One of the unexpected pleasures of my new journey as an author has been in meeting other writers, many of whom have formed a virtual Algonquin round table on twitter. Unlike the stereotype of competitors, battling each other for readers, this group has been exceedingly generous, supporting and reading each others' work, and tweeting positive reviews and news to their followers.
Recently, a few of us connected, following the Rainbow Book Fair in New York, to discuss our craft and the state of gay literature today. It was with great pleasure that I joined with Gregory G. Allen, David G. Hallman, Carey Parrish, and Arthur Wooten in our own gay take on the Algonquin round table.
Kergan Edwards-Stout: First of all, guys, I just want to say what a pleasure it is to actually connect with you. You've been a really important and supportive influence on me over the last several months, so thank you!
Gregory G. Allen: I agree. This is a really wonderful group!
Kergan Edwards-Stout: So, let me start off by asking you all each, what first inspired you to become a writer? Carey?
Carey Parrish: Being such an avid reader is what inspired me to write. Writing is a passion for me--it's something I can't not do. In fact, being a fan of books and readers is actually what prompted me to write my most recent novel, Big Business.
David G. Hallman: How so?
Carey Parrish: I'd gotten such a response from people who had read my first novel, Marengo, begging me to bring back the characters, that I had no choice but to write the sequel. That passion for reading needs to be rewarded.
Gregory G. Allen: For me, I think I've always loved telling stories. As a kid, I could tell some whoppers, and that grew until I was writing plays for the neighborhood kids, and next thing I knew, my plays were being presented on stage. Some years later, after reading Running With Scissors, I realized I had to write a novel. I wanted to touch someone in the same way that book's author, Augusten Burroughs, had touched me.
Arthur Wooten: Okay, that's sweet and all, but for me--honestly? Money was my inspiration. The first project I wrote, back in 1985, was a pilot for a television show called, A New Leash on Life. It was about a NYC dog walker who wanted to be an actor, plus the dogs and their crazy owners. Dick Cavett was producing it and although it didn't end up airing, it did give me the drive to continue.
Hallman: My inspiration was totally different. While I'd written books before, I had a really traumatic experience, which fundamentally altered my world. My long-term lover died from cancer, and that propelled me to write a memoir, August Farewell. There was so much angst roiling around in my head and heart that I had to find some way to get it out. And writing helped do just that... What about you, Kergan?
Edwards-Stout: I've always loved reading and I also knew I enjoyed writing. But when I was younger, I never saw it as a career. I didn't really know who I was, then, so the idea of being a writer and having a specific voice wasn't even on my radar. But as I grew and had more life experiences, I found, hey--I do have a voice, and passion, and stories to tell. And a big part of that is telling stories which reflect my experiences as a gay man.
Hallman: Before my memoir, I wrote environmental ethics books, where my sexuality--obviously--played no role. But my being gay is a key element of both August Farewell and my subsequent novel, Searching for Gilead, because it is integral to my identity, though both books are primarily about the human experience of love and loss.
Parrish: In my writing, I like to depict the world as it is; not as I would like it to be or as anyone else would like it to be. My characters run the gamut as far as lifestyles, tastes, etc., just like in the real world. The people I write about come from all walks of life.
Allen: I hear you... Being gay is just one part of who I am. I'm also anal-retentive, a fighter, a go-getter. I think, more than anything, being gay sparked my need to tell stories of "the outsider."
Wooten: For me, being a "sensitive" gay man has helped my writing tremendously--especially when I have to get into the head of a very complicated female character. Sue me now, but prior to writing novels, I hadn't read a lot of "gay lit"--and by that I mean I hadn't read a lot of M/M romance, coming of sexual age or hot steamy sex stuff...
Edward-Stout: (laughing) That's the only kind I like!
Hallman: I read voraciously, both gay and non-gay literature. What attracts me most is good writing.
Wooten: A Separate Piece by John Knowles, Thomas Mann's Death In Venice--each literary greats. But would they be considered "gay lit"?
Hallman: Unfortunately, a lot of today's literature, both gay and non-gay, can't stand up to those--most of it isn't very well written. As gay authors, we have to work at improving the quality of our writing if we are to be taken seriously by readers.
Wooten: So, you're saying you didn't like Arthur Wooten's Shorts?
Hallman: (laughing) You saw that 5 star review I gave it!
Parrish: Gay lit will always have its core audience. In fact, I've seen comments from readers who have felt that some books weren't "gay" enough. To me, though, writers have to write what they feel in their hearts.
Allen: There was a time every gay book written had two elements: sex and AIDS. Now we have love stories and all kinds of genre stuff where being gay is not the main thrust of the story.
Parrish: There's something for everyone.
Edwards-Stout: And yet, for me, even though I came out 30 years ago, I still hunger for stories about people like me: gay men finding their way in the world.
Allen: And with Songs for the New Depression, you wrote just that. You touch on sex, AIDS, bullying--but in a way in which it all feels fresh.
Hallman: I've been HIV+ since the early 1990s--and open about it. It figures as an element in both August Farewell and Searching for Gilead, but as only one of multiple key elements. Still, it informs who I am... And AIDS figures prominently in your novel, Well With My Soul, Greg.
Allen: I think AIDS lit a fire in my belly. I mean, when so many were dying around me, I learned to live each day to the fullest. To not sit around dreaming of doing something, but to actually do it.
Parrish: I know what you mean. That experience made me aware of both how lucky so many of us are to be here, but also how our writing can help those facing the disease. Even if it just means giving readers fun diversions which help take their minds off their troubles.
Wooten: Both my first novel, On Picking Fruit, and its sequel, Fruit Cocktail, have a lead character that has been HIV+ for years...
Edwards-Stout: It's a really interesting concept to tackle--especially in books like yours, Arthur, with comedic elements.
Parrish: So many folks thought they were facing death, and making all the plans that go along with that, but then suddenly get a reprieve, and have to learn to live again...
Edwards-Stout: Speaking of living and envisioning your life--where would you each like to see yourself in 10 years? David?
Hallman: Hmm... I'd like to be a) still alive; b) have a framed Pulitzer, Giller, and Man-Booker on my wall; and c) a new lover in my bed. But I'd settle for two out of three. What about you, Greg?
Allen: Well, I hope I'm still happy with my husband, with a home in a warm state and a summer place on Cape Cod.
Wooten: You can keep the Cape. I want to be gardening...in the country. With a smart cocktail.
Edwards-Stout: (laughing) I'll take a chardonnay instead--and all of the above!
Allen: Carey, what about you? Where would you like to be in 10 years?
Parrish: I'd like to be writing. Simple as that.
(Cross-posted on Kergan Edwards-Stout and Huffington Post.)