An Uncertain Grace by Krissy Kneen is a thought-provoking, sensuous and complex novel in five parts by one of Australia’s most inventive and challenging writers. It is about the life story of Liv, from the very beginning of her sexual life to the eventual transcendence of her own body.
Readings Bookstore has described it thus: ‘This novel questions what it will mean to be human when we are able to be more than human—to be plural, genderless, or living the experiences of someone else through a digital narrative. With An Uncertain Grace, Kneen has given us something that is at once intensely affecting, entertaining, and hugely fascinating.’
Books+Publishing said ‘An Uncertain Grace is a highly provocative read that masterfully offers thoughtful speculation on the future of technology, memory and sexuality.’
We asked Krissy eight questions about her new novel, about sex and technology and about the writing process. She explained why snuggling up on winter nights with flannelette robot pjs could be a lot more enjoyable than you’d think, as well as why writing about sex won’t win her any Bookers just yet.
What is it that’s particularly interesting about sex and the future?
Sex drives technology. That’s a line from the book – Caspar says it, but it is also true. The money in tech development is either in the military or in the sex industry. Pornography can fund any number of new technologies, from sex robots (which will be an actual thing from the end of 2017) to virtual reality. You name it, the sex industry is involved in developing it. As I read my nerdy science magazines I often try to figure out which of the ideas playing out in each article have an application in the sex industry. It was this particular rabbit hole of questioning that led to the writing of An Uncertain Grace.
Do you want a sex robot?
Of course I want a sex robot! I am very much enamoured by my vibrators and if my vibrators could react and respond to my desires it would only be a bonus. I don’t, however, really want a sex robot that looks like a human. I have a human lover so I’m right for all the humanoid bits. I was reading an article recently about how sex robots could take different forms. The journalist mentioned the potential for sex-pyjamas, robotic pjs that responded to your arousal and I say hell yes! Imagining snuggling up on the first cold winter evening with your flannelette robot-pjs. Sign me up right now!
You’re widely known as a sex writer. Is that the label you prefer? And do you ever get weird feedback from readers?
There are certain assumptions that come with being known as a sex writer. There is some lazy, boring, predictable and clichéd sex writing out there and sometimes, just because I write about sex, people assume that is the kind of writing I do. I was talking to a lecturer in cultural studies the other day and after a conversation about our areas of interest it became obvious that she was writing about the same things I was, but because she was doing it in academia and under the label of gender studies she was legitimised whereas people just think I’m writing the next 50 Shades of Grey. It is frustrating to have to work under those assumptions.
Philip Roth, a young Ian McEwan, James Salter, Nicholson Baker: they are all sex writers but no one sees them as sex writers. People see them as literary fiction writers and I am certain their gender plays into that. There is a seriousness about men writing sex, whereas women writing sex are all lumped into the E. L. James basket unless proven otherwise. Even Anaïs Nin is not respected as highly as she should be. Nabokov is revered, Nin is kind of sidelined. I have to see it as a gendered problem.
I am pretty sure my sex writing will be forever overlooked for major awards, but if McEwan writes a sex book it could be up for the Booker Prize. It is irritating, as a jobbing writer, but it doesn’t influence what I write. I go where my interests take me and I just shake my head and snarl about all those annoying industrial issues of how you are seen or where you are placed.
Readers see things differently. People who actually engage with the work see where the project is taking me, and them. I mostly get intelligent and thoughtful feedback from readers. If people take the time to actually engage with the work they get to see what is happening on the page. I sometimes get weird feedback from non-readers who assume what I am doing is the E. L. James stuff, but I just ignore it and move along.
Do you think you’ll stick with mainly sex writing?
I think I will always circle back to sex as sex is still such a taboo and I am fascinated by societal taboos and figuring out why certain things are socially acceptable and certain things aren’t.
Why is it okay to dress a fifteen-year-old model as if they are an adult being provocative in a sexy dress, and yet it is illegal for a fifteen-year-old to take naked photos of themselves and text them to their fifteen-year-old lover? Why are old people discouraged or outright banned from having sex in some old people’s homes?
These weird cultural anomalies really bother me, and so I will always come back to them, but at the moment I am exploring other ideas. I have been buried in quantum physics for a couple of years and I am moving on to writing a memoir of my gut bacteria so I think I will finish my scientific explorations before circling back to sex.
Pushing people’s boundaries: is it a deliberate strategy or more like an accidental by-product?
There were so many boundaries when I was growing up, more than in a normal childhood. I was constantly monitored and regulated and so when I left home I expected that there would be no boundaries. I expected total freedom – but of course there are social regulations, and they seemed completely arbitrary to me. I was constantly surprised by what was and was not socially acceptable in my first few years outside of home. It made me ask why. Why are some things socially acceptable and yet others are not? My interest was piqued. I think it has become a compulsion for me to ask ‘why?’ when I see a boundary that seems arbitrary.
What is your process: how does an idea become a finished draft?
Each book is so different. An Uncertain Grace was a gift. I spent a year ‘not writing a book’, and instead I was jotting down scenes as I was reading through my nerdy science magazines. At some point in this process I realised I had about 30 000 words all in the same kind of world and then it was a simple matter of just stitching it all together and I had a novel. The only other book that came so easily was Triptych. I set out to explore ethical questions with that book and had a lot of fun over a short period of time seeing those questions through to conclusions. Steeplechase was an altogether more difficult beast. It took years of writing, re-writing, re-planning, re-structuring trying to work out what it was that book was saying and who the characters really were.
It doesn’t get any easier. Each new book is like starting writing for the first time. They are each so different and with different needs. I have just started a project that is completely challenging me and sometimes I wonder if it is just too hard, an impossible task; but I have learnt that if you just hang on to them they will eventually reveal themselves to you.
The one thing that is consistent with each of my books is that there is a time where I will need to stick a bunch of index cards on the wall, one for every chapter, because books are so long and I just can’t keep the whole thing in my head. Index cards are the tried and true method of remembering where I am and what I have abandoned from a previous draft.
Where do you like to work?
I often work in a cafe. I have been working at a place called Strauss alongside a couple of writer friends for the last few years. I find it easier to work in public rather than the deathly silence of home. When a couple of writers co-work it is easier to leave your computer and go to the toilet and it is also nice to have someone to commiserate with, when the work is proving difficult. This next book might need me to spend some time in the state library as it is really research-heavy so I predict a period of time at one of those quiet desks overlooking the Brisbane river.
Do you ever consider writing to be a collaborative art, or is it strictly solo?
It is certainly collaborative at the editing side of things. There comes a point in every project when you need a fresh eye. All those layers that have been stripped away from the project are still hanging around in your head and a fresh eye on the project is essential to help you see what is actually on the page.
Before you get to the edit, though, there are times when talking it through with someone clarifies it all for you, which is why I have a few writers who I am close to. We chat about the work, sometimes read each other’s drafts, try to help each other over the mountains that have emerged, but ultimately you are on your own till the edit. A good edit can make or break a book. I have read books where all the elements are there but they are in the wrong order and someone probably needed to send the writer back to the desk to make things right. It is really sad to see a book that sparkles, but has a really serious pacing problem that could so easily have been fixed.
An Uncertain Grace is available in bookshops and online.