California Literary Review

Confessions of a Porn Writer

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March 31st, 2007 at 5:33 pm

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Lynn Isenberg and Tao

My Life Uncovered has been dubbed “Mary Tyler Moore meets Boogie Nights” and it’s the hilarious, heartwarming debut novel by Lynn Isenberg, published by Red Dress Ink.

Meet Laura Taylor, a “nice Jewish girl” from Michigan, who heads to Hollywood to become a legitimate screenwriter. However, after quitting her job for the promise of a movie deal on her serious script, Laura suddenly finds that her agent has disappeared, along with her Hollywood dreams. With no money to live off, let alone fix her ailing car, it’s her mechanic who offers to reduce her repair bills if Laura meets with his cousin who is a producer looking for a script writer. Which is how Laura comes to find herself writing for the adult film industry. Sound far-fetched? Think again. It’s based on Isenberg’s own experiences in Hollywood 10 years ago.

In her book jacket photograph, Isenberg looks every inch of her 44 years. Wearing a spaghetti-strap top and revealing a tantalizing hint of cleavage, Isenberg looms larger than life ­- staring semi-seductively down the camera lens, attempting a ‘come-hither’ look; her straight-brown hair blow-dried within an inch of its life. For promotional purposes, the shot makes perfect sense. But in reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Dressed casually in faded jeans, a cuddly sweater, and sensible hiking boots, Isenberg looks at least 10 years younger. Tucked away in her three-story condo in Marina Del Rey, she plays affectionately with her two-year-old Border Collie/Retriever – Tao. (“I got her from the pound to get over a broken relationship.”)

Her hair is wild and tousled and there’s not a red talon in sight. In fact, her fingernails are cut back to the quick. And she is incredibly tiny. She looks like the kind of woman whom Hollywood moguls chew up and spit out before they’ve even had their morning coffee.

However, Isenberg is nothing if not tenacious (her choice of word). And it’s that tenacity that saw this nice Jewish girl from Michigan pick up stakes and trek out to Hollywood to become a scriptwriter after graduating from the University of Michigan in 1982. That she found herself writing scripts for adult movies is just one aspect of her extraordinary life which she has now chosen to share in her debut novel.

So how exactly does a nice Jewish girl land up writing pornography?

By accident, says Isenberg. Upon moving to Hollywood, Isenberg did enjoy some success early on, collaborating as both a writer and a producer on mainstream films such as “I love you to Death” with Keanu Reeves and Kevin Kline, and “Youngblood” with Rob Lowe and Cynthia Gibb. But when money and work began to dry up she touched base with a friend in the business who was working for the Playboy channel, and he asked her to send a few scripts. “I had no idea I’d written an adult movie,” she says. “I had been hired to write a movie for the Playboy channel – soft porn. I didn’t know that Playboy had co-financed it with an adult film company and suddenly there were many different versions of my film. I didn’t know until a year later when the head of Playboy called me up and said, ‘Congratulations on your nomination for best screenplay,’ and I said ‘What are you talking about?’”

That vignette is lifted from her life and finds its way into her novel, in an hilarious scene in which Laura finds herself at the Adult Video Awards in Las Vegas. Isenberg says it’s no coincidence that her first adult movie “Things Change” (the only real name she also keeps in the novel) was such a hit. “I’d never seen a porn movie before, and I just thought, I’m going to do the best job I can and I’m going to deal with issues that are relevant and I’m going to write a real plot, a real storyline, and develop these characters as best as I can. And I did.”

As a result, Isenberg actually received a mention in the Wall Street Journal for “Things Change” because it became one of the highest selling adult films of all time.

It’s that moral integrity, coupled with tongue-in-cheek humor that makes her novel so successful. Says Isenberg, there’s a fair amount of herself in her protagonist, down to bequeathing her own real-life pseudonym – Bella Feega – to Laura. It’s a name that provides many humorous opportunities within the novel, given that Bella Feega is Italian slang for “pretty pussy”. “My boyfriend at the time – who was of Italian descent – came up with the name,” recalls Isenberg. “I said to him, ‘Oh no, that’s gross!’ But he said, ‘Trust me, this is the way to go.’”

But, Isenberg is quick to point out, she is not nearly as neurotic as her protagonist, who attempts to hide her latest career move from her friends and family. “I was much more open about what I was doing with my close friends in the industry,” says Isenberg. “I probably should have been more like Laura. But I didn’t care. I don’t believe in pigeonholing people. However, Hollywood does,” she adds, laughing. “But I don’t choose to live my life like that.”

In the novel, Laura grapples with the moral implications of her work, and finds inspiration in attending her local synagogue and listening to the rabbi’s sermons. And Isenberg is no different, finding her own solace at Temple Sinai in Los Angeles on many a Shabbat morning.

Raised in a Conservative household in Michigan, she attended Hebrew school through 12th grade and went to Sha’are Zedek Temple. She revealed her rebel tendencies at an early age, demanding to be batmitzvah. It didn’t happen. “I just thought, why should the boys get this rite of passage and not the girls? Even my parents didn’t support me in this!” Isenberg had to settle for a “confirmation” ceremony at 16. Nevertheless, she says she has very strong connections to her Jewish roots, and loves the symbols, rituals, and the family events. And as we make our way to a local café for breakfast, Isenberg asks the waitress to hold the bacon and checks that the sausages are in fact chicken sausages before agreeing to order them.

So how does she feel about the caveat that “nice Jewish girls don’t write porn,” and how has the Jewish community reacted to her novel?

“I have no idea how the Jewish community has reacted, but I’d like to know,” she says. “But Jewish/non-Jewish,” she adds, “when I was writing for the adult movie industry, I had to be open-minded and tolerant. And because Jews have always been discriminated against, I think being Jewish helped me to not be judgmental.”

And what of the charge that her novel glorifies and promotes pornography? “Pornography and prostitution have been around for ages,” she says. “They’re not going to go away. I think pornography helps reduce sexual abuse and rape and violence. I believe it’s an outlet. I’m not condoning certain forms of pornography which are extremely violent and that even the adult industry is denouncing. But what about the men out there who have no social skills and are uncomfortable around women? When I went to a strip club for the first time, I saw men lining up to have their photos taken with a porn star. Initially, I thought, ‘Oh my god, is this what they aspire to?’ And then I thought ‘Thank god they have something like this to aspire to.’ Because where would they be otherwise? They could be out running the streets looking for women to rape. This way they can go to a strip club, have a community of friends, and have this outlet – blind men, handicapped men. I saw all kinds of men there. When I saw that side of it, it really opened me up to looking at it in a really different way. And had I not gone through this life experience, I don’t know that I would be as open-minded.”

Whatever her views, Isenberg’s funny, debut novel about a porn writer with a heart, a conscience, and a soul, is finally bringing her some much-deserved success. She has a two-book deal with Red Dress Ink and is halfway through her second novel about a female entrepreneur. She is currently in discussions to turn My Life Uncovered into a film or a television series, and there is talk of finally producing her own script, Disturbances in the Field. Nevertheless, she still doesn’t consider herself successful. “I have very high standards,” she states matter-of-factly. “I’m very tough on myself. I need to learn – which is the theme of my next book – to define oneself not by your net worth but by your self worth.”

Isenberg takes her work, and the morality theme in her novel very seriously. But she manages do to so with large doses of humor.

Only from the pen of a true insider could we learn that a “fluffer” is a girl whose job it is to ensure that the male lead in an adult film is well, er, “primed” and ready for action between takes; that tantric-sex workshops, swingers parties and nudist colonies are where you go when you need to find real life couples to make love onscreen for adult sex-education videos; and that leather socks are all part of product placement and marketing in the adult film world.

In her 20 years in the industry, Isenberg has managed to continually reinvent herself – from being a script reader, a scriptwriter, and running a design company, to establishing the three day weekend Hollywood Literary Retreat for writers and producers in the industry. “To remind ourselves why we’re here in the first place – to tell stories, not necessarily to cut a deal,” she explains. And now she can add “novelist” to her bow. And although her book has been placed into the “chick-lit” category, Isenberg takes it all in her stride. “I’d never even heard of chick lit before my book was published,” she says, “and I had no idea that was Red Dress Ink’s specialty. I was just writing my own story. And I’m not sure My Life Uncovered fits the prescribed mold of chick lit since my protagonist is more concerned with her career than finding a man. I think chick lit is a buzz word for women’s contemporary fiction, which is what most women given their time in history, are about – the feminine gift of self-discovery, self-empowerment and validation.”

Heavy stuff. But it’s what has helped Isenberg survive in one of the toughest industries on the planet. “Surely the American Dream is if you keep trying and work hard, that middle class ethic will pay off and you will be rewarded,” she opines. “That was the ethic I bought into. Unfortunately that doesn’t really apply to Hollywood because everything in Hollywood is so random. That’s what was so difficult and painful. But it’s survival instinct too. When I was a little girl and going to Hebrew school, they used to show these Nazi persecution films, and I would have these horrible Nazi persecution dreams afterwards. But in those dreams I always survived. I always found a way out – I outsmarted them. So in real life I use that as a gauge. I know that when I’m not in the highest of spirits, my dreams are that I don’t survive. So I know I have to take some other type of action. And survive. Maybe it’s genetic. I was born a twin and I was in an incubator the first three weeks of my life. I think that created an innate level of tenacity and will to survive.”

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