It’s raining on the Place de la Bastille where writer Bruce Benderson and I meet on a Friday night, late 2004. Despite his current smashing success in France, Bruce is feeling rather down. Luckily that doesn’t stop him from being great company. Bruce always seems to see the humor in things. That may explain his appetite for imperfection, his fondness for defeat, poverty, addiction and cheap sex. His novels are fascinating, hallucinating trips through the minds of the drug-fueled, sexed-up underclass of America.
Gert: So what are you doing here in Paris?
Bruce: I’m here to take part in the Festival d’Amérique, a big literary to-do with sixty American writers. And I’m doing press for my book that just came out here. Big deal. I also went to couple of fashion shows, just for fun. I’m having a ball! At least I’m supposed to be having a ball. People think I have a ball, let’s put it that way.
But you’re not having a ball?
No, I’m miserable! Thanks to you! This whole last week I’ve been cursing that damn magazine of yours.
I had sex with this guy.
Oh, and it wasn’t good?
It was great! A while ago I went onto that Butthead meeting page on your website and I started emailing with three guys, which in itself was strange already, in that all three answered my emails. Last week I met this one who sent me funny, joyous, open, smart emails. It wasn’t really love at first sight, but then he opened his mouth and what came forth was the most incredible voice I’ve ever heard in my whole life! Do you know Nick Drake?
Or Glynis Johns, the actress? He kind of talks like that — very purring, very upper-class. He has chronic laryngitis from the way he speaks. I wish I could imitate his voice for you. It was amazing. It was the sexiest voice I’ve ever heard! And then, the personality! You wouldn’t believe it. British guy, 22 years old. He’d only slept with five people in his whole life. I was the sixth.
What was your trick to seduce him?
He was impressed by me. I just came running from a photo shoot with Le Monde when I met him, and I’d been doing all these other interviews, and then he found out that Bruce LaBruce is a friend of mine; he was just in awe. He even asked me if I knew Madonna! But he obviously didn’t have a natural inclination for me. Like any homosexual, he wants muscled Arabs or Puerto Ricans. But I just told him that we had something special, that I felt that I had known him all my life and that we had to cement our intimacy by a single mutual experience… It took him a few glasses of wine, but anyway, we had sex and it was fantastic. But then I slipped into this masochistic obsession. I’ve only talked to him over the phone once since. I’m in a state of dazed paranoia. I feel that if I can make it through the weekend, I can maybe start the process of recovery on Monday. I don’t know how I’ll make it ’til Monday, though.
You could’ve asked him to join us tonight.
I haven’t spoken to him in four days. I threw away his phone number ’cause I knew I’d keep calling him if I still had it on me, so now I’ll have to wait ’til he calls me. But would I have asked him to join me tonight if he’d called? I wonder. I was afraid that you two would get along too well. I mean, one wrong look and I would turn into a mass murderer. I would have had to kill you both and then myself.
Wow, is this a familiar feeling for you, being completely love struck?
It only happens to me every five or six years. It’s something really unique and wonderful. The last one was six years ago, and he was an amazing guy, Romulus.
What happened to him?
He became my current best-selling book, Autobiographie Erotique. That’s what I’m doing publicity for now. We’re still very close, Romulus and I. He’s Romanian. I went to see him in Bucharest last week.
But you’re not dating him anymore?
I’m still sucking him off sometimes.
Well, that’s something.
Beggars can’t be choosers, right? Well, I actually just told him that our sex should be over. It’s not important anymore for our friendship.
Was it a big relationship?
Oh, it was a major thing. It’s been going on for like five years, this insane passion that reached an ugly climax and ended in a warm, lifetime friendship. I knew that from the minute I saw him. You know, a lot of people see my behavior as total projection, like, ‘You don’t even know the person, blah-blah-blah,’ but I believe — and I can scientifically verify that — that one can often see, for sixty or seventy percent, who a person is from the surface of their body. In other words, I believe in love at first sight. It’s scientifically verified. Usually ten years later one knows it’s true. Which is what happened with Romulus. He really is who I thought he was on first sight. You don’t believe me, do you?
I do. I totally believe in love at first sight.
All my friends are surprised about Romulus, though, like ‘Oh, Bruce you were so lucky, you happened to find a good hustler.’ They don’t understand that I knew that immediately.
Where was he hustling?
On the Danube in Budapest. A magazine sent me to Budapest to do an article on brothels, but I just wandered through the city, and on the banks of the Danube, at two in the morning, I saw this shadowy figure and that was the beginning of a five-year relationship.
He moved to New York with you?
Are you kidding? They wouldn’t let a Romanian hustler in, not even for an hour. At the time he was homeless and all that, he was a bum.
Is he gay?
Of course not. Do you think I would run through all that trouble for a homosexual? But he does have a lot of experience in gay sex. I moved to Romania and we were living together for four months. He was a failed soccer player. So, you know, he was watching endless soccer matches and straight porn, and all the while I was giving him blow-jobs or banging away translations to support us.
Romania must be one of the most homophobic countries in the world.
Yeah, it was weird. That was when Article 200 was still in effect, which meant that any kind of homosexual demonstration in public, or even you trying to influence someone to have homosexual activity, could result in you going to jail for it. So we were living together and if we left the shades open and I kissed him when he left in the morning and the neighbor saw it, that would be a violation of Article 200. It was terribly exciting. He had two sets of curtains to hide behind.
What were you translating?
Celine Dion’s autobiography.
You are kidding! Celine Dion!
I needed the money, so while Romulus was lying around watching soccer and Bucharest was suffering from this terrible heatwave with no air-conditioning and people dying in the streets, I was literally working 12 to 14 hours per day to get this horrendous, obnoxious translation done in time.
Did you listen to Celine Dion’s music too while you were translating the thing?
Oh God no, I hate her! She’s horrible! That book was so completely phony and egotistical, and she kept sending new chapters all the time, demanding rewrites until the finishing line. She was driving everyone nuts.
Why was the original book in French?
Well, she’s French-Canadian. She still has a heavy French accent.
Oh, I see. Apparently that wasn’t enough to forever put you off of France, and the French, and their language…
Oh no, I like it here in Paris. I actually like most of Europe. I’ve had some good experiences since I’ve been here. This guy who broke my heart was my third guy in two weeks.
That’s not bad. It’s a pretty good score.
Yeah, considering that my batting average is zero in New York, I think it’s excellent.
Who were the other two?
One was on my very first night here. I was jet-lagged and I met this 19-year-old French bourgeois wannabe-model cokehead. I was sitting at Café Beaubourg with a colleague and I saw this young man sitting outside. I was going to call the waiter to bring him a drink when my colleague freaked out and said I couldn’t do that. So I followed the young man to the toilet and said, “Excusez-moi, je suis un écrivain américain tres connu a Paris et je voudrais vous offrir un boisson”. And then, of course, okay, the little motherfucker wanted champagne. At the very end of the night he came over to my table and thanked me and I said, well, where are you going? So I joined him. He had his little I-wanna-be-a-model book of photos with him, and I told him that I was disoriented and that I needed someone to take me to my apartment, otherwise I would never find it. He said he would deliver me but that he had to go immediately. I said that was fine, and in the taxi we started making out. He was nineteen and the sex was over in 20 minutes. It was that frenetic, adolescent sex. The other one was in Bucharest, where I met this really gorgeous 19-year-old Romanian guy, with a face like Alain Delon. Even more beautiful than Alain Delon. But he was a disturbed young man. We went to my apartment, he liked being naked and kissing but he wouldn’t do anything else.
I wish I could say I discovered you through one of your books, but the first thing I read about you was this hilarious interview with you on www.3ammagazine.com in which you gave a rundown on your 4000 sex partners, and why for instance the Japanese are so much better in bed than the African Americans.
Well, the Japanese are great. They have a lot of shame about what’s appropriate. They have shame but no guilt; it’s all about society seeing. Once you get them to your hotel room with the windows and the shades closed, they’re the most open and sensual people of anybody, ever.
The Dutch were pretty good too, didn’t you say so in the interview? They’re efficient and practical, but cheery and comfy too.
Absolutely. But tell me, did you believe that piece?
It was a parody. I wrote it, but I made the whole thing up. I believe in the idea though, the racist idea of comparing sex.
And the 4000 figure was made up too?
No, that was true. I mean, I did an estimation, of course. Like, before AIDS, I’d go to the baths three to four times a week and I’d have between three and twelve contacts. Not all of them involved cumming, but I consider every genital contact to be sexual contact. Touching, sucking, fucking…
Hold on, three times three to twelve per week, that already amounts to at least a thousand per year, Bruce.
Okay, so it’s more than 4000? I’ve been having sex for thirty-five years now. I started early. Very early. I ran away from home when I was 16, to San Francisco. I was a hustler when I was a teenager. I became a hustler after reading City of Night by John Rechy, one of my favorite books. That is like a big gay underground classic.
How old are you now?
I won’t tell you. It would be too shocking.
Hmm. So could you say you have “a type”?
Yeah, I’m a rough-trade queen. I like murderers. Either that, or exotically beautiful people. This Romanian guy from last week had a face so striking… Everybody was staring. I’m fascinated by faces. Like Gloria Swanson said in Sunset Boulevard, ‘In my day we had faces!’
Have you ever worked for film?
Yes, I wrote this German-American film called My Father is Coming with Monika Treut. Annie Sprinkle’s in it. It played everywhere. I’ve acted in a couple of films too. I loved it. I was just in a feature film this summer in America called The F-Word. I wrote a scene and played the main character. I’d love to play more — comic character roles.
Are you a good actor?
They say I am, yeah.
What was your role in The F-Word?
The film’s about one of those talk show DJs who goes out onto the street interviewing people. I wrote and played this character, an aging bitter faggot living in a once-interesting multicultural neighborhood, sitting on his front steps, when he bumps into this young Gen-X disc jockey, and he puts the make on him as he tries to get him to come upstairs for a blow-job as he complains about how New York has changed.
Weren’t you involved in that French film Baise-Moi too?
I translated the book. A fantastic book, absolutely amazing! One of the best books written in the last ten years. The film is horrible, though. Really raw. I hate it.
But the subject of Baise-Moi kind of suits you very well, no? I mean, it’s all about sex, drugs, hustlers, thieves — the low-life…
Yeah, I see what you mean — it’s “getting inside the mind of an underclass violent person”. I guess that describes my own work quite well too.
Where does your fascination with the dark side of society come from?
It started in 1985 when I read Saul’s Book, this marginal but award-winning book by Paul T. Rogers, about a Jewish ex-con and a Puerto Rican hustler and their sexual and violent adventures together. This was ’85: it was the worst year of AIDS, right before they discovered what caused AIDS. People were getting sick, and for all they knew, you could get it by kissing — nobody knew. And having had 4000 sexual partners, I was absolutely sure that I had to have it. I was absolutely obsessed with it, getting ready to die, feeling like refuse, worthless to society and all that. I read Saul’s Book, and for my birthday we went to this hustler bar on Times Square and there were all these gorgeous gladiator Puerto Rican street boys hustling, and, oh my God, they were in a hundred times more danger than I was, and look what a good time they were having, how courageous they were on the edge of death. I became obsessed by them, and I only slept with them for the next twelve years, and started hanging out there all the time. I was from this bourgeois background and I got fascinated by their language and their culture. I started opening my house to them. And then finally I had so many ex-convicts and criminals crawling through the hallway and sleeping on the floor of my apartment and stuff that I had to move.
So you ended up in the gutter through literature? That’s an amazing way to go.
I did. I was of course looking for a way to deal with my own sense of alienation and the fear that I was going to die. They were all smoking crack, which they shared with me — I just completely dove into their world. And then it turned out I wasn’t even HIV+.
And you got off the crack.
Yes, well I was always either on a job, working at a publishing company, or doing journalism and having a deadline the next morning. That’s what kept me from becoming a total addict. I only smoked crack like a hundred times over a five-year period. I came close to getting addicted. Did you read my book User? There’s this white guy crawling over the floor looking for white pieces of, well, plaster. Which is a classic crack activity. After you get high you think you’ve dropped a piece and you’re crawling on your hands and knees looking at every white piece on the carpet. Or, I would finish it and throw the stem away in a public garbage can so that I wouldn’t try to scrape it and use more. And an hour later I’d come out in my bathrobe and I’d go through the public garbage can looking for that stem. I got pretty bad.
Is your appetite for shitty situations and dramatic love affairs a form of masochism?
I don’t know if it’s masochistic… I mean, come on, have you noticed how boring homosexuality is in Holland and in France and in the US? It’s not like thye’ve freed homosexual expression — they’ve shaped it to make it socially palatable and decent, and it’s all regulated and there’s no spontaneity left. They’ve integrated the homosexual world into the most boring part of the normal world. There’s no sense of adventure or experiment in it, and homosexuality is not an original act anymore. That’s what bores me. You’re not old enough to know this, but in the past, if you were homosexual, you would know all the strange people of the city. You’d be in the same bars as the lesbians, the petty criminals, the drug addicts… There would be all kinds of unusual pairings, like educated doctors would go with 17-year-old street boys. The first race mixing was in the homosexual world, with blacks and whites sleeping together. All that is almost gone now. Homosexual couples are like rational pairings, usually from the same class, same education. It’s really boring. All I’m trying to do is to avoid boredom.
I often think there’s a sense of sleeping-with-yourself in gay sex. Like, I don’t just want to be with you, I want to be you.
But it looks sterile when couples look alike. Where’s the erotic tension? It’s asexual.
Well, I once pulled a guy who looked almost exactly like me. We looked so much alike, it was ridiculous. It was like a hilarious “separated-by-birth, reunited-in-a-fag-bar” thing.
I don’t think I could do that. At least, I would need a parameter. Like, I could sleep with me-but-30-years-younger. Or, me-but-with-a-good-head-of-hair. In general I think opposites attract.
Bruce’s latest book Autobiographie Erotique just won the Prix de Flore in France and will be published in English by Tarcher in 2006 under the tentative title The Romanian: an Erotic Memoir. For anyone who’s got a burning question or is looking for sex: Bruce’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org