by Hannah Bressler
Charlotte Shane is a writer and former escort who blogged for several years on a widely read Tumblr under the name Nightmare Brunette. Her writing made waves, and caught the eye of other artists for it’s revealing look at the emotional and political themes in sex work, beauty politics, interactions between men and women, and it’s highly stylized personal writing. She later released a series through TinyLetter Press called Prostitute Laundry. Both of these collections of writing she released as books this year.
Though Charlotte Shane is another pseudonym used by the writer to protect her anonymity, her writing is so gentle and open that if you read her for a few hundred pages you feel like you know her. She masterfully plays with self-awareness and emotional exploration on the page in a way that allows the reader to feel guided into the complicated road of intimacy with oneself, instead of alone in it.
Hannah Bressler: I noticed a theme in a lot of your writing, especially with the Nightmare Brunette stuff, you’ve been writing a lot about money and payment, writing about sex work as emotional labor and physical labor, and what it feels like to set your own rate for your time. Has labor economics always been interesting to you or did it come up naturally as a theme in your work as an escort?
Who knows how [these] men get this money, where it comes from, [and] why they spend it on me. All I know is that conversation, if you do it right, lasts far longer than any sex.
-From N.B. "Fish In Water" page 253
We all want to know that we matter, and being paid is one way of knowing we have value. It may be inelegant and often impersonal, but because money is quantifiable, its message is indisputable. Where do you go for reassurance if you doubt your physical and sexual desirability? Talk is cheap, so you take cash instead.
-From “To All The Girls Who Envy My Life” published through Salon.com
Charlotte Shane: I became interested in sex work because I thought it was very compelling, it made me curious. If you looked into who I was on paper, you might think sex work wasn’t a natural fit for me. I wasn’t exactly shy, but really introverted. I liked watching more than saying anything. Everyone thought of me as bookish. I definitely wasn’t into performing femininity. But, importantly, I understood pretty immediately [after starting sex work] that this is a way to make a lot of money without giving away a lot of my time.
Grad school was my first opportunity to try it. I was away from home so I could feel it out some. Then I got to the point where, after about 8 months, it was my only job and paid enough for me to live, so I wasn’t incentivized to trade it out for another.
I’ve always wanted to write and have the time to write. There was no incentive to take entry level writing job, like someone’s editorial assistant or something, and, you know, the money for that is shit.
HB: I do know. I also feel like, once you’ve made a certain amount of money in your life it becomes easier to be open to something like volunteering, or labor for lower pay. For instance, you work for Tits and Sass also, and that doesn’t pay, right?
CS: Mmm-hmm. But it felt like a labor of love because it’s collaborative. I wouldn’t have thought of it as volunteering, I think of volunteering as when you give somebody else your time, and this was still under our control entirely. And it was really absorbing.
HB: One of my favorites was the Tina Fey Hates Sex Workers section.
Y’all catch that joke on 30 Rock a couple of weeks (S05E13) ago? Jack Donaghy is in his office, mourning the change in GE ownership. “This is where we used to hold retirement parties. The balcony below is probably still littered with stripper bones.” HAR.
-From “Tina Fey Hates Sex Workers: Part One of Infinity” by Bubbles at TitsandSass.com
HB: I wanted to talk a little bit about the Nightmare Brunette blog and why it was so poignant. As I’m rereading now, since you turned the blog into a book, it is reminding me of “The Sex Myth”, sortof the idea that we all have cultural myths about sex that we are largely unaware of but in the back of your mind you have ideals about how sex “should” be. For me, sex writing becomes so much more interesting when it acknowledges the myth, and still holds onto “this is my actual experience” instead of the standardization. Was that on purpose to debunk some myths about sex or did it just come out naturally?
CS: At the beginning of Nightmare Brunette in 2008 I started writing from a place of not having anyone to talk to about this. I know that sounds kinda selfish, that I want an audience in order to not feel so lonely. But that feels different to me than wanting an audience to get my message out. Just the act of sharing is why I started.
But there are parts of NB, especially in my early writing where where I was being deliberately provocative-- this is a description I borrowed from Jenny Zhang. “People accuse us of being deliberately provocative.” Applied to her, it’s really reductive. But it my case, back then, it was just accurate.
I think the anger all those months ago came from the fatigue of bearing the stereotypes that haunt sex workers because, look, sex workers are my people. I'm far from setting the bar for the smartest one. And when someone throws around those clinches about hookers being stupid and uneducated and incest victims, they're spitting in the faces of my dearest friends.
-from N.B. "Daddy Issues", page 118
With my early writing, I blew up some emotions and power dynamics and tried to poke people a bit. Like the parts where I write about my dad and having daddy issues, there’s a part that is purposefully playing into the stereotype. “Yeah, all your ideas about sex workers are just so spot on. I’m just really messed up.”
Now that I’m older, I read that and think “Oh my god. I was being so melodramatic.” It doesn’t feel entirely honest. That was the hardest thing about editing the book, because it was a different time, it doesn’t feel true to me now. Sometimes I can remember what I was going through when I wrote it, my state of mind, but other times I can’t remember, “Was I just playing with pissing people off? Or did I really feel this way?” I error on the side of leaving it in either way.
HB: It seems that even though you were writing from a place of wanting a connection with your audience, it makes sense that you would be wanting to throw stereotypes in people’s faces because you were regularly dealing with so many assumptions about sex workers.
CS: It felt a little like reclaiming an insult. I want to repurpose these ideas, because I’m gonna have to deal with them no matter what.
HB: I wanted to ask a little bit about people who use sex work as, for lack of a better word, a kind of therapy. Like, “I’m gonna bring intense shit here that I can’t bring anywhere else.”
I don’t like calling this work “therapy” but I know it can be emotional medicine... There is a way to touch another person that tells them: “All of you is good, none of you is wrong, no part of you does not deserve acceptance.” I know what that touch feels like, and it breaks open an inner yolk. You can actually feel the giving way inside, the slow flood filling your heart. When I find someone who hasn’t had that touch in a long time, giving it to them doesn’t feel kind, it just feels decent.
-From N.B. “Years”, page 108
HB: You even have a passage where you talk about making yourself invisible, as a caring person, to make so much room for the client. And the other side of that type of interaction is when someone doesn’t want you invisible, when someone shows up wanting a piece of your humanity so badly. How did you hold both of these extremes in your work, and manage to keep your own boundaries?
CS: There were needy clients with that type of desperation, who were in an emotional state where they really want a piece of somebody. There’s a type of desperation that goes along with that state that makes it really hard to be subtle about it, this state of emotional emergency--
HB: I like that phrase, “emotional state of emergency”.
CS: (laughs) Yeah, I have a friend who exists in that place all the time
HB: Awww, but she’s still your friend?
CS: Yeah, I love and care about her a lot. That’s a phrase I use to describe her to other people so they can understand her.
So anyway, there are guys who were always needing too much from me, and not just that, but doing it in a way that’s ham handed. They would say, right away, first meeting, “Ok, so what’s your real name?” And it’s just like... Oh God, this is really boring and awkward..
HB: They’re just so hungry.
CS: It makes them unpleasant in a very particular way, because the neediness is so naked. For me, it can feel overwhelming and overbearing, because it carries the implication of entitlement. Because they paid for time with me, they might assume they have every right to ask those kindof questions. Those are always the easiest people to not see again or not prioritize. I mean, I think other men might have felt that same way [that level of neediness] but had the insight to take the long view of this and just seem calm and normal for as long as possible. Then their wishes for that level of intimacy would be revealed to me at a more intentional time.
There’s some compassion in me too for them, but it irritated me enough that it wasn’t that hard to cut them off. When someone is explicit about wanting to transgress my boundaries, I would not respond politely to that at all. I’d just straight out say, “No.” Or try to make it funny, or change the subject, or distract. But the pushier they were, the more straight forward I would be.
And I might even say something like, “Doesn’t this feel uncomfortable for you? It’s a tense way to spend our time. Are you enjoying this?”
HB: I feel like we have ways we hope to interact with people, ways we habitually interact with people, and ways we think we’re supposed to interact with people, and these get confused sometimes.
CS: Yeah. For them, for sure.
HB: I was really struck by, in Prostitute Laundry, there was a section where you had included screenshots of texting interactions along with certain written passages. It surprised me just then because before that I didn’t really know if it was someone’s true life story or not. Honestly, I didn’t mind if none of it really happened because it was still interesting to me, as a story of a soul. But I wonder about you making that choice right then, was it a point you were trying to show your readers? Like “Ok, this real shit happened.”
CS: Yeah, I remember that point in the process. I felt a little ambivalent about sharing that. It occurred to me that people might think I was trying too hard to prove it was real. Of course, I could have gotten a Google Voice number and texted back and forth with myself or something. Oh, that would be sad. (laughs)
When I was writing then, if I remember it correctly, I would transcribe a bit, or paraphrase, but using the exact text felt like a way to let the person use their own words, which felt like a gesture of respect. I didn’t do it until towards the end of Prostitute Laundry. It was an experiment.
HB: How much time would usually pass between an interaction and then writing about it?
CS: At the end of Prostitute Laundry there was a lot of space between the event and the writing about it. The last four letters—I was writing pieces of them for a long time before they were sent out. There are letters in the middle, when the dates are less than a week apart, that’s when things were being rapidly put out, and everything was pretty tight, pretty close to when the events were actually happening. But then at the end, I’m writing about something that happened months ago.
HB: Would you call most of what you wrote before this “Creative Non-Fiction”?
CS: I went to grad school for poetry.
HB: No way! I’m going to graduate school for poetry. I never hear people say this.
CS: It’s pretty unusual.
HB: So you wrote a lot of poems then.
CS: Yeah, but most of my writing post-graduate school was more argumentative non-fiction: social commentary, political commentary, book reviews, not so much personal writing. The personal writing I was putting out started with Nightmare Brunette.
HB: I’m surprised to hear that because I think when people seek out personal writing to read, they’re looking for very specific things and you have them in Nightmare Brunette. For instance, I’m looking for insight into human nature, an emotional range that matches interesting events, short pieces strung together, beautiful sentences, etc. So it surprises me that it was your first time sharing personal writing.
CS: I’ve been a reader for a very long time. I had journals as a kid, and even those journals, when I read them now I see they’ve been written for an audience. Even though I didn’t want anyone I knew to read them I was still practicing that kind of self awareness of writing for an audience.
But if I’m really just writing for myself it’s pretty boring. If I’m writing about, you know that quintessentially American thing, “Here are all the things I’m gonna change about my life and here’s how I am going to change them” You know, that type of writing? It’s really utilitarian. It’s way different when I’m writing the things that I know no one will ever read or care about, it’s incredibly boring and dry, emotional, rambling. I know there are probably people who see my Nightmare Brunette stuff and think “Oh this is self-indulgent” but no, no, no, [my notes to myself] this is self-indulgent.
HB: (laughs) Oh God, the sin of writing for self-indulgence.
CS: Yeah, cause [the stuff I just write just for myself] is an incoherent, non-calculated self.
HB: Can we talk about that for a second? About how, in the poetry-academic world, if it gets too personal then it’s called self-indulgent. I meet poets who came out of the generation before me who think poetry that gets too emotional or personal is…. Well the phrase I hear a lot is “self-indulgent” or “just masturbating on the page.”
CS: Yeah, right.
HB: And I think writing about intimacy with yourself is not that. Maybe it’s just someone trying to show a side of themselves that they haven’t seen expressed somewhere else, in this particular voice, in their own unique way.
CS: Or even the idea that narcissism, or self-obsession could only manifest in first person. Like you read a lot of guy writers that it’s like.. Oh gawd... I mean, (laughing) when it’s supposed to be fiction but he’s obviously the rugged, constantly fucking guy in it. It’s so boring and two dimensional..
HB: Talk about self indulgent!
CS: (laughing) Yes! Reading a flat, boring piece of fiction, about somebody with no self-awareness, who’s just kind of moving through a life that feels grand based on some kind of criteria...
HB: “Ah yes, I’m ruggedly independent but somehow I’m lost and alone in my story.” Yes, because you have zero empathy.
CS: Right, ‘cause you’re like, barely a human, when it comes to being aware of what’s happening inside of you.
HB: You wrote something recently like “I’m at the point where I don’t even spend time reading Cis-gendered White guys work anymore.”
CS: Yeah, I did!
HB: It made me think you were saying, “I’ve read this enough. I’m good now.”
CS: I think people may imagine that it’s some kind of special effort or something, but it really isn’t. It’s not like I pick up a book and think “Oh, well it’s written by a cis man. Too bad, I can’t read it.” It’s more like, “There’s no part of me that is drawn to this at all.”
When I think “Oh, here is the book by a guy that kinda interests me.” I get it and start reading it… it comes down to “This book isn’t worth my time right now.” Maybe later, when I’m in a different mindset, but not right now. It’s not going anywhere.
HB: When I’m looking for books, or a well articulate mind to spend time in, I’m looking for some level of shared experience. And there is just so much I don’t enjoy.
CS: Actually I have been reading a lot of men this past year, but it’s mostly philosophers, and I disagree with a lot of what they say. I was reading Nabokov’s letters to his wife.
HB: Oh, what’s your view on Nabakov?
CS: Well I think he was insane with sentences. I’ll sometimes read a sentence of his and think “That was the perfect sentence.” (Charlotte brings up some examples of perfect sentences.)
HB: That tickles my ears.
CS: There’s something about the immediacy of a lot of women writers, that brings me back to their work. It feels more relevant to me, to the life I want to live.
HB: I think about this sometimes, that we haven’t had women attending high education en masse until pretty recently, so the world of books is just lacking so much on perspective.
CS: I think I said it in the podcast with Merrit “I can tell when I read something that’s written by a guy.” And I almost feel bad for guys, because they have such a hard tradition in literature of the guy role-model of what they are supposed to be. And then the other tradition of needing to revolutionize the novel or story. There’s this long line of White European men telling us how to make that kind of writing. It’s totally stale and irrelevant. I don’t envy them. It’s gotta be hard to know where to go from there. I feel bad for them but I’m also like, “I still don’t want to read what you write.”
CS: Yeah, I’m so sorry that we’re at this point in history where your voice is the most irrelevant voice that anyone can have. But it’s not our fault. I only have one life to read things that are worth reading.
You know those really thick novels that come from this tradition? I kindof pity the person who thinks that this is still something the whole world needs to read. I mean how tired is this? It’s like if the whole world of literature were a potluck dinner and you always show up with the same super dry casserole-- (laughing)
HB: (laughing) Yeah, the one your parents taught you how to make.
CS: Yes, and you’re like, expecting everyone to review it with “OH WOW! How did you MAKE this?” But no, we’ve all moved on.
HB: (laughing) And please, get with it. Almost everyone is a vegetarian now.
CS: Yes! (laughs) We’re interested in quinoa now.
HB: There are certain words that speak about this cultural divide in art, like “alternative” or “idiosyncratic” writing styles but when I heart that I think “You’re just telling me you don’t understand, even on a basic level, what that person is trying to do.” What are some of the ways people describe your work that you feel misunderstood?
CS: Probably the word “brave”. I think it comes from a good place but this doesn’t feel brave to me. There’s no part of anything I’ve written that scares me or felt dangerous to me. Or the word “inspiring”... it’s like the word “empowering” It’s hard to hear it and take it at face value.
Also, sometimes people talk about the voice, style, tone so much, but avoid the content. I was writing about sex. The content matters.
HB: So you’re saying that “I don’t just have a specific style, I also had something specific to say.”
CS: Right, I don’t want my work to just be a lullaby.
"What do you want out of this?" He'd asked me so many times. I could never answer. "Besides sex?"
-From N.B. "Us", page 20
HB: About privacy, I think it’s awesome, but hard to do, they way you’ve been able to keep your face off the internet as Charlotte.
CS: People have been really great about that actually. Someone posted a picture of me at one of my readings and when I messaged her about she took it down right away. For the most part I’ve been in control of any pictures of myself exclusively, so the readings are the only point of vulnerability. I don’t know that anybody really cares that much now. There was a lot more fixation about it when I was Nightmare Brunette.
HB: I’ve always wondered, did someone out you on the internet? Is that why you deleted the Nightmare Brunette blog?
CS: No, I just got really tired of it.
HB: That sounds much more like you.
CS: I realized that I might want to do something with this writing someday and I’d prefer to have complete control of it, instead of leave it out there. And also people would rip it off sometimes, which is not a big deal, but there was no purpose to me in having it up.
HB: You mentioned in another interview about how the Nightmare Brunette book is not a sex-worker memoir, and how you might write a sex worker memoir later. Do you have a vision for that? I’m thinking about Iceberg Slim’s Memoir, Pimp, and how a lot of people reference it as the book on pimping. Are you wanting to write something like that with sex work or do you want to stay in personal writing?
CS: Well now that I feel pretty confident that that entire part of my life is over, I’d like to think about it more critically, come up with things to say that aren’t generalizations but that feel accurate. Because I don’t feel like I’ve really ever said “This is what doing sex work meant to me” or what it felt like, or taught me. I don’t necessarily want to use those formations, but I do want to revisit it for myself, with a distance. I’d also like to not have it be so chock full of anecdotes, like N.B., which ends up being a personalized slice-of-life book, talking about specific encounters, but there’s no final comment. I don’t want to write a polemic piece about sex work, or the history of it, I don’t want to write “Here’s how we should all think about sex work,” but I want to write something that is more political than these two other books, which are really personal.
HB: I hear that, and having read your other articles, alongside these books, clearly you’re well known for your personal writing, but I think you have a gift for turning an argument over and letting people see the other side of something.
CS: Cool, thank you. That was my other degree, in philosophy. I really like debating, even in myself, what something means, or the proper response to it for one point of view.
HB: Can you tell me about some authors you respect of who influence you now?
CS: I think Anne Carson is amazing. I don’t know that I conscientiously try to imitate her, though…I hope not, because I would fail! Not necessarily everyone in the bibliography of Prostitute Laundry, but Maggie Nelson, Anne Carson, Annie Baker. They’ve put out incredible work that gives and gives. Almost everything of theirs seems worth reading to me. Helene Cixous too. And Rachel Cusk is a really amazing writer. Her vocabulary is crazy. Sarah Nicole Prickett is another one with an incredible vocabulary. Not that I like someone’s work just because of their vocabulary but when they have a huge toolbox of words, it makes the ideas more refined. Comparatively my vocabulary is very limited but I do the best with it that I can.
HB: Last question, about your retirement. For a lot of people who enter retirement, it changes how they feel about themselves, or what parts of themselves they feel close to. What part of yourself are you feeling close to lately?
CS: I don’t know. I have a lot of feelings about what it was like to be an escort, but I’m so focused on what is going on right now, writing, and promoting. It doesn’t occur to me as much that that time is over now... I’ve just gotten used to it now. It’s been four months or something. It feels like enough time to calibrate.
HB: Thank you so much for talking with me. I look forward to reading more of your work.
CS: Thank you.