This post is part of an ongoing interview with author Mark John Isola about his forthcoming book Inky Flesh, so check back for more questions. Once posted, a link following the current Q&A will allow you to click through to read the next question–or begin reading from the first question: Why the title Inky Flesh? Quotes that are reasonably sized and maintain the context of the discussion are permitted for review, interview, academic, and blogging purposes—a link to the web page quoted will help maintain context.
Here is the current question:
Cal: Moving out from the title, let me ask about the general topic the stories explore—namely sex. Is your own sexual experience reflected in your stories?
MJ: I knew this question was coming at some point. I do not say this because I want to dodge the question but because I do not think there is an answer that respects the writing. If I say yes, the stories lose what I hope is their literary appeal. They become something like a journal or a sex blog where I am merely detailing hook ups. And, if I say no, their sense of realism is diminished.
My answer should probably be some sort of evasive Dorothy Parkerism, which I have not yet devised, because any answer seems to devalue the writing.
I am also hesitant to answer this question because writing sex is a particular challenge in our culture. This challenge stems, in part, from readers, who read an author’s personhood in terms of the words on a page, as if there is a one-to-one correspondence between the two.
Sex writing is not the only genre haunted by this specter. This is also a challenge for poetry. It can be difficult for readers—I have seen this routinely with my college students over the years—to discern the poet from the poem’s speaker, who may or may not be the same or even some composite of the two. This is why reading biographically can be a limited way of reading fiction.
The other complication that arises, especially when it comes to sexual narratives, is the tendency we have to think a person’s sex story is always a fiction that minimizes or exaggerates their truth. You know, the girl ashamed to admit she has, the guy afraid to admit he hasn’t, and the gays not wanting to be shunned. This is a significant problem, for if an author, who writes about sex, is not careful, the truth value of their narratives becomes subsumed to what people think they are hiding or exaggerating and not what the narrative is expressing.
But, to answer your question, yes, in the most general sense, I write from my lived experience. My sexual experiences are somewhere in the stories. They are, perhaps, everywhere within them. How could they not be? To do otherwise counters the most common creative writing advice—to write from a sense of the world you know.
So, how could I not write from my sexual experience? How could I not write from my life experience? And, why would I want to? Do we ever write beyond our experiences? I am not sure such a thing is even possible really. I am also not sure such a thing is advisable. Such efforts may actually embrace a blind spot that could be quite limiting, or even problematic, for one’s writing.
Cal: How could this blind spot you mention be problematic for writing fiction?
MJ: Well, I am a gay male in a culture with a patriarchal preference. My experience may well leave me rather clueless about what it is like to live and love in our culture as a gay female. In this case, I would very much like to avoid writing from my blind spot, my ignorance, when writing a gay female character.
Instead, I would rather realize and work through my experience, so I may write well, or at least try, despite the limits of my experience. Otherwise, I would be at-risk of something like writing flat, static, stereotyped, or otherwise unauthentic characters through the veil of my relative privilege. And, who wants to read that? I, for one, have no interest in writing that way.
Click through to the next question: What does it mean to “feel” a story?