Old Sex is Not That Scary: An Interview with Arlene Heyman, Author of “Scary Old Sex”
Arlene Heyman as a student at Bennington. Photo courtesy of Crossett Library's digital archive.
For New York City author and psychiatrist Arlene Heyman, sharing the anatomy of love in fiction necessitates an intimate and often cringe-worthy delve into the candid depths of wrinkled skin, Viagra-assisted love-making, stretch marks, sudden death, and dark, twisted fantasies. Her recently published collection of short stories Scary Old Sex was three decades in the making and has been called “lusty, tough, and life affirming” by Elaine Showalter, writing for The Guardian. Dwight Garner of the New York Times wrote a glowing review, saying that “One of the takeaways from Scary Old Sex is that old sex isn’t so scary at all. These men and women are busily and blissfully humanizing themselves, the kind of bliss that lifts right off the page.”
Already slated to be published in six languages, including Italian and Catalan, Scary Old Sex provides an honest and witty perspective on the realities of growing old, the pain and sadness of illness, the realisms of losing control, and the unavoidable decline of the body. Of one character’s inevitably sagging breasts, Heyman describes “the yearning her breasts seemed to have developed for her waist.”
When I spoke to Heyman by phone on a recent sunny afternoon on campus, she described, in her thick New York accent, the memorable years she spent at Bennington College. She remembers the school as it was in the 60’s: an all-women’s college, an intellectual safe-haven, and the place that fueled her sense of confidence in her own talents as a budding writer. She recalls publishing a short story in a student-run magazine about Spanish Jesuit falling in love with a New York City prostitute. Facing criticism for the perceived obscenity of the story, the submission was sent off to a prominent literary scholar for a second opinion. For Heyman, the scholar's firm response that the story was not at all obscene, but rather, indicative of an important writer in the making, gave her a boost of confidence that spurred her on in her literary endeavors. The young writer’s undergraduate years continued under the instruction of Pulitzer Prize winning novelist and longtime faculty member Bernard Malamud.
Bennington’s influence on Heyman shines through in her creative generosity, admiration for the arts, her deep immersion in literature, and, of course, in her own writing. As a young woman, she developed a deep admiration for the literary world while involved in a two-year-long affair with Malamud. In an interview with the New Yorker last year, Heyman said, “For [Malamud], Bennington was a new world and I was a new world and he was a new world.” In the acknowledgments of her book she writes that Malamud was “a climate to me—his jokes, his Jewish atheism, his aliveness, his loving kindness, his feeling for art and for me, his total immersion in literature; and, above all, his writing.”
“I wanted to be him,” she admits to me. For Heyman, the affair was a whirlwind of exciting new ideas and highbrow discourse that accompanied her glimpse of the literary life in New York City.
One of the most intriguing stories in her new collection, “In Love With Murray,” is dedicated to Malamud, who passed away in 1986. In the story, Heyman spins her own experience into the tale of a doomed love affair between a young awe-struck art student and an older, married, successful painter. She writes, “Truth was, he was the best company she’d ever known; going to a gallery with him was like seeing with five eyes, her two and his three. He was the background music of her life, and the foreground music, although she knew she should be her own foreground music.”
When it came time to graduate, Heyman feared that “the real world” could never offer her the same opportunities and sacred experiences that Bennington College had. So, she set out to build a life for herself that held the same special uniqueness. Perhaps, she used to think, the real world could still offer that gentleness that she enjoyed on a cold Vermont evening as she read a book in front of the fire in the Franklin Common Room, or that hair-raising excitement she had experienced on summer evenings at animated literary events, where students draped languorously across old worn sofas or peered in to gaping Colonial windows to hear a poet read his newest works to a crowded, stifling room.
After graduating from Bennington College, Heyman spent a year in Madrid writing short stories on a Fulbright scholarship, and then, returning the United States, she received an MFA from Syracuse University. During this time, Heyman followed in Malamud’s footsteps by combining writing with teaching. For five years she taught literature at community colleges in Upstate New York, and from there, she went on to receive her medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania. Inspired by her own experience in analysis, Heyman her mind to becoming a psychiatrist. She completed her residency in psychiatry and graduated from the New York Psychoanalytic Institute soon thereafter. With a private practice in full swing in New York, she continued to publish short stories in a wide and impressive variety of journals, earning herself fellowships from the Woodrow Wilson, Fulbright, Rockefeller, and Robert Wood Johnson foundations. Today, she lives in Manhattan and runs a private practice while continuing to pursue her passions as a short story writer.
Bills paid. What more could an aspiring author ask for? “Everything I do is in service of my writing,” she says honestly. And maybe only a writer could truly understand this hunger for a life in which languid hours can be spent at a desk toying with ideas like sagging penises, the discomforts of acid reflux, and a daughter scheming to take a knife to her aging mother’s trachea.
Heyman’s recent stories aren’t meant to address the relative scarcity of fiction that deals with elderly bodies engaging in heated, tantric lovemaking, or for the shock value of describing a woman’s orgasm with her own son as a partner. Rather, Scary Old Sex is an expression of her perspective on life: very real, filled with regrets, and funny! When I asked Heyman why writing stories about elderly characters appeals to her, she offers frankly, “Because, I’m old!”
In describing the shy, quite bland second husband of a disgruntled and dutifully horny wife, she writes, “He was reluctant even to ask for all dark meat from the Chirping Chicken take-out place.” The blunt humor employed here is indicative of Heyman’s interest in the personalities that motivate the ways in which people think, feel, and act in the real world. Even after one long-suffering wife's request for lovemaking is granted, Viagra must be popped first (an appropriate 30 minutes in advance), all precautions must be made not to pull a muscle, and the lights must be turned off. “The sex can still be powerful and moving,” the narrator comments, so long as “she kept her eyes and her critical faculties shut, at least mostly.” The wit continues as Heyman observes, “In short, for them, making love was like running a war: plans had to be drawn up, equipment in tiptop condition, troops deployed and coordinated meticulously, there was no room for maverick actions lest the country end up defeated and at each other’s throats …”
Heyman laughs as she describes her second husband and two sons’ mortified reaction to the publication of her book. “They refuse to read it,” she chuckles, unperturbed. In a revealing interview with Vogue, Heyman stated, "For women to come into their own sexually, or to write about sex, it’s a little harder than for men. There’s more of a pressure on women to be nice. And people don’t think sex is nice." Perhaps it is her bold act of addressing often taboo topics or that the distance between Heyman and the characters she constructs is too gray.
“My creative process and I shudder at those flaky words, ‘creative process’—it's all about synthesizing,” she says. “Writing for me is like building a nest, little idea twigs are taken from my practice, my everyday life, my family, my history and of course, my imagination. Perhaps that’s why the people closest to me have the most trouble reading my work, there are just so many subtle references to my real life.”
For the most part, however, Heyman raises writing as the ultimate soul-searching process. “My writing is about love and loss,” she admits, “but more than that, my ideas arrive out of the depths of my own self, and often I can’t even recognize that until someone else points it out.”
For Heyman, the most valuable insight into her own work often comes from outsiders’ perspectives and critiques. “You put something out there with your own thoughts and ideas about it,” she says, “and then in come a flood of ideas, impressions, and interpretations from your readers.” One such analysis came from a dear friend who said, “Arlene, dead men do much better in your stories than live ones.”
To that, Heyman responds with a tiny laugh, “and indeed, they do.”
Heyman offers advice to aspiring authors, saying that knowing how to handle rejections is one of the most important strategies for remaining positive and continuing to send work out for publication. “Write your heart out and listen closely to the reactions of people that you respect and hold dear,” she advises. “Then build those reactions into your own self-image and boost yourself up with them when you are feeling low.”
It is these reactions that can serve as lifesaving “drift wood in the ocean” when one is dealing with rejection or writer’s block. “Stay on that drift wood till it becomes a raft,” she says, “then stand on it, and use that base to build yourself a life boat.”
As for her current writing projects, Heyman has plans to publish a novel next—an extension of one of the stories from Scary Old Sex. She says that she is prepared for rejection, but hoping for the best, and perhaps a pleasant surprise of another big hit.
“Life is a dark business, then you die,” Heyman says matter-of-factly, referring to both the themes in her short stories as well as man’s short life on earth. “We have to ride the good waves and learn from the dips in between.”