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Q&A: Emma Taylor and Lorelei Sharkey
mb gets the "Em & Lo Down" from the authors of Nerve's new sex guide.- July 11, 2003
Emma Taylor and Lorelei Sharkey started out as such nice girls. Taylor, a British Princeton grad, was an editor at Tripod.com, where she created an online women's magazine. Sharkey, a New York native, was managing editor of Stuff, an arts and entertainment monthly published by The Boston Phoenix—not, she emphasizes, the men's magazine. Then they ended up at Nerve, the so-called literary-smut website. One thing led to another, as they say, and now they've literally written the book on sex—The Big Bang: Nerve's Guide to the New Sexual Universe, which was published earlier this month. Which all raises the question, how'd they end up doing this?
When the two started at Nerve, they were charged with creating an online community. They built "Nerve Center," which included chat rooms, message boards, and the now-ubiquitous personals, which, spun off as Spring Street Networks, have since taken over the world. As part of "Nerve Center," they began an advice column, "The Em & Lo Down." Billing themselves as "near experts," they answered readers' questions on everything from marital infidelity to pubic-hair grooming. The column became hugely popular, and Taylor and Sharkey dispensed sex advice for Men's Journal and Britain's Guardian newspaper. The Big Bang, meanwhile, with its arty, pansexual, semi-nude photos (many shot at Coney Island) and abundance of pop-culture references, is sure to become the hipster's Joy of Sex.
Taylor and Sharkey, who finish each other's sentences and say they spend far too much time together, spoke to mediabistro.com last week about collaboration, living up to their image, and what their parents think.
Sharkey: In terms of questions to the advice column, if we're worried about being wrong or we're not sure of the answer to a question, we just won't answer it. We pick ones that we feel really strongly about and where we know the information is good.
Taylor: And where we've got an expert that we trust completely. We have good relationships with the women at Toys in Babeland and Good Vibrations. And for The Big Bang, we worked with a group of doctors who vetted the whole book to make sure that everything was medically accurate. The great thing about researching safer sex and sexual health is that the people who disseminate that information are so excited to get that information out there. The Centers for Disease Control has an STD hotline, and they're so helpful and kind. Planned Parenthood, the American Social Health Association. They're so psyched for anyone to take their information and put it out there that they're always willing to help.
Your column and the book aren't written in the style of traditional service journalism, where you quote various expert sources. It seems as though all the information is coming from you.
Sharkey: For the book, Nerve wanted it to be Nerve's guide and Nerve's voice. If we quoted doctors, it wouldn't be authoritative and it wouldn't be in the voice that we wanted. So even though we did make sure the information was accurate, we wanted it to be in the Nerve voice and to appeal to Nerve readers—people who wouldn't normally buy a sex manual, who don't really have a problem to fix, but who, like all of us, could learn a little bit.
Taylor: We've tried to set up the idea that we're a credible source. We've done some journalism for magazines where it's like, you have to have a doctor quote here, but that was because their readers don't feel comfortable taking suggestions from us, especially about something racy like sex. The editors feel that more conservative readers might feel more comfortable accepting advice that comes from someone who's been to med school. We're sort of trying to change that assumption, which was another reason for doing the book.
Sharkey: But a lot of the suggestions we make don't have to be medically accurate—they're more opinions about relationships. You don't need a degree in psychology to believe that you should treat your partner with respect and not lie to them or cheat on them. The stuff in the advice column is much more geared to our own opinions about the way people should treat each other sexually.
I'm really interested in your collaboration. How did you meet? How did you end up in this relationship?
Taylor: Lorelei's been at Nerve for five and a half years, and I've been there for four and a half. We didn't meet until the day I started, when we were sitting literally this close, sharing a dictionary, sharing a phone. It was completely serendipitous that we hit it off. The first thing we did together was create "Nerve Center." It was important for "Nerve Center" to have a voice, to feel personal.
Sharkey: We were the hosts, who people could talk to.
Taylor: That was how we started developing this voice that was a collaboration between the two of us. There would be little intros here and there, a newsletter...
Sharkey: ...descriptions of message boards, intros to the chats, all of the text for the personals, from "Help" to the actual questions in the personals.
Taylor: And when we were doing that we were working 12-hour days and pretty much living and breathing each other. About six months after the personals started, we decided that an advice column would be great in the personals section.
Sharkey: And we volunteered ourselves. We started doing it before anybody could think, "Maybe we should get somebody else who has some experience."
Taylor: And we knew how to upload stuff to the server.
What's your writing process like? Do you write together or take turns?
Taylor: It depends on what we're working on, but mostly we have a keyboard that we pass between us.
Sharkey: When we did the book, we wrote side by side for the first three months, but during the last month, when we needed to work faster, we split up the chapters. I would edit hers, she would edit mine, and we'd go back and forth a couple of times. But we'd take notes and brainstorm and come up with an outline together first—we'd go over the points we wanted to make, and make sure we agreed.
Have you ever disagreed?
Taylor: Rarely. Before we even start writing notes, we'll discuss a question for like half an hour to get to our answer.
Sharkey: We feel pretty similarly. The only things we disagree on are baby talk—Emma thinks that baby talk is a sign of mental infirmity. I think in the privacy of your own bedroom, it's OK, as long as you don't do it in front of other people. The only other thing is that Emma used to think that when you start dating someone, exclusivity is assumed. I said no way. And now she's seen the light.
You two are the euphemism queens. How do you come up with all your terms for body parts and sexual acts? I can imagine you sitting around cracking each other up.
Sharkey: Sometimes we high five. [They high five.] That's the good thing about writing with someone you trust: They'll tell you if something is crap. You don't have to sit there and think, Is this genius or is it totally stupid? I really hope the fact that we don't take ourselves too seriously shows through. I'm always afraid people will read us and think, "They think they're so funny." And when people do write in and ream us out, it really hurts.
Do you see yourselves collaborating for the rest of your careers, or do you expect to eventually do things individually, or even break up?
Both: Oh, no!
Taylor: We feel like we've got a really good brand, and we'd like to take it as far as we can go. We've been talking to a bunch of people about TV shows. We're going to be Em & Lo for a long time. We work much more efficiently together.
Sharkey: When you work with a partner, you've got someone there to be your sounding board and your support, but also to keep you disciplined. If I was on my own, I'd never get anything done, because I'd always turn on the TV or something. But I know I have Emma to answer to.
Did you ever think that you would end up being sex experts?
How has the job affected your personal lives? Is dating weird? Are you like doctors—do people always come up to you at parties looking for advice on their most intimate problems?
Taylor: Two nights ago, I was at a bar having drinks with my friend. I started chatting with the guy sitting next to me, and we went downstairs where there's this little area by the bathrooms. We kissed a few times, and then I was like, "OK, I'm gonna get going." And he said, "I just wanted to ask you something. I've always thought I was a little bit small. Since you're a professional, I was wondering if you thought I was average size." I was like, "Oh no!" I started going up the stairs, and he starts running behind me, still unzipping, like, "You're a professional! You're a professional!" I think he thought that was a way to turn up the heat.
Sharkey: I've been dating the same guy for years, and he's our biggest fan. But I feel like if I had to go out there in the dating world, guys would expect so much from me. Like, I wrote the book, I know every move, I have no hang-ups or insecurities, and that's definitely not true.
What do your parents think about your jobs?
Sharkey: Mine are fine. My dad and my stepmom are very supportive. I don't think they read it that much, but they're very excited for me. My mom might have a little more of a problem with it, but she's never said anything like, "When are you going to get a real job?"
Taylor: My parents are religious, but they're fairly open-minded. For a long time I just didn't really talk to them about what I did. My mom would tell her friends, "My daughter works at a magazine for young people." And then when the Guardian column started in England, which is where they live, I was like, "Okay, you can be really proud of me, just don't read it." They were like, "Of course we're going to read it!" But it was good, because it was the first time I could be really honest with them about what I did. They're actually really cool about it. I just sent them a copy of The Big Bang, and I signed it, "Thanks so much for all your support! Now please turn to page 258," which is the bio in the back. My dad went to his Oxford reunion and he and his friends were talking about what their kids do. He was like, "My daughter's a writer—she actually has a column in the Guardian." And his friend said, "Oh, that's right! I just read that one about anal sex this morning!"
Emily Fromm is a freelance writer living in New York City. The Big Bang: Nerve's Guide to the New Sexual Universe was published earlier this month by Plume, a member of the Penguin Group (USA) Inc. You can buy The Big Bang at Amazon.com.
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