Nikki Gemmell had hoped to anonymously explore issues of sex, identity and fulfilment in her latest book. She originally wanted to publish her frank novel about sex inside and outside a marriage anonymously but was unmasked as its author almost as soon as she had signed a publishing contract. She was reduced to tears on ABC radio this week when her motives for that anonymity were questioned; and, to add insult to injury, her luggage was lost during her domestic flight to Melbourne, leaving her with only the clothes she had on. But she denied that it had been a cynical commercial move. She had wanted to write "scrupulously honestly about sex in marriage and beyond it"under her own name but found it impossible.
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Goodness no. When I think of porn I think of something mechanical, bleak, unreal, ugly, and with an utter absence of tenderness. Porn strips sex of mystery, of reverence and transcendence.
So Bride , in a way, is the opposite of pornography. I hoped to write a book that was startlingly real-with all the messiness and magic of life as we know it. Did any of any of the controversy bother you? When the book came out I tried to stick to the original intention as much as possible, so I have no idea what a lot of the commentators have said. I hoped that was where the power of the book lay. They get it. The title of the novel and its unnamed protagonist, as well as your intention to publish it anonymously, suggest that, for you, anonymity in sexual matters allows for more authenticity.
Do you think that anonymity is a sign of liberation or a symptom of repression? Anonymity is a sign of liberation. She speculated it was the reason their marriage worked. What relationship could survive the shock of absolute candour? But is Sackville-West right, then? Is the cargo of secrets underneath that iceberg indispensable in relationships, as it is for your bride? The latter is rarely revealed.
With Bride I wanted to strip bare the secret life of an everyday woman, and be utterly ruthless about that. I wanted to reveal the complex underbelly of her sexuality, in all its beauty and ugliness. Why is it still so hard for some women, basking in the glow of so many feminist advances, to be more candid about sex? In The Bride Stripped Bare, I wanted to say all those things we may think but never say; especially to our lovers. Afraid of too much honesty, of showing too much vulnerability.
And afraid of hurting people close to me. But I was judging the dishonesty in my own life most of all. The aim was to be as merciless in print as a Chuck Close painting or a Ron Mueck sculpture-but as far as I know, those artists do not often turn their extremely critical eye upon themselves. Now I know why. But when the idea of anonymity came to me, everything clicked. I could be ridiculously honest.
It felt wonderful, powerful; an enormous relief. A survey last year in the Journal of Sex Research found women lied more often than men about sex-and their answers changed dramatically when they believed they were answering anonymously.
The respondents were extremely sensitive to social expectations about how they were meant to behave. Anonymity was liberating for them, as it was for me.
When I sat at my writing desk I entered this strange, liberating psychological state of secrecy: it was as if I was stepping out my everyday self and becoming someone much more confident and in control.
I was a very new mother at the time and had lost my professional confidence. The plan was to adopt out this new baby in my life, to absolve myself from caring. I wrote Bride in a kind of trance of exhilaration and glee-it felt incredibly empowering to finally tell the truth. The desire to be veiled still possesses them.
It is still difficult to talk about it publicly, eighteen months after being unmasked. Its tone is boldly sexual, its honesty shocking, and its authorship disputed. Germaine Greer believes it was written by a man close to his mother; others say it was by an anonymous housewife. I choose to believe the latter, and loved the idea of a twenty-first-century housewife also writing a secret book under the nose of her husband. Saying all those things she may think but never say-even in this sexually liberated day and age.
What were you aiming for by having the bride self-consciously decide that she must respond to it? I first read about it in The Times, in an article speculating on the nature of its anonymity. My book, too, will be written by an anonymous housewife. The author could only have written these charged, highly subversive sexual declarations in secret.
My protagonist eventually finds a way of breaking out, of feeling fully alive and empowered and in control. Another reason for the anonymity was that I wanted The Bride Stripped Bare to be about every woman and any woman in a sense.
Is this what she really thinks? I wanted this to be unflinchingly honest about some of the murkier aspects of womanhood, the raw, visceral reality under the seemingly demure exterior. Women do not talk about it with other women, let alone to male partners. The intrigue lies in the glimpses behind the masks we all wear in our public lives.
And we never get closer to the truth of our dark, vulnerable, messy selves than with sex. Perhaps if I was alone, without family around me who I deeply care about, it would have been easier. The most shocking thing about Bride is its honesty-and it is the thing that readers respond to the most. I loved the idea of a man who was totally malleable; who would do exactly what a woman wanted, without any preconceived notions of what makes for glorious sex.
Robinson territory. I wanted something a little more unusual. She is pushed into illicit sex through extreme pressures. It is a way of reclaiming something of herself, for herself.
There is a moral core to Bride. My protagonist respects the sanctity of monogamy and is deeply disturbed by the events that unfold in the book. It is the love between a husband and wife that I was most interested in, with all the compromises inherent within that particular relationship, all the mess.
Nothing is clean, nothing straightforward, but there can be a tenacious love nonetheless. Do we? And yet this is something men assume is a key erogenous zone for all women, and always make a beeline for. Where do these sexual myths come from, and why do women so willingly perpetuate them? Some commented on the sounds men made as they were coming.
This chapter in particular was meant to be a cheeky kind of instruction manual for men. To all husbands. Yet Houellebecq, whose name has come up in discussions of Bride , writes about sexuality in a very clinical manner.
Your novel is far less melancholic, or at any rate it does not push out a heavy message of sociological seriousness, like his. My novel is all heart! So who are your literary influences, then? Is that a fair comparison? I dreamt of something extremely short, elegant and spare.
But my books never end up the way I initially envisage them, no matter how much I try to corral them during the writing process. They always assume a life of their own, as Bride did very much as I was working on it. She just slipped away from me. Your protagonist-a writer like you-assigns a pivotal role to the ability of words to arouse.
Why are they so important in a story like this? I wanted the reading of the book to be a sensual experience. But in a way I wanted the reader to be lulled into a false sense of security by the beauty and the sensuality of the whole package-and then be jarred by some extremely raw truths. I love the element of surprise in writing. Why the second-person narrative?
A critic in The Independent wrote that this narrative voice turns your protagonist into an object and, at the same time, forces the reader into the frame. Why did you use this narrative point of view? I was fascinated by that particular tense and wanted to give it a go. I loved the way the second-person tense implies intimacy and yet also distance.
The protagonist is recording events as they witness them, but also commenting upon them objectively. Is this a post-feminist book in its vindication of marriage and family? I was fascinated by the shortcomings of feminism. I consider myself a feminist and yet I still hanker, deeply, for the age-old stereotypes of mother, wife, nester-and that puts me in an odd position.
Women, particularly older feminists, have to be more embracing of the choices some younger women are making. We just have to value each other.
The Bride Stripped Bare (novel)
The Bride Stripped Bare