During a radio chat after the release of my debut novel, Diary of a Sex Addict the interviewer referred to me as an erotic writer. I corrected him, explaining that my narrative and prose is graphic and sensual but not necessarily erotic.
Elaborating on what I meant by sensual or poetically-sexy prose, I mentioned one of my idols William Faulkner. The interviewer balked. Faulkner, sexy? Hell yes, I said!
Indeed, all of Faulkner's books are ripe with both overt and subtle sexuality. His novel Sanctuary, about a debutante who is taken hostage in a farm house (sometimes referred to as his potboiler), is wild, beautiful, brilliant and very sensual. An early scene evokes this.
His hand fumbled across her cheek. "You are young yet." She didn't move, feeling his hand upon her face, touching her flesh as though he were trying to learn the shape and position of her bones and the texture of the flesh.
That radio interview, along with my subsequent intense work on my latest novel The Jockey about a dirt-poor farm boy's love for horses and his relationship with a young prostitute, lead me on a hunt for books to inspire my earthy gut. I also felt a bit miffed at being so easily clumped into a category and was seeking affirmation from novelists I adore.
The fact is I tend to be a method writer, immersing myself in research and fiction that throws my mind into the thick of whatever scene or style I'm pursuing. In addition to re-reading the master, Faulkner, I turned to two amazing and very different modern authors, Matt Bondurant and Helen Schulman.
Bondurant's novel, The Wettest County in the World, is a searing, gritty tale of three roughneck brothers from Virginia who transport moonshine during prohibition. The language is muscular and fired-up with violence and sensuality. I didn't need to go further than the opening scene to be awed.
The blood came in a hot gush on the muddy straw and the sow's whine bubbled, the jet of lung air spraying from the open neck. Her body quivered and then went limp in Forrest's hands, tiny front legs dangling, body bent like a dead fish.
The book's violent passages reminded me how prose can be intense, ugly and beautiful all at once. This came in handy when I began to write about a vile mafia figure named Dutch who threatens the young hero in my novel The Jockey.
Helen Schulman's deeply humane and evocative book This Beautiful Life shed light on the emotional strength behind a master story teller's literate use of sex. It is not the fact that the novel's opening scene depicts a debasing, almost grotesque act committed by a young girl, though this is laid out expertly.
Her mouth filled the screen. Purple lip gloss, clear braces. "Still think I'm too young?" She leaned over, the fixed lens of the camera catching a tiny smattering of blemishes on her cheek, like a comet's spray.
It is more the way this action torments those who ultimately bear witness, and the crushing emotional impact it has on the family involved. Schulman's unraveling of how a sexual act tears at fragile human relationships is emotionally rich and lyrically lush.
These books catapulted me toward a deeper level of sensual writing, allowing me to mingle emotional writing with sexual desire and awakenings, as in this early scene in The Jockey.
I jumped up and pushed into the barn and the animal stared all cool from the stall, lolling its meaty tongue over wide flat teeth. We both shuddered, discovering the other, he all bold and ugly and strong. Me, puny for twelve, just near five foot and ninety pounds wet. I went and opened the stall and drew at him and he leaned his face down toward me, holding still, the touching scent. I was afraid but reached out because there was Gran's voice somewhere close saying "Lightning". I touched the animal's bruised and bitten-on face and pressed a finger over and inside hot cove nostrils then down wet to the mouth and shoved one finger up there and under and felt a bigness, a harshness of teeth and a strength and then I heard again "Lightning" like them field reeds were coming alive and getting at us both. I waited, shuddered, whispered. "I'm Bud" I said, face on the animal's hard cheek. "Hey there Lightning." That was the start.
So next time someone asks you to recommend a sexy book, send them right to Faulkner. And for heaven's sake, don't tell them to skip the book and see the movie.