I did not mean to be this busy, and I bet I never do it again, but I've also never felt more like a writer than I do right now (and one of the best kinds--I don't have to revise and it's looking like I'll be prolific).
A recent interview produced this bit of truth from Dorothy Allison: "Well, it's always such an absurd concept, the artist life. Like you were supposed to get an endowment, a grant … You know, if you get a decent day job that's somewhat clerically related, you get access to a computer, and paper, and a reasonable desk situation. I considered that the biggest grant I could get access to. And it was."
I recently figured that out the hard way! Dropped out of school, got a nice clerical position, resigned myself to being a drunk monk indefinitely, living on the outskirts of a hayfield in a state I never wanted (Texas). Instead of only drowning my sorrows in whiskey and fiction though, I got asked to do a little research project: how about an annotation of America's first gay novel, Joseph and His Friend? Sounds easy!
(1) Joseph and His Friend
I used my hours of daily commute time to start doing research, and it turned out to be way more than an annotation where I just identify that river, or quote from one of the author's letters for a second. I did read Bayard Taylor's letters, they don't age well and were mostly about his travels, which made him a household name in his own time, but sees his name stripped off of buildings in ours. In fact, the letters that would have been of interest to a modern reader (his fan-letters to Walt Whitman before publicly distancing himself from Whitman and that guy's sexy poems) were left out of his authorized stuff. Drama! Back-stabbing! Scandal! I had to research what that was about, which meant falling in love with Walt Whitman, then learning more about the Civil War and President Lincoln than I ever thought I would after graduating high school, then being amazed at just how many people basically came out to Whitman in letters from all over the English-reading world, and ... then I had to snap back to Bayard Taylor and his dull-by-comparison book. Secret histories: they're better than fiction! Fiction has to appear remotely plausible; real life has no such requirement.
More research had to be done on the man who inspired Taylor's book, Fitz-Greene Halleck, and then some research on Lord Byron's work and reputation just to understand what it meant to be called 'The American Byron,' then I found myself back to learning about Presidents (Buchanan this time), and Quakers and why everyone either loved or hated them, then I had to sit down with all these massive yarn balls and find the one side of the string that connected to the story I was supposed to be focusing on. I took a week's vacation from my clerical job around my birthday, which meant a nine day, brain-pummeling marathon: 33 mini papers on as many different subjects. You want to know why Joseph and His Friend is interesting? It's not for all its filler chapters on country parties and chores and decor, okay? It's for how strangely frank it is, given the climate of the time and the garbage slung at Walt Whitman for being as close to 'out' as one could be without being prosecuted for it like his devotee, Oscar Wilde. It's interesting to realize that this book was Taylor's fantasy for Fitz-Greene Halleck's happy ending, which he never got himself, but which Taylor got closer to: if you can't marry your friend, surely you can marry one of his female relatives, and thus become his family that way? That was one way to do it.
So: the best angle I found for completing my
(2) A Gay A Day
This started as a joke between my friend and I, then a sort of called-bluff situation, then it detoured into a Dueling Dandies podcast segment, and now it's well on its way to getting written. I kept finding queers under rocks in Walt Whitman's correspondence, so the idea of a Gay A Day tear-off calendar (which is now going forward as a book) felt doable, and again, seemed easy. Sure the research for the podcast was tough, but these would just be little blurbs about dead gays, shouldn't be too much work, right? Wrong again!
Acquiring 366 people (that's a standard year plus a leap day) notable enough and verifiably homo/bi/trans enough to fill the list was tough in itself. We wanted it close to even between women and men (with some wiggle room for people who identified in between), we wanted to make sure it wasn't as white as cocaine on a snowbank, we wanted diversity of contribution (we're arty types, so it's easy to fill the list with authors and actors, but what about science, sports, politics, criminals, etc.), and we were worrying we'd never find enough people for the list, but we dug around, and there are indeed enough. We've even got a slush pile in case we need to replace anyone. But now, of course, we've got to actually research and write 183 mini bios each. WHY do I keep giving myself so much homework?!
I'm using this Memorial Day weekend to try and get 50 bios completed for month one (May). That means I can do one per weekday between here and New Year's Eve and have it done in 2017, while still leaving myself time around the minimums to do other things, like, I dunno ... write fiction? That was the original plan once my Clerical Grant finally came in.
(2.5) Looking Back, Looking Forward
I've been writing original fiction for over ten years now, and the book I wrote at age 18 was the first one to get published at age 21 (I still don't understand why that didn't make me Queen Shit of Shit Mountain in grad school for Creative Writing, but oh well; I like to assume everyone else was just jealous, and hopefully I'll move on from the bitterness eventually, though it's taking a while). That book was the start of a series that's about to reach its fifth and final book, its ending. I want it done before Spring of 2018, when I'll finally turn 30.
I started out doing write-what-you-know fiction, so my first main character liked what I liked, lived in my old house, had my anxieties and issues, BUT got a boyfriend (that's the fiction part). Now that I've written six novels--four in the Disorder Series, two outside of it--the pattern appears to be that I go for researching and reworking stories that already exist, but just aren't organized the way I'd like them. I may not be a 'pure fiction' writer; I like patching together Frankenstein monsters too much!
The first to break the pattern was my queering of the Sherlock Holmes series (I needed to reframe that whole thing as gay), and the second was the Leopold and Loeb case (all the other treatments of the case focused too much on the fallout; I wanted to wallow in and exhaust the lead-up). The first book pulled from my undergraduate thesis and all I knew about Oscar Wilde and the 'bachelors' of Victorian London; the second book plunged me into trial transcripts and Chicago-iana. I had to research Chicago because, even after living there for four years, I'd always been too much of a hermit to collect my own first-hand knowledge of the world. I wonder if the new pattern isn't emerging to stay: will my YA series be the aberration someday? Because right now everything I produce outside of that series is more like ripped-from-the-Obscura-Times-headlines stuff, just digging around in the unclaimed-facts pile and pulling out novel material. Maybe my books going forward will all be collages made of stuff other people report back from the real world, since I don't like it out there myself. It's an endless well of material, gap-filling the past; it could easily be the work of a lifetime.
I've got a couple of things that I can choose between after I finish the Disorder Series. I want to write a Murder Book with my best friend, and my publisher wants a Rogues Gallery of real-life queer villains, which will be easy to populate once the Gay A Day book is complete. Maybe another annotation if the first one does well; after America's First Gay Novel, Joseph, I can do The World's First Gay Happy Ending (Imre; the thing's so obscure I don't think a digital copy even exists yet). I could throw darts at a bunch of ideas and just go forward like that, or maybe I'll be taken by a wild desire to write something of my own again. Honestly, this is next year's problem though, because I've got something to finish first.
(3) The Disorder Series: Fixation
My old love, my baby, my god have I been writing these books for a long time! I wonder if I'll end the series in a snot-bubble, sobbing mess like J.K. Rowling did with the end of the Harry Potter series, or if it'll be like finishing some spiritual trial and just numbly detaching from all the burdens that used to weigh me down. This June I'll be re-reading through the first four books (that's always a weird feeling; a sort of self-fellatio most people are too disgusted or mature to even try), making note of any loose threads, any Chekhov's guns lying around waiting to be triggered, etc. I bet I find more typos than I can stand (if I could cut a tally onto my own flesh to take away each and every one of them I would, they bother me that much), but the fourth book's read-through will be an editorial one, since it's not yet published, so I can still improve there. Then come July it'll be time to wrap it up.
The books in this series were all written during summer breaks, and summer's here again. They're all the same size (76K words), each has fifteen chapters and a prologue, they all start and end on the road somehow, all use bathrooms as transitional spaces (I learned that when the first book got included in a Gender Theory curriculum--didn't do it on purpose, but I did realize it was a thing I'd already built into every book's plot, which is neat), and they've each managed to grow up with me (slowly). They might turn out to be more therapy than craft in retrospect, but I like to think of them as little time capsules. I put a lot of my own odds and ends into these buddies.
It's starting to brew again, that's why I'm going so hard on GAD bios this weekend, so I can compartmentalize those things into manageable chunks, and otherwise focus on this. Brewing means:
- I suddenly have a ridiculous soft spot for Fall Out Boy music again.
People laugh very hard every time I mention listening to that band, but you've got to admit: there's no soundtrack more perfectly teenaged. The pettiest drama, the most heartfelt moodiness, it is the perfect way for me to tap back into a childish vulnerability and shamelessness that's pretty far in my rearview these days. Like: I've got plenty of shame now, that's what college teaches you.
- I'm fondly remembering my favorite bits from the earlier books.
Remember the one time a guy said he met his boyfriend in church, which is technically true, but ya know, not the way it sounds?! AHA. Remember that fucking burn about Romeo and Juliet laws and someone was like, 'oh yeah, so where's Juliet?' PRICELESS. Omg I can't wait to bring back that character who disappeared for a book or two! THAT'S THE LONG CON, BABY, YES. It's not that these moments are that important, it's that I'm rekindling some old enthusiasm, and making notes on new little zingers I want to include in this book. ONE LAST HURRAH.
- I've come to terms with the fact that a sixth book spin-off I had planned is never going to happen.
I can't ever see the main characters any older than myself at any given time. Right now they can be close to 30, because that's where I am, but just like for myself, I don't know what 40 will look like for any of them. The one line that made me think I'd have to write the whole life story of Tulsa (from book one) I will just fit into a flashback in book five, not a problem. When I first conceived of a spin-off, I had an idea like, 'Oh boy, by the time I'm super old and I've written all these other books, I bet I'm ready to write a book about like a whole life, saga-ish, probably.' Now that's chump change to me; I don't want to and I don't care. It was much harder to be up to snuff for the Sherlock Holmes and the Leopold and Loeb projects--I've already beat better challenges! I have nothing left to prove and no interest in it anymore. That's a victory, not a forfeit, and it's better this way.
- I know what my main man's going to be reading and I'm so tickled we'll have that in common forever.
My main character, Marley, has been a great place to stash any uncomfortable truths I have. Like Oscar Wilde said, Give a man a mask, and he'll tell you the truth. I wrote about his anxieties and how incurable he was long before I realized I was talking about myself. Knowing that now, it's great to compare what I thought would be my fate with how I've actually turned out. It got better! It wasn't fun but I didn't die or anything, just lost some hair from the stress of it, which is a symptom I quickly gave to Marley, because in a few spots like that we're still exactly the same. He stuck around long enough to drink as much as I do, and next up he's going to read what I read, and feel just as passionately about it: Charles Jackson's The Lost Weekend. Marley will also do some scholarship out of school.
(0) Charles Jackson's Native Moment
Before I got into that Joseph annotation, the aforementioned BFF recommended I read The Lost Weekend, which meant I had it during the darkest days of my quarter-life crisis. A lot of people read that book and say, "WHOA, I'll never drink again!" I've never read anything that felt so familiar to me. Blackouts, sure, and charley horses too; that roller-coastering between pomposity and self-loathing, definitely; the pathetic love for books as the only friends who'll never abandon you, OF COURSE, BROTHER; sexually confused and trying to write your way out of it? Oh, buddy.
I went down a very therapeutic rabbit hole with Charles Jackson. During the year I quit PhD classes for clerical work, and finally got enough health insurance to find out I had a permanent handicap from some sickness I caught abroad (one stone-deaf ear, anosmia and almost no sense of taste), I read all of Jackson's books and his biography. In finding out about his fucked-up childhood, his sick youth, his addictions, his fame, his fall from glory, and his deterioration, I found my new best pal: someone I can love and admire and learn some hard lessons from--he's like a very elaborate memento mori. I also found out he had an unpublished manuscript in the archives at Dartmouth College, about whatever homosexual incident chased him out of school and later haunted the drinking binges he reproduced for The Lost Weekend. And then, GOOD NEWS: Jackson's manuscripts have no restrictions on them, and Dartmouth was willing to scan and email me the pages.
Talk about scholarship out of school: I didn't have any use for digging through his drafts, I just needed to see them. I'm sure some of the notes I took will be handed over to Marley now, but I've taken a lot of notes in the past that I was able to rely on years later (for my thesis, for short stories, for all these research books I'm on about today); it's a very useful compulsion.
Anyway: Native Moment's title comes from a Walt Whitman poem (you see all these interconnecting threads?!) and is the fictionalized version of what happened to Charles Jackson in college. After a childhood where two of his siblings were killed in a gruesome car-meets-train accident, after his father abandoned the remaining family, after Charles and his brother were both molested by the church's piano player, he finally went to college and thought he was home. His reverence for the 'ugly cathedral' of the liberal arts building, his sense of belonging to a fraternity, his weekend job doing real, paid writing for the Newark Courier--he was happy for a minute!
Before he was made a full member of the fraternity, however, he caught feelings for an older pledge, wrote a letter about it, and that letter was brought as evidence against him by the upperclassmen as grounds for tossing him out. The incident is alluded to in The Lost Weekend as just some overly enthusiastic hero-worship (that was still too queer for the club), but in Native Moment it's described quite a bit more explicitly and painfully: the Jackson character, Phil, lets this much older pledge use his bed to sleep in when the guy doesn't even live in the house (or anywhere else, because he's a bum), just like he lets him 'borrow' his money and smoke his cigarettes and take his clothes. When Phil crawls into bed with the drunken guy he hero-worships, that guy pushes Phil's head under the covers for a blow job. Phil didn't know what that meant or what to do about it, so ultimately he wrote a letter apologizing for being so easily used (basically), and when confronted about the letter and the act, he got banished from the fraternity, and quit college for good. One more heartbreak for Jackson to try and drink away. I love the guy so much I could just hug him to death.
Jackson's biographer, Blake Bailey, points out that this book was once quite close to publication, and that if it had been published it would have been "a work of pioneering frankness," but it was turned down because the publisher was not "sufficiently confident of the commercial possibilities."
On that topic--the idea that people don't like buying what's uncomfortably true--we return to where I started: there's something very freeing in writing about true things, because telling the truth is some of the best armor in the world. Readers want happy endings, and in a world of fan service, they will sometimes hate a well-written book for not handing them false comfort, which is something that Jackson came up against a lot, and yet always tried to resist. Here's a quote from some of his earliest college writing, when he took on the role of theater critic:
"If there is anything that makes our blood literally boil, it is to hear someone say, 'One ought to go to the theater to be amused; there is enough sadness and trouble in life without having to see it reproduced upon the stage.' ... To believe in the theater as a place merely to be amused is like trying to 'kid' yourself that the world is a Pollyanna paradise, and that we are all little glad-children."
Myself and my Marley and Charles Jackson? We are not glad-children, and I'm happy about that.
An Earful of Queer is a new monthly LGBTQ fiction podcast; each episode comes with an interview in front, and a cage match in the back!
First up for interview is my own dear publisher Steve Berman, and then it’s the debut episode of Dueling Dandies: the Talented Tipplers edition!
That's me defending The Lost Weekend’s Charles Jackson against my MFA buddy and her pick of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman: who was the better drunk, and who would win in a literal cage match? Listen to find out!
Three years ago, My Dear Watson was a finalist for Gay Romance, now I've got another chance with another book in another category (you can see Homo Superiors, based on the Leopold and Loeb crime, was still in progress back then).
Congrats are in order for my fellow Lethe Press finalists, and for our publisher, Steve Berman!
Since I quit that PhD program at UT Dallas (and I still spit on the memory of it quite bitterly), I've been hard at work. First up were the on-the-ground concerns of sudden, full-time working life:
- It took 4 hours of public transit each day to commute to my new job. That lasted for eight months until my lease was up and I had the cash on hand to move to the other side of the city (where I now happily commute about ten minutes a day, on a bike with a basket).
- During those eight months, I was ghostwriting over $3,500 of smut (at one cent per word) to help pay off my remaining student loan debts, start a retirement account, and fund my move. I'm still trying to get the 2016 max into my retirement account before tax day, but I can do the last of it on my salary alone.
- After moving to a better location (that's being built up even as I sit here, with a corner gas station about to open), I asked for a raise based on the copywriting I do at work, and I received one. I'm also getting a bonus for over 15 hours of transcription work I did last year--during which time, remember, I was also ghostwriting a novel a month. There were a couple of tendinitis flare-ups, but every bit of this work has been worthier of my time than teaching at UTD’s grad program, because it compensates me enough to let me provide for my financial future, rewards me for doing extra work, and continues to provide me with health insurance.
The Worker, The Learner
That's all good, but I must miss learning, right? Hmm. When I ask people why they don't balk at the treatment they receive from grad programs like mine, they pretty defensively insist that they love learning, so much, and maybe they care more about learning than money, unlike me. Oh, please; let's examine that:
- That 4 hours a day on the bus (cut down to 2 hours after I got enough money to take Lyfts in the morning, so I could sleep a normal human amount of hours) meant I had a lot of trapped time on my hands. Right around then, my publisher asked me if I was willing to do an annotation of America's first gay novel, Joseph and His Friend (1870), and I said yes. The artistic life has the same rules as improv: the only correct response is, "Yes, and..."
- So I spent that time on the bus reading the letters of Bayard Taylor, Fitz-Greene Halleck, and Walt Whitman, among others; their biographies, their associations, and their works, discovering all the stories behind the story that is America's first gay novel.
- Then last week I took some vacation time and spent 9 days in my apartment sorting, citing, and compiling the connections. The structure of the project is basically little strings of history, personal anecdote, and secret curiosities to go along with each chapter of the book itself (the manuscript of which I had to clean up line by line to match the original). We’re looking for some gayish American pastoral cover art now.
The Learner, The Lover
Out of this annotation research, the big winner was Walt Whitman. He was the best guy. I read his poetry as an undergraduate and still don't particularly like it--not that it isn't good, it's just not at all to my taste; I'm more for post-modernism, or at least structure and brevity, I still like rhymes, can't seem to cure that, etc. I like Whitman's phrases though ("I am large, I contain multitudes" or "dash me with amorous wet, I can repay you") and I love his intentions and meanings, so basically I love him, the man, way more than his work (though the two are completely intertwined, I get that). His thoughts and asides, his boys, his volunteer work in Civil War hospitals for the wounded (which he was criticized for because it was "unmanly" to nurse if he was healthy enough to fight, according to some). I'm so glad I had a real reason to find out about him.
I know more about American history now, the Civil War, the presidents of the time (Lincoln was a sweetheart too) than I ever picked up in a school. I can assure you that if I had stayed in that PhD program, I never would have had time to do a project as large as this. "Uh, but isn't that what a dissertation is?" Shut your educated-fool mouth: poverty trumps study. If you don't have enough money for food, housing, or health care, you don't have enough time to think about anything else. If a professor tells you otherwise, it's because they need you to stay stupid and studying what will not actually help your circumstances, because their tenure is funded by your underpaid labor or your overpriced tuition. That's true, the advisors at UT Dallas know it is true, they are either too powerless or too unconcerned to change it, and I won't contribute to an evil machine if I can help it. One of my brief cohort-mates from the PhD program quit the teaching part of it (because “I am worth more than poverty-level wages and participation in this institutional nonsense"), got two part-time jobs, but... still pays to attend graduate classes? She says she couldn't be happier. Yes, she could be! Like if she went to a better school! She's barely above an anti-union scab in my eyes, but if she thinks she's happy propping up the place that pays her fellows so horribly, I still don't see how I'm the one who's wrong (because I'm not).
I love learning, I'll work very hard for very little money (my publisher offered me $250 plus royalties for the annotation, and it's taken more than a year of work), but for a school to give me a stipend below the poverty line, forbid outside work, and offer no health care or summer assistance, that is so outrageous you could call it abuse. To take copious amounts of money from students domestic and foreign and provide them with inexperienced TAs as their only instructors in mandatory courses (with almost no guidance and certainly no real consequence for inadequacy) is disgusting, and a failure of a school. My friend who completed a PhD at UT Austin was quick to point out that all the all the information I got out of the Walt Whitman Archive is associated with UT Austin, so I can't be too mad at the University overall (haha, yes I can!), but she also made twice what I was paid for doing considerably less grunt work than they demand from grad students at UT Dallas. She never would have put up with such treatment herself.
The Poetry of it All
I did find some bits of poetry I liked (outside of Whitman's phrases) while reading for this project. This excerpt from Wordsworth leads off "On the Death of Joseph Rodman Drake" by Fitz-Greene Halleck, the inspiration of Joseph and His Friend:
“The good die first,
And they whose hearts are dry as summer dust,
Burn to the socket.”
Whoa, yeah? And this excerpt of Byron, that leads off another gay novel of the time (discussed before on my LiveJournal), which I brought up in the annotation to make sure women aren’t left out of the conversation for a book where a wife is everyone’s worst problem. At the top of A Marriage Below Zero:
"I seek no sympathies, nor need;
The thorns which I have reaped are of the tree
I planted,—they have torn me.—and I bleed:
I should have known what fruit would spring from such a seed."
You see what I mean about rhymes? I’m a sucker for them.
I went to a good school once, it was my original alma mater, the New College of Florida, and that's where I got all my research skills (I even got to return to topics from my undergrad thesis with Joseph, just like a real dissertation--Oscar Wilde's name as a code word for homosexuality; Whitman's name worked the same way, and did it first). However, since then (including my MFA, the private after-school program where I taught in South Korea, and my PhD program entirely) it's been nothing but people going through the motions and putting in the minimums to get money from the students and then get out. My way out of that fiasco mentally was the fact that I consider myself an artist first before an academic, and I took my lessons from the examples of artists, poets in fact (though I'm a prose-writer almost exclusively): A.E. Housman got kicked out of school for having a crisis on the day of his exams? No matter, he got a job and did scholarship out of school until they took him back anyway. T.S. Eliot got a job in a bank so that his literal fortunes would stay stable enough to stay out of the way of his real work. Walt Whitman held a university education against men, this is from Intimate with Walt: Selections of Whitman's Conversations With Horace Traubel, edited by Gary Schmidgall:
When Traubel tells Whitman he worked for four years in a printer’s shop, Whitman naturally applauds, this being his own employment history: "Good! good! that’s better than so many years at the university: there is an indispensable something gathered from such an experience: it lasts out life. After all the best things escape, skip, the universities.”
I have escaped the universities! Sweet are the uses of
It reminded me that My Dear Watson has gotten that same sort of criticism, and that one reviewer went so far as to say, "I couldn’t, in the end, give My Dear Watson five stars, purely because of the discomfort it caused me." This is something I disagree with many of my critics about, that if a book makes them happy it must be good, and if it doesn't make them happy, whether or not it's well-written, it simply can't be that good. I'm not the first author to have this gripe, here it is explained by William S. Burroughs in an essay called "A Review of the Reviewers":
Critics constantly complain that writers are lacking in standards, yet they themselves seem to have no standards other than personal prejudice for literary criticism. To use an analogy: suppose the Michelin Inspectors were equally devoid of consensual criteria for judging food. Here is one inspector... "food superlative, service impeccable, kitchen spotless", and another about the same restaurant ... "food abominable, service atrocious, kitchen filthy." Another inspector strips an Italian restaurant of its stars because he doesn’t like Italian cooking. Another would close a restaurant because he disapproves of the chef’s private life or the political opinions of the proprietor or complains that the chicken on his plate is not roast beef.
Admittedly it is more difficult to set up standards for literary criticisms but such standards do exist. Matthew Arnold set up three criteria for criticism: 1. What is the writer trying to do? 2. How well does he succeed in doing it? Certainly no one can be justly condemned for not doing what he does not intend to do. 3. Does the work exhibit "high seriousness"? That is, does it touch on basic issues of good and evil, life and death and the human condition.
To illustrate this point further, I happen to have a side job ghostwriting smut fluff for money, because it's a sad fact that the less I ask readers to think, the more I'm rewarded. I started ghostwriting while attending a PhD program and teaching a Rhetoric 101 class, trying to keep my head above poverty (I quit after one semester of that abuse). I wrote a story set in Victorian London (with vampires and werewolves and male pregnancy, oh my!), a historical time I know pretty well, since I've written both a fifty page scholarly thesis on queer coded language in the literature of the time, and My Dear Watson, which came from the same research. One of the reviewers for the smut story said, "Are you kidding me? The first paragraph reads like a grade school book report, and it gets worse from there. This author needs an editor or maybe a college English class." With what authority did that person write? Absolutely none. I was the professor, and this arrogant person reading silly porn with their free time told me to go take an English class. There are writers who adhere to a 'the customer is always right' mindset, and they are not good writers, they can't be; those writers work in customer service, and that's the opposite of telling the truth.
Which brings us back to A Marriage Below Zero. In Pages Passed from Hand to Hand: The Hidden Tradition of Homosexual Literature in English from 1748 to 1914, Mark Lindsey Mitchell and David Leavitt have this to say about Alan Dale's book, and its critics: "Such a criticism [that it's a melodramatic anti-gay novel] is misguided, however, because it equates the author's viewpoint with that of his heroine, whose perspective counts; how often have the Constance Wildes of the world had the chance to tell their stories? A Marriage Below Zero is a cruel book, yet its cruelty is the cruelty of truth." I too have been accused of hating Sherlock Holmes because the character of Mrs. Watson has issues with him (I am not my character). It is unfortunate that in this world of fan service many female readers will be quick to call Mrs. Watson and/or myself a bitch for getting in the way of the gay couple's true love, when that's not at all how the world works. There was no real choice for women of the era, and what about the Constance Wildes, indeed? What about all the women whose one great hope for a comfortable life was to make a happy marriage, who then get abandoned because their husbands were caught in their own impossible circumstances? Why should one minority be blamed for the other, especially now, when there's so much more cognizance about punching up instead of fighting amongst your fellow oppressed?
I do appreciate the reviews that can see the difference, but there's a lot of the human condition in this urge people have, to hate the truth-teller instead of the truth. The same reviewer who called My Dear Watson skillfully researched and "a haunted and ultimately failed love affair," took a star off simply because the truth was too sad to enjoy. For my next historically researched book, the same reviewer doubled down on the opinion that what is cruelly true must be bad to treat fictionally, or to allow impressionable people to read. Based on the true crime case of Leopold and Loeb (1924), my Homo Superiors was knocked down even further to three stars based on this thought process: "The book is intelligent and well crafted. But it celebrates nothing. It teaches us nothing. I hope Fields’ fascination with the unhappiest aspects of homosexuality does not become the hallmark of her writing career. I don’t think I could bear another book like this." The truth is not always celebratory (in fact it is rarely so), and one's feelings should not dictate criticism this way. If one feels hurt, and sick, and disturbed after reading about a pair like Leopold and Loeb, then I must have done an excellent job in portraying them, because that's how they were. Remember the criteria: 1. What is the writer trying to do? 2. How well does he succeed in doing it? 3. Does the work exhibit "high seriousness"? My goal in Homo Superiors was do show how easily two smart boys can become killers (it happens a lot, there's nothing historical about that; it's recursive, happens all the time), and my goal in My Dear Watson was to show how a true love can still fail. It's a tragedy, yes, but how is it fair to grade a tragedian on the scale of 'what makes me happy is good'?
As with A Marriage Below Zero, so it is with me. Alan Dale's first-person female character was written with such amusing sarcasm that at times she felt practically modern (despite her circumstances as a young dupe married to an unhappy gay man). That tone was a true balm for me, who often wondered if my sassy and assertive Mrs. Watson was anachronistic--apparently she was not! You might say, as my unhappy reviewer does, that a historical context makes the difference: the world was bad for gays and women once, and it's relatively better now, so isn't it irresponsible to dwell on sorrows? I don't think so. What world do you live in that you know no self-loathing homosexuals, dismissively ignored women, unhappy marriages of convenience, or horribly mislaid plans made by those who don't have the power to out-smart the system?
The truth is cruel, and I won't be blamed for that; take it up with the world.
(Ignore that living in Texas bit; I don't really live here, I simply exist here, serving time like one does in prison, against one's will.)
Anyway, for you TL;DR types of readers, the short version of those tips is:
1. Listen to me.
2. Are you listening?
3. Don't listen to me.
That's good advice if you want to take it!
Originally posted by charliecochrane at post
Delighted to have fellow Lethe author LA Fields here today, having my author questions inflicted on her.
What inspired you to start writing?
It was a whim a time or two when I was young, but once I hit about twelve, I found fanfiction and have been writing ever since. I quit fanfiction by age sixteen and started writing original stories, but then again one of my more recent books is a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, and just because it’s a fancy word doesn’t mean it’s not still fanfiction. The most recent book is a thinly veiled real-person fanfiction at the most basic level: a retelling of the infamous Leopold and Loeb crime. Again, in-depth research doesn’t save it from being fanfic. The writing matures but the drive behind it never does: I like something, I want to spend a year reinventing it, I don’t know where that compulsion comes from, but I don’t fight it; it’s my favorite thing about me.
Do you have another job (paid or otherwise) apart from being an author? If so, how do you juggle your time?
Yeah, right now I’m basically a secretary (I’m A.E. Housman in the Patent Office after getting burned out of school; he failed his final exams, I had to leave a PhD program because it gave me nothing but an abusive poverty stipend, and required more pointless work and endless teaching than would ever pay off with the horrible adjunctification of higher ed). I do some copywriting for this job, I’ll segue myself into better-paying copywriting gigs when I can, but the job I have now has a lot of free time trapped at a computer, so I get in daily writing quotas at my desk.
Right now I also spend three weeks a month ghostwriting smut stories for someone else’s Amazon self-pub penname, and I’ll do that until I’m out of debt from the den of thieves that was grad school. I spend the fourth week of each month writing a chapter of my next book, my eighth. If I factor in the word count of the ghostwriting gig, I’ve written at least two more books, but the filler-foam-peanut writing I do purely for money doesn’t count to me the same way, not for copywriting or ghostwriting. I’ve got these pesky principles about the difference between what is profitable and what is valuable, and I can’t seem to shake those things off.
What did it feel like watching your first book fledge and leave the nest?
I have felt irrationally immortal and superior ever since! It changed me from a wannabe into a writer, and I’ve never felt like a fraud for even a minute since then when it comes to writing fiction. Now that book is ten years old, and it’s like having a diary from childhood that I can unearth and treasure whenever I think something from my past is lost or unrecorded. Nothing is lost because I put it into a book; I love that thing. And I love who I was when I made it: so unaware of what life would bring, but still with the weird power of pattern and prophesy. I knew myself pretty well, I just didn’t know what that would do to me once I got out into the world. That first book was written when I was 18, I plan to finish writing the series before I’m 30, so I can seal up my extreme youth in that time capsule I call The Disorder Series.
Are you character or plot driven? What do you do if one of your characters starts developing at a tangent?
Character driven; I don’t even like plots, I skim them in other books; plots are only devices to reveal and showcase character for me. If a character starts developing weird, I either don’t have my head in the game and I’m not really invested in who or why they are, or they’re right and they’ve just surprised me (which is the best—only Pygmalion and Gepetto know how amazing that feels better than I do). It’s happened to me recently, in fact, with the intended end of The Disorder Series; it’s not going to end like I thought it would when I was a teenager, but then the characters aren’t teenagers anymore either, and they’re also a little disturbed by what’s happened to them, and how they’ve adapted to it. That series has always been about weird adaptation and survival, so it’s fitting.
What inspired this book?
This new book, Homo Superiors? A pointless murder inspired this one. I got interested in Leopold and Loeb when I was fourteen, the age of their victim, and it’s been an interest I’ve held for more than a decade since. They’re part of the reason I moved to Chicago for a few years, so I could visit the case-related graves in Rosehill Cemetery, and know the place where they lived. By the time I was experienced enough at writing and research to do justice to my obsession with these two killers, the full transcripts of the trial and psych reports were online, and that’s about 4,500 pages of prime source material (without the moral or social slants all the other treatments of the case often bring to the L/L canon).
That infamous case, with so many points of scandal and outrage, has always been treated more for its courtroom spectacle than its origins. The big question with such a senseless ‘thrill kill’ is why. I know why, and that’s the reason I wrote my book. No one else has thought of it quite like I do. For example: I had to dig deep to find out what exactly killed Nathan Leopold’s mother when he was sixteen; that’s not irrelevant when it comes to how a young man’s life takes such a horrifying turn. The best representation so far is John Logan’s Never the Sinner—that play (though I’ve only read it and never seen it performed) does an amazing job of dicing the public and private aspects of the case into a tight story, giving equal time and importance to both sides. My book goes way far in the private direction; I don’t even touch the case or the fallout. My book is about how two boys went from wunderkinds to killers. That’s my fascination, and so that’s where I’ve focused.
If you had no constraints of time and a guarantee of publication, what book would you write?
I kind of do have that. I have as much time outside of work as I want to spend on writing, and my publishers rarely turn me down. The next idea I’m excited about is a collaboration with my best friend (all we know about it now is that it’ll be a Murder Book of some sort); it would be nice to really invest in something like that, with all the research and refining and revising that I usually do in very minimal, organized amounts when I’m the sole author. What happens to that when I’m working with someone else? I want to find out, and for sure it’ll produce a unique kind of book that I could never accomplish alone.
Is there a classic book you started and simply couldn't finish?
The first book I ever quit was Great Expectations, and I know enough after two decades spent as an English major that it’s a pretty ironic one to ditch. BUT: Dickens was paid by word quantity, and so am I with my ghostwriting gig, so I know good and goddamn well how much of those Dickensian behemoths are filler for the sake of paying bills. I’m okay with Dickens, writer to writer and shill to shill, but I don’t like his work and I won’t try to read any more of it.
What’s your favourite gay romance/other genre book? And why?
I love books with gay characters, but almost never pure romance. I think most fictional romance is boring, happy endings are boring, but I do have an answer: Poppy Z. Brite’s Exquisite Corpse. You want genre, we’ve got horror: there are serial killers targeting gay men; some of those killers are other humans, but one of them is a plague. You want romance, we’ve got that too, kind of: with one couple we have murder husbands the likes of which mere Hannibal fans have barely seen (talk about real-person fanfiction—what if Jeffrey Dahmer and Dennis Nilsen had met? They’d certainly have a lot to talk about), with the other couple you get nothing but the B-side of romance, the passionate aftermath (they’re broken up from page one to done, but the relationship was so intense that neither man is truly out of it; they can’t stop thinking about the other). That’s the kind of romance I like to see: intoxicating, destructive, undeniable. True love! Not at all a guarantee of happy endings, but worth it every time.
What's your next project?
Finish my youthful Disorder Series, then an annotated edition of America’s first gay novel, then the Murder Book collaboration with my friend, and then an existential crisis because I don’t know what comes after that. Probably a break-down or an overdose or a mid-life crisis; I’ll worry about that if/when I actually run out of projects and can’t come up with any more.
- You can shrug more than shoulders, you can shrug eyebrows, and hands, but I've taken enough creative writing classes to know that a lot people are insisting on grammar rules that don't need to be insisted upon, so c'est la vie.
- The order of the stories has turned off more than one reader, this is true, but I like to lead with my strongest (i.e. most disturbing) foot.
- In grad school an interconnected short story collection is called 'a novel in stories.' Regarding this book, by whatever name we call it, the reviewer says, Fields’ ability to write these little vignettes with the same men and women popping up here and there and allowing personal growth is incredible. I agree, I'm a huge fan of myself.
- The reviewer has picked an excellent favorite line, go see what it is! It sums up the feel of the collection pretty well; that line is what it's all about.
Repression is available to get through the Rebel Satori website. It's my fifth book overall, third in the Disorder Series, and I'm still at work on these. Both of my short stories for class this semester are coming out of this, the fourth book is halfway done, and I'm so not even remotely over these characters.
Day 1 - Philadelphia
- All travel was efficient and timely.
- Cheesesteaks with mroctober, talked about books and boys.
- Got to hang out with an old college friend and do my favorite thing: bitch and complain. So freeing, so invigorating. We covered romantic exploits, job searches, loneliness and moving, TV shows.
- We also walked around the Philadelphia gayborhood where she lives. Gayborhood is so gay the street signs have rainbows:
Day 2 - Lambda Awards
- I was the youngest person in every group I talked to, but I adapted. I've got parents and grandparents, you wanna talk about baby names? The '70s? I got you, I can do that. I am now under the impression that gay people never look older than 55.
- Lots of speeches about the gay community and queer spaces highlighted that I still feel a little like an interloper--I'm bisexual, but I haven't been involved with another woman since undergrad (where anyone can be bisexual, so are you really?). And of course all my gay characters are men. Suspicious.
- I don't like the designation M/M. It seems to apply only to women who write romance about gay dudes, and it rankles my feminism to know that a lot of people would include me in that category. I recognize it as a distinct category that plenty of authors are happy to participate in, I just don't think that's what I'm doing, and I don't want it applied to me. Most of my books are actually about unhappy families, addiction, and anxiety/depression. I take the perspective of gay men because it's a world I'm almost entirely excluded from, so it interests me. In my personal life I've got women all day, every day. It's a total clam festival over here.
- This is the book that beat me for the Gay Romance award: Into This River I Drown. That's okay though, because I've since decided my book is more of a Mad Men-esque contemplation of success and substance abuse and existential fatigue anyway.
- My bones only felt melting-cold for a second when I didn't win, then I went back to the hotel to assure my audio copy of My Dear Watson that, you know, such is the pursuit of fame, and that now we at least have the privilege of feeling misunderstood.
Day 3 - Manhattan
- Everything in Manhattan was about two feet too close to me the entire time I was there. I may like other parts of New York City (I wouldn't know), but Manhattan did very little to please me.
- I spent the day in Central Park, MoMA, and in a Starbucks.
- Modern art tires me out, I waste too much mental energy wondering if each piece is just an Emperor's New Clothes trick being played on me by some ironic asshole.
- I sat down in Central Park because my feet were on fire, some guy sidled up next to me to say hey, I got right the fuck back up and kept moving (you're a shark honey, sharks must move to live).
- Spent a pleasant beginning of the day with Sacchi Green (who won a Lammy for the Wild Girls, Wild Nights anthology), but afterwards hit some bad luck: rush hour and rain meant it took more than an hour to find a cab to the airport, flight was delayed by the storm, not enough free outlets in the airport to properly do homework for the next day, etc.
- Chicago let me fly to NYC with this keychain, but New York would not let me fly back with it. I mean it is a tiny knife, and I don't want knives on planes, but *whine* and stuff. I usually remember to take it off, and I'm surprised it wasn't confiscated at O'Hare (dropping the ball, O'Hare).
- I have a month to figure out if I'm going to renew my lease. Right now it looks like probably yes, and if I get a job that demands I move, I will find a replacement for myself.
- Big giant multi-step applications for which I am making endless telescoping lists.
- All this and homework and reading at Printer's Row and blisters on my feet the whole time.
- I just got off the phone with a recruiter for teaching in Korea--feel like I totally nailed that, so it's a real option.
- I want to write chapter three of my novel but when, oh but when? I get to show Chapter Two to my Fiction Seminar class and my thesis adviser this summer, even though it's not my thesis material.
I also got The Midnight Disease because we read some of it in one of my classes, and I liked it, so I'm going to invest in it.
I also started reading another faculty book (assigned by a different member of the faculty). I'll do a big post about faculty books I've read as soon as they can't take back my degree.
It's cool that this exists for My Dear Watson and you are probably jealous of me (just admit it):
If someone out there really wants to give the audiobook another bitchy low-star rating, make sure you put the low stars on me and not on the voiceover performance by Melissa Hearne, which is lovely.
- Myself and three cohort members went to Rosehill Cemetery, found the Loeb family plot, couldn't locate the Leopold family marker under all the snow, but (most importantly) found the Franks' mausoleum. It's chained shut to keep looky-loos like me out, which is well and right, because real people and their murdered child are laid to rest here (you can see the interior of the mausoleum, plus the weather outside due to the reflection of the glass door):
- Other looky-loos have come by and left coins, candy, and toys festooned on the rusted chains that hold the doors shut. You could stand on the steps of Bobby's grave and hit the Loeb plot with a good spit. I yammered a lot to my friends about how closely tied they all were in life as well, why Leopold and Loeb aren't buried beside their families, where their remains ended up, etc.
- I've started reading the psych reports on Leopold and Loeb from the trial to unearth every last fact about their childhoods and family histories. I've already learned facts I've been wondering about for years (like what killed Leopold's mother--turns out to have been bad kidneys), but not all of those facts are very literary, so here are my thoughts arising from that:
- I have fictionalized these two so that I can take liberties--it's more poignant to have the Loeb character move from their shared dorm to the frat house a few months before it actually happened; it's a better scene if the Leopold character doesn't go back home until after his mother is dead; etc.
- Fiction writing is all about Truth over facts, even writing school will tell you that. You see: in writing school you have to deal with two extremes: kids who are too timid to write even the kindest, blandest fictionalized version of real people because they're pussies and/or don't realize how little it matters, and kids who are nearly sociopathic in their willingness to lie about and distort real people for "art" (also not realizing how little it matters).
- "Journalists" have been projecting upon and lying about the Leopold/Loeb case since it happened. That's nearly 90 years of sensationalistic misinformation on them, and I am but a thread in the tapestry. Besides: it's literally my job to create fiction, so why should I be the one to care so much when no one else has really bothered?
- The development of My Dear Watson was not like this. Yes, I fictionalized Mrs. Watson to give myself some liberty, but when working with source material that was already fiction, I felt the need to justify every shift and apologia I made. Boring to readers, perhaps (still not to me; you know I never get sick of my own fascinations), but wrong? PLEASE.
- I mentioned John Logan's Leopold/Loeb play Never the Sinner as a shining example of a work that got the boys right to one of my (very Chicago-imbedded) professors, mentioned that he produced the play while at Northwestern, and that he makes big Hollywood movies now, then watched my professor Google him and start getting a tad catty. Chicago: kind of small town sometimes. That sort of thing is part of The Scene that I done heard about back in Florida, right? It is, isn't it? I really expected more glitter and attention, but I won't complain; I'm just happy to be out of the swamp.
- I spent time debating whether a new LJ icon should be Nathan Leopold since he makes the same smug-ass know-it-all face I've been making my whole goddamn life, or if it should be one of Leopold and Loeb looking smitten together. Then I felt really pathetic. Then I found this tattoo of Nathan Leopold and read the comments under it and the original artwork. Then I was like, OH SELF: go ahead and grade yourself on a curve there, hon, damn.
My first online publication ("Walls") happened because I was following Keith's work around the internet, and "Exit Signs" happened because I couldn't not imitate him, so it's been really cool to ask him about his writing.
I'll post the questions here too, so that I can look at them here too.
It’s both funny and sad to me, and I don’t think you can have either in a story like that without both humor and tragedy working at the same time together to get you through. That said, I also think the class aspect of everything I write can sometimes be misinterpreted as insouciance and “black comedy,” when really it’s just the way people live, point-blank. Poor people, like rich people, have beautiful idiosyncrasies – it’s just that rich people often have more elaborate and intricate ways of hiding those idiosyncrasies, or to transform them into sweet little eccentricities. When Flannery O’Connor talked about why many of her stories featured “white-trash” people, she said something about how many of her characters are stripped of manners and decorum, and that allows the reader to look into their souls. I’m paraphrasing, but that’s the gist. And I think in “Holding Hands for Safety,” all the characters are stripped down to their essences to the point you have access to their souls, and while those souls might be a little ugly and a little worn out, they are beautiful souls none-the-less, especially the souls of the three main characters: the teenaged gay narrator, his punk step-cousin, and the six-year-old girl the step-cousin kills.
You said in an interview with Donald Ray Pollock that you’ve written another novel since The Life I Lead—would you mind telling me what it’s about, and if it’s any closer to finding a home?
Actually it’s Holding Hands for Safety turned into a novel, funny enough. I opened up the story to include many other points of view (including Courtney and Troy), and what happens after the murder. It’s going around now to different places. No good news, yet. Or maybe ever. But I keep trying. That’s the essence of all this stuff: you can’t get deterred. I have a draft of another novel I’m working on now called Johnson City Divas. It’s a homage to James M. Cain and other noir writers. It’s kind of like Mildred Pierce spliced with Jean Genet. A middle-aged drag-queen who lives in Johnson City, Tennessee is one of the central characters. I liked the idea of going with a plot-driven gig for a change. In The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, Cain’s plots have both an artificial dexterity and a weird existential necessity. It’s the nexus between reality and phoniness where murderers live. A lovely place for a story.
Having written both novels and short stories, which do you enjoy writing best? Are there differences in how you approach long and short pieces of fiction?
I like writing short stories, but then I get sick of them because I want the terrain of a planet instead of the intimacy of a condo. But they go well together, and most of the novels I write come from the short stories. They intermingle. And some of my favorite novels, actually, read like collections of interrelated short stories. The best I’ve read recently: A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan.