Meant to entertain and titillate, pulp novels of the 1950s and 60s were found in newsstands, bus stations and drug stores. Unlike "literature" of this era, pulp fiction was produced for the masses and was meant more for entertainment than for literary quality. Of course, there were some exceptions to this. Some great writers wrote great books. Pulp author Vin Packer, who's real name was Marijane Meaker, was one of the first pulp writers to get her books reviewed by the prestigious New York Times
. Vin Packer wrote mysteries and lesbian pulp novels. She became known as a folk hero for lesbians in the 1950s and 60s because she wrote books that were sympathetic to lesbians, something that was unheard of at the time.
Vin Packer's books were printed on cheap paper and were meant to be read and tossed. But her words have withstood the test of time. Her first lesbian novel Spring Fire sold more than 1.5 million copies when it came out in 1952 and was said to have kicked off the lesbian pulp fiction era.
Marijane Meaker was quite a prolific writer. In addition to writing under the pen name Vin Packer, she also published non-fiction books using the name Ann Aldrich and then had a successful career as a young adult author using the pen name M.E. Kerr.
Vin Packer's books have been reissued now as e-books so yet another generation can enjoy her words and learn a bit about lesbian life from a different time. She spoke to Lesbian Life about all the different paths of her career.
Lesbian Life: Spring Fire is considered to be one of the first lesbian pulp novels ever published. It tells the story of two girls who fall in love in their sorority, however, the ending was less than positive. I understand you didn’t want to release the rights for this book to be published again because of that ending. What made you change your mind?
The ending was dictated by the times. Postal inspectors could reject any book they felt promoted an immoral viewpoint. If your book was judged to fit that the entire shipment would go back. You would take many authors with you. I was told before I began the book it could not have a happy ending. Like so many gay people in the fifties I didn't have a sense of entitlement. I felt a lesbian novel was an accomplishment in itself. The reason I did not release the rights was I was beginning a career as a young adult author, M.E. Kerr. I wanted to have a name in the field before I came out. I felt it would be pointless to announce that I was a lesbian at the start. I waited until I won The Margaret Edwards Award
for Lifetime Achievement given by The American Library Association. Then I came out in the forward of a book about homosexuality edited by Roger Sutton, accomplished editor and gay activist.
Spring Fire was so successful it was said to have sparked the whole lesbian pulp fiction genre. Even though many of these books had unfulfilling endings, they were a lifeline for lesbians of the day, letting them know they were not alone. Did you realize the impact your books had at the time you wrote them?
I certainly realized that after Spring
Fire was published. Mail from readers was given to me in boxes. Not before or after have I ever received so many letters from readers. I was amazed and gratified, for the majority of my correspondents were intelligent, lonely women looking for a connection to the gay world.
Your book The Evil Friendship is based on the Parker/Hulme murder case in New Zealand, which, of course which later became the basis for the movie Heavenly Creatures. What drew you to that story?
When I wrote a paperback suspense story, Come Destroy Me
by Vin Packer, Anthony Boucher, the Sunday New York Times Mystery columnist gave me my first important book review, unheard of for paperbacks. I had not decided to write crime exclusively but because of that I decided Packer would be my mystery name. After I did a crime story about two boys who murdered the mother of one,(Whisper His Sin
) Boucher sent me the details of a similar situation featuring two girls from New Zealand. He actually sent me the transcripts of their murder trial. It was in the fifties, long before one of the girls, out of prison, became an accomplished mystery writer. Once her career was established she was one of the mother murderers in the fictional movie Heavenly Creatures
, based on the case.
Much later we learned that your real name was Marijane Meaker and that you were one of the few writers of lesbian pulp fiction who was actually a lesbian. Did you have friendships with Ann Bannon or Valerie Taylor, two other lesbians who wrote lesbian pulp fiction?
I didn't know Taylor. Ann
wrote me after Spring Fire
and we corresponded for a while. She was married with kids yet longing to know more about homosexuality. I invited her to New York, discovered she wanted to write, showed her around the gay bars, and introduced her to my gay friends...and to my editor at Gold Medal Books. He was delighted with her and he encouraged her to write her first published book. Ann and I have remained friends through the years.
You later wrote books for young people using the pen name ME Kerr. I remember reading Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack! as a teenager and then Deliver Us from Evie as an adult. Even your young adult books covered “taboo” themes such as racism and homosexuality. What drew you to write about these kinds of topics?
I think when you grow up gay, particularly in the unwelcoming 30's and 40's, you develop a kinship with the underdog.