If you’re not familiar with the term, hearing the word ‘polyamory’ probably conjures up images of 24/7 orgies or creepy cult leaders with ten sister wives. However, polyamory, not to be confused with polygamy, simply refers to people who have romantic and/or sexual relationships with multiple partners… with everyone’s consent.
You’re probably thinking… wow, that sounds like a whole lot of sex that I’m missing out on. Well, you’d think so. But as someone who was once poly for a hot minute, I can tell you that the 24/7 sex thing is a goddamn myth. There’s a reason they say that polyamorous people only spend 20% of their time having wild, free-loving sex, and that’s because the other 80% is spent negotiating, talking and organising your sex life around a whole bunch of Google calendars that aren’t yours. You know how much communication it takes to operate one relationship successfully… now multiply that.
Anyway, Melbourne writer, Paul Dalgarno, who has previous written for The Herald, Sunday Herald, Guardian Australia and The Conversation, has written a new fiction novel called Poly, which centres around a married couple navigating the highs and lows of polyamory. Much like polyamory itself can be, Poly is an entertaining, hot mess of an emotional rollercoaster from start to finish.
Penthouse spoke with Paul Dalgarno about his debut novel, what it’s like to be poly and common misconceptions about polyamorous people.
What inspired you to write a 21st-century romantic comedy thriller about a couple venturing into polyamory?
When my wife and I opened our marriage a few years ago, we quickly discovered there were some good theoretical books on non-monogamy (More Than Two and The Ethical Slut come to mind) but not too much in the way of literary fiction. With heterosexual monogamous relationships, you kind of grow up knowing you’ll live happily ever after or, more realistically, won’t, because we’re spoon-fed infinite versions of those stories from childhood. I wanted to write a different kind of love story that felt closer to the kinds of experiences I’ve had, and other polyamorous friends and families have had, in Melbourne. As with any relationship, care and trust are essential but they can also cause serious damage if they’re abused or manipulated, and the “thriller” aspect of Poly, in particular, examines that.
Why is polyamory for you?
I think it offers an alternative way of getting by in the world. I’ve cheated and been cheated on in previous monogamous relationships and it caused all sorts of heartache, but a lot of that came from the lying and deception. Polyamory puts a premium on being honest, so those problems are less likely to arise. Sadly, it doesn’t guarantee protection from jealousy or other forms of existential dread, but those emotions are natural and, if you can take ownership of them, will pass.
What was your process of writing and researching Poly?
I work full-time, have two partners and two children, so the writing part mostly involved waking up at some hideous hour (usually around 5am) to smash out as many words as I could before getting everyone breakfast and leaving for work. I also wrote during my lunch breaks, and took notes and made voice recordings on my phone when I was away from my computer. For research, I watched and read everything I could about polyamory, and talked to lots of polyamorous people. One of the characters in Poly has a personality disorder, so I read a lot about those too, and talked to some nurses, therapists and psychologists. I once knew someone who’d been diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder and created lots of problems for me and people I care deeply about, so that was informative too.
Poly is your first fiction novel. How have you found the difference between feature-writing and non-fiction writing?
The biggest difference with fiction is that you can make things up without worrying you’re misrepresenting anyone in the real world, even though, ironically, you have to work even harder to make it believable.
What do you think the biggest misconception about polyamorous people is?
One reaction I’ve encountered a few times from people when I’ve told them I’m polyamorous is that I’m somehow cheating the system and must be banging or being banged 24 hours a day. They always seem a bit crestfallen when I explain that’s not how it works, and that you have to communicate and empathise better than you’ve ever done before, often when you don’t really feel like it.
What’s your favourite part or line in the book?
Hmmmm. Maybe: “I looked at the kids in the mirror and smiled. Their dad was in love with another woman and couldn’t imagine not being with her. He was also in love with their mother and couldn’t imagine not being with her, even though she was in love with a Dom. We’d sort it out later, assuming I wasn’t in prison for killing their babysitter.”
What’s the biggest misconception people have about writers?
As much as driving a Ferrari to a private yacht before sailing off in a sea of Champagne would be lovely, the vast majority of writers make next to no money from their craft. The average annual book income for Australian authors is $12,900, and it’s probably safe to assume that figure is skewed upwards by the very small handful of writers whose books go gangbusters. The miracle of book publishing, and the people slogging their guts out at every level of the industry, is that anyone does it at all.
“People think polyamory means I must be banging 24 hours a day.”
Who are your favourite writers?
Melissa Lucashenko (Too Much Lip), Lee Kofman (The Dangerous Bride), Bruce Pascoe (Dark Emu), Bernardine Evaristo (Girl, Woman, Other), James Kelman (How Late It Was, How Late).
What’s your favourite under-appreciated novel?
It’s definitely not under-appreciated by the people who’ve read it but Jane Rawson’s debut novel, A Wrong Turn At The Office Of Unmade Lists, deserves a wider readership. As Jane’s subsequent work has proven, it marked the arrival of a unique talent in Australian fiction.
What are you reading at the moment?
The Nancys by R.W.R McDonald and The Animals In That Country by Laura Jean McKay. I’m really careful about which books I pick up because I only want to read really good things, and neither of these has disappointed.
What are some common traps for aspiring writers?
It’s probably a bit basic but… not writing enough. Just like learning an instrument, you have to live with the fact you’re going to suck for a really long time before you get good. Another common one is thinking a completed first draft is the time to take your foot off the pedal. You can do that after your ninth draft, if you’re lucky.
Grab a copy of Poly by Paul Dalgarno (Ventura Press, $32.99) here.
See more Paul’s work on his website, Instagram and Twitter.