What Happens In Omaha, Stays In Omaha

May 22nd, 2007 · 2 Comments
by Timothy Schaffert

[BS Says: Judging a book by its cover is a time-honored tradition, and we put Timothy Schaffert’s Sex Parties…er, Devils in the Sugar Shop in the “Check it out” pile the moment we saw it. When Caitlin from Unbridled contacted us about the book, we were more than eager to hear what Timothy had to say about his book. What follows is true story. We hope.]

Sex Parties in Omaha—that was once the non-unassuming title for my latest novel, a title eventually abandoned for the vaguely more chaste Devils in the Sugar Shop (though I suppose it does bring to mind The Devil in Miss Jones, that Georgina Spelvin vehicle of the 70s that holds the distinction of being the first modern adult film to feature a shot of double-penetration). I hadn’t initially intended on calling the book Sex Parties in Omaha, but whenever people asked after my next project, and I mentioned the working title, people got all tickled. At otherwise civilized book clubs, where I’d been invited to discuss my other novels (novels with less direct, less sordid, more giddily cryptic titles: The Phantom Limbs of the Rollow Sisters, The Singing and Dancing Daughters of God), the women would put down their cups of chamomile and politely ask what was next, and what would be its title; I’d loosen my lips and let slip the naughty little thing, and they’d yelp with delight. So I became attached to the title—it seemed a healthy mix of the filthy and the ludicrous.

Devils in the Sugar Shop coverHowever, some women, albeit amused, confessed they’d never buy a book called Sex Parties in Omaha. If they were reading the novel at the coffee shop, might people mistake it for a guidebook? Might complete strangers take them for Midwestern libertines? And there’s the practical fact that sex doesn’t always sell—getting good placement in bookstores could prove challenging with a title that hints so at dereliction. Or maybe not. Maybe the book could inch into becoming a succès de scandale. Maybe it could be sold with a plain-brown-wrapper-cum-marketing-gimmick. Maybe publicity materials could include condoms that inflate to feature the book cover. Cocktail napkins with my phone number scrawled across it? Because as much as we’d all like to be J. D. Salinger, frigid and inaccessible, the fact is, to be noticed, a literary novelist has to be prepared to put out like Georgina Spelvin. (Hey, I just tricked out my book’s MySpace page! Check it out!)

But actually, the more troubling aspect of dubbing the novel Sex Parties in Omaha was not the sex in the book, but the lack of sex in the book. At the risk of turning off potential readers, I’ll confess that the most explicit sex scene in Devils in the Sugar Shop is one in which a man and a woman kiss for an hour. If the book was called Sex Parties in Omaha, those readers longing to be debased would be disappointed. Sure, there are sex toys, an erotica writing workshop, and a suburban swingers’ party; there’s a stalker inspired by vintage pornography, and a swarthy dwarf who photographs himself in the nude, and an adulterer’s attempt to be seductive in an email. But ultimately it’s a bedroom farce with its bedroom scenes partly inspired by Edward Gorey’s faux-Victorian picture book, The Curious Sofa: A Pornographic Work by Ogdred Weary, which only hints at the unseemly—the artist’s eye is gentlemanly turned away from all the saucy goings-on. On one page of The Curious Sofa we see only a woman’s hand through a steamed-over window of a car, her fingertips pinching a grape: Herbert, “an extremely well-endowed young man” has invited Alice for a ride in a taxi-cab, “on the floor of which they did something Alice had never done before.”

Though such tongue-in-cheekiness would seem too coy without Gorey’s illustrations, his withdrawn ladies and gents with the comically wide, melancholy eyes and skinny extremities, I felt that I needed to take a slightly similar approach. As I wrote the first draft, I knew all along that I wanted Sex Parties in Omaha to end with an example of the titular events, but I also knew that writing sex scenes can prove catastrophic—group sex scenes doubly so, I’d imagine. Triply so. Quadrupley.

I once heard a reading by a famous writer’s un-famous writer-husband, and his novel excerpt was an inept portrait of a nympho—complete with descriptions of her “full pubic bush” and “pendulous breasts.” A literary sex scene can, with only a single ill-conceived adjective or soft-porn cliché, render a book impotent in one fell swoop, and it’s been known to happen to even our best writers. Certainly, I meant for Devils in the Sugar Shop to be a comedy of manners, but I didn’t really want the joke to be on me, the prose purple with things engorged and throbbing and heaving.

Ultimately, this trickiness in writing about sex, or even talking about sex, became part of the very subject of the novel. The women in Devils in the Sugar Shop have jobs that require they be provocative, yet they seek solace in discretion. They think they want the truth in their lives, personally and professionally, but when the truth presents itself, they retreat into the safety of euphemisms and carefully orchestrated misconceptions.

And Ashley Allyson, an erotic novelist in Devils, addresses directly the challenges of sex-writing. She becomes frustrated in the erotica-writing class she teaches, her students seeming to have no insights into what’s arousing. One of her students, a woman named Mrs. Bloom, is writing a book called Lolita’s Baby, an imagining of the sexual journeys that Lolita’s teenaged daughter might have embarked upon (had Lolita’s daughter not died at birth). In an early draft of Devils, Mrs. Bloom reads aloud to the erotica-writing class, a reading which goes on for a good three pages, an excerpt as ridiculously raw and pornographic as I could make it. I essentially dealt with the problem of writing subtly about sex by turning over the book’s one sex scene to the least subtle person in the book. Mrs. Bloom, a feminist newspaper editor on the verge of madness, takes Devils hostage in that chapter, and goes the full Georgina Spelvin; she double-penetrates the reader with raunchy excess. I used words that my agent said she’d never heard before.

My agent, though no prude by any means, suggested I cut the excerpt. She said it didn’t fit with the rest of the book. Essentially, she saw through it for the tawdry thing it really was—a profane joke. So, in the published version of Devils in the Sugar Shop, Mrs. Bloom’s dirty book is reduced to the phrase “finger-bang,” a phrase that proves controversial in the workshop, and leads to a semi-heated discussion about the intricacies of writing about feminine pleasure.

Perhaps if you email me, I’ll send you Mrs. Bloom’s excerpt from Lolita’s Baby, if I can be sure you’re of age. A pornographer must be careful in this climate.

Okay, we’re back just for a brief commercial announcement. We strongly urge you to check out Devils in the Sugar Shop for yourself. Also, please hang out for a while at the Unbridled website (check out the publisher’s blog…anything and everything you ever wanted to know all in one place). And while Timothy is a delightful email correspondent, he also has a website. It’s here.

File Under: Wrapped Up In Books

2 responses so far ↓

  • Kassia Krozser // May 22, 2007 at 7:49 pm

    Okay, well, I’ve carried a lot of books with a lot of embarrassing covers in my day. Sex Parties in Omaha might not faze me, but I can see it giving other women pause (Hmm, I didn’t know you were planning to move to Omaha…).

  • Missy Sue Hanson // May 23, 2007 at 9:09 pm

    This has to be the best post/article I’ve read in a long time! The title would actually compel me to pick it up and read it anywhere, lol. How much cooler can you get than sitting in a cafe, sipping a latte and reading a book called “Sex Parties in Omaha”? I say, you can’t get much cooler than that, lol.