Author Monica Drake‘s second novel, The Stud Book, comes out next week. In it, she writes about overpopulation and relationships. Before the release of her anticipated follow-up to Clown Girl, she sat down to answer a few questions about sex, writing, and humor.
Is sex writing scary?
Probably. Yes. All writing is scary, in a way—it’s scary if you put yourself into it and want it to carry weight, to be loved, to be received. That’s terrifying. Writing sex scenes just adds one more reason to sweat it out. But it’s also a good time. If you push the fear aside, it’s fun.
Have you ever stopped and found you were censoring your sex writing because you were afraid of what your audience would think? Your children?
I’d like to believe that I’m a completely enlightened person and I’ve attained pure personal freedom, autonomy, but of course I have an audience in mind, and at times that audience might shape my delivery. I do have work out there, in the world, that’s not remotely suitable for children. Does that mean I’ve shaken off all self-censorship? Taken greater risks? I’m not sure.
It’s an ongoing negotiation with the self, determining and positioning, reappraising that crucial relationship between content, author and audience. So the short answer might be yes, but the more complicated answer is that it’s always based on careful choices, creative decisions, not driven by fear, censors, or inhibitions.
What is the best response you’ve received from your audience?
First, I’m happy to hear from readers who enjoy my work. That’s wonderful.
When I’m reading out loud and everybody laughs at the right places, and quiets at the right places, I’m thrilled. That’s precious, a dream come true. And when Kristen Wiig mentioned that she could relate to the protagonist in Clown Girl, that too was dreamy, wonderful. But the best response might be in workshop, because in some ways that’s the most direct interaction a writer can have—we meet, share new work, and know each other well. There’s no hiding, no looking away. It’s raw, and nerve wracking, and ultimately it’s about support. That’s what keeps me coming back to making work—the response of writers I know and love who get a kick out of what I’m doing, and when I can return the sentiment. Ah, heaven!
In Clown Girl, there are sex scenes that involve a lot of shame and embarrassing/awkward situations. Can you touch on why you incorporated that into your sex scenes?
I can say from experience that clown work is inherently about accepting and claiming—finding power in, even—a certain degree of what others might call embarrassing or awkward situations. And there are always people, spectators, in what they call their normal clothes, who get into it, get off on it, and want to find a way to enter the narrative. That’s the starting point. So bring in sex? It’s going to be awkward.
The main character in Clown Girl is an underdog, built in the spirit of Charlie Chaplin, taking risks that don’t necessarily pay off. As part of that character, she finds herself in oddly compromised sex scenes. It’s her way of life.
Is it hard to include humor in a sex scene? Do you worry it will take away from the “sexiness” or is that not important to you?
It’s probably fair to say that I’m perversely setting out to undermine the sexiness, most often. We live in a world that sells “sexy” as a commodity, treats it as very serious business—so serious!–and that’s not exactly realistic. I grow tired of that assertion, like to shake it up, find the humanity in the flaws, moments of being naked, being bodies together, when everything is revealed and might not be as easy—as smooth, sophisticated—as, say, a Calvin Klein ad would lead us to think.
You can’t sell products with damaged, bumbled sex. It’s an anti-Capitalistic urge, toward the realm of human imperfection.
What’s the best advice you have for young women interested in writing about sex?
A woman writer told me recently that she had trepidation about sharing a sex scene she’d written. She was nervous. She said, “But you have to be honest, right? You have to tell it like it happened.” No, one doesn’t have to be conventionally honest, not in writing fiction, crafting “the lie that tells the truth truer.”
You have to make it real for your audience, to build a reality readers can enter, but after that, it’s up to you to set the terms. Like a person on a first date, or any date, you don’t owe it to an audience to put out. That’s an option.
And there’s no mandate that a writer opts for the literal, clinical delivery. I’m not endorsing bodice ripper euphemisms—the pounding horse’s hooves that stand in for orgasm—but I am offering a reminder to look for the ragged edges, the less direct delivery, a move away from the clinical and bright lights on body parts.
Sex in written work should forward the “plot,” or whatever stands in for plot. (I’m fine with writing that has no conventional plot at all.) It needs to convey the characters involved. And it’s the writer’s job to keep it new.
Do you think men get away with more when writing about sex than women?
My subjective, unscientific take is that men get away with more of everything! Ha. I offer that lightly, though kind of mean it, too.
Men are judged differently—on looks, the ways they age, their morals, their experience—globally. On the extreme side of things, we live in a world where a woman can write a few words on her naked body, and her community—a current example is in Tunisia, in response to a woman named Amina– threatens her with death by stoning.
Death? For writing on her own body? That’s how seriously people can fear women, sex, and words.
To write words about anything is a serious form of freedom. During the Civil War it was a radical political act to help a slave learn to read and write. The history of “slave narratives” underscores how much power there is in claiming written self expression. For women to claim that freedom? Even now it’s received, or perceived, in some circles, as a threat. And for a woman to claim sexual freedom terrifies partners, parents, countries, patriarchies.
To put the two together in one swift delivery of writing that offers a liberated sexual self is amazing.—an act of rebellion, defiance, claiming the full range of one’s humanity.
That larger dynamic of the world’s politics is reflected in a quieter manner in the realm of contemporary Western literature. In 2002 Susan Minot wrote Rapture, an entire book about a blowjob. It was heralded as literary work. Minot has a history of writing about sex, but I’d venture to say she is in some ways more chronologically tied to the energy of what’s been termed “second wave feminism,” and I can appreciate that hugely.
A larger part of this question, or equation, is what kind of gender based sex we’re accustomed to as a culture. Most sex on the page comes across as a rendition of the colonized mind—it’s about colonization, the fucker and the fucked, and that tends to be historically a white male perspective, even when the work itself is written by women. In that way it’s not just a gender question but more of a pervasive mindset, tapping into consensus reality.
There are men who buck this trend, as well as women who buy into it. It goes both ways.
Sometimes, in film in particular, we’ll see an effort at Bogart and Bacall-style banter that degrades into constant bickering between characters, along with a sort of shared mistreatment, until romantic comedies take on an edge of a mutual Stockholm Syndrome, and we’re all left wondering why these people even hang out together. When the plot slows, they have sex. I aim to write worlds in which characters have sexual agency, rather than reenacting this kind of loop.
Come back in May for a Girl on Girl interview with Lindsey Kugler, author of HERE.