March 6, 2006

On The Apophallation Trail

David Strorm, the author of 'How Animals Have Sex,' talks to Gelf about the Argentine Lake Duck's enormous penis, turkey virgin births, and grabbing the spurious hipster demographic.

David Goldenberg

In the annals of natural history, there are a few great books that have changed the way we think about animals. Weighty tomes like Darwin’s Origin of Species, Stephen Jay Gould’s The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, and Dorothy Cheney and Robert Seyfarth’s How Monkeys See the World have all immeasurably added to our understanding of the fauna of our planet.

How Animals Have Sex
David Strorm’s How Animals Have Sex doesn’t exactly make the cut. But if you like a touch of British humor to go with your bathroom reading about snail love darts, six-month-long frog intercourse, and dolphin sexcapades with random ocean objects, then this decidedly silly book is the perfect fit.

Gelf first heard about this book from Strorm’s US publicist at Dutton/Gotham. While she got Gelf's URL wrong in her pitch (sadly, is still the domain of an Apache-powered web server enthusiast), she was spot-on in her assessment that we were interested in panda porn. And after reading through the book—which took about an hour, 30 minutes of which involved staring at the Argentine Lake Duck’s penis—we were happy to find that we were very interested in other animals’ genitalia and sexual practices, as well as the panda's.

Strorm—the pseudonym of author Gideon DeFoe—manages to sprinkle a good helping of relevant information in with his jokey style. In mock sitcom proposals to the chairman of the BBC, for example, he discusses the pregnancy of the male seahorse, homosexuality among graylag geese, and the female hyena’s pseudopenis. He also imagines this uncomfortable postcoital conversation:

Kong: You’ve gone quiet.
Fay Wray: Oh, you know. I was just thinking.
Kong: It’s my tiny penis, isn’t it?
Fay Wray: What? No! Of course not.
[There’s an embarrassed silence. Kong swats at a biplane.]
Fay Wray: It’s just it is quite little.
Kong: It’s not my fault! It’s my social structure!
Fay Wray: Of course it is. Your social structure is to blame. I understand.
Kong: Listen, Fay. Gorilla males guard isolated harems of females. Any competition between males is limited by the fact that we really don’t want to mess with each other, because look at us, we’re terrifying. I could pull David Attenborough’s legs off without breaking a sweat. You only need big reproductive organs when you’ve got a sperm competition going on.
Fay Wray: You’re right. It all makes sense. Even so. Two inches.

Following the encyclopedia-style entries for the animals, there’s also a great index comprised of lists including:

•Some approximate penis lengths
•Animals Zeus manifested himself as in order to have sex, and who it was that he then had sex with
•Items my dog tried unsuccessfully to have sex with (including Strorm’s Millennium Falcon)

Gelf chatted with Strorm over email. Here’s an edited transcript:

Gelf Magazine: Does the pen name David Strorm come from John Wyndham's book The Chrysalids? If so, why?

David Strorm: I really want to say something clever like “in his portrayal of a post-apocalyptic society where religious fundamentalism tries to stamp out mutations, Wyndham celebrates evolutionary diversity, and a book about all the ingenious ways animals reproduce does much the same thing.” Only that’s not true, it’s just that Chrysalids was my favourite book when I was a kid. I had a crush on the Rosalind character. But anyhow, well-spotted. Unless you googled "David Strorm" and saw that that’s what comes up, which doesn’t count. [Editor’s note: Not telling.]

GM: Did you have to change the book at all (in terms of humor, pop-culture references, language, or anything else) going from a British publisher to an American one? There are still a bunch of references to the BBC, sellotape, and the like.

DS: I wanted to, but because of the stupid schedules publishing seems to work to, there wasn’t really a chance. But obviously any jokes you didn’t get or thought fell a bit flat, would have seemed brilliant if you’d grown up in the UK. Even the Mormon Cricket Sir-Clicks-A-Lot gag. Oh yes.

GM: You told the guy from the Cleveland Plain Dealer that you use a pen name so that your family doesn’t find out you wrote a book about animal sex. But isn’t the book published under your real name in the UK?

DS: I was going to do it under a pen name here [in the UK] as well, but the publishers somehow persuaded me that people might buy more books about pirates (which is what I normally write about) if they saw that I’d also written a book about animal sex. The logic of that escapes me now. [Editor's note: Strorm published The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists and The Pirates! In an Adventure with Ahab under his real name of Gideon DeFoe. His next book in the series, The Pirates! In an Adventure with Communists, comes out in October.]

GM: In the same interview, you mention that you had an interest in primatology at university. (Me too, actually.) You have any good anecdotes about monkey sex from your time there?

DS: Disappointingly it wasn’t very hands-on, unless you were prepared to go and knock about in Uganda for half a year, so I’m afraid I haven’t really. But a friend of mine just got back from working at a chimpanzee sanctuary in West Africa, where one of the younger chimps got quite attached to her. Only when he realised that he wasn’t going to get anywhere, he got in a mood, did a wee in the kitchen and, via sign-language, tried to make out to the other primatologists that it was my friend who was responsible. Never spurn those chimps.

GM: When I used to study macaques, I seem to remember them using the same magic-shell genital plug trick that you described in rats (i.e. the male's semen hardens inside the vagina to prevent other males from copulating), plus there was a lot of masturbation by disappointed males. Point is, you must have had to leave out some good stuff from your research. Anything get cut from the book that you were hoping would make it? Is there enough for a sequel?

DS: Well, because I wasn’t exactly trying to be encyclopaedic, and lots of creatures use similar strategies, it was mostly a case of picking whichever creature best illustrated whatever they happened to be getting up to. Given that there's two million animals out there we already know about, and at least another eight million or so we reckon are still to be discovered, I'm sure there's enough for a sequel, but I think I've probably spent enough time trying to find obscure articles about moth mites having sex with their sisters to last me a while.

GM: Which animals’ sex lives were the hardest to write about for a lay audience?

DS: In terms of the science, that wasn't an issue to be honest, because a spot of primatology at university as part of an anthropology degree doesn’t make me an expert, so I’m a lay audience myself. The hardest ones to do were the animals who leant themselves to the most obvious jokes. I didn’t want to just write a leering “Phew, girls, I bet you wish your man could manage it a hundred and fifty times a night!” effort, which is what most "humourous" takes on the subject seem to lapse into. Not that I'm saying I resisted all the cheap laughs.

GM: In your page on panda porn, you make a smart comment about the seemingly random series of evolutionary events that have given pandas giant heads and thus made them extremely cute to humans. Any general thoughts on people’s fascination with charismatic megafauna?

DS: I like charismatic megafauna as much as the next man, so I don’t think you can really blame people for singling them out over other species when it comes to being bothered about the environment. Of course, you don't want to go down the Timothy Treadwell route, because it doesn't matter how damn charismatic they are, they can still swipe your face off without breaking a sweat.

Argentine Lake Duck
Courtesy K. McCracken
Not bad.
GM: The Argentine Lake Duck. Does that thing just hang in the water?

DS: No, usually it’s fully retracted inside them. I’m still not sure I believe it. If that paper [PDF] wasn’t written by a respected group of scientists, I think I’d assume they’d just got it muddled with an intestine or something. I really want to see some footage of the males using it to lasso the females, which I also have a hard time believing.

GM: What sort of a person would want to buy this book?

DS: Oh dear, I have no idea whatsoever. People who have just remembered it's their uncle's birthday and have half an hour to find a present? And hopefully anyone who is interested in the natural world but doesn’t have a hang-up about it not being taken very seriously. I think there’s a bit of a tradition of having to take the sombre "nature in all her majesty" approach when it comes to writing about these kind of things, and you get a bit frowned at if you’re seen laughing at it all. But dolphins trying to get lucky with turtles is funny, and there’s no getting around that.

GM: You write that banana slugs engage in chewing each others penises off, or appophalation. Shouldn’t that be apophallation? Also, maybe we're being picky, but isn’t the banana slug's scientific name Ariolimax dolich-o-phallus and not Ariolimax dolich-y-phallus?

DS: Fuck. Yes. You’re right. Apo- as in detach, phallus as in penis. In my defence, I first read up on banana-slug sex in Adrian Forsyth’s excellent A Natural History of Sex, and he spells it wrong too, so even proper scientists can screw up. And I'll put the other down to a typo. Anyhow, I hope you’re pointing this out to show off how much Latin you know, because otherwise it's just odd to know that off the top of your head.

GM: Have you heard back from any of the scientists whose research you used in the course of writing the book? If so, what did they have to say?

DS: I think they’re much too busy dipping bed-bugs into big buckets of radiation to read daft things like this.

GM: Have you gotten any other feedback?

DS: I got a letter the other day from some old guy in New Zealand. It’s a bit hard to read, but I think the gist of the thing is that I should have only included entries on snakes. He seems to really like snakes. And the book seems worryingly popular with little kids who clearly aren't subject to enough parental control.

GM: In some of the promo materials going around the web for the book, the phrase turkey virgin birth is used. I didn’t see that in the book. Can you explain?

DS: That was something I came across quite early in researching the book. In a few turkey populations I think "virgin births" have been observed to run at a surprisingly high rate, like 40% or something. But it’s like I said about a lot of creatures illustrating the same point, so I went with the pseudocopulating all-female whiptail lizards instead.

GM: What’s up with the randomly bold-typed phrases in the book?

DS: It’s a code. You take the first letter of each bold sentence and it tells you where Leonardo Da Vinci buried the Holy Grail! And also, if you’re going to write a book that includes the phrases “injecting their sperm into the abdomens of other males,” “he laps up her urine,” and “detachable swimming penises,” then you might as well use them to get people’s attention.

GM: In the course of your research, did you read any other animal-sex-themed books, like Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation?

DS: Yes, there’s about a million of them, all the way from Aristotle to Wendt’s compendious 1965 The Sex Life of the Animals to Forsyth’s book and so on. I avoided Dr Tatiana at the time of writing, because I was worried it might be too similar in tone, but actually it’s a really good proper in-depth study underneath the agony aunt gimmick. They did a TV show of it recently, but I was kind of disappointed, because there was a bit too much people singing and dancing about, and not enough proper footage of creatures.

GM: How should an author go about getting his book sold at Urban Outfitters?

DS: Does that mean my book’s for sale in Urban Outfitters? Brilliant. I didn’t know that! Well, I’m sure Urban Outfitters buy their books only after a serious consideration of the contribution each work makes to the world of literature. And not because having “sex” in the title and a picture of some cute pandas on the cover means they think it will appeal to some spurious hipster demographic.

GM: Is there an index of items your dog did successfully have sex with?

DS: No. It’s sad. He died very frustrated.

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- Books
- posted on Apr 25, 08
Robert Allwood

The duck seems to be squawking. I wonder what it's saying...

- Books
- posted on Jun 13, 08


Article by David Goldenberg

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