By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
This is the first time you’ve written a novel with a first-person narrator sinceBudding Prospects, 20 years ago. How did that come about?
It was an automatic artistic choice. When I write short stories, about half are in first person and half are in third person. So it’s not unusual. The advantage here is that the reader can distance him or herself a little bit. My hero, my innocent, John Milk, is looking over his life. This is his apologia pro vita sua; he is telling us how intense this was, how great Kinsey was. But the beauty of the “I” narrative is that we don’t trust him necessarily. We can see where he is conflicted but not admitting it to himself, or where he’s not aware of the moral and emotional implications of his acts. He’s a blind follower, and part of the humor of the book, and maybe some of its compassionate irony, comes from readers being able to step back and say, “Wait a minute, perhaps that’s ill-advised.”
Milk is a fictional creation. Is he based on an actual person?
No, he’s a pure invention. And it’s a little sticky in this case. As with Dr. Kellogg and his associates, some people here are real and some are invented. Part of the fun for me in a historical narrative is that only I know the line between what is fact and what is not. Often the most bizarre material — Kinsey’s behavior with prostitutes, his filming of a thousand men masturbating — is the actual historical fact. The sticky part arises because, besides Milk, the other members of the inner circle all have their names on the spine of Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. But in the end, I’m writing a novel. It is fiction, after all.
For obvious reasons, this is your most sexual book. Yet for the most part, your descriptions are reserved, even clinical.
In the sex scenes, as in scenes of violence I write or scenes of sex in other books, there’s a way of presenting the material in which you must find the closure, the final moment, the final sentence to close it out. And it doesn’t involve a Harold Robbins riff: “His throbbing penis entered her glistening vagina, and they fucked.” That’s the stuff of pulp fiction, and it’s not artistic. In creating good scenes, maybe there’s a point at which it fades to black. That’s the way I’ve treated sex throughout my books. But of course, since the subject here is sex, there are some scenes that must be a little more detailed.
In many ways, the sex scenes — like the novel as a whole — are less about physicality than other issues: trust, loyalty, love. Sex is just a filter.
Yes. Loyalty is a big part of it. And relationships that are not necessarily sexual, although sex might enter into them. This is particularly true of the inner circle. They’re a cult, a team. They look out for each other. They do have one secret, of course, the secret of their sexual entanglements. So it’s about trust.
There is also the question of how all this affects a marriage. What does it mean anyway, marriage, when some of us are obviously not meant to have one partner exclusively? There are marriages that are open — Kinsey’s, for instance. Do both partners equally enjoy that? Did Clara, who revered her husband, object to being neglected after a while? Is sometimes the kind of open marriage that Kinsey proposed really self-serving? I wanted to look at all of that.
For all his commitment to science, a lot of Kinsey’s work seems to have arisen from his own predilections, his taste for bisexuality and group sex.
Again, that’s the value of the “I” narrator, because Milk can reveal this in a way the reader can appreciate. If we don’t see directly what Kinsey is thinking, we can make our own judgments. Because he insisted on being a rigorous scientist, and not prurient — there was nothing to snicker about with sex, it was a normal activity — if it had been discovered that he was such an enthusiast, it would have brought him down. As the book suggests, he had increasingly risky behavior, especially when he became well-known. He was still going to bathhouses and fucking people in multiple combinations. Within the inner circle, he kept things under wraps so no one would reveal this information. But he was approaching people on the street and in public urinals. He could have been caught.
What you’re describing is a tension between intellectual and physical desire. To what extent did Kinsey wrestle with this?
I think the actual Kinsey fell into sex research, as we learn in my fictional account. He was already in his 40s when he began to teach his sex course. He took great pleasure in telling students about the function of the clitoris and the penis, and showing slides, and outraging everybody, but in a way that was unimpeachable. This was science. We know about the animals, we know about the fruit flies; we should know about human beings.