Here's Mark to give you the skinny (sorry, couldn't resist):
DEBS: What got you interested in writing about nudists in the first place?
MARK HASKELL SMITH: I came to nonfiction by accident with Heart of Dankness (my book about the world’s best marijuana) and found that I really enjoyed getting out of thehouse, traveling around and talking to interesting people. I like the dive into another world where I have admittedly limited expertise. I’m curious. Can’t help it. So I was bit by the nonfiction bug.
I wanted to follow up the cannabis book with a book about food that’s going extinct around the world. Plants and cheese and meat and wine that will be gone forever in a few years, but I couldn’t get any publisher interested. My novels are all published by Grove/Atlantic and so my editor called and asked, “any ideas that aren’t about food?” I had a three hundred word sketch of an idea for the book about nudity. I thought it might be interesting and nudists have similar legal dilemmas as cannabis growers so… I sent it. The next morning my agent calls and says, “I have an offer for something and I don’t know what it is. You’re going to what?!?”
Apparently at the editorial meeting people just laughed and laughed at the idea of sending me around the world to take off my clothes. This is why I love Grove so much. They’re sadistic.
DEBS: Once you were committed to doing the research and writing the book, how hard was is for you to take the first plunge into the "sans textile" world? And where did you do it?
MARK: The first place I went was the Desert Sun Resort in Palm Springs. And, I’ve got to say, my initial reaction was ridiculous. Excruciating. All my worst anxieties and fears were coming out. But eventually I walked out -- a book contract can give you courage -- and pretty quickly realized all my fearswere in my head. The nudists didn’t blink.
DEBS: Are there certain social rules or conventions among nudists? (Like, NO STARING!)
MARK: The etiquette is pretty straight forward. Sit on a towel. No staring or leering. No sexual innuendo or any kind of behavior that could make someone feel uncomfortable. No photography. And, if you get an erection, cover it with a towel. My favorite was a resort that had one rule: Any behavior requiring an apology is not allowed.
DEBS: What starts most people down the nudist path?
MARK: Skinnydipping. Without a doubt swimming naked is the number one reason people get turned on to nudity. And why wouldn’t they? It feels great to swim nude.
DEBS: If being naked is no longer considered sexy, what do nudists do to GET sexy?
MARK: Open a bottle of wine, light a few candles, and put on some Barry White like everybody else.
DEBS: What did your lovely wife think about your undertaking?
MARK: I like that the Los Angeles Times called my wife the “unsung hero” of the book. She was never opposed to my going off and doing the research, it just wasn’t her thing. But when we finally went on the fancy cruise ship with 2000 nudists, she was curious (we’d never been on a cruise of any kind before), and, ultimately, when we were swimming in a pristine bay in the Bahamas, she finally understood some of the pleasures of nudism. (it’s the skinnydipping! Gets them every time.)
I just did a signing at a big naturist gathering at a nude resort outside San Diego and she came along and didn’t bat an eye. She just wrapped a sarong around her waist and took some photos like it was no big deal. (DEBS: Here's a great piece about Diana that Mark wrote for Salon.com.)
DEBS: What was the most fun thing you did?
MARK: The hiking in the Austrian Alps. I was with some really nice people, people from all over Europe, and the scenery was unbelievable. I kept expecting Julie Andrews to come skipping over a hill. And, like swimming, walking through nature naked is surprisingly delightful.
DEBS: Did your experience change you in a fundamental way? And would you do it again?
MARK: It really opened my eyes to a lot of issues. Our society’s fundamental immaturity when dealing with issues about sex and nakedness; our lack of tolerance for people who are engaged in activities that we don’t understand but don’t hurt anyone; and the kind of bizarre double-standard we have about seeing naked people. And by that I mean, so many times I heard “well, if they’re hot, I don’t have a problem with it.” That kind of comment really underscores one of the main benefits of nudism. Mostly when we see naked people they’re in a movie or an advertisement and so we get a very skewed perspective of what a normal person looks like when they’re naked. I think for a lot of people, going to a nudist resort or a nude beach is an eye opener because they suddenly realize that humans come in all shapes and sizes and that while they may not look like Angelina Jolie, they don’t look imperfect or ugly or unattractive or any thing that the cosmetic/fashion/diet industrial complex might have told them they were. The body acceptance that happens for a lot of people who try nudism is revolutionary and liberating. People get their self-esteem and self confidence back. They realize that they don’t need to look a certain way to feel happy. It’s really profound for a lot of people.
Would I do it again? I don’t think I’d go to any of the resorts again. I’m not really a hang out by the pool kind of guy. A week shopping for groceries in the nude was enough for me, even if it was in the South of France. But I would definitely skinny-dip with my wife again. In fact I’m looking forward to that.
DEBS: REDS and readers, Mark will be dropping in to answer questions, so fire away. This is so interesting, and something I'd never really considered. It really got me thinking about body acceptance and how we (women especially) are such slaves to the unrealistic way we're portrayed in the media. What would it be like to just...leave all that behind?
What about you? Would you consider a "clothes optional" adventure?