Getting It On (the Page): An Interview with Patricia Ann McNair

You probably know Patricia Ann McNair as the author of The Temple of Air, which was selected as the Book of the Year in Traditional Fiction by the Chicago Writers Association, the Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award by Southern Illinois University, and for the Society of Midland Authors finalist award in adult fiction. If you went to the 2013 Chicago Writers Conference, you might also know Patty from her excellent talk “The Truth About Sex in Fiction.” It got so many rave reviews that we asked her to head February Hot Flash: A Sex Writing Workshop. Here’s a teaser of what you can expect on February 3.

Patty 2013 headshot

1) When should a writer include sex in a story or novel?

It’s just like in real life; if you go too long without sex, things get a little–let’s say–off balance. So in our writing, we want to listen to what the story tells us it needs, and sometimes sex is part of this, right? Of course, sex can mean just about anything of a sexual/sensual nature (remember that president who insisted, “I did not have sexual relations with that girl”–when really he did?) that is part of the human experience. Good stories–fiction or nonfiction, realist or magical–are almost always built on an understanding and a representation of the whole human experience.

Short answer…when the story calls for sex, the writer needs to listen to that call. What the writer also needs to listen to is the voice of her characters, the voice of the story, the logic the story has made for itself. Is sex (good, bad, steamy, stupid, big, small, satisfying, desperate, sad) part of that logic? Then the writer MUST include it.

2) Any tips on how to get over the sheer embarrassment of having your mom/boss/neighbor read those scenes?

Isn’t it funny how we get a little squeamish about sex in our writing? As if nothing else would be cause for embarrassment in our stories: clichés, bad spelling and grammar, silly characters, underdeveloped plots. These are the things that can embarrass me.

Seriously, a writer who is trying at all to write with heart and depth is leaving herself exposed for embarrassment, criticism, misunderstanding. Real writers know that this is just part of the game; some people are just not going to understand your intent, and there are others who are going to try to get in the way of your best work.

So that’s what you (what we) need to do, make our best work. We can never control another person’s response to what we write; it doesn’t do a lot of good to let that affect our work on the page. Write it right, and smart readers (mothers, neighbors, husbands, bosses, whoever) can only approve. Instead of being embarrassed by the response of others who pass misplaced judgment, you might want to be a little embarrassed (or sad, maybe?) for them. Think of all they are missing.

3) What authors do you recommend that write sex well?

Wow, this is not an easy question. As many ways as there are to have sex (and yes, there are more ways than one!), multiply that by ways to write it.

Perhaps I should make it clear that I am not talking about erotica/romance-y sex writing, and that isn’t what we will be aiming for in the workshop. The three authors listed below write fully realized characters and stories, and sex is part of what they create.

A recent book of stories by Stacy Bierlein (A Vacation on the Island of Ex-Boyfriends) treats sex matter-of-factly and with good humor.

Hubert Selby, Jr., writes beautiful prose about rather brutal encounters.

Toni Morrison gives her audience many ways to consider the sexual experiences of humans. Incest, romantic love, infidelity, desire. It’s all there.

And there are more I could go into, but this blog is just foreplay, right? The workshop will go deeper. (Pun not intended…or was it?)

Want to get more tips from Patty? There are still a few spots left for February Hot Flash: A Sex Writing Workshop.

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