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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.