Reposting a 2009 interview I conducted with my great friend Elva Maxine Beach, author of Neurotica.
One reviewer had this to say about Elva Maxine Beach’s story cycle, NEUROTICA:
Beach has written a book that will have readers wanting to take their clothes off one minute, squirming with discomfort the next, then being struck by the sadness of humanity. Then wanting to strip again. She covers the many shades of sex, not just the obvious.
I can’t say it any better than that. Recently I caught up with my good friend and former LSU MFA cohort Maxine and asked her a few questions about the book, writing, and other things.
SHORY: So how did NEUROTICA come about?
BEACH: After getting a pointless M.F.A. in Creative Writing, I farted around with a couple of short stories and got nowhere. I was blocked and frustrated and kept telling myself, “I made a big mistake. I wasted a lot of time and money on my stupid degree.” MFA programs kill the creative spirit, plus it’s not like I had a whole lot of time to write; I was working full-time during the day and was an adjunct professor at night, and was exhausted by day’s end. That changed when my full-time job turned into a nightmare. I quit the job, was broke, had nothing left to do but teach a class here and there and write my stories. Nobody was reading my work and nobody cared, so I was free to write what I wanted to write about.
I write about sex, because sex has always been my primary interest. I kid you not. Always. Since I was a kid. I used to order books on sex through the mail, hide them from my parents (who would not have approved), and read them in secret. I had books on how women achieve orgasm, Shere Hite’s report on male sexuality, and a book on sensual massage. Yep. I was reading this stuff before I was even 16 years old. Anyway, my interest is really in how women deal with the mixed signals we’re fed about our sexuality. The signals make most of us crazy, insecure, prudes or sluts. We get stuck in a Madonna-whore paradigm, and this conflict interests me, so I wrote all these stories and put them together and made a book. NEUROTICA.
SHORY: Yeah, some people claim to be interested in comics, or fancy coffee, or politics, or NASCAR, but that’s just to have something to do when they’re not having sex, right? Or is that just men? But that’s one of the points of your book, isn’t it? Hey, I’m occasionally perceptive.
BEACH: Men are so full of themselves, aren’t they? Wow! You think you’re being perceptive because you had a little itty bitty epiphany that perhaps women like sex, too. Awww…if I were in the same room as you, I’d pat your little head. But wait. You don’t like to be touched. Sorry.
SHORY: I’m glad you remember that. Now your publisher, New Belleville, a new press out of Austin, is very supportive and really pushing your book, whereas many other publishers both big and small just can’t seem to be bothered, unless you’re Stephen King or some pretty young thing who graduated from Sarah Lawrence College. Wait, you didn’t graduate from Sarah Lawrence, did you?
BEACH: No, unfortunately, I was born into a working-class family and thus did not benefit from an entitled life. No fancy shmancy Sarah Lawrence for me. But are you suggesting I’m pretty and young? Sweet!
SHORY: So, your publisher . . .
BEACH: Yeah, my publisher. He’s a very cool guy. He’s French actually. And, sometimes he lets his beard get really long. And he has a dog named Brutus. Until last year, I had a cat named Bluto. Brutus and Bluto are basically the same character from the Popeye the Sailor Man cartoons, right. So, maybe that’s why my publisher supports me as much as he does. We’re simpatico.
SHORY: I’ve never known you to have problem saying what you think. But was it hard to write a book like this? I can’t bear to write a non-ironic sex scene.
BEACH: I love saying the words “sucking and fucking” because those words make me giggle, and you know me, I love to laugh. So, no, it wasn’t hard to write non-ironic sex scenes because sex makes me laugh, and in its very nature is ironic, don’t you think? We meet someone we’re attracted to, want to jump his or her bones, expect fireworks and violins, and what we get is big bellies, hairy backs, stretch marks and awkwardness. That’s funny. So is the word kinky.
Did I ever tell you about this time two years ago when I sprained my ankle while having sex for this first time with this dude I met online? That’s right. It’s not like we were doing anything out of the ordinary, just your standard suck and fuck, and boom, just like that, I sprained my ankle. We had to stop what we were doing, and the dude was sweet (we’re still friends) and put ice on my ankle and nursed me through the night. But after that he was scared to have sex with me. It was humiliating. The only way it could have been worse is if I had sprained my ankle while masturbating.
SHORY: Tell me about your recent performance. Once again I have to apologize for not attending, but I’m a boring, miserable old bastard who doesn’t go out during the week.
BEACH: I think you’re referring to the performance I did at The Way Out Club on December 18. The Way Out Club is this groovy, “in the hood,” club tailor made for freaks and punks and outsiders. I’m friends with the owners, Bob and Sherri (super cool people), and so when I moved back to The Lou I started reconnecting with old friends (I lived here in the 80’s), and the next thing you know we’re putting on this crazy performance piece with burlesque dancers and musicians.
SHORY: And a gimp?
BEACH: I wanted a gimp for the show. So I went to this sex shop and I asked the owner if he knew of a gimp who is into public humiliation because I’m putting on a show in December. And the owner gave me a name and number of a man who would probably be willing to “model,” but after initially agreeing to perform, the pathetic little son of a bitch backed out. Finding a gimp is not as easy as I’d originally thought it would be. Where oh where have the sissy men gone?
So this dude I dated went ahead and let me whip him on stage since I was whining about not being able to find a gimp.
The show was a surprising success considering there was an ice storm that night. The DT’s played with special guest Suzie Gilbert. We had three burlesque girls dance, too. I was the only reader.
I read three poems “Sissy,” “Bend Over Boyfriend,” and “Cold Bedsheets.” None of which are in Neurotica. Then I read the short stories “He’s Just One More” and “Can I Get a Hallelujah?”
I whipped my pet on stage and made him kneel while I read “Sissy,” an abusive hateful love poem about falling for a mommy’s boy. After releasing my pet, I read “Bend Over Boyfriend” which was dedicated to one of the bar owners, Bob.
It was raucous and after the intermission was a bit out of control. The audience was wound up. Men jumped on stage to be whipped, one audience member humped the burlesque girls’ teddy bear. Shear insanity. I quieted the crowd down with threats and teases and finished off with a short story.
The DT’s and Susie Gilbert backed up the mayhem with loveliness and beauty.
Here’s some video.
SHORY: Clearly I missed out. How about your students? What do they think about your writing, or are they as oblivious to their professors’ work as you and I were?
BEACH: I try to keep my perversity out of the classroom. I guess you could say I have two conflicting personas. The good citizen professor and the debauched erotica writer (although my work is more literary than erotic). But, once my students stumble upon my work, they’re usually intrigued. While teaching at Austin Community College I discovered, through the grapevine, that students referred to me as the sex writer teacher. Ah ha! No wonder my classes filled each semester and my students insisted on interpreting everything we read in sexual terms. Most of my students are oblivious, though. To most I’m just the English teacher who tortures them with homework and reading and who insists they think their own thoughts. How dare I?
SHORY: Not only were you frank about sexuality but you also laid bare your protagonist’s psyche. How hard was it to get both the mental and physical onto the page?
BEACH: Tough. Really tough. While I was working on the book, I had a creative writing student who was gay, but who preferred to keep this secret from his classmates. Well, his stories were suffering as a result. His work fell just short of good and I suspected this had to do with his unwillingness to deal with truth, both in himself and on the page. I kept at this student, lecturing, advising, prompting, until I had a small epiphany. How could I teach my students the importance of emotional truth unless I, too, struggled with it? So, I changed my approach to my own work. It took courage, but I splayed myself open and then bled on the page — it was a fictional bleeding, but emotional truth is emotional truth.
You call it the mental (the neurosis) and the physical (the erotic), but what is happening in the work is an emotional glue between the two. You know, mind, body AND spirit (in this case emotion).
Or maybe I’m just bullshitting and had no awareness of what I was doing. Maybe everything just came together as it should without thinking.
SHORY: So where did you turn for inspiration during the writing?
BEACH: Basically, I was writing to keep my sanity. I was broke, underemployed, alone, and very very insecure, and making art out of my life was my savior. Otherwise, I think I may have ended up in a mental institution. Seriously. I’m not kidding.
As far as looking to other writers for inspiration, well, actually, I looked to a painter — Frida Kahlo. Her life journey and her strength and her incredible personal art gives me courage to examine myself, my life, and mold it into art. Kahlo was courageous. I want to be courageous, too. But it’s scary putting one’s self out there. And thrilling. And funny. Sometimes, I feel like a trickster.
I found other writers helpful. Anaïs Nin, Charles Bukowski, Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, Henry Miller and D.H. Lawrence all write about the erotic and/or the visceral. They definitely influenced me. Frida Kahlo inspired me and her story gave me the courage to write deeply personal stuff. The writers, well, they teach me how to write.
My favorite writers are Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin. I just finished reading Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, which I’ve read about ten times now. And, I also just finished Cormac McCarthy’s latest novel The Road.
You know, I read too much. Buddha suggested we read less and spend more time contemplating what we have read.
SHORY: You already had some choice words to say about M.F.A. programs, but did your LSU experience help you at all? Did you find yourself using techniques you learned there, and/or fighting against some of the training? Personally, I have a lot of voices in my head from both LSU and Auburn, some of them helpful, some very unhelpful, and it’s a constant struggle to deal with them.
BEACH: I don’t regret pursuing my M.F.A., because I did learn more about craft and form, I met some very cool people (like you!), and with my degree I can teach college-level writing, but the M.F.A. program did mess with my head.
For about three years after I finished graduate school I couldn’t write. Not a lick. The workshops had strengthened my inner critic to the point I felt like a hack and failure every single time I attempted to write a poem or a story. And, no matter how hard I tried to shut her out, the inner critic refused to shut the fuck up.
It took about three years after finishing the program before I realized that I didn’t give a shit about writing “literature” or pleasing the academics. I also had to accept that I may never ever make a living writing stories and poems, that no one really cares, that there are too many of us hacks out there to begin with, and if I want to write, so be it. I would write. Without expectations. Without trying to be brilliant. I like to write, I was losing my mind because my life was falling apart, and writing was my refuge. So I wrote. All that crap we learned in graduate school was finally digested and purged. The good stuff nourished, the bad stuff was flushed.
Graduate school is like eating meat: meat takes forever to digest and so it basically rots inside your bowels for a long long time before you get the usable stuff. Then you take a nice long shit. And you’re good to go.
SHORY: Though you have a lot to say about female (and male) sexuality, I didn’t see the book as an angry screed; your protagonist is hardly an all-innocent victim, and her boyfriends/sexual partners, while often not the best people in the world, don’t come across as two-dimensional. Who do you see as the primary audience for Neurotica? What would you want men and women to take away from it?
BEACH: Yeah, if my narrator had come off as a whiny victim gal, I would have considered my work a failure. And, I didn’t want the dudes in the stories to come off as bad guys — just real, regular dudes, all with their own hang ups and obstacles. Really, the stories are all about the search for love in all of its insanity and insecurity and fear. Contemporary dating, hanging, playing is convoluted and honestly, people do their best with what they have, while trying to protect their intrigrity, and I wanted to convey this messy aspect of human nature. My original audience was women, but men seem to be digging the book, too, and not just because there’s lots of unabashed sex. I think men are appreciative that this book is a woman’s perspective that doesn’t practice good ole fashioned ball busting.
You know, in my real life, I love my lovers. I love the men who come in and out of my life and often feel blessed to have both amazing male friends and lovers. A friend of mine told me recently that she thinks it’s my overflowing capacity for love that makes me so cool. I try to hide the fact that I’m a huge softie, but I am. And, because I genuinely love the men in my life, I want to respect that, not bash them.
SHORY: Where do you go next with your writing?
BEACH: I have a couple of ideas — but basically, I want to keep writing poems and stories. My goal is to do more performance. I’ve always loved theater and since I’m a terrible actor but a damn good reader, I like combining readings with performance. Sort of like Spalding Gray or Laurie Anderson or Sarah Silverman (well, she’s a comedian, but you get the idea and I needed a more contemporary reference since the young un’s have no idea who Gray or Anderson are).
SHORY: What advice would you give aspiring writers? Run screaming to the nearest MBA program?
BEACH: It’s the same old advice: read and write. I’m dumbfounded by my writing students who don’t read and who actually don’t spend much time writing. They think their ideas should carry them. Ummmm…nope. Doesn’t work that way. As you know, writing takes practice, struggle, discipline, and passion — the good idea is helpful, but doesn’t mean squat if it can’t be executed. I use the playing guitar metaphor a lot in class: You own a guitar, but you never practice. Nor do you listen to a variety of music. But you harbor rock star dreams. Okay. It’s fine to dream, but what are you thinking? Do you think one day you’re just going to pick up the guitar and miraculously play like Jimi Hendrix?
My other advice is to NOT pursue writing as a profession. Find a more lucrative profession. Be a lawyer. Or an accountant. Or a nurse. At least those occupations will give you something to write about.
SHORY: You recently moved from Austin, which I’m told has a thriving literary and music and every other type of scene, to St. Louis, which, well, I don’t know. Are there scenes in St. Louis?
BEACH: A scene…hmmm…Okay, so Austin has this slogan: Keep Austin Weird. But the true freaks, I mean the freaky freakazoid freaks, are in St. Louis. It’s a dark city. The other night I was at this bar flirting with this dude who looked like your standard ex-frat, jock, country music listening type dude, and he grabbed my wrists and studied my fingers real bizarre like, and I said, “What the hell?” and he answered, “I’m a freelance phlebotomist.” I looked at his hands and noticed long fingernails filed into points and manicured with clear polish. After talking to him for a few more minutes I realized: He thinks he is a fucking VAMPIRE (well, there are no such things, but you know what I mean). Yeah. Folks are pretty darn strange here in the Lou. What kind of nickname is that anyway? The Lou?
SHORY: Do you like the provel cheese? I’m very fond of it.
BEACH: My favorite cheese is feta.
Elva Maxine Beach’s NEUROTICA is available at Amazon.com.