Krissy Kneen’s new novel Steeplechase is a claustrophobic, unsettling story of two sisters linked by art and madness. It is also her first non-erotic work.

Before the Melbourne launch of the novel at Readings tonight, I interviewed Kneen on the line between erotic and non-erotic literature, equine metaphors, and her fascination with the taboo.

Steeplechase is marketed as a departure in your oeuvre – your first novel and first non-erotic work. Did you set out to move away from erotic literature and write a different sort of book with Steeplechase, or was framing the work in this way a decision made by your publishers after the fact?

I have been trying to get my non-erotic novels published for many years. I have another manuscript that keeps getting rewritten and submitted and, like a dog with a bone, I won’t let it go. I am hoping that book (His Father’s Son) will eventually make it into book form too. I really want to have two styles of work, my literary fiction and my erotic fiction and to make sure I have both these different genres in my repertoire.  I really enjoy the erotic writing but the literary fiction is my first love. I find it more challenging to write but really rewarding and I learn so much about myself from the non-erotic work.

You’ve written before, quoting Sontag, that you see Triptych as pornographic literature rather than erotica because “sex is at the centre…subsuming plot and character.” But where do you draw the line between erotic and non-erotic literature? If a work contains sex scenes – as Steeplechase does – can it still be classed as erotic, or should that term only apply to texts written to arouse?

You know I keep forgetting about the sex in Steeplechase. I suppose because the sex was not at the heart of the book I keep forgetting there is sex in it. I am not sure I could write a book that has absolutely no sexuality in it as I experience the world in a very sensual way. The erotic work focuses on sex as a landscape in which the work is set. In Steeplechase the sex is very much the subtext.  I suppose in my head the pornography foregrounds sex in a way that makes plot and character secondary.  In porn it has to be one sex scene after another. I made sure I had no more than three pages between genitals in Triptych. In erotica there can be whole chapters between the sex but there still needs to be an emphasis on sex as the landscape of the work. The literary fiction can have sex in it but that must be the subtext or a lesser part of the book and coming from a natural place that is entirely about character.

I know it is a matter of degrees but I can feel the difference between my work. I know when I am writing porn or erotica or literary fiction. I feel it in my body.  There is always sex but my relationship to it changes in the different forms.

All your works delve into the taboo, and Steeplechase explores it in an alarming and unsettling way. What draws you to examine these themes in your writing?

The hidden has always been more interesting to me than what is on the surface. I remember when I was little my family taught me to draw seeing only the shadows or the negative space, ignoring the object in the picture and focusing on everything around it.  It seemed to shape my whole way of looking at the world. I hear about a murder and I immediately wonder what led that person to commit the murder. What was the backstory? What brings a person to that point? I am always more interested in what is missing from a picture than what is in frame.  I suppose this leads naturally to looking at where individuals draw their personal boundaries and why. Why does one person feel horrified by the idea of being naked in public, yet someone else will streak at a cricket match? What is it we are not seeing?

There is also the fact that there were very particular taboos in my own childhood. I wasn’t allowed to read some books and other parents were fine if their kids read them. These things became my obsession.

The sex in Steeplechase is very different from that of Triptych, with all the doubts, insecurities and concerns about propriety suddenly present. Tell me about the experience of writing in this way – did you approach the process differently?

Triptych was a celebration of pornographic expression. I very consciously wanted the sex to be perverse and yet ethically defend-able. I wanted the sex to be pleasurable, consensual and open. It is about celebrating sex and diversity whilst moving the reader to explore their own personal boundaries and taboos.

In Steeplechase the sex came directly from the characters. My characters were not completely comfortable with their sexuality and this played out in their sex. I’ll bet that if I had followed Emily Reich into her sex life with others it would have been much more free and extreme but that was not the story I was telling. Bec Reich is a bundle of anxieties and her sexuality reflects this.

Writing sex is one of the most difficult things to do well, with authors having to navigate a line between too flowery and too mechanical.  What is considered successful pornographic literature is often very raw, using quite basic anatomical language. I wonder what you think about prizes like the Bad Sex Awards – that appear to punish the very thing that literature is supposed to do, which is to be inventive with language?

Bad sex writing does not necessarily mean it depicts bad sex. Some of the books that have been awarded the Bad Sex Award are actually great writing about bad sex. Sometimes the sex needs to be depicted in an awkward way. I totally love Nicholson Baker’s playful use of pornographic language in The House of Holes. It is so fun and playful and yet if you see it out of context you would be confused by all the cliche’s and oddities. The language just has to be appropriate within the context of the book. It can be as rough or anatomical or awkward as you need. Still, I wouldn’t say no if they awarded me the Bad Sex Award. I would be happy to accept the flight and the dinner and the accommodation in a nice hotel.

Equine images and metaphors are key to Steeplechase. What drew you to this particular animal as the central motif for the work? 

Young girls are often so into horses. It is an animal that seems to represent a young girl’s sexuality. My own sister was horse obsessed for many years and, like Bec, I could never quite understand it. I was more into bugs and sea creatures, but I thought that was pretty uncool at the time and so tried to like horses to be ‘in the club’ with my own sister. I was writing this book about sisters and it wasn’t really falling into place. Something was missing.  Then I woke up at 3am one morning with the story of two sisters playing steeplechase following me out of a dream and I sat down and wrote the story as a short story. It came second in the Josephine Ulrich prize and, a little later, I realised it was the missing link in my own book. I inserted the horse imagery into the story and suddenly it all made sense. Then all those paintings of horses started to haunt my dreams and I knew I had made the right decision.

I’m interested to know why you chose Beijing as the city Emily now resides. What was it about China that you felt would attract her?

I needed to put her in a situation where she couldn’t speak the language. I needed to isolate her culturally with her sister to put them back in the same circumstances as their childhood. Anywhere would have been ok. I wanted to go to Paris just because I wanted to visit Paris, but I didn’t have the money to go there and friends of mine were living in Beijing and said I should go there and visit them so I did. It turned out to be perfect. Much more disorienting than Paris (I have now been to Paris and it wouldn’t have worked as well for the book).  I was sick the whole time I was in Beijing and that turned out to be the perfect research for the book. My fevered experience of that city made so much sense in the narrative.  I also loved that there were so many Australian artists exhibiting in the art district there. I had a friend who worked in the art district and she was pretty inspirational for the book.

Art is central to your writings – Triptych is an erotic reimagining of famous artworks by Rubens and Horkusai – but painting is key to Steeplechase also. Were there particular artworks that inspired your most recent book?

There is a sculpture in MoNA in Tasmania (MoNA is my spiritual home) of a dead horse hanging from a rope. The weight and shape of it is amazing. I kept a postcard of it near my desk while I was writing. I also found myself seeing both Bec and Emily’s paintings really clearly in my head. They were kind of like Mark Ryden’s nightmare paintings but more painterly, like a cross between Ryden and Caravaggio with Emily borrowing her lighting style from Bill Hensen.  I know this sounds a little obsessive of me but the art work became very real in my head while I wrote this book.

Your writing is clearly steeped in the history of classic erotic literature, but I’m wondering who are your favourite contemporary writers or works of erotic fiction?

I love Susan Johnson’s My Hundred Lovers which is a celebration of a woman’s experience of her body in the world and is so sensual and erotic and literary.  I also love James Salter who has just released a novel at 87 years old (All That Is) and it simmers with the sensual and a complete celebration of sex and love and physical joy. I also find Jim Crace’s writing is incredibly sensual.

What’s the next project your working on? Will there be a new novel – erotic or non-erotic – on the way?

I have finished a draft of a new novel, Abstinence, which is based on my interaction with classic erotic fiction and also my temporary obsession with Wilhelm Reich a contemporary of Freud who believed in Orgone Energy, an energy expressed most purely through orgasm that ties everything in the world together. He was instrumental in the sexual revolution and also in my new novel. After that I have a few plans. I am working on a non-erotic novel which is an elaboration on a novella I wrote about Facilitated Communication used by people with severe autism.  I am also researching older women and sexuality for a novel that keeps knocking at the back of my brain.  Several irons in the fire. Including (most excitingly) a non fiction book co-written with Benjamin Law that would be such a fun project and I hope it eventuates. That book with Ben will feel like a holiday for me I think. We have so much fun when we hang out together and I can see that book just being a joy from beginning to end.

— You can read my review of Steeplechase for The Australian here

Krissy Kneen’s Steeplechase is available now through Text Publishing. RRP 29.99