An installment in the Disrobing Suspense series of interviews with naturist writers
D. H. Jonathan began writing fiction about nudity some ten years ago. His novels have a strong footing in his own experience: The ‘Volunteer’ (2016) has to do with being naked in public, around people who are clothed – something that Dan has experienced numerous times at the Bay to Breakers race in California. His second novel, Life Models (2019), is based on his more than three decades of experience modeling for artists. I had the opportunity to speak with Dan about his work at a writing workshop that I set up for the AANR-SW convention at Oaklake Trails Naturist Park last month, and to ask some follow-up questions afterwards.
We spoke about narrative voice, and Dan highlighted that The ‘Volunteer’ is told in the first-person voice of the main character, Dani, a college student who reluctantly takes part in a sociology experiment in which she goes about her normal life while nude. Dan says that her reluctance “was essential to maintaining the suspense and the interest of the reader as was her perception of how people saw her, what they must be thinking about her, etc.” In contrast, the main characters in Life Models are quite willing to disrobe – after all, it’s their job. In that novel, it’s rather Lydia’s “tendency to disrobe in not-so-appropriate places that heightens suspense and (I hope) provides some comedy”; for example, in this scene:
“I stood looking at Lydia’s naked body as she opened her eyes and gazed at me. She smiled and increased the pace of her dancing, turning as she bounced and stepped. The other dancers started to notice. Some of them turned toward her, and others moved away, to the other side of the studio. I was struck by how pure she looked compared with all the other dancers, how everyone else could have been described and defined by what they wore, while every contour of Lydia’s body was visible, moving without restraint. She turned back toward me and, just as I was about to say something to her, motioned for me to take off my shirt. Her motions reminded me that we weren’t supposed to talk on the dance floor. I wondered if anyone had thought to include remaining clothed in the rules” (65-66).
When we were setting up a writing exercise for the participants, we talked about how much to describe a character’s physical appearance. It’s an issue that affects any writer, whether characters are clothed or unclothed, because in contrast to an art like painting or photography, writing does not allow for the creation of a complete, instantaneous image in the reader’s mind. The question becomes one of time, suspense, and disclosure – how much is necessary for the reader? For example, to what extent is it necessary for the reader to know the character’s eye color, weight, or height? In Dan’s practice, he goes into more detail to describe secondary characters, “because the reader is usually going to identify more closely with the main characters, so I leave them more open.” A main character may get a detailed physical description as well, if seen from the perspective of the POV (point of view) character, such as David’s description of Lydia in the first chapter of Life Models, but often a description such as the following, in which The ‘Volunteer’ Dani sees herself in photos, will suffice:
“After breakfast, I went back upstairs to get on my computer and look at my photos. They were amazingly vivid high-definition shots of me. I was, of course, fully naked, but I had a smile on my face and not the sultry look like I had seen on the models in the few adult magazines I had looked at. The photos of me seemed to depict a girl who just liked to be free and naked/ And while the full-frontal photos were rather explicit, they didn’t seem dirty or pornographic. I just looked like a free spirit, plain, with very little makeup. I was OK with them on the university website, given that everyone on campus sees me naked on a daily basis anyway. I just hoped that no one back home saw them” (88).
Another question for writers of naturist fiction is tone. How overtly should one promote the benefits of social nudism and body acceptance? Dan says, “When the characters in both my novels finally visit naturist venues after being nude in situations where everyone else is clothed, like an art class or for a sociology experiment, they all experience epiphanies. They find everything relaxing, and they make new friends easily. In those scenes, the benefits are described rather overtly. But they have already come to realize the benefits of just being nude from their past experiences. I try not to be that overt early on, but my own positive experiences as a nude model for over 35 years tend to just come out.” A related question is, How overtly should one deal with topics such as sexuality? In D. H. Jonathan’s novels, the sensuality of nudity is often depicted. The novels contain descriptions of erotic acts, but never in a social context – only when a character is alone or with their lover.
In each of his books, Dan successfully introduces innovative contexts and characters for advancing the topic of social nudity. In Life Models, there is a nude protest in support of a surprising cause – one not usually associated with nudity. The reactions to the protest on the part of bystanders, the police, and the media are, however, not surprising at all in the sense that they are absolutely believable. One of Dan’s most complex characters is Dr. Slater, in The ‘Volunteer.’ Her motives for promoting social nudity are more complex than the reader may initially suspect, and so deeply held that the character exposes not only her ‘volunteer’ but also herself to considerable long-term fall-out. Dr. Slater’s trajectory as it intersects with Dani’s provides considerable suspense.
Can we expect more writing from D. H. Jonathan? Yes, indeed! He is currently working on The Girl Who Stopped Wearing Clothes, a sequel to The ‘Volunteer.‘ Check out his site for updates and more at dhjonathan.com.