Jilly Gagnon’s previous work for The Toast can be found here.
Back in 2008, E. Jean Carroll asked me to join her in writing a book about college sex, which eventually led to a road trip through the south, horrific abdominal cramping, and generalized anxiety about the future of our society. This is the first part of that story.
I was on the toilet when the phone rang.
Fortunately for me, my roommates at the time both had regular, business-hours jobs, so my bursting out of the bathroom mid-day—jerking and lurching against the leg-irons of my own underwear like some sort of semi-pornographic Frankenstein’s monster in my attempts to reach the phone before it stopped ringing—went unwitnessed.
Except of course by my cat, who’s used to this kind of shit from me.
“JILL-ee,” the blast through my earpiece was somewhere between a bark and a gunshot, “it’s E.”
As though anyone else in my phone book, or my life, for that matter, had a speech pattern punctuated by frequent explosions.
“I have got a project for you. What would you say to ghostwriting a book about…wait for it…COLLEGE SEX?”
“What sort of book are you talking about exactly?”
“Only the most scandalous, the most revelatory, the most rip-roaring, gamahuching, fucking sexiest book EVER! It will be GENIUS!“
“So a quick job, then.”
“Exactly! And I’ll pay you X dollars to do it!”
At the time, X dollars was upwards of 1/3 of my annual income.
More importantly, though, E. Jean was one of the few successful people in the literary world who knew of, and even more inexplicably cared about, me.
Let’s rewind about four years to the spring of my junior year in college.
Walking through a grocery store with my friend Luke, my phone rang.
We were a day away from spring break and I was feeling jaunty. I picked up.
“Is this Jilly Gagnon?”
“Jilly, this is E. Jean Carroll. I own and operate Catch 27?”
Catch 27 was a social network E. Jean had started a few months earlier that I’d been “exclusively invited” to join, mainly because I was on the same college literary magazine as E. Jean’s current online amanuensis. The membership wasn’t huge, but Catch folks were deeply, almost obsessively involved with the site. It took a simple premise—that your social life is really just a game—and literalized it, “pricing” profiles based on how much interest they generated, allowing members to buy one another (rather than simply request a friendship), and rewarding members who played the game best with real-life prizes. The promise of instant feedback combined with deadly boredom at my magazine internship meant I’d been blogging there regularly, refreshing a page with E. Jean’s picture on it as often as possible to see if whatever random thoughts I’d spewed that day had raised my worth.
“Sure, yes. Of course I’ve heard of you. Is there something I can do for you?”
“Well I’ll come right to the point. I’ve been reading your blog over the last month or so, and I LOVE it. You are one of the wittiest young women I have ever SEEN.” I shook my head once, rapidly, trying to clear out what was clearly a fantasy creeping in. I looked around. Still in the grocery store. Still with Luke, who was obviously wondering who the hell I was talking to. If this was a dream, it was very consistent.
“Now this is going to make a lot of the members of the site very angry, because there are some of them who just LIVE for Catch, and they will think you are jumping over their heads, but that’s part of the fun, isn’t it?”
I mumbled assent.
“Anyway, it will stir the pot, which is EXACTLY what I want you to do as my new gossip columnist.”
I’d never had anyone offer me a writing job before, certainly never out of the blue, based not on my own pleading masked as a cover letter, but on that someone’s personal estimation of my worth.
“Sure, I mean, yes, absolutely. I’d love to do it.”
It didn’t even occur to me to ask for a salary until she later offered one, though thankfully I wasn’t quite so naïve as to admit in so many words that I’d do it for free.
Since then, we’d worked off and on together, first on the site, then on various one-off projects. For reasons that I never quite fathomed (and frankly still don’t), she was almost endlessly willing to throw the weight of her years at Elle magazine and various other establishments fully behind me, sometimes before I’d even asked for it. And of course, with a personality, and vocal volume, in inverse proportion to her wiry figure, she was always interesting company, even just over the phone.
Even though I had no idea what she meant by a book about “college sex,” it was only a matter of a few moments before I responded:
“Of course I’ll do it. What all would it entail?”
“Well, we need to know everything. What the kids are doing, who they’re doing it with, how many times a day they’re doing it, how many beers they have to guzzle down before they do it – everything!”
“Yes,” her enthusiasm was starting to take root in me, too, thrusting ticklish little tendrils against the sides of my stomach. “Yes, there’s so much there – there’s half a dozen books of material there.”
“You see immediately why I can’t do this myself – a haggard old crone like me? I haven’t even heard of the things the kids are doing these days! HA!”
“Well I doubt that’s true.”
“No, no, it’s true. 100%, God’s-honest-truth. That’s why I need YOU, Miss Hip, Miss in the know, to help me with this!”
“Well sure, yeah, I mean, I’ll start asking around with my friends, and my little sister’s friends. They’re still in college.”
“Perfect, PERFECT, we’ll – Fortuna. FORTUNA, what are you doing?” Her voice became dim as she ran away from the phone after one of her several dogs. “I have to make sure Fortuna doesn’t hang herself on the fence post. She sees a squirrel and she would literally rather DIE than let it out of her sight.”
“Okay, I guess I’ll start asking around then…”
“Wonderful – get to it. We’ll talk many times. Byyyyeeeeeee!”
I waited for the dial tone to be sure she’d actually finished – E. Jean has a way with “one last things.” Finally certain the phone call was over, I slowly stooped to pull up my pants. It was time to e-mail some college students.
There’s one thing E. Jean hadn’t taken into account when she asked me to help her with this particular “fucking sexiest book ever,” namely that my “sexy college experience” took place at a college full of…well, nerds.
Of course we had our fair share of romance, sex, and everything in between during my tenure there. We were still college-age kids, after all, finally off-leash for the first time in our lives.
Some of us made it a point and a habit to drink, smoke, pop and sniff too much and then make further bad decisions. There were plenty of young molders-of-tomorrow’s-future spending their Friday and Saturday nights attempting to fuck one another standing in the corner of all the parties worth their salt, before realizing that everyone involved, not least of all themselves, would have a better time if they just found a room. There were recipes, games, pre-games, and highly-engineered funneling devices whose sole purpose was to ensure everyone in the near vicinity got stupider, faster.
But we were still all nerds. No stretch of the imagination could turn my college experience into the teen-movie version. I actually had the following conversation several times freshman year:
“I did like the Lord of the Rings movies, sure, but I have to say that the character of Faramir seemed unnecessarily far off from the version in the books”
“Fair, but for my part, I had more trouble with the whole ‘love story’ element – completely fabricated”
…and that was, like, foreplay. And I was not the bottom of the loser barrel. No, seriously.
The prospect I had signed on to join, then, was this: a steamy, scandalous, sin-sational book about college sex, “authored” by a woman who, despite a long tenure as the advice columnist at Elle magazine (which certainly kept her more informed about the sex lives of the young’uns than the majority of her peer group) was nonetheless past 60, who would be supported in this venture by the knowledge of an already-graduated girl—me—who even compared to her own good-girl high school friends, let alone the college population at large, had experienced at best a PG-rated version of the topic at hand.
No one had ever tried anything like it, indeed.
MORE TO FOLLOW
Jilly Gagnon's debut comic novel, Choose Your Own Misery: The Office Adventure (co-written with Mike MacDonald), was published in January 2016.