In our culturally dominant BDSM narrative, the Fifty Shades trilogy, the kink is portrayed as an expression of childhood trauma—the tyrannical Mr. Grey is, in his own words, “fifty shades of fucked up”—and the tale ends happily with him embracing the joy of monogamous vanilla sex. In truth, BDSM can be a healthy, satisfying, and lifelong practice. It brings to the fore the power dynamics at play in every sexual interaction, and hinges on consent. And, as Saskia Vogel’s fascinating and beautiful debut novel Permission illustrates, it’s not simply about marrying pleasure and pain, but self-actualization.
At the heart of Vogel’s novel is a young woman named Echo. As the story opens, Echo grieves for a father lost in a tragic accident off the coast of Los Angeles, swept away by the sea before her eyes. His shocking loss throws into stark contrast just how little agency she feels in other areas of her life. With her teenage acting career having petered out, Echo has no sense of a career, and all the odd jobs she takes involve others gazing at her body—she serves drinks at private parties in short, tight dresses, or poses nude for a sculpture class. The girl she loved in high school broke her heart and left town, so she throws herself into heteronormative relationships. One, with a musician, is purely based on sex; another, with an agent named Van who hopes to resurrect her acting career, is terrible because he’s a pompous jerk. None of this feels right to her; she’s lost, or stalled, on her way to a functioning, independent adulthood.
Enter Orly, the next door neighbor of Echo’s mother. A dominatrix by trade, Orly takes Echo on as an apprentice, enlisting her help with clients, bringing her to BDSM parties. Along with Piggy, Orly’s subservient houseboy with a passion for feet, Echo joins Orly’s inner circle. What unfolds is a wonderful coming-of-age story about empowerment and sexual liberation, which the jacket describes as “a kind of love story.”
Vogel is from LA and now lives in Berlin, where in addition to writing she translates Swedish literature. She’s written about gender, power, and sexuality for publications like the Paris Review Daily, The White Review, and The Offing, and reported on the business of pornography for the AVN Media Network. Over email, we talked about her debut novel and the role readers played in helping her understand her characters more deeply.
The Rumpus: The character of Echo is so complex. How did she come to you? And at what point did you settle on such an evocative name for her?
Saskia Vogel: Echo sits in my blind spot in many ways. Her character came out of questions and anxieties I had growing up in LA, from a place of confusion. I started off thinking that the reader would just get her because I did. I was wrong. In this sense, I wasn’t helped by the fact that I’m interested in the edges of things: how little can I write and still convey an emotion, character, scene.
Hearing people respond to my work was crucial to shaping Echo. Her character is stronger because of their questions. One of my early readers, for instance, asked about the sex scene with Echo’s musician lover: is having an orgasm important to Echo? I sat with that for a while, and ended up realizing that she’s a person who understands the economy of sex in the world she inhabits, but she’s also just really into pleasure. That’s what she’s in it for, and that stance is generally at odds with the world she’s in.
As for her name: it came to me out of the blue right at the start, and I went with it. I still wonder if it’s her real name, or a pseudonym she’s put between herself and the world.
Rumpus: The character of Echo’s wannabe agent, Van, was so repulsive, his arrogance and egotism. What was it like to write him?
Vogel: Oh Van! I took so much pleasure in drafting him as plain awful. He’s a character type who thrives in the glitz of LA. There are plenty of representations of men like Van where we get to understand their anxieties and pain, and I was interested in exploring how it feels to be on the receiving end of that kind of glancing relationship. It was cathartic drafting him, but pure catharsis is perhaps not the best thing for fiction.
I read Van and Echo’s dinner date at the Fiction Canteen in Berlin, where the audience is invited to give feedback on works-in-progress. One part of the audience was like: yes, I have met that man, too. Another vibed with the labor Echo puts into being pleasing to Van. Some were taken aback because Van had no redeeming qualities, and Echo seems so calculating. I added a few details to let the reader know why she reaches out to him, and what she likes about him.
Essentially, Van was born from exasperation: who are these men who think they can act like this? But the other side of the question is: what structures enable this behavior and this attitude? To what extent is Echo complicit? Does she have the power to alter their dynamic? When #MeToo broke, these questions came to the fore. Honestly, in a fit of optimism I’d hoped we’d have resolved them by now.
Rumpus: This reminds me of something Echo says about Orly’s work as a domme. “Hers was a healing practice…. by creating a compassionate space, she was helping people to avoid unnecessary pain.” This was so powerful and counter, I think, to how our culture at large tends to envision sadomasochism. Is this concept common in the BDSM community?
Vogel: Yes, I think it’s a common concept, but the idea of the sex worker as someone who holds space for you, helps you achieve an altered state, and engages with your spirit or sense of self is also common to literature, right? In the kink community, at least the one that I know, the value of a dominatrix’s work is clear. For some people, like Piggy, a sex worker is the only person they can turn to with their desires. Understanding that you can have what you desire can be healing and transformative.
For some of Orly’s clients pain is part of their pleasure, but a lot of her work is about role play. I was listening to a podcast where porn director and actress Asa Akira told a story about a client she once had who was a dentist. All he wanted her to do was inspect his teeth and say things like, “I think we’re definitely going to have to pull this molar out.” Whether we’re talking about spanking, bondage, or a play-acted dental check up, the bottom line of BDSM play is that it should be safe, sane, and consensual, which draws the line between BDSM and abuse; this foundation of trust opens up a space of possibility.
Rumpus: Tell me more about Orly. What went into creating her on the page?
Vogel: Orly’s character, like Piggy’s character, was informed by the interviews I did as part of my research for this book. One dominatrix I spoke with had an explicitly spiritual approach to her work, and a holistic approach to well-being, similar to Orly. After speaking with her, I started to think that one of the great common tragedies is forgetting that our sexual beings need just as much attention as other aspects of our selves. But the sexual self so often gets pushed to the wayside, and as a culture, we aren’t encouraged to commune with our sexual selves, to find out what language they speak and how to be in dialogue.
I decided not to give Orly her own section in the novel because I wanted to focus on the people who seek her out. Echo sits closest to the questions I had that set me on the path to writing this book, so she is written in first person. With Piggy, I imagined that his section is his story as told to Echo who is telling it to us, and so it’s in third. Orly’s story is hers to tell, but is Echo ready or able to hear it? I wanted the reader to see how others saw Orly: the need they carry to her, how they objectify her and turn her into a fantasy woman—a fantasy woman that Orly is definitely a part of creating. Then I wanted to crack the veneer of the fantasy.
For instance, it was important that she be excellent at her job, but like every job, it’s an ongoing learning process with unexpected challenges, and you can have bad days at work. Like Echo and Piggy, Orly struggles with different forms of intimacy. She’s most comfortable getting to know Echo in a work context: an intimate space where they can learn about each other, but where Orly, ultimately, is in control. Throughout the course of the book, Echo and Orly open themselves up to new kinds of intimacy. When I describe the book as a love story, this is what I mean.
Rumpus: I’d like to return to what you said about early readers. The role readers play is essential for me, too, but there are times when readers ask something of the character that I don’t want to give them, so it’s somewhat of a dance. I can’t help but think of Orly when writing about this, and her work as a dominatrix. Is that a productive metaphor for you as a writer, thinking about power and pleasure in your relationship to the reader?
Vogel: You’re so right about it being like a dance. You know, I started writing some version of this book when I was at the University of Southern California, pre-Fifty Shades. I was that twenty-three-year-old workshopping stories about sadomasochism, but not having the language for it. I spent so much time answering questions like “why would anyone want to participate in something like that?” and “wait, what is BDSM again?” At the time, I felt misunderstood and frustrated that I wasn’t able to tell my stories in a way that resonated with people. But through these workshops, I found the person to whom I was writing: the reader who is not necessarily sympathetic to, interested in, or even aware of the worlds and experiences about which I’m writing, but who can connect because they too have questions about love and desire.
There’s that chapter in the book where we get a glimpse of what Echo is learning from Orly, like not to pull a certain client’s hair because he has hair plugs. In it, there are a few lines describing how a client comes to Orly with a desire, but he can’t tell her what it is. She needs specifics, and has to draw the specifics out of him. In this scenario, and thinking about my relationship to my early readers, I think I’m the client looking to make a certain kind of connection.
How do you work with reader feedback?
Rumpus: I’ve had similar experiences to what you’re describing, where readers have pushed me to think more deeply or critically about an aspect of a character which to me feels intuitive. Sometimes those questions reveal my own blind spots. For example, my impulse when faced directly with conflict is often to take a conciliatory tone, and that tendency creeps into my fiction too. I’ve had readers say, “Why isn’t this character more angry here?” and I’ve had to work to confront that emotion, even in a situation I myself invented.
Vogel: This really resonates with me, especially the blind spots. I tend towards a narrative of hope and resolution, when sometimes it’s better to sit with discomfort and pain. It’s a fine balance with characters, isn’t it: including enough to have a well-shaped character, and leaving enough space for the reader to discover the character for themselves?
What you say about rage and appeasement resonates, too. I have a tendency to turn everything on myself: to shut down, to go quiet. Echo has that tendency also, and in early drafts I had to knock down a few of my own walls, at least on the page, and examine why her response to so many things is to go limp, to be acted upon, to act in response to the world around her. This might be where her name came from: Echo.
Photograph of Saskia Vogel © Fette Sans.