David Gordon’s first novel, The Serialist, was made into a major motion picture in Japan. It also won the VCU/Cabell First Novel Award and was a finalist for an Edgar Award. He is also the author the novel, Mystery Girl, and, most recently, the short story collection, White Tiger on Snow Mountain. His work has also appeared in The Paris Review, The New York Times, Purple, and Fence. Gordon was born in New York City, attended Sarah Lawrence College, and holds an MA in English and Comparative Literature and an MFA in Writing, both from Columbia University. He has worked in film, fashion, publishing and pornography.
To read his story “Man-Boob Summer” and an exercise on writing sex scenes, click here.
I’m curious about the sex scene in “Man-Boob Summer.” It contains actual sex, not just a reference to it, and it’s both realistic and sexy. This is notable because there’s so much awful sex writing in fiction (notably Tom Wolfe’s attempt in I Am Charlotte Simmons: “the flood in her loins washed morals, despair and all other abstract assessments away in a cloud of some sort of divine cologne of his”). So, I guess the key to a good sex scene is no metaphors or abstract language. What else do you keep in mind as you approach a scene like this?
Yikes, that is a choice example. And, as so often with bad metaphors, it is impossible to really picture: A cloud that floods loins? A cologne flushing out morals and despair? Poor Charlotte!
I think your rule of thumb is good, and while I hope I never cross that line, I might crank up the intensity of the language, depending on the mood of the scene. I think that is my real rule: Treat a sex scene like any other scene. And the first step of writing any scene at all is to ask do I even need it? Is it essential to the story? Most lame sex scenes, whether cringe-inducing or just boring and generic (cut to slo-mo heaving) share the characteristic of being unnecessary. So, just like a scene of dinner or walking home or anything else, why is it essential? Why can’t we just say, “They had sex” or “They had dinner,” or “After dinner, they had sex then walked home.” If it is necessary, it is adding something vital that moves us forward, not always plot maybe, but telling us something, about these people, their relationship, their world: something is revealed. Then, all my stylistic or tonal choices, the amount of “cologne,” is based on that. In other words, I want to write a good scene, not necessarily a “sexy” one. In the end whether it turns romantic or erotic or awkward or sad depends on the people and the moment. After all, every kiss is different.
You describe characters’ bodies a lot in the collection. In this story, there’s the description of the man with “one pendulous female breast” and the lifeguard, whose “legs were long and slender, and…kept folding and unfolding, rubbing against each other like cats in the warmth of the sun.” What I love about these descriptions is that they’re in motion, as opposed to static, and they lead to drama (especially the legs). Is this something that comes to you naturally or the product of revision?
Hmmm, good question. This is not something I have really thought about before, so I suppose it is “natural” in the sense of intuitive. But, that said, those specific wordings often come during revision, which is to say they come out of the process of trying as best I can to make the story feel real and alive, to myself and to the reader. For me, this does often mean trying to get at as much movement and physical or sensual information as I can. I tend to think that the way people sit and move, the light in the window and the smell of their coffee is as important as what they’re saying or thinking. I don’t mean necessarily being very detailed or longer, since some these descriptions are quite short, but to try as best I can to make something really happen in language, the way you can say a sculpture of person walking is happening in stone. Even if it is just one verb, I want the right verb.
How did you know where to end the story? It ends after a sex scene and just before, the last sentence seems to suggest, another sex scene is about to begin. There’s a sense that the characters are beginning some kind of relationship, however fleeting. Were you tempted to write about that relationship, or did you always know where the story ended?
I knew that scene was the last scene. I actually had a very strong sense of that moment, the turn where things change between them after sex—I wanted that feeling of a sudden slap in the face, a sudden chill—and I began to wonder, who are these people and how did they get there? So I had that in mind and I sort of wrote toward it. But at first it ended a bit sooner, on the more dark or melancholy imagery. Then later on—I think I might have even already shown the story to some people who found it really sad and heavy—I just felt like I wanted to let a little bit more light or air in at the end. Just a little though…Really, it sounds strange but it is like I’d gotten to know this non-existent person in my mind and I thought, yes, this is what she would do.
I agree with you that the relationship feels like it will go on but maybe just for another day or week or hour even. I wasn’t thinking about continuing the story, not at all, I knew this was the end, but about finding the right tone or mix of colors to express how I saw them right then, if that makes sense. That was the feeling I was trying to find all along—that scene. Think of it as a painting: I was trying to just paint in every emotional facet I could to show what was going on between these two people and who they were separately and together, and to me anyway, that felt like the last little touch. Maybe I’d write it differently today. Who knows?
Your work plays with genre quite a bit—not just your novel The Serialist, about a ghostwriter writing the memoir of a serial killer who may still be actively killing—but also the last story in this collection, “The Amateur,” which is a hard-boiled story about organized crime and murder. What draws you to these kinds of stories? I’ve recently heard several writers try to explain the difference between genre and literary fiction, and I wasn’t entirely convinced by their answers. What do you thinks separates the two—if anything does?
I think it is one of those things where the more you try to define it more mixed up it gets. Which is fine, since as a reader there is little difference to me—I like what I like—and as a writer I am just happy to have what I think is a good idea. I will really do anything that works or helps me get it written. Sometimes in these stories I have also drawn on horror and sci-fi—for imagery and for structuring devices that I think help make a scene feel exciting or tense or surprising. I mean, certainly scholars can talk about a genre like crime or sci-fi having its own historical development, but as a writer, I think about genre as form. These are forms I can explore, use, change or ignore the same way a poet can write free verse or rhymed, use a sonnet or a haiku—and to think of one as inherently better than the others seems absurd. In The Serialist I found that having that form—a detective story—shaped the narrative but also sort of focused and drove it forward, but “The Amateur” is almost the opposite: I had that idea for years, but could not figure out how to write it until I found myself thinking about Borges and those really brief stories he has that contain a novel’s worth of material in eight pages, and then about classic sort of framed tales like those by Conrad or James. So there you see some very high-brow literary teachers helped me write my pulpy New Jersey crime story.
Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.