In The Dangerous Joy of Dr. Sex (Reviews, May 19), Lambda award-winner Kennedy investigates the life of the elusive author of The Joy of Sex and profiles a carnival of eccentrics, altruists and visionaries.
How did you get interested in Alex Comfort?
I rediscovered him on the Kinsey Institute Web site where I was spelunking around for my previous book [The First Man-Made Man]. I wanted to write a full-length biography, but I realized how few people remembered him. He was such a huge figure and the book was so important, but I scoured the media for interviews with him only to find that it was really the book that got out there. I guess it's that he didn't look the part; he's not really anybody's idea of a sex god. [laughs]
What inspired the essay's unusual form?
I wanted to play with the form of The Joy of Sex, which has these bizarre headings —I'm trying to think of one that you can print. [laughs] They're in French, very intriguing and followed by a one-page spate of text. I was also thinking of movies in the 1960s and '70s, with that Woody Allen sense of the surreal and quick cuts.
What are the challenges of writing someone else's story?
For me, it is very presumptuous to try to write other people's stories, but it's also enormously satisfying to take someone like [MIT inventor] Amy Smith—who's so dedicated to her work [devising medical and labor-saving devices for African communities] and isn't out there telling people about it. The day after my profile appeared [in the New York Times], Kofi Annan called her, and she went on to win the MacArthur [“genius” award]. She was somebody who was so deserving of attention, and I wanted to capture not just her genius but her quirkiness and charm.
Many of the “visionaries” you profiled are first- or second-generation immigrants—what's the significance of that?
I didn't see that connection, but you're right. These are, in fact, immigrant stories—people seeing America as a blank canvas where they can work out some big idea.
Where does your interest in science writing come from?
Technology and culture have always fascinated me, and I want to come at these issues with humor and a sense that science and technology should belong to all of us. It's just too bad that readers and writers are often too afraid of technology to ask why it isn't solving our problems. Why do we have these amazing plasma TVs but lack clean drinking water or safe baby bottles? Why is it failing us? And one way to examine that—because it gets awfully abstract—is to go out and find the people interested in solving these really essential questions of how science and technology can provide what human beings need to live.