Posts Tagged 'AIDS'

Anatomy of a Book Cover



Over the years, I’ve been involved in the design of several of my book covers. I’ve also stepped back and let knowledgeable publishers do their work. Each time I’ve been pleased with the process and the results, but the reason I jumped in a few times is a simple one: it was fun. As the excitement, stress and concern over shaping a book slowly turns into the joy of completion, I’m often left with a mental image of how the physical book should appear, or at the very least what color scheme speaks to the contents within.

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When I edited The Lost Library: Gay Fiction Rediscovered, I’d known all along that I wanted the cover to feature the artwork of Mel Odom. As a fledging reader, Mel was one of the first artists who illustrated book covers that I knew by name. I even had an unwieldy Richard Adams novel that I never got around to reading, but hung onto for years, because I found Mel’s image so arresting. Possibly his most famous cover art was for Anne Rice’s (writing as Anne Rampling) Belinda, but for me, as I came out of the closet I recognized a kindred spirit, one who’s work adorned the covers of Edmund White’s books: Nocturne for the King of Naples and Forgetting Elena. Speaking of Edmund White: I asked him to write something for Lost Library but the books that interested him the most were already taken. Then, after landing a publisher, I dropped him an email asking if he was still in touch with Mel Odom. He wasn’t, but had a mutual friend who lived in the same building as Mel; I could ring her and she would leave a note under his door for me. How exhilarating! I rang, the note was left. I waited. And not for long. Mel called me and we launched into a fun, rapid fire conversation ending with him agreeing that I could use his work for The Lost Library.

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Afterwards I was fortunate enough to find a home for more of my writing, working with my partner, Leo, on some cover art, working with the publisher on other titles. And then suddenly I had enough stories for a second collection. Mel’s work immediately came to mind again. Since The Lost Library we’d become friends and I’d spent more time getting to know the contours of his art. My new collection, Night Sweats: Tales of Homosexual Wonder and Woe, had stories firmly grounded in New York City. The title references the AIDS epidemic, a horror that, though none of the stories grapple with this holocaust, its terror is a permanent part of the queer landscape, informing my writing at every turn. As a New York City artist, this was a holocaust Mel witnessed firsthand. I dropped him an email and he was game for us to have another go. And I knew which of his illustrations would be a perfect fit: Means of Evil.image 3


The title alone certainly spoke to me (I’d even considered it as a possible title for Night Sweats). The skeletal beauty –shades of Alexander the Great, marble, urban, it just was the cover. In the first story, Owl Aerie, a boy plays baseball and winds up catching a skull in his mitt. Another tale contains letters from a Roman emperor. The image reflects the contents in every way.

One of my closest friends, Kate, designed The Lost Library cover, bringing Mel’s work to the forefront and creating a truly striking book. Mel loved her (she’s one of those women gay men immediately fall for). Knowing we needed to make Night Sweats different, singular, we chatted about book covers and I sent her some images of gay pulp covers from the 50s. We discussed how an essence of that twilight world tinged the stories in Night Sweats and how the design elements of those early paper backs could accentuate Mel’s work. Kate also played around with some alternate ideas, in keeping with postmodern book design. I liked everything she did, but kept coming back to one of the pieces inspired by the pulp covers. Such nostalgia conversely gave the book an air of permanence, something any gay collection of short stories could benefit from. We had our cover.

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This past winter, Mel Odom’s first ever solo show was a smashing success. His new work was stunning; the small, meandering rooms of the Upper East Side gallery added a hint of storytelling and discovery to the art. The crowd was fashionable, glittery, in-the-know, and boisterous. I stepped into Central Park for some night air on my way home, marveling at the unseasonably warm weather –everyone was out, giddy at this spring-like reprieve. Later when I arrived back at my apartment, still a bit tipsy, there was a box waiting for me: my author copies of Night Sweats: Tales of Homosexual Wonder and Woe had arrived. I poured them out onto the floor, electrified by a fantastic sense of synchronicity –one of those sparkling moments where all the woe is outweighed by the wonder of it all.


Please check out more of Mel’s work here:

Anatomy of a Subtitle



Naming a book is quickly comparable to naming a baby: yes this paper creature will have a life of its own, and only after you nurture it properly, but really the thinking process around titling a book is best considered writing poetry with a razor: it has to be concise, sharp, and, like anything that can cut remotely deep, memorable.

Night Sweats: Tales of Homosexual Wonder and Woe is my seventh published book, so I’m in a comfortable position to look back and review my personal “naming” process. Some titles gestated for a long time, and when I invoke them in conversation or at reading, they still slice as freshly then as when first conjured. One, my novella Pacific Rimming, came to me in the back of a cab and was launched with a drunken guffaw. I edited a collection, The Lost Library: Gay Fiction Rediscovered, wherein writers essayed about a favorite gay text that was out-of-print, and had had some back and forth with one of the contributors over the original title, Dust Jackets, as being a bit, well, musty, and not really connoting the contents. So I turned it over to the writers and oddly, the one who suggested what’s now the title also missed some deadlines, went silent, and never turned in their essay (and the writerly life being so damned weird, I’m now friends on facebook with the author whose book Mr. Silent had intended to review. To double down on said weirdness, that writer and I got along so well that I invited him to contribute to another anthology I later edited. He missed some deadlines, went silent, and never turned in his piece –I wonder if they are together right now at that old gay dive, Julius, in the West Village, offering to buy one another the next drink but never actually ponying up the cash?).

Night SweatsThe title proper for my new book and second collection of short stories, Night Sweats, is defined by absence.

Thirteen stories? Check.

Some nasty surprises? Check.

Some previously published work? Check.

New stories? Check.

Some seriously hot scenes? Double check.

Satan masturbating on a train? Of course.

These stories have gay folk spread across millennia, countries and cultures. What the book doesn’t possess is a single mention of AIDS. Yet night sweats are a symptom of HIV and AIDS. One of my best friends and I once commented to each other how different it is for a gay guy to get the flu. The shuffle to the pharmacy includes a mental check list of recent sexual encounters, a raw tally of what, if anything, went wrong. The cough and fever is an emotional earthquake, none too high on the Richter scale if you’d been safe, but at still it cracks the confidence, emits doubts -summons that permanent fear.

A fear that will never go away.

So that’s where the title comes from: even when we’re not talking or thinking about AIDS, it’s there. Its permanent scars on the landscape of queer culture are so deep that they’ve formed the canals from which our current civil rights victories have flowed. Some might disagree, but the eventual recognition, the struggle to organize, netted us something more than survival. We learned to fight for a better future. But the reverberation of that horror, that holocaust, remains. And when I’m writing a story filled with dread, I draw from this emotional reality. The subtitling of Night Sweats, Tales of Homosexual Wonder and Woe, was, for me, an exercise. How to extend the meaning of the title but not repeat the theme? I thought of the novel Frankenstein. Really, what book has a more impressive subtitle: or, The Modern Prometheus –I mean, damn. Powerful stuff, right? I made a list of words and fragments and played with them until I felt like I had formed the right key for the reader to better unlock the work. I hope it works for them. I hope it works for you. I hope I keep getting better as a writer. I hope my boyfriend comes home with a bottle of red wine. I hope that Madonna reissues Erotica with a ton of remixes and previously unreleased demos. I hope Night Sweats sells really, really well. I hope whoever likes it sends me an email telling me so on whatever day of the week happens to be the shittiest. I hope PrEP is the crucial step necessary to rid us of AIDS once and for all. I hope that wonder edges out woe in the world. I hope our collective pens play a part in redrawing that demarcation line. Oh how I hope.





What made you decide to become a fiction writer?

I remember the moment so vividly. It was as if I were “literally” struck by lightning. As a child I was serious reader, forever with a book in hand, and then one day, not yet a teen, reading one of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars books at the kitchen table in my family’s cabin in North Carolina, the summer sunlight just streaming in, it hit me: “I’m going to do this, too.” I put his book down, grabbed some graph paper, and started mapping out my world.

What type of stories do you write?  And why?

I have two settings: weird and dirty. Sometimes, if the mood strikes, I’ll write something primarily erotic. Being gay is a risk and a journey, so exploring the sexual nature of existence is, well, natural to me, but I also know that every story is a story of transformation. And no matter what our intentions or the intentions of others are, alchemy happens, and we either turn into gold or are stuck with bat wings that don’t work, so speculative fiction lets me work that stuff out as well. Often with a shudder.

 What do your family/friends think about your writing?

My family is somewhere on the spectrum between intensely horrified to mildly proud. My friends are always extremely delighted whenever I‘m sober and productive. And they’re very supportive. My best friend Kate designed the cover for Night Sweats. My partner Leo has done two of my book covers. My friend and old roommate, Jay, took my author photo, my college buddy Mike has been doing my website for years now…I think that’s New York City. Everyone is not only interested and interesting, but also there to lend a hand. I just hope I’m returning the favor.

Where do you get your ideas?

Drugs were good to me. And that’s not a pithy response, When I was younger I was fortunate enough to get into psychedelics with a reverential yet playful attitude, meaning the first time I tripped, I also read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but since the words kept sliding off the page, I went for a bike ride instead. But somewhere in those early experiences, I was able to learn to let my imagination off the leash. I still go for long bike rides, and I often walk across the Manhattan Bridge just before dawn. And sometimes I think about Poe. Didn’t he walk incessantly across a bridge from the Bronx to Manhattan, deep in thought?

How do you write; do you plan everything out or just write?

Oh, all I think about is sex and money. Writing is what happens when I come up for air. So no plotting, no planning, very little research, just a lot of gasping before I sink back down toward the bottom.

Night SweatsWhat makes Night Sweats special to you?

This is my second collection of short stories, and I remember sitting in a bar in the panhandle of Florida, way before I came out. It was a live show, I think the band playing was Man or Astro Man?—and I’d spent several years working on a horror novel that I’d never shared with anyone. Nothing yet published, and I was telling my friends about this idea I had for a werewolf story, and I caught them looking at each other like “here he goes again.” Honestly, that moment deepened my resolve to become a writer like no other. Getting a book out there is a big fucking deal. And to repeat the process, to return to the mine again and find your own peculiar gems, well, it’s not a fluke then, is it? It’s a passion and a profession, and when you get to combine the two, well, that is a splendid moment, and that’s what Night Sweats is to me, a fantastical event. So you can imagine how thrilled I am that Bold Strokes not only decided to publish this collection, but that everyone has come at the project with such interest and care.

I would like to comment on the title. This book has more horror in it, hence the name, a symptom of the virus that causes AIDS. And that’s purposeful. There’s not one mention of HIV or AIDS in any of these stories, but as a community, we’re still in the midst of an ongoing plague. That horror consistently impacts our lives in ways visible and invisible—queer folk have a daily dread, and the resolve we muster to beat it down, well, maybe that adds that extra bit of sparkle I see in so many of us, and that’s also present in this collection, or so I hope, but most of the work here is dark, and for some of us, that’s the same thing as honest.

How much of yourself and the people you know are in your characters?

Ha! One of my dear friends, John, who is also a great reader, likes to tease me. He says he likes my stories but particularly enjoys the ones that aren’t “Tom-in-disguise.” So, yeah, some stuff is autobiographical, or just me taking the easy route, so I don’t know what triggers it when I jump into someone else’s skin.

Which gay/lesbian authors inspired you the most?  Do you have a favorite

of this author(s)?

Tough question! I think I’d like to go at it this way: from childhood through college I was a voracious reader. I’m shocked at how much I absorbed. A small cadre of writers stood out. And before everyone was name-checking Philip K. Dick, he was a huge influence on me in the 80s, like when major books of his were actually out of print and passed around among the acid-heads hanging out in the school parking lot. John Varley was a huge influence, and the fluidity of his characters sexuality was earth-shattering for me. Funny story. A few years ago I got a very nice note from a fan, and I thought, “Well, I should return the favor!” So I looked up John Varley and wrote him an email, telling him how much his work meant to me as a kid struggling with being gay in the age of Reagan, and “boom!” He wrote me back thanking me for thanking him! Like in a few minutes, so I was doubly thrilled. But I digress. Octavia E. Butler, Alasdair Grey, Geoff Ryman, and Kathe Koja, all of them are my pantheon of originality and style. They have inspired me, and I’ve been lucky to interview two of them, befriending Kathe, and I heard Octavia give a warm talk in person, right before she passed. I’ll never forget that night. And I got to drink in a pub in Glasgow where Alasdair Grey worked off a bar tab by painting a fantastic mural. And when it comes to nonfiction, Edmund White is a light. There’s so much focus on his sparkling novels, but man, his nonfiction is immortal, too.

Do you have any suggestions for new writers?

The joy you felt in creating something is not automatically transferred to the reader, much less the editor and publisher. Worse, that joy is an emotional experience, so rejection doesn’t always lead to rational thoughts/decisions, like “I wonder what I could do better,” or “Maybe I just wasn’t a good fit for this publication.” If your goal is to write and improve, rather than just write, chances are you’ll have a better go at it.

In this field, all you have is your talent and your relationships, so how do you treat others? How do you treat yourself? I think these are decent questions to ask.

When you’re not writing what do you do for fun?

I travel whenever I can. There are so many places I want to go.

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