Behind the Book with Rebecca Sullivan

9781442627246Rebecca Sullivan is the author of Bonnie Sherr Klein’s "Not a Love Story". Using interviews with members of the crew and extensive archival research into the production process, Rebecca Sullivan delves into the creation and reception of Not a Love Story to explore the issues of censorship, sexual labour and performance, and documentary practice that the film raised.

How did you become involved in your area of research?

I have always had a lot of curiosity about issues relating to women's sexuality. Maybe it's because I have four older sisters. Maybe it's because I never really could believe the stuff they tried to teach me in Sex Ed and Sunday school. Whatever the reason, I feel that we can do better with our frameworks for exploring and debating sexuality in our culture.

What inspired you to write this book?

I had a longstanding and complicated relationship to the film, Not a Love Story. I remember when it first came out and, as a 14-year old, I was intrigued by all this talk about sex and porn. As my own feminist consciousness evolved in university, I was among the many to dismiss the film as retrograde and anti-sex. But I never quite believed my own arguments. When the chance came to dive deeply into the film and write a whole book on it, I jumped.

How did you become interested in the subject?

The media and popular culture are a huge part of our sexual education, but it is usually treated as nothing but a negative influence. I don't believe that for a second. My own coming to terms with my sexuality was hugely and positively influenced by films like Not a Love Story (not to mention popular music, novels, television, other films, you name it). I wanted this book to be about the enormous power and complexity of film to tell stories about women's lives and to enrich our intellectual and sexual self-discovery.

How long did it take you to write your latest book?

Well, I'm a fast writer but a slow thinker. I first proposed this book to the editors of the Canadian Cinema Series in 2005, when I was about six months pregnant. I slipped in and out of the project for eight years before I felt ready to just sit down and WRITE. I completed the manuscript from start to finish in about seven weeks over the summer of 2013.

What do you find most interesting about your area of research?

The best part about studying feminist art and activism is that the field keeps changing and growing. I learn so much from the people doing amazing stuff and questioning their own artistic and political practices. For example, it was the feminist porn community who developed sophisticated theories about consent and self-determination within sex work. As scholars, we have a lot to learn from the people on the ground putting their bodies on the line, and should be listening to them more.

What do you wish other people knew about your area of research?

We're getting closer and closer to knowing this, but I wish the pro/anti divide in porn studies would just stop already. It is not only possible but is absolutely necessary to move beyond such tired binaries and come to better understandings about the problems and potential of sexually explicit media.

What's the most surprising thing you discovered during the course of your research?

Doing the interviews was revelatory. So much of the 'received history' of Not a Love Story was essentially invented out of thin air and repeated ad nauseum until it was accepted as fact. But talking to the people intimately involved in making the film, hearing how some of the moments caught on film were happy - and sometimes not-so-happy - accidents, the painstaking process of assembling footage into film. We tend to take the final film at face value, but understanding the process brings whole new levels of insight into what constitutes feminist filmmaking practices.

Do you have to travel much concerning the research/writing of your book?

I travelled to Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, and Peterborough to interview people about the film. All wonderful places to visit so it was just a perk!

What was the hardest part of writing your book?

Getting the feminist porn activist community to slow down so I could catch up to their ideas! Honestly, the whole terrain of feminist porn production, performance, and analysis has radically transformed itself and my perspective on what porn can achieve changed with it. As I write in the book, part of my process was getting myself and my readers to slow down a bit, think about how far we've come, and get excited about how far we can go.

Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?

I think the most important thing I learned from this process was a deep appreciation of our feminist foremothers in this country, their uphill battles, their genuine sincerity in their politics even if it turns out history wasn't on their side, and their desire to leave the world a better place for the next generation. A lot of mistakes have been made in the Canadian women's movement, and Studio D contributed their fair share of them, but imperfect action is better than no action at all - especially if we all agree to learn from our mistakes and carry on.

What are your current/future projects?

This project brought together two strands of my research which I am currently taking on separate paths with the hope of bringing them back together eventually. I just finished a book on pornography that presents an overview of feminist debates about it, and argues for greater complexity and nuance that puts the experience of performers at the forefront of our analyses.

My next project is to map the legacy of Studio D through both scholarly analysis and critical digital tools in order to assess the role of feminist filmmaking to gender and sexual politics in Canada. This is a big project, with partners from both University of Calgary and Simon Fraser University - so check back in with me in eight years. ;-)

What do you like to read for pleasure? What are you currently reading?

I enjoy memoirs from artists that focus on key periods of their career and bring some insight into their creative practices. Autobiographies are kinda boring, but memoirs are incredibly revealing and thought provoking.

What is your favourite book?

I just hosted a dinner party where the conversation was not on favourite books but on what books had the most transformative impact on our lives. I have to say that I much prefer that question as deciding my favourite book is dependent on how I'm feeling that day. So, with that in mind, I have to say that Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez' Love and Rockets was arguably the book(s) that most inspired me to become a bad ass feminist.

If you weren't working in academia, what would you be doing instead?

My mother-in-law once asked me what would I do if I won the lottery. I talked about funding a research centre, writing more books, basically doing what I'm doing but for free. Being an academic at a major research university in Canada is pretty much a dream job. But if for any reason I decided to chuck it all, I think I'd become a glass artist. A feminist glass artist!

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