Interview with Victor J. Banis
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!