QueerReader Interviews Patrick Ryan

Posted on August 31, 2017
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QueerReader Interviews Patrick Ryan

QueerReader: Since its publication, The Dream Life of Astronauts has gotten a string of positive press–culminating in a rave review in The New York Times.  And this month it had its paperback printing.  Are you surprised by the success of this book?

Patrick Ryan: I feel fortunate all the way around. I’ve been working on these stories for years. Writing and rewriting some of them many, many times. A few of them I wrote very early drafts of as long as thirty years ago. So it’s really wonderful to have them published in a collection. And the response the book has gotten has been really kind and generous. If you aren’t a big name, you’re grateful for any reviews, and this book surprised me by getting quite a few. I found out Maureen Corrigan was going to review the book on NPR about an hour before it happened. I was at work, and I listened to it with my feet up on the chair and my body tied in a knot. I think I even had my arms wrapped around my head. And she was so nice! I felt like the luckiest guy in the world.

QueerReader: It occurs to me that you have tapped into the zeitgeist specifically with regards to the space program…

Patrick Ryan:  If I’ve tapped into the zeitgeist, that’s pure luck (maybe that’s how it always happens). I was just working with a landscape that was familiar to me—NASA, Cape Canaveral, characters who live in close proximity to such a national endeavor but who aren’t necessarily involved in it. I never thought, This is hot property! This is rich stuff! It was just what I felt like exploring because it’s where I come from.
QueerReader:  In her New York Times review, Michiko Kakutani compared The Dream Life of Astronauts to Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. Were you pleased with that comparison?
Patrick Ryan:  Oh, yeah. I was thrilled and immensely flattered by the comparison, because Winesburg, Ohio opened up the windows and doors in my head when I read it. I think it was the first book I read that had recurring characters in different short stories, some of them seen through different lenses along the way. Ernest Hemingway’s The Nick Adams Stories had that effect on me too, though those weren’t written to stand together. Another collection of linked stories that knocked me out was Alice Munro’s The Beggar Maid. And there have been plenty more. Fenton Johnson’s Scissors, Paper, Rock is a wonderful linked collection that’s now back in print by University Press of Kentucky. David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide. Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son.
QueerReader:  Do you consider Sherwood Anderson to be one of your influences?  Do you have any “influences”?

Patrick Ryan: I always think of my influences as being the writers who astounded me by showing me what was possible with fiction. It really doesn’t have anything to do with whether or not I went on to try to write like them. I sometimes get started—as in, the first sentence or two—by trying to imitate the work of writers I admire, and then whatever I’m trying to do takes on a life of its own, determined by what’s in my toolbox and what’s in my wheelhouse. Some of the writers who influenced my development are Richard Yates, Edmund White, Flannery O’Connor, James Baldwin, Ann Beattie, Raymond Carver, Graham Greene, Alice Munro, Joy Williams, and Chekhov—who really is the Grand Marshal of the Short Story Parade.

QueerReader:  I agree!  Several of the stories in your book feature– for lack of a better word– “punchlines”.  That is:  one sentence at the end that somehow sums it all up.  I’m thinking specifically of the title story,”The Dream Life of Astronauts”.  I’m not going to spoil it for those who haven’t read the story yet.  I’m interested in the process of your writing.  Specifically, did you know that that would be the last sentence, when you started writing the story?
Patrick Ryan:  Wow. I’ve never thought of my work as having punchlines. They occur accidentally, or spontaneously, I guess, because if I was thinking with a punchline in mind, I wouldn’t be able to write. It’s such a great question because it ties right into the different ways writers work—which, for me, is always fascinating. John Irving says he doesn’t start a novel until he knows not only the whole story but the last sentence. Flannery O’Connor said that she didn’t know the bible salesman was going to steal that girl’s artificial leg until a few lines before he stole it. I know plenty or writers who claim that they start stories—even novels—with an idea for a scene, nothing more, and then they see where that takes them.
QueerReader: Do you agree with E.L. Doctorow who wrote:  “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”?
Patrick Ryan:  I love that Doctorow quote because it’s not only beautifully stated but also enticingly vague. It seems to imply that you make it all up as you go—plot, character arc, the whole shebang—but I think what he meant was that you have an idea of where you’re going, you know your starting point and, most likely, your ending point, but you don’t know exactly how you’re going to get there. That’s pretty much how I work. I couldn’t start a story without knowing in some vague way how it was going to end, but I need to be in the fog along the way in order to make the writing fun—which hopefully makes the reading fun—so that there’s room for discovery, for surprises. For example, there’s a story in this book that involves a 60-year- old grandmother on a first date with the instructor from a defensive driving class she was made to take because she was faulted for a car accident. I worked on that story for six months, and for the longest time all I knew about their date was that it wasn’t going to go well. As I got closer—inching through Doctorow’s fog—a lot of potentially creepy things started to emerge. Those two characters ended up in a motel room playing dress-up, and the whole affair wound up being potentially creepy and very one-sided. I most definitely didn’t see that coming until I got there.
QueerReader:  Yes, I love that story. I’d like to ask you some questions now about your writing process. Do you have a specific routine for your writing?  Do you write in the morning?  Do you write everyday?
Patrick Ryan:  I write in the morning, and I stretch that into the first half of the day when I can get away with it.  Mornings because that’s when my head is less cluttered with, oh, you know, the awfulness that is our current national landscape. (These days, I can’t imagine writing at night.) What I’ve found is that spending at least an hour each day with whatever I’m working on keeps me in touch with the project in a way that is far more effective than sitting down with a larger block of time once a week, or once every few weeks. So in that respect I write five days a week—sometimes for a brief period, sometimes for a longer period. Weekends, I take off.

QueerReader:  Do you have a specific place where you write?
Patrick Ryan:  I write at home at lot. Other places, too—though I have a very hard time writing in public. When they invent 100% effective noise-cancelling headphones and it’s not attention grabbing to wear horse blinders, I’ll write in public. Basically, I need to be—or feel—entirely alone. Ideally, I just need a room I can be alone in with a door I can close. That room can be tiny and windowless and ugly—as long as it has a door.
QueerReader:  Do you write longhand? Or on a computer…?
Patrick Ryan:  I write on a computer. If you’re a writer and you’re my age or older, and you started writing in your early twenties, you had to relearn how to write on a computer. I worked on a manual typewriter for years, then on an electronic typewriter (which was like fuel injection), then on a word processor—mine was an Amstrad with a built-in dot-matrix printer—and finally on a computer. At first, working on a computer meant that I was way too easy on myself, in terms of revision. Later, it made me way too hard on myself. Finally, hopefully, I’ve settled down somewhere in the middle:  writing, and revising as I go.
QueerReader:  Do you turn the cell phone off?
Patrick Ryan:  The phone is off. The news is off. The email is not signed-into. No music is playing. The only wayto make full use of writing time—which, for most of us, is hard to come by—is to turn off the outside world. If you have an hour, you turn off the outside world for that hour. If you have four hours, or thirty minutes, you turn off the outside world. It sounds like a no-brainer, but it’s very hard to do because most of us are writing on machines that can connect us to the world. That wasn’t
the case twenty years ago. Your typewriter couldn’t link you to anything but the words you were hammering out with your fingers. I use an online thesaurus that’s wonderful, but jumping over to it means I have to avoid the rabbit hole of the internet.
QueerReader:  One of the reasons QueerReader strongly recommended your book is your remarkable quality of empathy.  You write about teenagers, senior citizens and even a mobster.  And yet, there is always a sympathy for these characters.  Do you have a particular technique for getting into the heads of these diverse characters?
Patrick Ryan:  Thank you. I just think of it as an approach. I approach characters slowly, and try to make my rendering of them as much of a collaboration between me and them as possible. I put them on the page and have them do something, and then I step back and observe them for a while. And by “observe,” I just mean that I try to get inside their heads and get a sense of what it’s like to be them.  No one is entirely good, entirely bad, entirely sane, entirely crazy, etc. Someone doing something mean is quite possibly not very proud of it in the moment. Someone doing something nice is quite possibly feeling resentful of having to be nice. Characters need to be just as complex as real people. For example, I have a character in one story who’s a real creep, a grown man who’s trying to seduce two teenage girls, offering them alcohol, promising to help them in ways he knows he can’t. What’s most interesting to me about him is that he doesn’t see himself as a creep. He knows he shouldn’t be offering alcohol to minors, but he’s willing to do it because he wants them to like him and feels deserving of being liked. He’s lonely, and he very much doesn’t want to see himself as lonely.

QueerReader:  Florida plays a strong part in The Dream Life of Astronauts.  Indeed, it almost seems that Florida is a character in this book– and it’s not the Florida that the tourists see.  Having grown up in the state, do you think that it influenced your writing?

Patrick Ryan:  For a long time, I didn’t feel comfortable writing about Florida because I couldn’t get a handle on its character. Plus, everyone feels like they already have a handle on Florida because of the tourism thing. It’s Disney world and the Coppertone ad, end of story. But eventually I came to realize that the melting pot aspect of Florida is its character, and you can really only get that if you’ve lived there.  On the street where I grew up, for example, there were people from Alabama, Boston, Connecticut,  Wyoming, Texas. And there were no adults who’d been born there. All those transplants, all those different accents. Add to that the fact that most people, back then, were there because of the Space Center and all of the various industries associated with it. My hometown was a melting pot that had converged on a single entity—NASA—and that entity started to wane in the early 1970s, and the landscape changed. A lot of people had to reinvent themselves. It took me a while, but I came to realize there’s a lot of creative mining potential in that.
QueerReader:  Do you consider yourself to be “a Florida writer”?
Patrick Ryan:  I don’t consider myself to be a “Florida writer” only because I don’t want to be limited to one setting. Two of my books are set in Virginia. The thing I’m working on now is set in Ohio.
QueerReader:  I’m looking forward to reading that book. Any advice for the young authors who are aspiring to your level of success?
Patrick Ryan:  Yes: Write because you want to write, not because you want to get published. Of course you want to get published, and you should do everything you can to help that happen, but you have to write first, right? And you should be writing because you enjoy it. If you don’t enjoy the process, that’s going to be evident in the end product.  Also, if you can enjoy writing without getting swamped in worry about how it’s going to be received, then you have a better chance of not burning out when you hit hurdles—like not being able to get a story or a novel published. Over a fifteen year period, I wrote seven novels and sent them around and wasn’t able to get them published. And I got about halfway through at least eight others before abandoning them. Most aspiring writers who stop writing do so because they can’t handle the rejection. The only reason I kept going in the face of it was because I actively started reminding myself that I enjoy writing. Over and over again, I reminded myself of that. It helped.

Lambda Literary’s Good Calls.

Posted on March 14, 2017
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lambda_awardThe Lambda Literary Award Finalists have been released and it is once again time to congratulate all of the finalists.  As Queer Reader has pointed out, 2016 was an exceptionally good year for Queer Lit and narrowing it all down could not have been an easy task.  Nevertheless, The Lambda Awards have made some good calls this year.

Firstly, David France’s How to Survive a Plague is a finalist for The LGBTQ Non-Fiction Award.  This important AIDS history is impeccably researched and skillfully crafted.  How to Survive a Plague tells the history of the AIDS crisis through the stories of several persons who came to be defined as “AIDS activists”.  Mr. France renders these characters with a novelist’s sense of detail.  The result is highly readable–a genuine page-turner.

In the fiction category, both Darryl Pinckney’s Black Deutschland and Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You are finalists for the Gay Fiction Award.  Black Deutschland is the story of an African-American living in Berlin during the final days of the Wall.  The narrator’s voice–intellectual, erudite, peppered with ironic wit–is one of the many pleasures of this highly unique queer novel.  Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You tells the story of an American school teacher’s relationship with a Bulgarian hustler named Mitko.  Mr. Greenwell precisely–and often amusingly–describes Mitko’s almost childlike appreciation of the smallest material things and his seemingly genuine  affection which, with the prospect of cash, can be turned on like a faucet.  Ultimately Mr. Greenwell’s book is a testament to the power of being “out”.  Queer Reader doesn’t envy the Lambda Literary Awards judges who must chose between these two superb novels.

But it will be fun to watch.

 

The Lambda Literary Awards will be announced on Monday June 12 at NYU’s Skirball Center.

2016 was a Spectacular Year for Queer Lit.

Posted on January 28, 2017
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grmQueer Reader predicted 2016 would be a good year for Queer Lit, but no one could have predicted just how good a year it would turn out to be.  In fact, since this website was founded over eight years ago, 2016 was by far the best year for Queer Lit.

Two thousand sixteen was the year Edmund White’s Our Young Man was published.  If this were the only queer title published in 2016, it would still have been a good year for Queer Lit.  Our Young Man is the epic queer novel, Edmund White was destined to write.   It follows the life of a queer super model and along the way reveals two decades of queer history.  It is arguably Mr. White’s best novel–so far.

Similarly, if Darryl Pinckney’s Black Deutschland had been the only queer novel published last year, 2016 would still be a good year for Queer Lit.  Mr. Pinckney’s novel reads like a memoir.  It’s the story of an African-American living in Berlin during the final days of the Wall.  The narrator’s voice–intellectual, erudite, peppered with ironic wit–is one of the many pleasures of this highly unique queer novel.

There is something special about  The Dream Life of Astronauts:  put simply it is the remarkable empathy Patrick Ryan expresses for the characters in the stories that comprise this collection.  Whether he is writing of a teen-aged boy with a crush on an astronaut, a grandmother contemplating an affair with her driving instructor, a teen-aged girl wanting to become Miss America or a mobster living in a retirement community, Mr. Ryan renders these stories with compassion.  Queer Reader is not the only reviewer to appreciate the subtle charms of this remarkable book of short stories.  In her New York Times review, Michiko Kakutani compared The Dream life of Astronauts to Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg Ohio.

Queer Reader is also not the only reviewer to appreciate Garth Greenwell’s debut novel.   What Belongs to You tells the story of an American school teacher’s relationship with a Bulgarian hustler named Mitko.   Mr. Greenwell’s writing is at his best in the first part of this novel.  Here he precisely–and often amusingly–describes Mitko’s almost childlike appreciation of the smallest material things and his seemingly genuine  affection which, with the prospect of cash, can be turned on like a faucet.  What Belongs to You established, beyond any doubt, that Mr. Greenwell is a writer to watch.

Two thousand sixteen will also go down as the year James Magruder’s Love Slaves of Hadley Hall was published.  This highly entertaining novel follows the stories of nineteen characters inhabiting a Yale dormitory in 1983-1984.  Mr. Magruder is a master of dialogue and he weaves in enough surprising plot twists to keep the pages turning.  While reminiscent of Armistead Maupin, Mr. Magruder has a style that is all his own.

Add to all this the publication of David France’s superb–and essential–How to Survive a Plague, and 2016 adds up to a spectacular year for Queer Lit.

How to Survive a Plague is a Page-Turner.

Posted on December 31, 2016
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51wo3zzp4bl-_sy344_bo1204203200_This queer reader approached How to Survive a Plague with some trepidation.  Might it just be too difficult to return to that painful time:  a time when so many friends were dying of AIDS?    Well, perhaps the biggest surprise in David France’s new book is that in addition to being an important, exhaustively researched history, this also happens to be a genuine page-turner.

How to Survive a Plague tells the history of the AIDS crisis through the stories of several persons who came to be defined as “AIDS activists”.  Mr. France renders these characters with a novelist’s sense of detail.  The most brilliantly drawn character is Spencer Cox, who this queer reader knew quite well.  Mr. France perfectly captures his mixture of sweet, gentle warmth combined with a rapier wit–ready with a sharp quote from Addison DeWitt.  It is wise that he chose Mr. Cox’s story to frame this book.

It is entirely appropriate that Mr. France chose to tell this history in the first person–telling his personal story along the way–because the history of the AIDS crisis is at once enormous and deeply personal.  For those of us who lived through it, the AIDS crisis crept up on us:  first appearing as a newspaper headline, then an acquaintance who lost too much weight, then a sudden death of a young friend.  It’s all here:  The initial puzzlement that gradually gave way to a completely justifiable panic.  The numbing despair as the deaths of friends and acquaintances multiplied.  The frustratingly conflicting news.  The false hopes:  AZT, interferon, remember compound Q?

It is quite remarkable that this queer reader–an ACT-UP veteran–found no inaccuracies in this book whatsoever.  My only disagreements come down to emphasis.  For instance, this queer reader would have emphasized the role of Ann Northrop more.  Her advice to the room as to how to reply to the media when asked about Reagan’s AIDS plan:  “It’s a lie!  It’s a sham!  And it won’t work!” became a rallying cry for the FDA action.  Also, this queer reader would liked to have seen more about Michelangelo Signorile.  Without his media committee, it is highly unlikely this chant would have ever led the NBC Nightly News.  But again, these are questions of emphasis–not accuracy.

Near the beginning of the AIDS crisis, a David Hare play, Plenty, opened on Broadway.  Plenty is the story of one woman’s struggle with her own sanity as the excitement of serving as a secret agent in  World War Two is replaced by the banality of living in post-war Britain.  In many ways this mirrors the activists portrayed in these pages.  For what good are these special skills now?  Anger?  Rage?  The willingness to disrupt–even to get arrested?  Undoubtedly, the individuals portrayed in these pages are heroes–veterans of a great struggle.  Like most veterans, they are underappreciated and traumatized.  Mr. France is wise to conclude this book by returning to Spencer Cox’s story, because although Mr. Cox survived the crisis, somehow he could not survive the end of the crisis.

Queer Reader strongly recommends this important book.

David France’s How to Survive a Plague: The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS is published by Knopf.

UPDATE April 27, 2017:  Tonight it was announced that How to Survive a Plague won The Publishing Triangle’s Randy Shilts Nonfiction Award.

UPDATE June 12, 2017:  Tonight it was announced that How to Survive a Plague won Lambda Literary’s LGBT Nonfiction Award.

Treehab is Bob Smith’s Gift to Us.

Posted on October 27, 2016
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9780299310509Fans of openly gay stand-up comedian, Bob Smith will be delighted with his new book, Treehab.  It’s filled with humorous stories and brilliant one-liners.  Nevertheless, there is a dark shadow hanging over these dozen essays, because Mr. Smith reveals early on that he is suffering from ALS.  While Mr. Smith is understandably angry about this diagnosis–“That abbreviation should stand for Asinine Life-Threatening Sickness according to me”–there isn’t a trace of bitterness in these pages.  The net result is a celebration of the healing power of nature that is, at once, personal and universal.

Those who are familiar with Mr. Smith’s novel, Selfish and Perverse, will perhaps not be too surprised to learn that quite a few of these pages are devoted to Alaska.  Mr. Smith spent a good deal of time there researching this novel and his descriptions of the state’s wildlife are lush, detailed–even seductive.  And he finds gentle humor in the stereotype-defying gays and lesbians who live there. Treehab is also about what Mr. Smith learned from his rescue dog, the joys of hiking with his gay friends–“nature boys” he calls them–and more.

The last essay of the book, “At Walden with Henry”, is the best.  In it, Mr. Smith imagines a conversation with Henry David Thoreau.  His queering of Thoreau is humorous, but ultimately this piece becomes a passionate–almost militant–call to save our environment and our planet:  a message that will resonate long after all of us are gone.

Of course, Queer Reader strongly recommends this book.

Bob Smith’s Treehab:  Tales from My Natural Wild Life is published by University of Wisconsin Press.

Click here to read my 2009 interview with Bob Smith.  Among other things he talks a lot about his love for Alaska.

Edmund White’s Our Young Man is His Best.

Posted on September 30, 2016
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9781620409961Here’s something you might have missed–this queer reader almost did:  Edmund White has written a novel that may well be his best.  Take a moment for that to sink in.

Our Young Man is the epic gay novel Edmund White was destined to write, because he is perhaps the only author who could have written it.  Not only because he is brilliant writer, but also because he is a survivor.  He can write of a time when everyone in New York believed that cocaine was the only drug that wasn’t addictive, because he lived through that time.  He can vividly describe the scene at St. Vincent’s Hospital in the eighties, because he was there.  And, because he is a survivor, Mr. White can perfectly render that period in time when every gay man in New York convinced himself that only men who had been infected with multiple STDs came down with AIDS.  It is ironic and entirely appropriate that this Great American Gay novel has a French protagonist.  Of course Mr. White is highly knowledgeable about France–having spent several years living there.

In Our Young Man, Edmund White achieves something that is seemingly impossible:  namely, getting into the mind of a character who is anything but introspective.  The hero of the novel realizes early on that he might possibly be able to make some money from his good looks.  It doesn’t take long for him to hook up with a manager who sends him all over Europe for photo shoots.  He becomes a supermodel and his life seems to flick by as though frames in a movie.  Although he makes adjustments along the way, much of his life just seems to happen to him.   Thus he becomes a spectator of his own experience:  a camera.  And through this camera, Mr. White presents two decades of queer history.

It should be noted that while Our Young Man is a historical gay novel, that is not all it is.   For though the protagonist is not at all introspective, he is certainly not flat.  Unlike the photographs of him, the portrait Mr. White paints is three-dimensional.  Indeed he may well be the most psychologically fully-developed character Mr. White has ever written.

Queer Reader strongly recommends this Great American Gay Novel.

Edmund White’s Our Young Man is published by Bloomsbury.

 

 

The Dream Life of Astronauts: Nine Superb Short Stories from Patrick Ryan

Posted on August 31, 2016
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9780385341387

Let’s face it:  short story collections can be a tough sell.  Even the best of them include a few clunkers.  Some even throw in some unpublished fragments:  bits of what might have been a novel (novella?), but didn’t quite flesh out.   Perhaps more importantly, they tend to lack an underlying theme that somehow unites them.  But Patrick Ryan’s new short story collection, The Dream Life of Astronauts, is different.  These are undeniably short stories:  superb, classically-constructed short stories.  The common theme that unites them is geographic:  all of these stories take place a few miles from the Kennedy Space Center.  The net result is a smooth, enjoyable read and one of the best short story collections this queer reader has read in a long, long time.

Astronauts play a direct role in only one of the stories in this collection, but what happened in that region of the country was so extraordinary that it seems to resonate with everyone in these stories.  And Mr. Ryan knows this region well:  a quietly American enclave that sometimes resembles rural Wisconsin more than the sunny beachside stereotypes so often associated with Florida.

Beneath the surface there is another connecting theme to these stories:  namely, empathy.  Whether he is writing of a teen-aged boy with a crush on an astronaut, a grandmother contemplating an affair with her driving instructor, a teen-aged girl wanting to become Miss America or a mobster living in a retirement community, Mr. Ryan renders these stories with compassion.  Though frequently humorous, the reader never laughs at these characters.  Instead, we find ourselves cheering on their aspirations–not unlike the space mission itself.

Needless to say, Queer Reader strongly recommends this book.

Patrick Ryan’s The Dream Life of Astronauts is published by The Dial Press.

Love Slaves of Helen Hadley Hall is a Good Beach Read.

Posted on July 19, 2016
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love-slavesIf you’re looking for a good summer read, consider James Magruder’s Love Slaves of Helen Hadley Hall.  It follows the stories of the residents of a Yale dormitory in the school year of 1983-1984.  In all the there are nineteen central characters.  Normally following that many characters might present a challenge to the reader, but Mr. Magruder renders them crisply–without resorting to caricature.  They are gay, straight, bisexual and above-all  questioning.  This is a college dormitory where the quarters are close and the hormones are raging and these characters find themselves in situations that seem to surprise even themselves.

Love Slaves of Helen Hadley Hall bears a resemblance to Armistead Maupin’s best work, but Mr. Magruder has a style that is all his own.  This is a brilliantly-constructed novel, with enough plot twists to keep the pages turning on a sunny summer’s day.

For those of you who seek a fun read, Queer Reader strongly recommends this book.

 

James Magruder’s Love Slaves of Helen Hadley Hall is published by Queen’s Ferry Press.

 

 

Black Deutschland is Flawless.

Posted on June 24, 2016
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29BOOK-master180Although a novel, Darryl Pinckney’s Black Deutschland reads like a memoir.  The style is simple, direct, conversational, flawless.  It’s the the story of an American abroad: a visitor to Berlin in the final days of the wall.  His journey from the superficially exotic, but ultimately predictable world of Berlin’s nightlife to the entirely unpredictable reality of his own sobriety forms the core of this novel.   The narrator’s voice is erudite, intellectual, highly-educated and peppered with ironic wit.  As an African-American gay man, he defies the stereotypes many impose upon him.  Indeed, defying stereotypes is one of the leitmotifs of this novel.

That most German of American cities, Chicago, plays a large part in this novel as well.  Through a series of flashbacks the narrator’s middle-class childhood is revealed.  But this is not Oak Park middle-class or even Hyde Park middle-class.  It is the middle-class of Bronzeville.  It is a middle-class world where people feel connected to their neighbors.  It isn’t surprising to see them congregating at his family’s house to watch the funeral of Harold Washington.  Nor is it surprising to see his mother taking in troubled women in the neighborhood–“crazies” he calls them.

The structure of this novel is almost invisible.  Mr. Pinckney’s conversational style perfectly conceals it.  And it is only at the very end that we realize how far we’ve come on this journey of discovery with this fascinating man.

Queer Reader strongly recommends this book.

Darryl Pinckney’s Black Deutschland is published by Farrar Straus Giroux

What is a Gay Novel?

Posted on March 20, 2016
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1283721Now that both the Publishing Triangle and the Lambda Literary finalists have been announced, it’s a good time to ask the question:  What makes a novel gay?  Gay characters?  A gay theme?  And does the author have to be gay?

The so-called “gay novel,” first attracted national attention when Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story made The New York Times Bestseller list in 1982.  A Boy’s Own Story had a gay narrator, a gay theme and an out gay author.  It was also masterfully written and many today consider it to be the “great gay novel.”  Four years earlier, Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance was published and many also consider this book to be “the great gay novel.”  Of course, gay novels, in one form or another have been published for many years.  Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle are just a few examples.  But prior to the nineteen-seventies, the term “gay novel” was rarely used and certainly wasn’t a tool for marketing.  Nevertheless, by the nineteen-eighties, several gay novelists emerged.   Among them:  Christopher Bram, David Feinberg, Patrick Gale, David Leavitt, Scott Peck and John Weir.  All of them were out gay men writing about gay characters in novels with gay themes.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that things have gotten more complicated in recent years.  Many gay authors are no longer “writing gay”.   And some of the best queer novels are written by straight authors.  John Irving’s In One Person is arguably “the great gay novel”, although “bisexual novel,” is probably a more accurate term.  It tells the story of one bisexual person’s survival over several decades, including the years of the AIDS crisis.  It is exhaustively researched and brilliantly written.   And in 2013, Lambda Literary awarded In One Person, the “Bisexual Literature Award”, even though Mr. Irving is straight.

When I chatted with Bernardine Evaristo at the 2015 Publishing Triangle Awards, she told me that when she learned her novel, Mr. Loverman  was a finalist for the Ferro-Grumley Award for LGBT Fiction, she was certain it wouldn’t win.  When I asked, why? she replied:  “Because I’m not gay.”  Fortunately The Publishing Triangle disagreed and awarded her the prize.

This year, queer readers are presented with yet another quandary.  2016 saw the publication of Hanya Yanaghihara’s A Little Life–a novel Garth Greenwell boldly proclaimed to be “the great gay novel”.  But what makes it gay?  Gay characters?  Yes, but “bisexual” or even “questioning” might be more accurate terms.  A gay theme?  Debatable.  And as to the sexuality of its author…  Well, this queer reader would like to believe we’ve reached the point where that just doesn’t matter anymore.

But how else can we explain the absence of this great novel from any of the Lambda finalists lists?  Is it possible that the sexuality of its author–or more accurately the lack of information about the sexuality of its author–prevented A Little Life from being a finalist?  Or must a “gay novel” be gay themed in order for it to become a finalist?  We will probably never know the answers to these questions.

Fortunately the Publishing Triangle got it right this year.  A Little Life is a finalist for the Ferro-Grumley Award for LGBT fiction.

The Publishing Triangle Awards will be announced on April 21st.  Click here for a complete list of finalists.

The Lambda Literary Awards will be announced on June 6th.  Click here for a complete list of finalists.

 

 

 

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