Saturday, August 30, 2014

Interview with Richard Stevenson



In a shameless attempt to get some publicity for my newest Mahu book, Accidental Contact and Other Mahu Investigations, I thought I'd reprint some writing I've done in the past which is no longer available on the web. And where better to begin than with this interview with one of my literary heroes, Richard Stevenson, whose Don Strachey novels were a great inspiration to me.

This interview took place in 2010 at the release of his novel, Death Vows, which confronts the issues involved in the legalization of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts. It was originally published at a now-defunct website called GayWired.com. 




NSP: Death Vows has a ripped-from-the-headlines feel to it.  How did you come up with the plot?
         
RS: Homophobia is the villain, one way or another, in all the Strachey books.  It does terrible things to gay people and it does terrible things to straight people.  And since I witnessed the rage that gay marriage generated in some of its opponents in Massachusetts, it was easy to come up with a plot where gay marriage turns lethal.  I took part in some of the pro-gay-marriage demonstrations at the State House in Boston.  Counter-demonstrators were bused in by Catholic and Protestant right-wing groups, and I had never seen such hatred on human faces. 

NSP: There’s a theme of masks that runs through this book---everyone seems to be hiding something about who they are. 

RS: I lived behind masks for much of my early life, and what this does to people’s psyches interests and frightens me.  I think one reason I loved John LeCarre’s early spy novels was that his protagonists led double lives out of patriotism and not for reasons of shame or social embarrassment.  Of course, it was more complicated than that for LeCarre’s characters, just as it’s not all bad for closeted gay people.  Leading secret lives sometimes has a kind of romance to it too.  But overall the closet is self-destructive.  And the people in Death Vows who bravely refuse to lead lives of secret shame in their home towns are plainly the ones I admire most.

NSP: I love the repartee between Don and his long-time partner Timmy; it seems that their relationship is the cornerstone of the books, particularly in Death Vows.

Richard Stevenson
RS: I am never happier than when I’m watching these two go at each other in that half-maddening way of theirs.  Each, in my mind, is a whole person, and yet together they comprise a kind of third organism that I find likable and entertaining.  All the best relationships have this interesting mixture of tension, durability, fragility, despair, joy and---best of all---humor.  Relationships like this are high on the list of things that make life worth living.  I’ve been tremendously lucky in this regard, and it’s great fun writing about one of these relationships.

NSP: Death Trick, the first of the Don Strachey mysteries, came out in 1981.  How are Don and Timmy aging?

RS: Ver-r-r-ry slowly.  My original editor at St. Martin’s, the estimable Michael Denneny, advised me not to age them as I aged, which was my original plan.  He said readers would not put up with an old-fart gay private eye.  So they have aged at about half the rate nature ordinarily requires.  In 1981 they’re about forty.  Now I’m pushing seventy and they’re in their early fifties.  That’s quite a feat for them.  In Death Vows there’s actually an AARP joke. 

NSP: How have the changing times affected what you write?  For example, I recall in the early books Don was more of a sexual hound dog.

RS: Death Trick is the only pre-AIDS book in the series.  It’s set in that last spasm of 1970s gay sexual hedonism and social rebellion.  Strachey loved that life---the sexual variety, the adventure.  Timmy was more conventional in his emotional makeup, and I guess there was a chance their relationship might not have survived that era.  But Strachey was forced to alter his habits because of AIDS and also because he loved Timmy and didn’t want to lose him.  And Timmy gradually loosened up a bit too.  In Death Vows there’s a brief reference to the two of them going to Paris twice a year and together attending “the over-forty grope” at the Odessa Baths.

NSP: How do you feel about the here! TV versions of your books (three so far)?  Have you had any input?

RS: I have been kept at a very long arm’s length.  They pay me (not much), and that’s it.  Overall, I’m glad the whole thing happened, because it’s revived interest in the books by, among others, me.  Two of the films, Third Man Out and On the Other Hand, Death, are more or less faithful to the spirit and substance of the books and are pretty good in their different ways. Shock to the System, however, the second film, was just ghastly and a real betrayal of the Strachey character.  Some bozo at here! took a mordant black comedy about the barbarism of reparative therapy and turned it into a cliché-ridden turgid melodrama in which Strachey boo-hoo-ingly laments that he was ever born gay---until, that is, Timmy talks him out of this foolishness.  It’s just totally nuts.   I haven’t seen the fourth film, Ice Blues, yet.

NSP: How has seeing Don come to life on TV changed your ideas of him?

Chad Allen
RS: My ideas of him haven’t changed.  But interestingly, I now have two Stracheys in my head.  There’s young Chad Allen, who’s very good as Strachey, and there’s also the “real” older Strachey---i.e., the one who’s been in my head since 1979 when he first appeared there.

NSP: You’re on your ninth book.  How do you keep the series fresh? 

RS: By writing a book only when I think I have a fresh idea.  Most publishers insist that mystery writers produce a book a year.  This practice has led to too much not-so-interesting stuff.  And even though I have resisted this practice, some books in the Strachey series are plainly better than others.

NSP: You live in Massachusetts yourself.  Any wedding plans? 


RS: Joe Wheaton and I have been together for over 18 years.  We were married in May, 2004.  We planned on being the first to sign up at Becket Town Hall, but two women beat us to it.  

Richard Stevenson and I are both published by MLR Press, and you can find both of us there.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Sylvia's Mother

My parents were talk-radio listeners when I was growing up. My mother played New York’s WOR, programs like "Rambling with Gambling" and the Saturday afternoon Metropolitan Opera Broadcasts. My father listened to news, weather and traffic reports. So the only exposure I had to contemporary pop music was through the school bus radio.

A lot of the songs I remember from that era I first heard sitting on those yellow school buses, either parked at the bus dock waiting to leave, or navigating the curving suburban streets or narrow farm roads. Our bus trip was about a half hour each way, which gave time for lots of listening. And sometimes I’d stay after school for the Math Team or Forensics or Drama, and I’d take the late bus home, which took a much more meandering route, and I’d hear a lot of late-afternoon music.

I can remember riding along to “Dancing in the Moonlight” by King Harvest; “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head,” the song from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, sung by B.J. Thomas;  and songs by Simon and Garfunkel, Three Dog Night and The Carpenters. But one of the songs that still sticks with me is “Sylvia’s Mother” a 1972 hit by Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show.

I’m not sure why it keeps resonating with me. It was written by Shel Silverstein, who went on to best-seller status with Playboy cartoons and children’s books. He also co-wrote “A Boy Named Sue” with Johnny Cash.

“Sylvia’s Mother” was apparently based on a failed relationship he had with a woman named Sylvia, and calls he himself made to Sylvia’s mother. The singer is trying to get hold of his ex-girlfriend, but her mother is playing interference. Though Sylvia’s there in the background, it’s clear that her mother isn’t letting her know who’s on the phone.

Maybe I like this song so much because it tells a whole story in just a couple of stanzas and a chorus. I can hear the pain in Dr. Hook’s voice as he begs, “Please Mrs. Avery, I just want to talk to her. I’ll only keep her a while.” And then there’s the chorus, where “the operator says forty cents more, for the next three minutes,” which is a reference I doubt anyone born after the demise of pay phones will understand.


The song reached #5 on the Billboard Hot 100, and charted in many other countries, including Australia, Ireland and South Africa. It spawned covers, including on by Jon Bon Jovi, translations and even a follow up song by British folk rockers. So maybe I’m not the only one still haunted by it.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Manuscript Origins

Last year, I went to the Gay Rom Lit conference in Atlanta. I wasn't there as an author, because I didn't register in time. But I had an airplane ticket I had to use, and one of my publishers, MLR Press, needed some help with a big event they were sponsoring.

So I flew up to Atlanta for a couple of days. I hung out with fans and talked about books, I went to the parties at night and had fun, and I wrote.
The first night, I was standing in the buffet line behind this great-looking older guy who just oozed sexuality. I was stunned into near-silence, which is pretty unusual for me, and we talked for just a moment or two about the crowd.
Later I realized that he was an actual porn star who was there to promote a line of books he was editing. I admit, I got a little obsessed with him, and he started my imagination going.
There was a Starbucks about a ten-minute walk from the hotel, and the next morning I trekked over there with my trusty netbook. I opened a new document and started to write.
Usually the most I can get out of a writing session is about two hours, before my inspiration starts to flag and I begin to remember all the things I have to accomplish that day. But that morning in Atlanta, I had to reason to hurry back to the hotel, and I kept writing and writing.
I felt almost like Jack Kerouac with his endless roll of paper, typing away at On the Road. That’s what obsession feels like, when the words just pour out through your fingertips, with no idea where the story is going. It was a very different experience for me; while I often start hearing a character’s voice in my head, I also begin with an idea of what kind of book I’m writing, and where it’s going.
Will it be a romance? A mystery? A piece of erotica, or a non-fiction article?
With Freddie Venus and Newt Camilleri, I was just eavesdropping on their situation. But once they got together I had no idea what they were going to do or what kind of story they were in.
Between that day and the next, I ended up with about fifty pages. I had no idea where it was going, but it started with a retired porn star living in isolation in southern France, and the overweight, middle-aged fan-boy/writer who gets obsessed with him.

When I got home, I had to go back to manuscripts that had deadlines attached to them, and besides, I had no idea what to do with Freddie and Newt. It was only over the next few months that I realized I’d set these guys up in the territory where my bodyguard heroes, Aidan and Liam, live. So their story, which begins as a romance, was going to have to turn into a case for the Have Body, Will Guard team.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

New computer

So about a week ago, my faithful netbook died. It had given me a blue screen of death at least once before, but recovered, but when I sat down at Starbucks one morning to write, it just wouldn't load Windows. It had lived a long and productive life, though, being used almost every day of the year for writing.

I went looking for a replacement and settled on an 11" HP Pavilion laptop with Windows 8 and Office 2013. I figured that would be small enough to carry around easily, and since we're getting Office 2013 at school I could get a head start on learning to use it.

Big mistake. I'm not sure where my problems came from -- was it the hardware? The software? A combination of both? It was very difficult to right-click on a Word document, which was a big pain in the neck for me, as I right-click all the time, to add words to the dictionary, correct spelling, and update the table of contents, among other things.

I think that was a hardware issue. The touchpad just wasn't responsive.

Second problem was in saving files. I am in the habit of saving all the time -- I hit control-S every few paragraphs, or at least every page. The Pavilion was SO SLOW in saving that the screen would display Microsoft Word Not Responding, and I'd have to wait and wait in order to continue to type. Not good when you're relying on inspiration!

It also seemed like there were many more steps involved to the simplest actions. I couldn't just hit "Save as" and have the dialog box pop up. Had to jump through several hoops for that. Couldn't shut down very quickly, either, though I did figure out a work-around for that.

In the end, I just couldn't tolerate the computer, so I sent it back and got an Acer with Windows 7, and put the copy of Office 2010 I already own on it. It's like a miracle -- everything works again, just like I want it to! Let's hope this computer lasts for as long as the netbook.

Monday, June 23, 2014

New Adult M/M #MFRWauthor

I've been reading about the developing category of New Adult fiction for a while. Most recently, Stephan Lee, writing in the June 20 edition of Entertainment Weekly, defined the genre as “millennial tube-top rippers” and noted “Books in the genre – which thrives in the digital sphere – are also defined by their roller-coaster intensity.”

In the same article, St. Martin’s Griffin publisher Jennifer Enderlin is quoted as saying that New Adult is “young people dealing with more angsty issues than in YA. There’s much more emphasis on toxic relationships, sex and drugs, a lot of passion and emotion.”

When I read that article, I realized that my own work has been moving towards the New Adult category, and I started to wonder if there was already an M/M subdivision. One of the first mentions I found was a this mention of a book by E.K. Blair, Fading. “What’s interesting is that this New Adult book is about the gay best friend and his roommate. I've read all over the internet how this book is “popping the m/m cherry” for many readers.”

My protagonists seem to be getting younger and younger. Kimo Kanapa’aka, the hero of my Mahu Investigations, sprung into existence at thirty-two, when he was dragged out of the closet after a clandestine visit to a gay bar. Kimo had a long romantic history with women behind him, and though he’s a tough cop, he was scared of what being gay might mean for his job, his family, and his whole life.



Liam McCullough, one of the two protagonists in my HaveBody, Will Guard series, came to terms with being gay while a Navy SEAL, when he risked his life to save a teammate, and realized that he had to value his own life, and tell the truth about it. He was in his early thirties then, as well.

In my very first gay romance novel, GayLife.com, I made my hero in his late twenties. I figured he’d have gone through the angst of coming out by then, and be ready for a real relationship. The book was also a coming-of-age story for Brian, who had hopped around from job to job and one casual encounter to the next.

A couple of years ago, I noticed that a collection of college-boy erotica I self-published was doing very well in sales, so I came up with the idea of writing a series of erotic shorts about the members of an all-gay fraternity, Lambda Lambda Lambda, at Florida University (FU) in Miami.

It was a lot of fun to write about these guys who were more open about their sexuality at a much younger age than my usual protagonists. I thought that it reflected the changing times as well. I couldn't imagine Kimo having sex when he was an undergrad at UC Santa Cruz, or Liam getting it on with a fellow SEAL in the days of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. But these frat brothers came from a new generation.

The guys became more real to me the more I wrote about them, and in the back of my mind they began demanding their own stories. They wanted more than just some casual sex. They wanted their own HEA – happily ever after – or at least an HFN – happy for now.

So I sketched out a plan for a trilogy of M/M romance novels focused on three of the guys, in the summer after their college graduation. In Love on Site, armed with his construction management degree (and a thing for older guys) Manny Garcia goes to work for handsome, sexy real estate developer Walter Loredo, who’s going through a divorce. As Manny figures out how to navigate his way through the macho world of construction, he falls for Walter big-time.

This book felt very personal to me, because my first career out of business school was in real estate development, though I came at the field through my MBA and my degree in operations management. I still feel a pang of longing for those days whenever I pass a shopping center under construction, and it was great fun to relive those days of early morning meetings and sweaty shirtless workmen.

The next guy I tackled was Larry Leavis, a skinny beanpole whose first experience of sex comes as part of a threesome with new frat brothers. Larry’s a computer geek, a species I know well, because my next career move was to computer game development. My coworkers were young guys with awesome technical skills and a disregard for personal hygiene. I spent hours testing computer games from Fisher-Price Firehouse Rescue to Wheel of Fortune to space invaders and simulated golf.

Larry’s story was tough, because halfway through a minor character took over, and wanted to take the book into a much darker direction. So I shelved it and moved on to the guy whose story I knew least about, Gavin Kaczmarek. I’ve been intrigued for a long time by people with a tangential connection to fame – children and grandchildren of actors, musicians and athletes. What’s it like for those kids?

In Three Lambs, Gavin is introduced as a very handsome guy who begins to explore modeling, and his story, “Head Shots,” ended up in an erotic anthology I edited for Cleis, Model Men. I started to wonder what the guy behind that beautiful façade was like, and made him the grandson of one of the members of a trio of singing sisters from the 1940s who had achieved minor success.

Though I studied piano for three years, I can’t sing a note and don’t know very much about music. I was able to learn what I needed as I shepherded Gavin on the same journey, as he learns to manage the gift of voice he inherited from his Grandma Frances, falling in love along the way.

After I finished that book, I was able to go back to Larry’s book and realize that the guy he was in love with was nothing more than a crush, and that his real love was someone who’d been hanging around on the periphery of the book, patiently waiting his turn.

Now that I have thought my way through all these stories (Gavin’s book, Love on Stage, should come out from Loose Id in late summer or early fall, and Larry’s book, Love on the Web, will follow early in 2015) I realized that I've been writing New Adult romances, though in the M/M genre. I've been describing the books as “recent college grads looking for love and success on South Beach,” and that seems to fit the NA genre.

The books are angsty, as Enderlin says – Manny’s family are conservative Catholic Cuban-Americans; Larry’s folks are lower-middle-class people from a rural area, and South Beach is like another world to them. There are toxic relationships and kinky sex—one of my editor’s comments for Love on Stage was a request to amp up the tension in a kinky scene. And of course, passion and emotion are essential to any romance. I've taken a quote from my favorite Shakespeare play, Much Ado About Nothing, as the epigraph for the series. Beatrice says, “Benedick, love on. I will requite thee!” The giddy exuberance of that declaration reflects the way my new adult heroes face love head-on.


What New Adult M/M romance have you been reading – or writing? Please add your titles in the comments, and let’s get a whole list going.

Monday, June 09, 2014

The Lilacs of Bucks County



I have lived in Florida nearly thirty years, more than half my life, but there are still a few things I miss from my life up north, in Pennsylvania. And in spring, the one that I think of most is the lilac.
When I was growing up, we had a lilac bush along the back side of the house, and each spring it would blossom with armloads of light purple blossoms just about this time, the last two weeks of May. They wouldn’t just appear in our back yard; they’d show up in bunches at the grocery and the florist. I loved to see them and smell them, and I enjoyed the heart-shaped green leaves as much as the fragrant flowers.

I’m not the only writer to find them appealing. Here are some great lilac quotes:
“Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain.” ― T.S. Eliot
 “Just now the lilac is in bloom,
All before my little room” – Rupert Brooke

“When lilacs last in the dooryard bloomed
And the great star early drooped in the western sky in the night” – Walt Whitman


“Go down to Kew in lilac-time, in lilac-time, in lilac-time;
Go down to Kew in lilac-time (it isn't far from London!) “ – Alfred Noyes


A black cat among roses,
phlox, lilac-misted under a quarter moon,
the sweet smells of heliotrope and night-scented stock. The garden is very still.
It is dazed with moonlight,
contented with perfume...”
― Amy Lowell
“The lilac branches are bowed under the weight of the flowers: blooming is hard, and the most important thing is - to bloom”   Yevgeny Zamyatin.

Sadly, unlike me, lilacs like the cold weather, so they won’t grow in Florida’s subtropical climate. So I will have to be content with memories and pictures.  But I do think the next Golden Retriever mystery that takes place in springtime will have to have lilacs!