I am extremely pleased this morning to present this new Q&A I recently had the great fortune to conduct with author Jill C. Nelson, whose new book Golden Goddesses: 25 Legendary Women of Classic Erotic Cinema, 1968-1985 was just published. I first discovered Jill's amazing work a few years back when I read the excellent work she co-authored with Jennifer Sugar, John Holmes: A Life Measured in Inches, one of the most fascinating books I have read in recent memory. Jill's new book is just as incredible (I will have a look at it here in the upcoming weeks) and I am honored that she agreed to take some time out of her busy schedule to participate in this interview. So give us a read, drop a comment and then order both of her books...here we go!
Hi Jeremy. Thank you so much for inviting me to participate in your ongoing series, I appreciate having the opportunity to discuss both books. It’s great that you enjoyed Inches and I’m happy to know you are enjoying Goddesses.
I grew up in Burlington, Ontario, in Canada. Burlington is situated on one of Canada’s picturesque Great Lakes, Lake Ontario. It’s a friendly community, and I definitely appreciate it far more now that I’m approaching my mid-fifties than I probably did as a teenager.
My father was from a town called Hamilton (about six miles west of Burlington). While I was growing up, and for a period of ten years, he was a Big Band leader (Gav Morton) at a former downtown nightclub called The Brant Inn. He played saxophone and clarinet, and arranged all of the band’s musical compositions. He also taught musical theory and arranging as a sideline. In his youth, he played with all the great Canadian Big Bands such as Mart Kenney and Bert Niosi, and travelled across country performing in dance halls and clubs. He actually quit high school at age sixteen to run off and join a band much to his parents’ dismay. This was in 1932. During his later years, and after leaving the music business behind, he opened up a Men’s wear store here in Burlington.
My mother is French-Canadian originally from a pretty, little town called North Hatley, in the Eastern Townships of Quebec. She met my dad when he was on the road playing with the Mart Kenney Orchestra in Sherbrooke. She asked him for his autograph and six weeks later, they were married. My mother has also done some vocal work over the years. I would have to say that both of my parents and my two older brothers have had a great influence on my life in the area of the arts – music, art, and writing.
Upon graduating high school and for a period of about four years, I travelled a fair bit to the west and east coasts of Canada, and to the west coast of the United States. I consider Southern California as my second home because I’ve visited there many times. I absolutely love the mild, dry climate, and I also have relatives and friends living there which is another reason I return often.
After leading somewhat of a nomadic lifestyle, I married my husband in 1978 (we have two grown children), and attended college here in Southern Ontario. I graduated in 1981 as a Hearing Instrument Specialist. In 1986, I opened my own Hearing Care clinic in Hamilton, Ontario. A couple of years later, my best girlfriend joined me and we operated the clinic together until we sold it in the spring 2008, the same year that A Life Measured in Inches was published. I have stayed on in the clinic working three days a week which has enabled me to establish an ideal balance between researching/writing the two books, family and working. I feel I have the best of all worlds.
I know that the oral history on John Holmes that you co-wrote was your first published work. I’m curious about some of your early influences that got you first interested in both journalism and film.
My eldest brother, who died in a horseback riding accident in 1992, was a writer and a painter, apart from his day job. I spent a good deal of time with him when I was a young girl and teenager and he definitely influenced my tastes in literature, art, film and music. Actually, I’ve come to realize in recent years that he was my mentor. I’ve always been an avid reader and as a high school English student, I enjoyed dissecting novels, writing essays and discussing the meaning of books and films. I was told by teachers that I had an ability to effectively reflect the heart of a story in my writing and I very much reveled in the challenge of character analysis, breakdown, and attempting to understand the message that an author or a filmmaker was striving to convey. Some of my favorite authors growing up and during my younger years (and even today) were John Irving, J.D. Salinger, Ernest Hemmingway, Jack Kerouac, and Anne Marie McDonald to name only a handful. I admired the work of filmmakers such as Alan Parker, Oliver Stone, Francis Ford Coppola and Michael Cimino. Simultaneously, I have always been fascinated by pop culture and pop culture anti-heroes. Apart from my own personal interest, I have no formal education in the areas of writing, journalism, or a background in film. I wish I could say that I have, but it’s not so.
Before we get to GOLDEN GODDESSES I wanted to chat a bit about your wonderful work on Holmes, as it is easily one of the most fascinating biographies in recent memory. Can you tell us a bit about what all went into co-authoring the book and just how challenging was it writing about a man who constantly blurred the line between reality and fiction in his own life?
I think a lot of people are now aware that in 2005, the book’s originator and my co-author (Jennifer Sugar) and I “met” on a message board for the film Wonderland. In a nutshell, the film is the story surrounding the robbery of nightclub owner Ed Nash that John had helped to orchestrate, which led to the homicides of four people involved in the Wonderland gang. The gang had resided in Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles in the summer of 1981. After Jennifer and I met on the board, we began emailing one another back and forth and she told me she was working on a biography about John Holmes. At the time, Jennifer was in her early twenties and completing a degree in math and I was kind of flabbergasted that she had decided to take on a book of this magnitude, particularly without a background in writing. After gauging my interest in the story, and upon realizing just how much material there was to draw from and the sheer amount of work involved, about a year later she invited me to be her collaborator. It was interesting and exciting working with Jennifer because I think given the twenty-five year span in our ages and living in different counties, not to mention the fact we both had next to nil knowledge about the adult film industry or a background in writing, we each brought something unique and fresh to the project. Like me, Jennifer also enjoyed writing for personal interest, and together, we believed we could present the John Holmes story in a new light while decidedly staying away from stereotypes about John or sensationalized viewpoints. We shared a desire to tell his entire life story in a concise and fair manner by utilizing our own interview material, in conjunction with augmented material and resources. We discovered that John was indeed a chameleon and he definitely fabricated outlandish tales to heighten his marketability and likeability, but also, he was a very smart and rather crafty man who let people know in subtle ways -- and not so subtle ways -- that he was joking about many of the embellishments for which he is known. If you’ve watched the 1981 documentary, “Exhausted,” made by director Julia St. Vincent, you can see the sparkle in his eyes when he’s answering her questions. John would have been a tremendous salesman had he entered into another line of work. Because there were many contradictions from person to person, and from story to story, Jennifer and I decided that the only way to accurately tell John’s story was to allow everyone who had known him to have their say. That’s what we did which is why the book is an oral history.
Holmes was obviously an extremely complicated man with many demons but I admired so much how you and Sugar managed to capture his human side. After spending so many years researching his life and watching his work how did you finally end up feeling about John Holmes as a man and a cultural icon?
We are proud that we were able to provide a true and well-rounded picture of John by using his own words and the words of the people who had liked, loved, known or worked with him. I’ve often said because John is dead, it almost gives people carte blanche to say or write whatever they choose to say or write about him because he is no longer here to concur or refute their words, which isn’t really fair but it’s life. That’s not to say that John didn’t participate in some heinous things or that he didn’t conduct himself in a despicable fashion during certain periods of his life, but it became evident while talking with people that there were two distinct individuals: John Holmes - before his descent into cocaine and freebase, and John Holmes - after his descent into chemical addiction. Anyone who has experienced or who is educated about cocaine’s affects on the brain after incessant and prolonged use, or who understands the long-term effects of addiction to drugs and/or alcohol might be better equipped to comprehend some of John’s motives and actions. It certainly doesn’t excuse his behavior, but it does help one to gain better insight.
A part of me feels sad about John because like many other tragic cultural icons, I think he became a victim of his own lack of self-control and demise. I honestly believe that if he’d had a more nurturing upbringing or a better support system, he might have chosen differently for his life’s vocation. In hindsight, the 60s, 70s, and 80s decades were a much different time, so it’s hard to compare apples and oranges in that respect. As much as he enjoyed the lifestyle and the money during his early-mid years in the adult industry, from talking to various people, I do think he felt unfulfilled and underappreciated after a while. I am glad for him though that in the last years leading up to his death, he was able to enjoy a ready-made family with his widow Laurie and her son. There is a rather nice photograph in the second edition of “Inches” that shows Laurie’s son in his Halloween costume when he was a little boy and John had meticulously applied his clown makeup. John did enjoy being a family man and pursuing outdoor hobbies like hiking and fishing. He was also talented in the areas of woodworking and other facets of art. I think that deep down everyone wants to be able to live a normal life and to appreciate the little things that are really the most important things in life. Regarding his legacy in the adult industry, I think his record stands for itself: John’s worst films outsold the best films of the most popular female performers of the day. Apart from that, I do believe for whatever reason, John had the “it” factor.
Finally, after publishing the Holmes book you and Sugar got a great deal of justified acclaim. Was there anything said or written about your work that meant perhaps the most to you (whether it came from a reader, critic or someone that knew Holmes)?
I think that Jennifer would agree that some of the most gratifying feedback we received about the book came from people who had been a part of John’s life. After finishing the book in one sitting, John’s godson, Sean Amerson, wrote to us and commended us for painting John in a fair light. Although we’d interviewed Sean for the biography, he had been concerned that we were going to trash John and so he was pleasantly surprised upon his discovery that we had shown the good, the bad, and the ugly – all sides. John had been Sean’s savior growing up so he was most appreciative of our efforts. Likewise, Laurie Holmes thanked us for taking the time to do our own research about John’s life and career in detail rather than relying on the existing information out there, so that we were able to present the whole of his life in a comprehensive and balanced book. You can’t buy that kind of praise, so we felt we truly succeeded in our objective to produce a succinct and definitive book.
From a critical standpoint, I think the essay that Australian writer and film critic, Robert Cettl, wrote about “Inches” for his website Wider Screenings is a very nice feather in our caps. He had been quite anxious to review the book but we certainly did not count on the wonderful and extremely thorough piece he composed. We both felt that Cettl’s serious approach to the biography definitely did our work justice.
Excellent, now onto GOLDEN GODDESSES. Tell us about this upcoming book and how the idea for it came about.
Golden Goddesses highlights twenty-five female personalities from the classic or “golden age” of adult films that began their careers sometime between the years 1968-1985. The book begins at the onset of hardcore and ends at the start of the video-age. Most of the women featured were/are performers but I’ve also put the spotlight on directors, screenwriters and costumers. A couple of the ladies had worked in different capacities in the industry so it was interesting to reveal the different hats they wore. Each chapter tells of their childhood years, their careers in adult, and concludes with the present day. The book also incorporates film reviews throughout that are written by me, and a treasure trove of amazing and beautiful photographs. I should add there is a section at the end of the book titled “Honorable Mentions” featuring fifteen additional women who were integral to the golden era. I’ve written a synopsis on each one in conjunction with a photo, so all in all, the book celebrates forty women of the classic adult film era. I’m very excited about this project and I hope that readers will enjoy it as much as I have writing and weaving everything together.
I’m amazed by all of the wonderful actors you managed to interview for this book. How long did it take you to assemble and conduct all these interviews and edit them for publication?
Overall, it took me approximately three years to assemble, conduct the interviews, and edit them for publication. Using the same premise we’d used for “Inches,” I have to admit, I tried not to edit too much of the actual interview material mostly because I knew this might be the first, only, or final time some of the females would have this kind of opportunity to enjoy the limelight on this scale. I wanted to be sure that each interviewee was able to share whatever happened to be on her mind without fear that an important point or thought might be edited out. At the same time, I used a set list of questions – the same ones for everyone and then some that were curtailed specifically to an individual’s life or career. All of the interviews were conducted over the telephone, by skype, or by email except for one in-person interview with Seka which I did in Montreal in the fall of 2009. She was my first. Although I didn’t get to speak face-to-face with the majority of my interview subjects during the recordings, I did make a point after the fact of spending time with many of the women in person so that I could write an anecdote at the end of each chapter. I really wanted that personal touch.
Of all the ladies you interviewed were there any that were particularly difficult to track down and were there any that you really wanted to include that you weren’t able to?
For the most part, I was able to track down everyone without too much difficulty that made it into the book. Again, I had already made some contacts via “Inches” but once it got out that I was doing a book of this type, word of mouth enabled me to set interview dates with several of the others. For example, after I interviewed Seka, she told some of her friends about the book. Suddenly, I started receiving emails from Seka’s network of friends and contemporaries affirming their interest. Considering that I am not a professional writer, I was very fortunate. I have to attribute some of that good fortune though to the critical success of Inches.
Most definitely, there were specific people I had hoped to interview for the book but for several reasons they either declined, or they were not available, or there were other circumstances making it so that they weren’t able to participate. Vanessa del Rio is one I had hoped to interview but it just wasn’t in the stars. Mai Lin is another because we’d had several telephone conversations and she was very keen to talk, but in the end, it didn’t work out. As you are probably aware or can imagine with respect to adult performers, there are often negative situations and connotations at play that can conversely affect or compromise an individual’s desire to speak about their history in sex films apart from the reality that some of them are quite happy to leave their pasts behind. I completely understand and respect that. It is that same stigma however, which made working on a book of this nature so intriguing and compelling.
I know from following the book’s blog that GOLDEN GODDESSES is going to be as moving as it is informative. Was there anyone in particular you sat down with whose personal journey touched you the most?
That’s a very good question. I can say unequivocally that Rhonda Jo Petty’s story touched me a great deal on a lot of levels. Rhonda is a recovering alcoholic and drug addict who suffered extreme abuse at the hands of her father as a young girl and teenager. I remember while I was transcribing her interview I had tears rolling down my cheeks and even while proofing her chapter her story had the same impact on me. Like so many of the others, Rhonda has overcome a number of obstacles in her life, but her candid description of her volatile relationship with her father really moved me when I started to develop her chapter. I admire her for working through her feelings today so that she can find forgiveness for her father. To be fair, I have known Rhonda for five years now and throughout two books, so I know her better than I do some of the other women. Still, she is very down to earth and unpretentious to a fault. In truth, not only is Rhonda’s story moving, but I believe that each chapter has elements that will hopefully resonate with readers and remind them that these ladies are vulnerable yet strong human beings. Sure, they might not have won a Nobel Peace Prize or discovered a cure for cancer but in their own way, they have left a footprint in the history books as pioneers and feminists for bucking the system and staying true to their hearts.
Wonderful. With Golden Goddesses now released, is there anything else you would like to say about it for potential readers?
I’ve seen the first pass and I have to say, BearManor Media has done an outstanding job with the layout and configuration. I am planning an official launch of “Goddesses” in either November or December in Los Angeles with some of the ladies planning to attend, so there will be more news on that event once we have things finalized.
One advantage regarding Golden Goddesses which with a little luck will become a collectible for vintage film fans is that because the book consists of twenty-five key personalities not to mention legendary women, there should be someone or something for everyone’s tastes. The book is presented in a chronological format but it doesn’t have to be read that way. My hope is that readers will embrace the women and their stories and gain a greater understanding of their lives and loves.
With the epic GOLDEN GODDESSES complete are you going to take a little breather or are you already planning another book?
I am planning on taking a long breather now that the book is finished. It’s been a busy six years working on two books back-to-back so I’d really like to rest up a little and spend the next couple of years promoting Golden Goddesses and ensuring that it receives the TLC every new book release requires. I do enjoy the promo process so I’m looking forward to that. I have a couple of ideas in mind for future projects, but for now, I’m going to sit back and savor the satisfaction of having completed my first solo writing project while spending time with family and friends.
I really appreciate the invitation to participate in this Q&A for your blog, Jeremy, and I’ll look forward to staying in touch once the book becomes available. Thank you.
I wish you all the best of luck with GOLDEN GODDESSES and all of your future work. I look forward to continue reading and writing on the book and really appreciate you stopping by and giving us a little preview. Thanks again and all the best Jill!
***For more information on Jill and her work, please visit the links I have highlighted above. Also Jill has informed me that there is going to be a big gala launch for Golden Goddesses at the California's Hustler Hollywood store at 8920 West Sunset Blvd. on Thursday November 29 at 7:30pm. 16 Goddesses have confirmed their attendance so people need to RSVP asap @ (310) 860-9009 to guarantee a space. Also, Jill and at least eight Goddesses will be at Larry Edmunds Bookshop for a screening and slideshow on the following night also at 7:30pm. The address for that venue is 6644 Hollywood Blvd. RSVP @ (323)463-3273.***