The Ecstatic Gifts of Krissy Kneen

Verity La The Melbourne Review Interviews

Alec Patric: Do women like sex? That’s the headline on a fashion magazine I saw this morning. I didn’t pick it up so I don’t know how they answered. I’m more interested in how you’d answer that question Krissy. These magazines project sexuality as a brand and yet maintain a flat faced model coyness that can ask the question of that headline. Your memoir, Affection, shows us sex as sustenance. Why would that headline still tantalise?
Krissy Kneen: It surprises me that people still have to ask that question. Do women like sex? It always surprises me to hear that some university aged women still haven’t experienced an orgasm.  And my response to that is always “give the girl a vibrator! Quickly!” Of course if a woman hasn’t experienced orgasm she is not going to enjoy sex. It distresses me to think of a grown woman not knowing the sheer physical joy of orgasm.  When you orgasm it is like a complete re-boot of your whole system.  Nothing else matters in the moment of orgasm and that kind of pure release is so important.  We also sometimes mistake sex for attractiveness. This is what advertising gifts us.  We speak of people as being sexy if they are pretty and this is missing the point.  Sexy is about the body experiencing or giving pleasure.  We are at our least pretty when we have an orgasm.  Our eyes roll back in our head, we stick our stomach out, we make a strange face. Seriously, it has nothing to do with how attractive we are.
I read a book called The Sex Diaries, by Bettina Arndt, where women wrote diaries about their sex life and mostly the result was that these middle aged married women just don’t want sex anymore — but I think she got it wrong.  All that book showed was that those women don’t want to have sex with their husbands.  It is true we get bored.  After many years of having sex with the same person it feels a bit like masturbating only without the scope of fantasy that keeps it fresh.   My take on it would be that of course women want sex but we also want variety in sex and therefore if we want to be monogamous, which is not really our natural state, we are going to have to introduce an element of play and experimentation. The only other solution is to have lots of (safe) sex with lots of people and don’t take it too seriously.
Alec Patric: Anais Nin was one of the pioneers in this regard but she broke new artistic ground in a number of ways beyond the stories she’s famous for now. Her journals were her most immediate and lasting contribution. They are still vital and vivid, both for an understanding of what it means to be a writer, and how we remain alive to the body. It’s not only husbands that get boring. The ways our experiences can be revivified is perhaps her great literary gift. There are parallels that could be made between the creation of those diaries and your Furious Vaginas. Could you talk about how this project came about, how it developed and how it eventually culminated into Affection.

Krissy Kneen: My friend Christopher Currie is my writing companion. We often sit together at a cafe table working on our separate projects, keeping each other honest and minding each other’s laptops while we go to the toilet.  When Christopher told me he was going to start a daily blog called Furious Horses.  I felt a bit left behind.  He was going to write a new short story every day and post it on the blog. I hadn’t really committed to the idea of writing memoir yet.  I had played around with writing a memoir for young adults, expressing how kids and teenagers are sexual beings.  The project had stalled and I had all but given up on it.  When Furious Horses had been operating for a week, I decided to start Furious Vaginas.  It was motivated by jealousy. I thought of the idea while I was in the movies and told my husband about it as the credits rolled.  He told me that I absolutely should not do it and of course the idea that it was a banned activity only made it worse.  The thing with Furvag is that I wrote many of the posts late at night, and often after a large amount of alcohol.  Because of this I was at my most honest and most vulnerable.  I suffer from bouts of depression and I’m pretty sure you can judge my mood at the time by looking back at those posts. The posts written when I was most vulnerable are actually the most revealing and often made it into the memoir.  When I had some interest from Text to publish the memoir I went back and printed off all the blog posts.  I approached the writing of the memoir as I would making a documentary. I took my life and cut it up and assembled it into a good structure.  It is odd that people are so cagey about their sex life.  I kind of understand.  My husband refused to let me mention anything about my sex with him and therefore I had to respect his wishes.  I think Nin was treading on some dangerous territory talking about her husband as she did in her diaries.
Alec Patric: Jane Smiley modeled her novel, Ten Days in the Hills on the Decameron. When I think of a novel that successfully uses great swathes of explicit sex, hers is the first book that comes to mind. More often, literary fucking feels gratuitous even when titillating. Worse still when it feels like the author’s masturbatory fantasies ejaculated onto paper. If it’s not about the author as we have in a memoir, a novel’s sex scenes easily become generic, no matter how descriptive or ‘shocking’. Jane Smiley, in talking about Ten Days in the Hills, said she made sure that every sex scene arose from individual character and was an intimate expression of each perspective. What makes a sex scene work for you? Conversely, are there writers that make you cringe?

Krissy Kneen: I haven’t read the Jane Smiley but now I will. I always think surprise is the key to success.  We all get bored with sex if it is dished up the same way every time, the trick is to use props ie: the real world, what is happening outside the sex, how does that impact on it. I love to make ordinary things extraordinary in the telling. I also like the use of humour because sex is ultimately quite funny. You can feel when you are writing good sex, you kind of get dragged along with the scene and find yourself becoming aroused. If you aren’t feeling it then the audience won’t be feeling it. I have abandoned many a bad sex scene and I am sure I will write many more.
Alec Patric: You mentioned writing Y/A. What does a Krissy Kneen sex book for kids look like? Is there a way you’d approach it differently? How might children be educated about their sexuality better?
Krissy Kneen: Yes I did have a dream of writing a sexy YA. It wasn’t really about educating kids because kids find out about that stuff in their own ways. I am not sure how-to sex books work for that market.  What I do know is that some kids and most teenagers experience very powerful sexual feelings and will seek out books with titillating content to devour covertly.  How else can you explain the run-away success of VC Andrews Flowers In The Attic?  I wanted (maybe still want) to write a book with teenagers as the protagonists that celebrates sexuality not in it’s most boring mums-and-dadsy kind of way, but that is unashamedly broad in its scope, without any judgement or cautionary tale.  I just naturally write about safe sex because I believe very much in practicing that, so this wouldn’t be something that promotes risky sexual behaviour. This would be a celebration of all our multi-sexualities, something to assure young readers that it is OK to be hetro, bi or gay and you don’t have to box yourself in to one sexuality. Everything is OK to try as long as you are safe and respectful and try really hard not to hurt anyone else. It would also show kids that despite our best efforts, becoming intimate with each other does often cause emotional damage even when you are trying really hard, someone often gets hurt. It would have fallible human characters who were not the prettiest kids in the class but that who were just trying to enjoy their sexuality. At the end of writing this book no publisher would touch it of course, because the school’s market is the major force in YA publishing and no school is going to put this book in their library.
Alec Patric: A girl in her early teens walked into my bookstore recently to buy a novel I felt uncomfortable selling her. I sold it to her without comment, of course. She walked away with a Popular Penguin at the pocket money price of $9.95. It’s a long way from the notorious, contraband days for Lolita. I don’t know if Nabakov spent much time thinking about girls around the age of 12 year old Dolores Haze reading his tale of middle-aged lust and obsession. As a bookseller yourself, and as a writer and reader, I’m wondering how you negotiate the literary genius with the paedophilia of Lolita.
Krissy Kneen: Lolita is one of my favourite books.  I love the humour in it, but Nabokov does not shy away from the content either. He manages somehow to make you uncomfortable about the lust for a minor whilst also making you laugh along with Humbert – becoming Humbert in a way.  I think it is important to always challenge yourself as a writer, never shying away from the things you find most difficult. I also think that is what you should do as a reader.  I am all for reading ‘junk food’ occasionally as a fine alternative for mindless TV, but I also think you should read stuff that takes you out of your safe comfort zone.  I don’t think reading Lolita will hurt that teenaged girl at all. I remember a time when my sister in her early teens read Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and for a while she turned into a monster because of it.  I was younger and began to read the same book to find out what had affected her so badly and the book just unsettled me.  I had been reading Orwell myself and Rand seemed just the polar opposite.  What only encouraged my sister into bad behaviour made me run with open arms back to my beloved Orwell. I think books don’t hurt us, but they help us articulate what we already believe and if they are really good they sometimes show us things we didn’t understand.  I think that 12 year old girl will find things in Lolita to love or to rage against and then if she reads it later in life for a second time she will probably see the humour which I missed when I read it at too young an age.

Alec Patric: Writer’s reveal themselves. That’s a basic principle of what we do. We’re all encouraged to become as naked as possible for our readers. Our audience demands the kind of magnified detail that would make a seasoned porn star blush or wilt. When we’re writing fiction though, there’s the thinnest of curtains hanging behind us, as the stage is revealed. There’s a performance and a narrative, and our exposure is understood to be ‘fiction’ however true it is otherwise. It seems there’s no curtain with a memoir like Affection. It’s not a character exposing themselves–> it’s Krissy Kneen. That kind of courage takes my breath away actually, when I really consider how vulnerable you made yourself. Was it difficult? All I can sense from your actual work is a powerful sense of release and liberation. How true is that? What were your challenges in finding that kind of courage?
Krissy Kneen: Krissy Kneen is not a character?  I thought about her as a character.  Sure the situations and scenes are true and actually happened to me, but as a person I am a lot more complicated than the Krissy in the book.  By narrowing it down to just the stuff about sex and my relationship to sex I could leave out many, many facets of myself.  I can actually be terribly boring at times and really anxious.  I know there is a bit of anxiousness in the book but in real life sometimes I can angst about getting an assignment in on time or how awfully I have constructed a book, or how I made a spelling error in a press release, for hours or even days.  I am so glad that the medium of writing allows you to leave out bits.  I have always found talk about sex really easy.  If I were to write a brave book that makes me vulnerable it would probably be about my relationship to my family because that is the hardest part and I feel like I glossed over that in the book.  In my fiction I can be much more revealing. Sometimes I think that fiction is closer to the stuff we all keep hidden. In fiction a character can be mean in exactly the way I have been mean at one time or another and although I could never reveal that in memoir I can put it into a story.  Having said that, I think I am pretty recognisable from Affection.  I did try not to spare myself because sometimes I was just naively dumb back then and that makes for funny scenes. I like a book that doesn’t take itself too seriously so I mined my life for some of the moments that made me seem absurd and ridiculous because we all are, particularly when we are young. Still, the sex stuff has always been easy for me. Sex is a language I understand. Relationships? Not so much.