What I like about Vanessa Veselka, besides her humor and social commentary, is that she’s not afraid to admit that she too struggles with writing about sex. The author of Zazen, which was nominated for the Ken Kesey Award for Fiction and won the 2012 PEN/Robert W. Bingham prize for fiction, is honest about the difficulties she faces when sex enters a story. What I also like about her, after reading her book, is discovering that she wrote much of it in my favorite neighborhood bar. If you want to know what that bar is and possibly run into Vanessa or me, you’ll have to read the book…
Is sex writing scary? If it is, are there ways to make it less so?
Not sensuality, but actual sex, yes. That’s scary. It’s loaded and awkward. I find it hard to cross the line of heavy petting and not lose tone control. Once you start writing cock and clit and fists and whatever—it moves into a transgressive vernacular, which is great if that’s what the scene is about. Often I want sex in the scene WITH my existentialism. But err on one side and it’s coy. Err on the other and it’s a statement. So I think the problems are technical as well as cultural.
Beyond our basic social discomfort with what actually happens between two people, there is also performance anxiety and body image, both as real a dilemma in writing as in life. Most often my problem with writing about sex is that it takes over the scene. If sex is in the scene, the scene is about sex. And I don’t always want it to be.
Zazen features a scene at a sex party, complete with a wide variety of sexual acts/fetishes. In writing that scene (or any other scenes featuring sex) have you ever stopped and found you were censoring your sex writing because you were afraid of what your audience would think? How do you combat that?
Most of Zazen I wrote with a sense of obsessive mission to describe the world I saw. It was rewarding and engaging, but often intense and difficult work. The sex party chapter was the only one I ever wrote that filled me with joy from start to finish. It was utterly liberating to be somewhere free in the book. So no, I didn’t find it hard. There was one line that I got stuck on about Japanese rope torture, but I left it there. Everything else was easy. But it was also performative so many of the technical problems I’ve had writing about sex were absent.
What is the best response you’ve received from your audience regarding the sexuality displayed in your work?
That it feels queer.
What does sex do for a story? How is the “sex scene” like any other component of a story? How is it different?
Having sexual energy in a story is a little like putting a loaded gun in a story. It will dominate the narrative. You’ll be aware of it all the time. What’s it doing, how’s it affecting everything else? It can give or dissipate momentum.
Do you think men get away with more when writing about sex than women?
That certainly used to be true. In American Literary circles I think it’s less true now. I think men have a more cohesive language for sex that readers accept, but that is its own prison. Being on the border of new language is a pretty great place to be.
What’s the best advice you have for young women interested in writing about sex?
Write one straight up fucking scene (whatever fucking means to you) just so you know where the walls are. It’s amazing how hard it can be even when no one is looking. Don’t flinch! But that’s also advice for me.
Vanessa will be reading on Tuesday June 25th at Backspace Cafe. Click here for more information.
For next month’s Girl on Girl, I’ll interview poet Dorianne Laux about her own language of sexuality.