Smart as a Whip
April 26, 2000
Manservant Wanted by beautiful, indolent writer/dancer to clean my small West Village apartment about once a week. No sex, no pay. Slavery is its own reward. In this simple yet provocative advertisement placed in a New York newspaper, it becomes evident how close an author's life can reflect the words she creates. Elissa Wald composed the ad, which is amazingly similar (though opposite in intention) to a passage in her story "Missing the Boat," where the main character writes an imaginary ad seeking servitude. What's really amazing though, is how many people actually responded. "About 75 men called," says Wald. "They sent resumes. They sent references. They begged for the privilege of cleaning my apartment for free. It wasn't because of me, it was because of them. I was appealing directly to a desire they already had. But I've been on both sides of the equation I've had men serve me, and I've served men." For Wald, taking out the ad was just another adventure in a long line of unusual life experiences. Born in Brooklyn, she came to Pittsburgh when she was nine, left for college when she was 17 and has been based in New York City ever since. But that didn't stop her from working over 30 different jobs around the country, including stints as stripper and an outreach counselor to prostitutes, not to mention personal assistant to Art Garfunkel. "Also I spent time on a couple of Indian reservations, working at a boarding school for Indian kids and at a youth center as kind of a house mother," says the 27-year-old writer. Inspired by Katherine Dunn's novel Geek Love about a carnival family, she became fascinated by the circus and decided to experience it for herself. "I had a sleeper car and really lived there. I was immersed in the circus culture...even after I got out, I still had what they call 'sawdust lust.' When I went on a road trip with my friend Jodie, we had to stop at every sleazy carnival and sideshow along the way. The scene is very incestuous, sometimes one act will rotate among all the circuses. Everybody knows each other, so you can find a place anywhere and park on any circus lot." These experiences have paid off in the realism of the stories in her debut anthology, Meeting the Master. "Every job I've ever had has given me an important education. I've always tried not to stay in one place for too long. I could have interviewed people in the circus until I turned blue, but there's no better way to experience a certain life than to live it." At first, Wald didn't think being a full-time writer was in her future, but changed her mind when she began to realize how much time she required to devote to her craft and that she wasn't really prepared for any other career. "I could have these ideas about trying to be like William Carlos Williams, who was a doctor and a writer at the same time. But for me, writing takes everything. It's better to have a mindless job and come home with some brain cells intact." The stories from Meeting the Master were all written in the past three years, according to Wald, except for "Initiation," which as a result reads like a "younger" person's narrative. It's based on her adolescent relationship with Mark Choi, by now a well-known figure in the Pittsburgh music scene (the story employs "Kim" as pseudonym for her Korean/British lover, and sharp readers familiar with the local punk rock fauna will also spot "Guy," a tough skinhead character). "I was a child then, but he was genuinely my first love," recalls Wald. "I continue to hold a very romantic picture of that time he was one of the most special people I ever met," she continues. "There is a certain 'truth' to fiction in that you can write a story that's 'truer' than what actually happened." And definitely some of the characters in Meeting The Master seem larger than life for example, Darwin the tattoo artist in "The Illustrating Man." Wald holds him up as an example of "magical realism," where a story takes place in a realistic context, but the audience suspends its disbelief while unbelievable things happen, such as tattoos influencing people's destinies or E.T. flying through the air on a bicycle. The suspension of disbelief is also important in introducing the subject of sadomasochism (S&M). Wald began to write stories which all wound up having a common theme, so a thematic collection seemed to be appropriate. She published it on her own last year, selling 4,000 to 5,000 copies both in New York and nationally through the Tower chain (at one point the book was #2 on the Tower Top 40 list, unheard of for a self-released novel). Wald also garnered a lot of press by hand-delivering copies to editors. While still independent, she had already sold translation rights for the Netherlands and gave an option on "The Illustrating Man" to Mark Brown, who co-produced Scent of a Woman, Last Exit to Brooklyn and To Wong Foo, for his first foray into independent production. "He's a great guy. The screenplay's still being written, though. These things do take years." Meanwhile, "alternative" literature such as Meeting the Master is gaining more of a foothold in mainstream publishing houses, thus the interest from Grove Press. "There is so much graphic, violent shock schlock out there masquerading as important 'transgressive' literature," laments Wald. "While I have no objection if it's towards some end, often I feel [the graphicness] is there for its own sake." Wald believes that S&M deserves more depth and complexity so that it's no longer ghettoized in the "erotica" section of the bookstore. "The Story of O takes place in a secluded chateau. In Anne Rice's Exit to Eden, they're taken to an island. Most S&M goes on in self-contained little fantasy worlds. But I didn't take my book along those lines and it actually might be even more disturbing because of that. If this book were about leather, then people could say 'she's writing about whips and chains, someone other than me.' But I wanted everybody to identify with the stories." Wald's favorite S&M writing hasn't been erotica, but rather straightforward novels such as Harry Crews' Body and Pat Conroy's Lords of Discipline. "Alice Munro is definitely one of my favorites. And Kathy Acker. Though I think I'm contributing in the sense that I'm writing something that hasn't been covered before. I wouldn't put myself in any category." And what about the variety of sexual experiences contained in Meeting The Master (gay, lesbian, bi, even a three-way) isn't it a little straining to be so inclusive? "Well, I didn't sit down and say 'I'm going to put a gay person here.' But I am bisexual and I've been in a wide range of situations. Most of my favorite S&M writers and themes are gay, but at the same time the hetero experience is a big part of my life. So all the scenes in the book came naturally to me without any contrivance." Wald observes the trappings of S&M all over the occurrences of everyday life, as the dominatrix character explains in the "Therapy" story. "I see all these institutions and bureaucracies. Take the Catholic Church confession, penance and absolution there are rituals everywhere where these dynamics come into play." "People should be able to recognize something that's a part of them and find a healthy, consensual way to work it out. But sometimes I look at what's going on when someone's getting the shit beat out of them. There are beautiful aspects to these relationships, but there's also a lot of frustration. Still, everybody should have the right to negotiate their own means to desire." Wald decries the unnecessary amount of "evangelism" pervading the S&M scene, where conventional sex is disparagingly referred to as "vanilla," implying that S&M is somehow exciting and spicy beyond the normal sex experience. "There are people who absolutely need this element, but there's also a lot of repression. It's almost impossible for an S&M club to get a liquor license. "And there's a certain feminist branch, among some lesbians too, which recreates oppressive heterosexual dynamics the same people who are against pornography, whose argument would be that an S&M relationship is about self-loathing and identifying with the oppressor. But that's not so. "Take Darwin, for example. He utterly calls the shots and is able to shape people's destinies without getting involved. Perfect mastery or slavery is not a two-way street, you don't need requited love. The master still has enormous power, but doesn't ask for the slave to surrender control he does it willingly. "Let's say that someone worships a movie star they never met. Does that star really have power over them? It's all in [the fan's] own making. You can't blame the stars for all the people who worship them. People who want to have fatal attractions are going to find someone to fill that need." For Wald, two of the best locales to find S&M dynamics are in the military...and in prison, such as in the "Turned Out" story. "In any prison, you can find a scenario where there are masters and slaves. Alpha males possess the more feminine weaker males there's no whips or chains there. "And in the barracks, kids who could be in frats drinking beer are instead leading lives of fanatic discipline and enduring abuse. I think there's a homoerotic undercurrent, those places are hotbeds for that. What's it really about to completely sublimate your personality and become a robot for the sake of any institution?" Often, asserts Wald, the love object simply reflects oneself. "In any relationship, people come with unique baggage and history, their own fantasies, frames of reference and associations. Falling in love involves a lot of projection of a fantasy or an ideal. Ultimately, it has to do more with the lover than the beloved." Wald has heard plenty of pointed questions like these while on her book tour, which is currently traversing the West Coast. She says that her best experience so far has been in Portland, where the crowd filled the aisles and even stood outside the windows looking in. "I have a lot of respect for a grassroots approach to promotion," she says. "And I like intimate gatherings and getting to meet all the people who enjoyed reading the book." While she claims that in future works, the topic of S&M will be "more incidental and not so much to the point," Wald's intent is quite clear in the collection of stories that comprise Meeting the Master. "I'd like to attract people in a realistic manner and to make those who had never thought about [S&M] to at least ask themselves about it. I want to bring it closer to home for them and possibly even have them identify with it." SIDEBAR ONEMeeting The Master by Elissa Wald Grove Press Reviewed by Manny Theiner "Housegirl position sought. Vagabond wants to come home. SWF, wandering Jewess, charming waif, love slave will cook, clean, and entertain master of the house for room and board. I'll be your muse, masseuse, and charlotte russe. Take me in? Serious replies only." Wouldn't you respond to such an ad if you were a red-blooded, non-bigoted, American male? If so, that's just what Elissa Wald is hoping, because your interest in the above text proves that there is a lot more to the world of sadomasochism than just the leather and bondage scene. Meeting The Master, a collection of stories about mastery, slavery and the "darker" side of desire, is the stunning debut from Wald, a New Yorker who spent her formative years in Pittsburgh. There has possibly never been a book like this, with the potential to bring the world of S&M long considered a fringe element of contemporary culture kicking and screaming into the social mainstream. Most interesting to Pittsburghers is "Initiation," her coming-of-age story which begins the anthology with a bang. Wald draws on autobiographical recollections from her high school days in Squirrel Hill. She unfolds the tale of her discovery of true love, and with it the first delicious temptation of the dark side. She falls head over heels for a boy several years her senior, only to find that she also longs for him to enter into an S&M-style relationship with her in the submissive role. He goes as far as to gag her mouth shut, but otherwise shows no interest in the games she wants to play, which ultimately makes their love untenable she desires someone strong, but his tender affection for her exposes his weakness. Wald relates that she has always had sexual fantasies about "men instead of boys," dominating authority figures such as soldiers, policemen, teachers, counselors men who wear belts and boots. In this manner she brings the reader again and again into the thick of dominant/submissive relationships, some loosely based on her own life experiences, including working in the circus and as a phone sex operator. In "The Resolution," a young circus vendor who becomes a famous model recounts the story of her torturous obsession with a fellow employee, a beautiful gay man who can never be truly in love with her and who has contracted AIDS. "The Houseboy" follows the life of a young man who longs to submit to a masterful, perfectionist army sergeant only to have his dream dashed through carelessness and deception, and he plunges inexorably into the sexual underworld. "Turned Out" involves an ex-convict who finds he cannot live in the outside world because he has become so used to a life of slavery in prison. He misses the tender mercies of his dominating cellmate so much that committing a crime in his honor seems the fastest way to getting back behind bars. The leading character in "Therapy," a fearsome dominatrix by reputation, becomes putty in the hands of her psychoanalyst to whom she longs to utterly surrender control. And in "Missing the Boat," the main character (Wald's vagabond Jewess prototype) materializes a fantastic threesome in which she is mental and physical slave to both her karate instructor, who has become her lover, and her childhood friend, who as an older dominant figure has become a new object of desire. The final masterpiece, which is so fully realized and detailed as to be considered a candidate for the silver screen , is called "The Illustrating Man," not to be confused with the Ray Bradbury story with a very similar title. An adventurous female journalist becomes intrigued with a convicted killer named Darwin, who is famous for his prowess with the tattoo needle seems that customers come to him for advice or solace and he gives them a tattoo which portends (or even influences) their destiny. After interviewing various people whose unique situations were touched profoundly by Darwin, she submits herself to his needle, only to be given a life sentence as final as his prison term. Needless to say, Wald is conveying a serious message here about life as she perceives it. Her character Darwin says that most people have extraordinary stories if you only take the time to hear them. These stories in Meeting the Master are definitely of that stripe, right down to the meticulous background detail and titillating descriptions of fleshy encounters. The narrative is riveting and the characters are convincing, as if the reader could actually participate by stepping into the role of one of the main players in each tale. This, I believe, is Wald's main point: that the phenomenon of sadomasochism, in its simplest form of dominant and submissive tendencies, is present in the dynamics of almost every situation and relationship, and the sooner we realize this the less marginalized and the more comfortable we'll feel about ourselves. In homes across America, it's really only a very short jump from Sex, Lies and Videotape to Masks, Cuffs and Electrical Tape. That's why this book will be flying off the shelves in mainstream bookstores in the next few months. It's not just an exciting read for fans of kinky erotica. Wald not only touches a raw nerve, she strikes a chord among many who never pictured themselves in the physical scenario of whips and chains but wouldn't hesitate to dance to a popular Depeche Mode song called "Master and Servant": It's a lot like life.