October 10, 2011
Elizabeth Searle’s short story, “And a Dead American,” was one of the earliest submissions accepted to Men Undressed: Women Writers and the Male Sexual Experience. In fact, it would not be far-fetched to say that this story—an excerpt of Searle’s new novel, GIRL HELD IN HOME —sometimes served as a reassurance that we were on the right track, back in the early days when so many of the submissions we received . . . well, didn’t actually have any sex in them, despite our blatant pleas for “explicit” material on our call for submissions. “And a Dead American” ended up exemplifying precisely the kind of risky, challenging literary work we sought, while also dealing overtly with bodies and desires. Searle is also the author of the books A FOUR-SIDED BED (new paperback edition in 2011), CELEBRITIES IN DISGRACE (produced as a short film in 2010) and MY BODY TO YOU, winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Prize. Her theater work, TONYA & NANCY: THE ROCK OPERA, has been performed on both coasts and has drawn national media attention.
You’re one of the contributors to a book the entire premise of which is women writing sex from male characters’ points of view. On a scale of 1-10, exactly how nervous does this make you, in terms of every male critic on the planet potentially pointing a finger at you and your co-writers and deriding you for “getting it wrong?” In a Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus (or wait, is that the reverse?) era, what would possess you to dare to try and . . . gasp . . . understand the other gender between the sheets instead of just throwing up your hands in helpless disgust like a good sitcom wife and saying, “Men! Who knows what they’re thinking?”
Maybe a ‘6’—but I have ventured into tricky sex territory before in my fiction, including a three-way Menage novel (A FOUR SIDED BED). Though I am pretty private and quiet in real life, I find my writer self is very uninhibited in writing about sex. My UNDRESSED sex scene is a story excerpt from my new novel GIRL HELD IN HOME, based on a true crime, in which a middleclass teenage boy discovers a teen girl being ‘held’ as an unpaid servant in the home of a wealthy family who control her visa. The boy wants to help her and also just plain wants her. What drove me to delve into the male mind was that the male in question is a teenager. As a mom of a teen-to-be, I feel a need to know about hormone-hyped boy-life—And I wound up concocting in GIRL HELD IN HOME my favorite sort of sex scene, one in which ‘play’ turns unexpectedly serious and even dangerous. I liked all the moral ambiguities ‘at play’ in the scene and story. Basically once I entered my boy character’s mind, I couldn’t get out until I/’we’ had ‘done the deed.’
Sex is a fundamental human urge, and at its best brings human beings closer together. Is it easier or harder to write from the perspective of a man having, chasing, or desiring sex than it is from the perspective of a man, say, going about the other business of his daily life? Is sex the great equalizer? And if so, why do so few literary writers–male or female–seem to focus on it?
I agree about sex being an ‘equalizer,’ and one activity in which almost everyone feels a bit vulnerable and exposed. In that sense, I find it easier to write about men in the sexual world than I would writing about men wielding power in a workplace, say, which is an alien situation for me. Sex, I can relate to. But I think many writers dread to tread there for the reason you mention in question #1: that old high-schoolish fear of being pointed at and mocked if you get it wrong. But to me, a challenge in writing is like catnip, especially a challenge in erotic writing.
Tell us about “your” man in Men Undressed: Women Writers and the Male Sexual Experience. What drew you to him, and why did his story lead to the figurative or actual bedroom? If you had the opportunity to have sex with this guy (presuming he is straight and you are straight), would you?
Well, ‘he’ is a fifteen year old boy and no, I would not have sex with anyone only a few years older than my son. What drew me to ‘Joezy’ was in fact the vulnerability of a teenage boy who’s still a virgin and whose hormones are outa control, even as this particular boy struggles in a strange and confusing situation to do the right thing. I want him in his all-American blundering way to try to ‘help’ the hostage girl he discovers. At the same time he desperately ‘wants’ her and wants her to want him. So it’s a fraught situation and that’s how I as a writer like it. I like this earnest bold Joezy even though I can’t ultimately like what he does to or with this frightened teenage girl. As a writer, I like my mix of feelings—because it all keeps me on my toes and I hope will keep the reader on his or her toes too.
Many readers have come to Other Voices Books asking if we will now be publishing a follow-up anthology entitled Women Undressed, in which make writers explore female sexuality. Although male writers have actually been doing this to great acclaim and/or controversy for centuries . . . think D.H. Lawrence to Philip Roth to Milan Kundera . . . maybe there is still more to say. If such a book existed, what would you hope that your male literary comrades understood about female sexuality that their predecessors did not?
Hmm, well, dare I say this: I love a writer like Philip Roth, and love to read his erotic writings, but I do not think he renders female sexuality convincingly. Which works out fine in the very male world of his writing. I look to writers like him and John Updike in the RABBIT books to help explain to me how a certain kind of man views women. What would I like male writers in general to know about female sexuality? I’m no expert. But I’d just want them to respect the depth of the differences and to think outside the box, particularly the TV/movie/porn box. I’d simply want them to attempt as they would with any character to enter the woman’s POV as well as her skin.
Sexiest male character in all of literature?
Mmm—how about Mr. Rochester in JANE EYRE. Repressed sexy can be the best sexy.
Recently I was listening to a radio show on which they reported a survey they’d done on how old men and women can be and still be considered “sexy.” As you might guess, women’s ages came in younger than men’s, at 44 and 52 respectively. On the one hand, I have to admit that these figures are probably quite a bit better than they would have been twenty years ago, but on the other hand–wow, harsh that in an age when people are routinely living into their 90s, the culture basically asexualizes them for the entire second half of their lives! This smacks of some serious ageist bullshit to me. Tell us about the sexiest, smokingest older person you’ve ever known–male or female–and give us all some hope, will you?
Well, my husband does pop into mind. He’s 10 years older than me and I’m up past the point of no return, according to your survey. We’ve been together over twenty years. Time has changed both of us physically of course, and my husband’s wild long kinky hair is now wild, long, kinky and grey. But underneath, he is still the same tall, intense, intelligent, witty, gentle man I fell for ages ago. But I know we are lucky and such luck is rare.
I am actually surprised the gap in the survey you cite is not bigger between men and women—in our culture, in our hopelessly Hollywood-ized minds, I see a striking difference between how movie stars are treated as they age. Guys in their 60s like Harrison Ford or Clint Eastwood (and granted, they’ve both still ‘got it’)—are seen as plausible leading men and are cast in sexy roles. Usually opposite a woman in her twenties. (Maybe it’s just me but the older-man/much-younger-woman combo is a total turnoff; watching that onscreen I find myself wondering what the woman is really feeling). It’s much rarer with older women stars to go on in romantic leads, though in recent years eternally sexy exceptions like Helen Mirren, Diane Keaton and Meryl Streep (who seems sexier onscreen these days than in her younger years!) can give us all hope. Meanwhile, in humble real life, I know of many longtime married couples (my parents included!) who are still having fun. I can only in the end know my own experience. And after 20-plus years, my husband and I are hanging in there, together.