Why did I decide to write about a traveling salesman with an insatiable foot fetish? A clothing designer who is an evangelical sadist? An advertising executive who casts conventionally beautiful models in his ad campaigns but who longs for women who are amputees?
Someday, I'll lie back on an analyst's couch, three or four or 14 times a week, and make my way toward the answer. For now, I'll just say simply that, through these narratives, I was writing about myself. I don't spend much time pining for women's feet, nor yearning to be enslaved by a woman like The Baroness, nor dreaming of amputees, but I have spent plenty of time in states of longing, and so there was a deep connection between me and my characters. Their wanting was so powerful. Their confrontation with the anarchy of eros was, at times, frightening, but their embrace of desire could be truly ecstatic — and it could lead not only to momentary ecstasy but to transcendence, to love.
My characters were living out dramatic versions of the lives we all live, whether we keep our sexual longing locked beneath consciousness or dwell on it every day. I was driven to tell their stories because I felt that I — that we — are unmistakable in them. Freud has fallen out of favor, but he knew something we've all got to reckon with: the erotic is a force lodged inescapably inside us. This book was my way of tunneling inward and gazing at that force.
It wasn't hard to find the people who led me on this inward journey. I met them through therapists, through friends, through the Internet; met many more people than I ended up writing about. People who, though they're invisible within my book, inform every sentence. But in the end I immersed myself in the lives that fascinated me the most and that reflect on each other. The traveling salesman and The Baroness, for example, are a kind of couple. He is so tormented and isolated by his desire; she is so bold about hers. He lives in mortification, she in exaltation. She sees herself as an erotic savior. In fact, she may have thought she was going to save me. I first met her at her clothing boutique in Manhattan's East Village. Her outfits have been modeled by the likes of Janet Jackson and Kim Basinger. She led me down a narrow flight of iron stairs to the brick-walled basement where her slaves and submissives help to put together the clothes she designs. She sat me down, sat directly across from me, met my eyes in the way that only she can, and asked, "What fantasies are you here to fulfill?"
It may have taken a while to convince her, but what I wanted was to learn, to know. I ducked into her basement again and again in much the same way I entered the labs of sexologists taking images of the brain as they searched for the sources of our desires, and sat in on the sessions of psychiatrists trying to channel the erotic longings of their patients. I wanted to understand the force of eros — and to know how far it can take us. One of The Baroness's submissives told me that he felt, with her, like layers of onion skin were being stripped from his psyche, that he was reaching his very core. His journey was violent and alluring, terrifying and thrilling. I wouldn't have traded places with him, but I envied him.
I'm asked a lot how the four years I spent on this book changed me. That's as hard a question as why I set out to write it in the first place. I'd say I've been deepened more than changed, which is, I think, the experience one has with literature, whether in the writing or the reading. But then again, I suppose I have been changed in one obvious way. Talking about desire has become infinitely easier. I hope that will be true for anyone who reads my book. This might make it sound as though I've written some sort of self-help guide. I haven't. But desire isn't an easy subject to be open about. If I've succeeded in the writing, the book should be a way of communicating with ourselves, about ourselves.