A Chronology of the Life of MARCELLA: A NOVEL
MARCELLA was born in my psychoanalyst's New York City office. My depression birthed it. Session after session I talked about suicide, until Dr. Arthur E. Jones asked, "Have you ever actually tried to kill yourself?" I said, "Yes," and details exploded, details that I used in the last chapter of MARCELLA.
I began to write MARCELLA as a short story, but it soon morphed into an autographically based novel. I shook as I struggled to articulate my traumatic experience. Then a close writer friend, Kate Yarrow (then Irene Schram), said to me, "Marilyn, this is the most important thing you've ever written." Kate became my first reader, editing my manuscript each time I rewrote it.
That was no small task. Over the course of five years, I rewrote the entire manuscript twelve times. Sometimes I composed or corrected by hand, but eventually I used a manual typewriter for each draft. I wrote on a German portable, a gift from my folks. It was small but too heavy to dance on the tabletop. On my best days, I could type 90 words per minute.
My friend's agent, Elaine Markson, Elaine Markson Literary Agency, marketed MARCELLA for me. The book, with its frank sexual theme, proved controversial. By the time Charterhouse, a division of David McKay, bought it, eleven publishers had turned it down. Markson said women in the publishing houses usually argued for it, the men against it. Sometimes fights erupted.
Even Charterhouse's publisher didn't like my book. If it were up to him, he said, he'd turn it down. However, he had promised his editor, Carol Rinzler, that she could choose the next book to be published. To his chagrin, she chose MARCELLA and refused to back down.
Although my publisher didn't like my book, he expected it to sell well. Charterhouse printed 7,000 copies of MARCELLA, 2,000 more than the usual first novel.
Charterhouse also hired one of New York's top photographers to snap my cover photo, so I met Jill Krementz. She specialized in photographing writers. That's how she met her lover (later her husband) Kurt Vonnegut.
Charterhouse published the hardcover book in 1973. I received a substantial advance, enough for a trip to Europe with my boyfriend.
MARCELLA did well.
The feminists supported it.
Gloria Steinem hailed it. "We are beginning to speak of subjects we have been taught are unspeakable," she wrote. "This book is an important part of the truth telling by and for women."
Writer Alix Kates Shulman praised MARCELLA in a half-page review in the New York Times. She noted my skillful weaving together "the religious, sexual and musical themes that comprise the trinity of Marcella's obsession." She called Marcella a "haunting character."
Ms. published my menstruation chapter as "The Day Marcella 'Fell Off the Roof.'"
New York Times published my photograph as one of a lineup of women writers. The photos illustrated "Who's Afraid of Erica Jong?" an article by Norma Rosen. The other women writers pictured were Virginia Wolf, Erica Jong, Alix Kates Schulman, and Doris Lessing. We all wrote about sex.
Being a "famous author" was quite nice. I received positive letters from readers, and I experienced the sudden spotlight of recognition. In a New Jersey art gallery, a woman came up to me and said, "Excuse me. Aren't you Marilyn Coffey, the author of Marcella?"
Markson kept calling to tell me what country I'd be published in next.
Some Danish newspapers published a series from MARCELLA.
In Sydney, Australia, Pol published an excerpt from the book.
A review appeared in Echo, a Liverpool, England, newspaper.
In the states, People, Jet, and Newsweek mentioned MARCELLA. The Los Angeles Times, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Kirkus Reviews, New Times, Houston Chronicle; South Bend, Ind., Tribune, the Chattanooga, Tenn., Times and Psychology Today reviewed the book. Most reviewers supported the novel. One wrote that my last chapter, a "masterpiece of frenzied writing," outstripped James Joyce's Ulysses!
The New York Public Library's literature committee chose my novel to display in the International Women's Art Festival, part of United Nations' International Women's Year, 1975.
Then in 1976, big news: publication of MARCELLA in paperback by Quartet in London, England.
The next year, MARCELLA landed me an invitation to the University of Nebraska's Lincoln campus to receive a Master Alumnus award for distinction in the field of writing. There Nebraska Governor J. James Exon appointed me an Admiral in the state's Great Navy. This, the state's highest honor, is delivered tongue-in-cheek, since Admirals in landlocked Nebraska claim jurisdiction over little but tadpoles.
While visiting south central Nebraska where I grew up, I discovered that MARCELLA, because of its sexual content, had been forbidden in the local libraries. The Alma library banned the book from its shelves but would order it if a patron requested it. The Orleans library outlawed it totally.
"We did it to protect your family," Genevieve Dugan, a librarian, said.
How unnecessary! My family had already blackballed it.
So I joined that exceedingly long and often prestigious list of writers whose work has been banned: Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Jonathan Swift, Darwin, Walt Whitman, Lewis Carroll, Mark Twain, Gilbert & Sullivan, Aldous Huxley, Walt Disney, Arthur Miller, and so on and so on and so forth. What an honor to be part of such a rogues' gallery!
Urbane New York City couldn't care less about a few vaginal wiggles. Except for my publisher, I never encountered negative criticism of MARCELLA there.
The book sold well. In 1977, when my publisher, Charterhouse, folded, only 350 copies of MARCELLA remained. Markson bought them for me. Today, those too are gone.
However, www.amazon.com keeps my used novels available. If you want a hardcover of MARCELLA, look on Amazon for Marcella [Unknown Binding]. Today when I checked prices on Amazon for MARCELLA in hardcover, they ranged from $5.98 to $227.
Except for a few copies sold here and there, MARCELLA slumbered into the 1980s. Then, to my astonishment, I discovered that my novel had made literary history.
One day as I walked across the campus at Pratt Institute where I taught, a friendly librarian grabbed me, hauled me into the library, and showed me an academic document that rated current novels.
She jabbed a forefinger on a page. "Look!"
I did, reading that MARCELLA had been ranked as the first novel written in English that used female autoeroticism as its main theme.
The librarian, excited, kept yanking my jacket sleeve and congratulating me as I memorized the statement.
Afterward, I rushed to the dictionary. Autoeroticism. Auto: self. Eroticism: Eros, love. Oh, I get it. Fancy language for masturbation. I whooped.
And this autoeroticism had a gender. Lucky Marcella, to be female. Being male would have earned her no kudos. Philip Roth had already collected those accolades for his Portnoy's Complaint, published in 1969.
THE BATTLE OF ORLEANS it would be called, but at first it was just an invitation to read. An artists' group, Experience the Plains, asked me to read my entire novel, MARCELLA, at its June 10-July 9, 1989 Art Walk in the village of Orleans, Nebraska, population 600.
I should have known better. The Orleans library, after all, had banned MARCELLA more totally than any other group.
But I got into the spirit of the thing. The Orleans Chamber of Commerce backed the event. My reading would promote tourism, bring folks to the small south central village. I could wear a costume, maybe a red dress with sanitary napkins attached when I read the menstruation chapter.
Experience the Plains billed my eight-hour-long reading as a marathon, and we invited a panel of speakers to comment on the book. The panelists, who agreed to come, included writers, scholars, a minister, an anthropologist, and a mental health director. They would come from Kearney and Lincoln, Nebraska; Kansas City, Kansas; Iowa City, Iowa; Manhattan and Brooklyn, New York; and Portland, Maine.
Dates were set, grants sought, posters created. And then . . .
. . . then thirty-one people showed up for the monthly Chamber of Commerce meeting, including six members. These twenty-five nonmembers--ministers, teachers and locals--all spoke against MARCELLA.
"Not the kind of book we want associated with our community."
"It's twenty chapters of self abuse."
"Stamford has its Pork Days," the Rev. Perry Holmgren, the ringleader, said. "Oxford has its Turkey Days, I shudder to think what appellation we would earn."
My June 17 MARCELLA Marathon became Marathin. I agreed to read some less offensive writings plus one chapter of MARCELLA "in the interests of free speech." I chose the menstruation chapter which had been published in Ms.
But that was not enough.
Holmgren came to the next Chamber meeting and paid $5 for a membership so he could make a motion and vote.
The project "will exclude decent, hard-working people, people who don't need an art walk to tell them abuse is wrong," he said. "What's the focus going to be next year, kiddy-porn or satanism?"
The Chamber did not approve Holmgren's motion to withdraw its support from both the Marathon and the Art Walk, but it did go on record as neither endorsing nor condemning the MARCELLA reading.
An Art Walk director, Renae Taylor, left the meeting early. Holmgren's criticism of artists as "lazy" and "embarrassing" irritated her. A week later, she announced our decision to scrub the Art Walk, my reading, and the panel discussion.
The area newspapers, especially the local Harlan County Journal and nearby Hastings Tribune had been reporting on the Chamber meetings since March. By May, other nearby papers--Kearney Hub, Franklin County Sentinel, and Oxford Standard--joined in covering the dispute.
On Sunday, June 11, the story went statewide in the Omaha World Herald. Staff Writer James Allen Flanery's sizable feature story, "Town Shuns Reading of Controversial Book," could be a model of evenhanded investigative reporting. He asked me was it true that I was "abrasive," and even interviewed my boss at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.
The next day, the MARCELLA Marathon Display opened in the University of Nebraska's Love Library in Lincoln to run from June 12 through August 25.
Lynn Beideck-Porn, archival assistant, had dreamed up the idea of displaying artifacts from the planned MARCELLA Marathon and the Art Walk.
In the Archives, she displayed photos of items the twenty artists planned to show in the actual Art Walk. She also displayed copies of MARCELLA under glass as well as news clippings, publicity, and letters written to create the panel that never was.
Beideck-Porn chose to feature some of my creative writing. "Coffey is an artist who carefully documents her metamorphosis," she wrote, "so we are able to demonstrate her continuing artistry in the face of her community's close-mindedness."
She referred to my mock "Name Orleans" contest, my open letter to the Orleans Chamber of Commerce & especially to Rev. What's His Name, and my short story, "Marcella Meets Big Jim" by Marcella Colby. I wrote all three in response to the Battle of Orleans, but published none.
"We are displaying Coffey's 'Marcella' Marathon materials not only because it is timely," Beideck-Porn said, "but also because Coffey is a very important Nebraska scholar and researcher who, right now, is on the cutting edge of literature."
Dr. Emily Jane Uzendoski, literary critic speaking at the Heritage Room, Bennett Martin Public library, Lincoln, Nebraska, called my fiction risk taking. It probes "deep deep into the psychology of female sexuality," she noted, calling me "Nebraska's most authentic woman fiction writer."
"What a pity," I thought in August 1989 as I gathered up my materials from the Archives display. "All this stuff with no home."
Then I had an idea. I remembered that, from 1956-58, I studied journalism at the University of Nebraska, said to be the second best journalism school in the United States. And until 1966, I worked as a journalist in Nebraska, Colorado, and New York City. I worked for newspapers, magazines (Good Housekeeping) and national syndicates (Associated Press). I'd read slush, edited copy, created text and photo features, and by 1966 when I gave up journalism for college teaching, I was working as editor of a national trade magazine.
I knew how to put together a publication.
So I did.
I created and edited a 64-page booklet the size of a standard magazine. Renae Taylor helped me. I reproduced her "Battle of Orleans" painting on the cover and she drew illustrations for my "Marcella Meets Big Jim."
I received permission to use news stories and photographs from Omaha World Herald, Lincoln Journal-Star, Hastings Daily Tribune, Kearney Hub, Harlan County Journal and more.
The seven panelists who never had a chance to speak sent their comments.
I titled the booklet
THE BATTLE OF ORLEANS:
An Illustrated Documentary of the MARCELLA Marathon.
Omega Cottonwood Press published it in 1991, and it has never gone out of print.
To buy one, go to http://conciergemarketing.com.
Today I consider MARCELLA the most daring book I ever wrote. I believe the masturbation described in my novel is lyrical and often funny. Sometimes I'm fortunate enough to find audiences who agree.
The 2006 Omaha Lit Fest literary sex panel, "Lit Up," was one of those audiences, although small: seventeen in the audience plus seven of us on stage.
Panelists discussed and marveled at the strange editorial aversion to the word "vagina" but not to "penis."
"Why not use 'vulva'?" asked Jannette Davis, a sex therapist. "That's where all the action takes place."
But Jami Attenberg, author of Instant Love, shook her curly head.
When my turn came, I read from MARCELLA. I love to read. When I first read my poetry in New York, I hired a coach to teach me breathing, enunciation, and volume control, so I can be in command of my reading voice.
I chose to share my description of Marcella's first orgasm. I began simply and directly: "...and then one night." Word by word, my pace and volume increased like Ravel's "Boléro" until Marcella's "walls ripple[d] ker - plash, ker - plash." I let my voice build to full volume as her orgasm arrived "like the crescendo of a great herd of buffalo tramping..."
What an ovation from the audience!
"Hey, Marilyn," a friend said as we broke up, "you really stole the show with that reading."
The next time a woman from the Omaha Public Library saw me, she turned to say hello, then hollered, "Oh, you're the Orgasm Lady!"
Attenberg later wrote about my reading. "And then there was the late night sex panel. Marilyn Coffey did this amazing reading from her book, Marcella, a novel about masturbation she wrote thirty years ago. It was seriously the best reading ever."
Two Omaha women--Sally Deskins and Lisa Pelto--impacted MARCELLA.
Slender, blonde Sally met me in the Village Grinder and, over coffee, she and I talked and talked and talked. Full of laughter and questions, Sally interviewed me.
The result was a feature story, "Orphan Trail," January 20-26, 2010, in The Reader, one of Omaha's free weekly newspapers. It can be found online at http://www.thereader.com/index.php/site/comments/orphan_trail/. Look for the "Culture" section.
She reviewed my fourth book, MAIL-ORDER KID, a biography of that spunky orphan train rider, Teresa Martin. A true story, my book looks at the orphan train movement through the eyes of one small child who yearns to know her "real" mother, survives a tortured childhood, and ultimately, as an adult, comes to terms with her past, her faith, and herself.
To buy a copy, go to http://conciergemarketing.com. That's where I met lionhearted Lisa Pelto who helped me produce and market MAIL-ORDER KID. Pelto heads up Concierge Marketing in Omaha, a professional business designed to help writers.
The 40th anniversary of MARCELLA slipped over the horizon, and I turned to Lisa to help me reprint my famous book and to Sally for help in promoting it.
Sally interviewed me for her blog, "Les Femmes Folles," and I became busy.
Ms. magazine's blog ran "Groundbreaking Autoerotic Novel Returns to Print," by Georgia Platts, Sept. 20, 2012.
During Banned Books Week (Sept. 30 to Oct. 6, 2012):
Lindsey Peterson of KVNO News interviewed me.
I served on a panel, in Omaha's W. Clarke Swanson branch library, discussing censorship and freedom of speech.
I served on a Lit Fest panel focused on unladylike demeanor in women writers.
Krystal Sidzyik, Entertainment Editor of UNO Gateway, wrote a feature entitled, "Author of Marcella reads story 23 years after the book was first banned."
Sally Deskins arranged for a second Marcella Marathon, a reading of my entire novel in Omaha's Benson Library in honor of MARCELLA's reprinting. Les Femmes Folles sponsored the reading. A variety of our friends read as if reading aloud about "sex, sin and guilt" were normal. Lindsey Peterson, a reporter for KVNO News, videotaped the reading for UNO TV. If you're curious to see how I look at 75, here's the link: http://tinyurl.com/9gwolwf.
Lisa Pelto looked up from the spread of book covers on the table. "I think," she said, "we should market MARCELLA to the young adult market."
"Twelve to eighteen?" I blanched. Marcella's age.
In 1973, only adults read MARCELLA, and they probably carried her on the subway in a plain brown paper wrapper. But then, I knew, young adults are much more sophisticated about sex than my generation had been. They'd probably read this ground-breaking novel as ancient history.
So I agreed.
"You've come a long way, baby," I say to Marcella these days. It's been a bit of a roller-coaster ride at times. I'm immensely happy to see Omega Cottonwood Press's reprint of MARCELLA available now on www.amazon.com or through http://conciergemarketing.com.
Omega Cottonwood Press has also published:
PRICKSONGS: Tart Poems from the Sixties, a poetry collection new in 2013. It includes my Pushcart Prize-winning "Pricksong," and other poems that crackle with erotic energy, some poems of trespass, others just frisky.
MAS-TUR-BA-TION: A Rollicking Tract, my irreverent booklet on a subject that Sigmund Freud called inexhaustible and Mark Twain couldn't resist ridiculing.
THE BATTLE OF ORLEANS: An Illustrated Documentary of the MARCELLA Marathon. MARATHON a documentary book about the Orleans marathon brouhaha and cancelled in Orleans, Nebraska, due to its controversial nature.
MAIL-ORDER KID: An Orphan Train Rider's Story. a biography of a spunky orphan train rider, who survives a tortured childhood, and ultimately, as an adult, comes to terms with her past, her faith, and herself.
All are available at http://conciergemarketing.com.