaceutical magazine.
Over the course of the class, we each wrote a stand-up routine and in the end, performed for a real audience. Public speaking terrifies me and I was horribly nervous. Fortunately, the theater was a few blocks from where I worked, so I went over on my lunch breaks for a few days before the performance and practiced walking out on the stage and saying my opening lines. It was a huge help.
My performance went well, and the audience’s reaction to my material was terrific. The instructor, who runs a comedy workshop, invited me to perform with the workshop whenever I could. So I’ve done a few performances over the years, including a small bit in the talent show at Bouchercon 2009. I keep hoping to get into a space where I have time to write more stand-up material, and someday, I hope to write a humorous crime novel.
Do you think crime fiction needs revenge as one of its themes?
Interesting question. The futuristic thriller I’m writing now deals with this issue in a subtle way. What crime fiction does for readers is to let us vicariously experience not only the triumph of good over evil, but many other forms of justice as well. The real-life events around us can be cruel, unjust, and mysterious. I believe it’s important for our collective mental health to experience justice, order, and revelation through fiction. So yes, revenge is a necessary theme in crime fiction because it’s such a basic human emotion that we all yearn for at times, yet one that social norms prevent us from acting on.
Crime fiction also brings us to terms with the duality within ourselves. We have a capacity for great goodness, yet we are all deeply flawed people, capable of deceit, jealousy, schadenfreude, addiction, selfishness, and the desire for revenge. When crime protagonists show such flaws, we not only relate to them, we also forgive ourselves for the same transgressions. When antagonists behave in those ways, we can vicariously act out our darker fantasies.
Under what circumstances do you think you would be capable of killing someone?
You do like to mix it up! My ex-husband comes to mind of course, and I say that only half jokingly. He not only threatened to kill me many times, but almost succeeded. At times, I thought the only way I would escape/survive was to kill him first. That was long ago, and fortunately, I found another way out. But I empathize with women who kill their abusive husbands, and as a juror, I would never convict them of a crime.
It seems obvious to say I could kill in self-defense, but I could also kill someone to protect my family members. In our sister city of Springfield, we had a case of a father who walked into a fast food restaurant and shot a man who had repeatedly threatened his daughter. The district attorney did not even bring charges against him. Many in the community were outraged, considering it an act of murder, but I had mixed feelings. I certainly sympathized with the father’s fear and motive, even though I may not have chosen that public course of action.
Do you think the best detectives have strong criminal shadows?
That may be a bit of myth perpetuated by the crime fiction community to keep the genre edgy. Some authors use the concept to create dark protagonists who walk a fine line between good and evil and sometimes cross over to catch the clever antagonist. In real life, most criminals are not particularly smart, and it doesn’t take much effort to out think them. In fiction, readers like stories that are complex, with characters who engage in a high-stakes competition. So authors give them clever con men and highly intelligent serial killers.
Yet, I believe the best detectives, both real and fictional, are those who have great imaginations and the ability to visualize many scenarios. Good detectives also have a mental flexibility that allows them to adapt to new evidence and continuously rethink their hypotheses. But admittedly, the detective in my series doesn’t fit the stereotypical mythology. Instead, he’s a good guy with no criminal tendencies, so I’m inclined to believe he’s as effective as protagonists with strong criminal shadows…but I could be wrong. Reading and novel writing are subjective experiences, and we all bring our own perspectives to the story.
Who are your literary influences?
Both my parents read Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe series, and as young teenager, I devoured them too. The New York brownstone with its orchid garden and live-in cook, the private detectives—it was all fascinating and foreign to a young girl in rural Oregon, and my love of crime fiction (and detectives!) began in that series.
In my rural setting, I read everything I could get my hands on, including Phyllis Whitney and short stories by O Henry. In college, I read and enjoyed Ayn Rand, Margaret Atwood, Herman Hess, and Stephen King. But the authors I came to love most were John MacDonald, Ross McDonald, Elmore Leonard, and Lawrence Sanders, who introduced me to police procedurals and is my favorite writer of all time.
My love of police procedurals deepened through Michael Connelly, John Sandford, and Leslie Glass (Detective April Woo). I’m glad to mention Glass’ series, because I’ve obviously read mostly male crime fiction authors. In analyzing why, the one thing that comes to mind is that male authors, in general, write less emotion on the page, and the authors I’ve mentioned don’t focus exclusively on serial killers.
Of course, I’ve also read and enjoyed hundreds of novels that weren’t crime related, but those authors and stories didn’t influence me the way crime fiction did.
Do you think our primary fear is the fear of death and how does that inform your fiction?
The fear of death not only permeates crime fiction, it also seems to be the source of humans’ obsession with religion and afterlife. The fear of dying is actually several distinct apprehensions. The first is our dread of the passing itself. For most people, dying is painful, both physically and emotionally. Car accidents, murders, cancer, heart attack. These are what claim us. Very few people have the luxury of dying peacefully at home of old age. So we fear the inevitable, painful event. But we also fear what comes next, because it’s unknown. Thus we have religion, which creates an afterlife to explain what happens after we die. We also fear the grief we’ll experience if a loved ones dies.
How does this relate to crime fiction? As a writer, I confront my fears by working through them in stories. When my kids were young, Jeffrey Dahmer was in the news and he represented my greatest fear: that a sexual predator would kill one of my children. So I wrote a serial killer novel—which will remain unpublished—that allowed me to work through that fear and vicariously experience triumph and justice over that form of evil, which is not always the case in real life. I believe many readers confront all these fears, particularly the apprehension of being murdered, by reading novels that focus on crime. Crime fiction allows us to vicariously make sense of the heinous events around us, to restore order, and to prevail over those who wish to harm us.
Graham Greene said that writers all have a piece of ice in their hearts. What do you make of his observation?
To create vivid engaging stories, writers must be able to get inside the minds of their characters and see the world from their perspectives for pages at a time. This requires a certain ability to detach from oneself. In addition, compelling stories usually highlight provocative, emotional, or disturbing subjects. To spend months writing about such issues in an intimate or multifaceted way requires the writer to step back emotionally from the subject and process it objectively. Thus, you might conclude that writers are capable of shutting down a little piece of their heart at times, for the sake of a great story.
In The Sex Club, a 14-year-old girl engages in a sexual relationship with a 40-something male. What are your views on the age of consent?
This is a touchy subject with a lot of gray area, and I have mixed feelings about it. One of the reasons I wrote the novel was my concern for the increased level of sexual activity in young teenagers. In general though, I don’t believe we should incarcerate people for consensual sex. But when does consensual sex cross the line and become predatory? For example, if two 14-year-olds have sex, no one would consider throwing either of them in jail. But if a 15-year-old female has consensual sex with her 18-year-old boyfriend, most US state laws say the male should be sentenced to prison. This seems barbaric.
What about the case of the 14-year-old girl and the 40-year-old man? Should he go to jail, even if she seduced him? Most people would say yes. They would argue that a female that young is not capable of making a rational, mature decision to engage in sexual activity. Is this attitude fair to mature, young girls who have real sexual needs? And is prison really the best socially corrective response for a man who—foolishly and selfishly—chooses to succumb to the advances of a minor? When you throw in the fact that some states allow girls to get married at fifteen (to a man of any age), the whole issue becomes rather contradictory.
I don’t have all the answers, but I believe every case should be judged on its own circumstances, and some state laws need to be tossed out. The American culture also needs to question its long-held belief that teenagers are not capable of making rational decisions about consensual sex.
Thank you L.J. for giving a frank and illuminating interview.
L.J. Sellers is an award-winning journalist and the author of the bestselling Detective Jackson mystery/suspense series. The Sex Club, Secrets to Die For, and Thrilled to Death have been highly praised by Mystery Scene and Spinetingler magazines. Her fourth Jackson story, Passions of the Dead, has just been released. L.J. also has two standalone thrillers, The Baby Thief and The Suicide Effect. When not plotting murders, she enjoys performing standup comedy, cycling, social networking, and attending mystery conferences. She’s also been known to jump out of airplanes.
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