December 11, 2011
Sheri Joseph is no stranger to writing men. Her novel, Stray, and cycle of stories, Bear Me Safely Over, both happen to feature the compelling, secret-liaison-affair between the two male characters in her Men Undressed excerpt, “The Winter Beach,” and back when I first published her work in Other Voices magazine, that story, too, was from a male point of view. In “The Winter Beach,” I was viscerally hit by Joseph’s ability to turn-on without being terribly explicit; her work was actually less graphic than we’d called for in our submission guidelines, and yet her portrayal of Paul, the younger lover of her protagonist, is one of the most strikingly erotic in the book. She also happens to be the second writer in this interview series to explicitly declare that “tortured men are sexy,” which may admit more about the sensibilities and predilections of women writers than we . . . uh, really wanted to leak out to the public. Joseph was the recipient of an NEA fellowship last year for her new novel, and was also recently a subject in a glammed-up Vanity Fair feature on literary Southern belles—check it, and her, out here . . .
TNB: 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?”
SJ: Maybe a 2? I’ve been writing long enough that I think I’m past worrying about this sort of objection, especially as it’s exclusive to sex. We all have personal experiences in hundreds of arenas, and there will always be those who complain that whatever you’ve depicted (Denver, unicycling, heroin rehab, fundamentalism) is “wrong,” meaning “not like my own experience of that thing.” As fiction writers, our job is to imagine life through the eyes of others. This is what we do. We work to make the details accurate, the desires and emotions plausible, but beyond that a good character is not a type; he is not solely the representative of a group; he is an individual with his own history and predilections. And of all human experience, the sexual is one of the most compelling and urgent; it’s often where fictional characters—same as living people—are most vulnerable and likely to reveal themselves.
TNB: 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.
SJ: I don’t know about easier, but it’s a lot more fun, and always energizing to a story, to write about a character who wants something in a big bad way. Even better if he wants two things at once, desperately, and those two things are in conflict with each other. Sex is often the desire that can get its claws into a person’s psyche to the exclusion of all else. But I think writers often avoid writing sex for good reason: the real story is elsewhere. What happens in bed doesn’t move that particular story. Or it feels known already, pedestrian, titillating but not useful. So the first requirement of good sex writing is to find the story that really does happen in bed, the character who is revealed there and not elsewhere.
TNB: 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?
SJ: Kent has fascinated me for a long time: I started writing about him in my first book, Bear Me Safely Over, and continued in my second, Stray, in the opening of which (my piece for Men Undressed, “The Winter Beach”) he’s gotten himself freshly married to a Mennonite lawyer named Maggie but falls back into a dalliance with his former lover, a younger man named Paul. Pinning down Kent’s sexuality is pretty difficult. I’d call him about 65% straight; but if I were going to have sex with him I might rather do it in Paul’s body than Maggie’s.
TNB: 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 predecesors did not?
SJ: I would never want to be that spokesperson making the complaints based in the idea that my own experience must represent some kind of truth about female sexuality at large. I think there are plenty of male writers who write compellingly and convincingly from a female point of view. For my students or other apprentice writers, I advise against getting too caught up in representing the group. Provided you’ve done your necessary research and approach other sorts of people with a curious mind, the truth will come from inhabiting your character fully and intuitively, however different that person might be from you.
TNB: Sexiest male character in all of literature?
SJ: Hamlet—though I might be channeling one or two of my characters who think so. Or maybe Quentin Compson… What can I say? Tortured men are sexy. And apparently—in fiction, at least—I’m drawn to the ones so twisted around with wanting the wrong thing that they’re incapable of a physical sex act.
TNB: 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 de-sexualizes 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?
SJ: I have quite a few examples, but too many people would know exactly whom I mean! I prefer to sublimate all my urges into fiction, thanks.