All The Books I Can Read

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Melbourne Writers Fest – Saturday 1st September {Part 1}

on September 3, 2012

Saturday marked the 3rd day I was going to be at the Melbourne Writers Fest. I had booked a session on the Friday (a free one) but I didn’t end up attending as it was blowing a gale and belting with rain when I woke up and to be honest, my bed won over getting up! Saturday I was very keen for the 2 sessions I had booked, the first of which was the Sex & Sensibility panel comprising of Emily Maguire, Chris Flynn and Susan Johnson. Of those three authors, I’ve only read Susan Johnson – I recently hosted a read-a-long of her most recent work, My Hundred Lovers for its publisher, Allen & Unwin.

L-R: Chair Enza Gandolfo, Emily Maguire, Chris Flynn, Susan Johnson

The session kicked off with Gandolfo commenting that novels with explicit sex scenes have traditionally been banned for offensive profanity, such as LolitaLady Chatterley’s Lover, etc but our novelists on the panel were rather lucky to be writing in a time where that doesn’t happen as often (although sometimes it still does!). There are numerous examples now in genre fiction with explicit sex, but not so much in literary novels. Did our authors set out to write an explicit novel?

Susan Johnson: Originally (with My Hundred Lovers) she set out to write a story from the body out, a narrative from the body out. Her first idea (and this was some time ago) was to just encompass her character’s sexual lovers but this turned out to be technically too difficult. When Johnson was living in London, she went to see A.S. Byatt and it was remarked upon that no woman writer has written something that would be similar to Casanova.

Chris Flynn: The sex scenes were the first scenes he wrote. He tried to write this book for a very long time – in fact he wrote 8 drafts and originally the protagonist was an older man. This wasn’t working and one paragraph in the 8th draft, about what the protagonist was doing in his 20’s became the entire 9th draft and that was the draft that he sold to a publisher. He also found the sex scenes the easiest to write.

Emily Maguire: Her most recent book, Fishing For Tigers, started in a different place to where it ended up. Living and working in Hanoi, the character of Mischa came to Emily in the grounds of literature, a peaceful garden where she found her mind was ‘quiet’. There was the idea of writing about a woman who found the same peace that Emily had, but then she decided that had been done a few times before and instead she began the novel after Mischa had found her peace and when something comes into her life to turn it basically upside down.

Susan Johnson: Sexuality is a powerful force – we are much more of the body than we think we are. There’s a destructive/transforming power of sex and potential for sex to overthrow is unsettling. Susan mentioned the former Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn and also Bill Clinton as powerful men who were brought, at least to a point, undone by sex.

Chris Flynn: His protagonist Billy, led a life of violence until he went to Thailand. For him, sex heals him – it replaced the violence and became the way in which he put violence behind him.

Enza then mentioned the importance of place in all of the authors work and asked them to speak about that.

Chris Flynn: Has visited Thailand and was quite shocked by the sex tourism there. As a little side note, Chris Flynn did a reading from his book, Tiger In Eden, and skipped half of the section he chose to read because he thought it was too explicit to share aloud and that he was a little bit embarrassed! He felt that it was an intimate moment between an author and a reader, not designed to be read aloud, which was quite adorable. Anyway! The sex tourism in Thailand is all-encompassing, not just for “old German men” and that plenty of Western women went there for that type of tourism too. It’s a very sexual place, so for him it made sense for Billy to explore his sexuality there.

Emily Maguire: Her book is set in Vietnam – there is sex tourism but for Western women over 30 there is basically no sex. The Western men all date Vietnamese women but the Vietnamese men rarely ever date Western women. For Mischa, it was a very safe place for her to heal the relationship she extricated herself from – an asexual place.

Susan Johnson: Paris, France plays quite a part in her book and it’s a very important place for Debra, her protagonist. The French find a full life sexually/sensuously a necessity and it is classless – in France even the poor people eat extremely well. For Debra it is a full-flowering of herself.

(Chris Flynn chimed in here to say he agreed with this, based on firsthand experience. He lived in France in his early 20’s and found it eye opening in terms of food, drink, culture, etc and recommends everyone go and do it!).

The British award for Bad Sex came up, which some panelists seemed to find amusing that it was no surprise that the British were the ones who came up with it! There was some excellent talk about how anything, taken out of context, can seem “bad” and that not all sex is meant to be erotic. Sometimes it encompasses the awkward, or the mundane.

The authors were then asked if there was a fear of tipping into pornography.

Emily Maguire: It is not her intention to write pornography but she feels that there is a moral pornography that exists out there that is deeply empathetic and humane and compassionate. It takes something that would be easy to laugh at, or to lead to someone being called a freak and makes it compassionate. In terms of her own writing, the sex scene needs a reason to be there, in terms of advancing the plot. Sex is a way to really get to the core of a person, and really cuts a lot of the bullshit away.

(My note: I found it interesting that the point Emily mentioned, about the sex scene needing to be there, was something Stephanie Laurens and her fellow panelists from the A Fine Romance session also really emphasised. It seems that genre, literary fiction all run to the same thoughts on the reasons for including sex within their novels).

Susan Johnson: Believes that women writing “pornography” is something missing and that there’s a gap in the market. There should be a tearing down of the patriarchy.

Chris Flynn: If women write frankly about sex, is it pornography?

Emily Maguire: People assume it’s personal.

Susan Johnson: People assume it’s a memoir. She had someone offer her condolences on her brother at the Byron Bay Writers Festival. Johnson has two brothers and they’re both alive and well – it is Debra in My Hundred  Lovers that loses her brother. People seem to think the novel is about her.

Chris Flynn: People assume it’s a diary of his time in Thailand, or based on his personal relationships.

Emily Maguire: It’s often believed your first book is autobiographical – hers is about a schoolgirl that has an affair with a teacher. After this was published she had explicit photos emailed to her by men who thought she might be interested, based on her characters and she had people congratulate her for extricating herself from the relationship with an older man, one that she was actually never in.

Chris Flynn: Disappointed that no explicit photos emailed to him!

There was then some questions from the audience, the first of which was was there any pressure to include sex from publishers?

Emily Magure: No

Susan Johnson: No

Chris Flynn: His editor knew he’d cut a sex scene and asked him to extend it. The editor felt him cutting the scene before the orgasm was unfair to the readers so he had to reinstate the orgasm!

Susan Johnson then brought up 50 Shades Of Grey. It’s now the highest selling novel of all time, wanted to know why! Now publishers think that sex sells but it’s impossible to predict what will be the next big bestseller until it happens!

There was a long question I kind of missed about repressed times and hardcore stuff like 50 Shades of Grey, but thankfully the authors all refuted that 50 Shades is anything remotely resembling hardcore! Chris Flynn made me laugh when he referred to it as “erotic nonsense”.

There are no taboos in terms of what you can write about bt there are taboos in terms of acceptance – explicit but conservative.

Emily Maguire: She thinks that Jane Eyre is one of the hottest novels there is. It’s very true to its time – Jane is a physical, sensual woman but this is repressed. Contemporary characters act differently so harder to structure that chemistry.

Chris Flynn: Notices if sex is absent from contemporary fiction and wonders why.

There was a question then on whether or not it was hard to make sex original.

Chris Flynn: Depends upon the characters – they dictate the euphemisms, etc.

Susan Johnson: It’s hard to write about sex well. If sex comes up organically within the story, there’s a better chance.

Emily Maguire: Really got to come from the character. If you’re trying to write something universally hot, it can be cliché. You don’t want to convince the reader they want to do this, you want to convince them this character will do this.

This ended the session and Marg and I went down to the signing at the bookshop – I had told Susan Johnson on twitter I would pop by and introduce myself and I ducked into the shop and picked up 2 books by Emily, Taming The Beast and Fishing For Tigers and Chris Flynn’s book, A Tiger In Eden so I ended up getting all of those signed, plus my copy of My Hundred Lovers.

This was a truly fascinating panel – very informative, insightful, enjoyable and just funny in places too. I came away with a pile of new books to read and lots of things to think about!

(Any mistakes in the translation of the session are mine)


2 responses to “Melbourne Writers Fest – Saturday 1st September {Part 1}

  1. […] going to lie. This is one of, if not the most fucked up book I have ever read. When I went to the Sex & Sensibility panel at the Melbourne Writers Festival and Emily Maguire mentioned this book, I knew I had to read […]

  2. […] panel, of which Chris Flynn was one of the panelists (you can read my recap of that event here). He read from a passage in this novel (a sex scene, naturally) but I do remember that he skipped […]

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