Pillow Talk: Freaky Fountain Press

How dark is too dark? How far can writers go in expressing their fantasies? Will readers accept stories about rape, incest, entrails and many more societally-deemed deviant thoughts? Few publishers will even read these types of stories, let alone publish them for the masses. As a publisher bucking that trend, Freaky Fountain Press are open to letting literary sexual experimentation flow. Sexlife Canada discussed the world of dark erotica with publishers Catherine Leary and Robin Wolfe.

SLC: How did Freaky Fountain Press start up?
Robin: I'd say Freaky Fountain was born out of frustration.
Catherine: Yes. Here we were, writing all kinds of delicious freakiness, and there was no market for any of it.
Robin: Not only that, but we also wanted to read all kinds of delicious freakiness, and there was nowhere to go. We'd occasionally find a good story, and very rarely a good writer who was publishing multiple freaky stories, but there was nowhere central to find freaky erotica. When we did find it, it was often poor quality.
Catherine: Yes, this is true too. Once upon a time there was Suspect Thoughts:A Journal Of Subversive Writing, which I read faithfully for years, but the zine went under.
Robin: There were a couple publishers—Velvet, in the UK, for example—but often their stories read as if the author were throwing every available niche kink into the manuscript. There was no real examination or care evident in the writing.
Catherine: What we were really looking for was literary erotica. That is to say character-drive stories with the kind of attention to craft most often found in literary fiction.
Robin: Exactly. They had to be top-notch quality. I know a lot of people don't seem to care, but when I read a story that's riddled with errors, it drives me up a wall. That sort of thing (usually) isn't acceptable in other genres; why is it considered acceptable in erotica?
Catherine: So after complaining about it for a couple of years, we decided to do it ourselves.
Robin: Yep. We realized if we wanted a consistent source of well-written, well-edited, and hot erotica that covered the darker side of Eros, it was up to us. As professional writers ourselves, we also bring an awareness of that role. When we're dealing with our authors, we know what it's like to be on their side, and we're able to more effectively work together as a team.
Catherine: Being an editor has totally changed the way I think about the submission process.
Robin: Yes. I used to regard the submission process with anticipation and fear. Now I regard the submission process with...wait, it's still anticipation and fear. Now I just fear reading horrible subs rather than rejection letters.
Catherine: Yeah, the whole anticipation and fear thing has grown to encompass more than just "will they or won't they accept this story?" Now there's fear of not getting the right subs and the anticipation of knowing exactly how often people don't bother to read the guidelines.
Robin: If there's one acronym (well, initialism—let’s be accurate here) every writer should know, it's RTFG: Read The Fucking Guidelines.

SLC: What is the most bizarre story you have received?
Robin: When you run a company like Freaky Fountain, "bizarre" can cover a LOT of territory.
Catherine: Understatement of the year.
Robin: Personally, I find it bizarre when people send us submissions that would be perfectly at home at Harlequin Romance. It's one of those RTFG issues—do you not realize that Freaky Fountain is supposed to be freaky?
Catherine: RTFG...this is pronounced "Rat Fig." FYI.
Robin: It's also always pronounced in a tone of either exasperation or deep disgust.
Catherine:
To be honest, running a company like this teaches you a lot about what people consider to be "freaky."
Robin: There was one time an artist sent us a cover design, and then sent us a frantic message asking us to remove his cover from being used, because—wait for it—he thought we wrote children's books.
Catherine: Yeah, I know. Children's books? I mean... really?
Robin: The only kind of "children's" book we'd ever publish would be about Mommies and Daddies and their age-playing Littles, and that would never be intended to be read by real children! As for bizarre...we had one about elephants once. We get a fair number of beastie stories, which is fine since that falls under our guidelines, but this one was just...odd. I think the guy was trying to make a point about the senseless slaughter of elephants for their tusks, but really, fisting the hole left in an elephant's head after tusk removal, and then jizzing on its trunk, isn't the way to get an environmentalist point across. Still, if it had been written well and sexy, we might have considered it.
Catherine: Yeah, this wasn't what you'd call "good" by any stretch of the imagination.
Robin: I did like the entrail details though, about where the lions had torn the belly open. We have a deep and abiding love for entrails. Writers, take note: if your story has the word "entrails" in it, that'll automatically improve it.
Catherine: We are exceedingly fond of guts.

SLC: Why do you think other presses weren't publishing darker erotic writing?
Robin: In short, publishers want to make money, and they want to make a lot of money. That means catering to the mainstream.
Catherine: The mainstream is sadly lacking in guts.
Robin: This is often true, which means publishers are also often lacking in guts. I am, however, convinced that there's a fair number of mainstream readers who do like the darker fare, or at the very least, they like novelty. Or they may have a particular aspect of the freakier fiction that they enjoy—rape fantasy, or incest fantasy, or stories about sex with beach balls. (Not that we yet have stories about sex with beach balls, but every day I open the slushpile and hope today will be the day.) The point is, publishers are usually seeking a safe bet. Fiction that follows a tried-and-true formula tends to be commercially successful. Sexy fiction that involves things that may frighten or make people uncomfortable is more risky.
Catherine: I meant actual intestines and other forms of offal, but it's a nice little double entendre just the same. I think a lot of publishers are too worried about their sales suffering to take risks.
Robin: I also think some of the subjects we may cover can be triggering for people, and some editors just don't want to have those topics in their slushpile. We have trigger warning lists in all our books, for that reason; readers can scan the trigger warning list and see if there's any stories they should avoid due to personal discomfort. Or, conversely, they can use it as a guide to which stories they may particularly enjoy, if they're into something that we warn for.
Robin:
I also think it's a bit of a vicious cycle. “These subjects are off-limits. = If those subjects are off-limits, they must be bad. = That's why those subjects are off-limits."
Catherine: The old circular logic.
Robin: Once something gets to a certain point of stigmatization, the stigma becomes essentially self-perpetuating. Rape fantasy, for example, is extremely common among women, for a number of different sociological reasons. But we're really the only press that's allowing rape for the purposes of titillation. In general, if a press allows rape, it has to be in a non-erotic context. Why are we stigmatizing a fantasy that is common to so many women?
Catherine: I can understand the reasoning behind banning it, no one wants to be seen as encouraging rape, but we need to stop treating women like they're children and aren't capable of taking responsibility for their fantasies. Rape fantasy is a reality for many women, including women who have been sexually assaulted. Denying that serves no one.

SLC: Do you think reading dark themes in erotica can lead a person to committing deviant, illegal behaviours?
Robin: No. I understand that the pornography = violence connection is a loud and ongoing debate, but it's generally long on hyperbole and short on actual facts. The actual facts we have, in terms of reputable studies, are that violence against women has dropped while access to, and consumption of, pornography has risen extremely fast.
Catherine: No. I don't. Did you know that countries like Japan, who are known for their wild and freaky pornography, have less reported sex crime?
Robin: Catherine and I are both feminists, and we believe that any time you write or say something, you have responsibility for those words. Words have weight and meaning and power, and so we understand that we have to be careful how they are used. (That’s why we don’t publish stories that contain and promote oppressive attitudes such as racism, homophobia, transphobia, slut-shaming, size phobia, etc.) If the research showed that predatory behavior was usually triggered or increased by consumption of media, we wouldn't be publish things like rape fantasy.
Catherine: Exactly.
Robin: Luckily, the research shows exactly the opposite. There's also been some interesting material written on rape survivors using rape fantasy as a way to help themselves heal from their trauma—imagining a rape can be a way of reclaiming power over the experience, because when it’s in their mind they can control everything that happens.
Catherine: The fact is that if someone is going to rape, or kill, or maim, or any of the things that might show up eroticized in the stuff we publish, ze was going to do it anyway. The psychology of crime is not as simple as "I saw it in a book."

SLC: Are there themes you will not publish?
Robin: There is only one thing that we will not touch, and that thing is non-negotiable, we will not touch it with a ten-foot pole, not even if you're Philip Roth, and we won't regret our refusal even if you bring it to another publisher and get a Pulitzer. That thing is sex with minors.
Catherine: NO KIDDIE PORN.
Robin: None. And for the purposes of Canadian and U.S. law, child porn is defined as anything that features sexual contact involving one or more people under the age of 18.
Catherine: So no teenage sexuality either.
Robin: If someone sends us anything of this type, we send them an instant form rejection and add them to our Douchebag List. Yes, we keep a list of these people, to avoid potentially publishing anything by them in the future.
Catherine: Other than that, though, everything is up for grabs.
Robin: Absolutely. Send us a story about sex with your brother, your brother's dog, your brother's submissive partner who is kept bloodied and in chains all day, and their dead father's corpse, and all that could potentially be fine. But if you toss a kid into the mix, we'll hate you forever.

SLC: Have you received criticism for publishing dark erotica?
Robin:
No, but I think that's only because not a lot of people are aware of us yet. We've received a lot of positive attention from writers, who are excited to have a new market for the stories that previously had to languish due to being too dark.
Catherine: There is buzz in the writers' community, yeah. We haven't gotten any hate mail from anyone yet. This is kind of disappointing.
Robin: I wonder if our next anthology may invite some controversy though, because it's erotic reimaginings of mythological figures, including figures from Judeo-Christian religions. People can be sensitive when you start writing about Jesus hooking up.
Catherine: LOL...yeah, panties are wont to twist.

SLC: Do you worry, from a business standpoint, that you might be too 'niche'...and that your works won't sell?
Robin: The question isn't whether they'll sell; the question is how many copies. Obviously we'd like to grow Freaky Fountain into a larger company that can release books more often, but we'll see. We know the niche exists, and if we can reach that niche, we'll be set.
Catherine: It's all about finding the fellow freaks.
Robin: I should clarify that a lot of what we publish isn't all that freaky at all, but it's experimental, literary, or unusual enough that we know it's suited to a literary erotica press like ours, and likely wouldn't be able to find a home elsewhere.
Catherine: People are sensitive about sex in general. There's a real range as to what is considered "freaky."
Robin: Definitely. For the purposes of Freaky Fountain, our requirements are that 1) it's literary and well-written; 2) it has a dark tone or subject, AND/OR 3) it covers a fetish or kink that wouldn’t interest most publishers. Since most publishers have a long list of prohibitions, "freaky" covers a lot of territory.What we publish isn’t vanilla, but I think a lot of readers who consider themselves “only a little kinky” would enjoy our releases, as well as those who have already embraced their inner freak.

SLC: Do you envision any themes that are currently considered 'dark' one day becoming mainstream (such as anal or pegging being pretty standard these days, but not so in the recent past)?
Robin: I call zombie sex. Everybody loves zombies.
Catherine: Dammit. Beat me to it.
Robin: On a more serious note though, I think that the things we sometimes work with are strong taboos. Incest, rape, abuse: these are big problems in the real world, and that means that there are a lot of groups fighting these issues. That's great, these issues absolutely should be stamped out in real life, but the problem is that these groups often conflate real life and fiction. I think if we started to see a theme like, say, rape play starting to become more mainstream, there would be a backlash. We'd see similar arguments from some feminist organizations and religious organizations that we're seeing now against pornography in general.
Robin: One man's fap is another man's obscene, and I think it's easier for the general public to unite against an issue that's an undeniable social evil—abuse, for example—and when that gets spun so that fiction and reality are equivalent, the public will treat fiction about the subject in the same way.
Catherine: In the real world, these things are serious business. We are products of our environment, and when we grow up steeped in these things it's not exactly shocking that themes like rape play should find their way into sexual fantasies.
Robin: Fantasy is a way of taking control and conquering something. It's safe to explore the potential sexiness of an abusive dynamic when it's just in our heads, and we know nobody will really get hurt.
Catherine: And taboos are powerful. There's a lot of energy locked up inside them, and when they break, amazing things happen. In the landscape of sexual fantasy, where we are in total control, taboo-breaking is intensely arousing.

SLC: Why do you think society accepts dark realities in film, music and other art forms—but not in erotica?
Catherine:
The legacy of Puritanism rears its ugly head.
Robin: I'd have to agree. We do see dark realities involving sex in some art forms, but those are almost always a barely-hidden morality tale. People do sinful sexual things, and then bad things happen to them. It isn't really dark realities in question, though; it's specifically the juxtaposition of dark reality and sex. That's when people start frothing at the mouth.
Catherine: People would have to take sex seriously first. Or rather, sex in art.
Robin: Sex as art. I think at this time, Western culture tends to have a very utilitarian view of sex. It's about Tab A and Slot B, or Slot B and Finger C, or what-have-you. It's about the physical mechanics. If you look at mainstream pornography, in terms of videos and mass-market stories (i.e. Penthouse Forum), it's mechanics.
Catherine: And when you take into consideration the strong Christian influence in American culture, this kind of view starts to make sense. The prevailing message in Christian culture is that sex is about procreation.
Robin: Sex has a utilitarian purpose, and that purpose is not about communication or transcendence or healing or any of the deeper themes that can be explored with such a powerful medium. So when you start probing that idea, often it makes people uncomfortable. When you start probing even deeper—sex as domination, sex as reenactment of past trauma, sex as regression, etc.—then people really don't know what to do with that.
Catherine: Exactly.
Robin: And even among the world of sex in art, erotica gets treated like...I'm trying to think of a kind way to say it. A small child that everyone patronizes, perhaps.
Catherine: Yeah, it's always seated at the back of the bus. Like because it deals with sex, that automatically makes the work inferior, regardless of how skilled the artist may be.
Robin:
Yes. I'll also say that a lot of people, when they hear the word "erotica", they think "Harlequin". They think of bare-chested Fabios with fawning women clinging to them, and the pages are crowded with "throbbing staffs" and her "feminine center.” I won't say that those things are never found in erotica; they are occasionally, just as they're found in every other genre. Some writers like to use language like that. But to believe that erotica is automatically formulaic and filled with fluffy prose is absolutely incorrect.
Catherine: Erotica has its good works and its bad ones, just like any other genre. I mean, seriously. I'd have to be pretty crazy to think of Dan Brown books as anyone's intellectual treat.
Robin: Now you're just being mean to Dan Brown. …and he totally deserves it, so don't consider that a scold. BAD DAN BROWN! BAD! Go to the corner until you learn how to avoid constant repetition!(I'm not slagging the guy's attention to detail; it's his writing style that kills my literature-loving soul.)
Catherine: Someone has to be. I mean, those books are horrid, yet they sold a bazillion million copies.
Robin: Honestly, some of the names on the bestseller lists make me fear for the future of literature and literacy in general. I do think, though, that with the current proliferation of small presses, we're going to see a lot more bad work being published... but we're also going to see many amazing new writers, writers whose work was previously considered too experimental or edgy for publication. It's going to open the field to a lot more writers, in all genres, and some of those will be creative and skilled literary voices.
Catherine: The times, they are a-changing.
Robin: As long as there are occasional guts, we'll be happy.