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Cowboy boots, careers, sex... What do women want?

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Women want to want. That is the starting premise of two women who have put together an anthology of essays that explore the different shades of female desire. Make no mistake. This book is about more than sex. It's a book that delves into how women define what desire is to them - what rules they want to shed to give in to their deepest longings and what it's like to articulate those desires out loud and unashamed. All these essays are written by women, and this new book, called "Wanting," is edited by Margot Kahn and Kelly McMasters, who join us now. Welcome to both of you.

KELLY MCMASTERS: Thanks so much, Ailsa.

MARGOT KAHN: Thank you.

MCMASTERS: We're so excited.

CHANG: So I wanted to know how the idea for this book first came together, including the decision to focus on the vantage point of women. Tell me.

KAHN: This is Margot. For me, this book started with a sort of silly story. My family had the great dog debate a few years ago about whether or not we should get a dog. And I desperately wanted a dog, and my husband and my son did not. And we all felt very strongly in our desires, except the funny thing was none of us had ever owned a dog before. So we had no idea whether we would really want the thing we wanted or not want the thing we wanted until we experienced it. And it just got me thinking about the whole notion of desire and how we can ever really know if we want the thing we want. Desires change as your circumstances change, and for both Kelly and I, the topic of desire has been something that we've really sunk our teeth into...

CHANG: Totally.

KAHN: ...As we've entered middle age.

CHANG: Wait. Wait. Wait. Did you guys get a dog or not?

KAHN: We did get a dog.

CHANG: Yes, and was it everything that you thought it would be?

KAHN: It was everything I thought it would be. I was right, of course.

CHANG: (Laughter).

KAHN: But my husband and my son love the dog maybe even more than I do.

CHANG: Oh. So let's get into these essays because, you know, desire takes so many forms in these individual pieces. We're not just talking about sex here, as I mentioned. We're talking about the desire to be free, the desire to be alone, the desire for a new car or a pair of cowboy boots. And I'm wondering, when you were asking writers to contribute, how do you frame the whole idea of desire to them? Is it just about longing?

MCMASTERS: This is Kelly. When we first would announce we're writing about - we want you to write about desire, everyone thought, yes, I have a great idea. And what happened is people would tell us their idea or write their idea down, and the focus would be on the thing that they either didn't get, the thing that they did get or the reason they couldn't get what they wanted. And what we realized we were looking for was the want - the visceral, chemical, emotional, sensory feel of what it feels like to want something because as soon as you do or don't get it, it's over.

CHANG: Yeah. Right. You know, also, many of these essays are about conflicting desires, desires that fight against each other. Like Angela Cardinale's essay, "Sex In The Suburbs" - she tries dating as a mom throughout the pandemic, but she's torn between this desire to be wild and alone and the desire to be loved again and to grow patio plants with someone, as she put it. This constant push and pull between desires - I feel like a lot of women can relate to this.

KAHN: Completely. This is Margot. I think so many of the essays here traffic in that. We want to be there for our children. We want to be great parents. We also want to have an independent life and independent careers, and as much as we want to be there for the school play, we also just want to disappear and get on a plane and go to Paris and sit in a cafe by ourselves and drink wine and eat cheese.

MCMASTERS: Angela's piece, "Sex In The Suburbs," has this great line. We are contradictions living one life, secretly desiring another in a battle with ourselves. And I think so much of female identity is wrapped...

CHANG: A hundred percent.

MCMASTERS: ...Up in those contradictions - the battles, the things that we think we're supposed to want, the things we actually want. And what happens when we get the thing that we thought we wanted and we're still hungry?

CHANG: So much of desire these essays bring up is tied up in our own physical bodies. That's something that Molly McCully Brown takes on in her essay, "The Broken Country." Like, she writes about desiring and being desired as a woman with cerebral palsy who lives with chronic pain. Can you talk a little bit about how her relationship with her own body shapes desire for her?

MCMASTERS: This is Kelly. I think, really, what is so beautiful here is the way that she goes to places that are taboo. And here, what she's talking about are fears as a young person with a debilitating disease that will progress, about a ticking clock. And she wants to love her body and honor her body, and she wants someone else to as well. And I think the idea that she is struggling with a broken country of desire and being seen as someone who is assumed to not desire...

CHANG: Right.

MCMASTERS: ...Is the most heartbreaking and most powerful part of that entire essay.

CHANG: Right - the assumption that she doesn't desire when she absolutely does. And then that's a theme in a lot of these essays - that the wanting, that deep, visceral wanting and the acting on the wanting, that journey - that's the best part, not necessarily the getting of what you want, right? Can you talk about that? Like, what did you learn about women wanting to want?

KAHN: You know, over the years of putting this anthology together, I have found myself wanting both more and less. I feel more able, when these small wants arise, to really attend to those desires, to hear them and act, or to say, hey; you know, it's not that big a deal because, while wanting can be a powerful tool for change, I think what we've also seen here is it can also be a wrench of discord.

MCMASTERS: And I think - this is Kelly. Even from the time that we gave birth to this idea of the book in 2019 to when it's coming out in 2023 - this was pre-pandemic. This was pre-child tax credit. This was pre-the overturning of Roe v. Wade. And in the short span of time that we worked on this book, female desire has come under attack in a way that I don't think either of us expected when we first thought about collecting essays on this topic. And we're so excited that this is coming out in the world - into the world in this moment because it almost feels prescient in a way that we could not have planned.

CHANG: Margot Kahn and Kelly McMasters are the editors of the new book "Wanting: Women Writing About Desire." Thank you both so much for this awesome book.

KAHN: Thank you so much for speaking with us.

MCMASTERS: Thank you, Ailsa. This was such a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Megan Lim
Sarah Handel
Ailsa Chang
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.