BY CONNIE WARD
What made you decide to become a fiction writer?
I bet I’m typical of most fiction writers in that I never really decided to become one: I’ve always written fiction. As soon as I learned to write I began composing little stories that I would share with my school friends. The more important question for me is why I decided to try to get my fiction published. I have published numerous scholarly articles, but never fiction. A former therapist I saw for many years listened to me whine about how “I’ve always wanted to be a writer,” yet I never submitted anything for publication. He noted that when I felt that I had something to say, I would write for publication. I guess I finally feel like I have something to say.
What type of stories do you write?
My first novel is a coming-of-age tale. I’ve begun writing a second one that is also a coming-of-age story. I grew up in the 1960s—a turbulent time socially for the U.S. Homosexuality was still listed as a mental illness by both the American Psychological Assn and the American Psychiatric Assn; being homosexual would get one kicked out of the military with a dishonorable discharge. It was not a time to embrace one’s “otherness.” That struggle—the inward revulsion reflecting societal hatreds—scarred me for most of my life. Yet that struggle seems so distant today, as gay people celebrate the legal right to marry in the U.S. (and all the other ways being gay today is different from being gay in the 1960s). I feel that I have stories to tell that expose that grim reality that gay men and women endured in the 1960s.
What do your family/friends think about your writing?
My mom and dad used to think I was extremely creative and enjoyed showing my writing efforts (short stories and the like) to their friends and coworkers. If my parents were alive they would be delighted with my novel, but not surprised that I’ve finally gotten a novel published. Years ago I was a co-author of a textbook, my name prominently displayed on the cover. I gave my mom a copy of it. Imagine my (delighted) embarrassment when I picked her up at the doctor’s office one day, and she was carrying the book—the cover conspicuously in view. I asked her about it, and she said she just had to show it to everybody—in fact for several weeks, she carried it everywhere she went and showed it to anybody with a pulse! I wish she were here now to carry my novel around town! Most of my friends have died or scattered to the winds over the years, but I think they would enjoy seeing themselves reflected in my books (current and future).My surviving family is delighted that I have published my first novel.
Where do you get your ideas?
Where do any ideas come from? They come from my existence—from the difficulties I endured, the struggles of my friends (gay and straight), various news stories that caught my eye. I discovered that I can weave “real” events with fictional situations rather well. Much of the action that occurs in my first novel actually happened, just not quite in the way I have written it. When writing, it’s not uncommon for me to come to an impasse with my characters—they refuse to do what I want them to. hen I’ll think of something that happened to me (or that I read about) over the years, and I’ll try to put my recalcitrant characters into those situations. Sometimes it works, sometimes not.
How do you write: do you plan everything out or just write?
With my first novel, I started out writing vignettes. Each little tale stood alone. I was in a faculty writing group at the university where I taught in California when the ideas for Tallulah first popped up. I wrote one vignette and got favorable feedback from the writers’ group and continued to write little “mini-short stories.” After I shared three or four of these efforts, the writing group suggested that it would make a good novel, so I began stringing them together. The original vignettes that I wrote were based on real events; later in my efforts, I began to pull in events that I had read about or just dreamed up. Tallulah was just a conglomeration of ideas, a bit of a muddle at first. In fact I thought I had finished the book in 2010 when I went to a writers’ workshop in New Orleans. I was asked to submit the first two chapters when I signed up for the workshop and realized that I didn’t know for sure which chapters were the first or second ones! The instructor (author CJ Lyons) advised me that I needed to figure out how I wanted the story to start before I could continue with a logical story arc. With the input from Lyons and the other group members, the “finished novel” that I had brought to the workshop began to take shape. The real finished novel bears little resemblance to that earlier effort. Whole chapters have been rearranged, new characters were introduced, chapters were deleted, and the entire story line was extensively modified. That is not the way to write a novel! The second novel I’ve begun writing is more structured from the outset. I know who my characters are, I know the setting(s) of the tale, and I know the story arc of the main character (not surprisingly, a young man coming of age in the late 1960s).
What makes Tallulah Bankhead Slept Here special to you?
I actually worked as a bellboy at a motel in my hometown, and a faded movie star really did stay several weeks at the motel, although I had almost no interaction with her. Many years later, at the writers’ group in California, I began to think that having a naïve teen interacting with a world-weary movie star would make a fun premise for a novel. Over the years I would pick up the pages I had written while in the group and either tear them up and start over, or fawn over them, thinking them to be the best work written in English. Sadly for me, mental illness overtook my life, and I couldn’t focus on writing for many years. Finally, I entered a period of mental stability from the late 1990s onward and was able to revisit the book I had begun so many years before. At one point I had saved the first draft on a 3.5 inch floppy disc, then deleted it from an old computer I threw out. I then managed to lose the floppy disc. Years later, as I was about to be evicted from an apartment, I packed up my meager belongings and moved in with a cherished lesbian friend. Once on my feet, I relocated to southern Louisiana; during the unpacking I discovered that lost floppy. I don’t believe in the supernatural or any such things, but it did seem like this was a “sign” for me not to give up. I reworked Tallulah and attended the writers’ workshop in New Orleans, then reworked the novel yet again. I thought I had finished the book and had saved it to a flash drive when my computer crashed. I figured everything was okay because I had the flash drive, but no sooner did I plug the flash drive into my new computer than I bumped into it and broke the damn thing in half. There was no way I could recover the material saved on the drive. So, once again, I started over. Happily I had a hard copy of an earlier draft and didn’t actually have to start from scratch. After all this drama, I decided to give it my best shot to get it published. I am pleased to see the results of these efforts. Mental stability and a published novel make for a happy author!
How much of yourself and the people you know are in your characters?
Several of the characters in Tallulah are based on real people that I met while working at the motel. They would be virtually unrecognizable to anyone from that period, however, because I had to make them work together in ways they never did in real life for the novel to make sense. The main character is based on me (what a surprise!): the naïve teen working at a motel and interacting with the world-weary movie star. Most of the scandalous actions actually occurred to a friend of mine (Richard Luna, to whom the novel is dedicated). He was quite the little horn dog back then, and I was the somewhat envious, somewhat mortified observer. One of the characters is a television star with whom the main character has a sexual fling. Richard never told me who this TV star was that he cavorted with, just telling me that it was a gorgeous guy in a TV Western. So, it’s as much a mystery for me as it is for the readers—who was that star of TV Westerns who seduced a teenager in El Paso, Texas during the summer of 1967?
Which gay/lesbian authors inspired you the most? Do you have a favorite of this author(s)?
Actually three authors (two gay identified, one not) inspired me. I wanted to write a novel including a real, well-known (though deceased) movie star. I didn’t know how to do that without being sued by such an actor’s estate. Then I read Stewart Kaminsky’s detective series featuring Toby Peters. There is a string of about twenty books featuring all kinds of movie stars, from Joan Crawford to Mae West. I realized that I could have the movie star do anything as long as it was not indecent, illegal, or immoral .For instance, I learned that I couldn’t have Tallulah Bankhead sleeping with anybody—although I allude to her sadness at losing her sexual allure. So Tallulah is kind of the Yoda of my book: worldly, wise, “seen it all, done it all,” and acting as a stable rock around which the actions of the hapless protagonist revolves. I also wanted characters that were so real you just knew the author was writing verbatim about events that actually occurred. I don’t think anybody does this better than Felice Picano. When I read Like People in History I was convinced he was transcribing the events as they actually happened. I hope I have been able to get a bit of that “real-ness” into my book. The third element of the book that I wanted very much to include was a sort of breathless wonder that overcame the protagonist; the character is agog over all the events going on around him. And who better to capture that sense of amazing reality than Armistead Maupin? His Tales of the City series leaves me breathless as the characters engage in one amazing experience after another. I hope I’ve been able to achieve that wonderment to some extent.
Do you have any suggestions for new writers?
Write! I have come across two ideas from authors whose names I have forgotten: if you want to be an author you have to write! And “what do you call an author who won’t quit sending his/her efforts to agents and publishers? You call him ‘published.'”
When you’re not writing what do you do for fun?
I read extensively (and intensively, come to think of it). I get as focused on the structure of the book as I do on the plotline: what words were used and could another word or phrase have been used instead? I am a slow reader because I absorb the writer’s technique as much as I absorb the story line. I enjoy jogging and hiking (especially in desert country).I also play with my two Shih Tzu puppies. Over the years I have lost so many friends, family members, and pets that I thought I’d not want to have any more pets. Then these two little guys came into my life. It’s hard to be blue and morose playing with them. Thanks for the opportunity to reflect on the “why” of writing my novel.