Following is a chapter about writer Jane Gallion
taken from "Making Our Own Way: Rural West Virginia Women Artists" (1990)
by Harriet Emerson
"The best part is feeling like god, knowing that you can take the raw material of people, events, imagination, extrapolation, and remold them all in your own image, make it like it should have been with the power of the Word."
June 23, 1990
I sat right down the minute your letter arrived and answered it, but the fact is I'm half nuts, shell-shocked and crazy. I've spent the last three months pretending I'm perfectly okay and I'm not. The pretense has cost me.
It's doubly a bitch for a writer to get in this shape. When communication with your nearest-but not necessarily dearest-goes, writing goes too. It's bullshit, but that's how it is. In these times I read and read and read, getting next to the Art, but not being able to establish connection with Art either. I hope to Goddess I can get it up to print this letter and mail it. I have to, actually. Something's got to give.
All those questions on your list. No one asks me questions. I interpret this as: no one in my family is interested. Inside my family, what is wanted is Jolly Old Mom. This makes me nuts. There is a whole other Jane in here with Jolly Old Mom, and that one is losing it.
I was born and grew up in La Sierra, CA, a Seventh Day Adventist college town, containing two grocery stores, a hardware store, a feed store and a blacksmith shop. You may object that this isn't the sort of town CA is supposed to contain, but things were markedly different in the '40s. Outside of the businesses I mentioned, all there was to La Sierra, CA, was alfalfa fields and an Army base, which is now the burbs of a metropolis.
Suffice to say that I grew up in an utterly non-supportive environment. I was raised a Seventh-Day Adventist, and that group, at least while I was in it, considered writing sinful. They consider almost everything sinful, everything that pleases or contents. If it feels good, you can't do it. This is both the source of my fiction writing (because who wouldn't want to construct a more congenial ambiance?) and the source of my blocks (because my early training makes me feel as though anything that makes me feel better is wrong).
My professional name (maiden name) is Jane Gallion.
That's the name I've always written under except for a few bits and pieces and my astrology column, "Almanac," which I wrote for two years for the Salem Herald, the Doddridge County weekly, under the name Jane Martin. Come to think of it, I don't think I've ever mentioned the column to you.
If anything's West Virginia, that was. A short squib about country life to open the column and then the aspects for the day, taken day by day. It was unique among astrology columns, because I worked with the day itself instead of with people's sun signs. I gave planting and pulling weeds, bailing hay, castrating pigs, all that country shit, and once in awhile I'd get a psychic flash about one of my readers and print that too.
I had a great big following all over Doddridge County, but the Baptist minister didn't like me much. I kept encouraging people to carpe diem instead of hanging loose in prayer meetings.
I was thirty when I sold my first book. At that time, I had three children, two yard kids and one lap kid. Denise was nine months old when I began the first chapters of Biker, but the older two were living with their father for a time. It took me three months to complete that novel, and immediately afterward I started Setups For The House, which was published under the title Stoned.
Jill came back to live with me before Biker was finished, and William returned while I was writing "The Woman as Nigger," a non-fiction piece commissioned by a rich asshole who wanted to capitalize on all the revolutionary shenanigans that were happening right then.
Why Get Married?, The Phoenix Business, and Going Down were written with all three kids underfoot, in various roosting places where the Mud Elephant Hippie-Trippie Peace, Love and Flower Commune bunked up before getting evicted/moving in the dead of the night/being run out of the neighborhood by rednecks.
Quickie and Trailer Tramp, the two collaborations I wrote with Brandon's brother Gil while we were living together, were written in a trailer park in Van Nuys, CA, and if writing a book in a tacky house trailer in Van Nuys, with or without help, doesn't qualify as Herculean, I don't know what does.
The biggest task involved with it was preventing the kids from hearing me switch on the typer. It was like shoving a can under an electric can opener and ducking back out of the way before the cats climb up your legs. Like Garfield when Jon locks a lip over a chocolate chip cookie. Don't matter if they're in the next COUNTY, they hear!
The four novels, Biker, Stoned, The Phoenix Business, and Going Down, were all published by Essex House, a division of Brandon House, which was a vast smut publishing empire in the San Fernando Valley.
I worked in-house as an editor for a short while, editing a magazine called Response, which was aimed (they said, anyway) at women. From 1968 to 1971 or thereabouts I worked either for Essex House or Brandon House, or for a second smut publishing house called Panupubco, which did highly illustrated sex magazines.
I co-authored some 4O-5O "guides" for Panupubco, variations on the "How To Fuck" theme. These were 55-page manuscripts on topics like "Multiple Orgasm For Men," sex toys, oral sex, etc., though one of them was called "Coito Ergo Sum," which translates (roughly, roughly) as "I fuck, therefore I am," with abject apologies to Descartes. These were all co-authored by Peter Martin, and we wrote under the names Cassandra White and Richard Santine. Eventually we put together a book for Brandon House called The Pursuit of Pleasure.
Essex House was modeled along the lines of Olympia Press and the French publishing houses of erotica who published Henry Miller, Anais Nin, Harriet Daimler, et al. It was not straight smut, but rather experimental, in that we were allowed (and sometimes even encouraged) to produce literature.
Theodore Sturgeon's novel Godbody was written for Essex House, but he balked big time at being paid $1000 for it, the going price for Essex House books.
Sturgeon was one of my culture heroes, and cost me some lumps by heaping me with praise in front of Gil. Poet David Meltzer also wrote several Essex House books, and novelist Michael Perkins, who wrote a fuckbook version of Dante's Inferno just to see if it could be done (it could). They (Essex House bunch) were not real happy with humor; American smut publishers were and are essentially humorless. I was summoned into The Presence one time and instructed not to write any humor. "Jane," he said grimly, "no satire. Ya can't laugh and keep a hard-on."
We did have one editor who understood where we were coming from. He cherished us, because we could always be counted on to turn out good, tight books in almost no time. Our record for a 225-pager was one week. That was Trailer Tramp, a prize piece of smut. So we dedicated it to him with a quote from D.H. Lawrence. "What is pornography to one man is the laughter of genius to another. For Larry Shaw, who laughs a lot."
He bought my last novel from me twice after Essex House folded. Going Down was written by taking the "do-not" list I'd been given by the publisher and including every one of the smut factory taboos. The book was also intensely political (it was the Nixon years, after all). Needless to say, even though I sold it three times it has never been published, but I consider it some of my best work.
My situation as a female artist is unique, I think, because I began my work as a writer in the field of erotica. I was the only woman smut writer in America for a good long while. There were others before me, Anais Nin and a few others in France, and plenty of them since. I don't think I was so much discriminated against as treated like a dancing dog. My mentor refused to allow me to use a pseudonym on my books, so I was precipitated into a spotlight that was agonizing for me. I loved the acclaim, but shrank from the conflict of being a woman smut writer, and from the spotlight that working in such a field turned on my private life.
Few genres are so merciless to women as porn. I was naive, shy, and pitifully ignorant on the topic of sex. It showed in my work, and after reading my work, everyone knew. It turned out that I was a much better writer than anyone, myself included, suspected. So my self-revelation was also merciless. If I had had less integrity, been more able to and more willing to be a bull-shitter, I'd have suffered less.
I came to West Virginia in 1973, at the crest of the back-to-the-land movement. From the middle of Hollywood, CA, I arrived in Glenville ahead of most of the wave of BTTL [back to the land] freaks. Hot on our heels came a million and a half scruffy, ignorant hippies without the least idea how to cope. I, however, was raised by displaced Okies, who had migrated to CA just after the "dust bowl" era. I knew all about scrubbing diapers on a rub-board, building fires, mulching the pot plants, and foraging. I'd done my homework before I arrived in WV, to the unending scorn of all the other hippies, who thought planning ahead was buying two packages of Zig Zags. I even planted and transplanted my pot by the Moon, and pruned it ditto, with the result that my plants were nine feet tall in August, while the hippies up-holler, who thought I was a superstitious, if hyper-rational asshole, had scraggly plants two feet tall a body could hardly catch a buzz off.
I wrote about different things in a rural area than I did and do in the city. My settings were different, and my imagery was more organic in West Virginia than anywhere else. Rural West Virginia still appears in my poetic imagery, though being in Austin is beginning to show. There seems to be more fertility in the air in a rural environment than here in the city.
When I took Appalachian Culture at Glenville State College, I wrote a poem for my class project. We were supposed to produce an authentic Appalachian craft for our final project, and most of the other students made baskets, quilts, toys, etc. Stuff that you see at fairs and festivals. But I had been reading regional authors, and one poet, whose name I can't recall but I think it was Murial Somethingorother, wrote a poem called "I Am Appalachia." It was one of those gassy numbers about self-contained noble mountain people, and put down outsiders in careful verse. As poetry goes, it was a pretty good poem, but it made me angry and despairing.
After all, I wasn't born in West Virginia. My family hadn't squatted on the same hillside for generations. I was in Appalachia because I couldn't hack city life and wanted something more for myself and my children than slummy LA and cops and drugs. And here was this bitch, who had, from what I could see, everything necessary to be happy, and instead of being generous, here she was preening herself and coming on like some Appalachian Pharisee that she wasn't a Poor Immigrant. So I wrote "I Too Am Appalachia," and turned it in for my class project. I got an A in the class. I don't think my professor liked giving it to me, because he was a West Virginia bigot who thought us hippies were shit, but at least he possessed the integrity to do the right thing.
As it happened, I quit writing smut when I moved to West Virginia, because the topics I was being given to examine didn't seem relevant any more. I could still write erotic fiction, but non-fiction was impossible. I never completed my last smut assignment, which was a 55-page piece about what bored housewives did with their free time-fuck the mailman, fuck the guy who mows the lawn, join a swappers' club, etc. I ask you, who can get it up to write about shit like that when you're living a couple miles up-holler from the hard road and cooking dinner for six to eleven hippies on a Coleman stove by lamplight?
Did I "choose" to be an artist? Oh, Hell no. Who chooses? All I chose was whether to exercise the art and whether it would be good when I did. I can choose whether or not to publish, and I can choose not to be a hack. That's about it.
There are a whole lot of hard parts about writing books-running out of money and typing paper at the same time, having children in your hair, wondering if you really CAN do it again or if the one you just finished was a fluke-but the hardest, for me, anyway, was knowing that the man in my life would withdraw from me if it was good.
This happened with my mentor (as soon as I sold Biker) with Gil (who beat the hell out of me frequently, but most often when I was working on a book and he wasn't, or when someone jokingly called him Mr. Jane Gallion), and with Peter, who worked on my self-confidence day and night, night and day for nine years, and would do stuff like appropriate my typewriter to keep me from using it although he had one of his own. The wrenching choice between my work and my emotional security is the hardest. All three of them would have forgiven me if it had not been good.
It is not this way for men. Men can expect to be lionized, idolized, deferred to, cherished if they are good writers. It may be otherwise for other writers, although Erica Jong would know just what I'm talking about, and probably Marge Piercy, too, but for me it was a clear choice, so instead of writing Time To Kill, a manual of creative terrorism, or finishing Crossworld Puzzle, I had another baby, Amber, and retreated into the hills and hollows of West Virginia to try and be a Real Woman at last, one that would not threaten The Man.
Eighteen years later, having been unsuccessful at stifling the lifelong torch I've carried for the English Language, I am at work on Any Friday, a horror novel based on Euripides Bacchae, Desperately Seeking Sadhana, and will eventually get back to work on Crossworld Puzzle. I am also putting together a volume of poetry called Vegetable Matters. I already have about 40 poems for the book, and am working on the design for it with a friend down here who is an artist.
The best part is feeling like god, knowing that you can take the raw material of people, events, imagination, extrapolation, and remold them all in your own image, make it like it should have been with the power of the Word. The best part is being there with the right tool for the right job in your own able hand, and setting to work at the task. Watching the people you have constructed out of three or four qualities, given names to, put in situations, and seeing them come alive under your hands. Feeling the skill come bubbling up out of the spring of your own subconscious and knowing that all you have to do is keep the leaves raked out and the groundhogs from drowning in it. Shit work, maintenance. So it's not hard, and anybody who tells you that the act of creation requires agony and justifies lousy manners is no writer. Well, but I feel that way making Chicken Kiev, though less so. The act of creation itself is the best part.
And yes, I feel alone. Even when I was a collaborating author I felt alone. Just the rock and the petroglyph. I wrote a poem about that once. Creativity is like life in that no one else is responsible for your integrity. And no one else can particularly do anything to help. It's nice, though, if someone is around to say 'there, there' and 'wow' once in a while.
I was asked the other day, by someone I met at a friend's house, what my books were about. I said I wrote about love. That IS what I write about, and all that I write about. That is what I want to say to people through my work. My philosophy, if you can call it a philosophy, is that life-and love-has a structure of its own, and if you study that structure and cherish it, it will feed you and nourish you and make, no, encourage you, to grow. Love and creativity are one and the same, because creativity is the dynamic aspect of love. Love is, creativity does. So I feel that I won't stop creating till I'm dead, and possibly not then.
I left West Virginia because the economy collapsed and I couldn't find a job. If I could find one, I'd probably come back. Or maybe not. You can't, after all, go home again. I miss it, and I'm homesick a lot of the time, but there are compensations. After all, I'm writing this on my home computer, ain't I?