I came across an interesting interview recently with Julian Barnes, a Man Booker prize winner for his recent hit novel ‘The Sense of an Ending’. The interview resonated with me because having to decide how to describe sexual encounters was one of the more pleasurable challenges I had to confront when I sat down to write ‘The Guest Who Strayed.’
Barnes warns in the interview about the dangers of assigning metaphorical names to body parts – he particularly takes exception to root vegetables including the humble yam which seems to have metamorphosed in a recent John Updike novel from a cashew nut to the more noteworthy tuber just mentioned. Barnes describes the three cardinal sins of bad sex writing as being too pornographic, too facetious or overly solemn.
When confronted with my own character’s sex scene in ‘The Guest Who Stayed’ – in this case a bodged attempt to consummate a marriage – I began by trying to banish my own inhibitions and write clearly and descriptively about my two newlyweds first union - (you see I’m already using euphemisms). However
the technical aspect of describing sex does seem to call upon a list of body parts which somehow dominate and take over the story. I spent a whole evening trying to decide what to call poor Jed’s appendage and settle in the end for his ‘manhood’. Only marginally better than a yam.
In desperation I abandoned my attempts to write a ‘Haines’ technical manual and tried instead to focus on the underlying emotions which I felt underpinned the physical action. This led to some long periods of reflection and inner turmoil, but out of it came a more comfortable approach to writing the story. I can claim no special skills in the area of erotic or emotional writing – there are many who are more practiced than me, but there are one or two lines in my novel of which I’m quite proud. I think the best is the letter written by Alice to her daughter when Alice is dying. The letter is not to be opened until her daughter is eighteen.
‘My darling, at eighteen you may have experienced, or you may be about to experience, a relationship. This will present you with many different and powerful emotions – love, loyalty, desire and possibly despair. But the strongest of all emotions is passion. It’s powerful because it comes not from the mind, but from the heart, deep inside you. It lacks the logic of the other emotions yet it has the power to drive your destiny has forward in unexpected ways. You can’t avoid passion if it comes your way but be ready for the chaos it brings with it. Passion is difficult to identify until it has engulfed you. It can cause you to destroy those things that you hold dear whilst at the same time seducing you with sublime joy. Passion has many faces my dear and I urge you to beware.’
Well I like it anyway!!