Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.

September 19–26, 1996

20 questions

Elizabeth Benedict

By Remi Newman


Introduction: The Joy of Writing Sex, A Guide for Fiction Writers. Sound intriguing? I thought so. Award-winning author and teacher Elizabeth Benedict spent over a year reading sexy books, interviewing other authors, and "thinking for long periods of nothing but sex" in order to write this helpful guide.

She spent the years before preparing for it. As an undergrad at Barnard, she remembers lectures delivered by three alums. "One was a perky blonde-haired poet with a Chinese name, class of '63, whose first novel was about to be published. I don't remember much of what she said that day in 1973, but I remember her name. Erica Jong. Several months later Fear of Flying erupted into all of our lives."

For Benedict — and many others — it was the book that gave her permission to write about sex in her own fiction. Her first novel, Slow Dancing, was a finalist for the American Book Award. She is currently on the faculty of Princeton University's creative writing program, where she's passing on her expertise to the next generation of steamy writers.

Elizabeth Benedict: So you wanna talk about sex?

RN: I most certainly do. In your intro you said that Lois Rosenthal, the chief editor of Story Press called and asked you to write this book. Why do you think they chose you?

Because of the ways I've written sex into my fiction. It showed the subtlety and character development and concerns that they had in mind. Also, because of my experience as a teacher. I could combine these two things and come up with something good.

Do you teach your students how to write effective sex scenes?

I mostly teach undergrads. I feel very strongly that I need to be responsive to what they want to write. I don't ask them to write about sex, but if they do I talk about it with them very openly. At first sometimes they're uncomfortable with that, but when they see I'm not their mother or grandmother and I know the same words they know, they're more at ease.

This past year a student wrote about a woman in a sort of date-rape situation, but she wrote it from a distance. I told her I couldn't really feel what it was like to be this woman laying on the ground with the dirt in her mouth. I want to feel what it's like to be in this woman's skin. That's why we read fiction, to leave our body and enter somebody else's. Writing about sex from a distance is only interesting if you're writing about a voyeur.

What makes a sex scene feel real?

It has to honor the physical nature of the experience and it has to tell me something I didn't know before the characters took their clothes off. It's not just about sex, it's about sex and something else. If it's a scene of gratuitous sex, then I have to know what it means to those characters to be having gratuitous sex.

The paradox of writing about sex is that you have to honor the physical nature of the sex act, but you don't have to write every twitch.

Like in pornography?

Right. When you think about pornography, it doesn't matter who the characters are. It doesn't matter what motivates them. In porn all that matters are the twitches, the titillation. It's almost the complete opposite of fiction.

Can you give an example of how you employed this in one of your novels?

In Slow Dancing, my first novel, the main character Lexi goes to bed with this man who is very cold and distant and she decides that she needs to learn to be cold and distant after this experience. It sort of surprises her the way her behavior changes and even repels her.

Of the authors you interviewed for The Joy of Writing Sex, was there one who offered insights you found particularly helpful?

I really liked Dorothy Allison's advice to write to your fear and I really will take it one of these days. I also liked what Jerome Badanes [author of The Final Opus of Leon Solomon] said. He said that he tried to do with sex what the Iliad did with violence —"to deliver the moment."

What did he mean by that?

To really feel what it's like to be at the mercy of someone who is going to kill you. Not many of us know what that feels like. The challenge for a writer doing a sex scene is that we all know what happens when people go to bed. It's not a surprise to any of us, so we must do something original with it. Sex has to matter in the book. It doesn't have to matter in real life.

A lot of the authors you interviewed said that as writers they can't be thinking about the reactions of the reader while they're creating. You just have to write it and worry later what your grandmother or your lover or the general public will think. Is it hard for you to do that?

Surprisingly, it's not. I'm kind of used to it now. But with my first novel, I was very nervous, about lots of people reading it, old professors, old boyfriends. There's a moment when you write explicit sex scenes, or anything that really reveals some part of you that's very hidden, it's almost like you have to jump off a cliff and say I'm gonna take the consequences.

Sounds like extreme bravery or extreme stupidity.

Definitely bravery. Writing is an act of courage. Even exposing your fantasies, much less the reality of your life, is scary. As writers, that's the kind of courage we either have or we have to acquire.

Are you working on any sexy new fiction now?

Yes, I am. I'm writing a novel and a short story. I know all eyes will be honed in on the sex scenes and there will be sex scenes! I'm hyper-aware of every word now that I've done this book. It's a bit exciting. I've shown my hand and now I have to deliver in a big way.

Any last words?

Sex makes people very vulnerable and in that vulnerability we change and do things that surprise us. Sometimes we fall in love and sometimes we act cruelly, in ways we wouldn't have. Sex is very powerful. In literature, the writer has to exploit and explore that power.

Elizabeth Benedict will discuss her book at Borders Book Shop, Springfield, (610) 543-8588, Monday, Sept. 23, 7:30p.m.; Barnes and Noble, Princeton, (609) 897-9250, Wednesday, Sept. 25, 7: 30 p.m.; Micawber Books, Princeton (609) 921-8454, Thursday, Sept. 26, 5:30p.m.

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