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What I'm Giving | November 19, 2013 1 comment
In this special series, we asked writers we admire to share a book they're giving to their friends and family this holiday season. Check back daily... Continue »
The Deflowering of an Authorby M. J. Rose
I get asked about sexual aspects of my novels.
"Why do you write so much about sex?"
"What makes your writing so sensual?"
"Does your family read your fiction and how do they feel about it?"
When this first started happening, five years ago after the publication of my first novel, Lip Service, I was caught off-guard by all but one question.
Of course I knew that, yes, my sister and my stepmother had read my novel, and that my father had put Lip Service down after the first chapter. He'd said he was very proud that I'd been published, but he didn't want to think about his daughter being able to write what was in that book.
As for all the other questions, I just didn't have any idea.
The more novels I wrote, the more consistent the questions became. And this summer with the publication of my fifth novel [The Halo Effect], about a New York City sex therapist who gets involved with the hunt for a serial killer when one of her patients goes missing, the questions have reached a point where even I wanted to know the answers.
In the early '70s, when I was in high school, kids from all the different private schools congregated on one particular hill overlooking Bethesda Fountain in Central Park in New York City.
One Saturday, in mid May, I struck up a conversation with a tall guy with almond shaped dark brown eyes. I was sixteen. He was eighteen and, it turned out, was going off to Cornell the following fall. When I asked him what he was going to study, he told me architecture.
"Have you read The Fountainhead?" I asked immediately.
Of course he had.
It was over that first fervent conversation about a book that had such an impact on both of us that I started to fall in lust with him and he with me. A teenage passion that led to a long lasting relationship that imprinted me forever.
That spring, my first love read to me in his bed when his mother was at work and mine thought I was at the museum, or shopping, or going to a movie.
He seduced me with poetry: Sonnets from the Portuguese, the works of Andrew Marvell, John Donne, Dante and Shakespeare. If we had been adults it might have been saccharine. But our feelings for each other and for the poems were genuine: without guile or cynicism.
Words and passion became intertwined. Touches and thoughts became wedded together.
After spending the afternoon in his bedroom, just before his mother was expected home we'd leave the apartment, and go to Brentano's Bookstore and browse the aisles. Staying long enough so that when we got back to his apartment his mom would be there and it would seem like we'd been out all afternoon.
But being in the bookstore was not just a convenient and cheap place to hide for a while. We were both bookworms. So during those hours we explored and discovered and filled ourselves up discovering other poets and novelists.
Six weeks after meeting him, I went off to Andover for an art program I'd committed to before we'd met. He'd had a summer job as an intern for the architectural firm that was building a new wing on the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Over the forty-two days I was gone, he sent me ninety-nine love letters. Sexy, sweet, explicit, poetic, provocative, and extremely well-written letters. Or at least it seemed to me at the time.
Until that summer, I had mostly wanted to be a painter. I'd written a lot of bad poetry and had thought about being a writer what booklover hasn't? But it was the silky paint, the intense colors, the feel of the brush on the canvas, the way I could make the swirl of intensity glide into some sort of meaning that absorbed and attacked me.
Until that summer.
Until the sweltering hot July days in the silent library at Andover that smelled of old books when in the light streaming through the double-height windows I sat down and set out to write my boyfriend back. Not just a letter, but words that would move him as much as his had moved me. A letter that would make him suck in his breath and close his eyes and remember our being together the way his letter had made me remember.
I wanted to match his writing sensation for sensation.
I didn't wonder if I could do it. I didn't plan on how to do it. I simply started to write, pouring out a scenario of what we would do if he were there with me, where we would go, what we would see, how we would touch, what we would smell, and how we would taste.
I disappeared as I wrote that first letter. More than anything I'd ever experienced when painting, almost as much as I experienced actually being with him: the process of writing was like alchemy for me.
An hour passed but I thought it had only been minutes.
I, who was dyslexic, who'd always had trouble with spelling and grammar and syntax, was writing in a way I'd never done before.
At sixteen, a young boy touched something in me and set off an explosion. It tied words to sensation. It connected fantasy to passion. It gave me a way to express myself that I'd never imagined I possessed.
It wasn't until I was thirty-three, the creative director of a New York City advertising agency, that I decided I wanted to write a novel. I'd written several screenplays which had all been optioned but never been made. And then one was ripped off and turned into a movie. It was time to either move to LA and really do the screenplay thing or give it up. And that's when it occurred to me that I had another choice. I could try to write a novel instead of sticking with the movie scripts.
And I started to work on my first novel.
I wasn't trying to tell an erotic or seductive story. I made no attempt at sensual writing. But that seems to be what came out.
I loved the process as much as I'd loved writing those love letters years before, disappearing into the stories and the characters in a way that nothing had absorbed me since my summer at Andover.
That my novels are not love stories surprises me I think I'm an incurable romantic. That they are edgy, different kinds of books about murder and violence and psychological suspense is equally shocking. I've lived such a criminally innocent life and never gravitated to books like that.
That my books are erotic was equally surprising.
But no longer.
I've come up with intellectual reasons for what I focus on in my writing I believe books should be written about subjects that can't be done as well in other mediums and that to get inside a characters psychology is one of the things books can do best. From there it is logical that if you are making someone's psychology part of your story then their sexuality has to be part of the story too. I also think that human sexuality is fascinating.
But those reasons are not the answer to the questions.
At a seminal moment in my coming of age, my passion for reading collided with a passion for a young man and that had a profound impression on me, and that, as Robert Frost said in one of the poems my love read to me that first summer, has made all the difference.