Walter Kirn’s newest book, Blood Will Out: The True Story of Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade, is a riveting, chilling, and sometimes funny real-life psychological thriller about Kirn’s fifteen-year friendship with a man whose life story eerily parallels Tom Ripley’s in The Talented Mr. Ripley. Kirn is a witty, sharp observer who will flay himself with the same X-Acto knife precision that he uses to flay his characters. I couldn’t stop reading Blood Will Out—it made me want to dig through my bookshelves, pluck out and reread everything Kirn has ever written.
I met up with Walter Kirn after his reading at the Ivy Bookshop in Baltimore. We went to one one of the city’s great dives, the Curb Shoppe. The Orioles game played behind the bar where customers were drinking Natty Boh and doing $3.50 Jager shots. We didn’t drink, but we sat for a good long time in the light of a pinkish neon sign. I gave Kirn a choice: we could discuss the book and he could answer the usual questions that come up on tour. Or he could submit to The Six-Question Sex Interview. I’m glad he chose the latter.
What is your favorite or least favorite sex scene you’ve ever read?
The worst sex scene I ever read was in one of Updike’s Rabbit novels where there was a description of anal sex. There are two ways to go when writing sex: technical and sort of graphic, or lyrical and poetic. Both of them are, to me, revolting in different ways. Updike managed to do both at once. He compared genitals to various flowers and plants and was extremely mechanical in the description of the act. It seemed falsely poetic and repellently scientific. And that characterizes a lot of his sex scenes. He manages to make it sound both much more lyrical than it is and much more impersonal than it is. I consider him the master of bad sexual prose.
I tend to think that straight pornographic prose is more effective and more palatable than attempts to be either lyrical or precise. The problem with sex is we only see it from a very close point-of-view, we don’t hover over ourselves and watch. And often the problem in fiction is a point-of-view problem—this sort of impossible outsider who’s narrating the sex, who doesn’t really exist. Or there are scenes written with such intense close-up that you wonder what’s going on. Planets are colliding but you can’t see the sex. Reading Penthouse Forum as a kid—that stuff intoxicated me. But when I graduated to serious literature and read about sex, I found it awful.
Strangely, Bret Easton Ellis does a pretty good job writing about sex. He’s very cold and it sort of resembles pornography. And I find it kind of hypnotic. Though often the sex he describes is really terrible, violent, fringe sex.
Do you remember the first time you read a sex scene in fiction?
The first sex scene I ever read was a pulp novel I pulled down off my dad’s shelf—The Day of the Jackal, by Fred Forsyth. The Jackal was this extremely cold, intelligent, conscience-free assassin. And he has a liaison with a French duchess. I don’t remember much about the actual sex; I was ten and I couldn’t picture it well. But there was golden hair falling across her breasts. It was minimalist but vivid enough that I couldn’t get it out of my head. I put the book back hoping my dad wouldn’t notice it was out of place. I would go back to it often, to the same scene.
The next sex scene I read was the rape scene in Deliverance, by James Dickey—it was another paperback on the same shelf. The scene showed sex, in a sense, and it was violent, too, and I didn’t know the difference. I wasn’t sure I knew what was being described, but I knew it was extremely adult. I think that scared me off books for a while.
So how were you finding these books on the shelves? On what basis where you choosing them?
The covers. In the 70s, you could tell by a book cover if there was sex. The Happy Hooker had a goofy font and a lot of yellow and it was wacky and groovy. And I guess she [Xaviera Hollander] was a real person. I didn’t know what a hooker was but I found out pretty quickly. Those books were filed closer to the bedroom than to the living room, but they were on the shelf. A lot of thrillers that I picked up had sex. Then I read the Jacqueline Susann books—Valley of the Dolls, for example. There was some kind of code on those covers that would visually suggest that there was a lot of perversity in the books, and so I was drawn to them. I could guess where the sex scenes were, too. There was usually one about a third in—a big one—a pay-off for getting through the first third; then another weird one toward the middle, and one toward the end. A lot of the books were built around these sexual encounters. Looking for Mr. Goodbar had one of those covers, too.
I don’t think many book covers today give you the idea of the thrill. The Fifty Shades books do it, but they overdo it. I imagine kids pick those up with a sense of danger. The power of the books in the 70s was that they had strong, pot-boiling stories that included sex. Fifty Shades really strikes me as absurd. It’s like a romance novel with a lot of simulated S and M.
You’ve written scenes with masturbation in them. Anything you want to say about that?
The first short story in my first book is about masturbation. And I’ve since learned, as a teacher of creative writing, that a lot of young men write a first story about masturbation. Maybe it’s because getting caught masturbating is one of the first identity crises, the first pure shame and psychological drama that boys face.
I grew up Mormon, and the Mormon Church, when I was a member in the 70s, was on an official anti-masturbation campaign.
Did they say the word masturbation?
They probably called it self-stimulation. They were disseminating tips on how to break the masturbation habit. The bishop took me into his office and he told me that when you do this to yourself you probably first imagine a naked woman, alone. And I said, yeah, I guess so. I was around twelve or thirteen. You have to imagine how terrible it was to answer that question. Then he told me to just imagine that that woman is wounded, has a terrible cut, and she’s bleeding. That way you won’t be aroused by the thought of her and you can stop the whole process right there. I knew instinctively that I wouldn’t take this advice. And if I did take it, I would really mix it up somehow. I knew he had just told me something that was insane. Right away I knew I wasn’t going to let this guy fuck up my mind with this bizarre chastity tip.
Do you think cities are sexy? Are people from any one place sexier than people from any other place?
The least sexy city is Los Angeles. And it poses as the most sexy. As you grow up, L.A. is being sold to you as home of the bikini-clad party girls. And then you get there and it’s full of very goal-oriented, yoga-obsessed careerists. In L.A., the first couple minutes you interact with a woman, she always gives the sense of being completely available. But soon she finds out that you’re not the most powerful movie producer or the hottest screenwriter and she becomes less available. And after twenty minutes she has no interest in you whatsoever and is moving on to the next guy who might be the big producer. It’s like potato chips. You rip the bag open and it’s all air and there are only three chips. Los Angeles might have been wild at one time and I sense that it was. But it’s one of the most focused and overly ambitious places there is and that doesn’t leave much room for sex.
The sexiest city is Dallas, Texas. I mean, I don’t know if it’s sex but there sure are a lot of beautiful women there. I actually think the Midwest is sexy. A lot of smaller towns and cities where you know everyone, women are very relaxed and fun loving. They’re beautiful women who aren’t constantly working it, aren’t constantly working some game. Just kind of natural.
I remember the first time I went to Italy when I was eighteen, I was in Florence and there were all these eighteen, nineteen, twenty-year-olds gliding past on Vespas with crinkly, long, hair and I thought I was on the set of a movie. I couldn’t believe that this was going on and I hadn’t known about it before. I was flabbergasted. The same cannot be said for London. I had the impression from reading English literature that British women were great beauties, and I only had seen Julie Christie and she was gorgeous and sexy. I don’t know whether it was just my taste, but when I got to London I went two years without seeing a truly attractive woman. A lot of near misses. But I did marry a British girl, my first wife was British. She was a sweet and loving person.
My views of sex and sexuality are more colored by the Mad Men era of my parents than by an Alan Alda era of political sensitivity. I remember watching The Tonight Show with Joey Heatherton and Angie Dickinson on as guests. They were sexy. I don’t think anyone should have to apologize for their fetishes and that stuff. [Joey and Angie] stuck in my head in a way that the more unisex 70s vision of femininity did not. I had Don Draper’s tastes as a twelve-year-old and that kind of stuff tends to determine the rest of your life. By the time I got to high school women were wearing painter pants and overalls, the least attractive dressing that’s ever been done in civilized history. [As a little kid] I was waiting to grow up to see women in stockings, and it turned out they were all in Osh Kosh B’Gosh. I would have done anything to see a woman who wasn’t wearing fucking painter pants when I was sixteen. And who didn’t have Dorothy Hamill hair. It’s hard to take the Angie Dickinson out of a boy no matter what happens.