by Connie Ward, Publicist
What made you decide to become a fiction writer?
ANSWER: I was petrified of fiction for years, though I’ve always made my living as a journalist, a profession that taught me bad habits as well as good. A journalist works against the clock. He does research, gathers information, and then puts it all together into a readable form by a deadline. By necessity, you develop a certain slickness, which is deadly in fiction. Conversely, you learn structure–beginnings, middles, and ends, as well as transitions—and that is invaluable, though the best fiction writers break through that into a kind of jazzy free form. I’m not there yet. Not by a mile.
When I finally got up the nerve to attempt fiction, it was with the understanding that I would do it to please myself, to tell the stories I wanted to tell instead of the stories I was assigned. Happily and unexpectedly I fell in love with the process. And like any love affair it’s sometimes painful (rewrite, rewrite, rewrite). I am constantly rewriting my stories even after they’re edited and printed, trying to inch closer to the story I dreamed up and developed in my head. If only there were a device that could read mind waves and transmit them directly from the brain onto the page. Even then I’d probably look at it and say to myself, Why exactly did you get so excited about that story? Sure, it may turn into something worthwhile, but not until you’ve rewritten at least a dozen times. Get to work.
What type of stories do you write? And why?
I write to tell stories–many kinds–mostly about internal and external crises. Getting into characters’ heads excites me.
I started out writing a great deal of gay-themed fiction, because you start with what you know. The GBLT experience is so rich and varied. Even with the recent explosion of terrific writing on the subject, we’ve only scratched the surface. I have since tried my hand at YA (non-gay-themed) fiction and have an adventure novel set in the Dust Bowl set for publication later this year, called Doubloon. I’ve also written a collection of short stories that center on the lives of immigrant women from the mid-twentieth century who all settled on Staten Island, where I grew up. It was published last year. I’m currently finishing (ha, ha, as if) another young-adult novel, a noir (rewrite, rewrite, rewrite), and recently completed a novel-length contemporary gay love story, which I paired with several shorter romances. It’s spring, after all.
What do your family/friends think about your writing?
My partner, also a journalist, is my infallible weather vane. If it meets with his approval, it means I’m on to something. If not, then I try to prove him wrong. Win-win. My friends are very supportive and tend to chime in when they love a story, though it’s never the one I think they’re going to enjoy (which was true when I was a journalist as well). I thrive on encouragement and reinforcement, and my partner is great at constructive criticism (writers are by nature touchy and insecure).
Where do you get your ideas?
I’m a sucker for gay history. I read lots of LGBT non-fiction and also general histories that incorporate gay life from the past. I recently read a history of Greenwich Village that wove in stories about gay and lesbian life there, which began back in the nineteenth century. Walt Whitman, Harte Crane, Frank O’Hara, Stephen Crane, Willa Cather—they all lived in the Village and co-existed within the community decades before Stonewall. LGBTs not only are everywhere, they were everywhere. My partner’s grandmother kept a “woman on the side” in an apartment in downtown Manhattan back in the thirties. How incredible is that?
A novel that will be published later this year, Café Eisenhower, (also from Bold Strokes), started with a newspaper story I read in the early nineties about Americans going to former Soviet satellites and starting businesses. What if a gay man decided to open a gay café in Eastern Europe just months after homosexuality was decriminalized? It was a situation rife for dramatic conflict, and given the recent anti-gay wave in Russia, relevant (though I wrote the story several years ago). And what if, in addition, he happens upon journals detailing a lifelong love affair between two men who survived the war, the Holocaust, and Soviet oppression?
How do you write; do you plan everything out or just write?
It’s never just one or the other. I often start with an idea or a character. Sometimes it is more fully formed than not. It might have a middle or an end. But even then, if the characters and situations are strong, they propel me forward. They take over and I become their amanuensis. Like in movies, when you’re really clicking you enter a dream state. Then, you have to come back to reality and work on it until it aptly conveys the dream.
What makes Junior Wills special to you?
Junior Willis is about the coming-out process, which is so much more than merely opening the closet door. Too often these stories, just like movie romances, end at exactly the point when the hard work begins, when one has to incorporate his or her sexual nature into every aspect of his or her life and fully embrace it. Self-love is tough for anyone. Being gay, or in any other way different, adds several degrees of difficulty. Further, Tom, my protagonist, starts this journey in the early 1950s and doesn’t even begin to accept himself until the summer of 1969, when he admits his love for Junior Willis.
The story is told in three phases. The first phase is during the Korean War, when Tom’s sexuality is awakened. He falls in love for the first time and, when he’s unceremoniously dumped, tries to stuff the genie back in the bottle. The second leg of the journey starts in L.A., where he becomes a screenwriter and eventually a TV writer. He tries women, but eventually the lure of temptation is too strong–and he lets it eat him up inside. Shame, guilt, the whole drill. He is courted by a lesbian Cubana and they become engaged. On vacation in pre-Castro Havana he falls for a young militant who is equally torn about his sexuality. The affair is short and red-hot. But their mutual self-loathing is too strong and they separate.
In the final and lengthiest segment, Tom falls for an inappropriate young man, Junior Willis. What better way to self-fulfill his prophecy of unhappiness than to latch on to an idealized figure? Only when he decides that love, regardless of whether it’s reciprocated, is preferable to not loving at all, does he fully accept himself and his nature (with a surprising twist). At almost exactly that moment, Stonewall is transpiring twenty-five hundred miles away.
How much of yourself and the people you know are in your characters?
There’s something of me or someone I know in every character, even if it’s just a thread. On a larger level many of my characters are either searching for love or resisting it until they can’t hold out any longer, which certainly parallels my life and that of many of my friends. Getting in your own way or behaving in a manner that goes against your own best interests is something with which I am kind of an expert.
Which gay/lesbian authors inspired you the most? Do you have a favorite
of this author(s)?
Walt Whitman, Andrew Holleran, Felice Picano, Colm Toibin, John Rechy, Alan Hollinghurst, E.M. Forster, Michael Cunningham, Christopher Isherwood, Somerset Maugham, Noel Coward, Gore Vidal, Tennessee Williams, Tony Kushner, Rita Mae Brown, Gertrude Stein, Willa Cather, Patricia Highsmith, Paul and Jane Bowles.
Forster is my favorite, both for his posthumous gay novel and the sensibility that infuses all his work.
Do you have any suggestions for new writers?
Writing is for sissies, and sissies are the strongest people I know. They have to be. So if you don’t like hard work and criticism and rejection, don’t bother.
When you’re not writing what do you do for fun?
I read a great deal and I’m a total movie and TV nut, especially contemporary television where all the good narrative writing is today. But I’m never not writing, only away from the computer.