Saskia Vogel: “Suburban ennui seems like such a luxury now” — Thom Cuell

Saskia Vogel’s debut novel, Permission, is a haunting pre-millennial coming of age story, exploring grief, loneliness, desire, and belonging. After Echo’s father dies in a climbing accident, she finds herself adrift in LA; her acting and modelling careers stumble as she struggles to conform to the behaviour expected of her. By chance, she meets Orly, a dominatrix, and her client-come-houseboy Piggy, and finds a new home in the BDSM community. However, her arrival complicates the existing arrangement between Orly and Piggy, and Echo is forced to quickly learn how to navigate the codes of the community she has recently become part of.

Saskia Vogel is also known as a translator, particularly of the Swedish author Rut Hillarp. She grew up in Los Angeles, before moving to Berlin. She has worked at Granta, and at AVN, where she reported on pornography and adult pleasure products. Her writing has appeared in Paris Review Daily, The White Review, Sight and Sound, and more.

Saskia

ML: Permission’s original title was ‘I Am A Pornographer; what was the reason for the change?

SV: That’s such a good question. As my editors put it, it felt like part of the scaffolding of an old draft. I had taken the manuscript as far as I could before it went out on submission, and it really needed an editor to help me see the book and where to take it. BDSM was one of the first things I wrote about when I started to write (…and was trying to think of myself as a writer). In a way, this novel extends to all the way back then, with all the baggage that implies.

Sharmaine Lovegrove and Alana Wilcox helped me find the heart of the book, which relates to the Camille Paglia quotation that the old title comes from. She writes: “I am a pornographer. From earliest childhood, I saw sex suffusing the world.” Paglia goes on to call this perspective a “pagan vision,” one that is alive to the animal energies and sensualism in the world. Echo, my main character, shares this pagan vision, rendered “pornographic” because of the society she lives in: a patriarchal society with a cynical economy of sex and bodies, skewed by notions of fame and Hollywood beauty standards.

I wanted to explore how a person with that kind of vision might navigate Los Angeles: how it benefits her, how it puts her in the way of harm, for instance. This is all to say, the title didn’t make as much sense to me when I’d finished working on the book as it did when the book mostly was a figment of my imagination, but those were the words that made it possible for me to write this book at all. I do really like that my Spanish publisher kept the old title, so it does live on.

Permission is set in a time when the internet was still a minority interest, which is something you reference once or twice during the novel – what drew you to that period?

A few reasons. One, the questions I had that informed the book came to me in the early-mid 2000s, when I was in my twenties at home in Los Angeles after having finished high school in Sweden and uni in London…and I was a little stunned by the home culture that had once felt so normal. It was such a strange world to re-encounter. I wanted to spend more time in that time and place, sit with some tings that felt unresolved.

Two, I spoke to many people in the kink community in LA as part of the research for this book, asking them how they’d found the BDSM community. What had their journey there been like? One of the accounts that really stuck with me was set in a pre- and early-Internet era. With the explosion of dating apps and the sense that you can just go online and find what you want, I was taken by what it must have been like before: when finding what you wanted wasn’t a given, the lengths you might have to go to even access the Internet, the role this new technology might have played in your life.

There’s a whole section of chat transcripts that I cut out where Piggy, the foot fetishist, was using Internet Relay Chat services. I started using IRC myself when writing, lurking in chat rooms for the first time in my life. Some of the rooms I visited felt like forgotten dusty corners of the Internet that nonetheless were alive. I was really interested in what it might take for someone in that time to find their way to the community at alt.sex.bondage, for instance—a space where Piggy could have found like-minded friends and allies who had an articulated language about the kinds of desire most vital to him. But what if, for some reason, you weren’t particularly good at using the Internet, not able or willing to navigate this new world? What if you didn’t have the privacy you needed to explore freely… The time and place are specific, but one of the questions that drove the writing of this book is universal: How do any of us find our way?

One of the key themes in Permission is the performance of womanhood – going back to the idea, expressed by de Beauvoir, that ‘one is not born, rather becomes, a woman. Do you feel like the sort of roleplay Echo is drawn to is a natural progression from this social expectation to enact particular roles? 

Yes, absolutely yes. At least in role play, part of the expectation is that she participate in defining the parameters, whereas when she’s on the date with the agent Van, for instance, there’s an assumption. I don’t think Van can imagine that she might prefer a different role on their date, and he isn’t the kind of person who would probably even think to ask. She plays off of him. Of course she could play her role differently, like, just get up and leave, but she’s invested in the situation. And I don’t think she understands that she can assert herself in that way—she hasn’t given herself permission to. Her skill at roleplaying, the labor she invests in performing womanhood, is a way of protecting herself, maybe feeling like she has a bit of control or leverage in her world (ie Hollywood as a place and as an idea).

Echo is an outsider, who feels oppressed by her parents’ prosperity (‘I was born into privilege and raised on awareness of success. But what my dad called paradise wasn’t paradise to me). She longs for independence, but struggles to decisively break from her home. Do you see Permission as an alternative coming of age novel?

I often come back to something the film critic Amy Nicholson said about American Beauty: remember the time when suburban life was the biggest nightmare we could imagine? Living in a plush house with a solid job, aching with ennui because everything is just so ordered and stable… That was 1999. 9/11 happens two years later. Suburban ennui seems like such a luxury now. An Echo who was born later, Greta Thunberg’s age for instance, might have been an outspokenly anti-capitalist character. As it stands, she’s a character who’s watching the world break and has to contend with the fact that the stories she was raised with are no longer valid for her, or losing their validity right before her eyes.

Echo’s economic and social privilege is something I thought a lot about while writing, and I tried to be quite explicit about the fact that she knows what she has been born into, and that comes with many expected and unexpected benefits. Nonetheless, she’s cynical about what that means and the system that shaped that privileged community to flourish. This only gets a passing mention in the book, but it felt important to include that her community was originally conceived for white people only. It’s part of what made the community she grew up in what it is.

Also, Echo doesn’t venerate money in the way that the people around her do, but this veneration is part of her DNA, she knows that language. We meet her when she has become disenchanted with Hollywood and its uncritical veneration of fame, and sort of any form of bland ubiquity. She’s got a sort of nascent anti-capitalist attitude, but her privilege and her environment poison her. Her perspective is skewed. She’s doesn’t really know how to hustle, or see why she might need to, because everything’s supposed to work out for kids who grew up where she did, right? Between the Hollywood dream of being discovered and shot into stardom, and growing up in a community where you’re set up for success if you follow a certain path, Echo is quite passive. But her passivity is the point, and it is the point from which she needs to come of age.

Your characters, particularly Echo and Piggy, seek comfort in erotic subcultures, notably the BDSM scene; what is the lure of these subcultures, and what sort of comfort can they provide?

Part of this is about sexuality, identity and what you desire. The lure of the BDSM subculture is the lure of finding people who think of sex, desire, and the erotic in the same way they do. Piggy’s erotic desire, for instance, is centered around feet, and he wants to be around people who get him. So, I think on one hand, the comfort is that very human comfort of compassion, friendship, and understanding. Feeling seen, not feeling constantly othered because of how you want to express your erotic self or, you know, finding someone to get off with who’s on your wavelength.

The other part is the comfort of being in a space founded on respect. In my experience, spaces where erotic exploration is a sort of stated goal rather than a subtext to be much more respectful, comfortable, and relaxing environments than regular bars and clubs, even if you’re just there to dance and socialize. The atmosphere of exploration, the focus on consent, boundaries and good communication is comforting… You can really get somewhere, make beautiful connections, find new intimacies when this kind of respectful openness is your starting point.

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One of the things I loved was the tender domestic scenes between Orly, the Dominatrix, and Piggy, her houseboy. While it’s not exactly a domestic ideal, there’s a sense that the relationship benefits from the power dynamics being vocalised and explicitly consented to. Was it important for you to focus on the emotional, rather than the sexual, side of BDSM?

I wanted to write unsensationally about a topic that is so very often sensationalized. So, I focused on emotions, on compassion, connection, and the confusions that can arise even in relationships where a premium is placed on communication: discussing boundaries, expectations, roles, and power dynamics. What happens when the boundaries blur, as they do after Piggy, Orly’s client, becomes her renter as well? By focusing on emotion, I hoped to make desires that are often misunderstood relatable, even if Piggy and Orly’s world is alien to the reader.

For Echo her journey with BDSM is about finding a permissive space where she can work through some wounds and finally explore an aspect of her desire that she stopped communicating with in a meaningful way at a young age.

I was lucky enough to get to know some wonderful dominatrixes when I lived in LA. One in particular had a sort of therapeutic, holistic approach to her work. She’d often speak of it in terms of healing and the release of pent-up energies. This made a big impression on me. Her ideas allowed me to look at the dynamics of BDSM and sex in general in a different way. So, in this way, the sex scenes in the book aren’t sex scenes written with the aim of arousal. Like any other scene in the book, they’re about the characters’ journeys. When I look at the sex scenes on their own, they’re actually quite dark. Lots of frustrated or absent orgasms.

The landscape is almost an extra character in your novel, alternately heralding doom (‘a crumbling was overdue’), and the possibility of freedom in the surf, and long roads. It seems like you have a deep imaginative connection to LA, is that something from your youth?

My dad used to take me climbing all the time, down the cliffs to these gorgeous, hard-to-reach rocky beaches littered with discarded porn magazines, rusted washed-up cars (or perhaps cars that had driven off the cliff), and old soda cans, similar to in the novel. Along with the Paglia quotation I mentioned earlier, my childhood anxiety around slipping to our deaths when we were climbing was a catalyst for writing this book.

In all my years of living abroad, my yearning for the LA landscape has never left me. I’m fascinated by the contrasts in Los Angeles. Imagine that law enforcement and emergency services there have to be able to navigate one of the busiest harbors in the world, sleepy beach cities, marshland, the open ocean, Compton, Beverly Hills, thousands and thousands of acres of wild hills, mountains, and canyons…

This varied landscape and the way the weather swings is what makes LA such a dream land, and an object of fantasy, but the reality of the landscape is bonkers.

Because of the dream of the city, it’s easy to forget that all those contrasting parts coexist, and make up a greater whole. And, you know, it’s where I was born, where my first dreams were born. Though life has taken me elsewhere, it will always be home and the place that first shaped my imagination. Its corners, pockets, alleyways, forgotten and deserted spaces were where I made some of my most potent memories of the place. It’s in those kinds of spots that I prefer to be when I’m there.

You’re also known as a literary translator – do you think the skills and experience you’ve gained through translation have influenced your writing practice at all? How does it feel to switch from translating to creating your own work?

Totally. Translation made me realize that novels might expand endlessly in your mind, as a reader or writer, but they are only so and so many words in a book, and chapters are only so long, only so much happens in a scene. And that books are human creations, with all the magic and flaws implied. It made me realize that I didn’t have to write a perfect book, as long as the book was alive and had something to say. Translating has also made me more aware of the tics in my writing, where I get lazy or use certain stylistic techniques as a crutch. I didn’t know this when I started, but it turns out that translation is a really good job for me to have while writing. It feeds my writing, instead of draining it.

I’ve only been translating since 2013, but I’ve been writing as long as I can remember. That sounds really coherent, when actually me and writing has mostly been about abandonment and failure. I was ten the first time I thought I’d write a novel, essentially Silence of the Lambs fan fic. I was way too young to be reading that book, but somehow I’d bought a copy and kept it hidden it in the bathroom. I had a wild fantasy of filling up a whole notebook with story about Clarice—that idea really excited me—but only got one page in. I gave up. That’s basically how it went until I wrote Permission. I think with Permission, it was the first time that I actually allowed myself to value my writing. I’m still processing that feeling. I suppose one thing that occurred to me was that I have a writing practice now. Even though of course, I think about my career, there was this one point where I was just enjoying having a writing practice and I realized that fundamentally, this is what I do now, whatever the outcome.

If you were an Egyptian pharaoh and had to be buried with a few key objects to take to the next world, what would they be?

Maybe nothing? Aside from anxiety dreams about being naked in public places—and so the desire to be buried in garments that will allow me to enter the next world without having a “forgot to put clothes on but went to school anyway” situation—I think I’d want to go into the next world and find out what it’s all about instead of carrying things with me. My second thought is: the tools for survival. And the one after that: what would I want to share from this world?

Do you have a favourite joke, quotation or proverb?

How many surrealists does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

Fish.

What’s your favourite portrait (it can be a song, a painting, a film, anything)?

One I thought about often in relation to Permission was Pulp’s Underwear. The portrait of the singer’s desire is compelling: This idea that the man is talking to the woman who a mystery man is going to want to see in her underwear, and how the singer wishes he could take the place of that mystery man. It’s deeply creepy, but in a way a sort of inverse of the sweetness of adolescent crushes portrayed in Big Star’s Thirteen.