Interview with two-time Lambda Literary Award winner Mykola Dementiuk
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: