This month saw the publication of gay erotic artist Sam Morris‘ tender, intimate and emotional debut book Don’t Fall In Love, Sam. Morris’ unguarded personal essays take us behind his hugely popular online image as constructed by his visually sumptuous and carefully composed photography and video work, as he contemplates anxiety, sex, and sexuality as a young gay man in contemporary Berlin. Queer As Folk creator Russell T. Davies has described the book as “a long hard stare at love, sex and desire’, while performer Alan Cumming says the work “oozes with authenticity – something not so common in the field of erotic memoir”.
Ahead of the book’s release The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann had an exclusive conversation with Sam Morris about sharing his private writings with the world, what he hopes young queer men might gain from reading the work, the contrast between his online persona and real life, and which LGBTQ+ books have had the biggest impact on him.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: Congratulations on the book, I’ve really enjoyed reading it over the last few days and it’ll definitely stay with me. What is it like to be releasing it out into the world?
Sam Morris: “I’m a bit nervous actually because it’s very personal, so I’m a bit scared to let it out because it’s essentially like people reading my diary.”
In terms of it being so personal does publishing the book feel more exposing in a way than your erotic photographic and video work?
“Yeah, I think so because it’s less constructed. These are really the innermost workings of my brain at some of the darkest times in my life over the past few years. There’s a part of me that actually cringed a little bit when I read it back because there are parts of it where I feel like, wow, that was a really dark time and I don’t even recognise who that person is in these stories, although I do remember writing them. So it’s a bit unsettling because I do feel like I’m in a very different place in my life now. Reading it, it does make me feel a bit like, wow, do I really want to share this stuff?! I felt like it was important to share my thoughts because if I’ve had these experiences then there are plenty of other people out there who are also living through those experiences and if somebody else reads one of these stories and identifies with it and thinks, ‘Oh my fucking God, I’ve been through this’, then I think it’s worth sharing. It is a no-holds-barred telling of my life.”
I used to keep a diary and I think it’s a good thing to do particularly when intense things are going on, it’s also an enlightening experience going back and reading isn’t? It’s almost hard to believe that your thoughts were so intense especially if you’re in love with someone and writing those feelings down.
“Yeah, I look at it and I think, fucking hell, it’s crazy how one person can make you feel so unhinged, or not even feel unhinged, just actually be unhinged, to the point where you don’t even realise it at the time. It is quite unnerving.”
Could you talk a bit about the cathartic, therapeutic aspect of your journal writing and whether you had a sense of objectivity as you were reading back over it for this book?
“To a degree, yes. I remember experiencing those moments and thinking fucking hell this is dark, I’m going to have to talk about this at some point. That’s partly why I used to write it down actually, because it used to help me to get it out and it helped me to process things, particularly the more traumatic events. I definitely had to write it out so that I could look back at it at a certain time and process it. I don’t think I’m old enough yet to look at it in a way where I think I’ve learned so much or I moved on, but I do feel like I am in a different place now definitely and that’s since starting therapy and also kind of growing up a bit in a way too.”
How did you decide on the format of the book, that mix of personal essays, songs and poetry?
“I’d always planned on releasing a journal style book. I’ve always really loved those sort of books myself, where you’re kind of peeking into someone’s life. Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl was similar in a way. It was a bunch of random essays and I just loved the way that it jumps around. There’s an Andy Warhol book called Fame which has a lot of little entries in which I also love, and Kenneth Williams has a book of all of his diary entries which I like too. I think the format gives the most accurate insight into my life because those few years did feel a bit incoherent at times. It was so up and down. There was some really like amazing sex and then some really dark periods in between and then falling head over heels in love and having this romance and then being extremely heartbroken straight after. It was a bit all over the place, so it was a case of taking all of those chunks of my life and putting them together. There is a chronological order, but I did swap some things around just to spice it up a bit!”
As you were going over your writing how did you decide what was going to make the cut, did you have a method or specific criteria in mind?
“A lot of things didn’t make it. I think it just came down to what I felt best summed up each particular journey. The story is really about me falling in love with someone and it being unrequited, but I think the backbone of it is that I am actually trying to find love for myself. That was ultimately the whole point of it in a way, so it was just a case of trying to find everything that fitted in with that concept.”
You mention at the beginning that all the names were changed.
“Yeah, that’s right. I changed all the names just because I didn’t want to get sued!”
At certain points in the book you contemplate the contrast between your online identify and the person you are in real life, for instance when you write that you’re ‘facing the fear that nobody will ever truly love me because I’ll never reach the unattainable goal of being the person I’ve created online.’ I wondered whether to some degree in putting these writings out there part of the incentive was to bring those two identities, the online Sam and the real Sam, closer together? Was that something that you were thinking about consciously?
“Over the last few years as my work has became more popular it’s felt like my personal life was extremely polarised compared to what I was putting online, vastly different. I’ve now reached a point where I feel comfortable letting people into that. I have constructed things in a very polished way and it’s been very controlled what I’ve done over the past few years on the Internet and that’s kind of damaged me, particularly in relationships with people and with lovers, because they have a different opinion of who I am on the Internet. I remember someone saying to me, ‘You look like you don’t need love on the Internet because you’re so confident and I think that’s probably what you’re attracting in your life’. That was a haunting moment for me because I had I felt like it was healthy for me to separate the two Sams, but now I’m reaching the point where I want to merge them more and I feel like that is the healthier option and it would be more honest or authentic in a sense. Usually my work is very carefully constructed and I’ve been very meticulous with it, but this book is the reality of who I am and what I feel.”
You mentioned at the beginning some of the book is quite dark but I think there’s a lot of positivity in sharing those experiences, in writing about them and talking about them. There’s a chapter where you detail being raped on Fire Island, why did you decide to include that in the book?
“I was very close to not sharing that. It was kind of a last minute thing, where I thought, do you know what? I feel like this needs to go in the book. I had a pile of all of my work and it was one piece that was just staring at me for a long time and I felt compelled to include it. There’s a part of me that thinks that it does stand out in the book. What happened on Fire Island wasn’t recent, but the event in Florida which I talk about was, it was just last year. So it was so fresh in my mind and I thought I need to put this in there. I still have a certain amount of residual anger from from what happened and I felt like it was important for me to put it down into the book because I’ve never really talked about it before. It’s actually the one chapter that I’m most nervous about going out there. I felt like it was quite well processed at the time and I remember speaking to a lot of my close friends about it. I also got it down on paper straight away, which is why I was able to write such a detailed recollection of the events because I wrote about it the day after it happened. I don’t feel like I have a lot of trauma left to unbox which is why I am able to share the story now, but it’s still a bit daunting. I had originally used different phrasing, but when I sent over the final draft to my editor he crossed out ‘was having sex with me’ and wrote ‘raped me’. Then he wrote in a note next to it, ‘Let’s just call this what it is.’ In a way that was a form of therapy in itself because I still didn’t use the R word in that draft of the book. I’d still written ‘he was having sex with me’ and my editor said, ‘No, we need to change this, we need to call it what it is.’ So in a way I had still not really come to terms with what it was, because I do think that the lines are so blurred in a way and I think that’s why I wanted to write it all down in black and white, exactly what happened on that night scene by scene so that people can read it and they can actually take from it what they want. I mean, I obviously I put that word in because that’s what I now believe it was and I hope that people will read it and be able to see what my truth is and that no matter what has happened in a night, no matter what, if you get to a point and somebody is uncomfortable or someone has not given consent then that means that consent has not been given period. So it was a big learning curve in writing it and the whole process of editing it and delivering it actually as a piece of text, as an essay, was quite daunting. Reading it and processing it as a piece of writing, seeing it on paper was kind of scary. It’s very candid and it’s exactly what happened. It was a great night really up until that point. So it is very true in that it shows that you can be literally naked and you can be having a great time, but if that line is drawn it shouldn’t be crossed.”
Was dealing with anxiety an aspect of your life that you definitely wanted to cover in the book?
“Anxiety is something that’s plagued me for a very long time and it’s a huge part of my daily reality, so it would have been impossible for me to have not included that. I’m constantly thinking about my mental health and I’m always keeping a close eye on it. That’s why there’s a chapter in there which is a list of things that cause me anxiety. When I was going through all of my diaries and writings I found this list that I’d made. I had sat down one day in despair and I’d written down all the things that have pushed me into an anxiety episode that will be crippling to the point where I can’t concentrate and I’m shaking. That list is so raw. Actually that list is probably the most raw chapter in the book because it was purely a list I’d written for myself and for no one else to see. When I came across it I thought, I’m going put this fucking list in there, because these are all the things that my brain is constantly processing when I’m having a bad anxiety episode. So it had to go in. I think as well as all the different neuroses that are in there, in a way it all adds up to why other things are happening in the book. I’m almost looking at myself in the third person. I look at it and I think, fucking hell this is a troubled, tumultuous time for this person.”
You’ve included a few of your own illustrations in the book, why were you drawn to doing that rather than featuring your photographic work?
“I wanted it to be very separate from my photographic work and my website. If I release a book of my photographs one day it’ll be completely separate to this very personal memoir. The illustrations felt like they were something that was more personal to me. I did all of the illustrations in the first lockdown actually. I decided that I didn’t want to fill the book with them, but just have a few to give a slight visual connection to some of the stories and to connect my artistic side with the writing. I didn’t want any of my photographic work in there at all, which is why even the photo with my bio in the book is from a photobooth in Berlin. I took it on my own when I was in a dark depression in Berlin. I decided that I didn’t want any glossy pictures, it needed to reflect the reality of the book in general.”
What do you hope people might take away from reading the book, particularly young gay men?
“I think younger gay guys reading it might think, oh my God, I’m not fucking crazy and alone, because a lot of the stuff that I write about does read a bit crazy and it felt very crazy at the time, and I don’t think gay men talk about this stuff enough. Gay men talk about many different things, but they don’t talk about the serious crippling loneliness of being gay in this world, they just don’t. They connect through sex, they connect through dating, they connect at the bar on drugs or on drink, but they don’t talk about how they’re feeling and how things are affecting them. I have found some writing that does express that, like David Wojnarowicz’s Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration and also Olivia Laing wrote about him in The Lonely City, so some of that stuff rings close to it. Wojnarowicz talks about some really serious darkness. It’s not like I’m trying to be a Debbie Downer, because I feel like I’ve tried not be as much as I can in the book, even though my editor at times was like, ‘Sam, just when you give the reader hope you snatch it back away again!’ I was like, ‘Well, I’m sorry, but I’m not going to pretend that these stories were a good time, because it wasn’t. This is what it was’. Maybe someone that is going through a really shitty time might read the book and say, ‘Oh my God, this person has lived that and he looks like that on the Internet. That just shows that we’re all going through it.’ I think that’s really what it is about and that’s why I’ve been so candid in the book.”
Do you have a favourite LGBTQ+ piece of writing that’s had an impact on you and resonated with you?
“The Velvet Rage: Overcoming the Pain of Growing Up Gay in a Straight Man’s World by Alan Downs. When I read The Velvet Rage it changed my life quite dramatically and opened my eyes to a lot of stuff that I had experienced firsthand. Reading that book was like looking in a mirror. It is a really important piece of work and I don’t think it should be dismissed just because a few of the terms are slightly outdated. David Wojnarowicz’s writing was also really important to me. His approach to his battle with AIDS was so candid to the point that it was troubling and unsettling. So those have both stuck with me.”
By James Kleinmann
Sam Morris’ debut book Don’t Fall In Love, Sam is available worldwide now at JustSamMorris.Store. For Sam’s erotic photographic and video work head to his website SamMorris.me, follow him on Instagram @JustSamMorris and on Twitter @JustSamMorris.