“The key is to remember a sex scene is a scene of dramatic action and psychological development. You need to pay attention to emotion and to a character’s self-awareness—or lack of self-awareness.”
K.M. Soehnlein is the author of three novels and the recipient of a Lambda Award and the Henfield Prize. In his widely praised first novel, The World of Normal Boys, Soehnlein’s teenage protagonist, Robin MacKenzie, not only contends with the difficulties of realizing he’s gay but also with his guilt for his younger brother’s death in a playground accident. In his second novel, You Can Say You Knew Me When, Soehnlein nailed the manners and mores of San Francisco in the era of the dot-com bust.
His new book, Robin and Ruby, is a sequel to The World of Normal Boys, set in the mid-1980s. Robin, age 20, and his sister Ruby, age 19, take turns narrating the story. When Ruby disappears from a party on the weekend that marks the anniversary of their brother’s death, Robin takes off to find her, only to discover she isn’t exactly in need of rescue.
K.M. Soehnlein lives in San Francisco and teaches in the MFA in Writing Program at the University of San Francisco (where this interviewer also teaches). Today, April 1, Soehnlein will read at Books Inc. in San Francisco (Market St.); on April 7, he will read at Barnes and Noble in New York City (Broadway at 82nd St.).
The Rumpus: Why a sequel?
Soehnlein: In The World of Normal Boys, Ruby didn’t get a lot of time on the page. She’s a crucial character, but in the background. I felt Ruby was as much like me as Robin was, perhaps even more so. When I was a teen I was pretty religious, intensely involved in Catholicism for many years. For Ruby, this begins in The World of Normal Boys; she prays, goes to church, sets up an altar for her brother Jackson when he’s lying in a coma. I knew her religious phase wouldn’t last forever, and I wanted to come back to her on the other side of her religious involvement, when she’s stopped believing.
The other reason I wrote this novel was that after writing two books with male characters I wanted to write from a different point of view.
Rumpus: At Robin’s and Ruby’s age, it seems so important to the struggle for identity to believe passionately, absolutely—and you capture this so well. Each of them comes to a moment of insight when they begin to realize things can’t be held to that hard, and that life will be changeable. What drew you to this subject?
Soehnlein: Knowing that we’d meet Ruby at the point where she stopped believing, I knew I was also going to have to deal with what you do with your capacity for belief if you don’t have an object for your belief. I remember being in the same position as Ruby, when I no longer believed in God as I was raised to believe. But I still am a believer—it’s a personality trait, to be someone who can believe. But then what do you believe in?
Rumpus: Art! The last resort of disillusioned Catholic boys and girls everywhere…
Soehnlein: I believe in art, and more fundamentally the freedom to express one’s self creatively. Ruby and Robin don’t know yet what they’ll ultimately believe in or how they’ll organize their lives. They’re kind of in limbo.
I am always interested in characters who are in these kinds of transitional moments in their lives, when it’s not clear where they’re going to end up. It’s interesting territory for fiction. Robin’s situation is the opposite of Ruby’s: He’s believed only in himself because he struck out independently at a young age. He’s realizing he’s more connected to people in his life than he’s allowed himself to admit. He goes from being someone who’s independent to someone who’s sort of interdependent—involved with his sister and also with his friend George, who’s an important part of the story.
Rumpus: The era of the novel matters a lot to these themes. The early days of the AIDS epidemic followed right after the early days of sex-without-shame, especially for women and gays. And then the gate just slams on it. There was so much paranoia, and at the same time the crisis brought out such altruism and brotherhood among gay men. Interdependence.
Soehnlein: The book takes place in 1985, so AIDS has only just been named. A character like Robin is mostly not being altruistic in the face of this epidemic—he’s just scared. I wanted to capture the fear that would hover over someone like him, who’d been sexually active for the last few years, and show how he would make decisions based on that fear—like looking for a “safe” boyfriend he’d imagine could protect him from the risk of infection. Having said that, I wanted the epidemic to live in the background. The characters are aware of it, even driven by it, but it’s not the novel’s subject.
Rumpus: Ruby narrates what is her first genuine sexual experience, with Chris, a boy for whom she has deep feelings. It’s so wonderfully done—how alive she becomes when she’s with him, their responsiveness to each other, their fumbling, their combustible anxiety to get it right. Completely convincing. Part of what’s going on for brother and sister is the fear that somewhere else, vivid life is going on, and they’ve been left behind—which matters so much to this sex scene. Ruby and Chris start to undress, and she takes him by the hand: “Just to walk across a room half naked—it’s not something she’s done before. The only sound is the rain on the glass, coming down hard, as if someone outside is clattering on an electric typewriter, writing down their story as it happens.” You are a wonderful writer of sex: you’re explicit but still erotic, which is a rare feat, and the sex is full of emotion and opens up so many dimensions of character.
Soehnlein: I’ve thought about this and even taught classes on writing about sex, and I’ve looked closely at different writers’ sex scenes. On the level of craft I’ve given it a lot of thought. The pitfalls are simple: It can sound clinical or medical, which isn’t right, or pornographic, because the characters disappear. The key is to remember a sex scene is a scene of dramatic action and psychological development. You need to pay attention to emotion and to a character’s self-awareness or lack of self-awareness.
The biggest problem in the fictional treatment of sex is that it’s not treated as part of the story but as a pause from the story. The best sex scenes in fiction are the ones that advance the story. Robin and Ruby each have sex in the book, but they have very different sexual interactions, and in terms of the writing style, I’ve made different choices for each of them.
Rumpus: The brother-sister relationship is a big part of the book. What drew you to that as a subject?
Soehnlein: Not a lot of contemporary fiction is written about brothers and sisters. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey was an inspiration for me. In Franny and Zooey, the sister gets in trouble and the brother comes to help her out. But I wanted to make sure that in my novel the sister had more to do than lie around on a sofa muttering, which is what Franny does for two-thirds of Salinger’s novel.
It’s about transitioning from adolescence, when you live together with parents and see each other every day, to the era when you don’t live together and start to grow apart and have to figure out how you’re going to have an adult relationship. This is Robin and Ruby’s first glimpse of what they might have and it’s about a childhood dynamic that they now need to shed. In some ways, it’s about learning to be kind to each other.
Rumpus: Wasn’t that dynamic affected by Robin’s pretty extreme risk-taking as an adolescent?
Soehnlein: Robin took risks as a teenager while Ruby was a good girl. Now Robin wants to stop taking risks at the very moment when Ruby is ready to. The other thing that’s important is that Ruby no longer wants to be treated as the younger sister, somehow inferior to her older brother. One of the key moments for me occurs after Robin finally finds Ruby, and she says, “I’m not a damsel in distress. I don’t need rescuing.” What if Franny could take care of her problems without Zooey?
Rumpus: How did you find the voices of these two characters?
Soehnlein: It was very hard to do, but I wanted to try to make their sections sound different enough. There were two elements to that. First, character. If you’re using a metaphor, does it come out of the character’s world? The things Robin notices should be different from the things Ruby notices. Then there’s the level of nerdy writer craft stuff. I thought a lot about grammar, syntax, punctuation. If you look closely, I use certain punctuation marks in Robin’s section that I do not use in Ruby’s, almost an artificial means to distinguish one from the other.
Rumpus: But a lot of times when you find the voice for a story, it feels received—like you’re in a trance, channeling this other being.
Soehnlein: Yes. But most of the choices I made about sentence structure and so on happened during revision.
Rumpus: Which makes sense—in the first draft your energy is pretty much taken up with plowing through the story.
Soehnlein: I had to just loosen up and let it happen, but there were points when I was very conscious of all these elements of style.
Rumpus: The back-and-forth of it is hard to explain as a teacher because students approach it with the sense that they have a creative mind and an analytical mind (all that right brain/left brain hooey), and the two are not friends.
Soehnlein: Living in the world of the workshop, which I do as a teacher, you have to be articulate about craft. And that often involves imposing analysis on work that’s in a pretty raw state. But revision is a creative act, not merely an analytical imposition of rules of style on a more creative first draft. That’s a myth—that the first draft is more creative and everything after that is ruining creativity. Even Jack Kerouac, who famously said, “First thought, best thought,” benefited from editing. His earliest works are the most edited, and they’re the best of his writing.
A knowledge of craft is not the enemy of creativity. You sit down to write and realize, today’s going to be a really unconscious day and I’m going to let it all out. Or, today’s going to be analytical. And some days all mixed up.