Every form of writing has an author whose work helped define it; for TinyLetter, that author is Charlotte Shane. I don’t think anyone understood what a TinyLetter really could be until Shane began her Prostitute Laundry series in February of 2014. Conceived as a newsletter/subscription service, most of the letters I’d encountered before hers were bursts of mini-resume boasts, link roundups, or brimming with newsy and personal updates.
Prostitute Laundry was nothing like this. Instead, it felt like reading a novel in serial form, spiked with the knowledge that these experiences were drawn from someone’s daily reality. The subject matter, too, felt decidedly intimate for an online newsletter; Shane addressed everything from her own sex life and body image to relationships, money and power. The letters eventually did become a published memoir–when Shane decided to stop sending them and start a Kickstarter campaign to gather them into one cohesive collection–but during the initial blasts, each entry functioned as its own discrete entity. That the finished book exists without meddling from an editor, publisher, agent, or some other industry middleman feels like a coup in itself. And then, there’s the prose, which is absolutely hypnotic—intimate, confessional, and even self-scouring in a way that’s unspeakably rare.
This sense of distinct identity helps make the chapters of Shane’s book easy to speed through, sure, but it was the shared sense of community, and reading each entry in real time, that transformed Shane’s series of letters into a powerful, individualistic literary undertaking. Since supporters of the Kickstarter had already paid for their copy of the book, Prostitute Laundry didn’t have a hard and fast release date, but was “released” in terms of shipping right around Christmas last year. To celebrate that milestone and talk more about her background as an author, Shane met me at a Midtown tea house one recent frigid January afternoon. We talked about her personal history with writing, Prostitute Laundry and her other book and former blog N.B., self-publishing, and compassion for your past self. Below is a condensed, edited version of the conversation.
How did you first come to writing and when did you consider yourself a writer?
Writing is part of the way I exist in the world. It became what I was tasked to do. I grew up writing as a kid—writing these pricelessly ludicrous short stories about living on the horse farm with my 42 horses or whatever. It was such a fixture of my whole life that I’ve always thought of myself as a writer, but not necessarily in the professional sense. It’s something I do, this weird habitual aspect of how I live. My writing was not really something that was predicated on other people validating it, reading it or acknowledging it. I was a really private kid. I would write all these things and emphasize to my parents don’t read this. I would write things that I would destroy; I was pretty private about it all.
Did you go to school for writing as well?
I went to grad school for creative writing at Hopkins, and double majored in English with a creative minor in Philosophy for undergrad. I didn’t think of university as a vehicle for anything else—I never thought I was going to get a paying job on the basis of my degrees and there was no dimension of it where I thought this my majors were about me making a living. I assumed, I didn’t even dwell on it, I just assumed, I’m going to be a writer. I thought I’d get my Ph.D. and keep going to the end with school. But when I went away to grad school, I started working on a webcam and I fell down this rabbit hole of sex work–not unpleasantly or without my own decision-making–that became really interesting to me. That was how I returned to ideas I had from undergrad, real feminism 101, second wave stuff, and realized a lot of it wasn’t accurate. I was looking at the relationship between men and women and thinking ‘this isn’t right, it’s not as black and white as they said.’ And thinking: ‘I wish somebody had told me.’ I had that very naive, incredibly earnest young person energy of like ‘I gotta tell everyone, let me bring this news back to the village.’
What is the relationship between your writing and sex work, and how they eventually became entwined?
I had several blogs before. One was Faithless Wondergirl–a Radiohead reference–but eventually I felt like it wasn’t doing anything for me anymore, so I took it down. Maybe two years after that I started to write again. I was really, really lonely in a relationship that was not a good one. I didn’t have anything else in my life because I was working alone and had nobody to talk to, but I really wanted to preserve all this stuff. The blog was scratching that itch. A lot of unusual things were happening to me and I wanted to contain them, hold onto them for later. But all of it came out of sex work and not being able to talk to a lot of people about it, and feeling like how writing is how I understand things. That blog was called Nightmare Brunette (or N.B.) and when I was re-reading to edit it for publishing, it was really intense. Obviously, I can’t have an objective relationship with it, but when I read it I feel a lot of compassion for old me, she feels like a totally separate human being. I was having really intense experience after really intense experience with nothing to alleviate that except writing.
I think compassion for old self is actually a common experience, but you have to be old enough. As a teen I didn’t have compassion for my girlhood self but now I have a lot of compassion for both of my girlhood and teen selves.
I know, it’s true! It sounds fragmentary or dissociative — of course I know it was still me. But I think it’s good practice to look back and think, ‘Oh you were trying really hard. Or sometimes you didn’t try very hard.’
Or ‘It sucks that you had to try so hard. I wish it was easier for you.’ But at this point, you have two books. You’re a published author. How does that feel?
I remember seeing my name in print for the first time. Writers talk about that moment having a very big impression, changing everything. I looked at my name in print and just thought ‘okay.’ The older I get the more grateful I am that this was my disposition naturally. It seems to me to confirm that what’s really valuable to me is the act of writing and not so much the outcome. But there is still part of me that still feels shy, like I’ve been thinking recently should I change my Twitter bio? Should I say I’m the author of these two books? In terms of thinking about myself as an author, there was a point at which I’d been retired from sex work long enough and written for enough outlets and had enough bylines that writing was what occupied my time. Certainly this is now the only source of income I have, so “author” feels more honest and descriptive.
Specifically for Prostitute Laundry, what did it feel like when you were first doing the letters and it hit you that you were building a collection?
I think it happened sometime after George and right around the time I met Max [Ed note: Max is a pseudonym for Shane’s current boyfriend, a man who becomes a main character in the letters/book.] After I’d been writing them for almost a year I realized I was going to stop soon. But I didn’t want all of them to be lost. The problem–that isn’t necessarily a problem–was that the readership got bigger as there was less of the writing to give them. I wondered, what do I do about all these people who just signed up? People would say, ‘I’ve only been subscribing since May ,” and I’d think, ‘they only got two letters, I can’t believe they care!’
Well, I think there was sort of this back channel of people forwarding old ones to one another, sharing them like ‘Did you read this one?’
Yes! That was my dream. To connect people with other people was my ultimate goal. I really like the idea of someone going on Twitter saying, ‘I haven’t been subscribing, I just signed up, can somebody send me the old ones?’ And people finding other people that way, because I know it feels good to talk with other readers about something in a way that isn’t as formal as a book club or class.
Especially when they are coming in this sort of serialized fashion, we don’t get a lot of writing like that is this style of writing. How did they transform from letters to a book in your mind?
I knew I wanted to do a more personal, immediate style of writing and I knew having an audience was important for me. It wouldn’t have been enough to keep a journal. I didn’t have any other way to talk about these things and I really wanted to figure this stuff out. Finding a readership was important to me because it made me feel less alone. When I realized I was going to end the project, I knew I wanted to self-publish. I didn’t want to take it to a publisher and have them tamper with the material.
Why did you want to stop doing the letters?
The emotional impetus was trying to manage my own emotions, not control or limit them, but understand them so they didn’t make my life chaotic. But being with Max was very soothing, it resolved all these things and I just felt like the urge was gone. So I decided to see how it felt to not do them. I’m never trying to consciously make my life look different, just because it works for a story. But I was so suspicious of this ending of, ‘The sex worker meets a guy and quits working and now everything’s perfect.’ I feel really weird about creating a narrative like that, but I also feel weird about denying that narrative because it already exists, and I decided I didn’t like it, back when it didn’t seem like a possibility to me. So there is an ambivalence in the end of the book. And in my life in general!
You wrote last fall about how you feel like you’re a go-to for writing about sex work, but that you want to write about other things. So what are other topics that you’re interested in writing about?
I feel very passionately about reproductive rights. It’s something that was so important to me for so long, I might have tapped out the part of me that is able to get instantly, super passionate about it. But I think a lot about all the dimensions of feminism and sex and gender. I’m limited on the gender angle because I’m a cis woman who has a lot of exposure to straight men and straight women, cis men and cis women:how they treat each other and what’s expected of them. But last year I read an Ellen Willis quote that I loved. She said: “A feminist that does not take heterosexuality seriously can neither comprehend the average woman’s life nor spark a movement that might change it.” It felt so good to read that. Because all these other voices are so important, and they’re so important because they’re so vulnerable and oppressed and wronged—so the politics, the social stigma, all of it, has to change, and that’s urgent–but that it’s not wrong to be concerned with this, too. Trying to understand the relationships of straight men and women has real value.
Go see Charlotte join a panel of other sex workers and writers speak on self-publishing on 3/7 at Bluestockings. You can get a copy of Prostitute Laundry or Nightmare Brunette here. Shane has continued her writing via a new letter series called Post Prostitute, which you can sign up for here.