Henry Flesh's Massage

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Massage by Henry Flesh Akashic Books,384 pages, $15.95 When I read a blurb aboutHenry Flesh's Massage saying it was about this erotic masseur, Randy, involvedin a violent, sadomasochistic relationship with this rich older guy, Graham,who has AIDS... I thought cool! I've mostly been reading Goodnight Moonand Babar books, so it was refreshing to read a real nitty-gritty book. It iscool too that the book is from Akashic, founded by Girls Against Boys bass-playerJohnny Temple. I called Flesh at his East Village apartment last week. What inspired you towrite Massage? The initial idea for thebook came to me during dinner with a friend who was dying of AIDS. He told meabout a dancer he knew who also worked as an erotic masseur. I later met andbecame friendly with this person, and as I got to know him better, was struckby the matter-of-fact attitude he took toward his profession. It was like aclient would call him and he would send his boyfriend away from their apartmentfor an hour, then when it was over his boyfriend would come back. I startedwondering what it would be like if his world came into contact with the worldof certain people I knew in the literary community, which did not seem at allunlikely. It was then that I began writing Massage. Did you do any of yourown research?that is, did you hire any hookers? I've been with prostitutesa few times, in Morocco, also in New York City during a period when I was feelingparticularly depressed and lonely. I found that these encounters only made mydepression worse, and I don't think that I would do it again. AlthoughI took these experiences into account while writing Massage, I was moreinfluenced 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 Angelesonce or twice a month while I was living with him. The other was a woman I shareda flat with in London during the 70s, who was both a prostitute and a groupie. Why did you decide tobring AIDS into Massage? In that the book is setin the mid-90s and involves a great deal of sex, much of it unsafe, I don'tknow how I could have avoided it. AIDS was omnipresent then, as it is today. It was strange that younever called AIDS by its real name. Instead, you referred to it as "thesweetness." Where did you come up with that? It was a term a boyfriendI was seeing at the time I was writing Massage used. The first time hesaid it to me, I knew it had to be in the book. Actually, he's the onlyperson I've ever known who's used it, and I don't know wherehe picked it up. He was sort of a club kid, though, and I've always suspectedthat he might have heard it in some club he frequented. I've read some pressthat referred to Massage as a risky, even dangerous book, and you toldme some people have hinted that it might be taken as un-p.c. Too much gay stuff I readnow?and Dennis Cooper's books are certainly an exception to this?seemtoo "nice." I mean, all the characters in them seem to be white, middle-classclones, and they're all so supportive toward each other, not bitchy oranything. It all seems rather party-line, completely bourgeois, like this isthe way the gay establishment?and I'd say that most gay book editorsare a part of this establishment?wants us to appear to the world. It doesn'tmirror at all the way I see things out there. I mean, a lot of us are reallyfucked up, just the way a lot of people in society in general are. Some gaysappear 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 whatthey imagine we do. The very idea of anal sex revolts some straight men. It'slike you say that you'd die if your family read any of the stuff you writeabout s&m or gay sex. It's a message we get from the time we'rereally young, that what we're feeling and desiring is somehow wrong. It'sinevitable 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-hatredturned outward." But you don't actually see it discussed much in thegay press. That's what I mean when I say that Massage is not exactlyp.c. I know a lot of younggay guys are having unsafe sex. They figure the worst thing is they'lljust have to pop more pills if they get sick. What do you think about the romanceand thrill-seeking some dudes are doing in this way? This makes me very, verysad. It's also unbelievably stupid. Haven't we been told a milliontimes 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 subconsciousdesire to punish themselves for desires that they've been taught from childhoodare wrong. What has been the responseto the book in the gay community? Do you think the mainstream literary worldmight write it off as a "queer book," and are you concerned aboutthat? Since the book will notbe 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'tso 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 tomy implied criticism of aspects of the gay world. But I didn't want thebook to be marketed only to gays, for the publisher to use the niche-marketingsort of thing that has had such a terrible effect on mainstream book publishingtoday. I mean, if they were writing now, people like Genet, Burroughs and TennesseeWilliams would probably be marketed as "queer writers," and I findthat kind of shit absurd. Writing's about so much more than sexual preference. Fortunately, the reactionI've had to Massage thus far, from both gays and straights, hasbeen gratifyingly positive. I'm hoping that others are getting as tiredas I am of that whole p.c., party-line thing. And I feel extremely fortunatein 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 toput s&m in your book? I wouldn't describethe relationship between Randy and Graham as, strictly speaking, s&m, thedynamic of which has always appeared to me rather formal and extremely ritualisticin 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, arisingfrom the traumas both of them have experienced in their lives. Are you into s&m? No, although, I think, manyof the relationships I've had have involved a good deal of emotional masochismon my part. Talk about Randy andGraham's sadomasochistic behavior. Why did you decide to show the traumaof their pasts in this way? This was no conscious decisionon my part?it was just something that seemed to emerge naturally, as anintrinsic part of the characters as I developed them. Their sadomasochism hasa lot to do with class and power, with Graham being wealthy and famous, someoneRandy looks up to. Graham uses this in his domination. I mean, he's thejohn, the one with the cash. How do you know DennisCooper? Is he an influence? I met Dennis a few timesin the late 80s and early 90s, because he was a friend of some people I wasfriendly with at the time, but I never really knew him well. Although I admirehis writing a great deal, I don't think he has had a major influence onmy work. He seems to come from a more minimalist school than I do, one thatincludes such French writers as Marguerite Duras and Alain Robbe-Grillet. I'ma big fan of 19th-century English and French novels myself, people like ThomasHardy, Dickens, Thackeray, Zola, Stendhal, Balzac, and I deliberately structuredMassage like some of these works. I thought it'd be interestingto do a 19th-century sort of thing in a graphic way and on an unorthodox, 20th-centurysort of topic... My all-time favorite is Henry James, particularly The Portraitof a Lady and The Wings of the Dove?although I hate the filmsmade from them. To me, Paul Bowles is the greatest fiction writer of the 20thcentury. Of the younger, more contemporary writers, I like Mary Gaitskill alot. 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 betweentheir houses. Altogether, counting step- and half-siblings, I had 15 brothersand sisters. I went to this awful boys' prep school in Connecticut whenI was 15, then to Yale. By that time, I think I'd had enough of the wholepreppy world. Then again, maybe I was just sick of gothic architecture. At anyrate, 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 realizeyou were gay? I've been attractedto men for as long as I can remember, like from well before I was five. I didn'tknow, though, what this meant. I mean, I didn't even know what a homosexualwas. Then, when I was about 10, I was with my grandparents and read a film reviewof a British movie about Oscar Wilde that had just opened. The reviewer talkedabout Wilde's trial and about his being gay, and I realized that was whatI was. But it wasn't something I wanted to admit, and I struggled withthis for years. One night when I was around 12, just before falling asleep,I remember saying to myself, "I'm a homosexual," or somethinglike that. In the morning, I again tried to deny this, and went through severalmore 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 brothersand 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 hopedthat it wasn't true. When I came out, my stepmother was very gentle andkind, particularly for that time, 1966. But my real mother never, ever talkedabout it. And I think that it was extremely difficult for my father, comingas he does from a more conservative, rather macho generation. It undoubtedlycaused some strain in our relationship, although we never discussed it much.Recently, however, since he's read Massage, I think we've cometo a much better understanding and have grown closer. I feel very good aboutthe way things now stand with my family. What did your dad thinkabout the book? I mean, I would die if anyone in my family read any of the stuffI wrote that has s&m in it or gay sex, even just sex. If he was weirdedout before, how did reading it make him closer to you or understand better? He didn't like it atall?in fact, I'd have to say that he was appalled by it?and Iwas hurt at first. But then thinking about it, I realized it was kind of greatthat he had, in fact, read it, and then we discussed it, and I felt really goodabout that. It seemed like he'd come a long way?as I had in even beingable to show it to him. How did you get involvedwith Akashic? Were you into Girls Against Boys? A friend of mine, GabrielleDanchick, is Akashic's editor, and she suggested that I submit the manuscriptto them. I'll always be grateful to her for that advice, seeing how fantasticAkashic has been as a publisher. Although I'd been around a lot of musiciansfor most of my life, I do not really follow the music scene that closely. I'dknown about Girls Against Boys, but had not actually heard their music untilafter 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 movieof Massage, how would you cast it? It would be hard for meto 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 lotof 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.

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