Through the Valley of the Shadow of Porn

Burn My Shadow opens in the back of a bukakke line, amid unanimous souls stripped down and wading through the scum of other men’s spilt fantasies. This is where “Tyler Knight” was born. Jobless and homeless, he spent his nights lost in mass transit, on buses and trains circling Los Angeles. Hitting the end of the line, he progressed from selling his blood to selling his ejaculate for $50 a pop.

If porn sells fantasies, Knight’s new memoir traffics in the reality behind the creation of those illusions. The book shines a light on the demons that lurk in the long shadow cast by the adult industry. It pieces together the scenes edited out of porn: the STDs, drug abuse, mental illness, racism, the projectile excrement… Knight takes readers on a tour of this “porno purgatory” with the literal wit and visceral imagery of Virgil leading Dante through hell.

ALFF: Your first chapter “Bukkake” not only begins the book, it offers a glimpse of your beginnings in porn and as a writer. You refer fans to this story when they ask what it’s like to work in porn and how they can get in the business. What was more satisfying, the act of writing this chapter, or its reception?

KNIGHT: I started out writing about my day at work on a forum, MMA.TV. Just extemporaneous crap… not really writing. Bukkake was the first time I really tried to apply any craft to storytelling. The internal satisfaction from a creative breakthrough was more meaningful than any external feedback.

ALFF: The book uses several graphics from, and references to, Dante’s Inferno. What’s the connection?

KNIGHT: The book is a memoir, but instead of past tense, I wrote the narrative entirely in present tense. This puts the narrator, me, right next to the reader… It feels more immediate because you’re discovering as events unfold with me. It makes for a greater sense of tension, and the narrative more propulsive. We are Dante and Virgil exploring the circles together, as opposed to the reader being once-removed by time while the narrator recounts what has already happened from a safe distance.

ALFF: You bring a lot of attention to the overt racism inherent in the adult industry. One social theory claims that the more egalitarian a society is, the more people fetishize taboos like racism, sexism, and sexual violence? Do you think the popularity of racist porn is a reflection of our society’s increasing intolerance of racism, or the opposite?

KNIGHT: “That which is unknown is obscene.” It’s correlation, not causation… Show me a polkadot-colored leprechaun eunuch and I’ll show you 10,000 downloads of people fapping to it.

ALFF: In the beginning of the memoir, you refuse to shoot a scene in which a costar assaults you with racial slurs. How do you think these types of videos compare to scenes in which male performers are instructed to physically and verbally degrade female costars?

KNIGHT: Same thing. Performers aren’t just avatars. They are people. Fap to what you want. I don’t judge… I have no use for it, personally. I refuse to participate in any scene where I am the abused or the abuser. I fail those scenes ten times out of ten.

ALFF: I’ve heard a few white male performers lament that reliable black male performers get the most work due to the popularity of interracial, BBC, cuckolding, and gangbang scenes. Do you think the racist system gave you an advantage?

KNIGHT: Oh, for fuck sake. I’m not going to dignify that stupidity with a comment.

ALFF: The rise of Viagra opened the doors for many guys to get into porn, but it also increased the demands on male performers. If Viagra had not been discovered, do you think you would have survived in porn as long as you did?

KNIGHT: Viagra wasn’t ubiquitous when I started out, so I had to learn to perform without it. I failed 5 of my first 10 scenes while figuring it out. I got on V because I was working sometimes up to three times a day, every day for years for Red Light, Evil Angel, TT Boy, and a feature or two a month for VIVID, Wicked, or Adam & Eve sprinkled in. If Viagra didn’t exist, that workload would be impossible…

Nowadays, kids don’t get a learning curve. If I had to begin now, I doubt I’d make it. Especially not competing against kids who inject embalming fluid in their dicks to get hard. With Caverject, you can stay hard while I lower you into a cauldron roiling with piranha, but you lose a dimension of connection with your partner… because the connection is wholly unnecessary. There are some very well-known men at the top of talent pool whose entire careers are a lie. With HD, you can see the scar tissue in their dicks. Am I a hypocrite because I chugged the V? I dunno… porn is a zero-sum business, but I drew the line at shooting my dick up.

ALFF: For every HIV scare in the porn industry, you included an article about the episode. I suspect far more porn performers’ lives are unalterable affected, or ended, due to mental illness and drug overdoses. You yourself were convinced you had two heart attacks from years of abusing Viagra. Why do you think these dangers are so rarely discussed when talking about performers’ health?

KNIGHT: Why? Talent is seen as expendable. I’m not saying that producers run straight-line depreciation calculations on any given talent, but the fact is we all get old and there is no shortage of young and willing flesh to replace you who don’t complain. The onus is on the senior talent who are established to speak up.

ALFF: You categorize your style as belonging to a sect of literary minimalism called, “Dangerous Writing.” You describe this process as forcing you to explore what scares you. What were you most afraid to write about? Were you more worried about discussing the details of your life in porn, or your battles with depression?

KNIGHT: Discussing my porn life wasn’t an issue at all, because I can safely presume that the reason 99.9% of everyone reading my book, or this sentence, for that matter, knows who I am in the first place is because I’m famous for porn. It’s the real person behind the mask of the entertainer that was the issue. More so to explore them in detail for myself… to face myself more so than showing other people who I really am… That was the challenge. That’s the crux of Dangerous Writing: uncensored self-examination.

That said, I did have to decide how much of myself as a human being to reveal to the outside world, because people with depression, bi polar disorder, schizophrenia, or any mental health issue are still regarded as social pariahs. There are serious real-world consequences when you out yourself as suffering from any mental health maladies. Repercussions that can ruin your life. Which is why so many people so afflicted end up taking theirs rather than to seek help. Imagine the world if, say, cancer or the single greatest killer, heart disease, was stigmatized to the point where people were afraid to get help and treatment. Actually, it’s not that long ago where that was the case with AIDS.

ALFF: Why do you spend so little time discussing your previous career as a mainstream model when it seems there would be many parallels between the two industries? Which industry do you think is more difficult to survive in?

KNIGHT: Because it’s a memoir – a snapshot of a specific timeframe – not a biography. There are some similarities… As a model, I was a meat puppet. You go on castings and go-sees and book jobs often because the person flipping through your book wants to fuck you. Models sell sex. Sex sells product. Both are the business of the flesh.

When I was a rookie, I was with LA Models. They were a top-tier agency in town, along with Ford, Wilhemena (and later Elite when they started a men’s board in the mid 90s). At LA Models, I hardly worked. If you were a black male model but you weren’t Tyson Beckford, Boris, or Shemar Moore, it could be a challenge because black male models from my generation weren’t working nearly as often as the kids are from this generation. Hip hop wasn’t part of the mainstream cultural zeitgeist, and I was the third guy deep in the agency’s depth chart. When I went to a smaller shop, Fontaine, and joined their men’s board, HERO, I worked more. But I still had to budget every dollar.

ALFF: You’ve compared the relationship between editors and authors to marriage, as it often takes years of joint work to bring a book into existence. What are some of the major ways agents and editors wanted you to change this book? What are some of the compromises you reached?

KNIGHT: I made zero compromises. Not a single one. Aside from a few copy-editing errors here and there, the book is exactly as I envisioned it. I went with Rare Bird to publish because they got my aesthetic. Never once did they say, “Is there a better word you could use here other than ‘cocksucker’?”  My agent had an idea to include terms of art to make the book more accessible. We tried it, but quickly abandoned it because it ran counter to my ideology of minimalism where the context should reveal meaning.

ALFF: Considering that the subtitle of this book is, “a selective memory of an x-rated life,” what did you choose to exclude?

KNIGHT: I take back my previous statement. The subtitle was my compromise. The sales reps requested a subtitle, and I came up with A Selective Memory, because after all, isn’t that what all accounts of our own lives are? Our memories are curated and edited the second we filter our experiences through our unique prisms of how we see life. Objectivity is impossible. The subtitle acknowledges this fact.

ALFF: The book begins with you homeless, unemployed, sleeping on the bus, and showering at the gym. At the time, did you see porn as your salvation or more on par with peddling your blood—selling ounces of your soul, one money shot at a time?

KNIGHT: I never intended to make a career out of porn. Here I am 15 years later.

ALFF: How did previous porn memoirs, like Oriana Small’s Girlvert, influence your work? What story did you want to write that you felt had not been told?

KNIGHT: It didn’t, because I hadn’t read it at the time. I started writing Burn My Shadow in 2008. And, the answer to what story hadn’t been told is easy: my story.

ALFF: You changed many of the character’s stage names to aliases that were fairly transparent: ATM Awards, Mr. Darkus, Barney Blaze, jenifer dragon, Decadent Pictures… Was this done at the publisher’s insistence to avoid libel? Did you want certain people to recognize themselves in the book?

KNIGHT: Those were all 100% my creative decisions. Some people are actually composites. When I did that, it was to serve the truth of what happened without regard to push back from those I still have to work with.

ALFF: Many young starlets believe they will use their porn notoriety as a backdoor into mainstream stardom. While this formula usually only works in reverse, when mainstream stars like Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian dabble in porn, do you think porn gave you an edge in the world of mainstream publishing? Is this why you published the book under your stage name as opposed to your real name, which you reveal in the book?

KNIGHT: Fuck no. Exponentially more difficult. My literary agent and I had a long discussion about my career path as a writer in context of how I am perceived. Let’s just say that my next book will not be high-art literary fiction. BMS proves that I’m as good as anyone out there from a technical standpoint, so there’s nothing to prove. I built a brand, and it’d be foolish to go against it.

And my real name isn’t “Erik.” Revealing my real name does nothing to serve the story. My nom de guerre Tyler Knight has a built-in audience, so it’s practical.

ALFF: Toward the book’s end you start running ultra-marathons. You point out how this activity is addictive, how it threatens your physical and mental health, and how it pushed you to take a dangerous number of over-the-counter pain relievers. Is anything worthwhile, and interesting, inherently risky?

KNIGHT: To the contrary, long-distance running is the single best thing I do to regulate moods. Endorphins are wonderful. That said, ultramarathons, especially 100-mile races, attract a certain type of person. Many replace one form of addiction for another. Anything, even fitness, has the potential to be bad if done to the detriment of everything else in your life.

As far as the hallucinations and volatile mood swings you experience when running 100 miles in a single day, that goes with the territory. You are pushing your sleep-deprived and starving body to the brink of death. You’re going to fucking hallucinate. What do you expect? Running 100 miles has been equated to going through the entire spectrum of life and its emotions in a day. A buddy whom I ran my first hundo with just asked me if I’m down to do the new 234-mile ultra. We’d have four days to finish. I said, “Fuck it. Let’s do it!”

Taking so much ibuprofen during my first hundo was a rookie mistake. Ultramarathon athletes have died on them. Now, I run without them… mainly because I want to feel the pain. It’s part of the experience of being alive. If you don’t want the ultramarathon experience, run a marathon… stop running at mile 26 and shut the fuck up about the pain. I suppose that’s an apt metaphor…

ALFF: What tactics did you take from your career in sales when it came to selling this memoir to an agent, to a publisher, and to readers?

KNIGHT: Grit. That’s more of a quality than a technique. You have to believe in yourself and what your work has to offer regardless of the rejections.

 

ALFF: What would happen to the industry if, in addition to STD testing, they also required performers to be tested for drugs, including excessive levels of prescription medications?

KNIGHT: If performance enhancing drugs tests were possible and a thing, professional porn would die. I’ve always wondered why talent, male and female, don’t use beta blockers, since the performance issues are more mental than physiological. Public speakers, rock stars, and politicians use them all the time. Hahaha, the sound of smartphones clicking across Porn Valley as people Google “beta blocker”.

Read more by Tyler Knight and order his book, Burn My Shadow: A Selective Memory of an X-Rated Life, at
TylerKnight.Com.

Follow him on twitter at @Artifice_Rex and Instagram at @Artifice_Rex.