Susannah Breslin is a writer, photographer, and comics-artist whose work has appeared in Salon, Harper’s Bazaar, Details, Nerve, Variety, and Exquisite Corpse, among other publications. Susannah’s writing and photography also appeared on Identity Theory in 2002, when she was a featured author. She is the author of You’re a Bad Man, Aren’t You? (Future Tense), from which she recently read at the New Orleans Book Fair.
Susannah grew up in Berkeley, California, and is very tall for a girl. Currently, she is at work on a semi-autobiographical novel, If Only These Hands Could Talk, based on her experiences loitering around Porn Valley.
Matt Borondy: Here’s a quote from Andy Warhol’s Philosophy of Andy Warhol: "Sex is more exciting on the screen and between the pages than between the sheets anyway. Let the kids read about it and look forward to it, and then right before they’re going to get to the reality, break the news to them that they’ve already had the most exciting part, that it’s behind them already. Fantasy love is much better than reality love."
Susannah Breslin: Well, Andy was a real joykill, Matt, now wasn’t he? The distinction I would make is that sex is far more interesting to do than to watch. Andy’s quote has depressed me. Good thing that he never had kids. I would not like to imagine his counsel to a son about to lose his virginity. "I want to let you know, son, this is going to be incredibly disappointing for you." Imagine trying to get it up in the face of that.
MB: I think being Andy Warhol’s son, you would have been pretty off-center by the time you hit puberty anyway, what with all your transvestite babysitters constantly popping amphetamines and plotting to kill your dad. In all of your research as a sex writer, have you seen a lot of Andy Warhol movies? I can never find them, anywhere, and yet I’ve had this (probably psychotic) curiosity about them for a while.
SB: Too true, Matt, too true. I think I saw some Warhol flicks in a film studies class I took at Berkeley. I seem to remember they were boring. I think we watched part of "Empire," so this is not surprising. But, enough about Warhol. Let’s talk about porn. What was the first porn movie you ever watched? Do you recall?
MB: The earliest thing that comes to mind as far as seeing naked people enjoying each other’s company on film was this Euro-porn that was on Cinemax probably late on a friday night when I was like 12. I remember it because it was so out of place — like, those movie channels show a lot of sex-type movies, but this one was straight porn, grainy and hardcore and everything. It was very 70s-ish. I have a mental block about actually buying or renting porn, though, so I’ve never actually paid money for it. I can’t even fathom how the conversation would go with the cashier person. I’m shy, or maybe too influenced by random Catholic ideals that were sublimated into my worldview. I think if I ever decide to rent or buy a pornographic movie someday, I’m just going to tell them I’m getting it for the music. How about you? What was the movie/event that sparked your interest in all this beaver-picture stuff?
SB: Well, I was about 15, and I was over at a girlfriend’s house, and there were a bunch of people there, and no parents, and someone had a porno. It starred John Holmes. I remember that he was rather sad looking, sort of seemingly hiding under a messy poof of dirty-blonde hair. And there was a sort of floppy woman, in a blue polyester number, I think, trying to get it on with him. Holmes was having trouble wrangling his dangling beast. I recently put this scene into the novel I’m writing, If Only These Hands Could Talk, my semi-autobiographical novel set in Porn Valley. But, in the book and this scene, "I" am a man, Xerxes. To Xerxes, the most impactful thing about watching this porn movie is in his relationship to its sad internal mood; "It was, in fact, familiar," is how it goes in the novel.
MB: This talk of emotions in relation to porn reminds me of that scene in The Big Lebowski where Jackie Treehorn, the pornographer, laments that there aren’t enough "feelings" in adult movies anymore. I guess the question that I can make out of all this is, how does writing fiction about porn give you a chance to explore the emotional side of sex and/or the sex industry…are you interested in that aspect of it, or are you mainly looking to give your readers a pleasurable time? What do you see as the main goal of your writing, as far as what you want to give the readers?
SB: I am never interested in giving anyone a good time. In my fiction, I’m not seeking to "explore sex," or some cockydoodle like that, and I’m entirely uninterested in giving my readers a "pleasurable time"; I actually feel vaguely nauseated writing that phrase. You know how some people like "feel-good" movies? I like "feel-bad" movies. Same is true for books. As a sexual subject, I’m most interested in Porn Valley–its culture, its population, its vocabulary, its laws–and the psychological aspect of that world, in addition to the various sex industries at large, and the psyches of those involved in other extremist sexual subcultures. So, exploring these places isn’t about pleasure; it’s about pulling back the skin to see what’s going on underneath. Take, for example, visiting the set of a bukkake film. I’m surrounded by eighty-plus mostly naked men looking to masturbate onto the face of one woman. If you are at all interested in pulling back the scrim on the face of humanity, or, in this particular instance, say, the veneer behind which men, or Man, hides, that scene is so far outside the controlling do’s-and-don’ts of contemporary society that one can actually witness some kind of truth there, no matter how "obscene," laid bare. That’s what I want to give the readers, a peek through that peephole. Why do some want to look and some to look away?
MB: See, you might be on to something, because I personally don’t have any conscious desire to take part in or watch a bukkake film, but I know people who definitely would, and a lot of times I wonder if they’re in touch with their nature and I’m just a weirdo repressed by society, or if they’re just nuts. I really don’t understand the mechanisms of desire very well. Anyway, I was wondering a couple of things about the porn industry that maybe you can help me figure out. For one, do they have, like, market research? I mean how do the pornographers know how many bukkake films they need to make, how many girl-on-girl films, what kinds of scenes are most popular to people, that sort of thing? I can imagine some sort of boardroom meeting at Vivid Video, "We haven’t met our gangbang quota this year."
Porn, itself, is unusual. It is, by its very nature, extreme and explicit. It is fascinating and horrifying to look inside human bodies as they ram themselves into one another. I don’t know that we, as a culture, are ready to look at sex, and porn, without blinking or flinching, as of yet.
SB: Yes, well, Vivid isn’t exactly a gangbang kind of company, but I think I get your point. My impression is there’s not a whole lot of sophisticated market research going on in Porn Valley, but they’re watching very, very closely what’s selling, and paying attention to what the porn consumer fans are telling them they want. Most porn-makers are interested in the bottom-line, that’s it. As far as content, they’re pretty astute about following sexual trends as they rise and fall. For example, anal and "barely legal" videos are pretty popular right now. But, Matt, what I really want to know is: Am I the first person to say "anal" on Identity Theory? And, if so, can I get some kind of an award or free gift for being that person?
MB: That’s a good question. Howard Zinn might have said it in talking about American foreign policy. The Identity Theory spiritual guru, Al Dawg, says it at least 200 times a day, but his writings remain unpublished. So, yeah, you’re probably the first. I got sucked into buying a bunch of Pizza Hut coupons the other day, and I don’t even like Pizza Hut. So I could give you a buy-one-get-one-free, or something, as a reward. I’d like to ask a question about porn actors, but I can’t think of a good one. The perception is probably that most of them get involved with it because they’re druggies needing money — or the cliche about moving to Hollywood to become an actress and ending up in porn. But I’m wondering if there are some reasons that people do it that are more interesting/unique than that. So, talk about that, and also, I want to know your impression of porn actors in general, what their lives are like, how they view their jobs, etc. Or you can talk about midgets if you want…
SB: Well, where to begin–with the pizza or the midgets? The cliches about porn stars are true for some, and not for others. Two exceptions that come to mind are Chloe and Nina Hartley. I love those ladies. My impression is they’re in the business because they want to be there, that there’s something in living a life in porn that fulfills their fundamental essence. They’re both terrifically smart, too. I talked once to Chloe about what it was like having Martin Amis visit one of her sets, when he was doing research for Yellow Dog. She was underwhelmed, she said, explaining she was more impressed with his father’s books than his. Nina has compared her work as a porn star to that of a bodhisattva, a healer of sorts. The male porn stars of the business can be quite interesting, as well; Susan Faludi’s essay on the breed, which can be found in Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man, is really definitive in this milieu. Those guys are like subjugated machines, in a way, slaves to their own penises and to the porn industry itself.
MB: I was reading this book that came out in early September by DJ Levien called Swagbelly — it’s about a Jewish pornographer worth $100 million who struggles with his family life and lack of respect in the community. And then last month Fox came out with that Skin show about the compassionate rich Jewish pornographer with a rebellious teenage daughter. So it’s a good time of year to be a rich Jewish pornographer with kids, apparently. Anyway, I was thinking, you know, with the internet, there is so much porn now, in everyday life. Even the most conservative minded people can’t check their email without a few subject lines involving sex with animals and whatnot every day. So I’ve been wondering about how pornography is going to be perceived in the future. Because, really, it’s everywhere already, and it seems to be just a matter of time before the people who produce and act in pornographic movies will be less stigmatized by society. Do you think that’s possible — or do you think there will always be a puritanical view towards these people in America?
SB: First off, I’d make a distinction between porn stars and porn videos. But the question of their mainstreaming is everywhere now, isn’t it? You can’t shake a stick these days without banging it into the head of one more reporter doing an article on how mainstream porn is becoming. Will the stars of porn become more mainstream? Sure. Will porn become more mainstream? I think it will take longer than we expect. There is something different about porn that sets it apart from, say, body modification, or ghettofabulousness, or whatever the latest subculture is that the mainstream is co-opting. Porn, itself, is unusual. It is, by its very nature, extreme and explicit. It is fascinating and horrifying to look inside human bodies as they ram themselves into one another. I don’t know that we, as a culture, are ready to look at sex, and porn, without blinking or flinching, as of yet.
MB: I agree, and I think I have an idea for a porno movie. Instead of the plumber who comes to fix the faucet and then gets down with the housewife, you have a reporter coming to do a story on porn becoming mainstream, interviewing the girl who plays the housewife, then getting it on with her. Yeah, that’s a winner, I should totally go buy a camera and make that one right now. Anyway, we haven’t talked at all about your new book, You’re A Bad Man, Aren’t You?, which the legendary Kevin Sampsell is publishing at Future Tense. So, hey, what’s your book about? What nice things can you say about Future Tense?
SB: Please, Matt, give me a cameo in your first porno movie. I beg of you. You’re a Bad Man, Aren’t You? is a collection of short stories featuring midget love, mannequin fetishism, pornographers gone wild, and a bunch of other freaky things. It’s Pornographic Postmodern Literature, which means you can’t masturbate to it, or, at least, you really shouldn’t, if you care about me, or my feelings, at all. It just came out in October. The book is a good time, and I would have to recommend it wholeheartedly. Future Tense Books is like the publishing-house version of a party in your pants. The ringleader there is Kevin Sampsell, who is really great because he published my book. He’s also a totally badass writer. I love A Common Pornography deeply.
MB: Kevin is definitely cool — he’s written some for Identity Theory too. Okay, well, we haven’t talked about the death of the Reverse Cowgirl Blog yet, and the RCB is important because it’s surely how a lot of people became familiar with your work. I’m very sad about the extinction of the RCB because it means fewer hits for Identity Theory, and also my letter to Comedy Central on your behalf is no longer up on the web. How could you do this to me, Susannah?
SB: It wasn’t hard, Matt.
MB: The main thing I miss about the RCB is your digital photography collection. Are you still taking lots of pictures? What else are you working on these days?
SB: I’m still taking photographs. I’m going to do something a little different with one of my bukkake photos for an upcoming art gallery group show. I’m going to blow the image up very large, so, up-close, it looks like broken down pixel splatter, but, far away, you see it for the bukkake girl it is. I’ve got a few other book projects on which I’m working, too. But, mostly, I’m concentrating on my novel full-time. That’s great. It’s coming along very well. It requires me to rehash every weird thing that I’ve ever seen, but then process it into something new through the filter of fiction. I think that’s a good thing. Maybe it’s cathartic. I hope so.
MB: Awesome. Thanks a lot for doing the interview — hopefully it will be more compelling than those "interviews" Ron Jeremy does on late-night TV promoting male-enhancement products. Do you have any final comments on Postmodern Porn Lit, whores, midgets, death, or anything else people splice in between frames of Disney films?
SB: Midgets are cool. One day, I hope to have one as a pet. I will keep it on a leash, and walk it every day, and feed it from a dish. We will have the best of times. Of this, I am sure.