Marilyn June Coffey is the author of MARCELLA, a ground breaking novel first published 40 years ago that dealt with themes of female sexuality unlike any other book before it. In fact, MARCELLA was banned in many cities due to its exploration of female sexual desire.
My Savvy Sisters is honored to profile Marilyn Coffey to learn more about her work as a pioneer in ushering in the age of female sexual awakening. ~Te-Erika
MSS: Your book MARCELLA was created from a very rough time in your life when you considered suicide. Would you be able to reach back and describe what your life was like then and how you came to the decision that suicide was the best answer?
The circumstances of my life when I attempted suicide were similar to the last chapter in my novel, MARCELLA. I needed help, but couldn’t find it in friends or family, so I turned to an officer of the church. When he molested me instead of helping me, I felt stymied. No where to turn. So I attempted to kill myself. I was living in my home town, Alma, Nebraska, and must have been about sixteen.
I didn’t exactly reach out to a therapist. My boss (and friend) at Home Furnishings Daily, a New York City newspaper, sent me for psychological testing. Those folks found a psychoanalyst for me.
MSS: How was Marcella born?
Marilyn: 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.
MARCELLA’s birthing affected my outlook on life primarily as a writer. Daring to write about her experiences, to be able to articulate her passions and her fears, enabled me to burst into my own as a writer. I went beyond the journalism I’d been trained to write, turning to poetry as well as to prose to express myself.
MSS: In your blog you describe that a good friend of yours helped revise your first drafts of MARCELLA. Since she is only one person, with a biased opinion because she is your friend, what gave you the confidence to seek a publisher for your work?
Marilyn: My friend, Kate Yarrow (then Irene Schram), was a more accomplished writer than I was. She had had dozens of poems published in little literary magazines; she had written a novel and was looking for an agent. One day as she waited to pick up a child from school, she stood talking to a woman who’d become a school yard friend.
“By the way,” her friend said. “What do you do besides being a mother?”
“I write,” Kate said.
“Oh. I’m an agent.”
She was Elaine Markson of Elaine Markson Literary Agency. She became Kate’s agent, and then mine.
MSS: In today’s publishing era, more authors have the ability to self-publish online or in print and hire marketing teams to promote their work. How do you think Marcella would have faired had she been introduced today?
Marilyn: I expect I’d have had my fifteen minutes of fame with her. Now that I’ve reprinted the book, I’m experiencing a lot more interest in MARCELLA than I experienced in 1973. But look at what’s happened in those 40 years. There’s much more candor about sex, now, thanks to Dr. Ruth. And therapists have developed ways to help children and adolescents who have been sexually abused. We’re free to discuss these issues.
MSS: Tell me about the era when MARCELLA was introduced. Why do you believe it was groundbreaking for women to read about her life?
Marilyn: Let me tell you first about Marcella’s era, the late 1940s. She’s living in a tiny town in Kansas with a mother who is struggling to bring her daughter up “right” and a father who likes to kid his daughter. Marcella wants to be part of the “in” crowd at school, but she isn’t. She’s too serious and, after her conversion, too overtly Christian. She’s drawn to Catholicism but is terrified of it because she thinks it’s “wrong.” Catholics, she believes, worship graven images, praying to statues instead of worshiping God. She’s in a tight spot.
The aspects of Marcella’s personality that are overshadowed by the sexual content of the novel is her rich love of music and her desire to seek out the truth.
I believe that MARCELLA is groundbreaking because it is the first novel written in English that uses female autoeroticism, or masturbation, as its main theme. My book did something no novelist writing in English had ever done before. That’s groundbreaking.
MSS: Is Marcella your shadow side? What are a couple of differences between you and the semi autobiographical character?
Marilyn: My shadow side? I think of us more like Bobbsey twins. The primary difference between us is exaggeration. So although the book is autobiographically based, it’s no longer real.
MSS: You were able to deliver a book that broke the mold back when it was first published. What do you believe a female writer would have to do today to create the same type of progress in literature?
Marilyn: That task gets progressively harder as we move through time. I’m looking forward to the day when female writers can write openly under their own names. Even J.K. Rowling’s publisher, Bloomsbury, told her to sell her Harry Potter books under initials, not her given name, Joanne.
MSS: In the wake of such an illuminating creation, many awards, debates and the high point of being a rebel who has a book banned, what do you look forward to these days? What is your life like now?
Marilyn: I look forward to writing daily. It’s been my primary enthusiasm for 64 years. I love it. I also love exercising; when I can’t walk outdoors, I treadmill. And I’m deeply enamored of the life my partner, Jack Loscutoff, also a writer, and I have built together.
To learn more about Marilyn Coffey’s work please visit www.marilyncoffey.net