Something Inside: Conversations with Gay Fiction Writersby Philip Gambone
In the last twenty years, gay literature has earned a place at the American and British literary tables, spawning its own constellation of important writers and winning a dedicated audience. No one, though, until Philip Gambone, has attempted to offer a collective portrait of our most important gay fiction writers. This selection of interviews attempts just that
In the last twenty years, gay literature has earned a place at the American and British literary tables, spawning its own constellation of important writers and winning a dedicated audience. No one, though, until Philip Gambone, has attempted to offer a collective portrait of our most important gay fiction writers. This selection of interviews attempts just that and is notable both for the depth of Gambone’s probing conversations and for the sheer range of important authors included.
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Something InsideConversations with Gay Fiction Writers
By Philip Gambone
University of Wisconsin PressCopyright © 1999 Philip Gambone
All right reserved.
With the publication of Fadeout in 1970, Joseph Hansen launched his highly successful series of mystery novels featuring Dave Brandstetter, a gay insurance investigator. In addition to inspiring many other gay mystery writers, Michael Nava among them, Hansen's Brandstetter books are significant for being among the first gay novels to treat the protagonist's homosexuality matter-of-factly rather than as evidence of his victimization. The novels are also important in their portrayal of a gay character who is not only middle-aged but grows older as the series progresses until, in the twelfth and final volume, he collapses of a heart attack. Hansen peoples his novels with a wide variety of gay men and women, including some who commit crimes. His understated message of racial and sexual tolerance is a hallmark of Hansen's work. Reviewed favorably in both gay and nongay journals, the Dave Brandstetter novels have captured a wide mainstream readership and have been translated into several languages.
Hansen was born in Aberdeen, South Dakota, in 1923. When he was thirteen, he and his family moved to southern California, where he attended high school. Attracted to good literature at an early age, he began to write, eventually publishing stories, poetry, and nonfiction, both under his own name and, if there was any gay content to the work, under a pen name. Around 1962, Hansen took up the cause of gay liberation. Among his activities, he made frequent contributions to ONE, a journal that grew out of the Mattachine Society. His first novel, Lost on Twilight Road, was published under the pseudonym James Colton in 1964.
To date, Hansen has published over twenty-five novels. He is the recipient of numerous awards, among them a Life Achievement Award from the Private Eye Writers of America, two Lambda Literary Awards, and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the British Arts Council, and his teaching activities include a long stint at the University of California at Los Angeles Extension School.
In the summer of 1987, I attended the Wesleyan Writers Conference, where I enrolled in Hansen's fiction writing class; it was there that the following interview took place. (Another conference participant, Bill Mann, who would go on to become the editor of Metroline, Hartford, Connecticut's gay and lesbian paper, and the author of the novel The Men From the Boys, was also present.) Back home, as I began to transcribe the tape recording, I discovered that, because of a battery failure, some questions and answers had been lost. I wrote to Joe asking if he'd mind jotting down a few new responses. "By the way," I ended, "has anyone else ever interviewed you?"
Joe's delightfully caustic reply came five days later: "That's a stunning question," he wrote. "What am I, a potted plant? I have been interviewed more times than I can count over the past seventeen years."
The interview first appeared in Bay Windows, 30 June 1988.
What were you writing and publishing before the Dave Brandstetter books?
In 1961, a lover who liked my stories introduced me to Don Slater, who published a little slip of a gay magazine called ONE. All I'd published until that time were poems. I ended up writing story after story for Don and eventually helping to edit the magazine, whose title we changed in 1965 to Tangents. I've described the offices of ONE magazine in one of the Dave Brandstetter books. It was in a very, very old building full of lofts and ladies running sewing machines.
After I'd done enough of these stories, I figured I could use the skills I'd picked up in a novel, and I wrote a simple, short, straightforward book called Valley Boy, whose title the publisher unhappily changed to Lost on Twilight Road. It had the world's worst cover illustration. I protested loudly to the dear man, because, after all, he was a dear man and very kind and very brave to publish this book, as candid as it was. And I don't mean it was a sexy book--I just mean that it was honest--and he changed the cover then, to an abstract painting, which suited me fine.
The next novel I called A Name for Loneliness, and it got changed to Strange Marriage. That's what happened to titles in those days.
And so it went, through six more novels, some of them pretty gamy, because, let's face it, the publishers wanted sex, sex, and more sex, which gets in the way of a book being taken seriously, even when the writer wants it taken that way. All the same, the practice of the craft of writing sharpens a writer's abilities, if he has any, and eventually I did a couple of books that seemed to me better than okay. One of these was published in 1968 as Known Homosexual, and it was my first try at writing a mystery. It's in the book shops these days under the title Pretty Boy Dead. I still like it.
All of these books were written under the pen name James Colton. Why?
For their protection against the forces of law and order and decency and prudery, Don Slater insisted that all writers for his magazine use false names. I didn't want this for myself, but I did want my stories published, so I went along with it. I chose the name of a lady art teacher I remembered from junior high school, a Miss Colton, and tacked James on the front.
What did it feel like to publish those first gay stories, to call them forth?
I felt that I had found what I was put on earth to do. That sounds metaphysical and I'm not metaphysical. But nonetheless, that's exactly what I felt, and what I still feel: this was what my talent was designed for. I mean, if I was going to be a writer, this was going to be my subject. I had found my subject. I felt immensely relieved. I no longer had to blunder around in the dark. I knew what I had to write about, and I knew how to write about it. There was plenty that I understood, and knew and had learned for myself, and learned from listening to my friends that I could put on paper. I could tell people what it was like, people who didn't know. I always wanted that.
I nearly wrecked ONE magazine by insisting that it was no good doing a magazine for homosexuals. What we needed was a magazine by homosexuals for others. That didn't go down very well. With the politics of today it wouldn't go down very well. It's still the same climate. It changed a little bit in the sixties, and then it changed right back again. That's what they mean by revolution! The wheel goes all the way around and then gets stuck.
So creating Dave Brandstetter, a gay detective, was a continuation of what you were already doing?
I wanted to write a true detective story with a true detective in it, and it just naturally followed that my detective was going to be a homosexual. And that's how Dave Brandstetter came into being.
There are a lot of wry jokes in it: the last companies in the world to hire a detective who is a homosexual would be insurance companies, because they really don't like homosexuals. They think they're very bad risks. They don't want them as clients, and they don't want them as employees. Or, at least that's my opinion.
So what was the difference? Why did the big publishers take on the Dave Brandstetter books while they had not published your previous books?
The time was obviously right. If it had not been that--in the 1960s, there were so many other writers, of various talents and intents, writing these paperback original gay books--then this particular turnabout in the editorial offices of places like Harper and Row would never have happened. The first phase had to happen, and this was the second phase.
Do you make a distinction between your later gay novels, like A Smile in His Lifetime, Job's Year, and your Brandstetter--what some people call "genre"--books? Is there a difference in your mind between the kinds of books they are?
Yes, sure. Because a number of bows have to be made to certain structural conventions in a mystery book that confine what you can do. It's amusing to be able to obey all those necessary restrictions. On the other hand, they are restrictions, and when you write a novel apart from those restrictions it's liberating to your abilities, and it's an entirely new kind of challenge. It's always a thrill to be suddenly placed down with a feeling of total freedom. It's frightening, too, because when all these rules no longer get in your way, then you do have to be careful, and you feel a little at risk. But it's welcome in its way. I hope to be able to do books apart from the mysteries but I don't know whether I'll be able to.
Well, as somebody said at this conference, to writers, money is time. If I can get the money to buy the necessary time to write another book the length of A Smile in His Lifetime or Job's Year, I will write it. The question is, will I have enough money to sustain me for the eighteen months it takes me to write a book of that length and that complexity, and with the freedom of movement that it entails? This allows for exploring, which takes time, and writing and discarding.
You've said several times at this conference that one of the things you're particularly proud of in the Dave Brandstetter series is the way you treat the homosexuality in such a flat-footed, understated, casual manner. Did that in any way free you up for the later novels?
I've always done that, even in the James Colton novels. They weren't sensationalistic. Except when the publishers began to demand that I put in sex scenes. There's no way to keep a sex scene from being sensational; I wish that I had been able to discover one. God knows, I tried! In the end, what happens is those scenes jars everything else in the book out of shape.
There is no way to write a serious book with these things in there. They're good for one thing, and you know what that is: it's called one-handed reading. I didn't want to write that kind of book. I wanted to write serious books about serious matters. When I came to be able to write my big books, I was able to write them without the sensationalistic stuff, and therefore they hold together. They aren't constantly shattered by these shocking, absorbing moments. I just don't like sticking sex scenes into books.
Does Dave's gayness give him a special angle on things?
Oh, of course it does! People criticize me from time to time because they feel there are too many homosexuals in those books, too many homosexual problems, too many homosexual situations. But I just say, Well, look at all the mystery novels that are written that don't have those in. It seems to me only fair that at least eight or nine little books ought to be permitted on the racks.
What particularly does Dave see differently or understand differently?
Well, of course he understands homosexuals differently, but I also think he understands any group or individual that stands outside the mainstream of society as we still rather erroneously think of it. Dave is always evenhanded in his treatment of people, whether they are foreigners, whether they are of some special racial or national group. It would never cross his mind to slur anybody.
I was particularly moved by the portrait of the boy with cerebral palsy in Fadeout. The empathy Dave showed him was striking.
Dave's wise: he sees that those things that can impede you in the world--whether it's cerebral palsy or homosexuality--are pretty much the same. It's a lousy break. The point is, you have to come to terms with it and say, "It's not a lousy break."
What gay fiction do you read?
Why is that?
Most of it isn't very good. When something comes my way that I'm curious about or interested in, I read it. Generally speaking, because a book is gay does not make me read it. Nor do I read mysteries as a rule.
In class, we've talked about the mistakes that beginning writers make. What are they?
I think the tendency is to make the mistake of feeling that somehow the writer is very special and different from the whole world. Most of us know and sympathize with that feeling in young people: that they think they're the only ones. And therefore there tends to develop rather a shrillness, and a little hysteria, even after they discover, Gosh, I'm not the only one; there are two of us. I think there's a tendency toward weepiness.
And there's another tendency that I think is equally killing [for the young gay writer], which is to take everything as some kind of bitchy joke and camp it up. And that's not very attractive either. It's hard for people to come to terms with their homosexuality and it's hard for people who want to write about it, too. They cannot treat it matter-of-factly and straightforwardly. They really do feel as if they've got to apologize.
Is the term "gay fiction" a legitimate term?
Not as far as I'm concerned. Once, due to a misapprehension on my part, I ended up with a story in a gay anthology. I won't do that again. I don't believe in gay anthologies; I don't believe there is such a thing as gay literature. And I simply won't have anything to do with that.
We're all on this planet together. We'd better try to understand each other and tolerate each other and get along with the business of being human beings, because there's plenty of stuff that all of us need to improve, and one of them is not our sex lives. There are a lot of other things ahead of that.
There is too much that contributes to a feeling of "us" and "them"--we're here and they're there, and we're different from them, and they're different from us. One of the things that made me most angry about that anthology that I contributed to was that when it came out the title was Different! Different is what we don't need. All-the-same is what we need.
This week you alluded to an autobiography.
It's already written, but I think it will remain sealed until the year 2023. It is next to impossible to write an honest life story if one is homosexual and not put other folk in awkward positions. I wouldn't risk that. It's not such a hell of a good book anyway. My life has been humdrum.
The other day in class, you said that it was sometimes difficult for an established, successful writer to get his editors to be honest with him about the quality of the stuff he's producing. Has this been your experience?
I think I'm doing better work than ever before, but nobody is going to tell me if I'm not.
You also mentioned in class that critics and the public have felt that Skinflick is so far the best of the Brandstetter books. Do you have any ideas why?
It's hard for me to say. The book is lively. It's the longest of the Brandstetter books. It's filled with life and animation and humor. And there's an outrageous transvestite. The one thing that struck me so forcefully when the book came out was the amount of fan mail it drew. And the fan mail was all for the transvestite character. Everybody loved Randy Van. I got so many letters saying, "Oh, what a wonderful thing you have done." I'm glad people liked that. On the other hand, a transvestite is a classical stereotype of homosexuals. I was not sorry I put him in, because I try to put all kinds of homosexuals into my books--good, bad, bland and forceful and colorful and not colorful. The transvestite is based on a real person I once met--though he/she was not a transvestite but a transsexual. I wanted to deal with that matter because, although it's marginal, it is a part of homosexual life.
I was just a little bit crestfallen when people became so happy with that character. I love Randy Van, too, and I particularly loved the way he sacrificed all for Dave Brandstetter by getting dressed up in a suit. He says, "'I feel ridiculous in these clothes!'"
Speaking of your readers, I was interested to learn that most of the readers of the Dave Brandstetter books are not gay.
That's very true. If I had to live on the proceeds from my gay readership only, I wouldn't be alive.
You have mentioned several times this week your "great affection for words." Do you want to comment on your early reading?
The first good adult writer I read was Carl Sandburg--his Lincoln biography, which I got hold of at age seven. Next came Jack London at age nine. And finally Mark Twain at age eleven, Huckleberry Finn. All through my teens, I read American novelists and short story writers: Sherwood Anderson, James T. Farrell, John Dos Passos, Sinclair Lewis, the top-flight names of their day. By age twenty, I'd discovered Floyd Dell; Frank Norris; Theodore Dreiser; Robert Herrick, the Chicago realist; Thomas Wolfe; and Hemingway, and Faulkner, of course.
Then I did a lot of Europeans, Brits, Russians: Andre Gide, Georges Bernanos, Jean Cocteau, Romain Rolland, the Dickens-Thackery-Eliot-Trollope canon of nineteenth-century greats, and Dostoyevsky, and Turgenev, and Chekhov. It's time to stop this list. But I didn't stop exploring novelists. I'm still at it, and I have no plans to quit.
Although you moved to California when you were still a boy, there are many indications--in your straightforward manner, your values, even the inflections in your voice--that the Midwest, where you were born, has been a major influence in your life. Do you agree?
Is it the Midwest, or simply that I had the father and mother I had? After all, their heritage was respectively Norwegian and German, solid Protestant North European. In my manner and values and in the plain way I handle language, I like to think there's something genetic. I have read some of the Scandinavian sagas. And I feel a strong kinship with those. In the approach to life, and in my approach to novel writing.
You've mentioned your father several times, and said that each burly, baldheaded man in your stories is, in some way, your father. What was he like? What influence has he had on you, especially as a writer?
My father wasn't really burly, though he loved to play football as a young man, and enjoyed all other sports. He was slight and short. But bald he was. He had a wonderful sense of humor, and though he'd only completed a fifth-grade education, he loved words and delighted when he heard new terms or new names. He liked to make up comical rhymes, too. He was the best man I ever knew. I miss him during my days; I dream about him at night. Yes, I expect I do put him into my books--notably as George Stubbs in the Hack Bohannon stories.
In class, you talked about themes in your novels, and told us that even the mystery series is organized around some big novelistic themes. You specifically pointed to secrecy and dishonesty as the major thematic concerns in the Dave Brandstetter books. Anything to add?
Nothing, except that this is a wonderful example of how the act of teaching educates the teacher. Until the particular class you mention, I'd never thought to examine the underlying theme of the Brandstetter novels. I was well aware of the themes of what I call, for want of a better term, my "big" novels, but the class discussion caused me to wonder about the mysteries and to learn something I hadn't known on a conscious level before.
As a writer, what do you see as your legacy?
I'll put it this way: A good friend from the Midwest, John R. Milton, who edits the South Dakota Review, once wrote me in some impatience that it was time for me to abandon my mysteries and my homosexuals and get down to the business of writing something worthy of my talent--or words to that effect. My response was that not all of us writers are up to Mahler's Third Symphony, but that I thought perhaps in the Dave Brandstetter books I had given the world a few Haydn string quartets. Would God I had done anything nearly that wonderful. I try.
Brad Gooch's debut novel, Scary Kisses, was all the rage when it came out in 1988. Set in the "modern, no-mind time" of the late seventies, it focuses on Todd Eamon, an international fashion model, and his zonked-out, "yucked-up" girlfriend Lucy. A postmodern bildungsroman, Gooch's novel portrays the deadening effect of drugs, narcissism, sex, and marketing on Todd and his friends. The author, himself a former model, was touted by his publisher and the media as an insider in the fast-track world of fashion modeling.
Gooch resented this, as well he should have, since he'd already established himself as a serious and gifted writer, a poet who had won the Woodberry Prize (1972) and the Academy of American Poets Prize (1977). With a Ph.D. from Columbia University; publishing credits in Vanity Fair, GQ, and the Nation; and a short story collection, Jailbait and Other Stories, that was hailed by Donald Barthelme for its "roughness and directness unequaled in contemporary fiction," Gooch was hardly just a "pretty" flash in the pan.
In my review for Bay Windows, which accompanied the interview, I wrote: "This is a novel that takes risks, the biggest one being its dangerous affinity with pornography. But what rescues Scary Kisses from being either B-novel pulp or pornography is the absence of Puritanism with regard to sex.... It's all about the jumble of signals--raunchy, erotic, manipulative, destructive, tender--that we give each other in our often muddled quest for intimacy."
Our interview took place on October 14, 1988, in Gooch's room at Boston's Parker House, following his appearance on a local morning television show called Good Day! This abridged transcript of the conversation (the full-length version has been lost) appeared a few weeks later in Bay Windows, in the issue for 3 November 1988.
Toward the end of Scary Kisses, after he's turned away from the whole fast-track modeling scene, you write, "Todd feels good to have been there. It was a pastel moment in history, What did you mean by that?
I think of Scary Kisses as a historical novel, really. It's about this time in the late seventies: the rise of male modeling, sexual liberation. Bruce Weber was bringing out all those photographs. At this time it was very exciting. Now is a much darker time, so that period has always taken on in my mind a mythical dimension.
I was interested to learn that you're writing a biography of poet Frank O'Hara, because the style of your novel is, in some ways, like O'Hara's "I do this, I do that" poems.
It's hard to swallow the conventional novel technique of getting into a character's head to show you what he's thinking. I think of Scary Kisses as a conceptual movie. That sets up a lot of limitations; it presented a challenge.
Many gay writers I've talked to have brought up Proust. Is Proust the author most gay writers have to come to terms with?
I don't feel that I have to pay attention to Proust, but I did. I love Proust. I'm attracted to his philosophical narrator, who is watching life and at the same time thinking about it. The narrator in Scary Kisses also goes off on these weird thinking tangents.
At the beginning of the novel, Lucy tells Todd that the Amish refuse to have their photo taken because they're afraid their souls will be stolen away. Is that comment emblematic of the whole novel?
Well, modeling in the novel works as a kind of metaphor. You've got these three-dimensional people in real life striving for two-dimensionality. Their goal is to turn into a picture, and the more they get into it, the more they lose themselves.
I kept thinking of Todd and his situation in terms of those classic eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novels about the evil effects of the city: Tom Jones, Candide, Sister Carrie, all those Henry James novels about the innocent American abroad. Was any of that an influence on your novel?
Oh, yeah. I was aware of that as a premise for a novel. I was thinking of The Red and the Black, and Great Expectations, when Pip goes to London. In fact, the reason I picked those chapter titles was as a reference to Candide.
On the Good Day! show this morning, the caption at the bottom of the screen read Brad Gooch: Model Turned Author. That amused me because you've been an author for a long time.
Yes, the usual mainstream take on me is that here's a bimbo who wrote a book.
Who are your favorite authors?
I guess Dennis Cooper and Robert Gluck.
Dennis, first of all, because he's such a master of the language. His prose came out of his poetry--the same way it did for me. I have a lot of interest and respect for the surface of his work. And the surface of his work is quite pitch-perfect. Also because he's willing to deal with darker subjects--hustlers, violence--and because there's a tenderness mixed in there. Robert Gluck because he's bravely experimental: he plays around with narrative a lot, shifts in and out of real life and made-up life.
On the subject matter level--you see, I'm more interested in the way people actually write than in the subject matter--Bret Easton Ellis and Michael Chabon are both interesting because of what they're writing about: bisexual themes, for instance.
Your writing has not always met with favor within the gay community.
I first ran into that when I published Jailbait and Other Stories, and the Oscar Wilde bookstore refused to carry it because it had straight sex in it. That's when I realized I was up against something. The gay writers who preceded me, who coincided with gay liberation--Edmund White, Robert Ferro, Andrew Holleran--were writing about what it was like to be gay in the gay community. They liberated the whole area of stories that people had. But now a lot of people--both in the gay community and the straight community--are writing about different kinds of subjects, so that you get, for instance, people like Ellis and Chabon, who are--quote, unquote--"straight," but then are writing novels that have male prostitutes in them, straight men in love with gay men, all these crossings of lines. This seems to make some people angry in the gay community.
When I was in San Francisco, there was this whole thing about Michael Chabon, about how it was discovered that he was married, and therefore it was assumed that the publishers were trying to pass him off as a gay writer--which is such a turnaround!
Maybe there's some fear that when [gay] writers return to writing about the world at large, which is what Proust was doing, they will do it in the old way: trying to hide their politics or their sexuality in traditional kinds of straight stories. But that's not it at all. We're just free now to write about a larger world. It all has to do with defining what gay literature is and isn't.
And I think that's still really up for grabs. It would be a shame if we thought that issue had already been settled.
Right, and it seems that's the problem: people feeling that it has been settled. We're in a period where what's possible is more of a kind of synthesis of what Tennessee Williams did as a gay writer and what people who were just writing about men-on-men situations did. Now we have the opportunity to bring all that together, which for a writer is very exciting. It's just odd--and unfortunate, I think--that this kind of radical-as-conservative should be moving right now.
Lucy twice goes into a church: she goes to Sacre Coeur in Paris and then to St. Patrick's in New York. She also does therapy with a nun. Is there any kind of religious undercurrent in the novel?
Yes, there is overt religious imagery in the novel. I've always been interested in Catholicism and religion. I go to church every week.
Is there any reason why the religious imagery is relegated to Lucy in particular?
No, they're just different people. For Todd, it's his art and his scrapbooks where he finds his center of value and Lucy tries on a different kind of spirituality: psychotherapy, feminism, Catholicism. Given her personality, it just seems that she goes for those kinds of solutions. The book presents a kind of quest, just like medieval books--the Grail quest, for instance--and here it's for a kind of intimacy, and therefore seems spiritual to me.
Another very interesting side to Lucy is how very sexually aggressive she is.
Well, the reason it seems that way is that traditional novels, especially in the nineteenth century, were written by men who had an image of women that involved them not acting on desire. If Lucy seems "aggressive," she's just being human, I think
When Todd is in Europe, Lucy picks up a guy in a movie theater on Second Avenue. That kind of disloyalty seems more shocking to people than anything men can do. There's still some sense, I think, that women can't be as freewheeling, or even as weak, or even as disloyal, as men.
Excerpted from Something Inside by Philip Gambone Copyright © 1999 by Philip Gambone.
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Meet the Author
Philip Gambone is an award-winning essayist, journalist, and fiction writer living in Boston. He teaches writing at Harvard University. His previous work includes a book of stories, The Language We Use Up Here. He is the author of a novel, Beijing, also published by the Press. Robert Giard contributed photos of sixteen of the writers interviewed.
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