Mitzi was born and raised in the United States, where she considers Los Angeles her adopted hometown.
She's a pioneer of the erotic writing workshop in the UK and Europe and has taught them from the Greek islands to the Cheltenham Festival of Literature.
Mitzi’s workshops have been featured in the Observer, Independent, Sunday Express Magazine and Forum.
Take part in Mitzi Szereto's Erotic Fiction Writing as part of the CambridgeWordFest, on Satruday 23 April at Cambridge Central Library from 2-4pm. For details contact 01223 357851.
Q: First off, what is erotic writing?
A: To me, erotic writing is not really that different from any other form of writing. The primary element is the erotic content, just as for crime writing, the primary element is crime. We seem to be far too hung up on the fact that there’s sex in it, as if this somehow puts it in a Pandora’s box and makes it different – as if it isn’t real writing at all.
Q: Is 'erotica' simply the acceptable face of porn?
A: Not at all. Having said that, you’ll occasionally come across porn that masquerades as erotica. Unfortunately this places the entire genre in a bad light. Porn does not have any value; it’s cheap and disposable, like toilet paper with words. It serves a function that afterwards you would prefer to forget. Erotica, on the other hand, is a form of literature. You can assess its value in a number of ways, such as artistic merit and literary quality. All the other literary criteria apply as well – plot, character development, etc. Does it engage the reader? Does it say something, even if that something is simply telling a good story? I don’t think you’ll find any of that in porn.
Q: What or who kindled your desire to write in the erotic genre?
A: It pretty much happened by accident, although I will say that I was familiar with the erotic classics, so it wasn’t an area entirely foreign to me. Like many writers starting out, I was not having an easy time of it. I’d written several mainstream novels, and came close to getting them published. But close is not the same as published, is it? These works already contained some sexually explicit content, so it wasn’t too much of a stretch to jump in all the way. I got the germ of an idea for an erotic novel, and this just kept building and building until I finally had to sit down and start writing it. This evolved into my first M. S. Valentine book, “The Captivity of Celia.” I ended up writing five Valentine books in total. These books were heavily influenced by my girlhood love of the gothic novel - the brooding master of the manor theme, which I think is pretty evident if you read the Valentine books.
Q: Can erotic literature work on more than one level?
A: Absolutely! I make it my goal for it to work on more than one level. Sure, you get the sexual level – that’s a given. But there’s got to be more to it than that. Readers deserve quality; if they’re paying their hard-earned money for a book, they should receive something of value in return. It goes back to the criteria I mentioned earlier. A piece of writing isn’t going to work if it doesn’t engage you on more than one level. When we pick up a book, we want to be taken on a journey. We experience someone else’s world through words. And the more levels of engagement a writer can offer, the more successful the read will be. People are not one-dimensional beings, therefore why offer writing that is one-dimensional? I challenge anyone to read my new anthology “Wicked: Sexy Tales of Legendary Lovers” and say that is doesn’t work on more than one level!
Q: Can erotic literature be evaluated on a critical level when generally, it receives such little attention in the media?
A: It can and should be evaluated on a critical level; however, the media – and I’m speaking of book critics in particular – have no real idea of what’s out there or that many of these books can actually be read with TWO HANDS. Critics, especially those in Britain, still have a behind-the-hand-snicker attitude when it comes to erotic literature. A lot of this is due to the top-shelf attitude in the UK. Everyone is so used to seeing those paperbacks with the sleazy covers sitting on the shelf by the loo at Waterstone’s that they can’t believe anything else exists. They have built up such a mental block in their minds that they refuse to evaluate the work fairly. I suppose it’s easier to lump everything together; after all, that doesn’t require any effort, does it? Interestingly, you can find erotic literature being reviewed – and reviewed with fairness and integrity – in American publications such as Publisher’s Weekly. So yes, it can be done.
Q: You've sometimes written erotica under a pseudonym - why is this?
A: I started out in the 1990s with a pseudonym (M. S. Valentine), but that was more to establish a brand name than anything else. Although I will admit I was a bit uncertain about the genre when I began, although that’s mainly because there wasn’t really anyone working within it that cared about elevating it. So I decided to make it my mission to do the elevating so that writers wouldn’t be ashamed to put their names to their work. I’m now very much anti-pseudonym. If the work has merit, then why hide your authorship behind some fake name? Just because of the sexual content? Come on, Philip Roth and Jilly Cooper write sexually explicit material – they aren’t hiding their identities.
Q: Do you ever feel vulnerable writing in this genre, where perhaps your most intimate fantasies and thoughts are committed to print?
A: Please don’t assume that anything I write is my personal fantasy. This is a major misconception about those who write erotic fiction. Would you ask Val McDermid if her fantasy is to murder and dismember people? I’m a writer. It’s my job to create scenarios and characters. Therefore no, I don’t feel especially vulnerable working in this area, since I am not writing about myself or my life.
Q: How do people react to you in social situations when they find out about your career?
A: They think it’s interesting and always have questions to ask. Of course I enlighten them fairly quickly if they are under any misconceptions about my work or me personally. I will say that misconceptions have been a rarity. I think people can suss me out. After all, I’m not going about in black Latex and carrying a whip.
Q: Many would argue that erotica is good for people's general well-being and stimulates feel-good endorphins - but there is a stigma attached to buying or being seen to read such work. What's your take on the 'top shelf'?
A: I think we need to get off the top shelf and stay off it. Erotic literature can and should offer more than a one-handed read. If we aim toward both writing and packaging the work in a form that demonstrates this, there wouldn’t be any stigma.
Q: Finally, castaway on a desert island for a month, what would be your top three reads?
A: That’s a tough one. I’d undoubtedly want books that I haven’t had a chance to read yet. But since you’re putting me on the spot, I’ll say: “The God of Small Things,” “Lolita,” and “The Picture of Dorian Gray.”