A Conversation with Victor J. Banis by Gavin Atlas

Victor J. Banis has been writing and publishing since the 1960’s and has been called “the godfather of modern popular gay fiction”.  He has published both groundbreaking gay fiction and found success with mainstream fiction at major houses.  His 1966 book The Why Not was just re-released as an e-book by Borgo Press and his latest novel, A Deadly Kind of Love, releases June 3rd from Dreamspinner Press.

Hi, Victor!   After reading The Why Not, I thought, “Wow, life for gay men was horrible in the 1960s.”  Were your experiences and the experiences of your friends a lot like those of your characters in your book?  

Every little story in The Why Not was based on actual experience, mine, my friends, or that I knew of from the press. The straight man beaten to death by gay bashers, for example, that happened in San Francisco. The Why Not was a name we gave to a Hollywood Bar, The Castaways, very popular at the time. I show up in several of the stories, and my friend Elbert Barrow was the prototype for Lady Agatha. He went on to use that name and became a fixture in the gay scene of Los Angeles and Hollywood in the sixties. If you lived in L.A. in the 60s and 70s, you knew, or at least knew of, Lady Agatha. Sadly, he was the first friend I lost to AIDS, before they even knew it as AIDS

In The Why Not, it’s not just the thugs and the police raids, it’s also that the loneliness is incredibly pervasive.  It seems to me like life for gay men has gotten so much better, but how do you feel about that assessment?   Are there aspects of gay life that you feel have gone in the wrong direction since the pre-Stonewall era?  

I’ve said often that those early gay writings, this one included, were dishonest in a sense because although yes there was lot of doom and gloom, the truth is that most of us were happy most of the time, having fun (does anybody know how to have more fun than gay boys?). People met and fell in love, began relationships, many of which are still in place today. There were always bars, however far underground, and no shortage of parties. I’d have to say that gay life in general is better today but a part of me actually misses the underground aspect of gay life then. You could ride to work with a friend on the bus and talk about everything you did over the weekend, and nobody around you knew what you were talking about. Today, everybody knows all the words and expressions. No more little secrets.

I had a Spartacus gay travel guide a number of years ago, and I remember seeing listings for bars in places like Portugal and Greece that were named “Why Not?” or “The Why Not”.    Were those bars named after your book, and if so, how does that feel?  

I don’t actually know but I suspect they were. The book was very popular and well received in its day. I was in Portugal and Greece not long after it was published, and probably talked about it with people I met there. As far as I know, my friends and I in Los Angeles were the first to use the phrase in the sense of gay-bar-ness, but it’s not all that unique either, I suppose. Still, it seems more than coincidental. 

I’ve read that you were on trial in the early 60s in Iowa for writing a book that had some lesbian content.  You also apparently had a book with Maurice Girodias who was famous for publishing so much controversial work that he practically had to flee from country to country. How did you feel about taking such risks?  

Well, the first one was ignorance – I wrote my first novel, The Affairs of Gloria (that’s the one in the Iowa trial) unaware of the legal risks. Since I bought the book openly in a book store, just forked over my money, I supposed that those things were okay. How was I to know I was forking illegally? But I learned differently, and the Federal Government harassed me for years. The odd thing is, I wrote Gloria more as a lark. If they’d left me alone, I probably wouldn’t have done any more in that vein, my goal was to be a serious writer (I don’t even know today what that is) but I was offended at seeing what I thought of as my constitutional rights trampled on. Without freedom of speech, the right to hold and express a contrary view, there is no democracy. I felt I had to do more sexy paperbacks just to show I wasn’t intimidated. But all of us writing in the genre in the sixties wrote with the threat of arrest and imprisonment hanging over our heads all the time. It was scary, but we really did feel that we were changing the world. I was more idealistic as a young man. I’m a bit more cynical today. 

You’ve written in a number of genres.  What type of stories do you most enjoy writing?  Are there specific books or characters that you’ve created that mean the most to you? 

I like writing in different genres, and I love most of my characters. Of course, Jackie Holmes in the C.A.MP. series put me on the map, so to speak, so I am always grateful to him for sharing his adventures with me. But I loved my cowboys in Longhorns, and my detectives, Tom and Stanley, in the Deadly mysteries. (The first book is Deadly Nightshade from MLR Press.)  And little Terry/Lola in Lola Dances. My fiction is pretty much character driven, so I get to know my people pretty well, and they generally stay with me forever. My head gets so crowded. 

You just mentioned your main characters from your mystery series as a couple of your favorites.  Your new book is your sixth that feature them.  Can you describe what about them makes them distinct, in your opinion?  Could you tell us about the feedback you get from fans when they explain what appeals to them about the duo and about the Deadly series?

I think myself that Tom and Stanley are interesting because they go through a lot of the same issues that guys in real life struggle with.  It’s interesting about fans – initially, most of them liked the campy Stanley  and not the quasi-straight Tom, but over time, many have shifted their viewpoints. Stanley is a butterfly, never quite satisfied. Tom is not very imaginative, but having decided he’s in love with Stanley, he is like a rock. I think that appeals to readers, both gay men and straight women. He’s the super macho guy who really is a gentle lion. 

How did you feel about you experiences with major publishers and mainstream fiction versus your work with smaller publishers and gay-themed fiction?  

My experiences with the major NYC publishers, in the late 70s and early 80s, weren’t particularly happy ones. It’s a dog eat dog world. I had worked for years with the small, West Coast paperback houses, and most of the people I worked with were gentlemen, regardless of gender, and much of our business really was done on the basis of a handshake, or simply one’s word. For instance, if I found myself cash short, I could call my editor at Greenleaf, the legendary Earl Kemp, and he would put a check in the mail to me, and I would start on a manuscript for him. Can you imagine that today, the trust and respect? But that wasn’t true when I got to NYC. I think I was too much of an idealist and I got very disillusioned, actually bitter. I dropped out for a while, and since I’ve come back I work with smaller independent houses, and I’m happier with them. Of course, I don’t make the big bucks, either, but it’s more a matter of satisfaction. I pretty much write what I want to write, when and how I want to write it. 

You’ve been credited as an influence for writers such as mystery author, Joseph Hansen, and apparently you’ve nurtured the careers of many other writers, even acting as an agent.  Which accomplishments by writers you’ve taken under your wing make you feel the proudest?   Also, you’re now very active on the Gay Writers and Readers loop.  In what ways do you find that rewarding?

Gosh, I like boosting other writers and I try to do what I can for them, though I’m not sure it’s always very effective. In the 60s, the gay genre was new and although lots of writers wanted to enter the field, many did not know how, and I took great satisfaction in being able to help them along and I think I was very influential there. I did encourage Joe Hansen though I can’t take much credit for his success—but we remained friends for many years, until his passing. There’s a wonderful story, and it relates to The Why Not – Wildside Press decided to reissue that some years back, in the print version, and I called Joe—he lived then in Laguna Beach, and to my astonishment he quoted from the book at great length—I couldn’t have done it myself, and said so, and he replied, “Well, it was a very good book.” How could I not be thrilled by that? I worked a few years back with Alan Chin, who I think is enormously talented, and I have encouraged Mykola Dementiuk, though I think he’d have been just fine without me. I was such a seminal figure in gay publishing that I take an almost paternalistic pride in the successes of today’s writers. It’s like their success validates those early years of struggle, even in the case of writers who probably don’t have a clue who I am. 

Instead of a massive city with a large gay population, you’ve now chosen to live in Martinsburg, West Virginia which, according to Wikipedia, has a population of only about 17,000.  What do you prefer about small town life?  

Given my druthers, to be honest, I’d be back in San Francisco in a heartbeat. But I’m along in years and living on a very modest income. To be honest, I’m being booted out of the home I live in here—long story, a landlord and friend succumbing to dementia. So I don’t know where the next chapter of my life will be written – maybe a cardboard box down by the tracks? But I am sure it will be interesting. My life has been checkered, to say the least, but I can honestly state that there hasn’t been a single tragedy in my life that I did not later look back upon as a blessing. Life has had a way of kicking me in the butt and making me go where, as it turned out, I was supposed to be. So I’m sure this too will work out just fine – or, if it doesn’t, and I end up out there in the void, hey, I won’t know the difference anyway. Next time I’m coming back as a saint, you’ll see. 

You’ve probably been interviewed a great number of times.  Are there questions you’re still hoping to be asked, and of course, could you answer them?  

Oh, golly, it seems like I’m just repeating myself all the time. I don’t know what else people would want to know about me. I’m a bit of a recluse and probably not the easiest person to get along with. Hmm, questions I’d like to hear? How about, “Can we get it on?” Ha ha, not happening. I’m past the point of being of interest romantically to others, which is probably just as well, that wasn’t an aspect of my life that I managed very well. (See future plans for sainthood, above, it will save a lot of wear and tear) My last relationship reminded me of a line from Groucho – “I was married by a judge. I should have asked for a jury.” It was steamy, I’ll say that, but stormy too. 

I’ve heard that a person is still young if he or she is still learning.  Do you feel you’re still learning new things and, if so, what are they?   What things are you looking forward to?  

I’m always learning something new, which serves to remind me how much I don’t know. I learn new things about writing all the time, and about people. Mostly, I learn new things about myself. Don’t know if that qualifies me as young, though. It seems to me like every month something else quits working or falls off. Of course a friend of mine is fond of pointing out that for much of my life I treated my body not as a temple but as an amusement park. Too true, alas. I can’t quite say, with Madam, I did everything twice and enjoyed it both times, but I came close. And I’m still here. When the parade comes along, it won’t be passing me by, I’ll be the one riding the white elephant and throwing confetti. Which is pretty much how I plan on going out. Don’t blame me if the sparklies blind you.

Learn more about Victor and his books at vjbanis.com

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