Nikki Gemmell’s fourth novel, originally published anonymously, was an international literary sensation. The following is an interview that was conducted by Peter Babiek for the Canadian literary journal “SubTerrain,” in July 2004.
Is this novel “literary pornography”?
Goodness no. It’s basically a very honest take on sex, from a woman’s perspective. When I think of porn I think of something mechanical, bleak, unreal, ugly, and with an utter absence of tenderness. Porn strips sex of mystery, of reverence and transcendence. It’s sex with no light in it and I wanted to write about sex that’s bursting with light and life. So Bride , in a way, is the opposite of pornography. I hoped to write a book that was startlingly real-with all the messiness and magic of life as we know it.
You were put under siege by the media when you were outed as the novel’s author. Did any of any of the controversy bother you?
I can’t really comment as I didn’t read much of the hoo-ha surrounding the book. This was because I wrote it in a bubble of isolation, and dreamed of just walking away from it when it was published and resuming my life (a little like a mother who’s adopted out a child.) When the book came out I tried to stick to the original intention as much as possible, so I have no idea what a lot of the commentators have said. Perhaps some people just didn’t get it. The whole point of the book is the protagonist’s very conventionality-I wanted her to be any woman and every woman, with a very commonplace story. I hoped that was where the power of the book lay.
All I seem to get are readers’ reactions to the unflinching honesty of the book. It’s an aspect of it that many readers have responded to passionately, and it makes my heart lift. They get it. I’m glad I wrote Bride now, although I certainly wasn’t when my name was first attached to it. But so many women have said to me things like “thank you for writing our words” that it’s made me realise these things needed to be said, by someone.
The title of the novel and its unnamed protagonist, as well as your intention to publish it anonymously, suggest that, for you, anonymity in sexual matters allows for more authenticity. Do you think that anonymity is a sign of liberation or a symptom of repression?
Anonymity is a sign of liberation. It’s hard, in a relationship, to be completely honest: to show your partner your secret self. Vita Sackville-West described herself as an iceberg and said her husband could only see what was above the water’s surface-he had no idea of the huge mass below. She speculated it was the reason their marriage worked. What relationship could survive the shock of absolute candour?
But is Sackville-West right, then? Is the cargo of secrets underneath that iceberg indispensable in relationships, as it is for your bride?
Gabriel García Márquez said that everyone has three lives: a public one, a private one, and a secret one. The latter is rarely revealed. With Bride I wanted to strip bare the secret life of an everyday woman, and be utterly ruthless about that. I wanted to reveal the complex underbelly of her sexuality, in all its beauty and ugliness. I think the jolt of the book lies in the woman’s very ordinariness. She’s not a Catherine Millet by any means. She’s the woman you don’t give a second glance to as she walks down an aisle in the supermarket; the woman who has completely disappeared into being “the little wife.”
For years I’d found it difficult to be completely sexually honest. Why is it still so hard for some women, basking in the glow of so many feminist advances, to be more candid about sex? To say such simple things to our sexual partners as, “No, I didn’t have an orgasm,” or “Sometimes I find it monotonous when you make love to me,” or “Sometimes it hurts.” Why are so many women still so subservient to their partner’s pleasure at the expense of their own? Because we don’t want men to turn away from us, perhaps. Because we want our partners to think we’re someone else. Because sometimes we’re willing to put up with a lot; to snare a relationship, to keep it steady, to have children.
I loved the idea of writing a book that dived under the surface of a woman’s life, a seemingly contentedly married woman, and explored her secret world-with ruthless honesty. In The Bride Stripped Bare, I wanted to say all those things we may think but never say; especially to our lovers. I’d fully intended putting my name to the book when I began it. But six months into the project the text just wasn’t singing-I was censoring myself. Afraid of too much honesty, of showing too much vulnerability. And afraid of hurting people close to me. I’m a wife and a mother of two young boys, not to mention the daughter of two gently bewildered people in their sixties. I didn’t want people judging them.
But I was judging the dishonesty in my own life most of all. The aim was to be as merciless in print as a Chuck Close painting or a Ron Mueck sculpture-but as far as I know, those artists do not often turn their extremely critical eye upon themselves. Now I know why. I’m not someone who’s completely relaxed about nudity; I’ve never been comfortable in a bikini. And like many women in a swimsuit I’m afraid of revealing too much. But when the idea of anonymity came to me, everything clicked. I was suddenly like a woman on a foreign beach who’s confident she doesn’t know a soul and parades her body loudly and joyously without worrying what anyone thinks of her. I’d opened a door to a reckless, exhilarating new world and could say whatever I wanted. I could be ridiculously honest. It felt wonderful, powerful; an enormous relief.
I’m far from unique in finding anonymity liberating when it comes to sex. A survey last year in the Journal of Sex Research found women lied more often than men about sex-and their answers changed dramatically when they believed they were answering anonymously. Embellishments under their own names included reducing the number of partners they’d had and lying about the use of pornography. The respondents were extremely sensitive to social expectations about how they were meant to behave. Anonymity was liberating for them, as it was for me.
When I sat at my writing desk I entered this strange, liberating psychological state of secrecy: it was as if I was stepping out my everyday self and becoming someone much more confident and in control. Anonymity also meant I wasn’t afraid of The Bride Stripped Bare failing. It seemed such a strange hybrid of novel, memoir, treatise and sex manual, and I wasn’t sure it worked. I was a very new mother at the time and had lost my professional confidence. My brain didn’t work in the way it used to. My previous novel, Love Song, had gone to sixty drafts over several intensive years and I just didn’t have the stamina to work that way again.
Anonymity was also my way of trying to divorce myself from feeling over this book; because I’ve always cared too much about my novels and now I have babies to care about, and at the moment there’s no room in my heart for both. The plan was to adopt out this new baby in my life, to absolve myself from caring. I didn’t want the burden of worrying about it too much.
I wrote Bride in a kind of trance of exhilaration and glee-it felt incredibly empowering to finally tell the truth. Virginia Woolf described anonymity as a “refuge” for women writers. “…publicity in women is detestable,” she wrote. “Anonymity runs in their blood. The desire to be veiled still possesses them.” I could only write this book by being veiled. It is still difficult to talk about it publicly, eighteen months after being unmasked.
Bride is also a response to another anonymous text, a mysterious sixteenth century document known as WoEman’s Worth . Its tone is boldly sexual, its honesty shocking, and its authorship disputed. Germaine Greer believes it was written by a man close to his mother; others say it was by an anonymous housewife. I choose to believe the latter, and loved the idea of a twenty-first-century housewife also writing a secret book under the nose of her husband. Saying all those things she may think but never say-even in this sexually liberated day and age. And I’ve discovered, through writing The Bride Stripped Bare , that honesty is the most shocking thing of all.
It’s unusual that your novel is woven together with a four-hundred-year-old book. What were you aiming for by having the bride self-consciously decide that she must respond to it? I mean, there’s more here than just a curious historical angle in an otherwise modern narrative, isn’t there?
I’m fascinated by this book [WoEman’s Worth]. I first read about it in The Times, in an article speculating on the nature of its anonymity. I thought, “Ah-hah, that’s delicious; now I’ve got my key! I’ll write a response to this text. My book, too, will be written by an anonymous housewife.” I loved the boldly subversive, almost cheeky tone of the seventeenth-century text-and I recognised it. The author could only have written these charged, highly subversive sexual declarations in secret. I wanted to say to the author hey, it’s four hundred years later and women have come a long way-but actually, not so far in some matters. I was intrigued that this seventeenth-century writer seemed to have more confidence, sexually, than a woman in the twenty-first century who’s lived through several decades of feminist advances, not to mention Sex and the City.
At one point the protagonist refers to “the churn of a secret life” and the “desire to crash catastrophe into your world.” Where does this desire come from: do you see it as more of an imaginative, and therefore fleeting, inclination or is it a real need that must be acted upon?
My bride is the quintessential “good wife”-a woman who’s lived a marriage of capitulation, who’s now in her mid-thirties and stepping to the side of her own life. It’s as if all the spark and vividness and loudness of her youth is being rubbed out. She’s aware of this but feels powerless to alter the situation. It doesn’t stop her, though, from desiring a way of “crashing catastrophe” into her life in some way. My protagonist eventually finds a way of breaking out, of feeling fully alive and empowered and in control. A lot of women don’t.
Another reason for the anonymity was that I wanted The Bride Stripped Bare to be about every woman and any woman in a sense. I hated the idea of my own name-any individual’s name-being attached to it. For it becomes much easier then to dismiss the book as “just so-and-so’s thoughts.” I dreamed of something much more subversive than that; loved the idea of a husband, any husband, flipping through Bride in a bookstore and thinking, “Oh my God, did my wife write this? Is this what she really thinks?”
At one point in the novel, the narrator is in bed alone and she starts fantasising. For your otherwise gentle narrator and for those of us living in real time, what does having thoughts that are “never intimate or tender” offer?
I wanted this to be unflinchingly honest about some of the murkier aspects of womanhood, the raw, visceral reality under the seemingly demure exterior. It’s a deeply secret world. Women do not talk about it with other women, let alone to male partners. “The whole business of eroticism is to strike at the inmost core of the living being…to destroy the self-contained character of the participators as they are in their normal lives,” Georges Bataille wrote. We’re all at our most vulnerable when it comes to sex; it’s the closest we get to revealing our true selves in all our banality, ugliness, brutality and foolishness. The intrigue lies in the glimpses behind the masks we all wear in our public lives.
I’m fascinated by the tension between contradictory erotic forces within women, an ambivalence that’s long cast its spell. Freud cherished it in the Mona Lisa: “(a) contrast between reserve and seduction, and between the most devoted tenderness and a sensuality that is ruthlessly demanding.” I wanted to strip bare an utterly ordinary woman’s secret, dirty world; to reveal her innermost being.
A lot of us can’t face the thought of people seeing us as we really are-for it means losing control of the public persona we’ve so carefully maintained. And we never get closer to the truth of our dark, vulnerable, messy selves than with sex. Perhaps that’s why the prospect of being unmasked as the author of this book was so very difficult to bear. Perhaps if I was alone, without family around me who I deeply care about, it would have been easier.
Why do you think we might be aroused by sexual practices we’d also call repellent?
If we dive deep into the underbelly of anyone’s sexuality it is without limitations and standards. As Goethe said, “baseness attracts everybody.” But usually this world is completely hidden: we never know another person’s secret life. The most shocking thing about Bride is its honesty-and it is the thing that readers respond to the most. So many women have said things like “this is me, these are my thoughts,” or “it struck such a raw nerve with me.” Responses like that have made me realise that the book was worth doing.
Did you make the bride’s first lover, Gabriel, a virgin to reverse the old social stereotype of the male sexually preying upon the virgin female?
I loved the idea of a man who was totally malleable; who would do exactly what a woman wanted, without any preconceived notions of what makes for glorious sex. The most obvious example to use would have been a much younger man, but I didn’t want to stray into Mrs. Robinson territory. I wanted something a little more unusual.
Catherine Millet, in her memoir, The Sexual Life of Catherine M , says “Fucking is an antidote to boredom.” At times, the bride seems to think the same thing, albeit in less direct language. Would she agree with Millet on this, or is she too drawn to the occasional “charge” in her marriage, and to a relationship that works “enough?”
Fucking is not an antidote to boredom for my protagonist. She is pushed into illicit sex through extreme pressures. Those pressures are not only a suspected betrayal by her husband-but by a sense that she is becoming subsumed by the role of “wife”; she has lost any sense of her former self. It is a way of reclaiming something of herself, for herself. There is a moral core to Bride . My protagonist respects the sanctity of monogamy and is deeply disturbed by the events that unfold in the book. And it’s hard to explain, but another reason for the anonymity was that it came from a deep love; a deep sense of compassion. It is the love between a husband and wife that I was most interested in, with all the compromises inherent within that particular relationship, all the mess. Nothing is clean, nothing straightforward, but there can be a tenacious love nonetheless.
I’ve shown a female friend the part of your novel that lists “What you do not want” and “What you want.” She checked many of the practices that you listed in the first category, like “A tongue in your ear,” “To be asked what are you thinking,” and “any expression like ohh yes, baby and c’mon .” This made me wonder if many men-and not just the bride’s husband, Cole-have it all wrong. Do we?
I can’t speak for all men, but it’s a section of the book that struck a chord with many women. For this chapter, I emailed about fifteen girlfriends and asked them to give me just one line on something they loved a man to do to them during sex, and one thing they couldn’t stand. Most responded, extremely candidly-much more so than in conversations we’d ever had. About a third said they didn’t like anything to do with the breasts. Hallelujah! So it wasn’t just me-and for a long time I’d thought I must be frigid in this particular area. And yet this is something men assume is a key erogenous zone for all women, and always make a beeline for. Where do these sexual myths come from, and why do women so willingly perpetuate them?
One woman said she couldn’t stand a big penis. Right on, girlfriend, I thought-I really don’t like feeling I’m being split apart either. Some commented on the sounds men made as they were coming. One woman had a particular hatred of expressions like “Ooh yes, baby,” another said she couldn’t stand it when an ex-lover sounded like he was straining on the toilet. This chapter in particular was meant to be a cheeky kind of instruction manual for men. The book, after all, is dedicated “To my husband. To all husbands.”
I loved the idea of male readers being sparked by the erotic implications of a book “By Anonymous” -and then actually learning something as they delved into it. It’s not meant to be a comfortable read but a challenging one. And what is it that men can’t stand a woman doing to them while they’re making love? Ah, it’s up to someone else to write The Groom Stripped Bare . It could only be a man, and it would have to be written anonymously-for it’s the only way to be rigorously honest. The male writer who’s come closest to that shocking, reckless, exhilarating level of candour is Michel Houellebecq.
Yet Houellebecq, whose name has come up in discussions of Bride , writes about sexuality in a very clinical manner. Your novel is far less melancholic, or at any rate it does not push out a heavy message of sociological seriousness, like his. It wouldn’t really fit into the movement that’s been called, in part because of Houellebecq, “depressionism”, would it?
Goodness, no, I wouldn’t include Bride in the depressionism movement in any way. My novel is all heart!
So who are your literary influences, then? One reviewer compared you to the American novelist Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fight Club . Is that a fair comparison?
Haven’t read him, sorry. I’d say Bride was more in the vein of extremely raw, unflinching female confessionals like Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept . Actually, the book I was thinking of when I began to write was Alessandro Baricco’s Silk. I dreamt of something extremely short, elegant and spare. But my books never end up the way I initially envisage them, no matter how much I try to corral them during the writing process. They always assume a life of their own, as Bride did very much as I was working on it. She just slipped away from me.
Your protagonist-a writer like you-assigns a pivotal role to the ability of words to arouse. Whether it’s “the intoxicating smell of paper and leather, of words, waiting” at the library, or “saying all the words that’ve never slipped comfortably from your tongue: cunt, fuck, ass,” there is a quivering eroticism in her experience with words. Why are they so important in a story like this?
I wanted the reading of the book to be a sensual experience. I wanted there to be a beauty to the words and the honesty; a beauty to the cover, the text, even the paper (of course, publishers aren’t quite so keen on the expense of this!) But in a way I wanted the reader to be lulled into a false sense of security by the beauty and the sensuality of the whole package-and then be jarred by some extremely raw truths. I love the element of surprise in writing.
Why the second-person narrative? A critic in The Independent wrote that this narrative voice turns your protagonist into an object and, at the same time, forces the reader into the frame. Why did you use this narrative point of view?
I was fascinated by that particular tense and wanted to give it a go. It’s extremely difficult to sustain-the only book I’d read where it was successfully pulled off was Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City. I loved the way the second-person tense implies intimacy and yet also distance. The protagonist is recording events as they witness them, but also commenting upon them objectively. Some people have said, of my unnamed bride, that it was like “reading her brain, being in her head-space,” which was exactly the effect I was aiming for-hopefully without too much indulgence.
The term “post-feminist” has come up in reviews of Bride . Is this a post-feminist book in its vindication of marriage and family?
I was fascinated by the shortcomings of feminism. I consider myself a feminist and yet I still hanker, deeply, for the age-old stereotypes of mother, wife, nester-and that puts me in an odd position. I think a lot of the so-called unfashionable urges that Bride explores are deeply biological within many women, and feminism doesn’t give them much credit. Nothing is black and white; we’re all animals underneath and we have to listen to our bodies. Women, particularly older feminists, have to be more embracing of the choices some younger women are making. We just have to value each other.