Monthly Archives: July 2013
Fact? Fiction? Memoir? Ghost story? Well, Richard Bowes’ latest release Dust Devil on a Quiet Street is some of all of these. Rather than the mess that has the potential to be, Bowes pulls the hybrid off effortlessly, coming up with a moving, elegiac melange that’s as much a love letter to Manhattan as it is an excursion through dusty diaries.
Taking the aftermath of the World Trade Center collapse on 9/11 as his starting point, Bowes uses the hole in the ground left by the tragedy to dredge up his old ghosts. Runaways, snitches, minor celebrities, relatives, and lovers all coalesce and move through his life in a non-linear path that always circles back to the clearing in the present.
Bowes’s best friends Mags and Geoff figure prominently in parts of this book. Geoff, who committed suicide earlier is solidly in the ghost column, but Mags may or may not be an apparition the first time we see her. Part of the fun with this narrative is not knowing whether or not the person he’s interacting with is real or ghostly.
The threads of many stories are started and interwoven with each other, but Bowes’s characters are so distinctive and his ability to place them so precise that you never lose track of the individual stitches and can even see the whole cloth they form. His story of runaways Judy Finch and Ray Light and BD, the undercover operative hired to track them as well as other fugitive teens is one of the longest and most intricate in the book, sinking and resurfacing a couple of times before it’s finally completed.
My other favorite story lines here—and though most of them have appeared as short stories, they have been woven into an inviolable whole—concern the death of Bowes’s brother, Gerry, an incident regarding two student suicides at the university library Bowes works for, and the circumstances surround his retirement from that job. The chapters in which he discusses various celebrities he knows are less successful for me, but even those are well-written.
Bowes writes clean prose that’s descriptive without being showy and carries just enough emotion to propel the reader forward but doesn’t bog down or wallow. His ear for dialogue is good, but he doesn’t dramatize as much as he narrates. This gives some needed distance to some rather sentimental material.
But be warned, this is not a book of short stories you can simply plop down anywhere in and find yourself entertained. Dust Devil on a Quiet Street should be read front to back—no, not read. Savored. Its accumulation of detail and narrative momentum is both compelling and entertaining. And even if you’ve never met the seedy New York City before its Disneyfication, you’ll be old friends with it by the end.
©, 2013, Jerry Wheeler
I didn’t mean for this to be the week for historical fiction, but the coincidence—and the news—is happy indeed. Elana Dykewomon’s 1998 Lambda Literary Award winner Beyond the Pale is finally back in print and available for the first time in a number of years. How wonderful it is to have this powerful, moving chronicle of Jewish life in imperialist Russia and America once again accessible.
Gutke Gurvich is a midwife in the Pale of Settlement in Russia, delivering one Chava Mayer. Both find their way to America, Gurvich along with her wife Dovid (always attired in men’s clothing) and Mayer after her mother is raped and killed during a pogrom. Their paths cross again, Gurvich and her wife mentoring Mayer in her coming out process in New York City’s Lower East Side against the backdrop of women’s suffrage and labor union movements, culminating in the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire.
This book, however, is so much more than its plot. Dykewomon’s characters are amazing; mothers, daughters, friends, lovers, and enemies all intertwine to become part of one fascinating world whether here or in Russia. One doesn’t get much of a sense of place from either the scenes in Russia or in Manhattan, but I think that’s purposeful and serves to put the emphasis on life’s events rather than where they take place, drawing attention to their universality.
And these rich, textured, layered, finely nuanced characters speak some marvelous truths about being lesbian, being women, being Jewish or just being, as in the following passage:
When we consider our youth, we see only ourselves and the way the world unfolds in front of us. We are full figures walking among cutouts of buildings and people, never knowing exactly what’s behind them—and we don’t care. But gradually we grow smaller and smaller, until we are part of the landscape in which we move, and then we find others all around us, moving, becoming part of time.
However, she doesn’t leave the more mundane aspects of life unobserved:
Men must have a factory where they make disagreements. Ordinary ones sold for a couple of kopecks, big ones for a ruble. My family kept this factory in business, the men especially men. Women worked so men could argue.
Dykewomon’s prose is magnificent and her choices impeccable, but what really makes this work is her uncanny ear for dialogue and her readiness to expose the reader to love. Yes, her characters love themselves and others, but above that, they love life. They have passion, they have commitment, and they have a realistic sense of their places and priorities in the world.
But the real experience of this book must be in the reading. It’s warm, thought-provoking, emotional, resonating, and it crackles with the kind of vitality that comes with eternal and honest truths. If you haven’t read it before, you need to. If you have, you need to re-experience it.
©, 2013, Jerry Wheeler
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I love the immersion necessary for historical and speculative fiction. Nothing quite allows me to sink into the narrative as deeply as these two fields because they offer me worlds that are not, distractingly, just outside my window. And Jess Wells (The Mandrake Broom) has mastered the art of the immersive historical, exemplified by her latest release from Fireship Press, A Slender Tether.
A Slender Tether consists of three linked (some by a rather slender tether) novellas, all of which take place in France during the reign of the mad king, Charles VI. The first and longest, “The Raptor Among Bluebirds,” details the struggles of Christine de Pizan, the first female author in France, as she begins her career against many odds. De Pizan, a real historical figure, is a powerful character, as aimless at first as she is driven. Despite the attitudes and prejudices of both her family and society, she reads and writes. At first, she helps out her husband, Etienne, by scribing for him on the sly ,but her ambition soon leads her to original projects.
When Etienne dies, Christine finds herself the sole support of her family, including her previously wary mother-in-law Tessa. The conflict between these two is brilliant, and Wells wrings every bit of drama as well as pathos from their arguments and the sad situation they ultimately find themselves in. Wells’s command of detail and nuance is so expert, and the world she creates so wholly credible that the reader easily shares Christine’s sense of frustration as well as her elation at her ultimate success.
“The Gong Farmer’s Tale” is the shortest of the lot and concerns a failed physician who punishes himself for his hubris by becoming a collector and farmer of human excrement for fertilizer. Parable-like in tone, this story has a twisty ending that forbids much exposition about it. He has a brief encounter with the de Pizan family, providing the slender tether connecting it to the previous story.
“The Vat-Man’s Promise” also features a strong female character, Monique, who chafes against the usual options available to women of that era—marriage or the cloister. Monique, however, doesn’t see the clear path to that freedom that Christine does. Hers is accidental as she attempts to buy paper from a mill whose owner has suddenly gone blind. Due to a contractual oversight, the mill falls to her and she becomes an apprentice in her own business. The slender tether here is that this mill makes the paper used by Etienne de Pizan and his father-in-law Tomasso in Charles’ court library.
As in the first story, all are brilliantly conceived and perfectly executed. Is this a queer book? No, not specifically. However, these strong women POV characters as well as their outsider status drive the very queer themes of rejection by family and society for a desire to live one’s life the way one sees fit. These women are rebels, fighting against an oppressively patriarchal system and succeeding just fine, thank you very much.
A Slender Tether is an engaging, rewarding read. Highly recommended.
©, 2013, Jerry Wheeler
If you ever found Sherlock Holmes stories engaging, you’ll love Death by Silver. It’s wonderfully written, fresh, intelligent and highly entertaining.
In a Victorian London where magic (metaphysics, to use the professional term) is seamlessly integrated into society, quirky story possibilities are legion. Scott and Griswold create a fascinating world and a rich setting for magic and murder, where the stylistic characteristics of metaphysicians trained at Oxford are distinct from those of a Cambridge man. (And yes, women are capable of metaphysics, but the serious professional training is reserved for men, just as in banking or law.)
Ned Mathey is a young metaphysician just up from Oxford and labors to establish his practice. His old schoolmate Julian Lynes has become a private investigator of sorts. Together they form a duo more complex and nuanced than the famous Baker Street men.
Lynes is the more Saturnine of the two, and in a lovely echo of Holmes’ fondness for the needle he is inclined to use enchantments as recreational drugs as often as not. Mathey is far from just a Watsonian, more physical, foil. He’s a smart, skilled, multi-dimensional principal in his own right.
These two originally forged their friendship at Saints Thomas, a venerable public school with elaborate traditions of humiliation and cruelty for new boys. The flashbacks to those soul-crushing horrors were entirely plausible to this reader, and horrifying.
Mathey is hired by Edgar Nevett—whose son Victor was Mathey’s special tormentor during his years at Sts Thomas—to remove curses from the family silver. Days later, Edgar Nevett is killed by a heavy candlestick enchanted to fall on his head as soon as he sat at his desk.
Mathey and Lynes team up to investigate and in the process renew their awkward sexual relationship from school days. Given all that they’d already been through, the angst surrounding their “wants me/wants me not” wore a bit thin for me, but in the context of Victorian mores it was perfectly understandable. Social ruin and worse awaited any who caused a scandal—the love that dare not speak its name was tolerated as long as the name remained unspoken and its presence remained veiled in decorum.
It appears someone in the Nevett family committed the crime, but when Victor Nevett confesses it’s a shock. As reluctant as he is to admit it, Mathey concludes his boyhood torturer is innocent of this crime, and with his companion’s help sets out to find the real killer. Who is Nevett protecting with his false confession?
The investigation on which Mathey and Lynes embark is dangerous and intricate—people connected to the case die or disappear, rapport with Scotland Yard blossoms and erodes.
As they proceed, the hard realities of class in Victorian life become part of the story: hopeless children are brought to a mission to be trained as domestics, then placed in privileged homes as servants, the best life they could imagine. What servant in that situation would dare contradict a statement or instruction from one of the household?
The story’s pace is that uniquely delicious mix of haste and slow time that a Victorian setting provides: a break-neck cab ride, messages by return post and telegrams interspersed with messenger boys fetching ale and pies, dinners at gentlemen’s clubs and appointments set for Tuesday next.
This is a beautifully crafted story, full of wit, style, and originality. There are spells with temporal components and conditional triggers, such as spells with delayed release of poison. There’s Urtica Mordax, a big-personality carnivorous vine that Lynes keeps in his chambers and nourishes with tidbits of ham. There are mechanical automata depicting alarming impropriety, from Zeus taking Ganymede to a male clerk fitting a lady’s shoe and seeing far too much leg. This story is a smorgasbord of invention.
When you are ready to treat yourself to an intelligent, engaging mystery set in a fascinating alternate-but-familiar reality, read this book. You’ll be glad you did.
Reviewed by Lloyd A. Meeker
Queering Edgar Allan Poe is such a wonderful idea I can’t believe no one’s thought of it before, but at least Steve Berman is on the ball. And, as wonderful as the idea itself is, the product is even better. Where Thy Dark Eye Glances is one of the most consistent and consistently imaginative anthologies I’ve read in quite a while.
Before we get to the good stuff, however, comment needs to be made about the entire package. Niki Smith’s cover is stunning, capturing not only the essence of Poe, but a hint of queerness along with themes of masquerade and “otherness” that pervade the stories and poems inside. Even the typeface and the layout are all of a piece with its themes, and for that, kudos must go out to the inimitable Alex Jeffers.
Inside? Oh, what wonders you will find inside. The first section is “Poe the Man,” which has stories and poems featuring Poe himself, including Seth Cadin’s atmospherically erotic “The City and the Stranger” about Poe’s brief yet meaningful stay in New York City after he left West Point, Daniel Nathan Terry’s poem, “Matthew Brady, the Gallery of Illustrious Americans,” about Brady’s daguerreotype of Poe, and Steve Berman’s own pastiche of Poe’s works, “Poetaster.”
The second section, “Poe’s Writings,” comprises the meat of the book and contains some quite marvelous re-imaginings of Poe’s work as well as some straight-ahead queering where the storyline is the same but some genders are changed. One of my favorites in the latter category, Satyrus Phil Bucato’s “The Lord’s Great Jest” recasts Trippetta in perhaps my favorite Poe tale of all time, “Hop-Frog,” to stunning effect. However, it’s difficult to resist Peter Dubé’s surreal (or hyper-real) “Corvidae,” Ray Cluley’s magnificently rendered “The Man Who Was,” Clare London’s marvelous “Telltale,” or Christopher Barzak’s take on William Wilson’s other half, “For the Applause of Shadows.” Shorter, but no less powerful, are Tansy Rayner Roberts’s “The Raven and Her Victory,” which sees a poet nicknamed the Raven enshrining her one lost love over and over in her work, and L.A. Fields’s “The House of the Resonate Heart,” which puts an even creepier layer over the already creepy “The Fall of the House of Usher.”
“Reading Poe,” the last of the three parts, contains stories and poems about Poe’s audience, with pieces both personal (Collin Kelley’s heartfelt “The Demon and the Dove” and “fellow Virginian” Jeff Mann’s poem “The Death of Beautiful Men”). The standouts for me here are Richard Bowes’s “Seven Days of Poe,” which finds a young queer boy working in a library, coming to terms with his sexuality as he reads Eddy, Alex Jeffers’s “A Portrait in India Ink by Harry Clark,” about two boys, an illustrator, a migraine, and a first sexual encounter, and John Mantooth’s outstanding “The Chicken Farmer and His
Boy,” a fascinating between-worlds glimpse of a boy’s coming out to his father.
But these are only my highlights of a volume I’m sure you will enjoy if you have the slightest interest in Poe. Where Thy Dark Eye Glances is a delicious book to be savored and ruminated over, much like the master himself.
©, 2013, Jerry Wheeler
I really love Old West historicals. Dale Chase has gotten me into them with her terrific Western erotica, but other than that I haven’t read too many other entries in the genre. Enter Ed Kurtz, better known for his hardboiled noir stuff, who gives this neat tale of revenge a gender twist and comes up with a gritty winner.
Failing ranch owner Daniel Hays has more to worry about than his meager harvest. His only ranch hand, Steven Houpe, has just been whipped, lynched and mutilated by persons unknown. His crime? Being a sodomite in Civil War-era Texas. Moreover, he was also Hays’s lover, prompting Hays to set off across Texas for vengeance. He finds friends in unexpected places, but can he find the satisfaction he seeks?
Kurtz answers this question with the deliciously laconic, terse dialogue that I always envision cowboys having. In fact, there’s a lot that’s terse here, but Kurtz packs a helluva lot into this novella. It’s 20,000 well-chosen words that, oddly enough, don’t leave you wanting more. The story spirals out and pulls back as neatly and tidily as you could possibly want.
Kurtz displays many talents, including one for characterization. Even minor characters like Mercy, the plains widow who nurses Hays back to health after a mishap, are presented with such choice detail that they lodge themselves in your imagination. Kurtz carves these characters out of the Texas dirt, stands them up against a lawless landscape made even more perilous as conscription has sucked the male population away, and breathes some damn fiery life into them.
He doesn’t skimp on plot, either. He drags Hays across the state and back again, mixing it up with the aforementioned Mercy as well as the local lawman and his brother, and a gang of Texas Rangers. Kurtz hits the ground running with Houpe’s hanging and only pauses the pace long enough to let you breathe before dragging you behind the horses again. But perhaps the most interesting metaphor here is the ghost coyote Hays encounters along the way, as elusive and ephemeral as the revenge Hays seeks.
In short, A Wind of Knives is a whirlwind of a read with great characters, breathless action, and a substance as gritty and blood-soaked as the puddle beneath a hanged man. Scoop some up and enjoy.
©, 2013, Jerry Wheeler
I usually hate the second books of trilogies. They lack the excitement and wonder of the first, maintaining a holding pattern and, more often than not, fracturing the narrative with little reward. And just when they get their own head of steam going, they’re done. They’re bridges. Transitions. But even though Ashley Bartlett’s Dirty Money is the transitional book between Dirty Sex and Dirty Power, due out next month, it breaks all of the above rules. And then some.
Vivian Cooper (or just Cooper, thanks very much) is best friends with Ryan DiGiovanni; however she’s in love with his sister, Reese. When she’s not hating her. And they do indeed hate each other like only two women meant to be together can. To complicate matters, the DiGiovanni’s are mobsters. Cooper and Ryan and Reese steal some gold bars from the Syndicate and run away to Mexico. But that locale proves to be even less of a refuge than it usually does. When the gold and the twins disappear, Cooper goes underground to work for the mob boss for information. And she gets it.
Bartlett’s prose kills. It’s a lethal, whipcrack weapon, studded with barbs and steeped in acid-etched sarcasm. Cooper (who, I suspect, is only millimeters removed from Bartlett herself) has a wonderful voice and is a perfect narrator, at once stupid and wise, innocent and world-weary, and totally in love with Reese.
Equally at home setting a scene in a Mexican cantina, a mob boss’s apartment, or a warehouse torture segment, Bartlett has exquisite taste when it comes to selecting the right detail. And no matter how much plot she has to get through, she never rushes the game. Her writing is so well-paced and so self-assured, she should be twice as old as she really is. That self-assuredness also mirrors through to her characters, who are fully realized and totally believable.
But this is Cooper’s story, and Bartlett never drops the stitch once. No author intrusion, no false moves, no poorly-motivated decisions—and as a result, by the time you’re half way through the book, you absolutely know how Cooper will react to any given situation. That’s how to draw a character. To watch Cooper head up a marijuana harvesting operation in Mexico, to torture the family’s enemies with her mentor Esau (then go out for Thai food afterward), or to have her heart broken by Reese is to understand the amazing human condition we’re all part of. And the contradictions we’re all capable of.
Does Dirty Money stand alone, then? Well, yes and no. In terms of plot, there’s nothing in the first book that can’t be extrapolated from the information given here, so what I said in the introduction here still stands. However, my advice is to go back and read Dirty Sex anyway, just to bask in the glow of a wonderful character written with intelligence, verve, and absolute surety.
Don’t stop at three, Ash. Please?
©, 2013, Jerry Wheeler
It is with mixed emotions that I write this entry to announce that I have decided to step down from Out in Print effective August 1, 2013.
Jerry and I have had a lot of fun over the years building Out in Print’s reputation as one of the best and most respected queer book review sites on the web, and I know that I am leaving Out in Print in very capable hands. Jerry will do amazing things as he carries on our tradition. He always does.
Believe me that this decision is not one that came easy for me. I’ve spent the last six months struggling to find an answer that was best for me, as well as for Out in Print. In the end I feel that it is time for meto say good-bye and move on to other projects and opportunities.
While I won’t be a part of Out in Print as I have in the past, I do hope to pop in on occasion to say hello and let you know what I’ve been reading. Jerry and I will be working together during the month of July to make the transition as smooth as possible. Look for a new blog platform, and some amazing reviews that only Jerry can provide. The new site for Out in Print beginning August 1st will be https://outinprintblog.wordpress.com/.
Thank you to everyone for your support, love, and guidance over the years. Out in Print would not be where it is today without you.
One last time…. Out in Print – it always has been and always will be – all you need to read about all you need to read.
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Marshall Moore Talks About Living in Hong Kong and Developing a Universal Voice
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Marshall Moore is an
American author and publisher living in Hong Kong, whose novels include The
Concrete Sky and An Ideal for Living,
as well as the highly-anticipated and recently released Bitter Orange. In addition, he has published two collections of
short stories, Black Shapes in a Darkened
Room and The Infernal Republic.
His work has also appeared in various anthologies and in such literary journals as Asia Literary
Review, Word Riot, Thieves Jargon, Space & Time, and The
Barcelona Review. His short story “The Infinite Monkey Theorem”
was a runner-up in the 2006 storySouth Million
Writers Award, taking third place. His
publishing company Typhoon Media Ltd has published over 90 books to date and is
a leading English-language publisher in Hong Kong.
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TH: I ran across your latest work in New
Orleans recently when I attended the Saints & Sisters LGBT Book Festival,
where you and I first met a decade ago. It’s great to see how prolific you’ve
been since that time, and I’m glad to see you are still fighting the good fight
and dealing with serious literary themes in your work. You certainly don’t shy
away from difficult, even preposterous, situations in your fiction, which is
why I was excited to hear about your new novel, Bitter Orange, and eager to interview you. What is it you reach for
as a writer?
I don’t know if I’ve been prolific since then, but I’ve managed to stay in
print! What I write is a reflection of what I like to read. I want to see
imagination at work, and as a writer, I want to say things that haven’t been
said before. All the stories haven’t been
told yet; all the ideas haven’t been
had. This is why I’m not afraid to go straight over the top. So sometimes the
result is absurd, bizarre, or completely shocking. Quiet little literary novels
can be lovely but I am doing something different.
TH: In your latest book, Bitter Orange, you take on 9-11 and a character with a superhero
power, but your protagonist is a far more complex and morally ambiguous antihero than anything I’ve read
recently. What were the challenges of drawing such a character and working in
such morally murky territory?
Everything about Bitter Orange is
morally ambiguous, I think! If there’s a challenge to writing a character or a
story like this, it’s knowing how much of a non-murky foundation you need to
offer the reader and the character so that they’ll have something to hold on
to. The first draft was actually more ambiguous, and I had to cut some of that
out. A lot of the inspiration for this story came from the year I lived in
Korea, where I was constantly being gawked at because I’m white. It’s not that I
wanted to be invisible, but the experience made me think about how people see
each other and what that means. I also met a lot of closeted gay men, both
Koreans and Westerners, who were deeply uncomfortable with their sexuality,
which got me thinking about identity. I mean, how could they stand to live like
that? From that, Seth, my disappearing antihero, was born. There are advantages
that go along with Seth’s version of invisibility, but with them come the
potential for guilt, shame, addiction, corruption… there’s definitely a
TH: A high price! I do like how dynamic his
inner struggle becomes and the weird way it manifests in the world around him
via his power. Like a Möbius strip really. From The Concrete Sky to An Ideal
for Living, you sketch out such characters, who are almost beyond
existential—more like free-falling in some kind of angst-ridden panicky
This makes me think of Play It As It Lays,
in which I think Joan Didion said everything that has ever needed to be said
about existential angst and paralysis. I read that in college and only recently
realized how much it affected my own work. Which is probably a scary thing to
admit, or pretentious, or something. One theme all three of my novels share is
that sense of life spinning out of control. We’ve all been through it once or
twice. But if there’s a free-fall, there’s also usually a landing. I’m not
needlessly cruel to my characters, nor to the reader. Unless it’s cruel of me
to make you laugh your ass off while all this is going on! Bottom line, I don’t
write about people who wallow. Seriously, if the only forward motion your
characters are capable of is bending down to navel-gaze, they aren’t
interesting. So when I write, there may be angst and a great deal of weirdness,
but there’s not stasis.
TH: I like that. The stories keep moving; the
characters keep developing. Many of your characters even seem to achieve a
certain kind of dark justice that they wrest from life, which begs the
question: are you primarily a moral writer?
I had never thought of myself as such until someone pointed it out in a review.
I love reading thoughtful reviews of my work for that very reason — sometimes
the critic sees things that I don’t. One insight that being gay has given me is
so much of what is called morality is completely hollow. How can an inborn
characteristic possibly be a moral issue? Once those scales drop away from your
eyes, you achieve a certain clarity around this issue. Case in point: justice and revenge are often the
same thing. And is the writer God? I don’t feel godlike; I feel more like a
conduit for my work. That being said, I think there is a very consistent (and
rather dark, depending on your perspective) morality at work in all of my
writing, and you see it in the decisions my characters make.
TH: Yes, they can be momentous. Both in your
novels and your stories. You’ve written a great number of essays and short
stories, many of them collected in Black
Shapes in a Darkened Room and The
Infernal Republic. Do you prefer them as a form?
In some ways, yes. Writing a novel — getting from the original idea to the
first draft to the published book — takes years. It’s a rewarding process, but
writing a short story is not such an odyssey. Some take longer than others, but
I can do that in a couple of months if I’m lucky. I also like the concision of
short fiction: get in, do it, and get out.
TH: And with the advent of e-books and
e-readers, short stories are supposedly making a comeback. Is this where
shorter fiction is headed? Has the short story become even more accessible and
Even before e-books and devices, I think short stories were already in good
shape. We already know how much publishing has changed in the last few years.
There are fewer print-based markets for short fiction now, and if that’s your
only measure of the health of short fiction as a literary form, then I can see
why you’d think it was on its last legs. For me, the discussion of short
fiction is inextricably tied to the debate about the merits of non-paying,
Internet-based markets. There are a gazillion of them out there, and their
detractors claim that they are not worthwhile markets, that they’re only
portals for marginally talented wannabes who can’t get published in Glimmer Train. I disagree rather
strongly. Even though I don’t know how many of them survive year on year, nor
what kind of steady readership they offer, quite a few — The Barcelona Review and Word
Riot come to mind — are edited or curated by people who know what they’re
doing. In fact, so much publishing is now happening online that there might be
more of a market than there used to be. Amazon has done interesting things for
the form with Kindle Shorts and now Kindle Singles, and several other e-book
portals package short stories for individual sale, apparently with some
success. No, you can’t make a living writing short fiction, but that doesn’t
mean the form is dead.
TH: And what about LGBT lit? Do you think it
has shifted away from coming out and stories from the AIDS epidemic, or are
those still the vital and essential stories fiction is and should be concerned
with? As queer writers, how do we best communicate to a larger, more universal
To your first question, yes, it has shifted because the world is different now.
Even before gay lit kind of coalesced in the ‘90s, when the Big Six (or however
many there were then) finally took notice, it had already been around in more
rudimentary form. The coming-out narrative may have been there all along, but
until the societal changes that happened as a result of the HIV/ADS pandemic,
it was not usually possible for a gay-themed book to end in something other
than the gay character’s death or misery. This sounds simplistic, but I think
there’s something to it. We weren’t visible
before. (Do you see a trend here?) And we certainly weren’t expected or
allowed to be happy. Certain themes will always be relevant to books with gay
characters in them, but as writers, we need to tell the stories that our muses
demand that we tell.
don’t think there’s a single answer to finding a larger, more universal
audience unless it’s to keep writing, keep publishing, and keep putting myself
out there. I used to worry more about finding a wider audience. When our first
books were published, I think it was a more legitimate concern. Publishers and
booksellers used to make very narrow assumptions about who would read what, and
may still. But this becomes a self-perpetuating mythology, and if you buy into
it, then you buy into the idea of two non-overlapping groups of readers, gay
and straight, and never the twain shall meet. Now I think I’ve grown up a bit,
and I’m more about appreciating the audience that I have. Of course I’d like a
bigger readership, but I don’t give a rat’s ass what their sexual orientation
is or whether mine should factor into their choice of books. If they’re reading
my work because I’m gay, that’s brilliant. If that doesn’t enter into it and
they’re reading my stuff just because it sounds interesting, that’s equally
great. And the writing success that doesn’t come from luck often comes from
endurance and perseverance.
TH: I completely agree. My career has been
about continuing to show up, to write relevant material, and to build community
and audience through publishing. On a personal level, what’s your creative
process like? Do you support the advice that writers should write every day?
Coffee in the morning. Wine in the evening. Somehow the writing gets done. The
problem with any received wisdom about writing is that it tends to overlook the
fact that most writers also have lives. Despite the newfound respect our
collective introversion is enjoying, we do have to pay the bills, and that
usually involves wrenching ourselves away from the keyboard for hours at a
time. Being consistent is probably more important than being constant. If the
best I can do for several days at a time is to think about whatever story I’m working on, then that’s how it has
to be. But this slower, more considered approach tends to be better because it
lets me avoid charging up blind alleys and needing to do huge revisions later.
My first drafts are relatively clean.
process itself… I think it was David Cronenberg who described story ideas as
tumors, and as disturbing as that idea is, it also has a nasty ring of truth.
The stories present themselves to me, some more fully formed than others; I don’t
make conscious choices to write this or that. But I think I like the metaphor
of fermentation better: it can take months for a short story to develop from
its gestational idea to the finished product, or years in the case of a novel.
Once I’m working, I still need long-ish intervals to just think about what’s
going on in the story and what the characters would do. I like to bake in the
sauna at the gym after a workout — it’s a great place to shut up and think.
Same goes for getting a massage. If anything, the hardest part comes afterward,
when it’s time to flog the book. I’m one of those introverted authors who’d
kind of rather hide under the sofa.
TH: Amazing. You are the first writer who has
concurred with me that a sauna is a place of great inspiration. You speak of
how it can shift your perspective. Of course, you’ve been living in Hong Kong
for several years now, and before that Seoul. How has your time as an expat
changed your perspective, or changed your outlook on the US and on the American
How has it changed me? Well, it has proven me right. After 9-11, I tried to
write a book about why it would make sense to leave the US because of what was
coming down the pike. I saw the collapse of the housing bubble and the
financial crisis coming. I also foresaw that the infrastructure would start
falling apart because we refused to invest in maintaining it. And I knew that
the Patriot Act was a Pandora’s box full of horrors that wouldn’t fully
manifest themselves for years to come. No agent was interested, so I abandoned
the book and got on with the business of moving overseas. And a decade later,
here I am in Hong Kong, and I was fucking right about pretty much all of it.
I’m not gloating, either: I would love to have been wrong.
TH: Well, now that you’ve escaped the
Infernal Republic (pardon the pun), what’s it like being a writer in Hong Kong?
Hong Kong has been a real boost for me as an author because there is a literary
scene here, albeit a small one, and it’s accessible, which the one in the US is
not. For one thing, the US such a big place that everyone is just overwhelmed
— publishers, authors, agents. People are more likely to ignore you than not,
even if you’re very good, simply because they’re not willing or able to take
the time to look closely. If it’s not an instant, obvious fit, forget it.
There’s something to be said for working within a friendlier microcosm. And if
there’s a certain amount of backstabbing and bitchery among the gay-lit
contingent, you can at least make friends, ask questions, and assume your
emails will get replies.
Kong is different because there are only a few writers working in English, and
I also run a small press here, which makes me a bigger fish in this rather
small pond. Despite Hong Kong’s reputation for being all about business, which
it is, there’s also a surprisingly good creative scene here — the arts,
literature, etc. As an acquaintance pointed out recently, a lot of smart people
from all over the world have come here to work, and it shows. They’ve lived in
places like London and New York and brought their expectations of culture with
them. The fact that two of the local universities now have (English) MFA
writing programs (at least one of which aims to begin offering a creative-writing
PhD) makes a huge difference, too. There’s a real and growing appreciation of
writing, and of Hong Kong’s place at the forefront of Asian writing in English.
TH: Now that you’ve got yet another novel
out, what do you want readers to take away from reading Bitter Orange, or your books in general?
MM: I wish I were asked this question more often! What I want is for readers to
come away feeling as if they have just eaten a surprisingly satisfying meal at
a restaurant they weren’t sure they’d like. I think there’s also a fair amount
of catharsis in my work. I get a lot of “ZOMG it’s so creeeeeeepie I can’t
believe he went there OMG OMG OMG,” as if I set out to be disturbing for the
sake of being disturbing. I mean, yeah, I did sort of start out with the idea
of writing horror, and it shows, but then my work took a different turn. And
while I’m not pretending I don’t go places the average Joe wouldn’t have ever
imagined, that’s not what I’m ultimately about. The point is that you can go to
these places and come through the experience in one piece, possibly better than
you were beforehand. In Danse Macabre,
Stephen King said more than that horror is mostly about catharsis: it appeals
to us because it puts our own troubles into perspective. I also have a way with
words, which is something I am never upset when people notice.
TH: Indeed you do, Marshall. There’s a
seamlessness and wit to your prose that’s impressive and makes it fun to read.
Lines from Bitter Orange come to
mind: “Rain, rain, and more rain. Portland’s official flower should be the
umbrella, not the rose,” and “It’s impossible to stand on the curb looking
hopefully at oncoming cars without becoming forlorn, without taking the absence
of a taxi personally.” So, of course, I’m dying to know what your
next project might be.
There are three books in the pipeline! My next one will be out later this year,
although I’m the editor, not the author; it’s an anthology I’m co-editing with
Xu Xi. The title is The Queen of Statue
Square, which is also the title of one of the stories, and it’s a
collection of fiction in English out of Hong Kong, exploring the multiplicity
and uniqueness of Hong Kong identity. I’m co-authoring the introduction, but
because this is an academic publication, it wouldn’t be appropriate to include
my own work. It’s an outstanding collection, well worth reading.
TH: And how about your own individual work?
Well, this isn’t my next project, but it’s my mostly unheralded previous one: I
released a sort of e-chapbook a couple of months ago to accompany Bitter Orange. It’s called Never Turn Away, and it contains
excerpts from my first four books as well as the first chapter of Bitter Orange. It’s free on a number of
websites (not Amazon, though — but if you’d like a Kindle version, you can get
it from Omnilit.com). I wanted a free teaser, or sampler, so that people could
try my work without risk. I think it holds up pretty well as a stand-alone
book, and it’s free. Did I mention that? It’s free! Free!
the same time, I finished the first draft of the next novel, Murder in the Cabaret Sauvignon. It’s my
first attempt (successful, I hope) at a more or less straight-up murder mystery
(albeit with Marshall characteristics). The main character is from an East
Coast wine-making family. He ends up in Hong Kong, which is not such a
surprise: a few years ago, Hong Kong dropped its import tariffs on wine, making
this the cheapest place in Asia to buy it. It’s also the hub for wine going
into the mainland, where the demand is exploding. He finds himself embroiled in
a bloody mess with implications that go back several centuries. There’s
everything from the idea of cabaret in Lan Kwai Fong, which probably makes more
sense if you’re familiar with Hong Kong, to the history of women and literacy
in China. But with more blood and strap-on torture devices. After that, I’ll do
another collection of short fiction, A
Garden Fed by Lightning.
Those both sound very enticing! We’ll all
look forward to them, and in the meantime we’ll be reading Bitter Orange and exploring your writing via the blogosphere! (see links below). Thank you
Orange buy link:
Trebor Healey is a novelist (A Horse Named
Sorrow and Faun) and poet (Sweet Son of Pan) who recently won both a Lambda
Literary Award and a Publishing Triangle Award. He lives in Los Angeles and
Buenos Aires. www.treborhealey.com