What made you decide to become a fiction writer? I discovered I had the knack for writing stories as a sophomore in college. I was a theater major concentrating on performance when I took a creative-writing class as an elective. The professor loved my work and encouraged me to continue writing. I dropped the theater studies the next year (too impractical for a guy with my limited acting talent) and switched to an English major with an emphasis on fiction-writing.
What type of stories do you write? And why? For a long time, I resisted writing stories with central characters who were gay (like me). My heterosexual couples didn’t quite ring true, but I was afraid to come out as a writer and as a person. Only when I started creating characters with whom I shared an emotional core did my stories begin coming to life.
The central characters in my fiction tend to be gay men caught in the complexities—the little and large setbacks and victories—of daily life. I usually place them in a contemporary setting, though I’m working now on a novel set in the 1940s, just to see if I can pull it off.
What do your family/friends think about your writing? I can state with confidence that no one in my immediate family has read any of my fiction, so I can’t really answer that question. They’re uncomfortable with the gay content, even though it isn’t overtly sexual. I’ve given copies of RANK to my dad and one sister as holiday gifts this year, and I hope they will read it, but I don’t know. Another sister has already told me she will not read it or even have it in the house. Several good friends offered to read RANK in its draft form, and they were complimentary and encouraging. Their feedback was invaluable during the revision process.
I have a bad habit of writing stories and putting them in the drawer for later…I’ve put little of my fiction on the table until recently. I have posted a couple of brief stories on my website, http://www.richardcompsonsater.com/fiction, if anyone is curious. One of these days, I hope to put out a collection of short stories. I have a dozen or so that will make the cut!
Where do you get your ideas? I’ll overhear a conversation. A scene from an old movie will start me wondering “what if?” Once I dreamed a whole perfect story, woke up, and wrote it down. I’ll fall in love with a guy and want to explore a relationship that could not otherwise be, except in fiction. Every story has had different inspiration, a different genesis.
How do you write? Do you plan everything out or just write? I carry a small notebook around with me to jot down ideas in. I’ve grown very comfortable sitting with my laptop and just writing. I tend to edit at least a bit as I write. I rarely outline, though I usually have a general idea where the story is heading before I start. When I began working on RANK, I had in mind the story of a lieutenant who fell in love with a general, and I knew it had to have a happy ending. The first scene I wrote was the retirement dinner where General O’Neill dances with Lieutenant Mitchell. The second part I wrote concerned the lieutenant’s misadventures on the softball team because, at the time, I had been recruited to play on my air-force unit’s team with my very limited softball skills. (Much of that section is autobiographical!)
What makes Rank special to you? RANK is my first novel. I wrote it over the course of several years, during military deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq and stateside service at Hickam Air Force Base, Honolulu. I became so invested in the characters—and I was fighting my own battle to stay in the closet during “don’t ask, don’t tell”—that RANK became very personal. It’s a testament. RANK doesn’t depict the air force as it was during my time in service but an air force I wish had existed then.
How much of yourself and the people you know are in your characters? I wrote RANK from the first-person point of view, because it was easiest for me to put myself in Lieutenant Harris Mitchell’s head. He and I are much alike. I remember being a brand-new officer at twenty-nine and struggling to cope with a deep and serious crush on a senior officer (who was not my boss, incidentally). General O’Neill is unlike any actual general I ever knew, but he contains traits of some senior officers for whom I had great respect. Most of the other characters are composites of friends (and enemies) from my twenty-four years in the service, but no one would ever recognize him/herself.
Which gay/lesbian authors inspired you the most? Do you have a favorite work by these authors? I’ve read—and continue to read—a number of gay authors, and I am most inspired by the fact that they tell their (our) stories so bravely. I confess that some of my favorite “gay” writers predate the term and thus never actually “came out”: Herman Melville, Henry James, Oscar Wilde, Thomas Mann, T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), E.M. Forster, Evelyn Waugh, poets Walt Whitman and Langston Hughes and Emily Dickinson—and Abraham Lincoln. Favorites? Lincoln’s collected speeches; Langston Hughes’s collected poems; SEVEN PILLARS OF WISDOM by T.E. Lawrence; DEATH IN VENICE by Thomas Mann; MOBY DICK and BILLY BUDD, FORETOPMAN by Herman Melville.
One key inspiration of mine is playwright Eugene O’Neill, who may or may not have been gay, but he is known to have “experimented,” and thus I am eager to claim him. His plays are full of characters and symbolism that must be read as gay to make sense of the drama. I love his fearlessness and his willingness to write a play about anything that intrigued him, regardless of public opinion. His best gay plays: THE GREAT GOD BROWN, STRANGE INTERLUDE, BOUND EAST FOR CARDIFF, MOON FOR THE MISBEGOTTEN, HUGHIE.
More contemporary favorites include John Cheever, Alice Walker, Alison Bechdel, Harper Lee, Chuck Palahniuk, Edward Albee, James Baldwin—and Maurice Sendak! Favorites include Alison Bechdel’s FUN HOME, Harper Lee’s TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, Alice Walker’s THE COLOR PURPLE, and John Cheever’s FALCONER and his collection of brilliant short stories.
Do you have any suggestions for new writers? Read, read, read—EVERYTHING. Listen to what people say and how they say it. Take notes so you remember. Take a class to hone your craft. Join a writing group. Write, write, write. Revise ruthlessly. Write more.
When you’re not writing what do you do for fun? I love being outdoors, on or near the water. I love hanging out with my spouse Wayne and our energetic dog, Mark Twain. I love watching old movies. I’m enrolled this year at the University of Washington, a student in the screenwriting program, learning the art and craft of writing the perfect script. My acting career never panned out, but maybe I can still win that Academy Award…