I met James (Jim) Magruder in a café in my neighborhood where I write. His book SUGARLESS was days away from coming out. He was so charming in person that I bought his book immediately and devoured it in hours. It is hilarious, touching, elegantly written, and wonderfully shameless. Not surprisingly, SUGARLESS was shortlisted for the Lambda Literary Award, the VCU Cabell First Novelists Award and the 2010 William Saroyan International Prize for Writing. Jim wrote the book for the Broadway musical Triumph of Love, has been a resident at MacDowell, a fellow at Sewanee and has had numerous short stories published as well as anthologized. Currently he is teaching at Swarthmore College and the Yale School of Drama. But we’re not going to talk about any of that here because this is The James Magruder Sex Interview.

We’re both on a sex panel at the Baltimore’s Writers’ Conference. Do they honestly want us to have sex up there, is that really what they expect? And how do you think it will go down for us?

You’re my type, Jessica. Forewarned is forearmed. I’m at least prepared to enact scenes from our works. We can be Emery and Katie from your next novel, Drinking Closer to Home. I can still summon my maladaptive moves from when I lost my heterosexual virginity in a boarding house in Munich in 1980. And then you can be my stepsister in Sugarless–shaking your hair from your eyes and striking Penthouse poses. Just be sure to wear a ribbed camisole.

When you’re writing a sex scene, like the naked wrestling scene between Rick and Steve in SUGARLESS, do you ever imagine your mother reading it? Or when you’re writing, is there no audience, in a sense, so you can put down whatever you want?

My mother has read Sugarless, but my sisters told her ahead of time how sex-drenched it was. She had to have cataract surgery after Chapter 5. Cause and effect? You tell me. When I’ve done book groups, the women are generally astonished at Richard’s trigger-happy state. I tell them to ask their husbands (not their sons) if they remember what it was like to be fifteen–when it stood up for anything. I’d get erections on the school bus every single morning, simply because it was moving. I don’t think I’ve ever struck anything out for fear of giving offense, or toned anything down in my writing. There is an anal rape by candle in my first published story, and I remember worrying solely about how to describe, with elegance and rhythm, the wick end of the candle without using the word “wicked”, because of the homonym. The violence and potential horror and disgust in the reader never crossed my mind. The story demanded the event.

Have you ever had sex and “written” it at the same time? That is, you’re doing it, let’s say, and while you’re at it, you’re also floating on the ceiling watching yourself and describing the scene as you might later write it?

My work, so far, is relentlessly autobiographical. One genuine goal as a writer is to start making shit up. Nearly all of the sex in my novel and my stories is sex I remember having–with judicious enhancements. I did wrestle nude with my uncircumcised friend Steve on one of his babysitting gigs in 1974, but it didn’t end with a forced blowjob, or with my smacking my leg on a Fisher-Price Schoolhouse. When I cast my mind about for stories, I do tend to shuffle the deck of old encounters–my mind goes right to the sex and generally there will be something I learned through the sex I had with that person. But at the time, in my twenties, I was always in the moment–directing the sex, absolutely, writing it, no.

What’s the worst sex you’ve ever had? I don’t mean worst experience, it being forced on you or something horrendous like that, I mean the worst encounter to which you willfully submitted?

In the 1980’s, I was a power-mad slut with low self-esteem. I was yours for a Coke and a compliment. I also believed in true love and was terribly eager to please, so I wasn’t the kind of boy who’d say, “Ouch” or “Don’t” or “Stop” or “Put some spit on that, for Christ’s sake.” Sex was never horrible, though there was the one gentleman who pointed out the next morning that I had a pimple on my nose. I genteelly refrained from guessing at his age out loud or making fun of how he needed poppers to stay hard. I suppose the worst sex I had was with the first man I lived with. We were a mismatch in temperament and values, and after eight months I started to feel contemptuous of him. It got so I couldn’t stand to kiss him. I’d make jokes out of kissing, blow air into his cheeks, make raspberries, anything to avoid the intimacy of an honest, well-intentioned kiss. The sex got worse and worse. I starting turning off the lights off so he couldn’t see me grimace. I mean, the sex worked, but it was maybe the only time in my life where I felt like a sex worker. Then I broke up with him in a cowardly way. He was in over his head. I think I have to go write that story now.

You have playfully referred to yourself as Charles Nelson Reilly. And, as you know, I fall into gales of laughter every time you do your C.N.R. voice. But this is a serious, literary interview for a serious literary magazine, so I must ask this question: What do you think Charles Nelson Reilly was like in bed?

Given the ascots and the overbite and the Brett Sommers enmeshment, I think we think Charles Nelson Reilly was a power bottom, but I’m convinced he was versatile. Recall that he was an actor and director and writer. He was Irish, and fallen Catholics are pigs in bed in the best way. What CNR may have lost in inches, he gained in technique. He also survived the Hartford Circus fire in 1944, so he was wily, determined, and invincible–all good qualities to have between the sheets.

What are you working on now? Is there lots of sex in your current project?

I’m shopping around a book of stories, titled You’ve Really Learned How, but nobody really wants those, with or without candle violations. I spent the summer revising a second novel, Love Slaves of Helen Hadley Hall, which treats my first year in French grad school at Yale. I changed it from first person to third–no easy feat for me. A very smart friend has just read it and said it needs more plot in the first half. In this case, that means more sex partners for one of the chief sluts, so I’ll have to revisit my night with the guy I met whose father was rubbed out by the Mafia. And the slightly pinheaded graphic designer with the red pubic hair. We all know what that’s like.

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JESSICA ANYA BLAU's third novel, THE WONDER BREAD SUMMER, was selected as a Summer Read on NPR's All Things Considered, CNN's Book Chat, and Oprah's Book Club. She is also the author of DRINKING CLOSER TO HOME, and THE SUMMER OF NAKED SWIM PARTIES. For more information go to www.jessicaanyablau.com.

113 responses to “The James Magruder Sex Interview”

  1. Greg Olear says:

    I loved this, both the idea and the execution. The sex interview should be a regular thing we do at TNB, it says here.

  2. Okay, you’re next Greg. I’m sending you your Six Sex Questions!

    • Greg Olear says:

      You’re the one with the sexy book coming out in January, not me.

      Unrelatedly, have you heard about the Naked News? Basically, a woman interviews special guests, and said woman is naked. Otherwise, it’s set up like a news show.

      • Zara Potts says:

        Ugh. We have Naked News here in NZ. It’s gross.
        We also have a yearly parade called ‘Boobs on Bikes.’ That is just as gross.

        “New Zealand – where sometimes it’s pretty gross.”

      • I volunteer to write JAB’s “Six Sex Questions” for the series. I hope you lot don’t think you’re kidding, because I think launching the “Six Sex Questions” series at TNB is absolutely mandatory. Jessica, I’m expecting mine any time now . . .

        Meanwhile, I read James’ collection, YOU’VE REALLY LEARNED HOW, and it’s fabulous. It’s been such a pleasure getting to know him–he is one hot talent, pun intended or otherwise.

        • Greg Olear says:

          Six sex questions, Gina on Jessica? Oh my. How can that not wind up the most-read post in the history of TNB? I’m going to make the slide right now.

          Sidenote: I’ve been writing sex scenes the last two days (I’m with Matt about the blush factor), so this post has come (ahem) at the appropriate time. After tomorrow, it’s back to more prosaic topics…

        • Get busy, Greg. Jessica’s sex questions are coming soon! I just blurbed her amazing book, so I have plenty of questions in mind!

        • And I’m writing YOURS as fast as I can! It will be DELICIOUS! x!

        • dwoz says:

          It’s NSFW week on TNB!

          what a TREAT!

        • Why am I constantly feeling like I’m twelve years old here?! First I didn’t know about the RCH, then I didn’t know about naked news, I completely missed the train coming through the station and now I have no idea what NSFW stands for!

        • dwoz says:

          Not Safe For Work

          And you write sex stories! what a wonderful conundrum!


        • OH, NSFW–great, I like that. Think how much you alone have taught me today!

          I work on a computer at home, writing, so there is nothing that is NSFW for me. And then I teach, sans computer, so it’s never an issue. But I imagine there’s a whole world of people out there hitting ESCAPE on their computers as people walk into their offices, or cubicles, or work stations.

          Honestly DWOZ, I don’t write sex stories. I write stories and novels, and oftentimes people in those stories and novels have sex. It’s usually bad sex, or messy sex, or sex that goes terribly wrong. That’s much more interesting to me (in writing) than good sex. Good sex is like hearing about a happy marriage. Bo-ring.

        • dwoz says:

          People have sex?

          are you SURE?

          what a strange world we live in.

          It’s actually far worse in the working world than that. We have other computers looking at our computers. Some companies have an entire full-time person doing nothing else than making sure people can’t see boobies or read the word “ejaculation”. What a great job.

          That’s interesting about good sex. very true I think.

  3. Zara Potts says:

    This is a great interview! Arrgh! So many great lines and thoughts and questions. You two make an excellent team. Sex is such a fascinating and rich topic. We should talk more about it. And laugh.
    (I hope Jim’s mother’s eyes are better now…)

    • Well Greg wants to start a regular sex interview thing and I said I’d start with him, but maybe we should jump straight to you Zara!

      Jim’s mother’s eyes are better as far as I know. He’ll be touched to know you asked about her!

  4. Matt says:

    OK, now I want to write a sex-drenched book JUST so I can be subjected to the Jessica Anya Blau sex interview.


  5. I’m all for a good sex interview… and this was a GREAT one. Next? Greg? Zara? Perhaps someone can lure the lovely Kimberly back on the TNB pages for a good cause?

  6. Sex can be tough to write about… but fun! I’m glad you asked about whether he wrote with an audience in mind. I certainly wonder, “What will _____ think?” about this sex scene, and “Will ______ think this is weird?”

    • Yes, I think the hardest part about writing sex scenes is worrying about those close to you–letting them see the inner sexual workings of your mind (I mean even if it’s complete fiction–the writer obviously THOUGHT about it!). But we all have to let that go, don’t we? We need to trust that the people who love us will understand and forgive the bizarre things that come out of our heads.

      • Matt says:

        Every time I write a sex scene I get about three sentances in, begin to blush furiously, and have to go away and do something else for a couple of hours. I’m waaaaaaaayyyy more bashful about writing sex scenes than I am about having actual sex.

  7. Dylan says:

    Great hearing Jim muse about how to describe the wick “with elegance and rhythm” and why it mattered. And also this: <> Who knew the way to get writers talking about writing was via questions on sex? Bring on the sex interview, Jessica!

  8. Andrew Nonadetti says:

    Never mind mothers, I think I’d worry more about my children reading anything with some heat. “Daddy, I took your book to show-and-tell because I was so proud but the teacher made me stop reading it out loud. But I found a mistake. You never said what the girl screamed or where she came from. You should fix that! And was she Supergirl? ’cause I don’t think people are really strong enough to pull trains….”

  9. Richard Cox says:

    Oh for the love of God. The teaser for this piece is alone worth the price of admission. And yes I just said tease and piece and price. Hahaha.

    My favorite part of this is the transition between his first answer and your second question.

    He says, “…you can be my stepsister in Sugarless–shaking your hair from your eyes and striking Penthouse poses. Just be sure to wear a ribbed camisole” and you just plow into the next question without so much as a raised eyebrow. No doubt this isn’t how it happened in person but it made me laugh to read it that way.

    Excellent interview, Jessica. You’re good at this.

  10. Slade Ham says:

    A butcher, a baker, and a candlestick taker

  11. Gloria says:

    “Put some spit on that, for Christ’s sake.” That made me a little hot. How I long for sexy words like that. 😉

    Hilarious interview. Loved this.

  12. I would totally pay for airfare, hotel accommodations and everything to come to a Baltimore writers’ conference if there was ever the possibility you were going to perform literary sex scenes live, Jessica. Oh heck. You could even read them with your clothes on. I don’t care. I’d just love to see you read in 3D one of these days.

    And again, thanks for turning me on to Luca D. Just got the video today. It looks hella great!

    • Gloria says:

      I’d go to that conference. Could I pick my favorite sex scenes from any book I’ve ever read? Could I pick which authors get to perform which scenes? Could I request that gender roles are reversed? Man…the possibilities…

    • Oh I can’t wait to see the video with Luca’s work!

      Rich, COME to the Balt. Writers’ Conference, we WILL be talking live in 3D. You could add some sophisticated “art” to the scene by doing some Spoken Word performance and all will be right in the world. In Baltimore, at least!

  13. James Magruder says:

    Checking in…
    I’m a reformed slut these days. Jessica can attest to my wholesomeness.
    The word ‘slut’ rings like a gong in the interview because I’d just finished Gina Frangello’s stupendously wonderful story collection, SLUT LULLABIES. A must-read.
    My mother’s eyes are better, thank you for your concern.
    An L.A. insider corrected me via text last night. John C. Reilly is the unacknowledged child of Charles Nelson Reilly and Alice Pearce, so the man with the ascot was more versatile than previously supposed.
    As for red pubic hair, the first time is a shock, isn’t it? As with cilantro and Kafka, one cannot be neutral.

    • Yes, I will attest to the fact that you are devoted to your spouse, wholesome in your love!

      Is that really, honestly true about John C. Reilly? This is as freaky as finding out that the term RCH is a standard unit of measurement!

    • Gloria says:

      The first time is a shock? Really? I’m a redhead. Tried and true. Should I start offering a liability waiver form before intercourse, do you think?

      • dwoz says:

        hehe. A shock, like finding out the Atlantic is cold in February.

        Likely as not, the freckles will distract their full attention anyway.

        • Or a shock like when the M&M characters met Santa Claus: “He does exist!” “They do exist!”

          It’s a little like you know that’s how it’s supposed to be. You know that hair in various parts of the body usually not visible will match hair on the parts of the body that are visible (unless chemically treated). But seeing that is something else entirely. Like the difference between theory and practice, in a way.

          I dated a redhead. A couple, in fact (not simultaneously, no). One, however, shaved. Which is probably another discussion entirely.

        • Will, we are looking forward to your post about the two redheads. Please post soon!

  14. Irene Zion says:

    Now everyone reacts differently,
    but I, myself,
    would rather have my eyes
    gouged out by flaming iron rods,
    than read my children’s
    sexual exploits.

  15. Really?

    My children aren’t writing about sexual exploits, they’re writing about things like the time one of them asked her friends to duct tape her to a pillar so she could be bound, suspended for a couple hours while she watched video games. I don’t know if I’ll want to read about their sexual exploits if and when they’re ever writing them.

    You must read Lenore’s posts here, no?

  16. jmblaine says:

    Pigs In Bed: Lapsed Catholics & Circus Fire Survivors

    Now that’s an awesome title.

    I have this friend who is a sex therapist
    who at times
    tells me things that I think
    would be quite interesting to print.
    Real sex, apparently, ain’t quite
    so titillating.

  17. Loved this interview, and the resultant discussion. I always love writing sex. There’s a bit in my collection, more in my novel, a lot in an upcoming project. Really, it’s simply the most essential of all human desires, and a universal want. Like, when writing professors used to ask what characters want, sex is a great answer. You can’t even say “That’s it?” because pretty much all of human history has demonstrated “Well. Er. What more is there, again?”

    • You’re right Will. Sex. And love, too, I suppose. Sex and love. Sex and love. Always looking for one and other.
      They fill in all the other needs: validation, etc.

    • dwoz says:

      It’s interesting….

      as part of my “practice” of writing character, I have a separate document, where I write sex scenes with my character. It’s an exercise to develop the character, finding out how that character reacts in intimate situations.

      the second file is definitely, DEFINITELY “throwaway”.

      It is just there because I am male, and I need to have some technical mechanism for figuring out how a female character feels.

      When I re-read my sex log, it shows me how blatantly, gratuitously MALE MALE MALE the writing is.

      It helps me nuance the female character into believability.

  18. James Magruder says:

    I apologize for my imprecision.
    What I was implying is that we all know what that first time with a slightly pinheaded graphic designer is like.

  19. OH, wait, you’re not being mean are you? You’re just saying all graphic designers are slightly pinheaded, right?
    I’d put a smiley face up but I don’t know how!

  20. dwoz says:

    I loath that I have to use a smiley.

    But, James and I have no relationship. He doesn’t know me, and on superficial read, my post tastes like an attack. Like bitter batter. An overenthusiastic top playing the role.

    I have a friend, Charles Dye, who was, incidentally, the mix engineer for “livin’ la vida loca”, who has a positively religious aversion to emoticons. I agree in theory with him, but in principle, we interact with new people all the time, and the “puppy love” aspect of the relationship is rife with opportunity for misconstrual.

    Thus, the temporary emoticon.

    My very next post to James will be free to dispense with the emoticon albatross, because we will have, indeed, a relationship.

    a smiley is easy. eyes: : nose: – mouth: )


  21. I saw The Brett Sommers Enmeshment warm up for Grand Funk Railroad at Altamont.

    Great interview, Jessica. James sounds like the Donald Trump of self-control. An excellent reason to pick up a copy.

    • Oh yes, I highly recommend reading SUGARLESS. It is really funny and a great story, too. Not just magic prose, but great plot and conflict. To start there’s a born-again Christian mother, a nasty booger-smearing step-dad, a teacher with whom our protagonist has a sexual relationship, and much, much, much more!

    • And . . . we still have to figure out the Donald Trump of Anything! I want a blog on T. D.T.!

  22. D.R. Haney says:

    My God. It would never have occurred to me to speculate about the sex life of Charles Nelson Reilly, and now, for an instant, I have.

    Now to find a bar of brain soap, and if it doesn’t exist, I’ll have to invent it.

    • ARe you telling me, D.R., that you have never before pondered CNR’s sex life?! What about Ruth Buzzy’s? Or Richard Dawson’s? Or Paul Lynde’s? At the very least you’ve thought about their sex lives, right?

  23. Simon Smithson says:

    There’s something about the term ‘sex panel’ that’s making me laugh in a very juvenile fashion.

    Like, it’s the sexy version of wood-panelling.

    ‘Oh, you simply must come to my chalet. It’s got a sex-paneled interior, don’t you know.’

  24. […] (I believe rather unintentionally) the concept of the Six Question Sex Interview series.  Her sex interview with author James Magruder was so stimulating (er, inspirational) to her fellow TNBers, that it seemed only fair that Jessica […]

  25. […] also created the TNB Sex Interview, for which she has played the role of interviewer and […]

  26. […] to my hands – that is I never made comparisons between mine and others, not until people like Jim Magruder made comments and, then, well, I must admit that my hands are fairly broad and I don’t know that […]

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