Saturday, October 6, 2018

Writing as a Sensual Act: In Conversation with Sallie Tisdale

Sallie Tisdale's most recent book is Advice for Future Corpses. (Photo: Robbie McClaran)

Sallie Tisdale, a literary libertine, is laid out on a divan in a downtown Toronto bar called Harmony Lounge, gorging on cakes and finger sandwiches. It's not that she's ravenous – she just had lunch – it's just that she is loath to deny herself pleasure, any pleasure – food, liquids, sex. Especially sex.

The author of Talk Dirty To Me, a book celebrating orgasms, pornography, fantasies, prostitution and other things that make the libido go bump in the night, became a cause célèbre immediately upon its publication in 1994. She has since authored nine non-fiction books, as well as dozens of articles for The New Yorker, The New Republic and Harper's magazines. Her latest title is Advice for Future Corpses (and Those Who Love Them): A Practical Perspective on Death and Dying, published by Touchstone Books in June.

"I'm internally driven about my work," Tisdale says. "And I get an intense satisfaction from it. I'd say I have a hedonistic relationship with writing. I can feel puritanical about it too – guilt and shame. Poor little puritan. But I write to cure myself. I write to cure my neuroses, my fears, my confusions.”

Tisdale reaches for yet another sandwich and chews her bread slowly, cooing over each flavour. She licks her fingers. Smacks her lips. She's having so much fun it seems cruel to make her speak further. But she insists.

"I eat at least three times a day and I'm not bored with food at all." Obviously. "And so when people ask me if I get tired about talking about sex just because I've written a book about it, I think, Why would I? It's natural.” She takes another bite.

Tisdale's attraction to sybaritic pleasures extends to her writing, which she says is as sensuous an act as, well, sucking on toes. “That's how Talk Dirty To Me evolved. As a need to cure the lack of comfort I felt when talking about sex." All her writing, she adds, is personally based.

Talk Dirty To Me first took shape as an essay for Harper's that spoke openly about her taste for pornography. Her take on the subject was refreshingly candid and sensible. It flew in the face of such heavyweight anti-porn advocates as Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin while providing a softened version of the in-your-face feminism advocated by Camille Paglia, another female porn promoter. To her supporters, Tisdale appeared approachable, an intelligent and intrepid spokeswoman for the sexually ambiguous times.

"Feminists against pornography (as distinct from other anti-pornography camps) hold that our entire culture is pornographic," writes Tisdale in her book. "Even the act of viewing becomes a male act – an act of subordinating the person viewed. Under this construct I'm a damaged woman, a heretic. I take this personally, the effort to repress material I enjoy – to tell me how wrong it is for me to enjoy it. That branch of feminism tells me my thoughts are bad. Pornography tells me the opposite: that none of my thoughts are bad, that anything goes. Both are extremes, of course, but the difference is profound. The message of pornography, by its very existence, is that our sexual selves are real."

Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic and style writer on staff at The Globe and Mail newspaper from 1985 to 2017. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York, the Dance Gazette in London, and NUVO in Vancouver, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press) and AWOL: Tales for Travel-Inspired Minds (Vintage Books). The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, she has also written for a wide range of international titles, including Marie Claire in London, Elle in New York and Vogue Australia. Recipient of the 2014 Nathan Cohen Award for Excellence in Theatre Criticism (Long Form Category), Canada's most important arts writing prize, she is presently at work on her next book, an examination of The Beatles and their style. In 2017, she joined Toronto’s York University as Editor of the award-winning York University Magazine.

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