Wilde City Press is celebrating Gay History Month with authors offering a series of posts. Here’s mine…
I celebrated enthusiastically with the rest of those who love equality when veteran basketball player Jason Collins came out in April of this year. It was a brave thing to do, even if Collins was in the twilight of his career with no contract for the following season. (And I’m not aware of any contract interest in Collins for the coming season.) His coming out was billed as the first for an active major league athlete, but that isn’t strictly true.
From 1976 to 1978 Glenn Burke played for the LA Dodgers, and came out to his teammates and the club owners while an active player. Everybody knew. When asked, team captain Davey Lopes said nobody cared. In 1978 Burke was traded to the Oakland A’s, where he sustained a knee injury before the 1980 season, when Billy Martin was manager. Martin did care. He was notoriously homophobic, frequently using “faggot” in the locker room as an insult. That injury was the end of Burke’s career. The A’s sent him to the minors, and and then released him before the end of the 1980 season. Burke died of AIDS-related causes in 1995. He was 42.
But between between Burke’s coming out and Collins’, there was one other that provides the real arc of my piece, and it’s the one I want to focus on. It was a huge turning point: the short life of Brendan Burke, who came out with his whole career still ahead of him.
In November 2009 Brendan Burke, son of Brian Burke, then the General Manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, came out publicly, having come out to his family two years earlier. At the time, Brendan Burke was a sophomore at Miami University in Ohio, an athlete and student manager for the his school’s hockey team, the RedHawks. His team supported him fully, and the press coverage was consistently supportive, almost as if the sportscasters had been waiting for permission to state their support in the issue. Burke gave them that permission.
The NHL and the NHLPA (Players Association) were emphatic that the NHL was ready for out gay players. Toronto PFLAG championed Burke’s story as an object lesson in the importance of family support for someone coming out.
Just months later, Brendan Burke was killed in a car accident–February 5, 2010. He was 21. The full roster of the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Miami RedHawks attended his funeral. On February 6, the RedHawks named Burke honorary first star of their game against Lake Superior.
His high school erected a statue in his honor, and USA Hockey established the Brendan Burke Internship, an annual award given to a recent college grad pursuing a career in hockey operations. The CBC made a documentary, “The Brendan Burke Legacy”. The Stanley Cup even appeared in that year’s Chicago Pride Parade, when Brent Sopel used his personal day with the Cup to honor Burke.
Brendan’s older brother Patrick, a scout for the Philadelphia Flyers, helped create the You Can Play project in March of 2012. Please check out their website, and if you can, donate.
“We have players from around the world, and a lot of those players are from countries that are seen as more progressive on LGBT issues,” he said. “So I don’t think it’s unreasonable or strange to think that the N.H.L. and the N.H.L.P.A. are driving this, in part because our players tend to be more comfortable with this issue.”
While I’m still looking forward to the day when a watershed change in social awareness of queer equality issues doesn’t require the death of a Matthew Shepard or a Brendan Burke, I’m grateful for the response to their tragedies. And truth be told, I’m proud of the NHL and NHLPA for being the first major league organizations to go on record as being unequivocally welcoming of out gay players.
Late last week I submitted my latest novel, The Companion, to Toby Johnson at Lethe Press. He’d said earlier this year that he wanted to see the full when it was ready, so off it went. I can attend GayRomLit in Atlanta next week with my desk clear (figuratively speaking only!)
Jim Frey, whose workshops I’ve attended for several years, is adamant about having a clear premise for a novel. I’m a believer. Somehow, having a one-sentence cause and effect statement describing the story keeps me on track while I’m writing. It’s my litmus test as to whether a scene is superfluous or relevant to the story: does it support the premise? If yes, then it belongs. If no, then I need to cut it out.
For The Companion, which is a metaphysical mystery/romance (how’s that for an obscure niche?! It seems to be the one I’m wired to occupy) I settled on “Courage leads to self-understanding and love.”
The story is about Shepherd Bucknam, Shepherd a daka (erotic coach) living in current-day Los Angeles. He’s haunted by recurring nightmares he believes predict his violent death. When his protégé is murdered he becomes involved with Marco Fidanza, the investigating officer. The trauma of his friend’s murder and the heat of his developing relationship with Fidanza plunge Shepherd deeper into his spiritual journey, forcing him to face the terrors following him from a past life before he can break free and love fully in this one.
I’m feeling pretty good about the story. I’ll find out whether Lethe feels it’s a good fit for them.
This year has been one of unprecedented productivity for me, and I’m thrilled about that. Two fiction titles in 12 months: Enigma, and The Companion. It took me nine years to complete The Darkness of Castle Tiralur, but that included about five years when I ignored it, first in favor of drinking and then in favor of recovery. Then Traveling Light took about five years from start to finish, writing in my spare time. After I retired from day jobs it took me only two years to write Blood Royal, and now these two titles in one year.
I don’t really think I want to produce faster than that, but if I can write one solid novel or a couple of short stories a year, I’ll be satisfied. I know some authors write a lot faster than that, and more power to them, but I’m not in a race with anybody.
In preparation for my attendance at GayRomLit in Atlanta next month, I’m a guest blogger at Joyfully Jay, talking about fantasy and its essential roots in the familiar. Oh, and am giving away a copy of Enigma…
I hope you’ll check out what I have to say. “I Love Fantasy”
I love the cover for Enigma — hope you do, too! The folks at Wilde City were easy to work with, and did a great job. If you’re interested in a taste of what the story is like, you can read an excerpt here.
Just got word from Wilde City Press that Enigma, my long-ish short story (or short novella, if you prefer) is scheduled for release on August 28th. That’s sooner than I’d expected, and I’m thrilled!
Enigma represents my entry into the PI Mystery genre, and I have several story ideas for Russ Morgan, my psychic, sober, 50 year-old PI living in Denver. Being of a certain age myself, I’ve been aware of how rare it is to find a protagonist that old in gay genre fiction. I’ll be interested to see how Russ does. To make things more interesting, Russ is single, having lost his loving partner during his drinking days. So there will be some romantic potential, too.
Here’s the blurb:
Who’s blackmailing the high-profile televangelist whose son was famously cured of his homosexuality fifteen years ago? Now in 2009, that ought to be ancient history.
It seems there’s no secret to protect, no crime, not even a clear demand for money—just four threatening letters using old Enigma songs from the 90’s. But they’ve got Reverend Howard Richardson spooked.
Proudly fifty and unhappily single, gay PI Russ Morgan has made peace with being a psychic empath, and he’s managed to build a decent life since getting sober. As he uncovers obscene secrets shrouded in seeming righteousness he might have to make peace with a sword of justice that cuts the innocent as deeply as the guilty.
I’ll post an excerpt as soon as the cover art is available.
What do you think about stories featuring a hero who is older? Is it a non-issue for you? A turn-off? Something you’d like to see more of? Let me know what you think!
To celebrate a contract for my short story Enigma with Wilde City Press, I’m part of a promotion that shares favorite summer memories and traditions of several authors. Check out what might appeal to you!
Help Wilde City Press celebrate the start of summer and July 4th. Enjoy 25% of your entire cart from Wednesday July 3rd through Sunday July 7th with the coupon code: WildeFreedom.
What is your favorite July 4th / Independence Day memory or tradition?
My favorite July 4th tradition is putting the watermelon in the pool.
See, my extensive extended family mostly lives in and around a small Georgia town, and the main gathering place for as long as I can remember has been the house of one of my grandmother’s sisters. (Both my grandmother and her sister are gone now, but some things just don’t change.)
Every year on the 4th of July, everyone who’s in town gathers at that house for a cookout. There’s a big grill out back, where the manly men types cook the meat. There’s also a pool, and every year, there’s a watermelon that goes in the pool. The kids play with it in the water most of the day, and then after everyone eats, the watermelon gets fished out, washed off, and sliced for everyone to dig in. The water in the pool chills it perfectly, not too cold like it would be from the fridge.
Now I want some pool-cooled watermelon!
I’ve been making up stories for as long as I can remember, but it took me a long time to figure out that maybe I should start writing them down. I started out writing fanfic well over a decade ago, and in 2010, I moved into original fiction. (Though I do still get waylaid by a fanfiction plotbunny now and then.)
Shae is new to Wilde City. Look for Fringes, her Charlie Harding Presents erotic sci-fi short due out later this summer. Visit her at: shaeconnorwrites.com
I am not sure if it was the exactly the 4th of July, but I do recall the fireworks. I was probably 20 or so and felt very grown up. I was in my first real apartment with my first real boyfriend. It was night and to escape the heat we climbed out my bedroom window onto the roof. We spread a sheet on the graveled tar and were lying there just holding hands and watching the stars. There was heat lightning to the south. The small town fireworks began about a half hour after dusk and probably lasted a total of five minutes. When they ended, I turned to him and said, “I love you.” I didn’t know exactly what those words entailed, but I knew how I felt and at that moment there wasn’t a doubt in my mind. It was such a feeling of complete contentment. We ended up falling asleep out there on the roof and climbed back inside around 3 a.m. He’s gone now, but whenever I see fireworks I think of him and that rooftop and that moment. It always brings a smile.
In addition to the four poems he contributed to Falling Awake, Owen has two other projects coming soon to Wilde City. The LGBT Book of Days is a fun and comprehensive guide to thousands of the most important dates in LGBT history – it’s great for reference and trivia and a real treat to compile. The second is a humorous novel called Young Digby Swank, a gay coming of age story about growing up Catholic which is hilarious and heartbreaking and heroic all at the same time. Visit Owen on facebook.
Meet Josh Stanton, orphaned at a young age in the mid-1800s, he has always been considered an outcast in Belkin’s Pass. Now he’s grown into a quiet, well-educated young man full of secrets, the least of which is his love for his best friend, town deputy Dex Wells. But when the ancient vampire Balthazar begins feeding on the residents of Belkin’s Pass, Josh’s secrets prove to be the turning point in a battle for the souls of the townspeople—but at what personal cost? —- Cowboys & Vampires, available now at Wilde City Press.
Visit Hank at hankedwardsbooks.com
What is your favorite Summer memory or tradition?
My favourite Independence Day moment has to be when Will Smith socks that mean old alien in the chops after they have the dogfight in the canyon and he says something bad-ass like, “You aliens just wrecked my July 4 barbecue and now I’m gonna have me some E.T. burgers because you guys suck!” Oh … you mean a real Independence Day memory, not a scene from the movie! I guess I’ll answer the Best Summer Memory or Tradition question instead.
I don’t think I have one particular memory or tradition that stands out because I love everything about Summer. Being Australian, Summer means lots of public holidays: Christmas, Boxing Day, New Year’s Day and Australia all happen in the space of a month or so, so January pretty much means lots of delicious seafood and days at the beach and your skin feels dusty with sea-salt the whole time, which is a feeling I love. Now that I’ve moved to an island it’s even better; Sydney beaches can get really crowded but up here I can walk from one end of the beach to the other with my dogs and not see a soul. And yes, of course I go in for a skinny dip! 😉
“I want to see.” … “Nash, we’re in Egypt, in the ruins of an ancient city, standing in front of a secret door! Aren’t you curious?”
“Curiosity killed the – ” … “No, I’m not curious.”
The lie was unconvincing enough to give Ryan the confidence to sway him.
Sway him with a kiss. …
You can read Nash’s answer in Cairo Curse, book two in the Vampire Lair series. Visit Geoff at www.geoffreyknightbooks.com
My favorite summer tradition is honoring the solstice. In one old tradition, Midsummer Night was the time to leave a small dish of brandy in the garden as a gift to the fairies, which I’ve always thought was charming. Inviting the goodwill of nature is always a sensible idea!
I mark the solstice by honoring extremes – the dark of winter in the southern hemisphere and the light of summer in the northern – and the inevitable swing of the one toward the other. It is the wisdom of the Tao, the dance of light and dark, each with the spark of the other in its core.
This idea may seem pretty dry, but try this little experiment: sit on a playground swing and build momentum. Make the point furthest back winter solstice, when movement forward begins, and make the point farthest forward summer solstice, when graceful retreat begins. Feel the delicious centrifugal force as you move, your weightlessness at both far points – and remember the earth, held in her arc by the sun.
Gay PI Russ Morgan doesn’t mind being fifty but hates being single. He’s made peace with being a psychic empath, and he’s managed to build a decent life since getting sober. As he uncovers obscene secrets shrouded in seeming righteousness, he might have to make peace with a sword of justice that cuts the innocent as deeply as the guilty. —- Enigma, coming soon to Wilde City Press.
Visit Lloyd at lloydmeeker.com
I wish the UK had July 4 celebrations as well! This summer so far, we’ve had sleet, flood rains, gale force winds and then occasionally a sunny, hot day. I think this is the reason most of our sentimental celebrations take place in the latter half of the year. Or why the British talk constantly about the weather.
It seemed sunnier in The Old Days, when I was young(er). One happy memory is of an annual trip with friends to Henley-on-Thames, for a barbeque/picnic beside the river. This was the irresponsible time before kids and mortgages! We always arranged a game of rounders (like baseball, but not), competing with way more enthusiasm than skill, and helped along (or hindered?) by huge amounts of alcohol.
We still have photographic evidence of the fun. A gal sitting in her bikini, draining the last cupful of fruit punch from a litre-sized jug. A chap with his younger brother hauled over his shoulder, running towards the river to throw him in. Various self-inflicted rounders-bat injuries on sunburned shins. Clare, clutching river weeds to her chest because she lost her tube top when she dived in…
Oh those lazy, hazy afternoons of summer!
Meet Freeman, a quiet man who’s not used to sharing his plans, his history, or his emotions. He’s returned to the city on business, a case that has nothing to do with the people he once left behind: his ex-wife, his male ex-lover, and his ex-business partner. He has no plans to engage with any of them again – until he meets Kit, the provocative young man who’s going to pull Freeman from the safety of his shell, whether he wants to or not. —- Freeman, coming soon to Wilde City Press.
Visit Clare at www.clarelondon.co.uk
I’m a big music slut any time of the year, but I especially love summer music or music that makes me think of summer. Every spring I make an awesome playlist for the warmer months. There be lots of frivolity and even some slower tunes in the mix. Here are a few from this year’s playlist:
Boys on the Radio by Hole
Mad About You by Belinda Carlisle
Love This by Cosmo Jarvis
Love Profusion by Madonna (Madonna has a lot of great summer tunes)
Car Wheels on A Gravel Road by Lucinda Williams
Midnight City by M83 (they’re last album was a summer spectacular)
I’m Like a Bird by Nelly Furtado
Soak Up the Sun by Sheryl Crow
Summer Fling by kd lang (from her album Invincible Summer)
Summertime Clothes by Animal Collective
Wicked Game by Chris Isaak
Spaceman by The Killers (again, they’ve got a lot of great summery songs)
Boys of Summer by Eric Himan (a great version of the Don Henley classic)
For the Summer by Ray LaMontagne
Summer Days by Norah Jones
Summertime by Ella Fitzgerald
Summer Moved On by A-ha
Freeway by Aimee Mann (Mann’s voice just sounds like summer to me, other Mann Summer songs include 4th of July and Fifty Years After the Fair)
Free Falling by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
End of the Innocence by Don Henley
If I Ever Feel Better by Phoenix
Birmingham by Shovels & Rope
Ramona by Night Beds
Singing in My Sleep by Semisonic
Lightning Bolt by Jake Bugg
Eric Arvin resides in the same sleepy Indiana river town where he grew up. He graduated from Hanover College with a Bachelors in History. He has lived, for brief periods, in Italy and Australia. He has survived brain surgery and his own loud-mouthed personal demons. Eric is the author of The Mingled destinies of Crocodiles and Men, and various other sundry and not-so-sundry writings. He intends to live the rest of his days with tongue in cheek and eyes set to roam.
Visit Eric at ericarvin.blogspot.com
Without a doubt, on a cold summer night in Dublin, I dream of being naked on an Ibizan beach. Preferably Playa Es Cavallet, the gay nudist beach. It’s a bit of a trek; you have to get past the German and Dutch naturalist before getting to the promised land of sexy, naked homos. I see it now, hot muscled hunks, with tattoos and great big…….
The beach is all white sand lined with cool beach bars, and the sound of funky music fills the air. Such a great relaxed vibe and beautiful people cruising each other. To say it’s sexual would be an understatement.
Summer is all about being naked, however, there are occasional problems. As a weak and feeble man, I am constantly being shown up by my hardon. I want to be dignified and European. But I’m Irish, I see a hot naked guy and, well, my cock just has to show its appreciation. Total nude beach faux pas. Oh the shame of it! The only saving grace is that my buns are rather pert. So I spend most of the day laying on my front, peaking through my Roy Orbison shades at all the beach talent.
OK. now I’m horny!
Hi! I’m Patrick Darcy. Rugby player, Irishman and writer of full strength gay erotica. Follow me at patrickdarcybooks.com, as I comment on life in Dublin, hot men and all the things that make me tick. There are two big passions in my life: great sex and rugby. Quite often, these are combined! I love the thrill of competition, the power, the intensity, the brotherhood of rugby.
Oh, and I love being naked!
My favourite summer memory is my mother’s homemade lemonade. She only ever made it in summer as she said it was an outdoor drink and needed a big dose of sunshine to make the bubbles pop. Apparently winter would make the whole drink go grey and flat, and as I was young I believed her – and in a way I still do. Homemade lemonade only ever appeared about three or four times a year and only when we were very good and she was pleased with us. It wasn’t ever something she prepared for either but, in our family group, she would slip away quietly and after a while one or another of us would realise she was missing. From then on the excitement would mount and then – at last! – half an hour or so later she would reappear with a huge jug of lovely lemony-yellow bubbly drink and a selection of glasses. Drinking it meant you had enough sugar in your system to last you well into the next month, but it was like a blast of sunshine and citrus in the mouth, I can tell you. Sheer bliss!
The night I met Luke Milton, the last thing I was looking for was any kind of relationship …
“What the hell are you doing?” …
“Waiting for you …”
“You’ve not covered up your mark.” … “You must have taken some stick for it from the office.”
“Why should I cover it up? You gave it to me. That’s worth all the stick in the world.”
Read the rest of Luke and Alan’s interactions in The Beginning of Knowledge, available now at Wilde City Press. Visit Anne at www.annebrooke.com
I’ll set the scene for you – a rowboat, a bottle of wine, a low moon, and a good man. We had met on the beach that morning and clicked, so after hanging out all day I invited him out to dinner and then for a ride on the lake. There was just something about him. It was so easy to talk to him. I told him more about myself than I told my best friends and he shared just as much about himself. That evening was nothing special in the scheme of things, and yet perfect at the same time. It was one of those connections you just don’t forget. He was the first person I ever told that I wanted to be a writer.
Meet Alex, a man caught up in the leather bar scene of 1975, a man consumed by the feeling of sexual abandon and freedom. One night Alex gets more than he bargained for and is transported into a dark carnal wonderland of sexual abandon and perpetual desire, a world that can trap a man for all eternity. —- The Leather Bar Mural, available now from Wilde City Press.
Follow all of Ewan’s release dates HERE.
If you could escape to anywhere in the world this summer, where would it be?
J. P. Barnaby, an award-winning gay romance novelist, is the author of over a dozen books including the Little Boy Lost series, the Forbidden Room series, and Aaron. As a bisexual woman, J.P. is a proud member of the GLBT community both online and in her small town on the outskirts of Chicago. A member of Mensa, she is described as brilliant but troubled, sweet but introverted, and talented but deviant. She spends her days writing software and her nights writing erotica, which is, of course, far more interesting. The spare time that she carves out between her career and her novels is spent reading about the concept of love, which, like some of her characters, she has never quite figured out for herself.
J.P.’s new Rentboy series is coming to Wilde City press later this year. Visit J.P. at www.JPBarnaby.com
I live in New Zealand and summer here starts in December. For someone born in the UK, seeing bikinis and sun lotion next to Christmas trees and decorations just isn’t right. A holiday somewhere hot and sultry with exotic cocktails might be most people’s idea of summer bliss. However, I’d like to escape to celebrate my summer Christmas in Canada with snow, caribou, and lots of mulled wine.
Living in clean, green New Zealand, I am an author, foodie, wine buff and Art Historian. I write M/M romance, particularly paranormal, sci-fi and fantasy, and like to add passion, and a twist, to my tales. I grew up on Dr Who, Star Trek and The Night Stalker. I never leave the house without at least one notebook, ready to jot down anything the muse may whisper. Visit me on facebook.
I would scoop up my partner Scotty Rage and we’d meet up with our 10 closest friends at a beach somewhere. Seafood, cocktails, sand, sun and the people we care about… Our favorite combination!
Charlie Harding joined the ranks of adult performers in February 2012. He has won multiple awards including “Best New Cummer,” “Best Daddy,” “Best Ass Eater 2012” and “Manly Man”. Charlie has also put his multiple college degrees to work building network of business ventures including launching his own line of personally selected gay erotica at www.charliehardingpresents.com. Charlie lives in Atlanta, Georgia with his partner and fiance, Scotty Rage.
I would love to go on a cruise to somewhere warm but not too hot. I want a place with a beach, cool clear water and some hot cabana boys. The hot cabana boys are not just for eye candy, they’d be there for inspiration. The whole trip would be for inspiration since I’ve been having a hard time with writing lately. Being in a relaxing environment with pretty eye candy all around me could really help with my writing block. Additionally, it would benefit my health as well. If I were to lay shirtless in the sun, soaking up all that vitamin D, I’d have all the energy I need for anything that happened to come up. 🙂
Anyone wanting to contribute to the “Save Ethan’s Mental and Physical Health” Cruise feel free to use Paypal.
“Did you like what you saw out there?” …
“You’re a very … talented dancer.” …
“Anything else you liked?”
“You fishing for a compliment, Holt? You don’t seem the type to need your ego stroked.”
“Maybe it’s not my ego I want s…”
See if Jason Holt ever gets around to telling Quinn what he wants stroked, Past Tense available now at Wilde City Press. Visit Ethan at www.ethanjstone.com.
Hi, folks. Joe Stalwart here. I’m a PI, a well-motivated character who overcomes obstacles in pursuit of a goal. My old buddy Lloyd Meeker asked me to come by and talk about writing conflict because he’s sulking and doesn’t want to deal with it.
Nah, that’s not really fair. The truth is he doesn’t mind conflict as long as it’s an authentic part of the story. It’s when it just gets manufactured for its own sake and shoved into a story that he gets pissed off.
But I’d better start at the beginning. Like I said, I’m a well-motivated character overcoming obstacles in pursuit of the goal. That’s the essence of a story, and I make a great protagonist, even if I do say so myself.
It used to be enough that one of my stories would start when a gorgeous dame walked into my dingy office while a solo saxophone played slow, blue, and hot, the movement of her hips making the kind of sweet promises men might kill for. She’d sit at my desk, cross her legs with a whisper of silk stockings and blow out a sexy stream of cigarette smoke. She’d have my attention, that’s a sure thing.
She’d hire me to solve a problem and then I’d go ahead and solve it. The reader would get a decent amount of conflict along the way, as well as some entertaining wise-ass dialogue. Sometimes the dame liked my solution to her problem and sometimes she didn’t. Hell, once in a while she didn’t even make it to the end of the story. So sometimes I got paid, and other times, well, you can figure it out.
Nowadays, though, that’s not enough according to most of the writing coaches that shout on every street corner in novel-land the way crazy preachers used to in Des Moines during the Depression. Don’t get me wrong, some of those folks know what they’re talking about. Others? Well, not so much.
The ones that get under my skin are the ones who tell you conflict is more important than story. They’ve made a goddamn fetish out of conflict and they don’t seem to give a shit about what else happens between the covers of a book as long as there’s conflict on every damn page. I kid you not. They look for it, and they keep score.
It’s a writing rule of some kind now, like everyone has to cheer for the Emperor’s new clothes even though he’s nekkid as a jaybird. And before you get yourself in a lather, this isn’t a rant about clichés and stereotypes, so back off will you? I’ll get to them someday when I’m damn good and ready.
So where was I? Oh, yeah. Conflict on every page. I got news for you. Sometimes a well-motivated character overcoming obstacles in pursuit of his goal has to sit down and think. I hope you’re not disappointed. A protagonist who takes time to think or reflect actually gives you a better story.
I can tell you from first-hand experience, being chased down the street by goons shooting at you or being tied to the to a chair and pistol-whipped is not conducive to productive thought or reflection.
You like that word, conducive? Bet you didn’t expect it, comin’ outta my mouth, did you? That’ll part of our conversation about clichés and stereotypes, the one we’re not going to have today.
Some of the writing honchos say conflict reveals character, and they’ve got a point. But stop the presses—a character engaging in conflict that’s not necessary to the story shows he’s too stupid to belong to the story and you should stop reading right there. That cheesy technique also reveals the character of an author who laces his stories with gratuitous conflict. Cheap thrills, I say.
I mean, how many times do I have to be tied to a chair and pistol whipped, or thrown in a car trunk so I can kick out the taillights and jump out just before the car gets onto the freeway, or crawl out as the car is being crushed in the junkyard just because “I know too much,” or “I’m getting too close”? Gimme a fuckin’ break.
I tell you, the phony writing coaches are like drug dealers in a schoolyard. They’re trying to get everyone addicted to conflict for its own sake, and that’s just plain tragic. Stories are ruined through conflict abuse. And like an extra-thick coat of paint on the wall, conflict can be used to mask more serious problems hiding underneath it.
They’ve got this thing that they like to call terrible trouble. Well, I can tell you that my favorite sidekick is named Terrible Trouble, and he’s around a lot in my stories. But he’s never parachuted in like a commando just to give readers a better adrenaline rush.
If you want a satisfying story, read a good book. If all you’re after is an adrenaline rush, go ride a good rollercoaster or take up skydiving. They’re not the same thing as a good story, and you can’t confuse them. You’ve got to make up your mind what you want.
Next time you’re caught in a pack of writers and you’re not sure you’re if you’re talking to a conflict junkie, there are warning signs to look for. They got buzzwords out the wazoo. If it’s not terrible trouble its micro-tension, or maximum capacity, or raising the stakes, or some other goddamn thing. They just never fuckin’ let up.
A while ago a bunch of writing pundits proclaimed that the sequel was dead. That’s one of the stupidest things I ever heard. Because of that, story shit supposedly has to happen faster, more often, and harder—and usually making more noise in the process.
Then at the end of the story, when it’s all over you’re supposed to be satisfied as a reader as if the point of reading the book was the same as going to Knott’s Berry Farm. As if a well-motivated character isn’t adequate if he has to draw breath or, god forbid, stop to think. I’m here to say the story is not just about conflict. It’s a story, ferchrissakes.
More often than not nowadays, the story ends by pointing to potential terrible trouble just around the corner, just in case it’s a hit and there has to be a series. You probably haven’t bothered to count the writers who take that idea and trample all over their story with it. It’s not worth doing a body count, but it’s still a damn shame.
Still don’t see what I’m getting at? No problem. I can overcome that obstacle pretty easy.
Let’s say you got a protagonist supposed to drive up to Topanga Canyon to scatter his murdered friend’s ashes. He does it, with hardly a whiff of conflict in the whole damn scene. Protag’s had this guy’s ashes sitting in an urn on his coffee table through the whole damn story and now, just a few scenes from the end, he finally figures out where he’s supposed to spread them. And he does it. It’s a moment of completion, and part of the protagonist’s movement toward his big sacrifice yet to come. He feels connected to his murdered friend forever, knowing they’ll see each other again. Kinda mystical. Let’s say the whole thing is six hundred words. Two fuckin’ pages.
But if those conflict junkies get hold of that scene? Fasten your seatbelt.
The protagonist looks at the beautiful dame still sleeping in his bed, tucks the urn of ashes under his arm and heads for the door. He’s left her a note, everything’s cool. A floorboard squeaks.
She wakes up. “Honey, come back to bed,” she calls out.
“Can’t,” he says. “Gotta set my friend’s ashes free.”
The dame isn’t impressed. She’s got a different agenda—that’s how we set up conflict. “If you come back to bed, I’ll give you a vewy special treat,” she pouts, licking her lips. She looks like Marilyn Monroe, all tousled and luscious.
The protag is noble, in spite of the fact that he likes the dame’s special treats. A lot. “Thanks, but no. I got business to take care of.”
The dame is insulted. “If you don’t come back to bed I’ll smash your guitar while you’re gone.”
The protag is a sensitive guy. He loves his guitar. “Then you better be out of California by the time I get back,” he says, and closes the door too hard.
He stands in the garage, and has a moment of inner conflict. Should he take his motorcycle or his beat-up economy car? He’s torn. How would his dead buddy prefer to make his last ride? He opts for the motorcycle. Wild and free. He pulls on his leathers, rolls out of the garage, fires up the horse and roars away.
It’s a beautiful day, and he guns it. He’s got to be back in town in time for an appointment with someone who wants to hire him on a new case, and he needs the money. That’s called a ticking clock, in case you can’t tell the players without a program.
He’s partway up the Pacific Coast Highway, the urn of ashes in his backpack when he’s pulled over by a cop for speeding. Protag apologizes and tries to be nice, ease out of the problem because he just wants to do the right thing with his friend’s ashes. But the cop is being a real jerk. Rising conflict ensues.
This is going to cost him, as well as make him late. This is raising the stakes, one of those writing workshop terms I mentioned earlier. He doesn’t have the money to pay the damn ticket, and might not get the new assignment if he can’t get back into town in time for the appointment.
Back on the road with that high-priced citation in his pocket, the protag takes risks on the road to make up lost time. He hits some sand on a curve and spins out. He comes to, his arm is pretty badly banged up, and so is one leg. He sees the urn lying in the ditch next to his ripped up backpack.
Another round of internal conflict—protag beats himself up for not being more careful. Then he argues with himself as to whether he’s able to go on to Topanga Canyon. An inner voice tells him he’s a quitter—a flashback to an old failure when under enemy fire he couldn’t drag his army buddy back to safety in time to save him. After moments of intense angst he resolves to go on to Topanga Canyon and to hell with his busted up body and the appointment in the city.
As he drags himself to the urn, a scorpion hiding under a rock stings him as he pulls himself along. Now he’s in terrible trouble, plus he’s got a real ticking clock. He’s got to dump the ashes right there in the ditch because he has to get to a hospital quick. He has a moment of self-loathing, apologizes to his friend and empties the urn, says a brief word. That’s the best he can do.
He’s beginning to feel the effect of the scorpion venom. He hobbles to the motorcycle, finds it’s still functional and jumps on. Sweating and semi-delirious, he weaves his way back toward the city (and guess what, no cop bothers to stop him now—how’s that for author fuckin’ convenience?) and collapses unconscious at the emergency entrance of a hospital.
That’s a different story, isn’t it? And you’ve already read or watched a scene just like it at least a zillion times. Paint by numbers predictable. Big fuckin’ deal.
But the original scene is about the friend’s goddam ashes, not the stupid motorcycle trip, which didn’t even exist in the first one. In the first there’s no ticking clock and no scorpion. The reader is just going to have to deal with a genuine quiet moment and try to stay awake all on his own.
Because here’s the point. Conflict isn’t the only way to reveal character. Remember that old saying, that actions speak louder than words? Well, that’s the essence of character. Character is shown through action. That action may or may not be in response to a threat or conflict, but it also might be the act of observing a scene, or holding vigil. It’s all meaningful action that reveals character.
He likes Donald Maass’ new book, Writing 21st Century Fiction, a lot. In fact, that’s his current favorite. One of the best pieces of enduring writing advice Meeker ever got, he told me, was from Jim Frey: “Just tell the story.” He’s got that sucker taped above his computer.
Last Monday Mykola (Mick) Dementiuk won his second Lambda Literary Award. His unique voice and his dedication to his craft has established him as a real force in LGBT fiction. Please join me as he answers questions about his writing and his remarkable life.
You just won another Lambda Literary Award, Mick – congratulations! Your first was in 2009 in Bisexual Fiction, this year in Gay Erotica. That’s wonderful recognition of your work.
Yeah, I feel nice, happy really, but now I’m on to editing another piece with very tight time limits and it’s getting close to the end that I’m a bit mangled, you know but nothing I haven’t handled before.
You never stop, do you? Your bio says your family immigrated to New York’s Lower East Side when you were two. What was it like growing up there?
Nice and quiet, peaceful, really. But then I started going to Ukrainian grade school… Boy, oh boy, oh boy, end of any peace in my life but all of the Ukrainian kids were like that. The majority were like me, exiles from World War 2 devastated Europe, as if we knew what that meant; we were nothing but “strangers in a strange land” and if I uselessly got in trouble I only was repeating what I’d seen my elders doing, that is being a rebel. Ukrainian school educated me into expecting nothing from anyone but the back of the hand from the world, of which there still were more whacks to come.
Your stories are often set in a New York that no longer exists but comes alive in your writing. When did you start writing them?
I more or less have been writing my entire life, even in my early teen years I always carried a little notebook and I would always be jotting things down. My dream of being a writer came when I’d won a 5th or 6th grade poetry contest; the teacher even hung the poem on the wall. I used to carry the notebooks but funny thing is, I’d jot them down, come to the end of my notebook, pick up another and forget about ever having kept a notebook in the first place! It wasn’t so much the actual writing, word for word that trained me, but just the mechanics of writing, the getting it all down. That’s why writing has never fazed me, also why I can do so much so often. And there is always something else to write about.
I read a comment from you somewhere that you didn’t expect to go back into the city again, even though you live nearby in New Jersey. Why is that?
New York City has drastically changed, I don’t mean a block or two here and there but entire communities have been erased, as if they never did exist in the first place. They’re been replaced by the Big Bucks of the wealthy and powerful. The community I grew up in, the Lower East Side, no longer exists. Gone are the mom and pop stores, the little bodegas where you get a can of cerveza and move on, all replaced with fancy clothing stores and chic boutiques, meaning if they cleaned up the Bowery of bums and winos they also cleaned up the Lower East Side of the writers and poets. But they’ve pretty much gone through all of Manhattan, Chinatown, Little Italy, the Ukrainian and Polish neighborhoods. Mayor Bloomberg had the right idea, make poverty neighborhoods trendy and chic while raising the rents sky-high, that’s the way to get the old out while moving in the new. But you have to give it to Bloomberg at least he knew what being a mayor is like, erase the poor like they never were there to begin with.
I don’t think I’ve read any author that carries the same intensity of focus on character, as if the story itself needs much less attention. Or maybe the character IS the story. Is that a fair assessment? How do you approach character and story?
I really don’t know, stories seem to come at me, sort of knocking me on the head. Some writers have specific techniques I don’t, I just write.
And you’ve got a lot of them down in writing. That’s a lot of work. Your writing has an immediacy to it that makes me think you draw heavily from personal experience. Is that true?
Personal experience? Perhaps, but I do recall many times as I’d wander the streets I’d see someone go by and instantly wonder what would happen if I went with him or her? Nothing, maybe everything, you just had to let yourself be open to life. That’s the trick, most of us simply can’t or won’t. Life calls…and we ignore it and go on with what we were doing. Cleaning bathrooms, eating trash or writing novels, I’ve done them all.
In 1998 you had a massive stroke that changed your life. I deeply admire your courage and tenacity in recovering. May I ask you a couple of questions about that?
You had to teach yourself how to type again. What was that like?
I have to thank computers for being around in the late ‘90s otherwise I probably wouldn’t write at all. I can’t imagine using a manual typewriter, inserting in a sheet of paper, hitting the return shift after each sentence, pulling out the paper at the end, only to begin the process of inserting it again. Whew, that’s already got me tired and disgusted. Yet typists have been doing just that for so many years and years and years. I think it was Steven Jobs and Bill Gates who suspected something was wrong, that I needed help in the weird process so they got to work of creating computers. I’m glad they did that but I’m still waiting for my royalties. Oh, well, life goes on… but I’m not gonna wait forever!
I understand that all to well! How long does it take you to type a thousand words?
About an hour and a half to two hours. Don’t forget I use only my left index finger to do most of the typing, with sometimes my thumb or pinky when I use different capital letters. Anyway, that’s my usual writing for the day, a thousand words, but then comes the grueling editing and that seems to take forever! But it’s never done to my satisfaction while some publisher demands it and I give them what they want. It’s out of my hands. I feel like Pilate washing his hands of Jesus when I give my manuscript up.
Yikes–you’re faster than I am! Your style is compelling and unmistakable. Can you say something about how you came to it, and what view of the world fuels it?
By just doing it every day and never mind where the publication will come from. The first thing I wrote after I had the stroke was “Times Queer,” a memory on Times Square in the 1960’s when I first started going up there. Those were the days…. And in the slow way I was doing the typing, I never got more than a few sentences but the next day I added a few more until the story came out. And I think it’s a very good story, it shows the mood and feeling of what Times Square was like in those days, sexy but very playful unlike the crime and drugs which pretty much put the finishing touches into the Deuce, the name which 42nd Street was called back then.
I get a sense that you consider yourself an existentialist, and something of a literary outlaw. Is that true?
Sure, existentialist, but I don’t know of literary outlaw, that’s the first time anyone has called me that, but I like it! Anyway, I like William Burroughs, there’s a book about him called Literary Outlaw, I read it some years ago, he used to live on the Bowery, not too far from where I lived. But many writers once lived there, I used to live a few buildings away from Allen Ginsberg on 13th Street, but the entire Lower East Side was writer’s heaven, not so anymore.
You won a Lambda Award in 2009 for best bisexual fiction, and you often write transsexual characters or characters that blur gender lines. Can you say something about what these people bring to your stories that others can’t?
Maybe that’s the kind I go for, feminine men, you never know what you’re going to find under their skirts, a real woman or a somewhat man. I’ve been with both before the skirts revealed what they were. One was as good as the other to me. I adore female clothes. The hardness is there in any case, male or female. That never bothered me, I could go with anyone. You could say, I’m bisexual but I’ve always hated the term or any term to describe me, I’m simply a hard-up fellow, take me as I am, before I’ll take you!
(Laughing) Thanks for fair warning! Which writers do you admire?
Most I’ve read over and over since my teen years, Henry Miller, Dostoyevsky, Victor Hugo and assorted other classic writers. As for the living, there’s Victor Banis, whose Lola Dances I’ve read three or four times and will read it again. Victor has a way of taking you into the story and before you even know it you’ve read over fifty pages without even knowing it. Any writer who can suck you in like that is a writer I admire and want to be like.
Erastes, whose Standish, is a masterwork describing English gentleman in the 1880s (I assume, it’s the 1880s but the books not in front of me) who weren’t so very gentle with each other.
Alan Chin, with the book Island Song burst upon the gay literary scene sweeping all other so-called literary books aside. I loved his book.
There have been others, I intend to read Dorein Gray, Jon Michalsen, and a few others but I still haven’t read either but will do so sooner or later
Most of your stories have frequent sexual encounters — some with emotional context, but others, not so much. What does sex mean to you?
What can it mean? Sex means fucking!
Hmmm… Nope, never did it to someone I was related to. Sorry… (but I do know what you mean by relationship, I’m simply not that perverted though many have called me sick and a weirdo.)
You seem to be producing more shorter works lately. Is that a deliberate decision, or just the way your stories have been coming out?
They just come that way, no plan when I first start but beginning, middle and end that seem to fit together. I have no real scenario just get the story out and see where it goes. A fifty-page book, more or less, seems the ideal size to tell the story in.
Is there one piece of yours that you could point to and say, “That’s the work I’m most proud of?”
My favorite is my novella Baby Doll, concerns a boy who discovers his gay sexuality in the 1980s when AIDS was just rearing its ugly big head for all to see. Alan Chin wrote a strong review.
I wrote it in remembrance of a boy I used to see some years ago in the neighborhood, who used to experiment with teasing men in the same way that they used to play with him. These were seemingly straight men that would sometimes disappear off in hallways. I, too, was aroused by him but sadly we never seemed to hit off each going our own way. He was dead before we ever learned of AIDS existing, which it was for him.
Anyway, I wrote the story in about a week’s time. I had just lost a job and had no prospects or leads of getting another. Was a hot summer, really sweltering, and I recalled the boy I used to see a few summers ago on the streets. The story came out full force as one very long sentence. Sally Miller, my editor at the time, put in paragraphs, periods and commas, and I suppose that did very well. In my eyes, I wrote it as a Jack Kerouac On The Road unedited scroll sentence which I think still is the best sentence I ever wrote but of course my editor frowned at it and changed it. But really she made it readable so I thank her for that.
What are you working on now?
Tentative title: A Ukrainian Melody, Sort Of…
Do you have plans for another full-length novel?
Yes, at least I’m trying to do one. Was in touch with Cerevana Brava Press, Somerville, MA who asked to see a novel I’ve been working on, A Ukrainian Melody, Sort Of… which looks at my early years of growing up in NYC. They publish mostly Eastern European authors or those who have had contact with the language and culture. My childhood years fit in with them completely. Just a rundown of how I became how I am, of course all fictionalized but I have to keep the story going.
I examine my life in the 1950-60s, way before my Times Square days, oh, what innocence that was, at least that’s how the world was befuddled into seeing me and my kind. It’s really about an accordionist who gets involved with a young girl at a wedding social with assorted other Ukrainian characters around, men, women, gays, you name it. I’ve still have a way to go with the story but I can guarantee it will be a good one, that is, if you like the kinky kind of stuff I write.
Sounds like a powerful story! If you could travel anywhere to see something particular, where would you go?
Russia at the age of revolution 1917. I was in Berlin in 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell but the constant celebrations proved to be too boring for me. Is this a Revolution? I wondered. Was there about a week and took the train to Vienna. Nothing there either. Rested a few weeks and caught a flight back to the USA. I’m still here.
And I’m very glad you are! Thank you so much, Mick. And thank you for making me ask myself about my own commitment to my writing: If I had to type with only one finger of one hand, would I push to produce stories with the productivity of Mykola Dementiuk?
Mick’s work and website can be found here:
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.