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 

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.