I’ve been enthralled reading Victor Banis’ autobiography Spine Intact, Some Creases. I’d love to talk more about what’s already in the book, but I don’t think that’s fair to him. So please, readers of this blog — if you want to know more about Victor Banis, one of the true pioneers of gay fiction, read his memoir, available HERE.
It’s an eye-opening read how he endured harassment from federal authorities to write books that portrayed gay protagonists in a positive light; how he introduced the first gay superspy, Jackie Holmes, the Man from C.A.M.P.; how he helped stake out the new freedoms that writers now enjoy. And in addition to the history, learn the best way to cook corn, and how to make chicken bosoms marinated in gin.
Take a journey with him through the glamor and turbulence of gay culture in California from its fascinating early days to familiar current time, while he publishes over 200 titles. See Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York publishing, and Eaton, Ohio through his eyes and heart. It’s quite the ride!
Victor, really the first thing out of my mouth has to be “Thank you,” for doing so much to clear the way for authors of gay fiction today. You’ve seen modern-era gay literature develop from its infancy, really — seen it develop and differentiate. What do you think the next stages of development look like?
It seems to me that we are in another transitional period. Gay fiction blossomed in the late 60s and then trailed off, and all but went belly up, until the women’s movement, M/M fiction, came along and revived it. But now the M/M field seems to be entering a slump; reviewers and readers are complaining about a glut of poorly written and poorly edited books.
Some of this is to be expected—whenever a genre goes into a boom period, there is always more of the mediocre. Not everyone who can put 60,000 words on paper (or, in the computer) is likely to be good at it. This was true back in the golden age as well. There were some good books, and a lot of dreck.
I am concerned, however, that more of the people in the genre don’t seem concerned. The bottom line is, they will clean up their act, or the readers/book buyers will do it for them. A lot of sloppy writers learned that the hard way in the past. That old cliché: those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.
The same thing happened in other genres as well. In the 70s, gothic romances became popular. Publishers rushed to get books out, often written by neophytes who weren’t very good. The market got glutted, people stopped buying and reading them, and the genre pretty much just faded away. I’d hate to see this happen to M/M and gay fiction, but it could.
You’ve said you’re still awaiting the “great gay novel”. What would that novel have to contain in order to qualify?
Oh, that’s like pornography, I won’t know it till I see it. One could look at great books in any genre and make up a list of specifications, but the likely truth will be, when it comes along, it will be unlike anything else – as far as that goes, we may not recognize it when we see it, it may take a generation or more to be appreciated. Great books often have.
I think it takes more than one generation for a book to be recognized as of lasting value. Certainly there are writers today with the talent…well, see, I don’t think “talent” is the right word. There were a lot of writers in his day with talent, but only Flaubert could have produced Madame Bovary. And it would be silly, wouldn’t it, to describe Dickens as having talent? Maybe genius is the better word.
Anyway, it wouldn’t surprise me if Mick Dementiuk, who I have described more than once as a genius, were the one, or Alan Chin or Erik Orrantia, both of whom can write brilliantly. And certainly there are a number of writers around today who are gifted and could conceivably write a great novel; but often the genius produces some not-so-good books too, which really should count for nothing. And I don’t think it needs to be universally liked, not at its introduction at least. Nor does volume of work matter much, though I think a writer deserves to be judged by the body of his work.
But, then, where do you put Margaret Mitchell, who surely wrote the definitive book on the old South, and nothing else? What I’m saying is, it may already be out there and I am just too short-sighted to recognize it. I can say that I haven’t run across anything that makes my pulse quicken the way the really great books do. That may be just my old, cold heart, however. As my mother used to say, “Cold hands, warm heart, dirty feet and no sweetheart.” Wait, that says warm heart, doesn’t it. And my hands are warm. Mom got it wrong?
What do you most want to see in contemporary gay fiction that you don’t see often enough?
There is so much emphasis on Happy Endings, on alpha males and soppy romance. Very little of it interests me enough to plunk down my money for it, and that is true even with some very successful authors.
I do know that this is the stuff that sells best for publishers, but I’d like to see writers stretch themselves a little. Older males can be convincing and intriguing characters, and not everyone has to be drop dead pretty, either.
In Lola Dances, my protagonist is an effeminate sissy boy, and a lot of people have told me they loved that book. Life doesn’t always tie everything up with a big beautiful bow on it, either. But then you get into the whole area of artistic integrity, and maybe that’s what’s really lacking in a lot of M/M fiction – gay fiction too, today, I might add.
I think in order to take pride in your career you have to know that you brought something to the table. It’s so much easier to just imitate what everyone else is doing. Being original is hard. Far more satisfying, however. In the end, the critic you have to satisfy is the one looking back at you from the mirror. He’s also the hardest to fool. I know.
Do you think the predominance of happy endings is in part a compensation for all the stories where the gay guy dies or at least can’t be happy? Or is it just a convenient end to another (pardon me) fairy tale – and they all lived happily ever after…
I think that may well be true – and I think it’s one of the things that almost killed gay fiction – if you look at what the major houses did – have done all along – at many of the books that win Lambda awards, certainly – it’s all about killing off the gay characters – just like the old style gay fiction before I came along.
It’s like, they took advantage of the freedom to create happy gay characters in happy situations, and then AIDS gave them permission to kill them off as punishment for geing gay. If you look at most of the books honored by the gay-establishment, it’s like we never got anywhere. It’s still wrong to be gay, and must be punished. And AIDS gave the publishers the opportunity and permission to do that.
So, in answer to your question, yes, I think M/M reacted to that with happy – sometimes silly/happy – endings.
And now to find a grounded balance somewhere… I know you love opera and classical music. Tell me about the first live performance that you attended, and how it affected you.
Well, I wasn’t really into opera as a young man, I was more about Hank Williams, and someone took me to see a performance of La Traviata in Dayton, Ohio, and I thought it was so/so. But there is a point in the second act where the soprano, Violetta, who is a courtesan, realizes she must give up the young man she loves for his sake, and she makes arrangements to leave him without telling him this is what she is doing. But before she leaves, she flings herself into his arms and cries out, Amami, Alfredo – Love me, Alfredo, and then rushes from the room.
I don’t know exactly why, but that scene went through me like a knife – it’s still a favorite opera moment. Maria Callas breaks one’s heart when she does it. If one doesn’t like opera, one can get much the same effect watching the old Garbo movie, Camille. She is so lovely, and such a wonderful actress.
The New York Met approaches you to be the artistic director for one of their productions, all budget and logistical restrictions removed. What opera would you choose to produce?
Oh, if I could use anybody, I’d put Callas and Placido Domingo in Traviata, with Giulini conducting.
Is there anything you’d like to learn/study that you haven’t got to yet?
The older I get, the dumber I seem to myself. I’d certainly work on languages. I always wished I had learned how to write, I mean really learned, instead of just patching it all together. Ditto cooking.
But it’s mostly always been people who interest me. I wish I was wiser, and better in many ways, but I think I’m going to have to accept that what I am is what I am.
I really admire the self-knowledge that I feel from you in that remark and in Spine Intact. So I’d like to come back to artistic integrity for a moment. Can you say more about a writer maintaining his integrity?
Well, I’m not sure I can comment on anyone else and his integrity. It’s a personal thing, isn’t it? I mean, I don’t know where you are coming from, really. But, certainly I – anyone – can see when you are doing it for the crowd, for money, for whatever reason, and not from what you really believe. That just sort of jumps out at you, I think. I think readers can tell the difference.
Sincerity – and insincerity – are really awfully transparent, in life, and in one’s writing. I mean, don’t most of us know when someone is spouting B.S. – and it’s no different when they are doing it in a story. Writers sometimes think they are wearing this invisibility cloak, straight out of Harry Potter, but it ain’t so, we can see you right through it. Maybe even more clearly than in life.
When you are writing from the heart, it’s hard not to show what’s in there. Now, writing from the head, by which I mean from the intellect, that’s a different matter. But a good writer needs less head and more heart, it seems to me. When you are writing from the heart, you are speaking directly to the reader’s heart as well, and that’s when you make those great connections.
Because despite all our differences on the surface, when you get to the heart – to the real nitty gritty inside stuff – we are all of us pretty much the same. That’s why when you read some really terrific insight in a writer’s work, you say, “Yes, that’s true,” and not, “Gee I never knew that.” Because you did already know it, you just didn’t know you knew it.
That’s what writers – all artists, really – do, is reveal to us the truth we already have within. It’s all about those universal truths, that make us all one. In art, real art, all the divisions fall away – time, distance—they become nothing. When you look into the eyes of a Rembrandt portrait, there is really nothing between you and the artist, not even the skin you are standing in.
So, you want to do your best, you want to write from your heart, whether you are writing for your church bulletin or your son’s school notebook, and not just for the obvious reason, that you never know who is going to read this somewhere along the way. But there is a far more fundamental reason for doing your best: there is no real satisfaction in doing anything half-assed.
When you write, you are in a sense alone out there on the stage. It isn’t your writing coach you’re performing for, nor your readers, you are writing for the universe – for the gods, if you will. Sing and dance for them, click your castenets, twirl about. If they try to close the curtains, yank them open and twirl your baton out to the footlights. If they throw tomatoes, juggle them while you tap dance, and if they yank you off stage with a shepherd’s crook, go singing Swanee.
That’s what I mean by artistic integrity.
Thank you. I know you’ve been busy re-releasing your enormous back list, in print, e-books and audio books. How does that feel, to see some of those stories come back into circulation?
I confess, some of them are embarrassing, but then some of them, I re-read and I think, “Hey, that isn’t so bad.” I did an awful lot and as I’ve said before, a lot of it was awful, but I think I got it right a time or two. Especially the characters.
Maggie, in Avalon, is such a pistol – she’s a bitch, but she takes hold of life and shakes the dickens out of it. There’s a scene in which she visits her wealthy “mother-in-law,” and they are enemies, and on her way to the bathroom, stops in the woman’s bedroom and, looking in her closet, sees an expensive pair of silk covered shoes. She takes them out and sits them on the floor and very carefully, very precisely, pees in them. She later tells her husband it’s the only time she really enjoyed one of her visits. Now that is a bitch – but I love her.
And who wouldn’t? Are you working on a new story at the moment?
Oh, I’m poking around at a couple of things, I don’t know if I’ll ever get them done. A new Tom and Stanley mystery, and Nowell Briscoe and I have worked for a long time together on a satirical look at life in a fifties small town, Heaven, Georgia.
But I’m not really doing a lot. I always fear I will embarrass myself writing after I should have stopped. I’d way rather they said, “Already,” than “At last.” And I’ve had a lot of issues the last couple of years, health and age and emotional upsets. But I have given myself permission to take it easy.
And the truth is, I don’t feel I have anything left to prove. If you don’t like my writing now, you aren’t likely to in the future. And if you do like it, well, by the time you get through the whole mess, you will be ready to start over, won’t you?
In your memoir Spine Intact there’s a chapter on your home town of Eaton, Ohio, describing the progression of the seasons. To my ear it’s one of the most lyrical and tender sections of the book. It seems you’re still in love with small town culture, even if the barrier between privacy and rumor is tenuous. If you could live anywhere, what place would you pick, and why?
I do love small towns, and I also love that section in the book. But if I could pick and choose, I’d probably be back in San Francisco, a city I love, and where I have many friends.
Alas, it’s very expensive. The apartment I lived in, $1,100 a month when I was there, now rents for $2,800, and it’s really nothing but a big, open studio with a loft bedroom up top. I’d need a large influx of money to manage that.
On the other hand, it’s been a long, cold winter, and just now, looking out the window, it’s snowing again – I’m like that fox in Gibran’s tales, who looks at his shadow in the early morning and decides he wants a camel for lunch, and when he looks at his shadow again at noon, not having found a camel, he decides a rabbit will do. At this point, I think I’d just like someplace where it’s warm.
Is there a country you haven’t been to yet but would love to visit? What intrigues you about that place?
I always wanted to go to Egypt, because of the historical significance, but the two times I tried, events got in the way. I’d like to go back to Greece. I’d go to India, or China, but I know upfront I’d probably hate both.
I visited a lot of places when I was too young to really appreciate them,and I’d like to go back again, but that’s unlikely. I’m at the stage where I have to find young men to put the bags up on the overhead racks, and young men are harder to find than they used to be. Or, young men who are willing to lift and carry for no reward but a smile from me. Okay, in some instances, I would give more, but a train is not the best place for that sort of thing.
Heh. I’ve heard some have managed on a train, though! But I have no doubt that more have tried than have succeeded.
That could be the story of my life. I never stopped trying, though. I just didn’t always find my train on the right track.
You stopped writing for fifteen years or so because it had stopped being fun. You describe your interest in writing coming back to you like a mysterious lover. You’ve been a prolific team since! And your stories feel like you had fun writing them. Are you enjoying writing again? Do you see any differences in your writing since you resumed?
I think in many ways I was a better writer after the break, because I didn’t worry myself about what editors or publishers (or, for that matter, readers) would think about what I did.
And I discovered I had a penchant for short stories, and I’m very pleased with some of them I have done. For me, writing has always been about the fun of doing it.
You’re right, I stopped because it had stopped being fun. I think writing is a lot harder work than most non-writers would suspect – so it has to be fun or I can’t bring myself to do it. I’m lazy. I think like Mae West – peel me a grape. And I like her statement, “I started out snow white, but I drifted.” She never had any problem getting young men to lift and carry, I’ll bet.
Probably not, and certainly not that I’ve heard! In Spine Intact you describe yourself as reserved, not being a “touchy-feely” kind of guy, but I haven’t come across an author more generous with his time and insight in helping writers become a better at their craft. I’m a big believer in paying it forward, and it seems you are, too. Or is it possible that you’re more of a softie than you let on?
A softie? Yes, probably, but let’s face it, I’m a cynic at heart. I like to tell people that I have this cold hard thing inside my breast where once my heart used to dwell. But, I take an almost paternalistic attitude toward gay fiction, it’s kind of like it’s my genre, and I want it to be as good as it can be. “Hey, you over there, that’s not how you should do it,” kind of attitude, if that makes sense.
Well, seriously, a few years ago, I met the legendary Ann Bannon (and I’m happy to say, we became great friends) , and I was impressed with how much she gave back to her genre of lesbian fiction. And it occurred to me, my name still had some currency, not a lot, maybe, but some, and I made up my mind that I wanted to spend it for the benefit of gay fiction, and I have truly tried to do so over the last decade or two of my life.
In some cases, that has meant traveling to gay events, where I could lend my name, and sometimes it has meant encouraging gay writers. Let’s face it, gay writers today don’t get a lot of encouragement, and if my voice can give them even a small boost, that’s a good thing, isn’t it?
I’m not a do-gooder, but no one knows better than I how lonely it can be writing gay fiction, and it’s not a lot better for that writer today than it was when I started. So, yes, I throw my voice in where I think it can do even a little good. I think – I can’t really know – that when GWR posts an excerpt from a new writer, a positive comment from me may give them a shot in the arm. So I try never to miss one.
I suppose there are some who yawn and think, who is that? But I do think for a few, if only one or two, it is a positive thing. I have no illusions about changing the world, but I think a rose tossed in one’s path from time to time makes the day a little better. I’m a flower person. So, sue me.
And a big bouquet of roses to you, Victor! Thank you!
My review of Spine Intact, Some Creases will appear Saturday, Mar 23, on JesseWave — hope you check it out!
Today my interview guest is Anel Viz, an author who has a number of excellent books to his credit, and continues to create an expanding list of fine stories. Today I’m talking with him about his historical family saga set in 19th Century Montana, The City of Lovely Brothers. (Silver Publishing, 2011 in both print and ebook.)
I’ve also written a review of this book at Jessewave. There’s a link to it at the end of our conversation.
So let’s get to it!
Anel, you’ve written stories in quite a few different genres, and often used European settings. What prompted you to write The City of Lovely Brothers?
When I begin a story, I very seldom have a particular plot in mind. My point of departure is characters in a situation, and I build out from there in both directions. I wrote this book so long ago, I don’t remember what my starting situation was except that would involve a feud, and I thought it would work well set in the Old West.
I’d been wanting to write a novel in the manner of Balzac for some time, and it wasn’t long before I realized the the story I was working on provided the perfect vehicle for one. I have a longstanding love-hate relationship with Balzac. On the one hand, he’s so damn opinionated, not to mention wordy and always going off on tangents. On the other, he is very much the father of the modern novel. He manages to create a complete and totally believable world filled with a wonderful variety of convincing characters.
The City of Lovely Brothers is Balzacian in the sense that it has a clear moral perspective that allows for shades of grey, brings in people from different backgrounds and walks of life, and focuses on the devastation caused by petty jealousies and greed. Balzac was obsessed with money. Also, the novel opens opens with a detailed description of where the main action will take place, as Balzac’s often do.
Then, finding myself writing a mini Human Comedy, I saw in it an opportunity to do something else I’d been contemplating for a while: to heighten the immediacy of a historical novel by tying it to the present. At that point, I jumped back and wrote the beginning, to the amateur historian who researched the story. I invented the city of Caladelphia, and renamed all the brothers, but since I could only think of three “Cal” names, I called the youngest Caliban, which is what gave me the idea of making him physically deformed, although still beautiful.
So the past continues on into the present. We have the fictional Caladelphia as it is today and how it was over a century ago, and a fictional narrator who has developed an emotional attachment to actors in the story. He reads their letters, searches for photos of them, visits their graves. Because of this, some readers have told me the book feels more like a biography than a work of fiction.
It does read like a biography. Tell me a little about the research you did for it.
I researched this book extensively since giving it a sense of place was so important. The places I describe in detail—the main house on the Caldwell ranch, Caliban’s house, his apartment in Davenport, the layout of Caladelphia city—are my own inventions, so it was easy research.
I examined old photographs, read up on the organization of a ranch and what amenities (such as plumbing) were available at the time, what businesses were open, dates for battles in the Indian Wars and the building of the railroads, the legal requirements of incorporation… in short, a lot of petty but essential details. And it was fun, in part because my fictional narrator is engaged in the same type of research I was doing.
Were there any surprises in what you learned?
No, not really. I’d seen enough westerns, and my family’s values were shaped by the Great Depression so I heard a lot about those times when I was growing up.
What was the most depressing piece of information you picked up?
What prompted you to ask this question? Do you find the book depressing? I don’t.
No, I didn’t find the book depressing. But I certainly found some moments depressing. The hardship of the depression, certainly. Also the lack of more skilled medical care for Caliban, even within the scope of the period. I couldn’t help wondering what would their story have been like without the progressive deterioration of his hip.
Yes, the end is sad—how could it not be when you tell a person’s life from birth to death?—and just about all the characters get the shaft (I don’t mean sexually), but for me the book speaks to the triumph of the human spirit, to people’s ability to persevere in the face of adversity, and one would have to dig deep to find a story about a love as deep and enduring as Nick and Caliban’s.
That said, the most depressing piece of information was something I already knew and was reminded of, not something I “picked up”: how people suffered during the Depression. As I said, my parents lived through it, and I grew up listening to their stories. It’s a period I’ll probably come back to someday.
Tell me something about your approach to writing in general.
For one, it’s character driven. I’ve already said I knew from the beginning Lovely Brothers story would be about a feud, but the direction it would take did not become apparent until Calvin’s and Calhoun’s characters had taken shape. Also, I don’t tell a love story for the sake of telling a love story.
I’d say the brothers’ feud is not the context in which the love between Caliban and Nick plays out; rather, their devotion to each other provides a moral alternative to the petty resentments that surround them. If you removed their relationship from the book, you’d still have a book; get rid of the rest and what’s left is a very moving but somewhat pointless love story.
That’s an interesting view, although I disagree with your conclusion. I don’t believe love is ever pointless, and for me a love story is its own meaning.
In City of Lovely Brothers sex is frequent and explicit, enriched by the good-hearted sense of play Nick and Caliban share. They’re imaginative and unattached to roles. Their inventiveness becomes essential as Caliban’s hip and leg become more of a problem. Do you have any comment on how you handled the sexual aspect of their relationship?
Except for a couple of my shorter short stories, I have yet to write a book straight through from beginning to end. I jump around, filling in parts when I feel inspired and adding details when an idea occurs to me.
When I was working on City of Lovely Brothers, I put “sex scene” in brackets in the places I intended to have one and came back to them when the rest of the book was done. The only one I wrote earlier is the ride back to Cal’s house after the first time they make love.
As a rule, I write all the sex scenes last, because they’re the hardest. (No pun intended.) I want all my books to be different, including the sex scenes, but there’s not much one can do to individualize a sex scene. Making the sex scenes playful allowed me to put a Nick-and-Cal stamp on them and to make their playfulness more poignant as Caliban’s condition progresses.
Also, I think any long book needs some humor, especially one like Lovely Brothers, where the characters face a constant struggle for survival. So I made most of the scenes that feature sex or nudity lighthearted, like Caliban caught walking naked on the prairie near his house or Calvin Junior’s exaggerated modesty at the swimming hole.
The latter also balances nicely with the young Caliban’s embarrassment at being on display after his accident much earlier in the story. Similarly, Calvin sending the girl Calhoun knocked up to rub salve on his backside provides a break in tone from the brutality of the beating scene that precedes it. (I didn’t put off the nude scenes until the end, only the sex.)
When you sit down to write a story, what over-arching structure do you hold?
Whatever structure will work best for the story I have to tell, and I discover it in the telling. Structure is something I like to experiment with, and every one of my books is structured differently.
To quote one reviewer of New Lives: “Is it short stories or a novel? Yes. Is it whimsical or a dark exploration of gay life? Yes. Is it erotica or literary fiction? Yes.”
As I said earlier, I don’t start a book with a particular plot in mind; I most often use characters in a situation as my point of departure, and it’s common for me to have written a sixth, sometimes a quarter, of a book before I decide what structure it will have. Only then do I actually set about planning it and make an outline.
As a writer, what would you like your stories to be remembered for?
Ah, yes. Being an author confers immortality, does it not? Not to imply that the stories by themselves hold interest, I like to think that the value of my work lies in the following:
1) Finely crafted English prose—rhythmic, lucid, succinct, well paced, literate. Not necessarily easy—I don’t mind challenging a reader with new ways of seeing the world, non-traditional organization, complex sentence structure, “big” words, etc.
2) Substance, meaning I don’t want to write fluff. All my works deal with issues at some level, and those issues are more important to me than the love story I couch them in. Another aspect of what I call “substance” has to do with creating real, multi-dimensional characters, where the reader intuits that there’s more to these people than even the author can possibly know.
3) Originality, that every book I write is different from the others, and only the writing style and the meatiness of the content bear my individual stamp. The same person who reviewed New Lives said about another of my books, “Someday this reviewer will find a predictable story in a Viz work, then will examine the book to discover that the cover has the author’s name incorrect.”
I like that–it fits you, too. What’s your current project? Is there something new in it for you besides the story itself?
I have so many! Novels (or novellas, since I can’t tell in advance how long they will be), including contemporaries, historicals and futuristics. I have a story coming out in the next issue of Wilde Oats called “Epithalamion” that may or may not turn out to be the opening chapter of a novel about Richard II.
I have plans for revising “The House in Birdgate Alley” and making it the first in a series of novellas about Johnny Rice. I’ve written parts of I what hope will one day be a novel about a man whose position in the world is ruined because of his addictive infatuation with a hustler.
Another about a family torn apart by disagreements on how to deal with a terminally ill parent. Another about a man suffering from aphasia—a very challenging project because, since he can’t express himself, it will be told from everybody’s POV except his.
Another set in France during the Anglo-Burgundian conflict in the Hundred Years’ War. A story about escaping from the real world by turning oneself into a book. Some readers have requested a sequel to “The Thought Collector”. That’s just a sample.
And yes, they’ll all have a central love story of sorts, but, as you see from my descriptions, that’s never my primary focus nor my reason for writing them. I’ve started them all. Will I write finish any of them? Wish me luck!
Gladly — good luck! That’s a long list. What’s a pet peeve you encounter in reading gay fiction? Or any fiction, for that matter?
In gay fiction, that the book is almost always a romance and nothing but. As a result, the gay men who inhabit those stories are made to conform to what readers expectation from the genre, and they come off as types rather than individuals. We don’t see the whole person.
Every aspect of a gay man’s existence ends up playing second fiddle to his love life. I can recommend Victor Banis’s “Cooper’s Hawk” as an example of a story where that doesn’t happen. We see the emptiness in his life after the death of his partner. I’m not saying that all M/M gives us nothing but stereotypes or I don’t enjoy reading M/M, but it does raise my hackles when it happens.
As gay man and a member of a minority, I resent being forced into a mold to tickle somebody’s fantasies.
For a pet peeve about fiction in general, I’d single out trivial dialogue that doesn’t advance the story or give any insight into the character speaking.
An example would be someone introducing mutual friends: “Bob, I’d like you to meet my friend John. John, this is Bob.” — “Hi, Bob. So I finally get to meet you. I’ve heard a lot about you.” — “Gary’s told me a lot about you, too. I’m really pleased to make your acquaintance.” — “Same here.” ad infinitum. Why not just tell us Gary introduced them and leave it at that? Or cut the scene altogether? It’s one of the advantages of writing a novel instead of a play. The so-called “Show, don’t tell” rule should be applied judiciously. Show only the important stuff, and tell the rest.
Do you have any observations or hopes about the evolution of LGBTQ fiction?
LGBTQ fiction has an enormous untapped potential. If only its authors were willing to experiment and worried less about playing it safe! I’d like to see them branch out into other genres besides romance.
Better yet, I’d like to see romance become a more supple genre, open to a greater variety of plot types. Over the past century, romance evolved into something very narrow and, for my taste, too set in its ways. All the sub-genres—westerns, mysteries, historicals, paranormals, etc.—follow the same basic pattern.
I fight against this reductio ad “boy-meets-boy/crisis/HEA” in my own work, but publishers seem to think all their readers are clamoring for more of the same, so it isn’t easy to place my books.
Four publishers turned down Lovely Brothers before Silver accepted it with virtually no changes besides copy edits. It was either too long, or the love interest didn’t get under way soon enough, or I focused too much on events peripheral to the love story. Yet, if I can trust readers’ feedback, none of my other books have grabbed them with as quite much force.
Maybe publishers will be willing to take a chance on me once I’ve made more of a name for myself. I’ve been writing for only a half a dozen years. At the moment, I’m waiting to hear back on a story I’ve submitted about a woman whose obsessive homophobia sends her on a crusade that jeopardizes her marriage.
Very relevant to the gay experience, but it doesn’t have a single element of romance. A good story well told doesn’t have to follow a set pattern in order to enthrall readers.
It boils down to this: I wish there were more LGBTQ fiction that does more than simply tell a story. Okay, I’ll admit it: I’d like to see more literary works. I know “literary” has become a dirty word in some circles. So has “liberal”, and neither deserves it. Nor does “romance”.
A work should be judged on its merits, not by its genre. And there’s no reason a romance can’t be literary. Lord knows they used to be, and many still are. Literary is not a synonym for flowery or pretentious; it means the book is a serious work of art—nothing more, nothing less.
Is there some story that you’ve wanted to write, but haven’t felt strong enough yet as a writer to tackle it?
It’s one I’m working on now and have been for nearly three years. It will be huge when it’s done, a true leviathan, so long I imagine it will have to be published in two or more volumes, but it’s a single novel, definitely not a series. I returned to it a week or so ago after putting it aside for several months.
The Pyramid of Nepensiret deals with Egyptologists from different countries and different eras, all working to solve the same unanswered question. It covers more than three millennia, not in chronological order, with scenes that take place during Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign, the Franco-Prussian War, the Dreyfus Affair, Kristallnacht, the Battle of Britain, the Six Day War, and the Stonewall riots.
Fitting all the pieces together is a major challenge, and the amount of research required is staggering.
Fascinating concept! And again, good luck! Is there a particular part of the world — somewhere you haven’t actually lived — where you’d like to set a story? What is it about that place that speaks to you?
Russia, either under the tsars or Soviet rule, or perhaps during the Revolution. Both my parents are of Russian descent, and I have cousins in New York who emigrated here in the ’90s whom I stayed with for two weeks before they moved here (two weeks doesn’t count as living there, does it?) and others still living in St. Petersburg. And I love Russian novels. My favorite is War and Peace. Problem is, I don’t have an idea for a story yet.
Powerful setting. I think a Russian story would suit your writing so well. What about a place/time that you’re confident you’ll never use as a setting? What’s the turnoff about that? Is there a genre you avoid?
Gee, I don’t know. Borneo? I consider any time period fair game. I’ve even written a story set in an imaginary Bronze Age culture.
I’m attracted to historicals because I’m an old man now and somewhat out of touch with pop culture. Writing something contemporary would require too much research. I don’t have much of a knack for SF; the closest I’ve come to writing that is urban fantasy. I have written a YA story under a different pen name. (You didn’t think my birth certificate reads Anel Viz, did you?) And someday I may write a book—a fiction book—that doesn’t have a single gay, love interest or sex scene in it. And nobody will buy it.
What a provocative end to an interesting discussion — thank you, Anel Viz!
To learn more about Anel, visit his blog is here. http://anelviz.blogspot.com/
My Jessewave review of The City of Lovely Brothers is here.
Besides doing a monthly review at Jessewave, I’m also doing one a month for Out in Print. My most recent, for Jack Fritscher’s Some Dance to Remember, is up today here.
It’s a novel about post-Stonewall, pre-AIDS San Francisco. It’s not a particularly well-written book, but it carries an intense emotional wallop — a turbulent, personal story set in the decade when gay culture exploded out of the closet and began to invent itself in the open. That evolution was not always tidy, or even beautiful, but always powerful.
One of my goals for this year has been to read more broadly from the offerings of other authors of gay fiction, and to think critically about those stories in an effort to improve my own writing sensibilities. I just needed something to hold me to the task. To this end I’ve begun writing reviews on two really solid sites, Out in Print and Reviews by Jessewave. I’m really excited about this.
I’ll be posting links to my reviews at both sites. I’d love for you to visit there, and leave comments if you’re so moved. If you’re not familiar with them, both sites offer quality reviews, and are well worth checking out regularly. There are many fine authors out there for you to enjoy!
My author friend Rick Reed tagged me as the next author to post in a series in which each of us shares answers to a a set of questions about our current writing project. So here are mine… hope you find the ideas intriguing!
What is the working title of your book?
What genre does your book fall under?
I wish I knew. It’s a metaphysical gay mystery about death and love. What shelf does that belong on? New Age? Romance? Mystery? I have no idea. Here’s the story idea—you decide:
Shepherd Bucknam inherited more money than he’ll ever spend, so he doesn’t need a job. He’s handsome, smart, educated and polished. He’s also a sex worker. He takes his profession seriously, as a kind of mystical performing art, coaching repressed men into a more profound experience of their sexual selves. Violence terrifies him, and he’s haunted by dreams of violent death he’s afraid might one day be his.
When his protégé is murdered, Shepherd becomes a person of interest in the investigation. Marco Fidanza is the detective assigned to the case. He’s gay and out and tough—he’s had to fight hard for everything he’s ever had. Shepherd’s metaphysical journey and the evolving relationship between Shepherd and Marco form the twin arcs of my story, but the murder investigation is what catalyzes both.
Where did the idea come from for the book?
I’ve heard enough stories — and had enough experience myself — about how past life patterns can reappear in one’s current life to make me take the idea seriously. Think of the issue as Imago Theory in counseling, or how we keep seeking the same kind of romantic experience until we finally figure out what’s going on and “graduate” from future repetition. Now stretch that concept over span of a couple of lifetimes or more instead of just one. That’s what’s at the heart of this story.
I should quickly add that not every character in my story needs to do this kind of work. Marco doesn’t. Just like in real life, some people absolutely MUST address metaphysical issues in their lives. Others don’t have the slightest interest and don’t need any of that woo-woo BS at all. Just that discrepancy in itself I find fascinating, in addition to how a man’s metaphysical journey might unfold, if he is led to embark on it.
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
I’m not a movie person, but this was easy. I think Shepherd should be played by Josh Holloway.
Marco absolutely must be played by an actor who reduces me to a quivering mess of need, Alessandro Calza.
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Courage leads to self-understanding and love.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
I’m not sure. I may self-publish. As scary as it is, I’m attracted to the business model, risks and all.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
I can’t say, because the first draft isn’t finished yet. The story has been gestating inside me for about four years, which is how I am when I’ve got an idea that’s bigger than the story I first imagined. It takes a long time for that idea to start taking shape inside the story. I’m getting down now. I expect to have a first draft finished in the next few months. I feel like the hardest work is now behind me.
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
Once I find my genre, I’ll let you know!
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
I wondered how it might be that a man who seems to have everything in this life could still be tormented by unresolved past life trauma—which prevents him from living fully now, and really enjoying what he’s got.
The next question was, how does his current life then force him to look deeper and take care of unfinished business in order to go forward? That felt full of possibilities.
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
If I do my job properly, there will be a number of themes explored in the book that could be of interest to a reader: tradition and how we fit in the world; the subtle damage from sexual abuse that inhibits real intimacy; parental love, even if it’s deformed and dysfunctional; physical beauty as a weapon, as a commercial currency, or as a means of healing; ditto with sex; wealth and what it can and can’t buy; ageism. All that, within the overarching context of exploring the courage it takes to know oneself, and therefore to be able to love and be loved.
Happy new 26,000 year cycle, everyone!
And in case you haven’t noticed, the world didn’t come to an end yesterday! The Mayan calendar never said this would be the end of the world. It said this would be the end of one cycle and the beginning of another.
The solstice is my big holiday during this season, and this year it was an especially powerful one for me. I can’t remember the last time I moved into the new year feeling so enthusiastic.
I feel the new year’s promise pushing to be realized, in spite of the violence and madness around us, the avarice and aggression — the venal arrogance that seems rampant. I say there’s something else, something beautiful, on the move as well, and while these may be unstable times, they can also be creative times.
Ultimately, I believe we are responsible for our own behavior, and that it is our only gift to the world. Please — be courageous. Plant the seeds of kindness, generosity, respect, empathy and sanity wherever you can, even in unfriendly soil.
And may your new year be filled with creativity, wonder, blessings, love, health and happiness!
Found this stone art depiction of Kokopelli, and will add it to my list of post graphics. I love the power of it — the music, the joyful dancing, the unabashed creativity.
And a warm welcome to my new blog and website to you! Please take a look around, enjoy the free reads, and the updates that will come once or twice a week.
I’m just in transition headed back to Florida with a stop next week in Seattle for Story Masters, a writers’ workshop put on by Christopher Vogler, Jay Bell and Donald Maass. I haven’t heard any of them present in person before, so I’m really looking forward to it.
In 2006, I wrote this short short story as my entry in a contest called “A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words”. The story had to turn around this photo. It’s odd, I felt awkward writing to a visual prompt, but the story took no more than a couple of days to write. I still like it, so I’ve dusted it off for your reading entertainment.
Crossing the River
By spring the pain had dulled. It was no longer the unrelenting ripping sensation in Jake’s chest, as if he were a phone book being torn in half for a meaningless party stunt. Although he still was ambushed by grief occasionally, and wept helplessly then, he mostly now had calm. At first that calm had been the vague sweetness of Prozac, but Jake was done with that.
The counselors at the hospice had helped. They had gently prepared him last summer when the cocktail had stopped working, when in barely a month Howard had turned into a breathing skeleton barely able to smile, when the wasting and the lesions had rendered him nearly unrecognizable. Knowledge of what was to come had been nothing compared to the event itself.
Then they had helped him through those first horrible weeks afterward, when Jake could barely tie his shoes without help, the emptiness in the apartment so final, so silently perfect. They had helped him with the gnawing, wretched guilt of being alive, healthy and HIV-negative – and after nine years, alone.
Now it was different. The absence of the ripping pain was a relief. Now Jake just had absence. Work helped. So did the gym and his other routines. It was August, and he was functional. He gazed contentedly at the groceries in his basket. This afternoon he had managed all his errands and was ready to head home. Life was getting better.
“Excuse please, you are in line?”
Startled, Jake jumped and closed the gap that had grown unnoticed in front of him. “Sorry. I was” he turned, and froze. “…somewhere else.” Soulful blue eyes radiated from a stunningly beautiful Slavic face – high, sharp cheekbones, prominent nose, fierce, sensual mouth. Jake took in the tanned, lanky, muscular frame, the straw-colored short spiked hair, the exquisite toughness that coiled and corded under the tank top, cargo pants and sandals. “I’m staring. Sorry.”
“No, no, please. No sorry!” A smile blazed across the stranger’s face. “I hope you to stare. I follow you in this store many minutes, as I hope you wake up and see me.” The smile melted into tenderness. “You suffer like poet, I think.” He stuck out a broad, elegant hand, and the blazing smile returned. “I am Jiri, spell with chay, sound like why. Very please to meet you. I also am poet.”
Jake took the offered hand. It was strong, so warm. “I’m Jake. Nice to meet you, Jiri. I’m afraid I’m not a poet, though. Sorry.” He pulled his hand back, but the stranger would not let go. All of Jiri followed the pull, until they were centimeters from each other. Jake felt panic steal his breath. He looked around for escape, some distraction.
“No, no, Chake, do not run, is OK.” Jiri let go of Jake’s hand, and motioned with his head for them to close up the line again. “I not hurt you. I promise.”
With a wan smile, Jake turned to put his stuff on the conveyor belt. He could feel Jiri’s animal heat, his electric presence sparking behind him, too close to be comfortable. He shivered, concentrating on organizing his items.
“You are poet, Chake. You have soul of poet, I can feel.” Jiri’s voice caressed him, flowing warm and possessive down over his body from somewhere just behind his ear. Then it brightened into firmness. “Wait for me, we have coffee!”
Off-balance, mesmerized, Jake waited bags in hand while Jiri came through line and approached, beaming. “So, Chake, my house, two blocks. Starbucks is on corner, OK with you?”
He lifted his shopping bag. “Well, I have things here that shouldn’t get warm.”
“Is no problem!” Jiri decided for him cheerfully. “You put in my fridge, we go for coffee. You pick up after.”
Outside it was hot. Before they got to the light, Jake felt the prickle of sweat. “Why are you doing this, Jiri? What are you doing? What am I to you?”
Jiri stopped and turned to grasp Jake’s shoulders. “I am having big adventure in Vancouver, Chake. You now important part of Jiri’s adventure.” He laughed, teeth and eyes flashing in the sunlight, overwhelmingly beautiful, exuberant. Male. He leaned into Jake and whispered conspiratorially, “We talk more over coffee. You will understand.”
Jake understood in a tumbling fall free of common sense that they would end up in bed. He was almost sure didn’t want that.
Jiri’s apartment building was small, plain. They climbed the three flights to his apartment. Jiri paused, key in the lock. “You will like Sascha. He will like you also. Very much, I promise.”
Jake blanched and fought nausea. “Three? No, Jiri, I’m sorry, I’m just not…” but a wriggling tempest of brown, white and black enthusiasm leapt into Jiri’s arms through the open door.
“Chake, meet Sascha. Sascha, Chake.” Jiri pushed the terrier/whatever into Jake’s arms and grabbed his groceries in one motion. Jake found himself struggling to hold onto the whirlwind that whimpered, twisted and licked in a frenzy of happy greeting.
When Jake put Sascha down, Jiri had already deposited the groceries in the fridge, and stood at the kitchen entrance grinning like a madman. He stepped over Sascha to take Jake’s face gently in both hands. “What you feel, Chake, right now? No thinking. Feeling only. What?”
“I – I’m frightened, I don’t know what’s happening, I…”
“You look alive, Chake, like snorting stallion, eyes rolling. Strong, not sure, so, so beautiful.” Holding Jake’s face captive, Jiri leaned forward and kissed him tenderly. When Jake’s lips stayed closed, Jiri made a soft noise of disappointment, licking the sealed crevice.
“We have coffee now, Chake.” He grinned and winked with unabashed certainty. “Then we come here, you let me make love to you. Part of adventure!”
The Starbucks was busy, but they found a table in a corner, so small that their knees touched when they sat down. Jiri slid his shin forward on the outside, pressing inward against Jake’s calf, a knowing leer playing across his face.
Jake moved his leg away. “Tell me, Jiri – how am I a part of your big adventure?”
“Yes!” Jiri nodded enthusiastically. “Six months I am in Canada, from Belarus. I am student, hydro-electric engineering, from National Technical University, Minsk. I travel in Canada, studying systems, environmental measures. I visit Robert Bourassa station Quebec, Churchill Falls of Newfoundland, Columbia River and Peace River, BC. I take many notes, many ideas.” He smiled proudly. “I make outstanding graduation study and thesis!”
“Are you here on scholarship?”
Jiri nodded, shrugged. “I have uncle in national gymnastics program. He help me get scholarship.” His eyes narrowed, flashed. “I earn, also!” He laughed. “All part of Jiri’s big adventure. Today I walk to store, buy food. I see beautiful man walking, but sleeping. I follow, get ideas. This man so sad. I understand this sadness, I think. I will help this sad man wake up. I want him naked with me.”
Jake stiffened, rage taking him. “How dare you! You have no idea. You say I’m a poet, but I’m not. Howar–” The name stuck in his throat, and a vision rose, of Howard reading in his armchair, long brown hair falling around those goofy wire-rim glasses. “Howard was the poet, not me. And he’s dead. You have no right to think you can use my sorrow to get me into bed.” He sneered, wanting to hurt Jiri. “I bet you’re no poet, either.” He pushed his chair back and stood, trembling.
“Chake. You sit. Now.” Jiri’s voice was kind, but unquestionably in charge. Against his will, Jake sat.
Jiri leaned forward, eyes dark. “I understand suffering. You so proud of your suffering, no? Only you can suffer this way. So tragic! Jiri can’t understand, for sure! I tell you about suffering. When I am little boy, my country is downwind Chernobyl. Half my country is poisoned. So many dying. No one dare say why. My older brother is god, GOD to me. Too soon his lungs full of cancer. No hope. I watch him die. I want to die too.”
He slapped his chest. “Maybe Chernobyl still waits for Jiri, here in body. No one knows. We find out one day for sure. Jiri have adventure until.” He released Jake’s hand, patted it. “Yes, Jiri understand. He see Chake mourning. But he is part of Jiri’s big adventure. Jiri will wake him up, even if Chake not want. But I think Chake want. I think maybe Chake is little afraid of what he feel for Jiri. Is so?”
Jake nodded, mute.
Jiri’s irrepressible smile unfurled. “Outstanding! Jiri will be good for Chake.” Jiri took Jake’s hand and held it in both of his and crooned, “Wake him so gently, so well, Chake never go back to sleep again! We go to my house now, yes?”
Jake nodded, mute.
Later, in the half-light of early evening, Jake lay spent in Jiri’s arms while Jiri snored softly into his neck. He shifted slightly, and Jiri woke.
“I am outstanding lover for Chake, no?”
“Yes, Jiri, outstanding. First since Howard. It’s been so long, over a year. My body – I’d forgotten. But I’m not ready for a relationship yet.”
Jiri rolled on top of Jake and peered at him in the half-light. “Relationship? No. Too soon. You are swimming man, Chake. In middle of big, cold river, very fast. Howard one side of river, no going back. You stay in river too long, you drown. I am rope for you, not other bank of river.” He rolled again so Jake was on top, and wrapped his long legs around Jake’s waist, squeezing. “I pull you to land. That is Jiri’s work. What you do on new side of river is work for Chake.” Jiri smiled wickedly. “I think for Jiri to get Chake to dry land take many nights, though.”
“You are a poet, Jiri,” Jake murmured, “and very wise. And beautiful. And sexy.”
Jiri rolled again, beaming, and leapt to his feet. “Come, I show you something. No clothes. Just come.” He strode into the living room and lay down on his back, arms flung apart. “Sascha, come snuggle! Snuggle, Sascha!” The dog galloped over to where Jiri lay and squirmed onto his back in the crook of Jiri’s arm, legs splayed, tongue lolling. Jiri brought his arm around Sascha and scratched his tummy. “I teach him this trick. Clever, yes? Now I teach you! Chake come! Come snuggle, Chake!”
Laughing, Jake lay down on Jiri’s other side, and imitated Sascha, including the tongue. “Is perfect, Chake! You learn fast.” Jiri drew his arm around Jake and scratched his tummy. “When I return Minsk, you take Sascha, yes?”
“I find Sascha six weeks ago, abandoned. So alone. I take him to vet, all shots, very good. I return Belarus in one month. When I go, you take Sascha, yes?”
“You had this in mind all along, didn’t you? You picked me up because you want me to take your fucking dog!”
“No. Not only. Most, I want you wake up. But I also want you share Sascha with me. Jiri and Chake stay close through Sascha for long time.”
“God, Jiri, you’re making me crazy! Let me think about it.”
“You think three days. Condition is you sleep here each night. I not finished waking up Chake, who is too beautiful for one night only.”
Jake rolled onto an elbow and gazed down at Jiri. “You are one helluva rope, Jiri. If you can’t pull me to shore, no one can.”
Jiri grabbed Jake’s balls, laughing. “I pull hard enough, not more.”
Jiri had been gone for over a week, and Jake was at Bess and Sarah’s place out in White Rock. Full of barbequed chicken with trimmings, Jake snoozed in the sun on the back lawn. He was startled by a wet nose against his cheek. “Sascha, come snuggle! Snuggle, Sascha!” The dog jumped across Jake’s face to land in the crook of his arm and rolled onto his back, tongue dancing, dripping. Jake laughed, and sent a kiss to Jiri. Jake could feel the whole earth under his body. He was on solid ground again.
Lloyd Meeker, © 2006, all rights reserved.
A man’s character is his fate.
This is the epigraph in Traveling Light, and has become an essential part of the way I see and experience the world. Sometimes this quote is translated as, “A man’s character is his doom.” I believe that’s technically more accurate, but the word “doom” in English has implications that aren’t so inescapably negative in Greek.
I wrote this piece seven years ago, as a piece of blog content when my first novel came out. To my amazement, it was the most visited page for as long as I had it up. I’ve dusted it off, made a few tweaks and offer it now as my first article here on my re-vamped site. It feels good to do that. I hope you enjoy it! — LM
A Hero’s Journey
I was probably thirteen when I first read that some of the great Renaissance artists dissected cadavers to get the anatomy right in their figures. Forced to imagine someone so driven to depict the human form accurately that he would willingly break serious contemporary laws and risk disease to examine dead bodies, I was disgusted as only a pimply teenager uncomfortable with what was happening in his own body could be. But over time, I have come to admire those pioneers who understood that their art required this knowledge. They understood that what was inside, unseen, gave power and dimension to their work.
The more I have surrendered to my love of writing, the more fascinated I have become with certain clearly identifiable themes in human experience – the ones that just will not go away. These archetypal themes are the bones, gristle and organs of good stories, and they have their own rules, just like the physical heart has its rules – blood in from the body through this vein, blood out to the lungs through this artery, blood from the lungs through the only vein that carries oxygenated blood, and then blood out to the body through the aorta in a rhythmic pattern that must be sustained if a person is to live.
One such archetypal theme is the Hero’s Journey. In some form, it lies at the heart of every adventure in which the hero grows or is otherwise deeply changed by his quest. Some adventure stories like Superman or Indiana Jones are entertaining, but basically neither the hero nor the world around him will change as a result of his struggles: in the end, evil is once again held at bay, and life goes on as it did before. Those stories can be fun, but they will not be told a thousand years from now. The stories of Inanna, Gilgamesh, Heracles, Orpheus, Parsifal, Ged the Wizard of Earthsea, Bill Wilson, Iron John and so many others will be told over and over, long after we’re gone.
I promise this isn’t going to be an academic monograph. There are plenty of books written about the Hero’s journey that go to far greater depth than I can take you. For those interested, I recommend Frazier’s The Golden Bough, or Joseph Campbell’s riveting Hero With a Thousand Faces.
What I want to do is share with you something I love – the psychic anatomy, so to speak, that provides the structure of meaning for the heroic stories that both entertain and nourish the soul in their telling.
In outline form, most theoretical versions of the Hero’s Journey look something like this:
1. Separation from the Familiar World
a) The Call to Adventure – restless, or feeling discomfort, the hero is separated from the status quo, and something happens that triggers the adventure
b) Acceptance or Refusal to Answer the Call
c) Supernatural Aid – once the Call is answered, things/forces beyond the hero’s understanding guide or assist him
d) Crossing the First Threshold – this is the point of no return. The hero enters the underworld, and the Adventure is in control
e) The Belly of the Whale – the hero knows he’s helpless, seemingly ill-equipped for the Adventure, and does not know what to do next. His old skills seem less relevant
a) The Road of Trials – the hero encounters certain challenges or tasks. His efforts begin to change him
b) Meeting the Goddess – because of his efforts, the hero receives guidance or help from a strange but powerful figure – help he needs to survive and succeed
c) Temptation From the True Path – the hero is required to make critical choices
d) Atonement with the Father – the hero becomes reconciled with larger, governing reality. This could be genetic father, authority, or simply acceptance of a true natural order
e) Apotheosis – as a result of the Atonement, the hero is psychically and spiritually reborn or lifted to a new understanding. This is a spiritual event, not a religious one: the experience is unique and internal
f) The Ultimate Boon – gaining the key to the quest, or perhaps the quest object itself
3. Life-Giving Return
a) Acceptance or Refusal to Return
b) The Magic Flight or Rescue – in his effort to return to the “regular” world, the hero may receive assistance from forces beyond his understanding
c) Crossing the Return Threshold – the hero returns to the regular world, bringing the gifts of his struggles. These gifts benefit others and the world in general
d) Master of The Two Worlds – the hero retains the ability to function effectively in both the regular world and in the underworld
e) Freedom to Live – the hero is no longer “special” as before, but is self-realized, often carrying new responsibility and authority
However, just as knowing human anatomy does not necessarily make one a great Renaissance painter, knowing an outline of ideas does not necessarily enable a writer to use it creatively.
This is not a “fill in the blanks” formula that will make any story work – I’ve read some really atrocious (mis)uses of the Hero’s Journey. Like Mickey Mouse in Fantasia’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice, a writer can deliberately summon the power of this pattern and unleash archetypal forces he has no business meddling with, and which are beyond his ability to understand, let alone control authentically. The result is not a story that heals, inspires or illuminates, but a story that goes nowhere significant, and spawns confusion, empty sensationalism and cynical chicanery on its pathetic way to nowhere significant. (And no, I don’t have any strong feelings about this at all!)
Because so many of our examples of a hero’s quest-journey are in the vein of Arthurian Knights, Frodo Baggins or Luke Skywalker, it’s easy to forget that this archetype is – if anything – an internal pattern, regardless of how the external aspects of the adventure may unfold. One of the few immutably external events occurs at the beginning – the Call to Adventure always seems to be triggered by an external event, because the hero is not able to spring free of his familiar world all by himself.
What I’d like to do here is abandon the swords-and-glory images of the familiar hero’s journey idioms to focus our attention on a profoundly internal adventure – the Hero’s Journey of coming out.
Umberto Eco, in Travels in Hyperreality, says “The real hero is always a hero by mistake; he dreams of being an honest coward like everybody else.”
How does that apply to the Hero’s Journey of coming out? I don’t have a single friend who has said to me, “Yes, I could have been perfectly happy living as a heterosexual for the rest of my life – I was absolutely fulfilled. But I became so enamored with the lives led by my many homosexual friends that I happily gave up my home, marriage, family, career, legal protections and social standing to live openly as a gay man. And it was such an easy transition – I never had a moment of self-doubt, discouragement, self-loathing, ANY of that stuff one reads about sometimes. I was constantly supported by everyone around me, I didn’t have to make a single hard choice about career or how I lived, and in fact I never had to give up anything at all in order to live as my real self.” That certainly was not my story, either.
So the Adventure starts.
1. Separation from the Familiar World
Our 17 year-old hero, Harold (a time-honored heroic name!), is athletic, intelligent, charming. He is on the track team in warm weather and plays hockey in the winter. He’s an above average student. He’s effortlessly popular with both male and female classmates. Yet he feels vaguely on the outside of things, even though apparently nobody else notices that he doesn’t quite fit. He wants to emulate the modeled behavior he sees all around him at home, at school, in movies, on TV. The expected social context for his life is constantly trumpeted in advertising, magazines, conversations overheard on the bus, everywhere. He believes that his fulfillment lies in the promises offered by those expectations, but there is a kind of restlessness in him that keeps him from feeling like he really belongs.
a) The Call to Adventure
One day, Harry is on the bus, and a beautiful young man sits next to him. The beautiful stranger has his iPod playing, and is completely oblivious of Harry’s presence. But Harry is stunned and mesmerized. He feels hot, nervous, short of breath, queasy. Sure, he’s had twinges of feeling for his locker-room buddies before, but that was manageable – just hot, competitive testosterone among comrades. But this – this is far stronger than what he almost felt when Therese Pirelli pushed her marvelous soft breasts into his chest and sucked on his lower lip in that dark corner at the Prom. This is wild enchantment. He wants this strange boy with blond curls and elfin green eyes. He wants to kiss him gently, and talk, and feel, and – oh god, not that. I’m not queer! Harry refuses the Call to Adventure. Common sense tells him – rightly – that nothing but disaster lies ahead on that disgusting path.
Harry is fine for quite a while, and he pretends he has forgotten the terrifying tsunami that rose in him that day on the bus. But then one day the team gets a new equipment manager, and fuck, it’s him. Harry sees him every day at practice. This kid comes smiling and joking through the locker-room, doing his job, when Harry is naked. It’s too much. Then one day after practice, outside the familiar school boundaries, the kid approaches him. It happens. Oh, god. What the fuck did I do? Harry has answered the Call to Adventure, and – rightly – is scared shitless. He’s no longer in control of his life. The Adventure is taking him down, down, exactly to where he never wanted to go.
Harry and the kid go at it for weeks. Harry’s grades go to hell because Harry is lost – lost in the ruthless grip of the Adventure. He doesn’t have a clue what to do. His performance on the team begins to suffer, too, but when he’s kissing the kid he doesn’t care about anything else but the taste of those lips, the feel of his skin and the exquisite rip of a condom packet.
b) Supernatural Aid
In a moment of clarity, Harry realizes that he’s got to get a grip on this or he’s really lost for good. He’s got nobody to talk to, nobody he trusts with news of this insanity. One day in a video store (other than the one he usually uses – gosh, how did that happen?), he finds himself miraculously in front of the gay section. He has no memory of getting there. He rents A Beautiful Thing. That night he plays it on his laptop. Twice. He understands. The gods have given him a vision that all is not lost. With the enormous courage of every hero who would have much preferred to stay an honest coward, Harry gets it.
Harry goes to the school psychologist, who by some even greater miracle understands and doesn’t ridicule or try to change him. Week by week, the counselor supports Harry’s journey to realize that the kid is not necessarily a one-time shot. What then, Harry? What are you going to do?
Harry prepares for the Big Moment with the psychologist, who supports him without steering him. The gods have been kind to Harry by giving him a skilled and trustworthy guide, but the journey is Harry’s, and only Harry can cross the threshold.
c) Crossing the First Threshold
One night at dinner, after the younger sibs are off somewhere else, Harry collars his parents. He tells them he’s gay. Harry has crossed the first threshold, and there is no turning back, no pretending that he hasn’t just said what he’s said. His parents react with restraint. They are good people, and they try hard to understand this horror. But something’s changed. Their dreams have been shattered, and they fear for Harry as he faces a world full of grave dangers. They cannot accompany him into this world, even if they wanted to. All the terrible stories they have ever heard about gays – the bashings, the drugs, the debauchery, the disease, the dissipation – they all rise like wraiths hovering over their oldest son, ready to devour him before he can even launch into the life they had always hoped he would have.
d) The Belly of the Whale
That night, alone in his room, nothing looks familiar to Harry. He’s changed, his family is changed, and nothing will be the same ever again. This room belongs to a young man who no longer exists. That Harry has vaporized. Harry feels like a stunt-double standing in for the old Harry, an interloper in his own sanctuary. The Adventure, like an enormous fish, has swallowed him. He sits in the belly of the fish, strangely hopeful, but not knowing what to do next, or even how to talk now to his parents, let alone the sibs. If his team-mates find out… shit.
Harry has begun his new life for real. This is no longer just a clandestine affair with an elfin youth who makes him hard just thinking about soft blond curls. This is real life, now. His parents know. This really counts. What to do next?
a) The Road of Trials
Well, Harry’s team-mates do find out. They beat it out of the elfin equipment manager, who smiled too sweetly at one of the guys, and that’s that. The battered boy transfers to another school without saying goodbye, without ever learning that Harry forgave him the second he learned what had happened. Harry withdraws from the team and jettisons his hopes of an athletic scholarship at State. After talking with the psychologist and his parents over the next couple of weeks, Harry transfers out, too, to a school with a healthy Gay/Straight Alliance. Harry cleans out his newly vandalized locker, and turns his back on the people who don’t want him now that he’s known to be a fag.
Harry finishes high school well, and gets into State without the scholarship, thanks to his parents. He declares a major in economics. He stays away from team sports and works out at the gym religiously. Harry learns immediately that a gay college boy with a muscular body can get laid any time of day or night, without more effort than sauntering downtown to one of those bars. Heck, Harry doesn’t even have to like the guy. Harry lets the guy buy him a beer, chat for five minutes, and then it’s off to the sack and sweet release. Of course he’s careful – he’d never bareback, either way. Harry knows he’s not really having fun, but it sure as hell is better than nothing. He misses the elfin boy more than he can say. Or admit.
b) Meeting the Goddess
One night at a bar, Harry has way too much to drink. He remembers throwing up, then dry heaving for an eternity, with something large and green beside him – a scaly lizard, snake or something – before passing out. Harry wakes up and sees the emerald green sequin gown hanging over the back of a chair. Oh, shit. The drag queen in charge of the karaoke. She was huge. I could never have… oh, fuck. Wait. Harry is still dressed in his vomit-stained jeans, lying on a plastic sheet spread over the couch. Thank god.
The Goddess swirls into the room as any force of nature might: without the slightest explanation, uncompromising, loud, magnificent, overwhelming in her fuchsia-feathered bathrobe. She hands Harry a mug of coffee as soon as he can sit up. “Now, don’t you be worrying about what happened last night, honey,” she booms in a bass voice that shakes the windows, “’cause nothin’ happened, thanks to me. The sharks were surely a-circlin’, though, sugar. No tellin’ where you woulda’ ended up in your condition. You gotta be more careful about where you get plastered, child! Not every man in that bar is your friend, you know.” She sighs and pushes a wayward tuft back under her purple turban. “Sweet Jesus, you newbies are so clueless. You just stir up all my maternal juices, even though most of you don’t even want this momma’s help.”
Harry thanks her for the coffee and manages some conversation. He can’t remember exactly what she said, but he knows he felt a lot better for listening to her.
Harry goes back to the bar next Karaoke Night, and after the show he and the Goddess talk far into the night. She tells him things that he has to know for the remainder of his journey as a gay man, and she gives him her phone number, just in case.
c) Temptation From the True Path
In spite of the Goddess’ guidance, Harry slides into sketchy company. There are parties in very fancy penthouses, the high-quality drugs are free, and the older men are appreciative and very generous. Harry enjoys being worshipped. He enthusiastically trades on his good looks and good body. It sure is easy money, even if some of the clients want him to do weird stuff. Harry scrapes through freshman year with acceptable grades, and the phrase “working his way through college” has taken on meaning he never would have imagined only two years ago. Unfortunately, Harry also seems to spend a lot on alcohol and other substances when he’s not working at the penthouse.
d) Atonement with the Father
Harry’s sophomore advisor calls him in and reads him the riot act. Unacceptable grades, skipped classes, shoddy work. Why don’t you talk to one of the staff psychologists and see if you can’t get clear on why you are here at State. If this keeps up, you can’t stay.
Harry makes the appointment with a counselor and then rummages through his desk until he finds the Goddess’ phone number. They meet at her apartment, and talk all afternoon. The Goddess tells Harry her story. Harry is amazed, moved. From the Goddess’ living room Harry calls the man who hosts the parties in the penthouse and tells Pimp Daddy that he needs some time off, just to think about things. Pimp Daddy is coldly clear: he’s made commitments that Harry would be at the penthouse by 9:00. People are expecting him. If Harry isn’t there by then, there’s no need to call back. Ever.
The psychologist is a decent man. “Who will you listen to, Harry?” he asks. “Who will you give your life, your body to? What are you going to do about your heart?” Harry feels the warmth, promise and hard work of real life knocking on the door of his heart, offering to come in.
Harry gets it. It’s about the heart before it’s about anything else. Starting with the Goddess, Harry begins to build a circle of real friends. It’s not easy, learning to be a real gay man instead of a product of the path of least resistance. And it certainly doesn’t happen overnight. But Harry is lucky. Slowly, slowly his path as a sentient gay man begins to come clear. One night he is reading something by Joseph Conrad: “Facing it, always facing it, that’s the way to get through. Face it.” Harry puts the book down, writes the quote on a blank sheet of paper, and tapes it to his desk hutch. He calls Jake, and they go down to applaud the Goddess as she holds karaoke court.
f) The Ultimate Boon
Harry realizes he doesn’t want to be an economist, any more than he really wanted to be a drugged-up hustler. He switches his major to psychology, and he feels like he’s come home. He writes his parents to let them know he’s found what he was looking for. They are cautiously optimistic, having heard a few of the nicer war stories from freshman and sophomore year. Self-knowledge and fulfillment constitute his ultimate boon. But even so, his work isn’t done.
3. Life-giving Return
a) Acceptance or Refusal to Return
Harry buckles down to his studies, builds a life with his friends, and even helps the Goddess save a few drunk kids from trying to drive home, or being raped by predators.
b) Magic Flight/Rescue
For the last two years, Harry has volunteered at the gay/lesbian center on Bute Street, counseling, helping with HIV testing, answering the phone. He finds that in the context of his new life, even his darkest experiences are a useful resource as he helps others of his tribe who are struggling. He discovers that helping others is changing him, giving him new internal dimension, new depth as a human being.
c) Crossing the Return Threshold
After only one extra year and financed by student loans, Harry graduates with honors. On the strength of his volunteer work, he gets a prized internship at a clinic serving youth with gender, sexual orientation and addiction issues. He’s accepted into State’s Masters program.
d) Master of Two Worlds
It’s three years later, and Harry lives with his lover, Nathan. Harry is keenly aware he’s still a work in progress, but he can navigate in the gay underworld as easily as in the professional. Relationship is hard work, especially without the heterosexual social supports that help straight couples make it through hard times. But Nathan’s a good man, and it’s good. Not perfect, but good.
e) Freedom to Live
Harry has gone home to be with his mom as she succumbed to cancer. It’s been three months of leave without pay and away from everything familiar to his new life, but for Harry it was essential. As he packs to return he sees things clearly. He and his dad quietly built an adult, realistic relationship between them, and even the sibs, now at college themselves, reinvented their connection with him. Toward the end, it was ok for Nathan to move into Harry’s old bedroom with him for the last couple of weeks. The afternoon after they’d discussed it, Harry’s dad had wordlessly taken out Harry’s old single bed and set up a double all by himself. Just a few days before she passed, Harry’s mom had taken Harry’s and Nathan’s hands and pressed them together between her cold, bony ones with what little strength she could summon, making them promise to be good to each other. Harry promised, as did Nathan, both knowing that even though their relationship might not last, they would indeed be good to each other, as best they could be. That’s a promise Harry can keep, now.
So – this is just a sketch of the anatomy of a Hero’s Journey, as applied to a generic coming out story. The living story that can come up on these bones is infinitely variable. Because I was only cursory with this little story, which I made up for this piece, it has a certain “fairy tale” quality to it that may not appeal to you. But imagine this same story with a refusal of one of the invitations – any of them. What if Harry had refused the Call to Adventure in the first place: there are many bi men who manage a heterosexual life and live honorably. What would his challenges be? What would be on his Road of Trials in that case? Or maybe Harry refused to atone with the Father: what might his life looked like then, if he had not come to terms with his presence in the natural order of things? What would his relationships be like then? Any number of other variables represented in this archetypal journey might be changed. What a character does within the archetype depends entirely on his character.
I also want to be clear with you that while being a prostitute turned out to be wrong for Harry, it might not be wrong for someone else. As far as I’m concerned, being a prostitute can be as honorable a profession as being a psychologist. But that’s a different – and long – discussion!
My very best wishes to all of you on your individual journeys, especially to you who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered. To me, you are heroes in the truest sense. I believe every gay or lesbian person should be awarded an Olympic gold medal for courage in the extreme. Maybe it won’t always be that gay and lesbian people in this society need extra courage to live life authentically, but that’s certainly the way it’s been. And ultimately, of course, it takes real courage to be authentically oneself, regardless of sexual orientation.
As e. e. cummings said, “To be nobody-but-yourself – in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else – means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.”
© 2005, Lloyd A. Meeker, all rights reserved