In a recent interviewwith Bold Strokes Books, I was asked how much of myself can be found in my characters. I admitted that I might infuse a character with a specific asset or flaw of mine, but no character is a facsimile of me. For instance, my leading man Deck Waxer has some of the same 40-something complaints as me (knees pop when he stands up, back aches when he gets out of bed), but he’s not me. If we met, we’d get along really well because we have some things in common. But not everything.
So it was very disconcerting to me when a friend of mine (straight, but not narrow) began reading my new novel Combustion and before even getting past the prologue, posed this question to me in an IM: You think cum rags are hot?
I actually had no idea why I was being accused of such a thing. I didn’t even remember talking about cum rags and had to go refresh my memory. Indeed, there is an instant when a servant picks up cum rags while collecting the laundry in his masters’ bedroom where they worked him over the night before. My friend was completely fixated on the fact that I referenced them and concluded I had done so for erotic purposes.
In hopes of ending this five-minute conversation about me mentioning cum rags in my book for one second, I began making up reasons why I did so, and they’re not half bad. I proposed that while I don’t particularly think cum rags are hot, they stimulate the libidos of other gay men. I explained that cum rags drive home the intensity of the sex through the reality of the nasty aftermath. I pointed out that the cum rags further define the master/servant roles in and out of the sexual arena; the servant already satisfied the lustful needs of his masters, and now he has to suffer (aka: relish) the humiliation of cleaning up after them. I was sure I’d gotten through to my friend.
A little while later I get this IM: Are colonics supposed to be erotic? Here we go again. Rather than defend the sexual significance within my story, I simply replied that it’s a fetish for some, which actually is the point of its presence in Combustion; Deck Waxer meets a bevy of unique characters who eroticize various acts. I’ve never done most of the things described in the book. I swear it! It’s fiction. It’s fantasy. I wondered how my friend was going to get past the foot fucking or the dairy session with Milkman Stan. I even thought of prescribing The Pervert-Impaired Guide to Reading Combustion, a manual I’ve written for those who just want to experience the horror and not the sex.
It seems that my friend was transferring every thought and action in the book on to me, assuming that because I wrote it, it’s what I do, feel, and think. This is the very reason I tell my family to avoid reading my books at all costs. I might have to give my friends the same advice if this becomes an issue. I don’t write fiction to invite readers into my head—I write it to invite them into my imagination.
Should we equate the art with the artist, thereby hampering our appreciation of the art or our opinion of the artist? I don’t assume Stephen King enjoys pouring pigs’ blood over the heads of awkward schoolgirls. If I like an Eminem song that doesn’t have any gay slurs in it, I buy a used copy of his CD so that he doesn’t get a penny from me! Just because Mapplethorpe shoved a bullwhip up his ass for a photo…. Okay, bad example. But you get the point.
Granted, there are extreme cases in which it’s hard to separate the two. Seeing Joan Crawford being tortured by Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, I fleetingly think “Now you know how your daughter feels when she sees a wire hanger in the closet!” Watching the Jeepers Creepers ghoul hungering for the flesh of pretty young boys, my mind strays to the fact that director Victor Salva was found guilty of molesting the young actor from his horror film Clownhouse. Great flick, but try compartmentalizing art and the artist watching that film with this piece of knowledge….
I’ve also been just as guilty of reading an author friend’s book and assuming he was into the extreme sex acts that he was describing. In my defense, he wrote in first person, and I often find it hard not to read a first person novel like it’s a diary. This is the reason I usually stick to writing third person. I prefer to observe my characters, not become them, which is what it feels like I’m doing when I say “I” and “me” over and over and over again, as in this blog post, which is all me. My characters are not.