Arts Literary

Dan Savage: extended interview

Let his decree be known: Dan Savage is a big fan of the new pope.
“He's swell,” Savage laughs, over the phone from his home in Seattle. It's Pope Francis's focus on helping the destitute, and wanting to make a decidedly smaller issue out of gay marriage and abortion—choosing to place more emphasis on the things jesus actually talked about—that's got him in Savage's good books. That, and how his words are making the US's extreme right wing squirm, and have to 'hatesplain' to their followers what Francis actually meant.
“You read what the Pope said, and then you have [Cardinal] Dolan and [Bill] Donahue telling you what the pope meant,” Savage says. “And it's not what the pope meant or said at all!”
The acclaimed sex columnist, editorial director for Seattle alt-weekly The Stranger and founder of the It Gets Better campaign is coming to Edmonton as part of Litfest. American Savage is his collection of essays spanning his own catholic upbringing to the mistakes he's made to a particularly infamous dinner debate he had with National Organization for Marriage president Brian Brown.
In advance of his night at the Winspear, which will feature both readings from the book and a live Q&A session, Savage took an early morning phonecall with Vue to discuss the tour, surprises and how the public conversation about sex has changed over the past few decades.

VUE WEEKLY: Do you have a few sections of the book you like to read from on tour, or does it change from night to night?
DAN SAVAGE: I really enjoy reading the opening of the chapter on Bisexuality. It's called “Mistakes Were Made.” The section about the clitoris seems to be an audience favourite. That's the most stand up-y part of the book.

VW: Does anything surprise you these days, or is that a word that hasn't got much meaning anymore?
DS: Some things do still surprise me. Years ago [in] the column, there would be questions about particular sex acts and how to perform them. And that would always surprise me; I'd get a question saying 'I want to try this. How do I do it?' and it would shock me that anyone would be interested in that. But I don't get those questions anymore, because every single sex act known to man has its own wiki page that explains how its done. So most of my questions now are asking to adjudicate a dispute: to litigate something, to weigh in, and I dunno, like Solomon, cut a baby in half or say this person's right, this person's wrong, you were right, you were wrong. And those can be shocking, the shitty horrible things that people do to each other—that never ceases to amaze me. And sometimes I get questions about horrible, shitty things that happened, and that can shock me. But particular sex acts, or kinks, those don't shock me at all. We've had them for a long time.

VW: You do a live Q&A session at your events. Do you find the politics of a place come through in the questions people ask?
DS: Absolutely. I just spoke at a very very small tiny liberal-arts college, where I was asked a lot of fine-grain questions about queer community politics. And I don't tend to get those when I speak to a more general audience. So yeah, it can change pretty broadly. I'm going to Salt Lake City, Utah [laugh] this week, and I expect the questions will be different there than in other places.

VW: After doing your column for two decades, have you seen the politics of America change in the questions you get asked?
DS: Well, certainly in the queer issue, and gay marriage. It's become the default position of all decent people everywhere, I think, to be for marriage equality. And that wasn't the case 20 years ago. Even liberals and lefties were against same sex marriage at the time. But I think that—more broadly relevant to everyone—people are calmer about kinks than they used to be, and people are smarter about kinks, and smarter about infidelity, and I hope that my column has in some small way contributed to that, [to] push people along that learning curve a little bit. And it's not the culmination, but a continuation of the conversation that AIDS started. Because when HIV came along, we suddenly had to start talking about what people were actually doing in bed, not what everyone agreed that everyone ought to be doing in bed. Even though everybody knew [what was] true: when we would talk about sex in public, and particularly in print, everyone sort of agreed to support the same myth, that it was all hetero, that it was all missionary, that it was all within matrimony, that it was all between spouses—there are certainly no kinks or crossdressers or trans people or queers or anybody else out there having sex. And AIDS came along ,and suddenly people you thought to be missionary position heteros were dropping dead all around you, and then, because it was a sexually transmitted plague, it became very important to talk about who was doing exactly what to whom, so we could figure out how people could be safer. And, what was interesting about being alive and sexually active during that nightmare was suddenly sex acts that were normal were more dangerous than sex acts that were not normal.  It was a lot riskier to have quote on quote normal sex—gay or straight—than it was to be a fetishist. If you were gay and you had anal, missionary position quote-normal intercourse, you were doing something riskier than if you were a fistfucker. Fistfucking was safer than normal gay sex. So it just forced a whole conversation, a re-evalutation, and new standards by which to judge sex acts and sexual interests. And it changed peoples' attitudes and outlook.

VW: You used to produce [and direct] theatre. Would you ever go back to that?

DS: I did a play last year, here in Seattle. I wrote a retelling of Helen Keller story, called Miracle, and I made Helen Keller a deaf blind drag queen, set it in a drag bar. But I just don't really have time for theatre right now. I'm just too busy writing.

VW: Your approach to theatre seems to involve skewering, or twisting existing works. What draws you to that?

DS: I'm a theatre fan, and I have a degree in theatre and I love the theatre. My idea was always what I enjoy doing most as a director is finding a play like the Miracle Worker, where the audience doesn't really watch it anymore—they don't pay attention, and wait for the miracle scene, and pat themselves on the back for being so high-minded as to go and see the show in the first place—to take that show and make it so strange that the audience has to pay attention again, and then the iconic moments sneak up on the audience and surprise them again, like they did when the play was first written, and the audience experiences those moments if they'd never seen or heard or read the play before. Or seen the movie, or anything else. It's the same reason people take Hamlet and set it on Mars: to make that familiar play strange and unfamiliar.

I really enjoy doing that with pieces of theatre. I did a production of King John here, which is not the greatest Shakespeare play, and my approach in that case was to take a play and embrace its flaws. King John is a flawed play. It doesn't have an ending. So we got to the ending of King John, and rather than, y'know, pretend as so many theatre companies will do that Shakespeare couldn't possibly have made a mistake and fucked the play up or fumbled the ball on the ten-yard line—which is what he did—we stopped the play at the end and, the narrator character said to the audience, 'That was sucky, Shakespeare didn't finish this play, there's no real ending here, but you deserve an ending, so here's the last ten minutes of Hamlet.' And then the entire cast ran back on stage in full elizabethan get up, and we brought in a new set and did Hamlet from the sword fight between Hamlet and Laertes 'till the end. And the place went berzerk, because Hamlet's got the best ending, because everybody dies. Because it was the right thing to do, because how do you fix the problem in King John? By admitting A) that it's a problem, and B) having some radical fun with it, which is what we did.

Mon, Oct 21 (7 pm)
Winspear Centre, $10 – $25

Part of Litfest
Until Sun, Oct 27
Various locations


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