Guest editor Monet P. Thomas organized and ran the Big O Challenge, four stories from which she selected for publication in Issue 42 of Jellyfish Review. She speaks here to Kathryn McMahon. If you want to read Kathryn’s story, Bone China, go here.
How did you feel going into the Big O Challenge and how did you feel once the challenge was over?
I was excited to write about orgasm in a way that was fundamental to the narrative while not being the purpose of the story. Or rather not the literal and figurative climax of the story in the way it is in erotica. (Nothing against erotica; that just wasn’t the challenge, was it?) And I knew I wanted to write a queer story. Queer women are rarely supposed to have sex for themselves on the page or screen where the effects of the (straight) male gaze are multiplied. Someone is always watching, as if these women’s desire is contagious, as if these orgasms don’t belong only to the people involved but also to the audience and director or writer. I wanted to stare down that idea. Wiggle into it. What happens when queer women look back — or at each other — through this crowd? And orgasms are so much about what’s going on in someone’s head, not just with their body. Some claim this is especially true for women, and while I can’t comment on that, I wanted it to be clear that these two characters were intimately connected, even if they weren’t together in person. Yet.
Normally, I try not to think a lot about a piece before it’s written, but I’ve had the urge to write a story about this issue for a while, so the Big O Challenge was the push I needed. And it’s opened up my other work since. I also really loved reading everyone’s stories and appreciating how complicated sex and orgasms are and how wonderful and messy and rich life and fiction are for it.
There’s a comparison happening here, between the narrator and Shirley, the pornstar. And in a way it feels like the narrator doesn’t think she quite measures up. Could you talk about that a little more?
I think she feels insecure, yes. Shirley has more sexual experience by virtue of her job, and even though the narrator understands this experience isn’t directed at meeting her own sexual needs, that her job is theatrical, Shirley is still daunting as a potential new partner. She’s this domestic dynamo in the bedroom and the kitchen — she’s larger than life. But she’s also wearing her mask half-off. The narrator is intimidated and captivated by the mystery of who Shirley is and so she creates excuses rather than pursue a relationship. What I wanted to avoid was the narrator comparing her body to Shirley’s. There’s a social expectation that women do this, and while I wanted to play with ideas of expectation and performance, I didn’t want to undermine their desire for one another. I wanted to keep any glimpse of their bodies anchored in desire itself.
When you write about sex, do you find it more difficult or less so than any other topic?
It varies. I used to have a “what if my family reads this?!” anxiety about it, but I’ve gotten over that since they teased me for being a prude. While intimacy is not uncommon in my fiction, usually, I don’t intentionally set out to write about sex. And writing about sex isn’t necessarily writing about sex. For me, it’s more like writing with sex — sex as a storytelling device, and not for shock value or titillation, either. Sometimes the intensity of a scene or story is elevated when characters come that much closer together because sex reveals more than bodies. It shows our hopes and hang-ups, how open we are to change and compromise, to vulnerability and risk. It’s not just about writing out where all the parts go. Depending on the characters and situation, sex can mean everything or it can mean nothing (which in itself means something in a story). There’s everything from making love to hate fucking, as well as holding back from sex altogether. And what goes unspoken in the bedroom (or wherever) can broadcast the loudest message. So because of its nuances, I think it’s more difficult to write about sex than other topics. It can be challenging to show characters’ emotions and motivations through their bodies and in how they behave towards one another when you want to be clear that pleasure is not the only thing at stake.
Image (pinked): xresch Pixabay Licence
Monet Patrice Thomas is the Interviews editor at The Rumpus. Her writing can be found online and in print. She currently lives and works in Beijing, China.
Kathryn McMahon is a queer American writer living abroad with her British wife and dog. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in places such as Hobart, Wigleaf, Atticus Review, SmokeLong Quarterly, Booth, Passages North, The Cincinnati Review, Split Lip and here in Jellyfish Review. She is the 2018-19 winner of New Delta Review’s Ryan R. Gibbs Award for Flash Fiction. She tweets as @katoscope. Find more of her writing at darkandsparklystories.com