Little Deaths: Walter Mosley on Pornography and Fiction

Walter Mosley, a prolific author by any definition, has leaped around literary genres with a singular abounding ease. His dozen books featuring stalwart private eye Easy Rawlins are crowded on the bookshelf behind many other novels and works of nonfiction, as well as a graphic novel with the collaboration of Marvel icon Stan Lee, two plays, and even erotica. And yet Debbie Doesn’t Do It Anymore, Mosley’s unsettling and explicit journey through the strange and intriguingly sympathetic world of the pornography industry, is a foray into new territory. Featuring a particularly memorable protagonist, the novel combines a notoriously rough subject with heart and provides a unique insight into one of the world’s most marginalized professions.

Sandra Peel — or Debbie Dare, as she’s known on screen — is ready to quit her job. It’s not easy to be one of the most recognizable figures in the adult film industry, and as a black woman with platinum blond hair, bright blue contacts, and a signature bull’s-eye tattoo on her right cheek, she’s not exactly easy to miss. But when a particularly eventful day on set is followed by the startling death of her husband, Theon — electrocuted in the bathtub while filming a coital romp with a sixteen-year-old industry wannabe — Deb decides that her days of counterfeit moaning and ubiquitous lubricant are over. As encroaching nihilism threatens to fill the void of her former career, Deb must decide what she wants to live for, or face certain destruction in what most would call an attempt at a normal life.

Just before the publication of Debbie Doesn’t Do It Anymore, Walter Mosley spoke with me about the novel’s conception, the equivocal morality of the industry, and two of the novelist’s favorite subjects — sex and death. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation. —Sarah Ungerleider

The Barnes & Noble Review: What made you pick such a unique character to carry the story?

Walter Mosley: It’s more like she picked me. A long while ago, I was having a conversation with somebody, and though I don’t remember exactly what the conversation was about, in a general sense it was about pornography. And at one point I said, “Well, Debbie doesn’t do it anymore,” and I thought, “Wow, what a great title that would be.” That phrase bounced around in my head for years, and when I finally sat down with that title, this story is what came out. It’s kind of a light title. It could almost fit as the title of a comedy, but that’s not what this book turned out to be.

BNR: Was there something specific in Deb’s character that appealed to you and made you want to write about her?

WM: I started writing, and her character appeared. Once I had the title, I decided I would write about a person in the adult film industry who is in the process of leaving it. For me, the title Debbie Doesn’t Do It Anymore addresses a much larger issue than the pornography industry. It has a closer relationship to the central theme of Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener. Bartleby says again and again, “I would prefer not to,” and Deb has a similar conviction that she’s not going to play the game anymore. What’s interesting to me about her character is that she’s someone who’s decided to jettison what she owes to the company store and to start living life on her own terms.

BNR: Deb’s decision to stop making films doesn’t exactly begin with her husband’s tragic death but with an unexpected and particularly powerful orgasm on set that actually makes her pass out. Why does this rush of physical pleasure seem to jump-start a massive emotional transformation within Deb, whereas her husband’s demise seems to barely register — at least at first?

WM: I’m not so sure about the second part of that. It’s not clear what Deb’s response is to Theon’s death, because as a reader, at the beginning of the book you don’t yet know the identity of the girl who died on top of her husband in that tub. In fact, it is very potent and powerful for her to see such a young girl dead, a girl whom Deb tried to help in the past, as we later find out.

Regarding the orgasm, there is not an iota of pleasure in it, which is why Deb actually lets herself go unconscious rather than to keep feeling it. It happened in a job that means nothing to her, and that is certainly not arousing to her after so many years in the business. What’s more, during the orgasm she imagines an olive-skinned man watching her, who turns out to be a representation of her desire to kill herself. It’s really a very ugly thing, and so it’s the combination of the deaths of her husband and the young girl, Jolie Wynn, and the unpleasantness of feeling something so powerful in her work environment, that causes her to quit. I think they all have equal roles in changing her life.

BNR: In French, there’s a euphemism for the word “orgasm”: la petite mort or “little death.” 

WM: Yes.

BNR: There seems to be a very strong connection between sex and death in this novel, starting with Deb’s vision of the olive-skinned man while she’s being filmed.

WM: It has to do with the degradation of her profession, a profession that makes people a lot of money, that people pay a lot of attention to, but at the same time is generally looked down upon and thought of as morally wrong.

Additionally, inside the profession itself, people are dying all the time. They have heart attacks, they get terrible diseases, they kill themselves, they get murdered. It’s really a very dark path that people in the adult film industry are following. Death is ever-present. Deb and Theon’s close relationship to an L.A. mortician, and this feeling like they have to bury their co-workers who have died is beyond what occurs in other professions.

I never say this outright in the book, but being in the industry is kind of like being in a cult. It’s not so unlike being a policeman or a firefighter. You get to a point in those jobs where no one on the outside understands you, only those who work beside you day after day. In a way, you are killing yourself even if you don’t actually die, because you are giving up everything that you were before you took that job.

BNR: When you were writing the novel, did you have the chance to talk to anyone involved in the adult film industry?

WM: Nah. Though after I finished the book, I was on a plane flying from L.A. to New Jersey, and I guess there’s a big porn convention in New Jersey every year, so the plane was filled with performers from all over the world. I was sitting next to a woman and we discussed the industry for four hours. And it looks like most of the things I wrote about were accurate [laughs]. But I did not do research before writing this book.

BNR: Deb doesn’t really mention that she has a son until almost three-fourths of the way through the book. As the narrator, why doesn’t she speak of him earlier?

WM: There are a couple of little moments where she mentions him, early on, but it’s not clear what their relationship is. She doesn’t talk about him because she doesn’t want to think about him. He’s not a central part of her life because she’s given him up. She understood early on, though she wanted the experience of having this baby, she couldn’t bring a child into the life that she was living. So, she gave him up to who she felt was a better person: her stepsister.

BNR: When Deb decides to get out of the business, she visits her son and is encouraged by her stepsister to take him back and raise him on her own. Yet as she grows closer to reclaiming her son and the semblance of a normal life, she more seriously considers killing herself. Why move closer to death when she has this kind of second chance?

WM: Suicide is something that Deb can’t escape, which is why her personification of suicide, the olive-skinned man, appears and calls to her during that very unwanted orgasm, a physical response that she has no use or want for anymore. Suicide is a part of the “not doing it anymore.” It’s not just her career. Her life is over.

She loves her son. But not only does she feel he doesn’t need her, she thinks that she would be wrong for him as a mother. She’s the most recognizable person in the industry, so what happens when her son is twelve years old and he sees her having sex on film? Sex in every way you can possibly imagine, on every continent, in hundreds of movies. It’s not that she doesn’t care, it’s that she cares so much she’d rather give up a life as a mother because it’s better for the child.

BNR: At one point Deb says, “It’s not that I think it [porn] is wrong. I mean, it ain’t wrong to work in a coal mine for a dollar a ton…it just ain’t worth it.” Did you find yourself considering the ethics of the adult film industry while writing this novel?

WM: The ethics of the porn industry is nothing compared to the ethics of war. We have thousands of young men and women across the ocean killing people, and I question the ethics of those actions. I question the ethics of the CIA supporting Muammar al-Gaddafi, The ethics of the porn industry are basically the ethics of sex. And we know what the ethics of sex are. Sex is sex.

BNR: But there is a mass exposure aspect, a public nature inherent in pornography that gives it another layer.

WM: True, but there was once a time where if a woman showed her ankles, it was incredibly risqué. There are parts of the world today where if a woman shows her face, she might be killed for doing so. The idea of exposure is relational, it’s not an absolute. People have sex, a mother tells her daughter to find a man with a good job so he can take care of her. Is that prostitution?

One thing Deb has to learn and accept is that she’s not a bad person. What she does is not bad, what happens because of what she does is bad. The act itself, though, that’s a job. And the actions of that job are clear in the first five pages of the book or so: the lights are shining, there’s lubricant everywhere, her co-star Myron’s there and being filmed alongside her, and there’s the director and the photographer. I mean, it’s work. And maybe it’s unhealthier than working in a coal mine, but not by much. I mean, working in a coal mine is really bad for you.

BNR: Toward the end of the novel, as Deb is preparing to commit suicide, the jealous girlfriend of a man who’s infatuated with Deb slashes her face with a knife and almost kills her. After her brush with death, Deb loses the urge to end her life. Why does coming so close to death remove the urge to actually meet it?

WM: It’s an interesting notion. I imagine it like this: life is a balloon, and it’s being pumped full of air. There’s more and more air being pumped in every day, and eventually it’s about to explode. And then a certain person comes along and pokes a hole in the balloon, and it deflates instead. In Deb’s case, what’s deflating is the desire to commit suicide. It’s almost as if instead of having to do it herself, this jealous woman has done it for her, or at least tried to, and got so close to actually killing her that Deb is no longer the owner of that urge. She can let go and start a new life.

BNR: So is this the last we’ll see of Debbie Dare (or Sandra Peel, as she’ll go by from now on)?

WM: Well you know it’s funny; I have no idea whether she will return in this particular medium, but right now I’m working with my business partners on producing a Debbie Doesn’t Do It Anymore television series.

BNR: I’m guessing that the show will not appear on basic cable.

WM: It could be on basic cable. I mean, it’s not going to be on ABC. But you don’t have to have graphic sex or nudity in order to do a show like this. This is not a book about sex. I wrote a book about sex, Killing Johnny Fry, a “sexistentialist” novel that someone can get excited by, but there’s no excitement in the sex in Debbie Doesn’t Do It Anymore. It’s not a book about sex, it’s a book about the sex industry.

BNR: Finally, you’ve written over forty books at this point. What fuels the engine, so to speak?

WM: Well, I love writing. Is that a good enough answer?

BNR: It’s the best answer.

WM: I love to write. I write every day. If I don’t write, I’m unhappy. I’m always writing and I’m always thinking about writing. I love doing it. That’s it.