For many, the mere thought of discussing their sex lives with others causes a heartbeat to trip over itself. For author and illustrator Michael Wynne, this is exactly what excites him. In his series of books and zines to date, he has documented his own sex life and those of other gay men around him in a frank and honest way.
His new book, The Bathhouse Hornbook, pulls on his experiences of gay saunas and documents the internal worlds and lives within them. It’s a light-hearted account of men and their behaviour in the bathhouse, which centres on a young man’s first visit to the sauna and his more experienced guide. Alongside 26 illustrations depicting the letters of the alphabet, the book aims to entertain and instruct those who seek to enter its space.
Andrew Darley spoke to Michael about the intent of his work, how the physical book will never die out, and why he wants to leave a legacy of honest works about gay men’s lives behind him.
When and how did the idea for The Bathhouse Hornbook come to you?
I’m interested in microcosms, micro-worlds. School, home, the gym, a military base. That sort of thing.
As much as I like vast open spaces, I like containment. Gay saunas are a micro-world, and as a regular visitor, I wanted to make something out of my experiences there. I wanted to write about them in a way that captures the mix of people, the types of connections, the ways you can have sex there.
It started out as an autobiographical survey – as in: all the men I’ve had sex with! – but then it turned into a humorous instructional manual. A guide to sauna etiquette, particularly if you’re there for the first time.
The most primary tool for teaching is the ABC book, so that was my starting point. Then I hung out in the British Library to research Victorian alphabet books and 17th-century hornbooks. Lighthearted doggerel was eventually the form The Bathhouse Hornbook took. The illustrations evolved alongside that.
Major themes that are obvious in your work concern the male body, sex and sexuality. When you began writing, were these the issues you were instinctively drawn towards?
I’d say the main concern was sex, yes, and also an attempt to chronicle the way we live our lives at this point in time. The whole adventure started out as a sex blog – a strange and liberating, private-yet-public space where I could write about the sex I was having. It was called The Confessions of a Sex Addict.
Is there something you are hoping to express or document within these concepts?
Not many people seem to be writing about sex between men in explicit and honest ways at the moment – especially not in a sex-positive way. I wanted to try and be as open and detailed as I could.
It probably sounds a bit presumptuous, but I do want to leave something behind that lets people know what it was like to be a particular kind of gay man in the early part of the 21st Century.
How do you categorise your books and zines? How do you view what you’re doing?
I like to think of it as serious play. To be quite playful in the presentation, but to take on serious subjects, like exes and masturbation and the terror of the cock.
What writers in particular inspired you to pick up your pen?
Writers who had the biggest impact on me were the ones writing openly and honestly and in detail about gay sex, particularly before AIDS and during the first years of the plague. They continue to be my mentors and my inspiration and reassurance. People like Michael Rumaker, especially his book A Day and a Night at the Baths; and anything by John Preston. Also David Wojnarowicz and Jane DeLynn’s brilliant Don Juan in the Village.
Your writing style touches on both the pleasure and the loneliness sex can play in gay men’s lives, and, indeed, everyone’s. Do you think writing has pushed your understanding of why people behave in the way they do?
I need to think about that questions, and that statement. There’s a lot of pleasure to be had at the sauna, and most times it’s a pleasurable experience – though there are guys who go there and complain about the men or about the place itself, or they’re very picky. I think maybe they’re there for the wrong reasons.
Then you have guys who go just for sex and will do whatever it takes not to make any connection with anyone. So yes, that does come across as lonely. But if you go there with the understanding that this is a unique space, that you can make brief connections with people, that there’s no bullshit, that you really can just have fun, then for those couple of hours or more, pleasure can be all that matters.
Obviously, not every visit is as good as that! What writing does is make you notice exactly what you’re doing and saying. The way I write is an attempt to try and be as accurate as possible. Sometimes I think: God, did I really do that, or say that? And then of course it works the other way around, too: that I end up doing things that I know I’m going to enjoy writing about.
You mentioned that you have been very open about The Confessions of a Sex Addict: Part 1 being part auto-biography, part-fiction. Did you observe anything different about yourself in hindsight?
I’ve always thought of myself as someone who doesn’t have a type, someone who’s up for it with most guys. But writing the book made me realise that I do have a type, and how much simpler it is for those people who are adamant about the type of partner they like and they don’t tend to stray from that. It does mean that you have a limited pool to choose from.
So yes, writing made me own up to the kind of guy who is my type. I guess anyone who reads the book will think it’s obvious that I like guys who are lean, agile, smooth and elusive.
Visuals and presentation are clearly key to you. Does it take a long time to figure out how you want to present these men and their lives?
With The Bathhouse Hornbook it took me quite a while. In the beginning, the drawings were going to be simple pencil drawings, but in the shape of the letters of the alphabet. Once I started reading lots of ABC books for kids, but also ABC books for adults – and there are a lot of them out there! – I was drawn to the colourful illustrations in those books and wanted to bring that into my book.
With My Life in Masturbation, the images were the starting point. I’d had these vintage playing cards with pictures of naked men on them since my early 20s, or maybe even before that. Each photograph became the jumping-off point for a memory on the theme of masturbation, and each card sent me off in an unexpected direction.
You launched The Bathouse Hornbook at The New York Art Book Fair. How did it go?
I loved the whole experience. The Fair is on a scale that I was totally unprepared for. They have around 35,000 visitors over the weekend, so it was three days of talking to people about my work, selling stuff, and getting to meet people I’d chatted to on Facebook and Twitter over the past couple of years.
Have you ever been challenged or questioned by anyone about your work based on its sexual nature?
My audience isn’t big enough for that. Recently, I was talking to a publisher friend of mine and he was saying that one of their books that did well keeps doing well because of the scandals around it: people not wanting to sell it or denouncing it for being too violent or too sexual.
Maybe the more people read my work, the more chance there is of a bit of a scandal, and so the more chance there’ll be to sell books!
Do you ever consider ‘the reader’ while writing?
Towards the end of the process, I start to think more deeply about how the book will be read and how the illustrations will be seen, and then I try and imagine what might delight and surprise a reader. It becomes a bit more playful at that stage, especially with books like The Bathhouse Hornbook.
On the whole, though, creating a book is an inward journey. It’s like the answers are all there somewhere deep inside and I’m going to keep excavating till I find the right form, the right way to say what needs to be said.
What is the most fun aspect of the creative process for you?
The journey. Trying out things, experimenting, not knowing where the project will land up. I know that sounds clichéd, but it really is. The journey is the best bit.
Once the book is done, it’s satisfying, but it’s not as much fun or engaging as a book when it’s still finding its form.
You have kept your identity on social media relatively a secret – is this done intentionally so when you write it’s done with a sense of freedom?
Social media is not very satisfying to me, though I do like to see what people are doing or to let people know what I’m working on or what I’ve published. Social media does take up a lot of energy and does give you the illusion that you’re connecting with people, but – here comes another cliché – the most satisfying connection is with oneself, and that, for me, comes through writing.
Can readers expect The Confessions of a Sex Addict: Part 2?
There will be the full version, a novel, hopefully some time in 2016. Like I said, an unfinished book is much more interesting to a writer than a finished one, so I’m delaying the completion for my own twisted gratification.
What do you think is special about the zine? How do you see the demand for the physical today? Music has gone digital, books have to a certain extent, but not in the same way.
Being at the New York Art Book Fair and at various other fairs, and going into art book shops in London and New York and Berlin, you see how much people are still very much in love with the physical book, the book as an object.
When you own a book you really do own it. It’s yours, and I think that’s part of the enjoyment. You don’t really think, Oh, there are hundreds or thousands more copies of this book out there. It’s just you, the book, and the creator of that book. With zines, that relationship is even more intense.
When you were making the kinds of books and zines you’re making at the moment, do you feel like it’s big step for you? You’re exposing elements of your own sexuality, which seems like a brave thing to do.
Bravery is relative to possible consequences. There aren’t really any negative consequences to the work I do, except that some people might think I’m a bit pervy, or that my students will read my work, or my family; but then, even when they have, nothing bad has happened.
It’s just a bit awkward when people know so much about how I behave when I’m naked in the company of other naked men, but that’s there, on some level, in every interaction we have with other adults.
We’re all sexual beings, it’s just that some of us turn that into art. Some of us make a living out of sex.
All of Michael’s work can be found on his website.