by Henry Flesh
Akashic Books, 384 pages, $15.95
When I read a blurb about Henry Flesh’s Massage saying it was about this erotic masseur, Randy, involved in a violent, sadomasochistic relationship with this rich older guy, Graham, who has AIDS… I thought cool! I’ve mostly been reading Goodnight Moon and Babar books, so it was refreshing to read a real nitty-gritty book. It is cool too that the book is from Akashic, founded by Girls Against Boys bass-player Johnny Temple. I called Flesh at his East Village apartment last week.
What inspired you to write Massage?
The initial idea for the book came to me during dinner with a friend who was dying of AIDS. He told me about a dancer he knew who also worked as an erotic masseur. I later met and became friendly with this person, and as I got to know him better, was struck by the matter-of-fact attitude he took toward his profession. It was like a client would call him and he would send his boyfriend away from their apartment for an hour, then when it was over his boyfriend would come back. I started wondering what it would be like if his world came into contact with the world of certain people I knew in the literary community, which did not seem at all unlikely. It was then that I began writing Massage.
Did you do any of your own research–that is, did you hire any hookers?
I’ve been with prostitutes a few times, in Morocco, also in New York City during a period when I was feeling particularly depressed and lonely. I found that these encounters only made my depression worse, and I don’t think that I would do it again. Although I took these experiences into account while writing Massage, I was more influenced by my having lived with two different sex workers. One was a lover, who had stopped hooking before I met him but who still saw a john from Los Angeles once or twice a month while I was living with him. The other was a woman I shared a flat with in London during the 70s, who was both a prostitute and a groupie.
Why did you decide to bring AIDS into Massage?
In that the book is set in the mid-90s and involves a great deal of sex, much of it unsafe, I don’t know how I could have avoided it. AIDS was omnipresent then, as it is today.
It was strange that you never called AIDS by its real name. Instead, you referred to it as “the sweetness.” Where did you come up with that?
It was a term a boyfriend I was seeing at the time I was writing Massage used. The first time he said it to me, I knew it had to be in the book. Actually, he’s the only person I’ve ever known who’s used it, and I don’t know where he picked it up. He was sort of a club kid, though, and I’ve always suspected that he might have heard it in some club he frequented.
I’ve read some press that referred to Massage as a risky, even dangerous book, and you told me some people have hinted that it might be taken as un-p.c.
Too much gay stuff I read now–and Dennis Cooper’s books are certainly an exception to this–seem too “nice.” I mean, all the characters in them seem to be white, middle-class clones, and they’re all so supportive toward each other, not bitchy or anything. It all seems rather party-line, completely bourgeois, like this is the way the gay establishment–and I’d say that most gay book editors are a part of this establishment–wants us to appear to the world. It doesn’t mirror at all the way I see things out there. I mean, a lot of us are really fucked up, just the way a lot of people in society in general are. Some gays appear to have been conditioned from childhood toward a certain amount of self-hatred, because there are many people out there who are basically disgusted by what they imagine we do. The very idea of anal sex revolts some straight men. It’s like you say that you’d die if your family read any of the stuff you write about s&m or gay sex. It’s a message we get from the time we’re really young, that what we’re feeling and desiring is somehow wrong. It’s inevitable that some sort of defensiveness will build up, like in the brittle, bitchy behavior you see in a lot of bars. I like to call this attitude “self-hatred turned outward.” But you don’t actually see it discussed much in the gay press. That’s what I mean when I say that Massage is not exactly p.c.
I know a lot of young gay guys are having unsafe sex. They figure the worst thing is they’ll just have to pop more pills if they get sick. What do you think about the romance and thrill-seeking some dudes are doing in this way?
This makes me very, very sad. It’s also unbelievably stupid. Haven’t we been told a million times that viruses mutate and evolve? I wonder if this “romance and thrill-seeking” doesn’t come about because the people acting in this way have a subconscious desire to punish themselves for desires that they’ve been taught from childhood are wrong.
What has been the response to the book in the gay community? Do you think the mainstream literary world might write it off as a “queer book,” and are you concerned about that?
Since the book will not be out until the summer, I don’t as yet know what the response will be. However, I did worry about both of these things for a while, but don’t so much anymore. I was well aware of the possibility that some in the gay community, particularly those with a more doctrinaire agenda, might react negatively to my implied criticism of aspects of the gay world. But I didn’t want the book to be marketed only to gays, for the publisher to use the niche-marketing sort of thing that has had such a terrible effect on mainstream book publishing today. I mean, if they were writing now, people like Genet, Burroughs and Tennessee Williams would probably be marketed as “queer writers,” and I find that kind of shit absurd. Writing’s about so much more than sexual preference.
Fortunately, the reaction I’ve had to Massage thus far, from both gays and straights, has been gratifyingly positive. I’m hoping that others are getting as tired as I am of that whole p.c., party-line thing. And I feel extremely fortunate in having Akashic as my publisher, since they aren’t a strictly gay press. In fact, Massage is the first gay-themed work they’ve put out.
Why did you decide to put s&m in your book?
I wouldn’t describe the relationship between Randy and Graham as, strictly speaking, s&m, the dynamic of which has always appeared to me rather formal and extremely ritualistic in its codes and rules. Randy and Graham’s behavior is, of course, sadomasochistic, but their acting out is more spontaneous than the usual s&m situation, arising from the traumas both of them have experienced in their lives.
Are you into s&m?
No, although, I think, many of the relationships I’ve had have involved a good deal of emotional masochism on my part.
Talk about Randy and Graham’s sadomasochistic behavior. Why did you decide to show the trauma of their pasts in this way?
This was no conscious decision on my part–it was just something that seemed to emerge naturally, as an intrinsic part of the characters as I developed them. Their sadomasochism has a lot to do with class and power, with Graham being wealthy and famous, someone Randy looks up to. Graham uses this in his domination. I mean, he’s the john, the one with the cash.
How do you know Dennis Cooper? Is he an influence?
I met Dennis a few times in the late 80s and early 90s, because he was a friend of some people I was friendly with at the time, but I never really knew him well. Although I admire his writing a great deal, I don’t think he has had a major influence on my work. He seems to come from a more minimalist school than I do, one that includes such French writers as Marguerite Duras and Alain Robbe-Grillet. I’m a big fan of 19th-century English and French novels myself, people like Thomas Hardy, Dickens, Thackeray, Zola, Stendhal, Balzac, and I deliberately structured Massage like some of these works. I thought it’d be interesting to do a 19th-century sort of thing in a graphic way and on an unorthodox, 20th-century sort of topic… My all-time favorite is Henry James, particularly The Portrait of a Lady and The Wings of the Dove–although I hate the films made from them. To me, Paul Bowles is the greatest fiction writer of the 20th century. Of the younger, more contemporary writers, I like Mary Gaitskill a lot.
Tell me about your background.
I grew up in this upper-middle-class, fucked-up family in southwestern Ohio. My parents divorced when I was five, but they lived next door to each other afterward, with just these woods in between their houses. Altogether, counting step- and half-siblings, I had 15 brothers and sisters. I went to this awful boys’ prep school in Connecticut when I was 15, then to Yale. By that time, I think I’d had enough of the whole preppy world. Then again, maybe I was just sick of gothic architecture. At any rate, I dropped out of Yale after less than a year and moved to New York City, where I got involved in the crystal methedrine scene that was going on then, in 1968. Later, at the end of the 60s and in the early 70s, I lived in London, then in Marin County.
When did you first realize you were gay?
I’ve been attracted to men for as long as I can remember, like from well before I was five. I didn’t know, though, what this meant. I mean, I didn’t even know what a homosexual was. Then, when I was about 10, I was with my grandparents and read a film review of a British movie about Oscar Wilde that had just opened. The reviewer talked about Wilde’s trial and about his being gay, and I realized that was what I was. But it wasn’t something I wanted to admit, and I struggled with this for years. One night when I was around 12, just before falling asleep, I remember saying to myself, “I’m a homosexual,” or something like that. In the morning, I again tried to deny this, and went through several more years of conflicted feelings. You know, I had girlfriends and everything. I didn’t really “come out” until I was about 18 or 19.
How did your family react?
In varying ways. My brothers and sisters were always supportive. It was more problematic with my parents. Later, I learned that they’d suspected I was gay for years, but had hoped that it wasn’t true. When I came out, my stepmother was very gentle and kind, particularly for that time, 1966. But my real mother never, ever talked about it. And I think that it was extremely difficult for my father, coming as he does from a more conservative, rather macho generation. It undoubtedly caused some strain in our relationship, although we never discussed it much. Recently, however, since he’s read Massage, I think we’ve come to a much better understanding and have grown closer. I feel very good about the way things now stand with my family.
What did your dad think about the book? I mean, I would die if anyone in my family read any of the stuff I wrote that has s&m in it or gay sex, even just sex. If he was weirded out before, how did reading it make him closer to you or understand better?
He didn’t like it at all–in fact, I’d have to say that he was appalled by it–and I was hurt at first. But then thinking about it, I realized it was kind of great that he had, in fact, read it, and then we discussed it, and I felt really good about that. It seemed like he’d come a long way–as I had in even being able to show it to him.
How did you get involved with Akashic? Were you into Girls Against Boys?
A friend of mine, Gabrielle Danchick, is Akashic’s editor, and she suggested that I submit the manuscript to them. I’ll always be grateful to her for that advice, seeing how fantastic Akashic has been as a publisher. Although I’d been around a lot of musicians for most of my life, I do not really follow the music scene that closely. I’d known about Girls Against Boys, but had not actually heard their music until after I’d met Johnny. Since then, I’ve been to several of their performances, and I like them a lot, as I do Johnny’s other band, New Wet Kojak.
If they made a movie of Massage, how would you cast it?
It would be hard for me to imagine mainstream actors playing most of the book’s major characters. I mean, could you really see, say, Scott Wolf and Anthony Hopkins doing a lot of the things that Randy and Graham do? I think that if a movie were to be cast, they’d have to use unknowns, which would probably be more effective anyway.