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Episode LV: "When the mental breakdown is real, you can't sell a personal essay about it"

Published 3/30/16
In this installment, I speak with Sarah Nicole Prickett. Topics include headaches, what we deserve, failing, lawsuits, porn, creative energy, being blocked by Facebook, being worried none of it means anything at all & more.

Today I’m with Sarah Nicole Prickett, a writer and the editor-in-chief of Adult, “a magazine of contemporary erotics and experience… While the someday-to-be-triannual discrete object is meant to feel like both a secret and a time capsule, [the website] — a separate and equal entity — will hopefully serve as the smartest, and sometimes dirtiest, of chat rooms”. It’s one of those publications that, when you first come in contact with it, you wonder why you hadn’t before, and then proceed to send it to every friend you can think of with kindred tastes. In a world where the web seems to have a gulf between i) the bottomless and thoroughly pornographic, and ii) the ‘intellectual’ and chaste, where an image of bare breasts still feels irreverent, Adult holds a somewhat singular position, the bridge.

Right before we started, I cracked an egg and two yolks came out, so I’m sure this interview’s going to be a good one. Let’s start with you and your writerly beginnings, up to the point that you became a part of Adult.

Oh, you prepared for this! You did not just write that, just now... I suppose you're like, do you not prepare your questions, aren't you a writer who interviews, and yes of course I am, but I've never been a writer who writes down the questions. I'm too attached to symmetry, if we're talking about breasts. I want interviews to feel more symmetrical, like conversations, not like a script on either side. But won't hold it against you! Um...

(That is as far as my notes take me, by the way.)

I wrote from my earliest waking years, and I wrote plays for the church, and stories and things for class in high school, and I always kept a diary until I realized that a diary, in my household anyway, wasn't sacrosanct (I constantly have to reconcile my laziness about cleaning up and throwing out with my terror of not like, dying, but dying and having insides exposed).

In college before I dropped out I wrote for the school paper, and in college again before I dropped out again I took journalism, so I could learn the closest trade. Which I did learn a bit. Mostly, I was not good at learning what everyone around me was learning; I always wanted to know something else. Not quite a keener's curiosity. More like... I think someone called me a philosopher princess, nice bratty epithet, which stuck in my hair for a while. Anyway, I started interning in fashion magazines in Toronto around age 22, 23, and I wrote regularly for an alt weekly called Eye. My very first editors were nice and good; they were people I liked and by whom I was very well tolerated. In Canada, though, or more specifically in Toronto media, in my Toronto milieu at that time, good is too often good enough. Hang on, I have to take an Excedrin!

Sure thing.

This is the second interview I've interrupted to take a pill, but only the first interview was a headache, so don't worry, this time it's not you or the interview, it's genuinely that I get headaches... I hate it, it's my most writerly trait, a very white woman writerly trait, like packing a leotard to report on a riot in the streets.

Where do headaches come from?

Well, I'm not a doctor. I don't even play doctor in bed. I'm from the twentieth century; I play nurse. All I know is that some headaches are migraines, which are another territory. Some headaches proper, lesser, like the one I have now, are alarms that go off when a nerve in the body is tripped, when some other part of the body is broken, damaged, etc., and can't I guess register its own pain.

Maybe I have a headache because my heart hurts; maybe I'm dehydrated. The important thing is to drink tea and take an Excedrin migraine because Excedrin migraine is the thing that works, including for lesser headaches and lesser aches in general, for instance I just took one for my head and one for my ribcage, this gchat has been brought to you by Excedrin, which I hope I'm spelling right.

We'll clean it up in post.

Did you read the interview in SSENSE? No reason you would unless it comes up in Google already.

I'm looking at it now.

It's the only interview I've done without any post-production! One phoner, and the interviewer did all the editing, and she made me sound good. Even the things that sound good but wrong are all my fault so I "let" them stand, where normally I would try to fix. Where are you on the obsessive perfection spectrum?

Sometimes all the way, sometimes all the other way.

Right. When I was writing hot and fast in Toronto in my early to mid almost to late twenties, I had more of a thing about purity. Writing in seventeen kinds of compromised states—compromised I mean by drugs and worse feelings—I would nevertheless believe that the first thing I wrote was either the best or, somehow, the rightest. Orrr I would be very self-serious as a writer, but moreso as a way of making up for the fact that I didn't, couldn't, take the writing seriously, the writing being this kind of flitform dilettantish stuff about living and style. I should have taken the work seriously anyway. I don't think it's advisable to go around constantly feeling better and wiser than your own writing. Though of course I feel more complicated than my own writing, which is why I have headaches—I deserve them.

Not that it's more advisable to think about what you deserve. I've probably said the opposite before: Forget what you deserve, altogether. I just say that I deserve the headaches to make the point that it's not so bad, as a woman or whatever, to blame the victim if the victim is you. It can be a good experience if you keep it quiet.

Do you feel you'll come to view your current writing as being on the other side of another (yet unanticipated) membrane?

I already do, yes. Because I'm already working on the next thing, which I don't want anyone else to anticipate, to the extent that I refuse even to propose it, like to publishers, the other reason being my wild distrust of authority figures, but to explain that, we'd have to go back to before we started, to like my childhood, which if it's fine with you I'd probably rather not. Crazy, though, that "childhood" isn't in the Oxford English Dictionary of Trigger Words.

This relates to Adult, actually—a thought I had this morning and have had on a lot of mornings, and a thought that I'm sure I didn't think myself originally, but is a thought that I love, about how much great art comes directly from being triggered. And even not great but fine art. I don’t mean we shouldn’t have trigger warnings, although I certainly wouldn’t have thought of having them, myself. It’s just, why not have them and also ignore them.

How did you get attached to Adult?

Oh, that one's easy. It was my idea. It was Christmas and I was drinking alone, watching a lot of 60s and 70s femcentric films: Daisies, 3 Women, stop me if I've said this before, and also some exploitation cinema, like women-in-prison flicks.. I was watching vintage and new porn and I was reading... what was I reading. Catherine Breillat, Virginie Despentes. No surprises here. What I felt was alarmed at the deterioration of talking in porn and the deterioration of talk about porn and sex in general. Everything had become positive or negative, for or against, safe or unsafe, you see?

In a very simple sentence: I wanted sex talk to be sexier, more erotic in the sentences, less focused on parts, and overall to have a radder style. "Radical" is a word I love because it refers to something under the skin, the root of something, but everyone's too square to use it that way, including me. "Radical" in recent discourse is like, "the radical necessity of some antics involving famous pink nipples, which ought to be free, like men are."

How have you failed?

Oh, they cut this out of the SSENSE thing! I just ctrl+F'd "fail" to be sure, and they did. I wish I had the transcript so I wouldn't have to think of it again. My headache is getting a little better, though.

Before I answer I want to go back to it being my idea, because that's a lot of why it's a failure. I met someone who wanted to publish it, but his idea of being a publisher was, I think, based on Lorin Stein's being an editor at the Paris Review. He wanted to be a sly charming figurehead who could transform like a white space in arts and letters, but he wanted to do it with more of a trust fund than perhaps a real great aptitude, and he wanted to say it was his idea. Also, he wanted to pay for one issue and own seventy-five per cent of the whole magazine. Which I couldn't afford. I also couldn't afford the lawsuit that, um, what's a word that isn't ensued.

Back to it being my idea. The lawsuit is tied to my failure to make Adult a business, or a model for anything, really (this is what the original publisher was supposed to do, but he didn’t, or if he did, he didn’t tell me). Though a few upstart pubs have cited us as inspiration, which is very nice. Maybe we'll be the Velvet Underground of magazines. "Velvet Underground" is the sexiest two-word mission statement, do you not think!

Because everyone involved works really long hours for pay we fail to publish at the moment with any kind of honest regularity. I'm gunshy about bringing new people in, though I do trust my instincts; I need a new publisher, but am gunshy twice about that, because I fucked up the first time.

If the sentence with the semicolon seems more contradictory than most of my sentences with semicolons, let me add: I trust my instincts more about words and images and things than about money, with which my relationship is abusive on two sides.

We don't publish enough things that are funny in the way I think sex is funny, which is to say absurd, and dark, and vibrant with stupid unnecessary pain, the way getting a tattoo or writing is intentionally absurd, like, no matter how well you do it, you're making a permanent mess.

Does this make sense to you personally, or will it make sense to your readers?

It doesn't make sense for the most part, but I don't think the purpose of it is to be cohesive.

Maybe, in post, I can make it cohere a little more—I'm so discursive in person, and not exactly a genius in real life. Sorry!

I mean it all makes sense, but it's not going to or coming from anywhere specific.

Right, of course.

Why don't we spend a reorienting straightforward line or two on you telling me what's lacking in porn, and how Adult hopes to amend that.

Porn is so huge... You said it well in your introduction! You said it flatteringly.

"Amend" is not an impulse I have. I basically think writing should be less clean and good, should in fact be dirtier and still good. Writing has gotten so "good" in a nice non-maximalist literary but unpretentious way and I see the influence of that expected goodness—blame it on magazines or MFAs, who cares, frankly—in my own writing and in writing we publish, and I want to... root it out, but do I have all the time or the tools, no, and am I doing it myself, no.

On the site, we're going to do more interviews with porn stars. Getting people to interview their favourite porn stars, but not in a creepy way, unless they—the writer, or the porn star, or both—are spectacular at being creepy. It's tricky with us and porn, because Facebook already blocks as if we're a porn site, despite the fact that a lot of what we publish, especially photo-wise, is Cottonelle soft. Though I personally can't stand being on Facebook and am convinced we'll get nothing bargaining with the algorithm, I do want to try to get back some of that traffic—and writers want to share their stuff, etc.—and everyone has Facebook, it's the phone book. The phone book didn't have ads for phone sex, did it? Looking it up...

You know, I'll look it up on my own time. I want to try to get adult-mag unblocked some places, and then, if that doesn't work, we might as well fuck it and get pornier, which would make me personally happier. Though to get pornier we have to have a business model, and for that we have to have a publisher, and I can't have anyone but exactly the right publisher. I'll know when I find the right one but I don't know when that will be.

Where do you think your creative energies would go if you were born in, say, 1956?

Similar places. In that world, I'd be the age I am now in 1985, the year I was born in this world. There was a magazine established in 1985 called On Our Backs, which I found out about when I started researching Adult—lwhen I wanted, as I always do, to find out who had my ideas before me.

On Our Backs was in title and in part a response to Off Our Backs, which was one of the radfem and anti-porn initiatives to come out of sisterly consciousness in the late 1960s, early 70s.

And what if you were born in 1926?

I would have loved to write for the Olympia Press. It doesn't depress me entirely that these things—these waves of politicized suppression of the sexy and the finely problematic, then these small, aestheticized revolts—are as cyclical as they are. For instance, we have a "new" Olympia Press, very self-consciously styled after the efforts of Maurice Girodias, led by a team with Paul Chan: Badlands Unlimited. It's all novellas. I’m always starting novellas and deciding they’re bad, but one of them, I’ve decided, I should turn into a novella for Badlands, only I haven’t told them, because I won't know if it's not bad—or if it’s bad in a hot way—until like, April, maybe May.


Hopefully I would have given my husband's money to the suffragettes.

What do you think you'll be doing in twenty years?

By then, speaking of hope, I should richly deserve a real vacation, a real mental breakdown, like in The Black Swan or The Summer After Dark, two novels I read this year just to start getting excited. The Black Swan is Thomas Mann's novella; The Summer After Dark is Doris Lessing, if you wanted to know.

What's the difference between a real mental breakdown and, say, the garden variety sort?

Oh, I don't know. I'm hoping, not knowing. Let's say the difference is that, when the mental breakdown is real, you can't sell a personal essay about it. Though some people can sell anything and I can't tell if I'm one of them—hang on, let me ask someone else.


Durga, my best friend, says "I think so" re: whether I'm a person who can sell anything, and then she said something else but I can't like, manually RT praise into this conversation. I can just let you know that it's there, that's the extent of my vanity. See, that makes me feel both nice and more failed—if I can sell anything, why am I not selling it harder? I have a deep ambivalence about making anything that is even vaguely art, because when you make art you're saying, "this matters," and this matters too, and this, and this, and it's just like, how much can matter, how much can I care, being at heart a kid nihilist, as well as, like a lot of nihilists, a problematic romancer of the dead.

Making something in print, a magazine like this, sexy and dead, it's very necromantic—that was a theme in our second issue. Have you seen it? Should I send it to you?


Okay, email me your address.

Are you ever worried none of it means anything at all? Or worse, that you'll come to that realization yourself?

AM I EVER WORRIED NONE OF IT MEANS ANYTHING AT ALL. Yeah, no shit. Luckily it's not up to me to make meaning by myself in my bed, which by the way, just from a branding perspective, is where I am right now. Adult isn't still my idea. It stopped being my idea when Berkeley came in to creative direct it, to make it pretty—gorgeous, really—from scratch, and to give the sensibility her very particular bent. When Ana and Soraya and Lauren and Raillan all came in, launching the site and the second issue. Lauren does the Instagram without me and it's a sick evocation of what she looks at and likes that now we also like and also sort of comes to look like us. Ana does our best/best-loved feature online, the Morning Afters. Soraya's taste in fiction is responsible for my favourite thing in ages, which is Adam Wilson's alien porn story.

Jesse, my husband, says: "You yourself are an easy sell [pink hearts emoji]. The problem is you're a true believer/romantic. Romantics can't sell". Wish I were quiiite romantic enough to feel virtuous in failing, or vain enough to be empowered by "haters," or even to say haters without quotation marks, which even less successful people than I am seem to be able to do without compunction.

We're nearly out of time, so I'm going to ask you to do something you might not want to do. In the case of the person who might really enjoy your material, but is just not comfortable enough to peruse it (this person doesn't look at porn), how would you make the case to check out Adult?

The case is made in interviews with me, on my Twitter, my Tumblr, ditto for everyone else who's involved, we're all individual gateways to the Cottonelle-soft drug of Adult as it is over all, though of course there are hard things in the mix. Do you find it hard? I don't, but maybe I'm hard, somewhere.

Thanks for your time and your words, Sarah. Cha cha.

Thank you for having me, a pleasure!