Vanessa Carlisle runs a blog called Gorgeous Curiosity,” and it suits her.  Whether blogging on a break from her Occupy LA tent, deciding to eschew the traditional publishing game and self-publish her debut novel, A Crack in Everything, or intently dissecting the class politics of stripping, I have been consistently impressed with the zeal with which this Comparative Lit PhD candidate, writer, dancer, editor and sometimes-sex-worker approaches life, work and play.  Her generosity of spirit, sense of fun and intellectual searching are all apparent in her short story, “In the First Place,” which appears in Men Undressed: Women Writers and the Male Sexual Experience.  The last time I saw Vanessa, her open friendliness (and likely her long blond hair) inspired my five-year-old son to proudly proclaim, “I think a lot.  And I’m very cute and a lot of girls like me,” nearly causing me spit out my Lillet.  Like the young sex therapist/prostitute (we had some interesting discussions about that distinction among the editors when Vanessa’s story first rolled in) of “In the First Place,” Vanessa seems to have the magic touch on men of all ages!  Here it was my pleasure, as always, to talk with her about Freud, Nietzsche, sex toys, and the sexiness of Italians . . .


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?”

VC: Oh please. Men have been writing from a woman’s perspective since ancient Greece. Sometimes they get it “right,” meaning a lot of women recognize themselves in the character, and sometimes there’s a note of falsity. Women will do exactly the same thing writing from men’s POV. So what if I got my guy “wrong?” Don’t most people get themselves wrong like three times a day, anyway? Besides, I have a strap-on.


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?

VC: It is not harder to write from the perspective of a man chasing sex than the perspective of a man washing dishes, because as far as I’m concerned, all people are concerned with sex at all times, even if they are actively repressing or mourning their sexualities. In other words, washing dishes equals chasing sex.  I don’t think of sex as an “equalizer,” except that we all have some basic commonality of having a sexuality. But we all have appetites for food and water, too, and the variance in the kinds of food we desire, what our pathologies with food are, are so immense we rarely talk about hunger the way we talk about sexual desire. I think all Americans have a screwed-up sexuality, and the basic question is: how bad is it? And if it’s not that bad, then you’re fighting the giants, since the entire media establishment is designed to make you feel guilty for any measure of sexual health or desire. So. Literary writers shy away from this because they all secretly think Freud is God and that they couldn’t possibly have anything new to say about sex. I’m kidding. A bit.


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?

VC: Would I have sex with him! Oh yes. Yes indeed. My character was inspired by people I’ve met in my thirteen years in the sex industry. I am drawn to the men who are actively trying to understand their relation to sex as it is transactional in current American society, men who are conscious that most of their sexual relationships have been transactional in some way, and are really struggling to figure out their desires, their levels of empowerment or emasculation, and their feelings about their own aging as sexual people. This story lead to the bedroom because my narrator has a reckless streak, borne of years of apathy. This is a turning point for him. Turning points are sexy.


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 male 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?

VC: I’d love for a male writer to tackle a female character who is constantly horny. A woman who is already turned on in the world, not just responding to the men or women she sees. I think most of the female who have been described this way were prostitutes or desperate older women, and I wonder what it would look like for a male writer to write a horny woman he really respected?


TNB: Sexiest male character in all of literature?

VC: Zarathustra.


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 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?

VC: Ok. I’m 32. At Burning Man this year I met a man in his fifties who I am still sorry I didn’t seduce. His name is Scarecrow. I want him. Help me find him! Also, I think it’s important to remember that in Italy, everyone is sexy until the day they die. Why? I don’t know. But I’m learning Italian.

GINA FRANGELLO is the fiction editor of The Nervous Breakdown. She is the author of three books of fiction: A Life in Men (forthcoming from Algonquin in Feb 2014), Slut Lullabies (Emergency Press) and My Sister's Continent (Chiasmus 2006). She is also the Sunday Editor at The Rumpus, and was the longtime editor of the literary magazine Other Voices, as well as the co-founder and executive editor of its book imprint, Other Voices Books (now an imprint of Dzanc Books). Her short stories have been published in many lit mags and anthologies, including A Stranger Among Us: Stories of Cross Cultural Collision and Connection, Prairie Schooner, StoryQuarterly, and Fence, and her essays, journalism, reviews and interviews have appeared in such venues as the Chicago Tribune, the Huffington Post and the Chicago Reader. In her nonexistent spare time, she runs a writing program out of Mexico, <a href="http://www.othervoicesqueretaro.com/" Other Voices Queretaro.

2 responses to “The Six Question Sex Interview: Men Undressed Edition: Vanessa Carlisle”

  1. Jessica Blau says:

    GREAT interview as usual, Gina!

    I’m ready to move to Italy, too.

    And, I hope Scarecrow shows up!

    • Vanessa says:

      Jessica, you will be pleased to know that within five minutes of me posting this to FB I got this message: “I know Scarecrow. I can put you in touch.”
      This, friends, is the power of the internet.
      (thanks for reading!)

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