Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Mark Haskell Smith--Naked at Lunch

DEBORAH CROMBIE: I had the pleasure of meeting novelist and journalist Mark Haskell Smith when he signed his book, NAKED AT LUNCH, here in Dallas a few weeks ago. I know Mark's wife,  Diana, from visiting California, and when I heard they were both going to be here I jumped at the chance to see them--especially when I learned the subject of Mark's new non-fiction book. Who could resist the title alone, much less the subject matter! I should give you the whole thing--NAKED AT LUNCH: A Reluctant Nudist's Adventures in a Clothing Optional World. Isn't that fabulous? And Mark was funny and charming, and the book is, as Meghan Daum says on the cover, "...a total joy," and absolutely fascinating.

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 the
house, 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 fears
were 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?


  1. A "clothes optional" adventure? Probably not my cup of tea, but I certainly wouldn't care if others chose to do so.
    [No skinny-dipping, Mark . . . I NEVER go swimming].

  2. My first adult experience with nudity, outside the comfort of my own bed and bathroom, was on our ranch in California. A former AFS exchange student from Marseille had lived with in-law relatives for a year, and we'd hit it off. A few years later I got a message at the general store down the canyon. It went something like this:
    Please call your mother.
    The teacher wants to talk with you.
    You have mail at the post office in Weldon.
    Some anthropologist wants to cut through your place to Cortez Canyon. I told him it was alright, no three wheelers, and be sure to close the gate. So don't shoot him, okay.
    Your side of beef is ready.
    Jim wants to know if you'll cut his hair. He must be going to that dance.
    Chantal called from France. She wants to come out and stay with you for a few weeks. She'll be here on Tuesday and wanted directions, so I told her three cattle guards, down your road. Turn right. Cross the creek. Up the other side. But don't do it. Get a bus to Bakersfield and someone'll pick you up.
    Call your mother. Please.

    I picked Chantal up in Bakersfield. When the kids were down for their nap she said that we should take off our clothes and go for a walk. I said okay as long as I could wear flip flops. I didn't want to disappoint her. We were 13 miles from the nearest telephone. It wasn't like anyone was going to happen by the house or anything. So there I was being all cosmo and feeling French when a 6 foot rattler decides he doesn't want us to head out to the back forty. I scream. Chantal grabs me, and a couple of cowboys on horseback come around the side of the house and tip their hats. Howdy ma'am. The snake slithers away. The cowboys are looking for the anthropologist and head out toward the canyon. That was the beginning and ending of my nudity experience.

  3. Great post,Thanks for providing us this great knowledge,Keep it up.
    A good blog.

  4. So funny, Reine! I'm all for nudity. In my younger days I went to the nude beach near San Diego, and have skinny dipped in the ocean and in a Canadian river - Mark's right, that'll hook anyone. I had that experience about naked bodies in the public bath in Japan, with women (only) from ages six months to ninety years. Oh, and in the hammam in Morocco, too. Love it. Thanks for sharing your experiences, Mark! A nude cruise? Wow. I wonder how the grocery shopping came about?

  5. I love not allowing anything that requires an apology! That is PERFECT, and ought to be a universal rule. If it isn't already.

    Mark, you are brave. I have to say…not in a million years. Joan, I agree, no skinny-dipping. Reine, you never cease to amaze!

  6. Lovely interview Debs and Mark! I love skinny-dipping too, but not so sure about the cruise.

    But Mark, tell us more about the book. Was this focused on why nudists are nudists or ??? What was the pitch?

  7. What an interesting blog post. I could never go nude in a million years. But I'm not going to knock someone else's lifestyle. I have friends who have a trailer at a nudist campground and love it. I just couldn't do it.

    Reine, you have the greatest stories!

  8. I love skinnydipping, but get too few opportunities these days . . .

  9. Welcome, Mark -- great post! We U.S. Americans are so prudish when it comes to nudity....

  10. A "clothing optional" adventure? Probably not. But nudity doesn't bother me. Just not my thing, I guess.

  11. Good morning! Thanks for having me on the JRW. Love Reine's story. Snakes and nudity are a classic tale! And I imagine the cowboys have their version of the story too.

    Well, Edith, the nude grocery shopping took place at a very famous nudist resort in the south of France called Cap d'Agde. It's a small town, really, with 60,000 or so people and has grocery stores, restaurants, wine stores, cafes, bakeries, cheese shops, a pharmacy, a bank, even a dry cleaner (right?) and everyone is naked. I will say that there is really nothing like a good French greengrocer and if we had one in Los Angeles, and they required you to be naked to enter, the place would be packed. Although I will say, the aisles are narrow and sometimes squeezing past each other was an interesting dance.

    And to Lucy's question. The book is "immersive journalism" or "participatory anthropology" or whatever they're calling it next. Basically I outlined all these interesting places, cities like Cap d'Agde, clothing-optional towns in Spain, nude cruises on fancy ships, etc. and told my publisher that I would experience these places and talk to the people who lived there, trying to get to the hows and whys of it all. And I would interweave the history of nudism, which turned out to be richer and stranger and more interesting than I ever imagined (and goes all the way back to the Greeks).

  12. Reine, I can't stop laughing. Of course the cowboys would show up right then!

    Too many reasons to stay clothed, for me: sunburn, bug bites, and now snakes, thankyouverymuch. I just get too cold, no matter what the weather, and have very sensitive skin--just imagining bugs crawling on me would drive me nuts.

    A friend has a very private, eight-acre lake, and they skinny dip all the time. I have once or twice, but the water is murky and it's hard to see below the surface. I know there are lots of fish because they stock it for fishing, and they also have fairly good-sized snapping turtles. One time I was hanging around on the float, just sort of dangling my legs, and all of a sudden a little fish (or something, she said darkly) yanked on "something" dangling from a sensitive part of my anatomy. It hurt like hell and startled me, and I squawked and flailed like mad. The girlfriend on the bank said it looked like Jaws was getting me.

    That was the end of my skinny-dipping days.

  13. What we do for our art...
    I'm not going to ask Mark what he did to research my up-to-now favorite book of his, BAKED, but I do recommend it. Hilariously brilliant.
    (Say HI to Diane for me... she was my author escort once upon a time in LA... author escort is not what it sounds like)

  14. Ha! Hallie, I did everything you imagine I did to research that book (which led to my first nonfiction). Diana says hi back!

  15. Love your story, Reine! Did you ever call your mother???

    Skinnydipping is wonderful, yes, but like Karen, I'd prefer it not to be in a murky lake (although I was braver when I was younger...) But I had my most fun group naked experience when I was about eighteen. I was out with my boyfriend and some of his friends--we always hung out in a group in those days. It was a suffocatingly hot Texas summer night, still nearly a hundred degrees after dark and nearly a hundred percent humidity, with a thunderstorm brewing. This was the kind of hot where your clothes are plastered to you and the air is too thick to breathe. When the storm finally broke, we were at somebody's house (no idea whose) and it was a corker. Solid, drenching, sheets of rain. We all went outside and got soaked, then, without any sort of agreement, all took our clothes off and ran around in the rain until it stopped half an hour later. That cold, wild rain felt so good I've never forgotten it.

    I'd love to swim naked off a pristine beach in the Bahamas. I'd go to a nude beach. But I'm not crazy about the idea of doing practical stuff. And carrying around a towel to sit on and cover up with when you could just wear underwear seems weird. But I guess it's part of the statement, right, Mark?

    And do tell us how much sunscreen you had to wear!

  16. PS Love your Salon essay, Mark!

  17. Hi Hallie! Diana was my author escort, too (not what it sounds like!!) and she is the best. We had more fun, even spending three day crossing LA in LA traffic!

    I want Mark to write the book on the vanishing foods!

  18. Reine, your story made me laugh out loud. I agree with Mark: I bet those cowboys are still telling their version of the event!

    Mark, I adore immersive journalism! I read a ton of nonfiction while writing and NAKED AT LUNCH sounds like the perfect way to experience something cool...without actually having to strip. (I love books about multi-month travels through beautiful but uncomfortable lands for the same reason.)

    My question is the same as Debs: what about sunburn? Do nudists have to sunscreen everything? I would think the bill for Coppertone would rapidly approach the cost of clothing if that were the case.

    And hurrah for skinnydipping! It's the best ever.

  19. Wow! There is nothing like a good midwestern (or Texas) summer thunderstorm. That sounds amazing! And it's really the kind of thing that young nudists are doing: camping, renting vacation homes as a group, going to nude beaches. The youth aren't into joining a traditional club.

    As to the sunscreen... yes. Lots! My dermatologist terrified me with a story of a nudist yoga practitioner who got skin cancer on the underside of his scrotum from doing headstands in his backyard. So... a base layer of 30 SPF cream and then spray on sunscreen applied every two hours. I was religious about it.

  20. Mark, I love the photos! That hike in the Alps must have been amazing. Was it just for a day?

  21. The hiking was for a week. We used what they called a "hut" (and what I call a 10 room chalet) as our base camp. It was really beautiful there.

  22. I'd have to be very careful cooking naked. I'm a bit accident prone. Do nudists wear aprons?

  23. I think I'm too shy to try something like that personally. But I found this fascinating. Thanks for taking on the research for us.

  24. Deborah, I have a photo of naked people making vegetable tempura in the "hut" kitchen. Now that's brave! But no, no aprons. Although I will say that the French and Italian members of the party took over the cooking early on and the food was fantastic.

  25. Mark, what an amazing adventure! You really do put it all out there for your work. Dedication extraordinaire! I don't know that I could ever bring myself to go nude in front of strangers, but I love the idea of what you call "immersive journalism" or "participatory anthropology." And, I certainly am in favor of people pursuing and enjoying activities that are harmless to themselves and others, and I love reading about people and lifestyles different than my own. I think it's important for us to read outside of our comfort zone, if not participate in it.

    And, the Cannabis Cup? Your marijuana book intrigues me, too. Who knew there was a prize like this? Not me. I am especially curious about what "dankness" is as opposed to the "stoner" effect.

    Reine, you are so funny! What a shock to both you and the cowboys! Hahaha!

  26. Excellent Many thanks for sharing
    I agree that the "nothing that requires an apology" should be the standard everywhere.

  27. From MATT COYLE: The winners of his books are

    Grandma Cootie
    Jennifer Gray

    Email Hank (who is wearing clothing) at h ryan at WHDH dot comn

    Yay! And now back to sunscreen and tempura.

  28. I'm not a naked person. Even jumping into a hot tub with a bunch of friends leaves me tepid. However, that said, at one point in my 30s I challenged myself by going to a local hot spring called Breitenbush. I felt OK soaking naked, but still, it wasn't like it rocked my world.

    When I was a kid, we lived on the edge of the Marin Headlands. (Rhys, you know what I'm talking about!) We used to hike to Tennessee Valley Cove. Sometimes leftover 60s hippie types would be wandering about high as kites. I'll never forget the first time I saw a penis. Imagine a stringy hippie guy cartwheeling down the beach ... I was half mesmerized, half horrified by the cartwheeling penis too. I think that's what did me in for public displays of nudity. :-)

  29. oh spitting coffee into my computer today...you guys are a riot!

  30. Lisa, I offer you my solemn (okay, not so solemn, under the circumstances) thank you for that hilarious mind picture.

  31. Lisa, isn't that the darned truth! My brief glimpses of public nudity have not been particularly inspirational. I've never been skinny dipping mainly because I want something between me and what else lives in the water!

  32. Now I can't get the image out of my mind, dagnabbit! :-)

    The whole public nudity thing seems so tedious to me -- I don't have the skin for it! I already have enough trouble slathering sunscreen on the usual parts.

    I've seen too many horror movies to skinny dip comfortably.

  33. I'm certainly not making a case that nudism is for everyone. In fact, I am not a nudist. I might enjoy a skinny dip, but I'm not ready to stand around a barbecue with a bunch of other naked people. Just not my thing. But, to Lisa's point, what seems tedious to you is, for a lot of people, the thing they like to do best. Some people love to golf or read books or bake pies, and some people like to do all that in the nude. If there's one thing I learned in my 3 years working on this book is that the general public (and here I'm not picking on Lisa, I understand the PTSD a cartwheeling penis can inflict on a person more than most) needs to develop a little tolerance and provide safe areas where people can be naked if they want to.

  34. Debs, yes, I called my mother. She wanted me to watch out for the cowboys, because "Chantal is coming up, and Daddy's headed out the Jawbone Canyon road. He had his driver's license taken away again and didn't want to get caught driving on Highway 14. If he's not there yet, he probably went over the side. He's doing a play with Ralph Waite next week, And Al Pacino is coming by with Michael Cavanaugh. Daddy says he wants to help Chantal get a part in the play. Yeah... I bet he does."

    Mark, some things are truths in life. Cowboys are polite and don't talk much. But I'm sure they talk some time, because the stories manage to go round the valley and back again.

    And, Mark I love to go skinny dipping. Is that the same as nudity? I don't think so. It feels entirely different.

  35. Reine, that's exactly right. Skinny dipping is just swimming naked. Nudism is the conscious choice to be naked with other naked people in a social setting.

  36. Mark, I think Amercians are very hung up on the whole idea of public nudity. There are lots of nude beaches in Europe, and it's no big deal, right?

    I was wondering about the age thing, however. My idea of nudists tended towards the aging hippie, but it sounds like that is not the case. Are there younger groups now? Families? I know people feel very strongly that children should not be horrified by the sight of the human body, and I agree. I was just thinking how interesting it was in the photos you gave us to see all the different shapes and sizes of people that are normally disguised by clothes.

  37. Nude beaches are way more common in Europe. With Greece and Italy being places where you can be naked on almost any beach if you want to. And in Europe, little kids, teenagers, everyone from babies to grandparents are naked and it doesn't seem to bother anyone.

    Interesting side note: the rise of cellphone cameras and the internet is causing the famous topless beaches of France to be less top free. No one really likes seeing their naked bodies on some sleazy website. Although there is some enforcement.

    But, yes, America is still very puritanical in a lot of respects, especially about public nudity. For example the ban on public breastfeeding in some places is that kind of puritanical thinking taken to an extreme.

    But while the old fashioned nudist resorts slowly age out, there are lots of young people who go to nude beaches or camping or just do drum circles on someone's farm. It seems to be growing in number. I guess they want to show off their tattoos.

  38. Alas, feeling the need to defend myself: I have nothing against nudity, other people being nude, me hanging with other people who are nude, whatever. I was only talking about myself and joking about the tedium of having to worry about sunscreening every body part all the time (very white skin). I live in Portland, OR, land of the annual naked bicycle parade.

  39. Hi Lisa! I really wasn't picking on you. I'm also very white skinned (apparently of Scottish descent) and so I understand what you mean about sunscreening. I get that form of tedium every day here in Southern California.

  40. This is the most entertaining post! The discussion is even better. Lisa, my psyche will be forever scarred by the invoked image of the cartwheeling penis! I've never been tempted to skinny dip, even in my youth. By the time I was in my early 20's, the skin cancer that runs rampant in my family became a major deterrent to outdoor nudity of any kind. I don't have any objection to other people choosing nudity. I do approve of their rules and courtesy. Mark, my library has your book on order and it's now on my TBR list.

  41. It's an interesting discussion. I'm a fan of a particular British actress, and one of the things that has always struck me is the way she moves. She's very...for want of a better description, very comfortable in her own skin. She moves beautifully onstage. And then I was reading an article a little while ago that made reference to her having grown up going on nudist holidays with her family, and having done life modeling for art classes as a student. I'd assume that would directly affect the way she carries herself physically.

    Now I have to go find this book! (I see what you did there!)


  42. And oh, hooray, I won! That's awesome! Thank you! Email sent.