This guide contains spoilers.
Interview with the Author
Sean Shannon slips off her blue plaid shirt just enough to show me her new tattoo: “Bad Girl” in script on her right arm. “Jane Austen’s handwriting,” she says with a smile. “Because I’m a novelist and an English teacher, and also because if I am a bad girl then I’m a 19th century bad girl, ’cause I don’t drink or smoke or do drugs or sleep around or anything like that, but I do speak my mind an awful lot.”
There’s more than a touch of Elizabeth Bennet in Shannon’s affect. She takes pride in her lifelong rebellion against convention, although she does revere at least some of the past; she grew up watching Marx Brothers movies and TV shows like Laugh-In, made long before she was born, and she’s as much at ease talking about the first days of FDR’s presidency as she is enumerating the finer points of rope bondage. She’s even described The Prostitutes of Lake Wiishkoban as “a 21st century Bildungsroman,” positioning Alexis Tove as a modern-day Austen protagonist.
What’s most striking about talking with Shannon — when we aren’t staring at the rainy August evening outside the coffeehouse where we’re both drinking iced tea — is how she can hold court on almost any subject. She’s very self-effacing — sometimes cloyingly so — but no matter what turns our conversation takes, she always has a couple of facts or stories about the topic at hand, which then leads to another topic she’s eager to talk about. That makes for a good conversation (although she claims to be as shy as Alexis Tove), but a difficult interview to keep on track.
In the Acknowledgements, you credit the inspiration for The Prostitutes of Lake Wiishkoban to “Garrison Keillor, Charles Bukowski, Tom Waits and Mary Gaitskill.” I have to hear this story.
Okay. I was reading Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behavior one December, all the stories about sex and such, and Tom Waits’ song “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis” has been a holiday favorite of mine for awhile. It’s a Waits song, but the lyrics come from an old Bukowski poem. And I’ve been a fan of [A] Prairie Home Companion for decades, especially [the] “News from Lake Wobegon.”
And all this stuff was just bouncing around in my head, and I thought, “I wonder if Lake Wobegon has sex workers.” And, like, right away I went, “Of course they do. Men have the same urges everywhere.” So I started thinking, what would sex workers in Lake Wobegon be like? Because the men there are probably gonna want more than just “the deed,” you know? They’re gonna want some conversation, maybe about Camus. And no one’s gonna walk the streets in the winter in Minnesota. They’d catch their death of cold.
So I thought about where they’d all work, and the library seemed as good a place as any. Then the idea of the librarians doubling as sex workers hit me, and the line about needing to pay a fine on an overdue book just sprang to mind. Things pretty much took off from there.
So that was your premise. Where did Alexis come from?
She took a while. I wrote a short story first, because I’d been turning all my ideas into short stories, and it was like I was imitating Gaitskill in Bad Behavior. Alexis was very disaffected, very cynical, and she talked about huge events in just a couple of sentences. After I wrote it, I was like, “There’s something more here. I have to write something longer.” I’d taken a screenwriting course in undergrad, so I lengthened the story into a screenplay and started fleshing things out, and Alexis became less cynical and more sympathetic, but I still felt like I had a lot more to write. I’d read books on how to write novels […] and it felt like this was the time to try. And then as I wrote the first draft, Alexis shed her cynicism and … I think this is where I’m supposed to say that I “discovered who she was,” or I “found her voice,” but really, I just put a lot more of myself into her. You know, “Write what you know” and all that.
So Alexis is based off you?
Somewhat. I’m a lot like Alexis in public, and when I have to deal with a lot of new people at once, but I’m more like Vanessa when I’m with my friends.
And you originally called your story The Prostitutes of Lake Wobegon.
Yeah, but I couldn’t get [Keillor’s] permission to use Lake Wobegon, since it’s his trademark. Not that I blame him for that.
So did it take place in Lake Wobegon?
Brainerd, actually. When I had to change the title, I figured that I needed a reason for “Lake Wiishkoban” to be in the title, so I created the town of Lake Wiishkoban as a physical stand-in for Brainerd.
Lake Wiishkoban doesn’t exist?
Not that I know of, but with all the lakes in Minnesota, it could. “Wiishkoban” is an Ojibwe word for “sweet,” so it fits for that part of the country.
Back to the genesis of your story. Did you like writing about prostitutes in a library?
Yeah. I mean, I always like when I write a good story, and I knew I had one even before I started typing it out. I love puzzles, and figuring out how the library operated, and how they kept things secret, was like a huge puzzle that I got to create and solve at the same time.
What gets me about Alexis is that writers are told not to make their characters into clichés, but Alexis falls into two clichés: The “Hooker with a Heart of Gold” and the “Naughty Librarian.” Not that Alexis is a cliché, but how did you avoid having her become one?
I don’t think I ever really thought of her that way. I was just concerned with making her a human being, a full character. I don’t think you have to stay away from clichés entirely, but if you get close to them, then you have to make sure that [your character] isn’t just what their cliché makes them out to be. I think Alexis is a lot more than just those things, so if they’re true as well, they’re just part of what makes Alexis who she is.
Would you say The Prostitutes of Lake Wiishkoban is a comedy?
I have a very hard time putting it in any one genre. I set out to write a literary novel, but I can’t deny that I borrowed conventions from other genres like chick-lit and erotica, even romance. I call it [a] literary comedy most of the time, but if other people wanna put it into a different genre then I can’t really argue with them.
Is that a bad thing?
I don’t know. I mean, I can’t stand it when people pooh-pooh genre fiction like it’s somehow less worthy than literary fiction, and I didn’t even wanna write literary fiction until, like, five years after I took my last creative writing class, but I meant for the novel to be literary fiction. But I’ve always thought that how readers interpret a book should get attention. If people wanna think it’s an erotic novel because that’s how they interact with it, who am I to stop them?
I guess it’s just that I’ve had a hard time with agents and reviewers, because ninety-nine percent of them thought that the novel was either way too sexual, or nowhere near sexual enough. Either the premise turned them off at first sight, or they read it and they wanted ten times more sex scenes. And sex isn’t what the story’s about.
What is it about, then?
Adjusting to the world when you haven’t been prepared for it. Trying to figure out who you are when you’ve been conditioned to focus on what other people see in you. Small-town America struggling to keep its identity in the era of globalization.
A lot of what happens in Monroe comes from when I worked with students who grew up in small towns, how their parents and everyone else around them try to preserve their old traditions when there’s this great big world around them that they can’t shut out forever. College students these days grew up in an age of smartphones, and it’s like all the old people in their hometowns are going, “Damn it, put that thing down and go to the pig races like I did when I was your age!” Monroe’s an exaggeration of that attitude, but not much of one.
I ask about The Prostitutes of Lake Wiishkoban being a comedy because there aren’t that many comedies about prostitution out there.
Yeah. Speaking of things that make it hard to market my book. My first query letters [to literary agents] said it was “a 21st century Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.”
Yeah. My mother loved that movie. [I’ve] probably seen it at least twenty times.
So why do you think there aren’t many comedies about prostitution?
It’s […] not a hard topic to write about, but it’s a hard topic to manage reader expectations on. Even these days, with all the sex in TV shows and all that, sex work is still a huge third rail for a lot of people. You might as well be writing a comedy about raping children, as far as they’re concerned. I think a lot of that has to do with old attitudes about sex work, that people think it’s the most shameful thing anyone can do outside of murdering someone.
But if people still believe that, then it isn’t an “old attitude,” right?
True. But you’re starting to see that change, especially with so many people making pictures and videos online, and some of the stuff going on in bigger media. And with social media so popular now, it’s harder to stereotype sex workers in that narrow mold when it’s so easy to see that sex workers are just like the rest of us, with hobbies and favorite songs and dreams and all that. Even if people don’t want sex work to be legalized, they still see that sex workers aren’t all drug addicts or whatever.
But some are.
Yeah. Like all this other stuff going on right now, people want a perfect solution that doesn’t exist. No matter what laws you pass about sex work, there are gonna be problems, and people are gonna get hurt. The question should be what will cause the least amount of harm, and what can we do to make sure those who are harmed get the help they need.
So you are in favor of legalizing prostitution.
Did you have that in mind as you wrote your story?
No. If I try to write something moralistic, my writing just becomes way too didactic. Maybe some writers don’t have that difficulty, but I’m not that good.
I wrote the story as a story, and my beliefs probably did poke their heads in a lot, but not consciously. I’ve had people say that they thought it’s a story about how bad sex work is, so maybe that’s a sign that I succeeded. I don’t know.
Would you be okay with Lake Wiishkoban Library if it were real?
It’s not how I’d do things. Even if the kids there never knew what the librarians were up to, I just wouldn’t be okay with anything like that happening in a place where kids are. I think you’ve gotta have separate buildings for all that stuff, far away from schools and places like that, to minimize the chance of kids getting caught up.
Toledo [Shannon’s hometown, where this interview was conducted] is becoming infamous for all the child sex trafficking going on here, and that just turns my stomach every time I think about it. Forcing people into sex work is horrible, but when it’s kids … my mind just can’t wrap itself around that. I’m all for sexual expression, but you can’t involve kids. You just can’t.
But if you legalize prostitution, aren’t you just making it easier for underage people to get involved with it?
They’re getting involved now. There’s always gonna be some people who wanna do horrible things to kids. Nothing’s gonna stop that. But legalizing sex work would cut down on a lot of the shame that’s tied to sex, and that should give people more outlets for their sexual desires, which should cut down on how many people resort to desperate measures. It’s not a perfect solution, especially since you’d have to keep close tabs on everything to minimize harm, but I think it’d be a whole lot better than what we’re doing now.
I hate to end on an obvious question, but are there any plans for a sequel?
I’ve had some thoughts, but I’m keeping them to myself for now. I’ve got lots of ideas for other books, and I don’t really know what I wanna pursue yet. But I’m glad when readers ask for a sequel. Guess I must have done something right.
Questions for Discussion
- The two main settings for the novel — Monroe, North Dakota and Lake Wiishkoban, Minnesota — are fictional, but all the other locations in the book are real. How does this influence your reading of the descriptions of the various places Alexis goes to? What similarities did you notice between your hometown and Monroe, and/or Lake Wiishkoban?
- In Chapter 3, as Alexis describes what leads her to leave Monroe the first time, she states that everyone in the world isn’t okay, but claims that they are so they won’t burden others. Do you think this is true or false? Is this a sentiment you identify with?
- Although Alexis seems to feel some sense of responsibility for her actions, it could be argued that she shirks her responsibilities by leaving Monroe the first time without warning anyone in advance. Do you feel that Alexis was justified in leaving her hometown the way she did?
- Alexis leaves her first encounter with Ms. Best deadset against the idea of working at Lake Wiishkoban Library, but she changes her mind just one week later. The money Ms. Best offers her clearly has a large part in that change, but what else do you think might have influenced Alexis’ decision? Do you think Alexis really was totally opposed to sex work when she first talked with Ms. Best?
- It’s frequently claimed that people only go into sex work when they have no other choice. Do you think that Alexis could have said no to Ms. Best’s employment offer, or do you feel that she was basically forced into sex work?
- Looking back at Alexis’ first encounters with Vanessa, especially the rope bondage training in Alexis’ apartment, do you think that Vanessa was flirting with Alexis from the start of their relationship, or do you feel like she just thought of Alexis as a co-worker and friend until they had sex?
- Alexis’ first attempts at foreplay with her clients cause her to remember her attempts at dancing when she was younger, which her father videotaped, and she found embarrassing when she watched herself later. Do you think this kind of reaction is common for people, or a symptom of Alexis’ upbringing? Do you think Alexis is more responsible for her having this reaction, or her father?
- Although Alexis tends to be very passive, she does have moments when she takes the initiative in a situation, such as when she broke up with a boyfriend in Monroe who used the n-word. What do you think accounts for Alexis not being so passive in these moments? Do these situations have anything in common, and if so, what?
- The one instance in the story’s timeline of a customer assaulting one of the librarians happens to Monique, not Alexis. How does this affect your reading of the novel, and your feelings about how the library works? Would anything be gained in the story if Alexis had been the one to be assaulted? Would anything be lost?
- Do you think that the novel accurately portrays sex work and sex workers? Did the novel change your opinion of sex work or sex workers, and if so, how?
- What do you think the Tiger’s Den represents for Alexis? How did you notice Alexis change after everything that happens there?
- Even though Alexis has concerns about the library in the weeks before Vanessa retires, she never seems to consider the possibility of moving to New York when Vanessa does. Why do you think that is?
- After the library closes, Alexis decides to move back in with her parents in Monroe, but she comes to regret her decision almost as soon as she gets back to North Dakota. Do you think she made the right decision? What would you have done in Alexis’ place?
- In some respects, Monroe changes a lot in the months that Alexis spends in Lake Wiishkoban, but a lot of things stay the same. How do Alexis’ observations about the changes to Monroe over the course of the novel compare to how you’ve seen your hometown change?
- Do you think that everyone in Monroe who teases Alexis about the news stories from Lake Wiishkoban knows that she really did work at that library? Since the town gets high-speed Internet access while Alexis is away, doesn’t it stand to reason that someone there would have found evidence to that effect?
- The circumstances that lead to Alexis deciding to move to New York are very similar to the ones that cause her to flee Monroe the first time. How do you see Alexis’ experiences in Lake Wiishkoban affecting the way she goes about leaving Monroe at the end of the novel?
- Alexis says that she’ll never work as a sex worker again, but at the end of the novel she states that she’ll probably tell her parents, at some point, that she had been a sex worker in Lake Wiishkoban. How do you think Alexis feels about sex work at the end of the novel?
- The final passage of the novel is written in present tense, when Alexis is halfway through her plane flight to New York. How did the change in verb tense influence your reading of the end of the novel?
- The Prostitutes of Lake Wiishkoban starts with Alexis in the middle of a Graduation Parade in Monroe, and ends with her halfway on a flight to New York. In between those events, she goes through a number of other physical and personal journeys. What similarities and differences do you see in the various journeys she takes throughout the novel?