Jillian Lauren was born in New Jersey and found herself working in theater in New York by her late teens. Her work in theater led to a career in sex work, which became the subject of her memoir Some Girls, covering the time Lauren spent in the harem of Prince Jefri Bolkiah, youngest brother of the sultan of Brunei.
After leaving Brunei, Lauren struggled with drug and alcohol addiction before getting her life back on track, finishing her education and beginning her writing career. Her first novel, Pretty, explores the experiences of a woman whose choices land her in a halfway house in Los Angeles while she struggles to finish her last two weeks of cosmetology school without derailing her life.
Today, Lauren is an author, blogger, playwright, performer, wife and mother. Her one-woman show Mother Tongue, dealing with Lauren’s struggles to get pregnant and her decision to adopt, premiered this summer.
Lauren spoke with Lunch Ticket editor-in-chief Lise Quintana.
Lise Quintana: There are several levels of “coming out” with sensitive personal information about your life: coming out to friends, coming out to family, coming out to community, coming out to the world at large. Which was the hardest for you?
Jillian Lauren: They all have distinct challenges. I would say that the hardest for me was probably the community that I live in right now, because there were levels of revelation to my family and my close friends—but they sort of knew what I had done. They knew my history. But my neighbors, the moms in the “Mommy and Me” group, they don’t get that kind of information from me. They don’t know the stuff that I discuss in my memoir. Now they do, but they didn’t before. I wasn’t trying to hide anything, it just doesn’t come up at Gymboree that I used to be in a harem. So that was a little hard for me. Overall, the whole coming out has been a wonderful experience, and it’s allowed me to be myself in the world and allowed people to love me for who I am.
I wasn’t trying to hide anything, it just doesn’t come up at Gymboree that I used to be in a harem.
LQ: What gave you the courage to publish your memoir?
JL: I think that the only reason to write a book like this is that you can’t not write it. It was announcing itself to me and demanding to be written, and when I wrote the book, I did it in such a way that I thought that no one would ever read it. That’s how you have to write. Now it’s a little bit different for me. I know that’s probably not true, but at the time it was feasible to think that no one would ever read it. Every step of the way has been a revelation to me. I hope to approach all my work in the same way: you do the work because the work needs to be done, and then you worry about who’s going to publish it and read it later.
LQ: That brings up an interesting point. Once you’ve written your story and it’s ready to go, most writers have to start advocating for their work to get the attention of publishers. Did you have that problem?
JL: I did. I tried to sell my novel for a very long time – I actually have two novels, one of which was never published and the other one was written while I was at Antioch before I wrote my memoir. I was trying to sell that for a very long time, and it wasn’t until I packaged it with the book proposal for the memoir that I was able to sell them both. I think you do have to advocate for yourself, you do have to sell yourself. You have to act as if you’re the best writer there is and you have a voice that needs to be heard even on the days when you don’t believe it.
LQ: In “Some Girls,” you mentioned discovering that you had been writing all along, even though your first passion was theater. Given your earlier academic challenge [leaving New York University after only a few days], what motivated you to pursue your M.F.A.?
I just had a feeling that it was going to be a way for me to apply myself and to give some structure to my writing process and to get behind myself and say “This is what I’m doing now. I’m a writer. This is who I am.”
JL: I had to go back and get my B.A. I had cobbled together different classes from different colleges over the years, and so many times I decided I was going to go back to school and then quit. I had gotten more disciplined and was settled and in a supportive, stable relationship, I was sober from drugs and alcohol, and I was ready to complete something. I went back and got my B.A. because I knew I wanted to get my M.F.A. in creative writing. It’s not because I felt so comfortable in academic settings, but I just had a feeling that it was going to be a way for me to apply myself and to give some structure to my writing process and to get behind myself and say “This is what I’m doing now. I’m a writer. This is who I am.”
LQ: Although “Pretty” is a novel, much of it was lifted from your own experience. Your main character Bebe has a visceral negative attitude toward the authority figures in her life (whom she and Jake refer to as “zombies”). Before you got sober, was that your view of people who lived a more conventional life than your own?
JL: (laughs) It still sometimes is! I’m from a fringe perspective. Ever since I was a teenager, I’ve always felt like I was on the margins of culture. That’s the perspective I try to speak from and those are the voices that I’m interested in representing. Those are the voices of the people around me on the margins. I’ve never called anyone a zombie: that was the language of the book. But it does represent my perspective in some ways. One with the volume turned up: a more immature version of my perspective.
LQ: You’ve just said that you’ve always felt at the margins. Do you feel that you’re claiming that as your territory—people in the minority: sex workers, adoptees, the tattooed, non-whites, addicts, etc.?
JL: Yeah! I don’t really have a choice. It is my space. It became very clear to me at a young age that it’s kind of a great space. It’s an electric and a creative place. It’s not always comfortable and it’s often more visible than I want to be. Right now I have a transracial family with multiple adoptions, I’m tattooed to my eyeballs. I’m very visible in society. Sometimes I wish I could blend into the woodwork a little more, but I’ve learned to really embrace it as who I am. It’s always going to be what my work is about.
LQ: There’s no doubt that you carry a lot of legitimacy about issues concerning addiction and sex work, but do you feel it was hard for you to be heard on issues of body image, class or race, since in those areas you can be seen as culturally normative?
JL: I think that I have a commitment to authenticity, and I hope that is apparent in the work. I don’t feel that it’s ever been questioned that I have the right or the place to talk about body image. It’s true, I’m just a kind of normal attractive person, but that has not been my internal experience and I’m interested in writing from the gut. I think that the work that I’ve done around these issues has resonated with readers more than anything that I’ve written, judging by the response I’ve gotten. But it’s all one big thing. Sex work and body image—these two things go hand-in-hand to me.
LQ: It was evident in both Pretty and Some Girls, which, by the way, I got my mother to read and she loves.
I hear all the time “I gave Some Girls to my mother and she loved it.” That means a lot to me. It’s become an intergenerational kind of dialogue.
JL: Thank you! Do you know how many times that I hear that? I’m not sure why, but I hear all the time “I gave Some Girls to my mother and she loved it.” That means a lot to me. It’s become an intergenerational kind of dialogue. It seems like there’s a real through-line, even though I didn’t necessarily intend one.
LQ: You mentioned in a 2011 interview that your character Bebe was “struggling with who she is and what is her real value.” Is that at the heart of your own need to write?
JL: I think that my need to write is not a conscious thing. It is inborn, and I could ascribe a lot of reasons to it. It gives me a reason to experience the world around me. I’ve always been a compulsive documenter. It’s my inborn impulse: to look at the world around me and arrange it into narrative. I don’t know if it’s my search for my value, but maybe it’s a piece of that. I mean, I get my sense of value more from my relationships with people. I hope that comes out in my book, but that’s definitely in the mix, for sure.
LQ: You use the phrase “being present” a lot. What does that mean for you when you’re writing?
JL: I think that’s a real struggle when I’m writing because our attention is so split and our brains are these incredibly fast multi-tasking machines right now. I’m a mother and I’m a blogger and I have eight million bazillion things that I’m constantly juggling, but when I have to sit down and do the hard work—when I have to write a book—I have to be present in my emotions, present in my body, I have to be not multi-tasking. It’s a real challenge. It takes a moment to get into that space and it takes a big moment to get out of it. It takes real commitment to carve out time in the day when you are just dedicated to being present with whatever you’re working on.
LQ: You’ve adopted a boy from Ethiopia and you blog about that choice and the challenges it has presented you. Given the investment of time that any preschooler takes, where do you find the time to write daily?
JL: I prioritize it. I have had this discipline in place for so long. There are times when I stray from it, when I’m publicizing a new book or something, and I’m not able to write every day. Right now I’m in a creative groove and I’m writing by 9:30 or 10:30, and I write for four hours. I’m extremely regimented about it and that’s how I find the time. My house is a disaster and I let a lot of things go. My garden looks like Morticia Addams is our gardener. I just keep thinking that at the end of my life I’ll wish I wrote more books and I spent more time with my child. I don’t think I’ll say I wish my crap drawer was more organized.
LQ: You describe yourself in your book as a “feminist sex activist.” Now that you’re a parent, how has your view of sex and society changed?
It’s become more urgent to me that my son learns to love and respect his body and the bodies of other people around him.
JL: And being the mother of a boy—not just being a parent, but being the mother of a boy after all that I’ve been through. It’s a real lesson. It’s a challenge to root out any of the last resentments I have about men. As a parent, my views of sex and society haven’t changed that much. They’ve become more urgent. It’s become more urgent to me that my son learns to love and respect his body and the bodies of other people around him. That women are able to maintain reproductive freedom of choice. That stuff has become more important.
LQ: You say that as the mother of a son, it’s particularly urgent. In both your books you talk about how being viewed as attractive or unattractive affects women at every stage of life, practically from infancy. Have you thought about how you’ll address that issue as the mother of a son?
JL: My son’s still four and a half. I think that there are a lot of issues that I don’t have right up in my face because I don’t have a daughter. That’s a whole other ball of wax that’s present for me, but it’s not right in my living room. But believe me, I don’t care if my son is gay, straight, transgender, he is going to treat everyone kindly and with respect.
LQ: What are you working on now?
JL: I’m working on another memoir about trying to get pregnant and trying to have a family and what that journey was like for me and coming to the decision to adopt my son and how that made me confront my own feelings about being adopted.
LQ: Does it have a name yet?
JL: Nope. It is the as-yet-untitled memoir. If anyone has any great ideas, you should let me know.