Interview by Angela Tavares
I found Benji Bright doing what I usually do: poking around on the Internet when I should be doing other things. His new book, Candid, was featured on one of my favorite websites, Queer Young Cowboys, and since I’m a fan of indie publishing and most things queer, and completely smitten with the book’s trailer, I bought both a paper and e-copy.
Fast forward a couple days or so, and I knew this interview had to happen. I loved Benji’s voice in Candid and the way he writes sex, the way it turns me on in a different way. His word choice, scenarios, and descriptions, they’re sexy and slow, like the most tantalizing strip tease, and you keep reading because you want more. You keep reading because you want to see it all.
Do you remember the title of the first story you read that turned you on? Do you remember where you were and what you did next? (Oh, that might have sounded a little sleazy, right? But I swear it’s not meant to be!)
Benji: I think the first story that turned me on was a Christopher Pike book called Black Blood (Last Vampire, Book 2). There are some references to two characters being lovers and a post-coital scene, if I remember correctly.
I was totally entranced by that. Lovers. It seemed like the author included the reference for me personally. Afterward, I wrote a story of my own about a vampire woman and her lover fighting “Lodos Robots” sent from some anti-vampire source. It wasn’t very sexy, admittedly, and I got caught up in a subway fight scene that never worked out. I guess I learned early that writers are easily distracted creatures.
As to where I was? Probably hiding under a coffee table in my family first apartment. I was a weird kid.
I like to be open and honest and all that, so I think it’s important for people to know that you’re one of my new favorite writers. Do you remember the first person or people who said to you, “Benji, you seriously know how to write sex”?
First of all, thank you!
I started writing a novel in high school called A Future in Glass. I recently started rereading it, and I think it’s terrible, but it was my first attempt at writing a long story, something with gay characters and sex. I remember bringing it to my friends at school and vibrating in place while I waited for them to thumb through it. One of my friends declared, as soon as she’d finished it, that I should give her 5% (or was it 10%?) of all future novel earnings. Technically, I haven’t written a novel yet, so I think legally I don’t have to pay her.
But that was my first brush with erotic content, and I got the taste for it. One of the things I like about erotica is that the people who read it are vocal about it. They’re the kind of people who let you know when they’ve read something that’s got them hot. I love that. I like to be the one facilitating any sort of erotic discovery. It’s an amazing feeling.
Let me ask you this: Do you write alone, or do you have a community/group you work with for critique or what have you? Do you write every day?
Generally, I write alone, but I consider myself a product of the undergrad workshop atmosphere. I’m big on self-revision (what writer that consistently puts out work manages not to be?), and one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever gotten from a writing instructor is to read your work aloud. It reveals things to you that you might not expect. I have one or two readers who I can rely on for feedback, but it can be surprisingly difficult to get my friends to critique my smut. Who knew?
I know there are places to go online, but I’ve been too lazy or too busy to explore that. As for writing daily, that’s my aspiration. But sometimes, in the words of Aimee Mann, “you paint a lovely picture, but reality intrudes.” On the days that I don’t write, I spend time actively planning what my next project will be. I have a spreadsheet where I keep track of my submissions, and I try to add to it diligently. Does that even remotely answer the question? I should be clear: I don’t write every day. I should, but even when I don’t, I’m planning to write. Somehow I get things done this way. Haha.
Richard Siken for writing the book of poetry Crush, which totally changed how I felt poetry could discuss sexuality. Johnny Murdoc, who put Candid out under Queer Young Cowboys, but is also an amazing writer of dirty fiction. Joe Abercrombie, who has nothing to do with gay smut, but writes characters so full of flaws, contradictions, and surprising moments that you can’t help but admire his work. John Rechy whose Sexual Outlaws was probably the book that most inspired me to write erotica seriously. And, finally, Brian K. Vaughn (the writer) and Fiona Staples (the artist) who put together Saga, a comic series that is one of the most honest and fun things I’ve read in ages.
It’s a grab bag, I know.
Candid contains 10 fictional interviews with mostly queer men from seriously all different walks of life. How did your “subjects” come to you? I’d imagine it would have been a long process to create each and every one of them, but please tell me I’m wrong if I am.
A lot of the subjects from Candid come from my own experiences, anxieties, fantasies, and those of people I’ve known. I’ve referred to the project in the past as a kind of exorcism, as in putting all of the voices in your head on paper. I knew that Candid would be too niche and too short and too personal to be any definitive survey of whom the contemporary gay male is, so I didn’t worry about that. I wrote (what I hoped was) realistic dialogue for people who were already a part of me in some way. So, it was a fairly quick process. All I had to do was figure out who was speaking and let them speak. I did try to balance sex and sentiment so that no particular character came off like agitprop with a ten-inch dick.
I will say that the editing was harder. I read every line of the novella aloud multiple times to see if it held up to a voice, if it had a natural cadence. I don’t know if I was totally successful, but I was impressed when I watched (listened to?) the trailer that Johnny Murdoc made. It sounded like people talking, so I guess I did my job.
I want to ask you about Dennis Cooper’s The Sluts and whether or not it influenced the format of your book. It’s similar, I think, in the way it captures these men in a moment of time, in sort of a “full-confessional” way.
That’s funny, actually. I was going to mention Dennis Cooper in my list of writing heroes, but then I hedged. I’m not sure why. I think, ultimately, that the first work I read by Dennis Cooper (Frisk) and subsequent reads speak to the darkness behind sexual impulses, which my writing largely skirts. I don’t mean to suggest that my writing is uniformly rosy, but maybe it has a few less thorns. I guess I might as well take this opportunity to formally say that Dennis Cooper is one of my writing heroes, whether I write like him or not. His work stays with you, haunts you. That’s a skill (talent?) worthy of praise.
It was refreshing—I think that’s the best word—to find moments of serious fucking introspection on the topic of sex spoken by your characters, especially in a novella that’s focused on the retelling of sexual encounters that’s meant to make your readers want to get off. I’m thinking specifically of lines like these, courtesy of your interviewer in the second interview: “Maybe it helps if you think of sex as a protected space, an area of your life without judgment. That it’s something primal and ancient that you belong to as much as it belongs to you.” From my experience with erotica, this is atypical dialogue, and it’s awesome. How important was it for you to create these men—some of them, anyway—that could emphasize the importance of connected sex (dare I say healing sex?), ones without the typical “smut” or gay-erotic-lit focus of chiseled chin, ripped abs, gaping hole?
I wanted to create something with characters who had concerns. As much as I love sex (and I definitely do), I struggle with aspects of it. Should I be paying more attention? Should I be more vocal about what I like? Is my ass too small? Where should I put my glasses if this guy doesn’t have a nightstand? Why doesn’t this guy have a nightstand? Should you fuck somebody who doesn’t have a nightstand?
I wanted to write characters who had issues. The idea of connected sex was one of them. There’s the importance of being present during sex, but there’s also another character who totally rejects that notion and equates being mentally elsewhere during sex to channel-surfing or tuning into a different wavelength. There’s a married character who has a dynamic relationship with his partner and others who decry the entire institution.
I absolutely needed my characters to be able to talk about these things. I settled on the title Candid because I wanted to say some real things. Sprinkle a little deeper thinking in with all the sex.
What do you do when you’re not writing smut? When you’re not writing smut, how much do you miss writing smut?
For now, I work as a server in a restaurant where a decent amount of the staff has read my book. So, basically, they know I’m a pervert, which is fine by me. I also write poetry and attempt to teach myself different skills on a revolving basis (CSS, Adobe InDesign, Photoshop, drawing, French, game-making).
When I’m not writing smut, I miss the response I get from writing smut. I think there’s something really honest and great about someone telling you that they read some erotica you wrote and it really got them going. There’s a certain amount of bullshit that you’ve skipped by just having that conversation. I miss that a lot when I stay away from smut for too long.
This is where you get to say something unforgettable. Have at it!
Dear person reading this,
If you didn’t know me before you read this interview, then hi, I’m Ben. I’m usually sketchy about strangers giving me advice, so I’ll understand if you brush off this next thing I’m about to say.
You are the best sexual partner you’re ever going to have, so be nice to yourself. Don’t beat yourself up about what turns you on. Don’t force yourself to fall in line with any narrow view of sexuality. Be nice to yourself.