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Catching Up with A Mountain Leather Bear :: Jeff Mann on 'Insatiable' and 'Consent'

by Kilian Melloy
Friday Jan 5, 2018

Poet, essayist, novelist, and writer of short fiction: Jeff Mann has proved himself an adept at all these forms, not to mention that of memoir. Loaded with references of Southern cooking, descriptions of men (dark-haired, bearded hotties ranging from bears and bear cubs to otters), and celebrations of the intricacies of the power dynamics that form the core of erotic bondage, Mann shows himself to be a person of appetites and appreciation.

But Mann's writing is also forged from a love of words and language, and informed by an ear for rhythm, flow, and beauty. That he knows his way around metaphors and has an interest in history, and pagan faith tradition is obvious from his books of poetry; what's more, his stories and novels reach for deeper meanings and enfold meditations on meaning and ethics.

It's always refreshing to find work that combines breathless sexual excitement with a sure grasp of more rarefied universalities. Everyone loves a good shag, but everyone also seeks comfort and companionship, not to mention -- for those brave enough, anyway -- authenticity.

That's a key word because you'll find little in Mann's work that isn't authentic. The erotic and the appetitive are, in Mann's work, sacred; the ministration to erotic need is sacramental; the surrender to physical fulfillment is nothing short of a shouted hallelujah to everything divine.

The stories in his recent anthology "Consent" (published by Lethe Press last April) may involve bondage in many inventive ways (including a photo-rich tale, partly true and party fiction, titled "Triptych," which finds Mann sporting with two young men -- one of them a porn star) but they're built on solid foundations of genuine inquiry into the human condition. What's the cost of shying away from acknowledging, and acting upon, your own true nature? What's the cost of lying to oneself, and to others, for a lifetime? On the other hand, what's the cost of refusing to wrap oneself up in conformist camouflage?

Mann's newly-published latest novel "Insatiable" (which hit the shelves this past October, again from Unzipped Books) includes similar meditations, along with an unmistakable message about ecological responsibility and the ways in which mountaintop removal mining tosses all notions of sensible environmental management to the side -- to the cost, of course, of impoverished locals who are left behind to dwell in the rubble and toxic aftermath. "Insatiable" also features another of Mann's interests, being a fantasy novel in which a centuries-old vampire (a burly gay vampire with a bevy of human lovers, foremost among them his life partner) uses his supernatural abilities to defend his home, and his family, from a soulless and evil corporate entity.

EDGE had the pleasure of catching up to Mann -- a self-described "mountain leather bear" -- to chat about the new books and discuss BDSM, the fantasy genre, and the real-life horror show that is America under Trump.


EDGE: Let's start by talking about your recent collection of short stories, "Consent." The stories in this collection often include bondage, but there's a little bit of a darker edge: A frank admission here and there that sadism and cruelty are part of the erotic thrill. To what extent is the desire to inflict harm an element in this sort of sexual play?

Jeff Mann: From what I've experienced of BDSM, a sadist's desire in consensual scenes is to inflict pain - not harm - upon a submissive who finds the experience of pain arousing. If a Top actually harmed the sub, my guess is that the submissive would never play with that Top again.

EDGE: What do subs get from it?

Jeff Mann: Subs get sexual arousal and release from the experiences of powerlessness and pain. I suspect it'll always remain a mystery, why certain experiences, certain constellations of elements, arouse us. Why do I love men with beards and facial hair? Why do I find them even more desirable when they're tied up? Who knows? John Keats in his letters talks about "negative capability," the ability to live with loose ends, without answers. I need no answers. I'm just thankful for beauty and pleasure, wherever and with whomever I can find them.

EDGE: How do both parties negotiate about where to draw the line?

Jeff Mann: That's generally agreed upon beforehand. What are the submissive's limits? What's the safe word or gesture? What are the two men's desires and fantasies, and how can a BDSM scene together give both men satisfaction? Needless to say, trust is a sine qua non. If that trust is broken - if the powerless partner experiences something he expressly made clear that he didn't want - then the scene falls entirely apart.

EDGE: These stories also offer more in terms of tenderness and even devotion. There are some classic love stories here: People who should be together but don't have the courage to love authentically, or who find authentic connection and happiness with other guys but opt to bury their hearts in marriages built around falsehoods. And - maybe most poignant - stories in which older men chase after younger ones. Operatic stuff!

Jeff Mann: I think of the stories in Consent as fiction with erotic elements, not simply erotica. In other words, I want the stories to be arousing, yes, but I also want them to contain the many classic themes of mainstream fiction, like those you describe: tenderness, love, loss, and so on, universal themes that Faulkner refers to in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. As for the tension created when an older man pursues a younger man, that's very Greek, isn't it, the older erastes and the younger eromenos? It's also a function, I must admit, of my own age (58) and my attraction to younger men.

EDGE: There are some stories that have a ring of autobiography to them, and there are stories that read like explorations of fantasies. Do you censor yourself in some ways? How does art (or commerce) dictate what you are willing to reveal?

Jeff Mann: I don't censor myself since no reader (except perhaps men I've played with) would be able to distinguish between autobiographical and fictional elements in the stories. My concern for artistic integrity dictates that I make the fiction as beautiful and emotionally accurate as possible. As for commerce, well, I'm very lucky to have Steve Berman of Lethe Press as a publisher, since he very rarely attempts to nudge me away from artistic concerns and toward commercial concerns. That's a huge blessing.

EDGE: The heart of the book, I think, is the story "Triptych," which is a gripping, funny blend of essay and fantasy that finds you taking part in a photo shoot with porn studs, sharply critiquing your colleagues in academia, and then deliberately blurring fact and fantasy for some uproarious wish fulfillment. (It's sheer genius!)

Jeff Mann: That was fun to write. [Editor] Steve Berman added quite a few sweet little twists to that, and he was the one to encourage me to blur fiction and nonfiction. At this point in my career, I have few professional concerns. I have tenure at Virginia Tech, and I hope to retire after another eight years of teaching. I've accomplished what I've accomplished, and I've gotten a little recognition for that (never enough, of course, since I'm a narcissist and a Leo), and I'm no longer concerned with earning my academic colleagues' respect. I have no more professional hoops to jump through, at least not any that I care about. Like Leonard Cohen in "Bird on a Wire," "I have tried in my way to be free."

EDGE: Speaking of that photo shoot, now that you see yourself in pictures with those young fellows, is it a highlight of your career thus far?

Jeff Mann: I'm both mortified about and proud of that photo shoot. It was entirely Steve Berman's idea; I'm far too modest to suggest such a thing. On the one hand, I've always been, well, hefty, though not downright fat - my mother kindly used the phrase "pleasingly plump" - and used to fight like hell to reduce my love handles, so seeing photos of my burly self with those thin boys... well, my insecurity is boundless. On the other hand, yes, it was a grand lark. To pose with a porn star? What other university professor has done that? It was a defiant gesture, a fuck-you to respectability, conformity, and propriety. And it was an unusual adventure, and it was fun. I may be 58, but I want to keep experiencing new things, and I want to keep having fun.

EDGE: Again and again, the stories in CONSENT meditate on sexual situations or sexual partners with a philosophical appreciativeness - there's the idea voiced that these memories will provide comfort and sustenance, even on the narrator's deathbed. Is that a major motive for your adventures as well as your writing?

Jeff Mann: Abso-fucking-lutely. I've always been intensely aware of mortality and how evanescent pleasures and loves are, and I've always been a Carpe Diem hedonist. Give me as many adventures, erotic or otherwise, as possible. I keep thinking about what Thoreau says in "Walden": "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.... I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life...."

EDGE: Looking at the current political situation, I feel like we're speeding backwards to the way things were decades ago. Are we returning to a time when sexual conduct - the more raw and defiant, the better - is a badge of honor and a political statement? And if that happens, will we reclaim the sense of gay solidarity that older gay guys lament as now being lost?

Jeff Mann: In "Consent"'s introduction, "A Defense of Erotica," I suggest that defiant sexual conduct is a political statement, and so is publishing BDSM erotica. I would enjoy feeling that gay solidarity again, but the LGBT community is so fragmented at this point - no doubt someone reading this will be incensed that I didn't say LGBTQ+ -- that I can't conceive of that solidarity returning even in this oppressively bleak political climate.

As for where the present political situation is going to take us, I alternate between flashes of hope and long gray glooms of despair. Before Trump was elected, I told friends that I was going to buy a gun if that swine ended up in the Oval Office, and so I did, on Inauguration Day. I've taken a gun safety class too. Like my vampire alter ego, Derek Maclaine, I'm a mountain man who's all about defending himself and his clan.

EDGE: Reading these stories, I find myself mulling the sociology-political-religious equivalent of bondage: The way gay men are legally and economically hogtied and subjected to whimsical punishments by those who set themselves over us. Of course, there's less consent involved in this case, but is all of this that we're seeing - persecution, hysterical homophobia - a big sex game?

Jeff Mann: I think it's all anti-sex. Fundamentalist religions and conservatism are all about repressing natural emotion and natural desire. I grew up in the Bible Belt. That's probably one of the reasons I'm a neopagan of the Celtic/Norse variety: Defiance against those backward, flesh-hating faiths.

EDGE: The prose in these stories is so rich and beautiful. I recall an anecdote about Henry Miller from the days he wrote erotica and got flack for being "too literary." What responses do you get from readers?

Jeff Mann: I can relate to Miller. I'm too literary for the erotica fans and too erotic for the literature fans, too country for the city folks and too queer for the country folks. It's wearying, always to be stuck between worlds.

I get occasional messages from readers. A few of them tell me how arousing my fiction is - one said he couldn't read "Consent" at Starbucks because the book gave him an erection! Most of them, though, have something supportive to say about the themes of the works or the use of language. All positive responses are appreciated. I'll take any ego food I can get.

EDGE: Is your exquisite prose in itself part of your argument for the artistic value of bondage erotica?

Jeff Mann: Yes, I try to describe BDSM experiences in language as well crafted and lyrical as possible. The erotic is beautiful to me, so I try to use beautiful language to describe it. You're welcome to think of the fiction in "Consent" as offerings to one of my patron gods: Eros.


EDGE: Turning the conversation to your new novel "Insatiable"... the novel centers around a vampire, Lord Derek Maclaine, and his group of lovers and thralls as they defend their mountain home from an ecologically devastating strip-mining company. There's a fulfilling fantasy element in that Derek is a super-powered defender of nature, but do you also intend this book to be educational about the issue of strip mining, or maybe a call to action?

Jeff Mann: You're right about Derek being a kind of super-powered hero. I think of the novel as an action/adventure tale like Marvel's "The X-Men," and my wonderful writer friend in Ottawa, 'Nathan Burgoine (author of "Light," "Triad Blood," and "Triad Soul"), has referred to Derek as "a vampiric Magneto," which is pretty much what I had in mind. That said, yes, I do want the book to be educational. Loads of folks outside Appalachia know next to nothing about the high costs, both human and environmental, of mountaintop removal mining, so here's hoping that reading "Insatiable" might give them some sense of what a horribly destructive practice it is.

EDGE: Given that Derek, is a centuries-old vampire, it's no surprise if his methods are a little bloodthirsty (in a few senses of the word), but do you worry you'll be accused of promoting ecoterrorism?

Jeff Mann: I'll admit that "Insatiable" is wish-fulfillment fiction, full of the plentiful, passionate sex and bloodthirsty violence that daily life and legal constrictions rarely allow. Surely I'm not the only one who fantasizes about seducing and ravishing anyone I want, or destroying anyone who threatens me or those I care for. Derek allows both the writer and the reader those vicarious outlets. To quote another writer friend, N.S. Beranek (who's published a fine vampire novel, "Angels Fall") "it's cathartic to have someone unfettered by rules right wrongs." As for promoting ecoterrorism, well, I'd certainly be delighted if someone unconcerned with legal consequences were to destroy MTR's dragline machines. In today's political environment, I have all kinds of vengeful fantasies about machine-gunning Republicans, industrial polluters, and homophobes, and, again, I doubt that I'm the only one to enjoy those fantasies. Do I plan to machine-gun them? No. Do I think that Insatiable will encourage someone brave or crazy to blow up draglines? No.

EDGE: The literary tradition of the vampire, as I understand it, was originally a metaphor for how the aristocracy sucks the lifeblood out of workers. Horror fiction, in general, is often rooted in the story trope of a monster of some sort threatening a family. But you have turned these genre formulae upside down: In your book, the vampire is a defender of nature, and he's also defending his family against a corporate monster. Nicely done!

Jeff Mann: I've related to monsters - vampires in particular - since I was a grade-schooler watching "Dark Shadows" back in the late 1960s, as I've discussed in my essay "Watching Dark Shadows" (included in my first essay collection, "Edge: Travels of an Appalachian Leather Bear"). Even then, I sensed that I was an outsider, and outsiders often relate to fictional monsters, misfits, and freaks, those beyond the boundaries and restrictions of society. My sympathy most often lies with the minority monster, like "Dark Shadows"' vampire, Barnabas Collins, instead of mainstream humanity. "Dark Shadows" made Barnabas a sympathetic Byronic hero, as have many film and television depictions of vampires since, so the concept of a vampire protagonist that readers would root for has long been a part of my imagination.

In my young adulthood, I became an Anne Rice fan and savored her sometimes likable, sometimes ferocious undead characters, and then I ran across Jewelle Gomez's "The Gilda Stories," in which the protagonist is a heroic black lesbian vampire. So, in 2002, when, thanks to novelist Andrew Beierle, Kensington Books offered me a contract to compose a vampire novella, I was poised to create my version of a heroic gay vampire, albeit a Scottish/Appalachian version. In that initial novella, "Devoured," which appeared in "Masters of Midnight: Erotic Tales of the Vampire" (2003), he tears up a few gay bashers and a homophobic fundamentalist preacher. In "Desire and Devour: Stories of Blood and Sweat" (2012) - which gives us Derek's origin story and collects short stories about him that I'd published in assorted anthologies - he gleefully dispatches several other homophobes.

EDGE: There's another level, I find, in that Lord Maclaine and his family are gay. That makes the vampire a defender of a class of people that have often, in history, been despised. At this moment in time, of course, there are politically connected opportunists trying to revive that tradition - so is this a tale you're telling as a way to work out your own frustrations?

Jeff Mann: I certainly do write fiction about Derek as an outlet for my frustrations. He embodies my rage and my lust, and he acts on them as I cannot. He and I share a powerful protective instinct when it comes to defending family and friends. I do not, sadly, share his supernatural capacities to get things done.

EDGE: I find Derek to be an interesting character in that I'm not sure he's really a good guy in the usual sense of the word. In a way, he's a faithful reflection of an average person: Most of us are not especially saintly, but we hope we'd have the courage to fight with everything we have for our loved ones.

Jeff Mann: I recently bought a Viking-themed T-shirt that reminds me of Derek: It says, "For those I love, I will do horrible things." No, Derek's not a traditional good guy. When I created him, I deliberately made him a combination of wildly disparate elements, an exaggeration of my own emotional complexity: He's ruthless and honorable, protective and vicious, loving and savage. I wanted a vampire who's as frightening as he is appealing, a modern Highland warrior or Viking. His defensive instincts translate pretty rapidly into vindictiveness and revenge (as do mine). On that note, one of my favorite lines in Lee Hollander's translation of "The Poetic Edda" is "Revenge is the ecstasy of Germanic antiquity."

EDGE: Derek and his husbear Matt -- I love that word, husbear! -- face the tough question of whether to grant Matt immortality and give him vampiric super-powers. That's some powerful and compelling fantasy fulfillment; would you - if given the chance - accept such a gift yourself?

Jeff Mann: Good question! Not at this point. At 58, I'm too old. I don't want to spend eternity with a middle-aged spread and a beard that looks like someone's rubbed cigar ashes into it! If you'd asked me when I was in better shape, with a beard still dark, well, I might have given you a different answer. Seducing hot men I desire and destroying my foes? Sounds like a damned fine way to spend eternity.

EDGE: Here, as with the stories in "Consent," bondage and S/M are integrated quite naturally into the flow of the story. Is sadism, as we see it deployed here, part of Derek's monstrous nature? Is it part of an ordinary man's commonplace monstrousness? Is taking pleasure from inflicting pain on the same page, in the book of eroticism, with finding pleasure in experiencing pain?

Jeff Mann: That initial assignment-of-sorts for Kensington Books back in 2002 was to write an erotic novella. Since BDSM is the form of sexual activity I find most appealing, and, as I've indicated earlier, I think of Derek as an alter-ego of mine, albeit with all my passions and complications painted larger than life, I gave him my penchant for BDSM.

These days, I don't think of BDSM as particularly monstrous, but when I was much younger and much more insecure, my erotic proclivities for kink, so far outside mainstream propriety as they are, certainly contributed to my sense of myself as a monstrous freak and neurotic misfit.

As for that final question, many of us leather enthusiasts have both sadistic and masochistic sides, but I've met just as many folks who are exclusively one or the other. Myself, I joke about being a voracious versatile in such matters.

EDGE: There are some intense scenes in "Insatiable" that show just how ruthless Derek can be, especially when he stops playing nice. How did you go about playing with the contrasting elements of mortality and immortality, and the life-affirming force of sexuality with the power rush of killing?

Jeff Mann: After nearly three hundred years of being a superhuman vampire, Derek is certainly untrammeled by the dictates of conscience and morality that keep most humans on a leash. So, yes, he may fool with his foes like a cat does a mouse, but he nearly always dispatches them. Like a lot of vampires in fiction, he embodies the extremes of Eros, that "life-affirming force of sexuality" you mention, and Thanatos, the urge for death and destruction. Love and death: The two greatest themes in literature, right?

Author 'Nathan Burgoine, whom I mentioned earlier, points out that Derek (like myself) is a pagan priest of the Green Man and the Horned God, and so he's a worshipper of nature but also an embodiment of it, "the merciless tooth and claw sort," as 'Nathan puts it. The Wiccan Horned God is the deity of the hunt, so it's appropriate that Derek's a predator.

Neopaganism is another one of my personal attributes I gave to Derek, which works nicely since Bram Stoker gave Dracula power over the weather and over animals, and the pagan gods that Derek and I are most attuned to are Thor, god of storm, and Cernunnos, the Lord of the Beasts. Thus there are some gratifying scenes in my Derek fiction where he uses his supernatural abilities to gather storms or send animals after his adversaries.

EDGE: Along those lines, it's intriguing that Derek's bevy of boys includes not just lovers but also thralls -- human beings devoted to him because Derek has telepathically seized control of their loyalty. Where are the lines drawn between permission, persuasion, and coercion in life and literature of this sort?

Jeff Mann: In literature, everything's permissible, anything should be up for grabs. Lack of consent, dubious consent, coercion, whatever. Literature allows us to live other lives; fiction lets us sate passions without having to pay the social and legal consequences. Reality trammels us too much as it is, so why should writers trammel their imaginations and censor themselves in their writing? Hell, no.

I used this quotation from Sigmund Freud's "Civilization and Its Discontents" as the epigraph for "Devoured": "it is impossible to overlook the extent to which civilization is built up upon a renunciation of instinct, how much it presupposes precisely the non-satisfaction... of powerful instincts. This 'cultural frustration' dominates the large field of social relationships between human beings." Writing certain kinds of fiction helps me relieve this cultural frustration, and reading certain kinds of books or watching certain television shows or films do too. (Not for nothing that I'm a huge DC and Marvel movie fan.) Again, I'm sure that I'm not alone in this. Writing fiction about Derek Maclaine relieves that frustration in a major way, and for that I'm thankful. It makes me feel powerful in a world where I rarely feel powerful or in control: Through my fanged alter-ego, I can make a hot cub fall in love with me, or drive away a neglectful parent and puling child with a swarm of hungry mosquitos, or intimidate the bastards responsible for MTR mining with a slew of serpents.

That said, of course, real life is different. There are certainly folks in BDSM who enjoy fantasies or real-life scenarios of complete power or complete powerlessness. I certainly do. But all those scenes are consensual, or they should be. If they're not, I'd call that emotional and/or sexual abuse or coercion. Power dynamics in the bedroom are completely different from power dynamics outside the bedroom, or they should be.

EDGE: Vampires and werewolves seem to associate quite a lot in supernatural horror fiction these days. How do you see the subtexts of these fantastical creatures working together? (Or maybe it's simpler than that... maybe it's just cool to have characters who can turn into wolves!)

Jeff Mann: As a pagan, I'm a big fan of animals. In fact, I enjoy the company of animals, especially cats, more than the company of most people, so the concept of shapeshifters has always appealed to me. We're back to that "cultural frustration," repressing the animal within. Both werewolves and vampires are about releasing that animal, those lustful urges or that rage... which is fraught with consequences in real life but not in fiction. Here again, fiction about such creatures serves as an escape valve for both writers and readers. I have a very dark, very hungry, very angry animal inside of me, one I've kept in a cage or on a leash all my life. That sort of self-control is always exhausting and frustrating and sometimes disheartening. Letting the beast run free, if only in fiction, is exhilarating and cathartic. To let it free in fact? Guilt at the least, incarceration at the worst.

EDGE: In "Insatiable" you also bring in magic and a witch, and make a story point out of distrust between witches and vampires. Are you relying on genre tradition for these details? Have you made them up whole cloth?

Jeff Mann: I actually know very little about the traditions of genre fiction in general and speculative/paranormal/horror fiction in particular. Though I enjoy films in those genres, I rarely have time to read books in that vein, though of course, I've read horror classics like "Dracula," "Frankenstein," etc., plus a lot of Anne Rice. I've been a student of the occult since I was an adolescent, so I've read a lot of nonfiction about vampires, werewolves, witchcraft, and ceremonial magic, and that study has no doubt influenced my fiction. As for the distrust between vampires and witches, witches are practitioners of benevolent and protective magic, and vampires, as predators, would be beings that witches would avoid and ward away. Plus I based the witch in "Insatiable," Miss Ilene Over, on a wonderful drag-queen buddy of mine, and I thought it would be fun to see how my vampire alter-ego and Miss Ilene would interact. Those scenes were great fun to write.

EDGE: You pick and choose which bits of vampiric lore and tradition to assemble for your own unique vision of what vampires are and how they operate. What went into this?

Jeff Mann: When I used to teach freshman composition at Virginia Tech - a course no student wanted to take, and few instructors wanted to teach - I jazzed the course up by using the theme of "the vampire in literature and film," and one of the things I found interesting was how each author we read would pick and choose among those options. I think my own paganism had a big effect on what bits of lore I adopted: Control over the weather, control over animals. Plus my obsession with the erotic certainly encouraged me to give Derek mesmerism. I may not be able to seduce and control every desirable man I meet, but at least my fictional equivalent can.

EDGE: You mentioned Anne Rice a moment ago. Rice's vampire books started out, I understand, as a kind of roman a clef about the New Orleans gay scene. But where I always suspected there was a little of that "gays recruit" hysteria in Rice's view of vampiric lineages (who "turns" whom), in your work it feels like there are a mentorship and father figure relation between vampires and those whom they "create" as vampires.

Jeff Mann: You're very right there. What I most remember of Anne Rice's depictions of a vampire turning a human is when Lestat turns Louis against his will in "Interview with the Vampire." My vampires don't do a lot of "turning," and when they do, the human is always willing and the change is urgently necessary, i.e., become a vampire or die of your wounds. I don't want to give away any big plot details of "Insatiable," but in Derek's origin story, "Derek and Angus," his maker, Sigurd, gives Derek a choice: Derek can bleed to death from wounds a band of homophobes inflicted on him, or he can become a vampire to avenge his lover's death. So, yes, the turning is consensual, and the maker is indeed a sort of Daddy/mentor to the fledgling vampire. It's a Daddy/boy relationship with fangs!


"Insatiable" is available here: https://www.lethepressbooks.com/store/p8/Insatiable.html

"Consent" is available here:
https://www.lethepressbooks.com/store/p402/Consent.html


Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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