It’s interesting to meet Chester Brown in person, especially after having just read his new graphic novel, Paying For It. On one hand, there is a startling resemblance between the real Chester and his fictional counterpart. But it quickly becomes clear that Chester the artist is having a bit of fun at his own expense – in other words, he’s not as spectacularly neutral as the character that shares his name.
This overlap even carries into the introduction by Robert Crumb, “I’m sure to many people he’s a dry, emotionless person. Notice how, throughout the book, his facial expression is always the same.” I can report that the “real” Chester Brown, while thin and balding and low key, is nonetheless animated by intelligence, compassion and an easy sense of humour. Not an automaton by any means.
To think that this nice, affable, conscientious man has just written what might be one of the more incendiary books of 2011 is strikingly odd. In his new memoir, Brown tells the story of how he got out of romantic relationships altogether in favour of paying for sex – and how that choice quickly made him a much happier and contented man. Over the course of the book, Brown both writes about his own experiences and advocates for the decriminalization of prostitution. Just as entertaining are a series of 23 appendices in which he repudiates many of the common arguments against decriminalization. Also of note, the artist Seth – a character in the book – gets his own appendix to reflect on the story, his representation, and his relationship with Brown.
On the eve of a North American book tour, TORO caught up with Chester Brown in downtown Toronto.
What do you hope the impact of this book will be? Is Paying For It in some way designed to bring about social and cultural change?
I definitely wanted the book to be part of the debate. It sounds a bit arrogant to think that your book can result in real change. But at least it will be one of the voices out there and I think that’s part of the reason that – to use another example – homosexuality became normalized. It’s because you had all these gay people who were writing about their experiences, doing films about their experiences, doing paintings and just simply showing people what their lives were like and getting people more acclimatized to it and willing to accept what, at one point, had been seen as something disgusting.
Do you think prostitution will ever be decriminalized in Canada?
I think it has to happen sooner or later, but I think it’s more likely later than sooner.
What do you think is the main thing preventing it?
Our lingering Judeo-Christian heritage and how that effects people’s view of sexuality. That’s what was keeping gay rights back for so long and eventually gay people won that fight – though the fight is, of course, still going on to some degree. But things are certainly a lot better on that front than they were 50 years ago. And this is just another similar fight that’s going to start developing. But how long exactly? Hmm, maybe one or two generations.
What I think is going to happen in the short term is that they’re going to go for the Swedish model of criminalizing the john and making it illegal to pay for sex, but not illegal to accept money for sex.
That sounds like a fairly Kafkaesque outcome.
Well, it will be good for the prostitutes – they won’t be in any danger of being arrested. But, of course, bad for people like me.
In this book you make the case that romantic relationships seemed to you, at a certain point, not worth all the hassles, fighting, ego, discord, etc. You came to the conclusion that there simply had to be a better way?
Yeah, that sounds right. I just don’t see how other people can put up with the stuff that they go through in romantic relationships – both men and women.
Canadian filmmaker and media personality Sook-Yin Lee is a character in this memoir – in fact, she’s the last girlfriend you had before you turned to prostitutes full-time. What was her reaction to the book?
She was fine with it. She didn’t ask for any changes. She was concerned that she was going to come off looking like a villain in the book. Like she had turned me into a whoremonger or something. But that’s just her insecurity and fear about how she’d be perceived, and that’s understandable. But as far as how it depicted me or prostitution, she had no problem with any of that.
Did you have any concerns about how people might react to this book – starting with your friends and moving outward to the general public?
Well, my friends knew that I was doing the book and that it was going to be autobiographical and they could pretty much guess that they were going to be characters in it. Originally I had wanted to do a book about my whole sex life, beginning in childhood and bringing it right up to the present – including how things had gone in my relationships with different girlfriends. I had even asked the two girlfriends that I’m still friends with – Chris and Sook-Yin – what they thought about that and neither was too crazy about that idea, which was understandable. And so I had to rethink that idea and just focus on the prostitution aspect.
We don’t see the faces of the prostitutes in this book. I understand wanting to protect their privacy but did you ever think of getting around making them faceless by instead giving them fictitious faces?
I considered that. I started to do that – to draw out 23 fictitious faces. And the big problem that I ran into was that I wanted to avoid giving as few details about these women as possible. And so that included skin colour – in this book you can’t discern their race at all, and I saw Asian women, Native North American women, black women, etc. And if I showed faces then you could tell their race by facial features, and this would be an added detail. So am I going to start making the black women white and the white women black?
But if a woman had a fictitious face and she was white, that’s still a large group of women that she’s a part of.
That’s true. But there was the one prostitute that knew something of American history and I depict her with large breasts, which she did have. And that starts to narrow things down. Now if on top of that, if you know what her skin colour is, that further narrows it down. It just seemed sensible to avoid that altogether by not depicting faces. I was also more comfortable with omitting things than fictionalizing, because it’s a memoir and not a work of fiction.
At the end of the book you wind up with a prostitute named Denise, and it evolves into a surprising and unusual arrangement.
Yes, I’m monogamous with her and she’s monogamous with me, but I still do pay her for sex. When we get together to have sex, we basically make an appointment to do so. But if we get together for other reasons, then we know – and there’s no payment for that.
So that happens too? You’ll go out with her to dinner or a movie?
Yes, occasionally. Perhaps not as much as a real romantic couple would, but we do spend time off the clock so to speak.
If a man is married to a woman and she doesn’t have a job, in some ways there’s a parallel because he’s paying her, in a way, a lump sum over an extended period of time. I mean, it’s not as specific, but do you see what I mean?
Oh definitely. There are many examples from my friends' lives. I have a friend whose girlfriend is a student and having difficulty keeping up with the rent payments, so he helps her with the rent. And I see that as a very similar thing.
Let’s return to you relationship with Denise. She formerly had more than one client, but now she only sees you?
At a certain point she decided that she wanted to do things more safely. And so she decided to only see her regulars, and perhaps guys that they recommended. And after a certain point all of those regulars had dropped off and she was left with only me. And she found other ways of getting income.
You know, Chester, if this were a Hollywood movie you’d marry Denise, making her the “hooker with a heart of gold.” And then settle down to raise a family as the closing credits roll by. What are the chances of that happening?
I think that Denise likes me as a person but I don’t think she has any romantic interest in me. She doesn’t want to take the relationship in that direction. And we’ve talked about it. We’ve been talking about it more now because it seems that a lot of the media have been wanting to push the story in that direction. Like the Globe and Mail guy interviewed a friend of mine who said, “Denise is probably the love of Chester’s life.” Well, I didn’t say that. But there it is in the story. I think people want to see it as a “Pretty Woman” type scenario.
And you’re Richard Gere.
[Laughs] Right. But the thing is, I honestly don’t know where this relationship is going. She could fall in love with someone else, or it could continue like this indefinitely. I started to see her eight years ago. I became monogamous seven years ago. And she’s been monogamous with me for four years.
It’s fascinating – just a very interesting set-up.
Well, I wasn’t expecting things to develop this way. But it certainly ended up working out well for the book. It gives it a nice ending.