Queen of erotic lit­er­a­ture

Australia’s queen of erotic lit­er­a­ture sees sex all around her. And, she says, Bris­bane is not as con­ser­va­tive as many might think.

The Courier-Mail - QWeekend - - UPFRONT - story MATTHEW CON­DON POR­TRAIT David Kelly

Au­thor Krissy Kneen sees sex in all its per­mu­ta­tions ev­ery­where she looks

It’s around noon on a quiet Bris­bane Fri­day when au­thor Krissy Kneen asks me to feel the Bliss Bul­let. “This is one of my favourites,” she says, hand­ing me what looks like an elon­gated lip­stick can­is­ter, ex­cept this is buzzing, pos­i­tively alive, strain­ing at the leash with elec­tric­ity, and the bul­let is ap­plied to, ahem, a part of the fe­male anatomy that is well south of the tra­di­tional bouche.

As shop­pers in the Myer Cen­tre, in the heart of the CBD, stroll past out­side look­ing for lunch, a pair of shoes, a new cardi­gan for win­ter, we’re here within Honey Bird­ette, the “sen­su­al­ity bou­tique” for women, it­self a bio­sphere of lace and leather, bra cups and clips and frills and skin. Not for us a mun­dane trip into town on a sub­ur­ban er­rand. Honey Bird­ette is filled to the gills with things like Sophia Sin black and red sus­pender sets, Voodoo Child thongs (not for the feet, if you please), hot pants, Tie Me plea­sure tape, leather masks and hand­cuffs, and Bour­bon Vanilla Mas­sage Can­dles. This is the sort of place teenage boys might found a new reli­gion around. Or run away from home and ask to re­side in.

I have barely got­ten past the pos­si­bil­i­ties of the Bour­bon Vanilla can­dle – is it for am­bi­ent light­ing, or is it meant to be hot-dripped onto the hu­man body? – when Bris­bane’s Kneen, un­ques­tion­ably the coun­try’s lead­ing writer of erotic lit­er­a­ture and au­thor of just re­leased The Ad­ven­tures of Holly White and the

In­cred­i­ble Sex Ma­chine, leads me to a lit­tle side cav­ern in the store that houses what ap­pear to be strange track-and-field re­lay ba­tons de­signed by aliens – but are, in fact, re­place­ments for the male mem­ber.

There, be­fore us, spotlit like works of art, stands a de­li­cious ar­ray of vi­bra­tors. Kneen – de­scribed by her pub­lish­ers, Text, as “Australia’s genre-bend­ing queen of erot­ica” – points out the king of the Honey Bird­ette jun­gle: The Form 2, her favourite. It re­sem­bles a smooth bunny’s head, sawn off above the eye­brows, leav­ing just two sweet ears pro­trud­ing from the scalp base. “It very proudly re­fuses to be just a pre­tend pe­nis,” she says of the rab­bit, with the af­fec­tion moth­ers ob­serve for a child who has won a spell­ing bee or come first in cross-coun­try. “It is built for women’s plea­sure, not for what men think women’s mas­tur­ba­tion should look like. The pe­nis is fine, but it’s not the best thing. And be­ing wa­ter­proof is prefer­able. A bath is the best place for read­ing, work­ing and play­ing.”

We stare at the Form 2, and I know very soon I’m go­ing to have to leave here and en­ter the streets of the city and join its cit­i­zens wor­ry­ing about pay­ing bills, stressed at work, and rac­ing to catch a bus to their sub­ur­ban homes. I’m head­ing back to Dullsville. But hav­ing found this new world with Kneen, re­plete as it is with a spe­cial lan­guage and its own tex­tures and scents and the pos­si­bil­ity of an ever-im­mi­nent whip crack, I’m not sure I want to go.

KRISSY KNEEN, 46, WAS RAISED IN BLACK­TOWN

in west­ern Syd­ney, in a child­hood home she would later de­scribe, in her mem­oir, Af­fec­tion, as “sex­less”. She was fiercely pro­tected from the world by her mother, Wendy. Books were censored for “adults only” bits, the of­fend­ing tracts cut out with scis­sors. If a cou­ple on tele­vi­sion be­gan kiss­ing, the set was switched off. “There were five in­dus­tri­ous women, and my grand­fa­ther hid­ing in­vis­i­ble in his room,” Krissy wrote. “My grand­mother sat above us like a queen bee and the rest of the women lis­tened and obeyed. My fa­ther was ab­sent.”

Head of the ma­tri­archy was the mys­te­ri­ous Drag­itsa (aka Lotty), artist and maker of papier-mâché mod­els. Out of the blue one evening in the 1980s, the fam­ily won first di­vi­sion Lotto, and Krissy was told they were all mov­ing post haste to Dragonhall. “What is Dragonhall?” the young Krissy asked them. “This is our Dis­ney­land,” her grand­mother said.

Dragonhall – a sort of theme park that dis­played Drag­itsa’s papier-mâché cre­ations – would be built by the fam­ily with their Lotto wind­fall in the small town of Bororen, near Glad­stone, 460km north of Bris­bane. The dream was to cre­ate a world of Euro­pean fairy­tales and Egyptian mythol­ogy. Vis­i­tors would en­joy the de­lights of The Lit­tle Match Girl, Sleep­ing Beauty, Snow White. There would be dinosaurs. And pos­si­bly a small train that fer­ried chil­dren from room to room. (The death of Drag­itsa last year re­sulted in Kneen’s award-win­ning vol­ume of po­etry, Eat­ing My Grand­mother: a grief cy­cle, to be pub­lished next month by the Uni­ver­sity of Queens­land Press.)

All the while, Kneen dreamed of be­com­ing a writer. As she stated in her mem­oir: “By the time I am 40 I will have my first novel pub­lished … I will achieve th­ese goals. If I have not achieved th­ese goals, I will climb to the top of the Story Bridge.”

She left the quixotic Dragonhall be­hind and had a col­lec­tion of erotic short sto­ries, Swallow the Sound, pub­lished in 2007. This was fol­lowed by the crit­i­cally ac­claimed Af­fec­tion (in 2009), the con­tro­ver­sially quasi-porno­graphic novella Trip­tych (2011), and the lit­er­ary novel Steeple­chase (2013).

Kneen set­tled in Bris­bane and stud­ied drama at Queens­land Uni­ver­sity of Tech­nol­ogy, mar­ried screen­writer An­thony Mullins in 2001, and plugged away at her erotic fic­tion while she worked at Avid Reader book­shop at West End, in Bris­bane’s in­ner south. She would, by many years, pre-empt the Fifty

Shades of Grey phe­nom­e­non by blog­ger E.L. James, a tril­ogy of erotic ro­mance nov­els with a healthy lash­ing of sado-masochism that would sell many mil­lions of copies around the world. In­deed, the Fifty Shades nov­els would prove to be the an­tithe­sis of Kneen’s work, which is finely writ­ten and the sort of gen­uine erot­ica that harks back to the greats of the genre.

As Kneen’s body of work grew, her name be­came syn­ony­mous with “naughty” books. Strangers ap­proach her and share their sex­ual cu­riosi­ties, or prob­lems. This short, ami­able woman has by proxy be­come some sort of car­nal Agony Aunt, pulled aside at book events and lit­er­ary fes­ti­vals and quizzed on all mat­ters of the flesh.

And just as the au­thor was ques­tion­ing whether or not she’d dug a hole for her­self with her erotic writ­ing, and whether she should aban­don it for an­other tra­jec­tory, along came the hero­ine of her ex­tra­or­di­nary new sci-fi/erotic novel, the vir­ginal Holly White of Bris­bane, Queens­land, and her jour­ney from in­no­cence to ex­pe­ri­ence. Holly White – whose sex­ual an­tics may send a cold shiver up the spines of ev­ery par­ent of a teenage girl across the na­tion.

WE MEET FOR COF­FEE IN CAFE STRAUSS, DOWN

a nar­row laneway off El­iz­a­beth St, and not far from a sex shop. It is all strangely a lit­tle Euro­pean – the Strauss, the laneway – we could be any­where but Bris­bane. And it may be why Kneen has cho­sen it as her place to write her fic­tions. Here she takes cof­fee and com­poses scenes, from in­ti­mate cop­u­la­tion to writhing or­gies, as a breeze pushes up the lane and the city goes about its busi­ness. She might see strangers at the next ta­ble, dis­robe them in her imag­i­na­tion, and silently trans­port them to a wild sex­ual en­tan­gle­ment in a cramped apart­ment in dis­tant Paris. Her ink has

Sex is a pow­er­ful weapon for good or for evil, and we need to stop think­ing about it as just a force for evil.

Krissy Kneen

barely dried be­fore her un­wit­ting sub­jects have paid their bills and gone. She catches but­ter­flies as they pass, pins them un­der glass, and no­body is the wiser.

Kneen pon­ders Bris­bane, and how it rates as a “sex­ual city”. “We have this ve­neer, this very thin, shiny ve­neer in Bris­bane that’s very eas­ily cracked,” she says. “There’s a mas­sive, deep un­der­belly in Bris­bane. I think it’s re­ally hard to see us as a sex­ual city when you look on the sur­face of Bris­bane. It seems that we’re con­ser­va­tive; it seems that we’re a big coun­try town still, and we have a level of two de­grees of sep­a­ra­tion where every­body knows every­body else. We all have to be po­lite to every­body else be­cause of that. There’s a cer­tain level of con­ser­vatism in our dress and pre­sen­ta­tion, and the way Bris­bane, as a city, presents.

“But we have that kind of his­tory of hav­ing an un­der­belly, and one that runs on sex and vi­o­lence and dan­ger. We’ve got a rab­ble be­neath the po­lite sur­face. That can be a won­der­ful rab­ble or a scary one as well.” She says the city has a flour­ish­ing “swingers” cul­ture, and a healthy polyamorous (lov­ing mul­ti­ple part­ners as op­posed to monogamy) com­mu­nity. “There’s cer­tainly a swingers end of Bris­bane, which I haven’t tapped into per­son­ally, but I’ve heard sto­ries of lots of swingers’ par­ties go­ing on in the outer sub­urbs,” Kneen ob­serves.

“There’s a de­gree of in­ner-city sex­u­al­ity you can still see but it sort of ex­ists one floor above ground level of the [For­ti­tude] Val­ley. There are pock­ets of sex­u­al­ity that we walk past and pre­tend aren’t there but are still there. And there is cer­tainly a very vi­brant polyamorous com­mu­nity in Bris­bane. There are mee­tups for bi­sex­ual women that are hap­pen­ing reg­u­larly. There’s a big gay and les­bian com­mu­nity that is very ac­tive. But we don’t present Bris­bane as this mul­ti­sex­ual so­ci­ety; we present it as a con­ser­va­tive, shock­able com­mu­nity. We put the suit on over the nu­dity.”

There is only one suit draped over Kneen’s new novel, and that’s a birth­day suit. Holly, to put it po­litely, is a wild, en­er­getic, at times dark, of­ten hi­lar­i­ous romp of a sex novel, filled to its seething brim with naked flesh, cop­u­la­tion, plea­sure, pain, bits and pieces of hu­man anatomy that are rarely aired in public and the mess that for­ni­ca­tion, if stud­ied with a fear­less eye, can be. The book’s tit­il­la­tion ranges from fum­bling teenagers to un­bri­dled or­gies with strangers.

And while writ­ing about the most in­ti­mate of hu­man in­ter­ac­tion is a po­ten­tial pit­fall for even the finest of writ­ers, a high-wire act that takes just one slip to ren­der it ridicu­lous, no­body writes sex like Kneen. In this, her finest book to date, she doesn’t flinch in ren­der­ing sex­ual congress in all of its mul­ti­tudi­nous vari­a­tions, and of­fers raw­ness and ten­der­ness in equal mea­sure. Be­neath this, how­ever, the novel also deals with some of life’s big ques­tions, none more sig­nif­i­cant than the age-old tango be­tween sex and power. How do we use our sex­u­al­ity? What are the ram­i­fi­ca­tions of its mis­use?

The novel opens with an in­no­cent Holly White join­ing, against her bet­ter in­stinct, a sex book club. This in turn in­tro­duces her to the clas­sics of erotic lit­er­a­ture – Nin, Bataille, Jong, Kawa­bata, Miller, Nabokov and the Mar­quis de Sade – which ig­nite a sex­ual phan­tas­mago­ria that takes Holly to Paris and back home, her sex­u­al­ity primed to the point where it can, alone, save or de­stroy the world. “Holly is a good girl,” Kneen says. “But when you deal with sex, you re­alise how we are as peo­ple, in that every­body has this façade and they pre­tend to be a par­tic­u­lar thing but you have ab­so­lutely no idea what they’re like in their pri­vate life. When their clothes come off, they’re a com­pletely dif­fer­ent an­i­mal.”

Holly’s unique fea­ture is that, when she is aroused, her gen­i­tals glow a neon blue. It’s tes­ti­mony to Kneen’s skills that this odd­ity not only be­comes plau­si­ble, but eerily hyp­notic. When in Paris, Holly’s sex­ual vis­tas flower, then shift to some­thing po­ten­tially more danger­ous when she meets Nick, an acolyte of con­tro­ver­sial Aus­trian psy­cho­an­a­lyst Wil­helm Re­ich, who de­vised a the­ory in the first half of the 20th cen­tury that the or­gasm elicited a bio­elec­tri­cal dis­charge, and that this “or­gone” en­ergy could be cap­tured. Re­ich was seen as the fa­ther of the sex­ual revo­lu­tion that flour­ished in the 1960s. He was also seen, by some, as a lu­natic.

Still, Nick be­lieves Holly is a pure “or­gone” source, pow­er­ful enough to desta­bilise the world, if put in the wrong hands. Kneen says Holly’s glow was in­spired by the the­o­ries of Re­ich. “Re­ich of­ten de­scribed or­gone en­ergy as hav­ing a blue glow and a smell like burning rub­ber,” she says. “I needed to have some ac­tual thing that was a phys­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tion of [Holly’s] sex­u­al­ity. Peo­ple I’ve talked to have said, ‘I don’t glow blue, but there are things about my sex­u­al­ity I’m ap­palled by’.

A charge comes off the page. Her stuff has al­ways

been dark, but it’s re­ally sen­sual and sexy.

An­thony Mullins

Whether it be your pri­vate fan­tasies, whether it be what over­takes you when you’re over­taken by lust, a lot of peo­ple are kind of fright­ened about what hap­pens to them phys­i­cally when they’re aroused. Or fright­ened that they’ll lose con­trol and go too far … and I think that’s what I wanted to cap­ture with the blue glow.”

Could Holly, in fact, save the world from all its woes with her en­ergy? Could it be turned to uni­ver­sal har­mony? What if ev­ery­one just made love to ev­ery­one else? In a fash­ion, that was tried in the 1960s and ’70s – the era of flower power, the Age of Aquarius, the ‘Make Love Not War’ revo­lu­tion. “Un­for­tu­nately it didn’t take hold in the imag­i­na­tion, but it ac­tu­ally is a way of turn­ing things around,” Kneen be­lieves. “Sex is a pow­er­ful weapon for good or for evil, and we need to stop think­ing about it as just a force for evil. We need to start re­claim­ing it for good.”

At Strauss, all man­ner of hu­man com­bi­na­tions come and go – so­los, mar­rieds, young men and women, work­mates – and they trig­ger in Kneen a med­i­ta­tion on sex­ual re­la­tion­ships. “I talk to young peo­ple who say they haven’t ex­pe­ri­enced or­gasm and are not ex­per­i­ment­ing with sex, in their twen­ties, and I kind of won­der why we’re go­ing back­wards in terms of per­sonal and sex­ual free­doms,” she says. “I would love us to be in a so­ci­ety where you could ex­press some­thing you felt for some­one by just hav­ing sex with them and say­ing, ‘That was great, see you later’, and it wasn’t an is­sue.

“I wish we were free of the moral­ity and the jeal­ousies that come with be­ing in a monog­a­mous so­ci­ety. Th­ese days we’re caught up in this idea that just be­cause you love some­one you have to be sex­u­ally faith­ful to them. Per­son­ally, I don’t think that’s an achiev­able goal. I re­ally don’t think you can re­main sex­ual and be in a monog­a­mous re­la­tion­ship for­ever. I can’t see how that works. I have to be clear and ad­mit that I am in a monog­a­mous re­la­tion­ship, and have been for a long time, and that the only way that has sur­vived and thrived is be­cause of the fan­tasy world that I’m very in touch with.”

Kneen’s friend Naomi Steke­len­burg, a scholar of Mar­quis de Sade (the French aris­to­crat and erotic writer), be­lieves there is no-one quite like her in the world. “She is one of the most fas­ci­nat­ing peo­ple I know,” Steke­len­burg says. “She has the ca­pac­ity to ab­sorb even the dark­est of our fan­tasies that we’d never share with any­body else, and she lis­tens and com­ments with­out judge­ment.” Steke­len­burg ac­knowl­edges that Holly White is much more than an erotic story. “With Krissy, the idea is that when we have sex it is not just a case of bod­ies meet­ing, it is so­cial struc­ture; how we have sex re­flects how we see the world. It’s about power, and the classes and struc­tures we rep­re­sent.”

Kneen’s hus­band, An­thony Mullins, says his wife has al­ways had a unique way of putting words to­gether. “A charge comes off the page,” he says. “Her stuff has al­ways been dark, but it’s re­ally sen­sual and sexy.” As for hav­ing a part­ner who writes eye­pop­ping sex scenes of in­fi­nite va­ri­ety, Mullins says Krissy’s fan­tasy life “is great for our re­la­tion­ship”.

“It has never been an is­sue for us, that she has

An­thony, my part­ner, al­ways says, “Ev­ery­one’s go­ing to think you’re a pervert.”

Krissy Kneen

th­ese other fan­tasy worlds,” he re­flects. “You have to en­cour­age that; Krissy is an artist. She does talk about monogamy a lot, and she’s had more sex­ual ad­ven­tures than I’ve had. It’s a weird anom­aly. But maybe it’s be­cause she’s in a long-term re­la­tion­ship with me that she’s able to think of that stuff in her work. She knows I’ll al­ways be here.”

With Holly White, Kneen be­lieves she has hit her stride as a nov­el­ist. And with good rea­son. The book is art­fully con­structed, and the nar­ra­tive moves for­ward with a thrilling ur­gency. It also con­tains many of Kneen’s pre­oc­cu­py­ing themes. “I have al­ways been in­ter­ested in crack­ing the ve­neer,” she says. “That’s my main thing. To pose ques­tions that are dif­fi­cult and that make peo­ple un­com­fort­able. Be­cause I think mak­ing peo­ple un­com­fort­able is where you can make change. As soon as you bring those se­crets out, you can start mak­ing change.

“I was wrestling with what I wanted to say about sex­u­al­ity when I was writ­ing this book … I thought there’s no rea­son to write a book about sex un­less I had some opin­ion about it. For me, I came to the

WALK­ING UP EL­IZ­A­BETH ST TO THE HONEY

Bird­ette store, Kneen talks about the Good Sex Book Club she set up in late 2012 as the Holly book was ges­tat­ing. She was about to em­bark on a full year of read­ing all of the world’s erotic clas­sics, as re­search for her new novel, but didn’t want to do it alone. So the Good Sex Book Club was born – first Wed­nes­day of the month at Avid Reader. Leave your in­hi­bi­tions at the door.

“I started this book club think­ing, I’ll get every­body else’s opin­ions on th­ese books and it’ll help me form an opin­ion,” Kneen says. “Then as I went along, the book club it­self be­came a part of my book. I thought I could base some of the char­ac­ters on the peo­ple in the book club. We’ve had a shift­ing group over the years, but there’s a core group of very strong women who are the heart of the book club. Ev­ery­one’s take on th­ese books comes with their own bag­gage.”

As it turns out, the next vol­ume to be dis­cussed by

the Good Sex Book Club is Kneen’s own The Ad­ven­tures

of Holly White and the In­cred­i­ble Sex Ma­chine. Given that some of the real-life club-go­ers may ap­pear in the novel’s fic­tional book club, this may cause some fric­tion. (When Kneen was writ­ing the ex­tra­or­di­nary orgy scene near the end of the novel, she put out a call on Face­book to friends who wanted to be fic­tion­alised in the sex romp. She was del­uged with tak­ers.) As for the book club, she says: “I just hope it doesn’t im­plode.”

In Honey Bird­ette, af­ter study­ing the lit­tle pow­er­house, or power-rab­bit, that is the Form 2, Kneen wan­ders over to­wards the counter. A set of self-ad­her­ing nip­ple tas­sels are on sale. “I’ve al­ways wanted a pair of th­ese,” Kneen says. She treats her­self, tucks them into a shoul­der bag and heads out into the Bris­bane sun­shine, blend­ing with the crowd. Just a woman go­ing about her busi­ness, dis­ap­pear­ing into the glare and glow of mid­day.

That’s what we see. But what does Krissy Kneen see? “There was sex ev­ery­where,” she writes near the end of Holly White. “Wher­ever [s]he looked there was a f..k hap­pen­ing, peo­ple rut­ting on top of parked cars, cun­nilin­gus in the gut­ter, fel­la­tio up against tele­phone poles … a won­drous vi­sion of flesh …” un­der­stand­ing that sex was about power. The idea of sex is that it’s a very, very pow­er­ful tool.”

Of course, the peren­nial ques­tion from read­ers is: Has she based any of the sex scenes on her own ex­pe­ri­ence? Is Kneen her­self right in there, el­bow-deep in oiled and splayed limbs? “There has to be a level of hon­esty in sex writ­ing, oth­er­wise you can sense it’s not real, that you’re re­ly­ing on cliche, on other peo­ple’s sex and not your own,” she says. “Yes, you are all laid bare in there. All of the at­ti­tudes to sex­u­al­ity in the book are ones I’ve ex­pe­ri­enced. I’ve not nec­es­sar­ily ex­pe­ri­enced the types of sex that are in the book, but I’ve ex­pe­ri­enced the feel­ings and at­ti­tudes at some point. An­thony, my part­ner, al­ways says, ‘Ev­ery­one’s go­ing to think you’re a pervert.’ He’s the straight­est per­son in the uni­verse. But you just have to not be afraid.” The Ad­ven­tures of Holly White and the In­cred­i­ble Sex Ma­chine (Text Pub­lish­ing, $30).

Nascent au­thor … Knen aged 8 and ( op­po­site) to­day in her favourite coffe shop.

Cou­ple­dom … Kneen with her hus­band, An­thony Mullins.

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