Chester Brown on prostitution, romantic love, and being a john

In conversation with Nick Kohler

Chester Brown, the Toronto-based graphic novelist best known for his 2003 book, Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography, will be touring North America in May in support of his latest, Paying For It: a comic-strip memoir about being a john. Painfully candid, the book begins with the collapse of his relationship with long-time girlfriend Sook-Yin Lee, current host of the CBC’s Definitely Not the Opera, then recounts how that split led him to forgo romantic love in favour of paying prostitutes for sex. [SPOILER ALERT] It ends with his discovery of a new kind of monogamy with his “special friend”—a woman he met while she was still a working prostitute and who he continues to pay in exchange for sex.

Q: What do you hope Paying For It accomplishes?

A: Obviously there’s a political undercurrent to the book. I’m trying to make a point. Last fall we had Justice Susan Himel’s ruling basically decriminalizing prostitution. In the wake of that there were all these people saying, ‘Okay, now we have to re-criminalize prostitution and make it illegal for johns to buy sex.’ Stop criminalizing the prostitute, which I agree with, and start criminalizing the john, which of course I don’t agree with. There was Victor Malarek’s book [The Johns: Sex for Sale and the Men Who Buy It] a couple of years ago and Benjamin Perrin, who wrote a book [in 2010] called Invisible Chains, with a very similar theme: that johns are evil monsters. I wanted a book from the john’s point of view, since of course, I don’t think of myself as an evil monster and I hope I’m not. So you want a book to explain where you’re coming from, and hopefully people will understand.

Q: One of the things that comes out in one of the appendices in the back of the book is that you hadn’t wanted to call it Paying For It. What would you have preferred?

A: I had a couple of different titles. One I was considering, but not that seriously, was The Sex Life of John Brown. But probably more seriously I was thinking of I Pay For Sex—much more direct or blunt. And for them [his publishers at Drawn & Quarterly], that was too blunt, too direct. Darn, I wish I could remember the title they suggested that I really hated. I think they actually suggested In Defence of Prostitution, which just is so boring.

Q: You suggest in that same passage that it’s a difficult book to market. But in my dealings with Peggy Burns, the associate publisher at Drawn & Quarterly, I would guess that she’s having the opposite problem, which is fighting people off with a stick. Are you surprised by the level of interest in the book?

A: They are concerned about the reaction of bookstores. I guess it’s not so much, “Will journalists be interested in covering the book?” It’s, “Are bookstores going to be willing to carry the book?” The Riel book did very well—there were lots of people willing to buy it as a gift for other people. This is a very different book. It’s much less likely that people will be buying it as a gift. Even just being in a bookstore and asking for it. When we were still considering calling the book, I Pay For Sex, they were saying, “Imagine you’re in a bookstore and you’re having to ask the bookseller for the book, I Pay For Sex.” So, I can see the problems associated with marketing this book.


Q: But it’s also a bold book. It’s a book that’s fun to cover as a journalist because it’s kind of audacious. You’re left exposed by the book, the way it’s drawn, how graphic it is. How can you open yourself up to this degree?

A: I read an interview with Spalding Gray several years ago where he was questioning—why do people even have secrets? Most of us just take it for granted—we all have secrets. And he was questioning the whole idea of secrecy. And I was like, “Yeah, why do we even have secrets? Why do I care if people know this or that about me?” It is easier to live openly when you’re not married. Not to get too much into the whole “romantic love” thing, but if you’re going to live successfully with another person, there are things you have to keep to yourself. So the guy who lives on his own, I think, is more used to just expressing things openly.

Q: You mention romantic love. The book begins with such a charged tone—when you break up with Sook-Yin Lee—and it propels the rest of the book in many ways. It’s actually quite painful to read.

A: Incidentally, that first scene is entirely black in the book. I tried to draw that scene so many times, I couldn’t get the emotional tone right. I tried just drawing our faces, and that didn’t seem to work. Then I tried drawing our heads shot from the back, and that didn’t seem to work. I went through at least four different drawn versions, redrawing and redrawing that scene. And so finally I was like, “Okay, I’m going to start drawing the next scene.” And the next scene seemed to work right away. And then eventually I was like, “I’m just going to black out that scene. I can’t draw it for whatever reason.”

Q: And the reason I think it propels the rest of the book is, it’s kind of a meditation on romantic love—what it is and what different people want to get out of it. Is that what you wanted to discuss, or is that incidental to the other discussion, about how society should treat prostitution?

A: I think they go together in some way. But I can’t say that I even come to a conclusion about romantic love. In that last chapter, or the last two chapters, I have various people talking about what romantic love is. And then at the end of the book I have myself saying that I do love this woman. But it’s hard for me to even be sure what I mean by that. Obviously I do have deep feelings and I care for her a lot. But how does that relate to what other people mean by the word “love,” because so many people mean so many different things. So, yeah. I guess in the end it is all kind of vague—what does love mean? Personally, I like just living on my own. I would prefer not to be living with anyone, really. Like, as much as I care for my special friend, I don’t want to live with her. The relationship we have works perfectly and I don’t think we’re trying to move it in a conventional relationship direction. It is the way it is. I don’t think she wants to live with me anymore than I want to live with her.

Q: It’s not clear to me from the book whether that relationship goes beyond the physical.

A: Do we share some interests outside the bed? Yes.

Q: Can you talk a bit about how the written appendices at the back of the book came about—where you elaborate on the details of prostitution and why it should be decriminalized? Were they originally part of the conception of the book?
I’ve got a notes section at the back of the Riel book, and I’d done this with other works too. I didn’t want to drag down the narrative with too much in the way of theory. Most of the stuff I introduce into the book as “my ideas” was done through dialogue I would have with people. And some things I just thought without actually talking about it with other people. I didn’t want to invent conversations, so it seemed like, instead of inventing conversations, just put those things in the appendices.

Q: Was there any worry that you should acknowledge or anticipate arguments that critics would no doubt marshal against you?

A: Oh definitely. That was a big part of it.

Q: Can you talk a bit about some of the things that didn’t lend themselves to the comic part but that you thought you should deal with?

A: The significant one is probably the issue of human trafficking. None of my friends ever even mentioned the topic, and I didn’t think to talk about it with people. And I didn’t become aware of the subject until 2003, in a CBC story that Shelagh Rogers did on Sounds Like Canada. I might have heard of human trafficking before, but not in relation to prostitution. I never really put together that that might be a problem. So, yeah, putting it in scenes—there wasn’t really a way to do that. But I wanted to address the topic.

Q: In the section of the book when you’re introduced to the protocols of prostitution, which is so interesting, the thing that jumps out is that your experience doesn’t jive with the perceptions many people have of that world—that it’s all about drugs and exploitation. Why the discrepancy between the perception of that world and your experience of it?

A: Well, I was seeing indoor workers as opposed to streetwalkers and from what I hear, drug use is much more prevalent among streetwalkers then it is with girls who are escorting.

Q: In a funny way, is Paying For It a love story in the end?

A: Certainly not a conventional love story. But, yeah, I guess it is. It feels like a love story to me. Even though she has never said the words “I love you.” She has certainly indicated in enough other ways that she does care about me. She wouldn’t think of it as a “romantic” love. I care for her and she cares for me. It is a type of love story.

Q: At this point in your relationship with your “special friend,” is the payment—the transactional part of the relationship—almost like an escape hatch, something that says, ‘this is still fleeting’?

A: I don’t know if it’s an escape hatch, but I think it is something that makes the relationship feel different. In a lot of ways it is like a conventional boyfriend-girlfriend relationship, and even occasionally we argue about stuff. But it never gets into the type of melodramatic arguments that I’ve experienced in my relationships with my girlfriends. Things just don’t get hostile in that way. It feels like a different sort of sexual relationship between a man and a woman. And the only thing I have to attribute that to is the money.

Q: This will no doubt be a controversial book. What do you worry about what could happen—about how others will criticize you? Does it worry you?

A: It only really worries me in what I might call “real life” situations. I’m going to be doing a tour to promote the book, and giving live presentations in front of audiences, and I’m worried about the heckling—if there’s going to be heckling. Because I’ve never experienced it in the past, I have no idea what I would do with hecklers. I guess we’ll see. And maybe it’s not even going to happen.

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