Meet the Writer is a feature for which I interview authors who identify as women. We talk less about a single book or work and more about where they’ve been and how their lives affect their writing. Today, please welcome Monica Nolan. I’ve read and enjoyed all of her books, including the quartet of lesbian career girl novels. Currently, I’m following her blog Pulp & Pep at which she is writing about the lesbian career girls sheltering in place due to COVID-19! I’m so grateful Nolan agreed to be interviewed for Grab the Lapels. I’ve linked all of my reviews throughout the interview, so be sure to click the hyperlinks for more information.
Grab the Lapels: What kind of writing do you do? What kind of writing do you wish you did more of?
Monica Nolan: I write lesbian pulp fiction parodies — at least that is what I tell people at parties. Honestly, my books aren’t that pulpy. Some readers have commented that the racy covers promise more than the stories inside actually deliver, and they’re quite right. What can I say, it’s hard to be truly steamy while parodying pulp sex. When I write a sex scene, I’m usually trying to come up with the most absurd sex metaphor I can think of — comparing lust to forest fires, nuclear fission, field hockey — and you can only sustain that for so many paragraphs.
The in depth description of my books’ DNA is that they are a bizarre hybrid of lesbian pulp fiction from the 1950s and teen-girl reading from the same era, particularly that era’s career girl books (Introducing Patti Lewis, Home Economist, from 1956, for example). I think of these two genres as two sides of the same coin, two opposed yet related attempts to grapple with 1950s femininity — the virginal teenagers going on movie dates and contemplating career vs. marriage and the suffering, pre-Stonewall lesbians hitting the bars and contemplating how life outside the dominant norm of marriage works. The agonizing can be uncannily similar!
I’m also fascinated by both genres’ consumption habits, the need to conform to a certain style of dress (whether to pick up girls or get a date for prom), the focus on food (teens) and drink (pulps). Pulp lesbians are drinking enough liquor to knock out a Clydesdale, and the teens are always having hamburgers, fries, and malts! I once went to a diner and had a 1950s inspired “snack” of burger, fries, and malt, after rereading a favorite Betty Cavanna or Rosamund du Jardin, and I had to lie on the couch for an afternoon digesting the lead weight the meal left in my stomach. Maybe portion sizes have increased since the 1950s.
I’m getting off-topic. In addition to fiction, I’ve done a fair amount of film writing, primarily blurbs for film festivals, or film-related essays for minor magazines. There’s an editor at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival who commissions me regularly to write essays on films such as Filibus (an Italian lesbian super villain from 1915!) or The Son of the Sheik. I love these assignments — they’re a great excuse for historical research, and one always ends up discovering fascinating tidbits that inspire all sorts of ideas.
As to what kind of writing I wish I did more of . . . I just wish I did more, period! I have a fantasy that someday I’ll be incredibly prolific, like Joyce Carol Oates, or some of the pulp writers who kept multiple pseudonyms going at a time, they wrote so much. But I’m more like Donna Tartt (years between books), except less talented. Starting new projects is easy. Finishing them and sending them out much more difficult.
GTL: If you could change places for a day with any one of your characters, who would it be, and why?
MN: This question is so hard! I love all my characters and find the lives they lead very appealing. They are all wish-fulfillment fantasies for different aspects of myself. They possess the kind of superpowers I wish I had: Lois — organizational whiz! Maxie — uncanny ability to get hired! Dolly — can fix anything!
At the moment, I would enjoy being Maxie (Lesbian Dilettante), in the scene where she finds herself with money in her pocket and takes herself out to a nice lunch; or Dolly (Lesbian Landlady), because if I was her I would be able to finish patching the plaster in my office closet, sand and paint it, and build shelves in a single weekend instead of letting the project drag on for months.
For a while Mrs. Pierson, Lois’s boss in Lois Lenz, Lesbian Secretary, was my favorite character, because she was so mean and villainous. But now being a powerful executive sounds much too exhausting.
So, I think I would like to be Ole Amundsen, the boarding school groundskeeper in Bobby Blanchard, Lesbian Gym Teacher. The life he leads, living in the old Amundsen cabin on school grounds, making eplekake and coffee in the afternoon while his boyfriend gardens, sounds very soothing. Minor characters have such calm, trouble-free lives!
GTL: Many times writers find a creative niche and community. What do you think is yours?
MN: Film is my first love and my most comfortable home. I adore going to the movies (I’m suffering in this new, streaming-only world). There are a host of people I only see at film festivals, but feel very connected to because of our shared passion for the medium and ability to discuss, rehash, and analyze a film for hours.
I’ve made a few forays into the writing community, but somehow haven’t made as strong a connection. I had a marvelous time at Bouchercon (the conference for fans of the mystery genre) when I went many years ago, but it was a pricey ticket, and only happens once a year.
I also participated in a writing group, on and off, for a little over a year. Anywhere from four to six of us would read each other’s work and then meet to give feedback, which could turn into intense discussions of craft, or tips and advice about the business end of writing. I learned a ton. But — the critique process had a chilling effect on my writing. I wasn’t enjoying it as much, and ended up abandoning the draft of a novel I’d almost finished while part of the group. I think writing groups are great, but really tricky — they’re not a one-size fits all kind of thing. And it’s super important to figure out how to make them work for you. My experience taught me that I’m better off coming up with first drafts in isolation and saving feedback for the revising process.
GTL: What was your least favorite class at any point in your education? Why?
MN: Math. I feel like a Barbie doll (“math is hard!”) writing this, but there it is. Math and science. My math antipathy resulted at least partly from a traumatic experience in fifth grade. I vividly remember the day I was sitting at my desk in math class, peacefully reading my library book, when the math teacher, Sister Margaret Mary, snatched the book from my hand, slammed it down on my pile of schoolbooks, shoved the pile into my arms and kicked me out of class, telling me to find another reading class if I wanted to read so much.
To her credit, Sister Margaret Mary came and found me about ten minutes later as I was wandering the hallway, holding my pile of books all teary-eyed, and apologized for losing her temper. However, the damage was done. Math stopped being a subject I was indifferent to and became something I actively feared and disliked. I ended up flunking the subject in eighth grade and had to be tutored by my older brother (a math and science whiz kid, now an engineer, chosen by my parents because they didn’t have to pay him) in order to enter high school in the fall. There I encountered an excellent Algebra teacher freshman year, got a B in the class, and realized I wasn’t dumb. And still I stopped taking math as soon as I could. I am completely ignorant of calculus.
Let this be a lesson for any grammar school math teachers reading this!
GTL: In what ways has life outside of academia shaped your writing?
MN: Life post-school has been one long struggle to find a balance between paying the bills and pursuing creative projects. Oh, money. There’s an excellent book called Scratch on the topic of money and writing, which I highly recommend to any aspiring writer. Unless you’ve got a trust fund or a sugar momma/daddy, money is going to be an issue. Earning money (for me) has almost always meant time away from writing. I did have one job as an editorial assistant where I got to write, but it was at a magazine called Computer Reseller News, and the subject matter was less than thrilling.
I can’t blame money entirely for my difficulties though, because I’m also highly distractible, and at any given moment there are half-a-dozen things I want to do in addition to write — read one of my ten library books, water the garden, see a movie, knit a patch for the hole in my sweater, make a pie . . . I have way too many hobbies.
But I think the biggest problem in the post-school world, when you’re already struggling for money and time, is motivation. In school, professors demand you write and reward you with grades. Out of school, no one asks you to write, and if you write anyway, and submit your work, you usually get rejected! The only way I got my four novels written was that I lucked into a relationship with an editor who signed me to contracts that gave me a reason, a justification even, for writing.
GTL: What did you want to be when you grew up, and does this choice influence your writing today?
MN: When I was in third grade the plan was to have a ranch or farm with my best friend Patty Cronin and be an artist-veterinarian-writer. Why choose one career when you can have three?
In high school and college I tried acting, then moved backstage and worked on sets. After working for some years on the fringes of theater, I realized I wanted to be a filmmaker and went back to school for my MFA. After a decade plus as a video editor, I refocused on writing, which had always accompanied all other endeavors. A few years ago I decided I really should have been a librarian — a writer-librarian-filmmaker! Better late than never, I told myself, and found myself back in school again.
I wonder what I’ll want to be when I’m sixty-five?
Despite the variety, I feel like I’ve been pretty consistent, steadily heading in one direction. I’ve always stuck close to storytelling in one form or another. Except for the veterinarian business.
As to the influence on my writing: coming back to writing with a background in film, and after working so many years as a video editor, has sharpened my habit of thinking visually. I imagine my narratives as if shot by a camera, and cut together. I wonder if it’s made me more action-oriented? Maybe. I know I’m not much for landscape descriptions. And it could be that all the plays I read and saw also make me lean on dialogue — I don’t do a lot of the summary kind of scenes that are so good at moving things forward. Yet at the same time, I don’t think of my stories as potential movies, but as books. Probably because they’d be too long for a feature film; although maybe a series . . . I just realized that thinking maybe influenced me to start the serial I’m working on now!
GTL: Thanks so much to author Monica Nolan for stopping by Grab the Lapels. Be sure to check out her books and COVID-19 serial for some fun, campy novels that are sure to make you smile.