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.