Michael Lowenthal and I often call each other “the one that got away.” This does not refer to our romantic lives but rather to the fact that although I attended Lesley University’s MFA program, where he is a founding member of the fiction faculty, we never worked together while I was a student. Luckily for me, our friendship blossomed after I graduated in 2017, when I reached out to him to see if he’d help me polish up my stories, essays, and later, a novel. His editorial feedback is much like his writing style—fiercely and often brutally honest.
Lowenthal’s fifth book, a collection of stories called Sex with Strangers, will be released this March. In a similar way to his previous four novels—The Paternity Test (2012), Charity Girl (2007), Avoidance (2002), and The Same Embrace (1998)—his new book explores what he calls the “painful aloneness and painful togetherness” that often accompany sex and sexuality. Throughout his work, he dares to ask questions about the darknesses of sexuality we as a society often sweep under the rug, then he dares even further to answer those questions. In addition to writing fiction, he also pens essays, a collection of which he is currently completing. (My personal favorite of Lowenthal’s nonfiction writing chronicles the time he played trumpet alongside avant-garde jazz legend Sun Ra.)
In mid-January, Lowenthal and I spoke about his new book over Zoom. Since I live in Florida and he lives in Massachusetts, splitting time between the Boston neighborhood of Roslindale and a home his father owns on Cape Cod, video calls had already been our primary pre-COVID mode of communication. He was on the Cape this time and occasionally turned his iPad camera to show me the sunset over the marsh. As a native Floridian, I’m not unaccustomed to beautiful sunsets over marshes, but I couldn’t resist Lowenthal’s enthusiasm for this particularly purple-red sky in a place he knows so well and adores so much. We spoke for nearly two hours on a Sunday evening, stopping just in time so we could each, in our mutually confessed dorkiness, catch the new episode of 60 Minutes.
The stories in Sex with Strangers cover a big span of your writing life. The earliest was drafted a couple of decades ago, and the newest was only recently completed. Shaping this collection, what did you find had been on your mind as a writer over the course of that time?
I don’t know why this should have come as a surprise to me, but I realized that everything I’ve ever thought about writing, essentially, has had to do with how sex and sexuality drive people, both individually and in their relationships to one another and their communities. I don’t know why, but sex seems to be the lens I put on everything.
Being an openly queer writer, have you ever felt pressure to put sexuality at the front of your work?
I haven’t, really. I’m aware of that pressure, but haven’t felt it. I just this morning started reading the amazing new Peter Cameron novel, called What Happens at Night. There was a very formative moment for me, more than 20 years ago, when I was on the judging panel for the Ferro-Grumley Award, which honors the best LGBT book of the year, and it was a year that one of Peter’s books had come out. It was a novel that didn’t have any explicitly queer characters, although I thought the sensibility of the book was beyond queer. There were three of us on the judging panel, and I was pushing hard for Peter’s novel. One of the other judges—a prominent, old-school gay writer—resisted strongly and said, “Peter Cameron is just a straight person’s gay writer.”
What did that mean to you?
I guess he was saying that Peter cared too much about what straight people thought about his work, and had consciously… de-gayed it? Which I didn’t think was true, and I found it really problematic. It was sort of a litmus test of “you’re not queer enough,” or “you’re betraying the community if you don’t write about queer characters all the time.”
Which I understood, in a sense, because for so many years, being an openly queer writer was a career killer. I can see why the first writers who did take that risk of writing “unapologetically gay” characters have some resentment toward the gay folks who “passed” in mainstream publishing.
That’s a tough criticism.
I actually faced that same criticism when my third novel, Charity Girl, came out, and a relatively prominent gay writer and critic, who had been very generous to me and supportive of me when I was just starting out, wrote a piece that included criticism of my book. I can’t remember the phrase he used, but the message was that I’d sold out and gone straight and mainstream because there was no gayness in that novel. It felt ludicrous to me for so many reasons, one of which was that that novel is set in 1918, and its main character is a teenage girl who doesn’t end up being queer, but I wrote that novel from the start as a historical parable of, or parallel to, the AIDS epidemic. In fact, I got the idea for that novel when I was reading AIDS and Its Metaphors by Susan Sontag, and there was a two-sentence reference to the girls and women in World War I who had been quarantined for having venereal disease. From the moment I read that, I thought, “If I wrote this story set in World War I, I could deal with all the same issues about disease and ostracism and moralization of illness and condemnation of non-normative sexuality and all of these things that I was immersed in as a queer man in the ‘90s in the middle of the AIDS epidemic, and I could transfer them all onto this other story.” And still, this friendly gay critic took me to task for essentially straightening myself out and going with a mainstream publisher.
But even through all of that, I actually don’t feel that pressure you’re describing. I feel like writing about whatever I want to write about. The stories in Sex with Strangers—it depends on how you count, but I would say four of them are queer and four of them are straight or un-queer. I don’t know if that means that the book will appeal to neither gay readers nor straight readers?
It’s too egalitarian! [Laughs]
Since you mentioned AIDS, though, it’s worth noting that your new book also dives into the subject of grief. You wrote the story “The Gift of Travel” more recently than the others in the collection, and I’m curious how it felt to work on a story about the AIDS epidemic during a different kind of massive pandemic.
Putting the finishing touches on that story certainly had me thinking about the parallels and differences between the AIDS and COVID experiences. It’s been so strange—for those of us who were immersed in the AIDS epidemic, Anthony Fauci was a huge name. He was this crucial person to us 25, 30 years ago, and it’s so bizarre now that he’s this worldwide famous figure that everybody knows and who people on the right tend to vilify—you know, “Fire Fauci” and all that. That parallel is incredible.
But other aspects are just so different. One of the predominant feelings during the worst of the AIDS years was a feeling of isolation from the larger mainstream society. In the community that we were part of, the disease was so overwhelming and intense, but other people were completely ignoring it. And you know, the government paid almost no attention, and Reagan went literally four full years without even saying the word “AIDS” in public.
Really? Wow, I’ve never heard that.
Maybe I should’ve said this first, but I feel incredibly lucky that because I’m just young enough, AIDS didn’t hit me square the way it did people who are even just five years older than I am. I also lived through the worst of it in the middle of nowhere in New Hampshire and Vermont, so I wasn’t on the streets in New York fighting. But it was still the air we had to breathe as young queer people at the time. There was that sense of a terrible, overwhelming thing happening and the larger world not paying attention.
What’s been so startling now is to see everybody going through COVID together. Not to say there aren’t differences now—deniers, people who say the virus is a hoax, who ignore it and don’t wear their masks. But to have the whole country and, indeed, the whole world paying attention—you turn on the TV, and it’s there every day—and to have the entire scientific establishment putting everything they have into finding a vaccine and a cure? I don’t know if I have any grand conclusions to draw about it, but there’s part of me that gets so sad and angry to think that people didn’t care about AIDS back then. It’s killed over 30 million people at this point. If people had paid attention then the way they are now, how much suffering could have been avoided?
The other part that’s so interesting to me is that navigating the safety of COVID has so many parallels to safe sex. There are certain conversations that some people seem to find so awkward right now that my queer friends and I don’t find awkward at all. Somebody will say, “I’d like to come visit,” and we have this discussion of, “Well, can we just stay outside on the patio? Will we allow them to come in and use the bathroom or not? Do I trust so-and-so—have they been safe enough, or do I have to make it explicit and ask?” I know some people find that conversation so awkward that they maybe don’t even have it and end up just taking the risk. But all my queer friends are like, “We’ve had that conversation a thousand times about sex!”
[Laughs] You’re right—there are so many parallels to safe sex in all of this. Did you see that piece in The Atlantic comparing COVID precautions to abstinence-only sex education? There’s this notion of expecting people to stay safe by abstaining from human interaction.
Well, speaking of safe sex, the specific story you were asking about, “The Gift of Travel,” has a much stronger autobiographical basis than the other pieces in the collection. The friend I based a lot of it on, John Preston, actually wrote an erotic guide to safe sex in 1986, when the concept was being invented. John was a writer and editor who died in 1994. For this story, which involves a younger writer being part of the long, slow dying process of his mentor, I took a lot of details and atmosphere from the relationship I had and my experiences with John. I’ve thought a lot about the privilege of being part of someone’s dying in that way, having weeks and months to be with them at their bedside and talk about important things. With John, there were conversations that we knew were going to be the last conversations, when he had the opportunity to transmit certain pieces of advice, mentorship, and wisdom. That’s what’s been robbed for so many people in the COVID deaths. These horrible stories where people can’t be by the bedside, and maybe they can have a FaceTime call or two, but there’s an impersonality to that. A rushed-ness to it. I feel so, so awful for the people who have had to do that.
As terrible as it is to have a loved one die—especially, as has happened during the AIDS epidemic so often, to have someone die decades younger than expected—there could also be a privilege and a beauty. And there could be a complete mundaneness to it that I wanted to be honest about in that story. We expect it to be all profundity all the time, but often, it’s also just somebody sleeping or the bad smell of somebody’s bedpan.
Right. You’re brutally honest in that story about how waiting around for someone to die can amount to a lot of wondering if you’re even doing any good being there.
I can’t imagine how challenging it must have been to write so honestly about that in order to show people what that was like. I didn’t know that was based on your experience with a mentor. I’m so sorry you had to go through that.
I was just so lucky to have him as a friend and a mentor. I wonder what he would think of how my life has turned out, or at least my writing life. He made a name for himself writing porn, essentially, which you might call “erotic writing” nowadays. He had also been the editor of The Advocate, which was maybe the most important national gay and lesbian magazine at the time, but maybe his biggest breakthrough was when he started a series of gay erotic anthologies that were brought out by one of the most mainstream publishers in New York—something that had never happened before. He published some of my early stories and essays, including a couple in those Flesh and the Word anthologies. We had this tension where he was—well, how should I phrase it? I had these snooty, Ivy League, New Yorker aspirations.
Ah. Of course.
I was shooting for the stars. He ribbed me a lot about that—like, “Oh, you’re too good just to write porn.”
But he sort of gave me permission at a very young age to write more freely without feeling like the editor of The New Yorker was looking over my shoulder.
We all need that person!
Right before he died, he asked me if I would finish his last books, knowing that it would give me this sudden turbo boost into having a publishing career and editing career. I was just shy of turning 25 when he died.
God, what a horrible loss that must have been.
One of the books was the next installment in the Flesh and the Word series, so my first major publication was with a mainstream publisher… but it was me as editor of an erotic anthology.
I just think he would have such a laugh about the fact that I’ve published a book that’s called Sex with Strangers.
I was just about to ask about that! It sounds like you’ve married the two experiences.
I hope so. I hope I’m having my cake and eating it, too. And that John would say, “Well done, young lad.”
In a book called Sex with Strangers, it’s interesting that you decided to include a story about a character who isn’t having any sex at all, namely a Catholic priest who’s ministering on a cruise ship. Aside from the universal fascination with a priest’s chosen life of celibacy, what drew you toward writing from the perspective of this kind of character?
I often don’t know or don’t remember what sparks ideas for stories, but for this one, I do. It was like what happened with Charity Girl, when I was sitting in the Boston College library reading that Susan Sontag book on AIDS. In this instance, I was reading David Foster Wallace’s amazing and famous essay about going on a cruise ship, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.”
Best title ever.
He writes about going to mass on the cruise ship, and I thought, “Wait… what? There’s a priest on the cruise ship?”
[Laughs] I had the same reaction when I read your story!
I thought, “So that must be a gig. Is it a paid gig? Does the same priest always go on the ship, or do they rotate?” I thought I was just going to write about a priest on a cruise ship, and I certainly didn’t think it was going to have anything to do with sex, but of course, because it’s my brain, and because, like you said, celibacy is such a fascinating aspect of priesthood that people think about, that’s where it ended up going.
I love the moment in your story where someone asks the priest about his celibacy, and his knee-jerk reaction is, “Why is everyone so obsessed with this? Why are people always asking about this?” But then it ends up being his own obsession, his own question about himself.
Absolutely. I imagine that the large majority of priests deal with that all the time.
Aside from sex, another thing that has always obsessed me and crops up in a lot of my work is orthodoxy of various kinds. The extreme cases in a religion or culture are often where interesting things happen that, if you explore them, can shed light on stuff that even those of us who don’t live at those extremities also deal with. I’ve always been fascinated by how people balance fulfillment of their own individual yearnings and needs versus those of a larger community. Sexuality’s such an interesting arena in which people who lead more orthodox lives have to balance what they choose to give up with what they ultimately want. I’m also fascinated by the rule systems that people adhere to or agree to, even though they’re just constructs. For me, sexuality was the equivalent of that. I grew up looking around and wondering why everyone seemed to be colluding with this strange cultish conspiracy to pretend that heterosexuality was the only appropriate desire. In my own brain, it was so clear that that was just not true, and I thought, “Why does everybody pretend that that’s true and agree to agree to that?”
Really? That’s so interesting.
Oh, the cult of heterosexuality has always been fascinating to me. [Laughter] I mean, come on, people! It’s just obviously not true!
Something our society doesn’t talk very openly about is what to do with sexual desire when it could potentially put others in harm and how to grapple with those desires while keeping others safe. Your work explores those very tricky gray areas in sexual desire—for instance, one of the characters in your book is attracted to young, thin women, to the point where it’s clear that he’s attracted to his friend’s very thin teenage daughter. There’s a line in that story that really sums this up—this character says, “Lust is never gonna be PC.” But I’m curious about what draws you to point toward instances of problematic sexual desire in your work.
This is tricky for me to answer, but just like with heterosexuality, I think the refusal to see the gray areas is another collusion delusion.
[Laughs] I can’t believe you’re quoting you-know-who!
I know! [Laughter] But it’s such a crazy notion—that good people have good desires, and bad people have bad desires.
And that there’s no overlap, or that things aren’t trickier than that. Partly stemming from my own personal desires, but also just from what I see of the world, I know that could never be true. I’m interested in forcing myself and other people to think about the complications of uncomfortable desire. I’m particularly interested in—to use these oversimplified terms—good people who have bad desires. Or how tricky and problematic desires can challenge people who don’t want to hurt other people. Again, it’s that balance of, “How do you do what feels good for you when you realize it might be bad for somebody else?” I mean, let me stipulate: there are evil people who do terrible sexual things. Unfortunately, that’s just clear. That’s obvious. But I also don’t find it all that narratively interesting—just like I’ve never been one of those people obsessed with serial killers. I’ve just never been that interested.
Me neither! And I feel like I’m betraying all my fellow millennial women by saying so because millennial women are so into true crime!
[Laughs] Serial killers are bad people who do bad things! What’s the story?
I’m much more interested in people for whom the yearning to love or care for others is completely bound up with the inability to see the harm that their desires also inflict. An instance of this has come up in my life recently. When I was traveling overseas a few years ago, I met an American who runs a school for impoverished kids. He’s been teaching them English and giving them a home and supporting them. It’s just come out, though, that he was basically sexually coercing some of the very vulnerable boys in this home. He’s now under indictment and will go to jail, I’m sure. To me, it’s endlessly compelling, because I know him as a generous, caring person who has done unforgivable, atrocious things that have warped the lives of some of the very people he cared about the most. That contradiction is just the most endlessly fascinating thing to me. The compulsion at the heart of it.
People who can’t distinguish between right and wrong don’t really interest me. But somebody like this person who, I’m sure, knew it was wrong, and yet felt such a deep sexual compulsion and yearning that he crossed the line?
Unfortunately, there are few places for folks to find real help when they actually want to learn to cope with these kinds of desires in a healthy, symbiotic way. We’re stuck in a tough moment where we’re trying to figure out to handle these things healthily for everyone involved.
And that’s another thing that compels me to write—the difference between desires and action. In the story that you’re referencing, the protagonist realizes that her ex-boyfriend and now dear family friend might be attracted to her teenage daughter.
Who the daughter calls “Uncle Kent.”
Right. One of the things I wrestled with in that story—is it about the possibility that the “uncle” might actually cross the line and do something to the girl? Or is it about the danger of just the realization or acknowledgment that the attraction exists? One of my readers, Hester Kaplan, really had to keep pushing me at the end to figure out whether I thought there was any risk that the character actually would do a bad action. In the end, my answer is no. I trust that he wouldn’t. But that doesn’t let the characters off the hook. It’s the realization of the attraction, which goes both ways between the girl and the “uncle,” that causes this explosion in the dynamic that may never be repaired, even though I trust that that character would never do anything.
There’s a character in your book who primarily remains with a man because she wants to understand his fetishes. You wrote, “Her analytical mind couldn’t rest until she solved him.” That’s a hard thing, sacrificing a loving relationship in order to “solve” someone. What drew you toward exploring that particular conundrum?
I think you’re right that that’s one of the reasons that keeps her there, although I might phrase it a little bit differently. She doesn’t know why she stays, and her rational mind tells her she shouldn’t, and yet she can’t let go.
Right. That’s the excuse she makes for herself.
Yeah, it’s an excuse. You know, I fancy myself a clear-thinking logical person who makes reasoned decisions, and yet when sexual desire comes into play, so often all of that gets short-circuited. Sexuality makes people make choices that are crazy, really. Actually, to go back to what we were just talking about—people who cross the line and harm people—again, I think they know what they’re doing. They know they shouldn’t.
I felt similarly about this character. She’s an accomplished scientist who’s getting her PhD, and before she met this particular man, her husband-to-be, she had thought of love in quantifiable terms, the way a scientist would—if you’re compatible in bed, you get so many points, and if you have similar interests or hobbies, you get so many points; and then if you cross a certain threshold of points, you’re a good match. So when she meets this guy, by all those measures, they’re a terrible match. They don’t have similar interests—in fact, he denigrates her interests and her hobbies—and she doesn’t feel particularly comfortable with him. Then there are these ways that he treats her that are completely bad, and yet she’s hooked and can’t unhook herself. That’s a dynamic that I think is interesting to explore, and I guess it comes down to this weird irrational power of desire.
Sexuality is, in some sense, the most human activity. It’s at the core of our being, and it’s obviously literally the most necessary thing for the continuation of our species. Yet it can also be this thing that seems to completely override the other most human thing about us, which is our rational consciousness. So I’m in awe of the power of sexuality to do that. I’m terrified of it. Thrilled by it. Glad that it’s there. Personally, I can be so much of a type-A over-thinker, so I love that sexuality is one of the few things that can knock me over like a wave and delete all that upper-brain stuff.
And then you return to the upper brain of the writer.
It seems like that’s a really satisfying cycle for you.
You know, it is. And this story ends up in a particularly dark place. I wanted to write about an instance of people being painfully tied together. In a lot of the other stories, I write some about painful aloneness in the book, but this was a painful togetherness that I wanted to explore.
Photo: Michael Salerno