November 23, 2012

Scott Alexander Hess on Diary of a Sex Addict

Guest post by Scott Alexander Hess ...

Last October I published my debut novel, Diary of a Sex Addict. At my first book signing I was thrilled, nervous, ready to meet my readers and field questions. A small crowd lined up.

What happened next, and what continued to occur at my next few events, was the repetition of a central question: "Where did you get the idea for the book?"

In that moment, I drew a blank. What an odd sensation, struggling to answer that simple query. I realized that the spark of inspiration, the literal point of internal discovery, was a bit of a mystery.

I fudged an answer that day, and luckily with Diary -- a graphic exploration of a gay New Yorker's spiral into sexual compulsion -- the initial question was quickly forgotten and followed with the juicier: "Did you really have all that wild sex? Is it all true?"

That one I could easily answer: the book is fiction, not memoir. No sir, I did not attend a gang bang in Central Park at 3 a.m. as is depicted in the novel.

Later that night, as I thought about the concept of inspiration, I felt challenged to pin down the idea-sparking moment for my books (I've published two and am completing my third, Jockey). Drawing a bubble bath (I think best in hot suds), I decided to look at the work itself.

Diary opens with a bang -- a graphic sex scene loosely based on my own experience. The unnamed narrator struggles to stay present with a hookup, while obsessing about the cleanliness of the kitchen floor:

"I am meant to follow, to stray forward to keep our fifteen minute rush of wild sex moving. Because in too long a pause, the whole delicate fantasy collapses. I do lean forward, but hesitate, realizing Bing's knees must really ache. I wonder if I'm being cruel or a bad host, which opens a peep hole into my bland, non-sexually charged thoughts and in milliseconds I wonder if the floor is clean enough to be kneeling on and if Bing could ever replace my ex-lover and why this sex right now is so mind-numbingly hot and so much better than the rest of my awful day." (Chapter 1, Diary of a Sex Addict)

The passage shows that that I wrote the book in an effort to push my limits as a writer, to explore graphic material while staying literate. This, though, was not where the idea came from.

Digging deeper, sinking into the tub, I realized the idea came from two sources: Brett Easton Ellis and my recent, intense loneliness triggered by a breakup with my lover.

Ellis' book American Psycho, which I'd read a few months prior to beginning Diary, floored me. His transgressive, intense text is amazingly artful in its ability to push limits and shock. There are scenes in the novel that I will never forget (if you've read it, all I need to say is: the woman and the rat). Ellis inspired me as an example of a fearless literary renegade.

Around the same time, healing from that breakup, I was having a lot of anonymous sex. Often, during these trysts, I would feel like I was floating out of myself, becoming keenly aware of a funky mashup of intimacy (naked, grinding bodies) and bland, nameless emptiness.

This type of sexual expression, and the emotional colors I associated with it, intrigued me. Also, living in Manhattan, I became fascinated with how often quickie sex was so readily available. I cultivated an interest in the routines of this subculture of sexual expression, more and more as an observer and less for the thrill.

So in essence, the novel that challenged and inspired me to take a risk (American Psycho) and my own personal journey (anonymous sex to heal) merged and led me to begin the text that would become Diary.

Beyond that, I also realized that as a writer, it is my job to do the work to allow the sometimes subtle, quiet inspiration to come through and not lie dormant. For me (and this is my advice to young writers who pick my brain), I constantly read authors that challenge, frighten and confront me, writers like William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy, who never cease to leave me filled with wonder. Those two authors consistently give me the courage to stay open to my subconscious as I write, and allow my multifaceted life experience to bloom forward.

I have another reading coming up, so now I do hope someone asks, "Where did you get the idea for the book?" I'll have an answer ready.

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