I came out of the homosexual closet the same year a groundbreaking play came out of the Broadway one. The author’s name may not have been immediately recognizable in heterosexual households, but even the most homosexually challenged people would know, as the media often labeled him, The Voice of Gay America. Latching onto the manuscript I identified with the dialogue and situations so well, I highlighted passages on most of the pages with a yellow marker. I committed lines at a time to memory. Soon, I had to carefully tape together the most well read sections until almost every page had been reassembled. And as a young, impressionable fagling, I watched with budding pride as the author accepted a major award with a landmark speech that to this day still impresses me with its courage. This was not only a gay man, but also a writer that could potentially (and seemingly) break down barriers with the sentences he formed. I knew immediately I had found something that I desperately needed: an incredible role model.
Years later I am working with one of the largest gay newspaper in the United States, and threw myself at the chance to do a phone interview with The Voice. I wanted to talk about this man’s illustrious body of work, his triumphs of the printed word and on stage. I wanted his opinion on the current gay liberation movement versus the earlier original one from which his works developed. But most of all, politics and literature aside, I wanted to thank him for influencing my life.
There was so much to ask him I didn’t know where to begin. I carefully did my research and my list ran the gamut from this man’s emerging career to his modern achievements. After checking and rechecking my work, I was set. I was excited and when the day arrived, I was at my computer with my headphones at least 10 minutes earlier than needed. I was going to chat (via phone) with a man I highly respected, and who’s written prose I read more often than any other living writer!
After the second time in ten minutes that I reached his hotel room’s message service, I thought to double check the email. Yes. I had the most recently rescheduled date/time correct. There had been three changes in 48 hours and I moved my schedule to accommodate the latest and current one. I sent an email to the publicist, waited the instructed five more minutes and tried the call again. When The Voice picked up the phone with a mournful, “hello”, I beamed with successful delight and started my stopwatch.
“Mr. Voice,” I gushed trying to sound more enthusiast than psychopath. “Before we start, let me say this is a pleasure and an honor. You have been my inspiration not only as a gay man, but as a writer as well.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” The Voice harrumphed through the phone connection. “Let’s get on with the interview.”
I chuckled thinking he was being funny. He wasn’t.
The first question: “Who were your earliest influences?” never got answered. Instead, he went off on a tangent and I’m still not sure what his point was, but it didn’t answer the question. Regardless, my fingers flew across the keyboard keeping up with his rapid, gravelly tones and capturing every word. Half way through asking my second inquiry, I was interrupted with, “That’s the stupidest question I ever heard. Whoever thought of that is a moron!”
I was stunned. My eyes flew over my notes. Out of my twenty prepared questions, his publicist had dismissed three when a last minute stipulation was declared for preapproval of all interviews questions. I didn’t mind, but this one had been given the green light, and for the life of me I couldn’t figure out why the immediate defensiveness. I quickly moved onto the next but the tone was set and the interview spiraled all down hill from there. Before the conversation’s end, two more of my questions were awarded The Stupidest Question Ever, a major religious group was insulted, and at one point The Voice declared with a heavy sigh, “Cookie, you have two minutes left.”
I finished the interview, thanked him for his time and got off the phone. I hit the red button on my stopwatch and was shocked! The entire interview – and all that had transpired within – lasted only Twelve minutes and Twenty-Two seconds. Out of all the interviews I’d conducted over the years (before and since) this was my shortest by at least half the time.
That’s when I heard it: the sound of my idol shattering on the ground into millions of little pieces.
I have no idea what may or may not have been going on with The Voice before our initial contact. The truth is I’ll never know and by the time our conversation ended, it made very little difference as all damages had been done. The bottom line is he knew he was going to be talking to me, a gay reporter from a gay newspaper, and even if you aren’t The Voice of Gay America, you should be prepared for any questions during an interview. I am truly grateful for the inspiration The Voice has given me up to this point. But from here on out – I think I can do better.
I’ve been offered many potential possibilities as to excuse his behavior, some plausible and others pure fancy. Maybe it was withdrawal, or he was suffering from a chemical peel. Maybe he just had enough of the responsibilities of being The Voice of Gay America; or maybe, just maybe he’s most happy being an unhappy person and surrounding himself with the negative type of enablers. Or it’s possible he was just having a really bad day. I know that after talking to him I certainly was. Soon I was spinning in the proverbial gerbil’s wheel: going around and around and never moving from that one spot.
I’ve heard many horror stories since then about journalists disappointed by interviewing their role models or person(s) of influence. I’ve been told about lovers’ quarrels being held simultaneously with the interview in progress. A coffee house attendant being utterly berated for making a Large instead of a Grande, and one very infamous situation where a very established writer had to be institutionalized after conducting his interview with another famous play-write. I only got called a moron – I think I got off easy.
Every artist – be it written word, painted canvas, carved stone or whatever – wants to be inspired and inspiring. Does that mean we have to put ourselves out there to be a role model as well? That’s a lot of pressure to live up to especially if you have no knowledge of the people doing it, nor of the responsibilities they are projecting. It’s hard to play the game if you don’t know the rules.
But if our art doesn’t inspire than what was the reason for its creation? For strict soulful, self-enjoyment? Don’t kid yourself! No true artists’ ego would ever allow that. If that were the case, we’d be in seclusion writing away in our diaries. We create to inspire and therefore we inadvertently take on the potential responsibilities of becoming a role model.
I find inspiration these days from many writers in the GLBT society. Some are starting out and some are well established. I’m fortunate enough to have a role model that is one of the most prolific names within that community. He’s been extremely generous with advice and encouragement. His critiques are kind and considerate, and he’s been as gracious with others as he has been with me. I count my great fortune to have transformed from fan to friend.
As my second gay spy thriller Balls & Chain is about to be released (November 2014) and as I work on my third novel, I can’t help but wonder what kind of role model I would want to be – should the request ever arise. There are several traits I’d like to emulate from my current inspiration: 1: Be gracious to your fans – without them you’re just writing words on paper. 2: Try to encourage budding writers – today’s little entertaining, filler column is tomorrow’s “Tales of the City”, and 3: No matter how enthusiastic the fan, there’s always a polite way to excuse yourself.
That’s not to say I didn’t learn some things from his predecessor. There are many traits The Voice has shown that I hope to emulate, but there are three that stand out the most: 1: Be nice to reporters – they have many readers and can hold grudges. 2: Try to remember that if you are going to accept the accolades for your work – that you’ll need to smile at the critiques as well, and 3: Don’t call people Cookie – it’s just tacky.