During the summer of 1966, the summer after I graduated from high school, my family moved back to Los Angeles from London. It was an extremely complicated and disorienting summer, both for personal and — dare I put it so portentously? — historical reasons. Far too complicated and disorienting to describe in a single essay. I know this to be true, because I tried and failed completely. How can one essay encompass the anti-war movement, the new, black power incarnation of the civil rights movement, the Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl, the riotous residential hotel we temporarily made our home, the efforts to situate myself in what now seemed an alien environment, the emergence of a drug culture and of a burgeoning counter-culture, my unexpected descent into a deep depression, and so much more? It’s beyond my powers. So instead I’m going to discuss a few of the elements, one at a time, that set it apart.
And I’m going to start with the raffish onset of my writing career.
When we first arrived back in L.A., we were homeless, although not impoverished. My father had won an Oscar the year before, for the first screenplay to bear his real name in twelve years; after more than a decade of blacklisting, he was suddenly a hot writer again (one newspaper profile called him “a hot young writer,” which amused him no end; he had turned 50 earlier that year). And now a movie he’d written on spec in London the year before, without much prospect of a sale — his agent at the time had even refused to handle it, saying it would damage my father’s reputation, although this same agent had no problem trying to collect a commission on it later — had been bought by 20th Century Fox and was scheduled to go into production in the fall. With an all-star cast! So the family, for the first time in a long time, was actually feeling flush. While my parents looked for a house for themselves — it took months, till well past the time I’d left town for college in the East — we stayed at the Sunset Marquis, a well-known residential hotel primarily housing show business transients, which is exactly what we were. My sister Julie and I had one suite, my parents another. It was a pretty eye-opening place to call home, even temporarily. You can probably imagine how show biz transients behave when they’re on their own in a strange and to them exotic location, far from their families. Well, multiply that by a factor of ten or so. Such was the prevailing atmosphere at the Sunset Marquis that summer.
Beyond that, it was decidedly odd to be back in Los Angeles. Was this a homecoming — a resumption of our old life — or yet another disruption? It was hard to figure out; it felt like both, and neither. Everything was familiar and weirdly unfamiliar at the same time. Of course, Julie and I got back in touch with old LA friends and wandered some of our old haunts. And re-established our connection with siblings Zach and Zoe, two other expat Angelenos with whom we’d been close in London and who had moved back to America the previous year. But a lot had happened in the time since we’d gone to London, to us, to our friends, to the world, and to the city of Los Angeles, and I don’t think either of us felt a firm sense of continuity with our earlier lives. We knew the geography, we knew some of the same people, but this wasn’t the hometown of our childhood. And it was 1966; the culture was undergoing violent upheavals as well. The war in Vietnam was hemorrhaging support, and the recently popular president, Lyndon Johnson, was well on his way to becoming universally loathed. Marijuana was entering the mainstream (including, that summer, my mainstream). The baby boomer generation was reaching its majority and about to wreak havoc on society, both as consumers and militant disrupters. It wasn’t going to be just coonskin caps and Gidget anymore; we were going to be leaving our fingerprints, for good and ill, on everything. That all of this coincided with my family’s return to America made my daily existence exceptionally confusing: What was simply the passage of time and what was a fissure in the fabric of the zeitgeist? It would take me a couple of years to grapple with that particular question, a prolonged identity crisis. Which I never fully resolved. It’s impossible to separate the purely personal from the universal when they’re concurrent.
My father insisted I find a job. It was a reasonable demand — a teenage summer job is an American tradition — but one I’d somehow managed to sidestep up to now. Living in London had been part of it; I didn’t have an English work permit, and that provided a convenient excuse. But I’d found other excuses too, just in case there might have been ways to work around or through that particular obstacle. Two summers before, for example, my friend Scott and I had persuaded our parents that working on a kibbutz in Israel was the functional equivalent of a summer job (in the event it was far more onerous, but that’s another story). The summer after, I’d been studying music intensively, and my father, with a conspicuous absence of enthusiasm, had accepted that as a substitute. No excuses this summer, though. We were back in America, I’d graduated from high school, I was heading off to college in the fall. This summer I needed to do something responsible and remunerative, to get off my ass and find myself a real job. And as I say, I didn’t regard his insistence as at all unreasonable. Unwelcome, sure, but not unreasonable.
There was a serious problem, though. I didn’t have a driver’s license. My friend Zach had a summer job driving a Good Humor ice cream truck — he had to wear that white jacket and silly cap and everything — but there was obviously no way I could manage that kind of gig. Piloting an ice cream truck without a license was the operative definition of a moving violation. And LA public transportation in those days was notoriously bad; it would have been a challenge even to get myself to the garage where the trucks were housed! In general, whether or not a job required wheels, simply navigating Los Angeles without being able to drive was a difficult proposition (and a lethal drawback for anyone who hoped for anything resembling an independent social life, but that too is another story). We were still struggling with the seemingly intractable mobility challenge when fate intervened and another kind of opportunity arose. But explaining this requires a small detour.
In my ninth grade, I had a quasi-romantic relationship — it was more “friends with benefits” than romantic, to be honest — with a twelfth-grader, a good friend of my sister’s, another LA expat showbiz brat I’ll call Nicole. Like my sister and me, she was the child of an American screenwriter, although not a blacklisted one. Nicole was smart and irreverent and determinedly alienated from virtually everything within our ambit, a beatnik some years after the beat movement had ended, a hippy before the hippy movement had begun, a rebel who saw no need for a cause. A cynic, a nonconformist, almost an anarchist. She seemed a little unmoored, no doubt, and some of her professed enthusiasms were more than a little alarming, but she was also funny and original, and we enjoyed each other’s company and I certainly found the sexual experimentation welcome. I was a little incredulous that someone three years older than I could be interested in me in that way, or indeed in any way; at those ages, three years’ difference is pretty considerable, and Nicole was, if anything, precociously advanced for her age in many respects. But hey, I sure wasn’t going to argue.
And now, here it was, three years later, and we’d completely lost touch. Three years is a lifetime for adolescents, and Nicole had gone back to America, had gone off to college (Bard, where else?), and neither Julie nor I had maintained contact after Nicole’s first months away from London. But since she’d originally hailed from California and since we’d just returned there, my sister thought we ought to consider trying to locate her. Maybe Nicole was in town, at least for the summer. It seemed worth a shot. Julie looked up Nicole’s father in the phone book; it turned out there were several men with his rather ordinary-sounding name, so she proceeded to phone them one by one, asking each if he had a daughter named Nicole. It took several calls, but then, pay dirt. And fortunately he remembered my sister and cheerfully supplied Nicole’s number. We phoned, Nicole answered and was delighted to hear from us, and we arranged for her to come visit us at the Sunset Marquis.
Well, as I’ve already observed, a lot can happen in three years. Nicole arrived on a motorcycle, wearing a black leather motorcycle jacket, a boy’s white tee shirt, and a pair of man’s jeans. Her hair was cut very short. She held her upper body differently in some indefinable way, with a sort of defiant slouch of the shoulders. She was still Nicole, still funny and friendly and irreverent, but she was also, undeniably, gay.
It’s hard at this remove to reconstruct my emotional reaction to this development. I’m sure I was a little taken aback. God knows she’d been responsive enough back when we’d been messing around, so I don’t think this possibility had ever occurred to me. But even at that age, I must have had intimations that sexuality isn’t always a fixed and unalterable characteristic, so I don’t recall being utterly flummoxed by the news. And it definitely wasn’t anything like that Hemingway story “The Sea Change.” We hadn’t, after all, had an especially romantic connection at any point, as I’ve indicated, and we’d been out of touch for a good long time, and resuming our old relations had never presented itself as a realistic possibility. I think this was simply another provocative datum in a world that was presenting me with nothing but provocative data, a world that was turning topsy-turvy in more ways than I could reckon.
What else did we learn? She’d dropped out of college…there were hints of some sort of emotional crisis, and it didn’t seem like a stretch to assume that this might have had something to do with her sexual identity, although she didn’t say so. She was living with a woman in the heart of one of the scuzziest neighborhoods in L.A., in Hollywood a few blocks east of the West Hollywood line, in a house a couple of doors up from a thoroughly disreputable stretch of Santa Monica Blvd., not far from a number of massage parlors and the local Pussycat Theater. And her partner worked in a huge warehouse next door to their house, a warehouse that stored and shipped pornographic material. In the course of her visit, Nicole invited Julie and me to come take a look.
For reasons I don’t recall, Julie didn’t take her up on the invitation. But as for me, I was unquestionably if unhealthily curious. I went over a couple of days later with my friend Zach, who had also known Nicole in London and who no doubt shared a dollop of unhealthy curiosity. And who, crucially, could drive. It was becoming increasingly obvious that that absence of a driver’s license was going to be a major issue for me. It would be another year before I finally secured one.
Zach and I drove the short (but in some ways immeasurable) distance from the unceremonious luxury of the Sunset Marquis to Nicole’s ramshackle house. And were introduced to her girlfriend, a slender young woman, very boyish, almost trans in dress and demeanor, up to and including her DA hair-do — she actually looked like one of the gang members from West Side Story, or would have if they’d been a little cuter — who went by the moniker Skip. A butch name to go with her butch persona. I wasn’t sure how we’d be greeted, especially given my history with Nicole, but Skip proved perfectly friendly, even welcoming.
Nicole took Zach and me on a house tour, and, when we got to the bedroom, proudly, laughingly, pointed out the giant mirror on the ceiling above their queen-sized bed.
O-kay! Got it! Not in Kansas anymore!
Skip then took Zach and me on a tour of the warehouse next door. As we crossed the alley separating one building from the other, she complained about men who try to seduce lesbians. I don’t remember the context, or even if there was a context, but it didn’t feel like a warning — there was certainly nothing in the atmosphere suggesting anything of that nature coming from either Zach or me, and it didn’t feel territorial either, nothing like a “keep off the grass” kind of message — but I did get the impression she wanted to make clear her relationship with Nicole. Not that there could have been much doubt. I mean, Christ, they had a fucking mirror above their bed.
And thence into the massive warehouse. It almost felt like an airplane hangar, a big space without any furniture, empty except for all the shelving. But there was a lot of shelving; the room encompassed a huge warren of industrial metal shelves, all of them stacked to the ceiling with books and pamphlets. “Fetish pamphlets are our big sellers,” she told Zach and me. “Mostly bondage. Photos and text.” Wandering through the room was like navigating a maze. As we wandered from shelf to shelf, Skip handed us pamphlets. Each one contained about forty pages of text interspersed with black-and-white photographs, mostly of naked women under some sort of restraint or another. None of the photographs were hard-core — American obscenity laws were still ambiguous, and would remain so for another few years, and the publisher of these pamphlets clearly had no public-spirited intention of becoming a free-speech test case — but they were pretty raunchy all the same.
Raunchy, and to my eyes silly. It isn’t that I was a naif at that age — it was impossible to grow up abroad as a show business brat and remain entirely naïve — nor a virgin, and I was in the full flush of my hormonal peak, but nevertheless, certain kinds of fetishes were still entirely incomprehensible to me. I don’t mean only that they didn’t appeal to me; that’s a different sort of category, one that might persist into adulthood. I mean I couldn’t even make the mental leap required to understand how they might appeal to anybody. So not only did these pamphlets not speak to my seventeen-year-old self, they left me puzzled and somewhat amused; they didn’t speak to me and I couldn’t even understand the language in which they were speaking. I possibly even felt a little supercilious toward their intended audience, as if my immunity to their appeal somehow conferred on me some sort of moral or aesthetic superiority. I’m not proud of that feeling; it was a function of callowness, not of any erotic maturity. At bottom — you should pardon the expression — it simply represented a failure of imagination.
In any event, in the course of our little tour, and after these bestowals of many free fetish pamphlets on Zach and me (which we happily accepted, our indifference to the fetishes portrayed therein be damned, naked women were naked women, bound or unbound), Skip mentioned casually that the publisher was always looking for new writers. This observation was ostensibly offered as a throwaway, but it was also unmistakably a pitch. She mentioned the fee — I don’t remember exactly what it was, but rest assured it was paltry, and there would be no royalties regardless of sales — and the number of words required, and explained some of the ground rules and some of the restrictions. The main restriction, disappointing to hear and in the event almost intolerably frustrating to adhere to (although also perfectly understandable), was don’t be comical, don’t make fun of the fetish. As I would soon learn, the temptation to do so was at times almost irresistible, if only to alleviate the boredom involved in painstakingly (and repetitively) describing ropes and knots and restraining devices, and finding a varied vocabulary for expressing the heroine’s feelings of helplessness (not to mention her body parts, a challenge well-known to generations of pornographers). But it was imperative that one’s readers be treated with a convincing simulacrum of respect. They were presumably self-conscious enough about their enthusiasms without being jeered at within their chosen modes of release.
Well, to be honest, I wasn’t tempted to participate. Not initially. It’s not that the prospect was especially intimidating; I’d always been a fairly fluent writer — writing was the family trade, after all — and I’d been writing amateurish, angst-ridden adolescent fiction for years. But in this case I had…I don’t want to say moral qualms, because I didn’t really have any of those. But I did have a vague feeling that the whole business was a little icky, a little infra dig; I thought, with all the vanity of a recent high school graduate and valedictorian, that my artistic or intellectual seriousness might be compromised if I allowed myself to get involved.
That changed — again, this isn’t something about which I feel anything other than embarrassment — when Zach informed me a couple of days later that he was trying his hand at writing one. He already had his Good Humor gig, but I guess he was disinclined to sneer at a chance to supplement his summer income. Well, Zach was almost two years older than I, and had for as long I’d known him been precociously mature, and in addition was always far more jealous of his dignity than any other member of our cohort. It had never occurred to me he might consider sullying his hands with this business. I’d thought his accompanying me to Nicole’s was merely a form of voyeuristic slumming. So his announcement came as a surprise. It seemed to give an imprimatur of legitimacy to the whole enterprise. And as a result, I thought, Well, if Zach doesn’t think he’s above writing bondage porn, this same Zach who engages in lengthy existential dialogue with himself about practically every action that might reflect on his self-image as an homme serieux, then why should I? And after all, my father had insisted that I find employment this summer, I had no reasonable prospects for a more normal summer job, and I was effectively housebound anyway; this was actually a fortuitous solution to what had seemed an intractable problem. Maybe it even played to my forehand. So to speak.
A little hesitantly, I ran this unexpected prospect past my parents. Would it qualify? Did it meet their standards? I shrewdly chose the cocktail hour to present my case; my mother never drank at all, but my father more than made up for her dereliction, starting regularly at 5:00 (and, to be fair, ending for the day within an hour or so, well before dinner; he liked his tipple, God knows, but at that period of his life he kept the habit under firm control), and he usually became more genial within a few minutes of taking his first sip. So I waited for geniality to strike before offering my proposal. There was some chin-stroking, some exchanges of puzzled glances between my parents, and of course quite a bit of amusement too. No one was po-faced about the idea, we all understood its absurdity. After a few minutes there was a sort of reluctant acquiescence, a sort of “Well, it’s hard to find a convincing reason why not” verdict. Which was all the assent I needed. I’d become enthusiastic about this unusual career opportunity in the day or two since the warehouse tour. Writing a pamphlet seemed a lot more attractive to me than, say, driving a Good Humor truck, irrespective of whether I might or might not be legally permitted do so. Gaggles of importuning children jostling one another for fudgesicles held remarkably little appeal. I wasn’t especially eager to wear a white jacket and a funny cap. And that jingly melody on an endless loop could drive even a strong man insane.
So the next morning I got out my trusty typewriter, a typewriter I’d won on a TV quiz show back when I was twelve, which I’d lugged to England six years before and had now lugged back to the United States. I’d written quite a few forlorn letters home from boarding school on it, and an untold number of earnest high school papers, and now it was going to serve a very different purpose. I set it up on the counter that separated the kitchenette from the living room area in the Sunset Marquis suite Julie and I shared, I rolled up my sleeves (metaphorically speaking), and began to pound out text.
First order of business was coming up with a pen name. I devised a good one. Which I definitely don’t intend to share. Those awful pamphlets might still be floating around somewhere, and considering the power of the internet, it’s not impossible they could even be found. There are embarrassments I don’t need.
Having christened myself (and when I ran my chosen name past Nicole, she enthusiastically approved, and that felt like a favorable augury), I began to compose. I can’t honestly say the endeavor called on many creative muscles; the most creative part was coming up with a sufficient number of synonyms for “buttocks.” But it did, as suggested, require me to try to figure out what the audience for these pamphlets was searching for, and in a rudimentary way try to think myself into the mind-set of the characters I was creating. This was all in all a pretty primitive exercise, of course; Henry James-levels of psychological insight were hardly the order of the day. But it might have actually proved a useful exercise for a novelist in embryo. While some major novelists — I’m thinking of, say, Ernest Hemingway and Norman Mailer — restrict most of their energies to the internal lives of their protagonists/avatars, many more try to understand the motivations and intentions of their entire cast of characters. So from that point of view it turned out to be a useful practice.
But God knows I don’t want to make any grand claims for what I was up to. Mostly, what I did, what I was required to do, was set up a situation in which someone was abducted and tied up and then, 40 pages later, freed.
The first pamphlet went quite quickly. I didn’t realize it was the novelty of the challenge rather than any inherent creative fecundity on my part that propelled me. If memory serves, I turned in my first manuscript in little more than a week. And it was immediately accepted! And I was immediately asked to write another! I was pretty pleased with myself. Seventeen and about to be a published author. Anonymous, yes, but published all the same. And my work was judged good enough to justify a second assignment.
When at some point during my first week of pamphlet writing I asked Zach how his book was coming, he admitted he’d abandoned the attempt. “I don’t think I have your facility,” he said. That was a remarkable concession on his part — like many close friends at that age, we were fiercely competitive with one another — and my first indication that there was anything more to writing fiction than the straightforward discipline of sitting down and doing it. Plus a modicum of grace with language, I suppose, but Zach certainly didn’t lack that. He has since written or edited six or seven books, all of them serious works of scholarship, and all elegantly written, but none of them fiction. And none of them involving anyone’s being tied up.
I wrote a couple more that summer, and the work got progressively more difficult as the novelty wore off and the sheer boring effort of putting fatuous words on paper, describing repetitive scenes whose impact totally eluded me, started to pall. My relationship to the whole world of bondage was completely abstract in any case; I don’t believe I got one erection over the course of writing three or four (I can no longer remember how many) pamphlets. And, as if the boredom weren’t bad enough, one of my efforts, my final attempt that summer, was actually rejected, to my thoroughgoing chagrin. Although in retrospect I suppose I had it coming. I’d been reading Faulkner during those months, The Sound and the Fury, and under its influence, this last pamphlet, entitled “Hogtied” (I’d given it a wild west setting, because why not?), employed multiple narrators and multiple points of view. Different voices, some stream of consciousness, and differing accounts of the same events. William Faulkner meets Roshomon meets crap fetish porn. Maybe I thought I would thereby provide erotic sustenance to both the active and passive bondage enthusiasts. Or maybe I was just a bored and pretentious teenager.
A few days after I’d submitted it, Skip phoned and told me apologetically that the publisher was turning down this latest attempt; he regarded my bondage masterpiece, my chef-d’oeuvre, as “too literary.” Well, fair enough, although I was pretty annoyed at the time. A lot of labor had gone into “Hogtied.” But it was obviously the wrong kind of labor, as I ought to have known.
That was my final pamphlet, and it will remain forever unread (if there’s a God in heaven). The following summer, back in Los Angeles from my freshman year in college, I managed at long last to get myself a driver’s license. But I still thought writing porn would be preferable to actually working, and I managed to find another publisher, one who published full-length books and paid a little better than the pamphlet guy. Not much better, and the no-royalties rule remained operative, but still, it was an improvement. Of course, the books also had to be substantially longer, and there were no pictures to break up (and supersede) the text. These were, at least from the point of view of word count, real books. 200 pages minimum. Approximately 50,000 words. I’d never written anything of that length before.
It was another useful exercise. Not for content, but rather for demonstrating to myself that I could sustain a narrative over a substantial number of pages. The books I wrote that summer were no doubt awful in every respect, but damn it, they were books.
The turnaround time in paperback porn was brief. Toward summer’s end, perhaps a month after I’d completed the manuscript, my first book was for sale in the shops. When I happened to chance upon it at a bookstore in Hollywood — one where I’d often shopped in the past, and where I had a longstanding joshing relationship with the proprietor —once I got over my surprise, I claimed authorship and offered to autograph copies. Maybe he simply didn’t believe my claims, but what he said was, “Nah, people will just think they’re used.” “Used” was an awful word for him to employ in this context. And it was deflating to be turned down cold like that. But still! There was my book, for sale in a store where I’d been buying books for years. Where books qua books had always had a kind of magic quality. And now one of mine was on display next to all those others. As if it belonged!
When I arrived in Berkeley that September — I’d transferred to UC for my sophomore year — I found it on the shelves of many local bookshops. It was very strange to be a newly-arrived sophomore, a kid, an undergraduate, one of the lower men on the college totem pole, and find my first literary effort, if you could call it that, prominently displayed in stores along Telegraph Avenue, including well-known and even reputable ones like Moe’s and Cody’s. And to see people thumbing through it and even buying it. It was hard to know whether my anonymity was more of an advantage or a drawback in that situation. It was certainly an odd experience, like showing up incognito at one’s own memorial service.
Well, several more books followed over the next couple of years. And after the first one or two, they too became pure drudgery; at that age I wouldn’t have believed sex could become boring, and sex itself hadn’t become boring, of course, but devising endless descriptions of insertions and eruptions, of bodily fluids and implausible couplings in implausible settings became very boring indeed. Putting that first page into the typewriter each morning made my heart sink. The only way to keep at it was to set myself a daily quota and just put my shoulder to the wheel and grind out pages till I could allow myself to stop for the day. But something interesting happened in the course of doing this: Perhaps only to keep myself from falling asleep at the keyboard, or throwing my precious typewriter across the room, I found myself telling stories. By which I mean, stories of some complexity and with emotional resonance or narrative interest. The situations surrounding or leading up to the explicit sex scenes began asserting their primacy, began assuming importance in my mind, and absorbed more of my energies and more of my attention than they were supposed to. Getting people into bed — getting people into bed, people who were at least semi-convincing as people rather than merely one-dimensional characters with three-dimensional genitals, and getting them into bed for intriguing or provocative or unexpected reasons — became more important to me than the things they did to each other once they actually got there.
Whether this development made the books more or less effective as erotica I have no idea. For all I know, my readers may, with their one free hand, have skipped past all that narrative stuff, such as it was, to get to the hot parts (and in any case the hot parts weren’t exactly few and far between…I never, regardless of my own preferences, neglected the obligations my chosen profession imposed). But for me, it mattered. After first discovering I could sustain a narrative over a considerable span, I now saw that the narrative itself was important to me, and something for which I had some sort of knack. Which in turn gave me the confidence to start writing seriously.
But it was a very odd chain of events that got me to that point. I suppose a case can be made that it was the combination of a parental ultimatum and the absence of a driver’s license — my inability to drive a Good Humor truck — that eventually determined my vocation.