Joshua Citrak: In San Francisco, sex, kink and drugs are a wide, diverse, but largely unchronicled lifestyle. What drew you to this unique niche?
Kemble Scott: Like many people, I moved to San Francisco from somewhere else. When you get here, it can be shocking to see how people behave. As a journalist, I felt compelled to write down what I’d seen and heard. I figured if I found it fascinating and a reflection of the times, perhaps others might find the stories interesting and provocative too.
JC: Was it simply your journalistic nature that drew you into San Francisco or had you been specifically assigned a story that initially piqued your interest?
KS: My background is in investigative journalism, so I guess I’m naturally drawn to stories that aren’t easily accessible. If the attitude is “we’re not supposed to talk about THAT,” then I’m immediately interested.
Shortly after moving to the city, I returned from a trip and took the shuttle van home from the airport. As it pulled up to my apartment in SoMa, a man emerged from a building a few doors down. He wore knee-high leather boots and absolutely nothing else. Naked! The shuttle van was full of tourists fresh from somewhere in Middle America. It was like a comedy sketch. After their jaws dropped at the sight of the man, they all simultaneously turned their heads and stared at me. Me!
I knew I had to write all of it down. It’s the side of modern life we’re not supposed to talk about. But let’s be honest, the people on that van have probably told that story a hundred times.
JC: In SoMa, the story of Raphe centers around blurred sexual lines. Is diverse sexuality a societal norm or just another example of "San Francisco Values"?
KS: The human condition is so complex. You’re looking for trouble if you try to categorize people with simplistic black and white definitions. We all live in shades of gray. In SoMa, I try to make that point using sexuality as an example, but it’s true in nearly every facet of life.
Because San Francisco is arguably America’s only open city, people here are allowed to pursue their desires with a great degree of liberation and tolerance from others. But it’s not just happening here. With the new freedom of expression created by technology and especially the Internet, the latest generation is becoming very comfortable sharing its most intimate thoughts in a very public way, and that includes the complexities of their sexuality.
JC: Change happens one individual at a time and technologies like YouTube or MySpace may help to further integrate and diversify us, however, why is it that San Francisco’s diversity is so asynchronous to the rest of the country?
KS: We seem to have an unusually large number of people living in San Francisco who didn’t grow up here. They moved in from other places. This act alone says something – that they are open to new experiences.
This openness simply fuels a more socially progressive view of the world. It’s harder to be a bigot or racist when you live side by side with people of all kinds. It’s not so easy to hate or demonize “types” of people when you get to know them.
Some would say this puts San Francisco out of sync with the rest of America. The so-called “San Francisco values” debate. That’s just divisive spin. I believe most Americans are kind and decent people, and we all have more in common than the extremists on the political right would like anyone to know.
JC: The quote, "truth is often stranger than fiction" comes to mind when reading a few of the scenes in your book like the BartM4M, or club guys drinking each other's urine in an effort to "recycle" their methamphetamine high. Are these anecdotes real? Where did you hear them?
KS: For years, a friend told me the stories about sexual encounters on the BART. Frankly, I didn’t believe him. It just defied reason. I mean, they’ve got security cameras on those trains! After a while, I decided to write the story based on what he’d told me. I brought a draft to the writers’ workshop I attend, and people loved the story. But in critique, they told me I had all the details wrong. I didn’t have the colors correct, or the layout off the train compartments described correctly. Well, no wonder. I’d never been on the BART. I’d had no reason to ride the commuter train.
So the next afternoon I got on the train to ride over to Oakland and back, just so I could take notes on the physical details of the BART. On my first trip, I witnessed the fetish first hand, so to speak. I was astonished. My friend wasn’t exaggerating at all. To this day, he says, “I told you so!”
The meth details I got from conversations with addicts. Again, I wrote the scenes based on what I imagined it would be like to be on meth, having never used the drug myself. Then I asked users I’d met to read the passages and critique them. Remarkably, they said I’d nailed the “feeling,” but I had the details wrong. They gave me the insight I needed to make the scenes accurate.
It’s amazing what people will tell you. I learned that by working in journalism so long. If you just shut up and listen, people really lay it all out there for you. They want to tell their stories. Now that I have a reputation for writing about the foibles of San Franciscans, it’s astonishing what people will share.
JC: Promiscuity is too conservative a word for the sexual appetites of Lauren, Mark and Raphe. What has sex become a substitute for in their lives? What needs are they trying to fill?
KS: We live in an age of sensory overload. People seem to be pushing toward extremes, just in an attempt to feel anything at all. Fueled by technology, extremes of every variety are now available with the click of a mouse. It’s the religion of the new millennium. No limits.
Sex is the canvas for the story told in SoMa, but it’s hard to think of any aspect of life not subject to this philosophy. People have replaced coffee with Red Bull. They’ve swapped private introspection for reveal-all public blogs. They watch HDTV while simultaneously typing on their laptops and text-messaging friends on their cell phones. Nothing is too much. Just show us the next way to push further, and we’re predictably sold.
I won’t say all of this is bad. The same rapid-fire change, reach-for-the-next-big-thing mentally will eventually cure cancer, solve the energy dilemma and lead to wonders we can’t predict. But there will be casualties too. Not everyone can keep up. In their quest for the next level, some will slip and fall into the abyss. You see that happen in SoMa.
JC: More is our mantra. But where do moderation and responsibility come in? Are those concepts the casualties you speak of, or the dangers of “no limits”?
KS: Moderation and responsibility come in as a result of consequences. Alvin Toffler predicted our “information overload” age in his classic book Future Shock in 1970. He suggested there would be many unintended consequences from our techno centric march to the new millennium.
In a culture where every excess is readily available, responsibility shifts from government and society rules to individuals. That’s what we’re seeing evolve right before our eyes. Some will become enslaved by these new freedoms, while others will cope and manage and thrive.
Each of the main characters in SoMa follows a particular life philosophy to deal with their freedoms. As a literary concept, I modeled these philosophies very loosely on the tenets of the world’s three major religions. Do these older belief constructs fit these times? Do they help or hurt the characters?
I’m not sure the old rules really work anymore. We need new ones, and we’re still figuring it out. I suspect personal responsibility, based in part on consequences, will ultimately shape where we are headed, more so than any top-down dogma.
JC: Some writers describe a mood, a single sentence or even another author's work as the springboard to accomplishing their own novels. What was the initial inspiration for SoMa?
KS: There are many successful novelists out there whose work is derivative of others. They can do a brilliant new adaptation of Howard’s End, put a fresh face on Dante or reinterpret Woolf. I admire their cleverness, and these are the works that become the darlings of the literary establishment, book reviewers and MFA programs.
Somehow, I knew none of that was for me. I couldn’t imagine doing anything other than an original work.
Someone who read the short stories I published on SoMa Literary Review first suggested I write a novel. As soon as he said it, I felt an epiphany. Like I'd been waiting for someone else to say it out loud. Yes, that’s what I needed to do. To get all this into a book.
I fumbled around for a long time. I couldn’t start writing until I knew what I wanted to say. I had to understand the meaning behind the twisted tales. I had to concede that this type of book would be received as a type of provocation, and be at peace with that notion and its implications.
It was puzzle. But once I had this frame assembled, the rest of the pieces started to come together. Developing the characters then led me to other questions that needed to be answered. Certain scenes raised other issues I needed to resolve. It took years to figure it all out.
I have a terrible fear of unconsciously appropriating the ideas of other writers. When I’m focused on my own work, I often avoid reading any other fiction. That said, like many San Francisco writers, I’m greatly inspired by the work of Armistead Maupin. He captured the city in a way that was quirky and playful and entertaining. It stands the test of time.
JC: It does take years to figure a novel out. How do you stay focused for duration of time on a concrete idea like a novel while everything, your emotions, interests, even the city where you live often seem very ephemeral and nebulous?
KS: One of the toughest things to come to terms with about publishing a book is that it’s nearly impossible to write something about “now.” Working in journalism and later on the web, I could publish a story set today… and people would read it today.
In publishing, it takes years to get a book to readers. Even after a deal with a publisher is struck, the average time [to get a book into] bookstores is 18 months. That means whatever you are writing now won’t be read for nearly two years, at the earliest.
At some point you stop trying to write about the present, and commit to a specific time in the past. You have to concede that it’s going to be a period piece. That doesn’t mean your thoughts can’t evolve, but the city itself had to be locked in at a certain time.
JC: Is it a matter of choice, necessity or throwback style to write under a pseudonym?
KS: There was a time when authors who wrote about the shocking side of sex had to hide their identities for fear of a backlash. I use a pen name, but not because I’m hiding. Anyone with Google and an IQ above room temperature can find my true identity. It’s not a secret. You can even see me on YouTube!
My reason for using a pseudonym was born out of practicality, and a philosophy about writing. When I started publishing fiction, I still worked in journalism full time. I never wanted to be one of those journalists mixing fact and fiction. So I continue to work in journalism under my real name, and everything in my fiction world is done under the pen name. I think of it as something like the separation of church and state.
And I purposely chose a pen name that at first glance doesn’t even reveal gender. I wanted readers to absorb the content, not focus on the storyteller.
It turns out there’s a little bit of a trend right now of authors using different names, depending on what they’re writing. Daniel Handler publishes his adult fiction under his real name and his children's books as Lemony Snicket. Nora Roberts uses her own name for romantic suspense, but adopts the identity J. D. Robb for her sci-fi detective books.
Pen names aren’t always about hiding anymore. For some, the names make a point.