Sex And Jokes: An Interview With Adam Wilson

Author Adam Wilson talks about writing sex scenes, Louis C.K., comedic novels, and the importance of empathy.

Adam Wilson is a writer on the rise. His 2012 debut novel, Flatscreen, about a pasty young loser and his friendship with a former celebrity turned paraplegic drug addict was called “a laugh-out-loud literary debut” (Details) that marked Wilson as “a standout addition to a new generation of writers” (Booklist). His short stories have appeared in journals such as Tin House, Best American Short Stories, and The Paris Review, which awarded him its 2012 Terry Southern Prize. This month his first collection, What’s Important Is Feeling, is out on Harper Perennial.

Sex is a notoriously tricky area for fiction writers. Even the most celebrated writers get passages put up for the Bad Sex Award. One thing I love about the stories in What’s Important Is Feeling is how fearlessly and also humorously you write about sex. For example, “Milligrams” opens with two lovers using a live lobster for foreplay (before eventually eating it). How do you approach sex in your fiction? And what’s your take on the state of literary sex?

Adam Wilson: As far as things that humans do, sex is definitely one of the more entertaining, and I always find it disappointing when writers shut the doors to their characters’ bedrooms. A sex scene provides so many opportunities for both conflict and comedy. In movies and pop culture, sex tends to be unrealistically represented as something that happens between two people with flawless bodies while the perfect song plays. Fiction is a place where we can correct those false representations and explore the nuances and variety of sexual experience, which isn’t always so black and white as being either “good” or “bad” or “funny” or “sad,” and is often all of those things at once. That said, my favorite sex scenes are often the tragi-comic ones, the ones that point to the absurdity of the fact that this sacred act that our entire species depends on, ultimately consists of sweaty naked people rubbing against each other, and putting a funny-shaped appendage into a funny-shaped opening, and also involves other funny things like fluids, AA batteries, feet, hair, wandering pets, and money. From Philip Roth’s early explorations of Onanism to Sam Lipsyte’s later ones, from Dodie Bellamy’s breathless descriptions of orgasms to Ariana Reines’ decidedly unimpressed descriptions of dick picks, my favorite sex scenes don’t need to turn me on so long as they make me feel something.

Have you ever read William H. Gass’s On Being Blue? He has a great quote about how too many authors get bogged down trying to describe every sex step: “I should like to suggest that at least on the face of it a stroke-by-stroke story of a copulation is exactly as absurd as a chew-by-chew account of the consumption of a chicken’s wing.” Does that sound right?

AW: I have not read Gass’ essay, so it’s hard for me to say, but off the bat, I’m not sure I agree with his sex/chicken wing analogy. A stroke-by-stroke copulation story doesn’t sound so bad to me, so long as it’s well-written. David Foster Wallace, for example, has a couple of sex scenes in exactly this style that are amazing for their attention to the micro-details of the act, the thousands of tiny actions and reactions that make up one bout of boning. But Wallace could also probably have written a pretty compelling chew-by-chew account of eating chicken wings, which one can’t say of many other writers. And I guess Gass’ point is that the mechanics aren’t necessarily the thing you want to capture.

Your fiction writing is very sharp and funny and I know you teach humor writing. Do you count any comedians as literary influences?

AW: As far as direct influences on my fiction, there aren’t many, though I do consider Louis C.K. the patron saint of comic pathos, and his standup helps remind me of the ripe combination of humor and misery to be found in the human body’s many betrayals. As for what makes me laugh, Eddie Murphy’s early standup films, Raw and Delirious. I first saw them at an impressionable age — 16 — during the same week that I lost my virginity. This is how I came to the confused notion that purple leather and fart jokes were the way to a woman’s heart. Bill Hicks is another comedian who has had a great impact on me, particularly how unafraid he was of alienating audiences. I should also probably mention that I grew up with a standup comedian for an uncle — Jonathan Katz — though mostly what I inherited from him was baldness, which is especially strange, because we’re related by marriage…

You wrote one of the great essays on Louie, “Louis C.K. and the Rise of the Laptop Loners.” “The human body’s many betrayals” is a great phrase, and appropriate as your fiction deals a lot with the physical and physical failings. For example, the titular story in What’s Important Is Feeling opens with the cast of a film crew getting chiggers. Is there something that the sense of touch can get across in fiction that other senses can’t?

AW: Well, I think a lot of my favorite fiction, from Woolf to Beckett to Bellow, is ultimately about the attempts and failures of the human mind to come to terms with the uncontrollable desires and irreversible deterioration of the human body. I’m not sure if fiction can get at this in a way that other mediums can’t, but I do think that fiction — or prose writing in general — can give us a certain unparalleled access to the minutia of another person’s consciousness, and that any consciousness, revealed in detail, will be seen to exert a shit ton of energy on interpreting sensory data, which I guess is a fancy way of saying that we people spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about our bodies, so our fictional characters should too. Eventually humans will probably just be immortal brains in vats hooked up to feeding tubes and computers, and I imagine there will be a lot less sex and death and chiggers in the story collections that come out then…

Or maybe the stories of the brain vat future will all be about irritating vat algae or feeding tube chaffing?

AW: Isn’t there a Beckett novel like that?

The great film critic Andrew Sarris once said he thought that comedies should always win the Oscars. He thought the Academy never realizes how hard it is to make a great comedy. You hear the same thing in the literary world, where great comedic novels rarely win the major awards. What it is about comedy that so many critics don’t get?

AW: I agree that comic novels don’t seem to be considered for the big prizes, but neither do the non-comic books I usually like the most. So maybe it’s just a different sensibility. Who knows? Maybe some people think Louise Erdrich or whoever are really fucking funny writers, and guys like us just don’t get it. But you’re right, there seems to be this problem of critics and ignoring comic novels, and I think part of that has to do with this very American obsession with genre delineation. A book is either comic or serious, and if it’s unclear which, then people get confused and annoyed. Calling something a “comic” novel is the equivalent of adding a laugh track to a TV show — readers are cued as to how to react. “Oh, these are jokes, I get it. Haha.” No one wants to be put in the uncomfortable position of having to interpret and engage with the text on their own. That said, I think the onus is always on the writer to make sure that readers do just that. This is the challenge of the comic writer — to make them laugh, and laugh, and laugh until they go, “Shit, was that funny? Or was that just sad and dark and fucked up?” — and it’s a challenge I face every day at my desk, and that I’m not sure I always live up to.

What scares you in your writing?

AW: I guess it’s this intimacy I was just talking about that terrifies me the most. It’s all made up, sure, but that doesn’t mean that to read it gives someone any less of a look into my brain that if I’d written a memoir. All the stuff in the book is stuff that was in my head, and some of it’s weird, and ugly, and unpleasant. Like the lobster sex stuff. Or the guy who bites his friend’s dick while they’re watching American Idol. Or the kid who has a sexual relationship with his grandfather. That’s all stuff that’s in my head, and I’m sure some people I know are gonna read that stuff and think, shit, this Wilson cat is one sick motherfucker. Which I’ve come to terms with, obviously. I guess the hope is that a few people will read the books and will have the opposite reaction of, shit, I think about this type of stuff all the time, and the fact that this Wilson guy has articulated it gives me some kind of strange comfort.

How did you choose the title for your collection? Do you want readers to focus on the feelings beneath the drugs, sex, and fights?

AW: The title is the title of one of the stories, which comes from a specific line in that story, and it seemed to work better than any of the other titles at speaking to some kind of overarching ethos for the collection. Which is a long way of saying that, yes, I do think feeling is important, and that even though there are lots of jokes, beneath the jokes there is hopefully some kind of real feeling. It’s also meant to be kind of a joke in and of itself, though, because when you get that actual line in the book, you see that it’s said by a character amidst a conversation about erections on dead bodies.

What are five story collections that influenced you?

AW: Enormous Changes at the Last Minute by Grace Paley, Airships by Barry Hannah, Nightwork by Christine Schutt, The Dead Fish Museum by Charles D’Ambrosio, and Venus Drive by Sam Lipsyte. I would also add the collected stories of Leonard Michaels, which isn’t really a collection, per se.

You are working on a novel next, right? Can you tell us about it?

AW: It’s love story/murder mystery about the Wall Street crash, the death penalty, hip-hop, and social media. If I ever finish it I’ll let you know.

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Lincoln Michel’s fiction appears in Tin House, Electric Literature, Unstuck, NOON, and elsewhere. He is a co-editor of Gigantic magazine and Gigantic Worlds, a forthcoming anthology of science flash fiction. Sometimes he draws authors as monsters. He tweets at @thelincoln.

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