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An Interview With Caroline Ashbee

by J.

As most of our readers will know, the stories published in Fascination tend to be romances: boy meets girl, they become friends, and then become lovers, or get married, or both. The only thing that makes the stories different from the thousands published in a hundred women's magazines, is that the readers are predominantly men, and the heroines in the stories are always amputees. The Winter 1992 number (8(4)), differed from earlier numbers by featuring the stories of only one author, Caroline Ashbee whose stories are somewhat different from those usually found in Fascination. Caroline has agreed to discuss her work with us and what follows is an edited interview with this author about work, attitudes, and aspirations.

Q: It is not a surprise that 'Caroline Ashbee' is a pseudonym. Why did you choose to write under a pseudonym?
A: Back in the seventies I wrote two novels which both dealt with themes which were on the edge of acceptability, one, A process of pursuit dealt with a sadomasochisistic relationship, the other The exoteric record of Frater Ex Nihilo Nihil Fit, dealt with seduction and homosexual magic in the tradition of Aleister Crowley. I couldn't find anybody to publish them. I suppose it was because of their subject matter and because they weren't very well written, and because they obviously didn't have mass appeal. Of course when I was writing them I didn't think of that, and in view of the unconventional material I felt that it was better to publish them under a pseudonym. The pseudonym I chose was Caroline Ashbee. Q: Was there any particular reason for your choosing that name? A: I have always been interested in the curiosities of literature, and naturally I became aware of the literary interests of Pisanus Fraxi, a bibliographer of erotic fiction in Victorian times. I can't remember where I read about the pseudonym, but it's an anagram of fraxinus apis, literally 'Ash' (the tree) and 'bee'. Pisanus Fraxi was H. S. Ashbee. Ashbee had gone to a lot of trouble to allow the perceptive to read through his pseudonym and identify him. I suppose that all users of pseudonyms secretly want to be found out. I know that I do, but not so certainly that I could be disciplined for writing and say ing what I write and say as Caroline. Well, I thought that Ashbee would be a good surname for my pseudonym, and would continue a family tradition of dealing with sexual matters that were not entirely within the bounds of accept ability. Oh, yes, incidentally, H. S. Ashbee may well have been Walter the author of My Secret Life.

Q: Yes, that explains the surname but not the forename.
A: No, I chose Caroline for several reasons. I think it's a lovely feminine name. I wanted to write about relationships and finally about love. Both my novels were about the pains of love. The relationships were sexual but love was the motivation. I chose an appropriate epigraph for each of them, one from Eliot: Who then devised the torment?/ Love, love is the unfamiliar name ... and one from Baudelaire Je suis la plaie et le couteau,/ Je suis les membres et la roue ... et la victime, et le bourreau. I suppose I should have had more self-confidence and have used my own name, but I felt that people would not take it seriously if they knew that I was the person who was writing about love as the major subject of my fiction, so I decided to keep my identity a secret. I have to be honest and say I did intend the first book to be erotic as well, and at the time I was concerned that if the book were published I might suffer a certain amount of public odium, and I wanted to avoid that for the sake of my partner as much as for my own sake. Finally the sound of the whole name Caroline Ashbee: just the rhythm to be remembered.

Q: How did you become involved with writing fiction for devotees?
A: In 1991 I was feeling very depressed because a longterm friendship had fallen through. This had been with a woman who is an amputee, and for whom I still have very tender feelings... I let my friend down and it was my fault. I had tried not to treat her unethically so my friendship was never a secret from my partner, but I put the three of us into an intolerable position and it broke down. I was very unhappy at the time.

I had been experimenting with writing fragments of erotica for a few years before then, but they had been less precisely focussed than the material needed for Fascination. There was one piece about a woman who was an amputee, the best thing I have written, entitled Summertime, and was the basis of the first piece I submitted to Fascination. But this is running ahead of myself. I had tried advertising for a special friend in Forum magazine, but it was slowly coming home to me that in general women who are amputees don't fancy the people who fancy women who are amputees. I came across an announcement in Forum about the formation of OverGround, wrote to Margaret Child, and she mentioned that OverGround did not publish any fiction, in part because she did not want to compete with Fascination. This was the first I had heard of Fascination. By return of post I wrote back to Margaret and she sent me Bette Hagglund's address, and I subscribed. I enjoyed the stories in Fascination but they had a rather Barbara-Cartlandy feel: Handsome Brett in some improbable way met Candi, or Marti, or Traci (all those i's!) who was very beautiful and an amputee, and after a courtship as formal as a gavotte, seasoned by a bit of self-doubt, but only a little bit, and that improbably easily resolved, everybody seemed set to be happy ever after. I'm as much in favour of wish-fulfilment as the next person but I found the sweetness cloying. So I dug out Summertime and decided to write some other non-sweet, non-cloying stories for the devotee community.

Q: Wasn't that a rather destructive thing to want to do?
A: I didn't think so. Being a devotee can be painful in two ways. Some people have to come to terms with something that they believe is mental illness or sin. Others have to come to terms with the fact that they are never going to find the desired other person. Fiction provides therapy in many other ways than blatant wish fulfilment. Not everybody is handsome, successful, and young. So I wrote two stories about disappointment to add to Summertime. One was about a middle-aged failure who consoled himself by writing romantic fiction about relationships between successful men and beautiful amputees. (I could certainly sympathise with that character.) I used a trick so that it wasn't clear whether first part of the story was the one I was writing about him, or a story that he was writing. This was entitled A sense of reality.

The other one dealt with the perennial problem of how to make contact with the members of the desired class of women. Summertime fits in because the couple involved have everything except the freedom to love one another. I wrote a lot of other stuff and submitted that as well to Fascination. I was very annoyed when the first stories appeared because the editor, Dan Hackett, had effectively rewritten them, altering the sense and the feeling of the characters, and in my view completely spoiling them. So I withdrew all the other material in a fit of pique.

Q: Tell me about this other material.
A: I was quite pleased with the technique I developed to write this so quickly. What I did was to go through the fragments of erotica that I had already written and where it did not lead to contradictions or inconsistencies in the story I simply amputated the heroine's leg. I wrote some other stuff deliberately for the devotee interest but a lot of the stuff was written as I described. What I liked about the approach was that where I had applied this technique the people involved were living their lives despite the heroine's amputation, which was just something that had to be put up with. I think that this is probably the experience of most of the people who suffer physical disablement. So in the early versions of Images and reflections Olivia was not an amputee. The statue was not broken, the picture was not slashed, and Olivia was simply invited to Marianne's country house to spend a few days on holiday. The rewriting added a lot of incidental detail on top of the unaltered relationship between Olivia and Marianne.

Q: So what happened to this material after you withdrew it from Fascination?
A: It happened that just after wards Margaret Child was thinking about producing a special edition of OverGround devoted to fiction. So I printed off the copies and sent them to her. I was very disappointed when the stories were rejected on the grounds that 'sexual gymnastics' involving disabled people might be offensive to the readers. I was annoyed about this because all the 'sexual gymnastics' were integral parts of loving relationships of the most politically correct type. So then I uploaded most of what I had written to the CompuServe Information Service making it available in one of the forum libraries. It wasn't entirely satisfactory because you lose all typographical finesse being restricted to ASCII characters, the ones available on a computer key board. Then things rested, I didn't write anything else until Bette Hagglund wrote to me and asked if I had any unpublished material suitable for Fascination. I replied that I would submit stuff provided that it was not mangled in the editing. I also wrote, from scratch, Experiments on the nature of odyle and Elizabeth on the home front and submitted them. Bette liked them, and because she was short of material asked me if I could fill a whole number. I could and did; but with some misgivings. There is an awful sameness about the stories because I haven't got enough voices: Everybody speaks the same colourless middle-class received standard English, everybody is remorselessly polite. These faults would have been far less noticeable if the stories had been placed among others, but I think they accumulate and by the time you have read two or three you have the feeling of being stuffed with Turkish delight, quite nice in its way, but rather easy to have a surfeit of. The other thing that you notice when you see a lot of this material is the narrowness of the genre, devotee fiction.

Q: You mean that this sort of fiction is different from other sorts?
A: Yes, because if focusses on a very fundamental tension. I think most devotees are very sorry that people have to lose limbs. I am myself; but this sorrow is combined with a compelling attraction for some of the people who have suffered this misfortune. So there is a strong conflict, an ambivalence in my feelings as a devotee. To the person who has undergone the amputation there is the direct effect of physical disability, and there is the psychic trauma of having become incomplete, of coping with loss, physical and functional. Such a person is in no psychological state to welcome the attentions of the devotee, and if a relationship is to develop, it seems to me that considerable persuasion, and considerable tolerance would have to be exercised by the potential partners in the forming of the bond. The normal wish-fulfilment fantasies ignore this and the relationships portrayed in the average short story are very simple, to the point of lacking any credibility: Girl miserable because she has lost a limb is delighted when she finds a partner who finds her attractive, is hardly the plot that is going to generate serious literature, and what's more it isn't very likely to occur in life either.

Q: So the themes are different. Are the functions different?
A: I think they are. If my experience is anything to go by, devotees do not, on the whole, have the opportunity to find the special people they long to cherish. This can be for a variety of reasons: some may seek and fail to find, but some do not seek because they feel that it would be wrong to give in to the feelings they feel guilty about having. The experience of the devotee is frustration. I think that fiction for the devotee should recognize this, that sharing the feeling of frustration, knowing that is not your own unique problem, can help the person to come to terms with the inevitability of the frustration continuing. The experience of the desired women will almost certainly not be of being involved with devotees. For such women their experiences will be more or less frustrating depending on the response of partners to their physical alteration. A number of the women I have been in contact with have told me about the breakdown of relationships with men that followed as a consequence of their amputations. Thus, on average, the women will be involved with relationships with people who are not devotees. I believe that the fiction should at least recognize this, and explore relationships that form despite the fact that one of the partners is disabled. But the important feature of the fiction I have tried to write is to provide consolation for inevitable failure. The consolation I am trying to provide is ultimately consolation for the failure to find and to sustain love.

Q: Don't you think that writing fiction to transmit messages is just writing propaganda?
A: To some extent that is true. At the same time I wanted to be quite clear about a few things. First: It is not fun to have to cope every day with the inconvenience and disability that result from having an amputation. A person might get used to it, but it is no fun. Being an amputee is not something you can leave off doing when you are tired of it. Second: Some amputees, perhaps the majority in Britain, would rather not be involved with devotees except as a last resort. (I believe that things may be very different in the US thanks to Bette Hagglund's Fascination group, which has brought amputees and devotees together very successfully for a number of years.) Third: Simple sexual attraction to somebody who has a particular physical feature is not sufficient alone to allow a long term loving relationship to develop. I think these are things that need to be discussed, and I think that fiction is one way of exploring them.

Not everything I have written has dealt with these matters. Experiments on the nature of odyle is a simple romance, the only thing that separates it from 'Brett meets Candi' is that 'Baron Karl von Reichenbach meets Mlle Adelaide Nowotny' and instead of Toledo, Ohio, 1991, they do it in Vienna in 1844. It's just entertainment with a bit of pretty period colour. The odyle stuff is interesting because there really was a Baron Karl von Reichenbach, and he really did believe that he had discovered a new force called odyle, but it's just the background.

Another kind of devotion is really a pastiche of the beginning of The waste land, and of course Lake Wobetide is only a few miles down the road from Lake Wobegon, somewhat closer to Tom Lehrer's My home town. The resonance I was trying to achieve in Images and reflections was something like Borges. These stories are games on one level as well as narratives.

The moth and the candle is much more serious, and deals with matters that involve devotees very closely. Stalkers, men that follow women who are amputees, are not that uncommon. They can be a real nuisance. I can sympathise with men wanting to be near to women who are amputees, I can sympathise with the difficulty men have of making contact, the things that might lead a man to become a stalker, and I can sympathise with the objections of the women. That's why I wrote the story. None of the characters was evil, but the accidents that had befallen them led them inevitably to a tragedy.

As well as being entertaining I believe that fiction can shed light on the predicament of the the devotee and of his desired partner. That is why I am sorry that OverGround is set so resolutely against fiction.

Q: What are your plans for further work?
A: I am beginning a full-length romance, that will deal with the life of my heroine, Sophie, and her continuing failure to find enduring love. I have written about half of it, and I sent a first draft to Bette Hagglund to see if she would be interested in it as a serial in Fascination. She was, and the several instalments have already appeared.

Q: If you could sum up what you are trying to achieve from writing fiction for devotees what would you say?
A: One of the things I would like to achieve in my writing is an acceptance of the body. Our bodies all have certain properties, we all eat, we all piss and shit, most women menstruate. When I grew up these fundamental aspects of our animal nature were held to be dirty, polluting, disgusting. They aren't: they are just features of the lives of every one of us. I don't want to dwell disproportionately on these matters, but I don't want them to be taboo either. Likewise, many teenage boys are tormented in infernos of sexual desire, and society denies them the opportunity to express this, and certainly doesn't teach them anything at all about sexual love or tenderness. The consequence is that they masturbate, not all of them perhaps, but many do. Whether they should or not is a matter of your point of view. On the whole I prefer loving sex with someone else, and that's a matter of my own choice; but when there is no beloved other then it seems to me that masturbation is an acceptable alternative. It must be obvious that devotee fiction is a source for the the fantasies that console disappointment, and one of my main motivations is provide fantasies about characters who are not just two-dimensional wish fulfilment figures, but characters with their own inner lives, and their own physiologies.

I write because I should like to be able to participate in the lives of such characters, and observe them acting and reacting to the circumstances that arise out of the internal logic of their constitutions, and by doing this to illustrate and resolve some of the conflicts that arise from the state of being a devotee.

The only thing that matters is happiness. If we can't have happiness I would like to provide some consolation: that's all.

used to be published by Bette Hagglund, herself a leg amputee, but it is unfortunately no longer available.
Read Caroline's Storybook online.
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