Can a Man Write of a Woman's Sensuality from a Woman's Viewpoint?A column article, Riding Shotgun by: Don McGregor
Somehow out of all these separately converging, touching, converging viewpoints; somehow out of this vague and mutually ignorant confusion of love and hate; somewhere out of an overwhelming need to satisfy, to give unselfishly; somewhere out of a contradictory urge to control and enslave, somehow, somewhere there arose a true moment of compassion where indeed the universes did collide, where indeed Buddwing and the girl where briefly joined together and wedded as they had promised to be. In this single ecstatic moment of exchange, they became one body, mindless; one driving force, genderless. They shared together a sense of mutual pity and contempt, of guilt and exaltation, of charity and supplication, of abundance and need. In that moment, they clung to each other in total isolation and heard the echo of a billion sighs lost in the corridors of the night, and felt for the briefest tick of time that they really knew each other, when actually they had learned only that they were human.
- From Evan Hunter's novel Buddwing
What follows below are written exchanges with Malcolm Deeley. Malcolm is talented fellow writer, who, as a veteran cowboy named Harvey van Cleave used to say, has often given me the best of it.
I am reluctant to talk about what stories mean, what specific themes they may have. I believe, I guess, that the reader decides that, each individual reader. They decide what that story means to them. If you break a story down and say it is this, and only this, you often short-change your own story, because often there were many layers to a story, coming from within the characters, and from what motivated you to write the story in the first place.
I will respond when a reader catches something no one else has talked or written about before, and Malcolm does this in the correspondence you are about to read.
He also captures something else, which I have come to some awareness of over the years. It depends on what is happening in your life when you read or see something that touches and inspires you, and stays with you through-out your days. Buddwing by Evan Hunter seems an appropriate quote for this piece, because, for me, that book, and his writing, influenced me as to who I am as a person, and as a writer. Subtly, though. You shouldn’t go away thinking there was any direct influence for any particular piece as it was being written, unless I was paying homage to that author. There is nothing in The Variable Syndrome that has Evan Hunter written on it. I wasn’t thinking of any one writer while writing it. I was thinking of Elena, primarily. And peripherally about the other characters in the story. Trying to hear their voices. Get inside their heads. But especially Elena’s. It was important to me, and the reason the story came to be what it was. And that Malcolm felt that I did succeed in getting inside Elena’s head and capturing her voice, and writes of it so long after its publication brings a sense to me that all the work of caring was worth the effort.
Malcolm honors me with such literary skill and emotion, and I am glad that my stories, over the years, have moved people to respond to them with such passion and kindness to me.
Thank you, Malcolm.
And thanks to all the rest of you who have written over the years, or spoken to me in person, about what these stories, what these characters have meant to you.
Thanks to the women who helped me with this story, who confided in me, who trusted me, and made life more brilliant for me. They really should be the ones who receive the credit.
FROM MALCOLM DEELEY ON The Variable Syndrome
(The letter that started it all.)
Don, we were talking over on your MySpace page not long ago about The Variable Syndrome, and specifically Elena, the character at the heart of that story. I took out my old and much-thumbed copy from 1981, and read through the story again. It left deep impressions, just as it did the first time I read it 27 years ago. For those of your fans and readers here, I thought I might share those impressions (for those who've never read the book, hunt it down on Amazon or eBay! It is one of those special treasures that come along all too infrequently -- it also includes the fascinating, touching, disturbing and uplifting "Investigating Detectives Inc.").
I was just beginning my own career as a poet in '81, and working hard to try and come to understandings about the emotions, obsessions, drives and desires of men and women. One thing I had almost never seen done with a feeling of veracity, with an immediacy an intimacy, was a literary depiction of a woman's sensuality, from a woman's viewpoint, and written by a man. This, naturally, led me to the youthful conclusion that it couldn't be done. The needs and desires of men and women were impossible for the opposite gender to grasp, except through the warped mirror of their own gender perceptions.
Then I read The Variable Syndrome. In it are some of the most intimate, passionate and powerful depictions of sexual love I have read. Elena, from whose viewpoint they are presented, is hard-edged, distanced from her husband by breakdowns in communication; she is hungry for touch, both physical and spiritual, but has raised powerful emotional walls between herself and intimacy with her partner (which his own behavior has significantly contributed to). What the story presents is a nuanced awakening of intense sexuality, told without an instant of cliché. At age 23, I could not fully understand all of those nuances (how such a distancing between lovers can happen, and how incredibly difficult it can be to find the way back to one another. At 50, I can look back and see just how precisely you hit that nail on the head, Don).
The upshot of reading The Variable Syndrome was an awareness that men COULD understand the depth and complexity of a woman's sensual life, and that became something I could strive for, both in writing, and more significantly, in living. Reading the book again this weekend, I felt that affirmation just as strongly as I did in '81.
It is just another one of the gifts your writing has given to your readers, Don, and I wanted you to know about it. I hope that I haven't gone on too long here in this forum, but it seemed an appropriate place to share that sense of appreciation with you, your friends, and your readers here in this circle.
Elena walked out into a field of serpents in the end, ready to accept the judgment of the night. I've walked into that very same field, with mind and body both. Thanks for illuminating the pathway a bit.
Well, if anything will get me to re-read "The Variable Syndrome", it will be, in the words of Jim Salicrup, your eloquently emotionally charged response to the book after all these years.
Unlike Jim, I'll probably have a little fear about re-reading the book.
Most of the time, unless I am going back to write a character, I seldom read the books after their initial printing. I read them then, sometimes more than once, to get used to the reality of what they are, and my impressions of them. I’m a little reluctant to tamper with time, and let the impression remain inviolate.
Originally, The Variable Syndrome was scheduled to be one of the stories in Dragonflame and Other Bedtime Nightmares.
It was written while I still lived in the state of Rhode Island.
The story was 31 pages long.
Why can I recall that, and not why I walked into a room today and what I needed there?
I have no answer for that.
I became concerned about the Dragonflame book because it had two stories that dealt with relationships, all from a male point of view.
I had done little rewriting on the stories including in that anthology. Quite possibly I had juggled some of the flashbacks in the "Bernie Chojnacki" piece because that came from a larger novel, and the Bernie section was merely one chapter.
But for the most part, if memory serves, there weren't any major rewrites in the stories, that had been written during different time periods of my life.
I decided that I needed a story in that collection that WOULD be from a woman's point of view, not a man's, and I started out to rewrite "The Variable Syndrome" after everything else was done in Dragonflame.
I changed the point of view to Elena's.
I did not add a single scene to that story.
But when 31 pages began to run over a hundred pages in text, Dave Kraft wisely said, in words more or less like this: "I recognize a novel when I see it, and this needs to be a book by itself."
I don't exactly recall where I was living when I wrote this new version of The Variable Syndrome, but I'm pretty sure it must have been on the Bowery.
I recall fondly to this day working with Dave Kraft in the Green Kitchen restaurant in the upper 70s East Side Manhattan in the early morn hours, from 2 am to 5 am or later. We would go over the transcripts, with Dave's notes and suggestions.
Sometimes there would be a change Dave would want, and I would shake my head. No, that was the way I wanted it.
And Dave would shrug, and say, "Okay, it's your book. If you want it to be wrong."
Ten minutes later, I'd probably tell him to pull that page back out and explain to me again, "So, give me that again, what makes this wrong?"
I am moved that the story affected you in writing, and in your own life.
That's what telling stories is about, in many ways.
The new Detectives Inc. I am writing: "A Fear of Perverse Photos/A Repercussion of Violent Reprisal" looks at sexuality and the Internet/Sexuality people have seen and haven't had/living with their own sexual history/living with their partner's sexual history/the aftermath of sex, both positive and negative/about obsession, denial and healing.
I hope when it gets done, and if it gets to an audience it, too, will some day have a lasting response, as you have had to this work.
Thank you, Malcolm.
Thank you for your words. And for your talent.
And to all of you who have let me know how my stories have had impact on your lives over the years.
Thank you Don, for the insights and memories about the writing of The Variable Syndrome. Only you, I think, would be conscientious enough to harbor the thought that a book (in this case the original Dragonflame) would feel out of balance by having stories about relationships written purely from a male point of view. Some male writers (most?) go whole careers full of books without even considering attempting to see a story or a concept, in depth, from a woman's point of view. But that is the kind of caring that still makes these stories vital and alive 25, 30 years later, and I am sure will make them timelessly so.
One other aspect of the story that I think blew right over my head the first time I read the book, was how deftly you balanced the science fiction elements of the story with the deep exploration of a character (Elena) and a relationship. The concept that relationships carry within them their own "variable syndromes" -- elements of change and growth that make it impossible to move backward (symbolized beautifully by the inability of their time traveling device to do just that) -- is fascinating, and very true indeed.
Whenever you give us a brief look into the new Detectives Inc. you are writing, I find myself looking forward to reading it immensely. You are exploring powerful ground (as you always do with Denning and Rainier)...issues and actions that are raw, subtle, disturbing. I think you mentioned at one time about the story that it felt like writing without any safety net, and there is no doubt in my mind that writing undertaken with that feeling is the kind that will speak intensely to us as readers, and as people.
Take the best care always,
In all the years, and all the talks with people, and reviews, and commentaries on The Variable Syndrome, that's the first time anyone has ever discussed the "other" Variable Syndrome.
I hope I get the chance to finish the new Detectives, Inc.
I hope if you get to read it, you'll feel that way when you close the final page.
I hope I have the courage and stamina to get to the final page.
Although I've known the last line for two years.
It's just getting there, to that line, and all the lines in between, and surviving economically until I can get there.
Don McGregor is the writer of Killraven, Black Panther, Nathaniel Dusk and a slew of other classic comic books. Order a copy of The Variable Syndrome and other books and comics by Don from his website or his outstanding Detectives, Inc. at Amazon.