I owe Michael Heald, author of Goodbye to the Nervous Apprehension, a thank you. Not only did he deliver a book that showed me the inner workings of the neurotic twenty-something male mind, with plenty of insights into the neurotic twenty-something male mind’s thoughts about sex, he also introduced me to my new favorite Portland bar/writing destination, Beulahland. It was there we met on a Monday night to talk about sex writing. If only the bartender had known what we were talking about then she probably wouldn’t have interrupted us to ask if we wanted to join the trivia happening in the next room…
Is sex writing scary?
I think it should be. Certainly for me. Even when I used to write fiction, when I was writing about sex, I don’t think I was ever writing about good sex. Usually there’s something between the characters, there is some sort of communication gap that you’re exploring that maybe the people on the page don’t see. So then, the sex is usually not the greatest. When writing about sex that isn’t the greatest, that’s a way of exposing yourself as maybe being not so great at sex, possibly. You have to forget about that part and can’t get your ego involved if you’re describing awkward things.
I think if it’s not scary, you’re just writing porn, which I imagine is not that scary unless you’re exposing some crazy fetish that nobody has ever thought of before and that could maybe get you disowned.
How do you overcome the desire to censor yourself because you know that it will eventually go in front of an audience (your parents, your ex, etc.)?
You can’t think about the audience at first. In my case, I put this book out myself at a time when most of my other writing wasn’t getting published. But I’d already been through this with my parents: a few years ago I forced my mom to read my novel, which had some awful sex scenes in it. When I say “awful,” I mean really graphic. It was awkward. So when we got through that, I was less concerned about this book (even though it’s non-fiction) and what my parents would think of me.
The first story I published when I was twenty-five was about two straight guys having sex. It wasn’t “sexy” sex. It wasn’t gay sex; it was two straight guys having sex when they’re really drunk. My dad called me up after he read it and asked me if I was coming out. I don’t say this to make fun of him, but what’s weird about writing fiction is that people will assume that they are your fantasies. I learned early on that fiction is just as exposing as non-fiction. People around you will assume it’s based on some true event. So at least with non-fiction, I’m not being psychoanalyzed because I’ve done the psychoanalyzing already. Other people can pick through that, but they are my fantasies and not my characters’ fantasies.
How does the approach to writing about sex in nonfiction differ from fiction?
It’s different because you’re placing yourself in some real event that has happened. You’re not making up the facts. I do think that having written fiction for a decade prior to writing non-fiction, I took liberties with dialogue [in non-fiction] that helped enter me into these scenes. A lot of the scenes start with two people talking and at some point sex becomes a possibility and then there’s this failure on my part (me the character) generally to succeed. But beyond the dialogue it’s all rooted in fact.
I miss the uncertainty of fiction and where a scene will go. You might think you are going to write a hot sex scene and then something terrible happens and you realize, there’s my scene or there’s the end of my story. I am not able to do that with non-fiction. I can’t surprise myself to that degree.
In pieces such as “The Guy from Sacramento” and “This is Part of Something Bigger Called Small,” you share intimate details about your sexual relationships with past girlfriends. How did you go about writing these pieces? Did you write first, contact exes later? What were their responses?
Those are pieces about two different exes. The essays about my ex I’ve named April in the book, I sent her everything before the book went to the printer, and asked if the she was okay with it. The last thing I wanted to do was blindside her, and she has been supportive.
In terms of the “Small” essay, I was writing about people I hadn’t been in touch with in a really long time. I did not put a whole lot of regard into what those people in the essay would think when I wrote it. To a degree, I was willing to risk those relationships because they were non-relationships. It wasn’t my goal to hurt anybody, but it was definitely my goal to show what it’s like to be 19 years old and insecure. If I started changing the facts to tone it down, my fear was that I’d end up saying less about what it was like to be me.
What is the best novel that features sex you’ve ever read? What is the best memoir/non-fiction piece?
The best novel, it doesn’t have a ton of sex in it, but I would pick Paris Trance. It’s a Geoff Dyer book. It’s about these two couples in Paris in the nineties. It’s sort of a cross between Tender is the Night and The Sun Also Rises and the ecstasy culture. The sex to me feels very true. It’s just dirty enough that it feels specific and it’s rooted in character.
For non-fiction, I like Michelle Tea a lot, although I wouldn’t say her sex writing turns me on. Lidia Yuknavitch’s book [The Chronology of Water] does a lot. It really stretches the boundaries of what sex writing can do. I think that book will be read for a while.
Since your book was published by an independent publisher and you maybe had more freedom to write what you wanted to about sex, what would you say to someone who has a manuscript with sex writing in it who wants to figure out where to publish it? Would you tell them to submit to a larger or an independent publisher?
It’s hard to say. With non-fiction these days, you see a lot of graphic stuff. It’s pretty hard to shock people with sex itself. I just read Jay Ponteri’s book Wedlocked that was put out by Hawthorne Books. It’s the relationship part that is shocking because he’s writing about his current marriage. It’s not the sex that is shocking but the relationship and the voice.
I was naive with my book. From what I’ve seen since then in writing non-fiction for a magazine, the difference is that a mainstream publisher might do more behind-the-scenes fact-checking and be more worried legally about using real details about people–changing names might not be enough.
I think that sex sells. I don’t think it’s something that is going to scare away Random House. If the writing is good and it’s a good story, I don’t see it as being a hindrance. I wouldn’t discourage people. If they want to write about sex, they should write about sex.