Carol Anshaw And Stephen McCauley Discuss Gay Literature
This month we've invited several LGBT authors to participate in our first ever Voice to Voice conversation series. Throughout January we featured intimate interviews between novelists, poets, playwrights, and writers as they discussed everything from the state of LGBT literature to sex and sexuality between the pages to the joys and challenges of writing about LGBT issues, themes, and lives.
Our first featured conversation was between Violet Quill members Edmund White and Felice Picano.
Then we featured novelists Christopher Rice and Eric Shaw Quinn, writer Robert Leleux chatting with writer, actor, and drag legend Charles Busch, and lesbian novelists Ellen Hart and Val McDermid.
Last week we had a conversation between poets Joan Larkin and Tony Leuzzi.
Anshaw is the author of the novels "Aquamarine," "Seven Moves," "Lucky in the Corner," and the forthcoming "Carry the One." She teaches in the MFA-Writing program at SAIC. She lives in Chicago.
McCauley is the author of the novels "The Object of My Affection," "The Easy Way Out," "The Man of the House," "True Enough," "Alternatives to Sex" and, most recently, "Insignificant Others." He is Associate Director of Creative Writing at Brandeis University and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Below Anshaw and McCauley discuss connecting with their readers, writing queer characters, and more.
Carol: Well, to adhere strictly to the format of a queer chat, I think I need to begin by asking what you're wearing.
Steve: I'm wearing tight jeans, a flannel shirt, and cowboys boots. Which, I assume, is exactly what you're wearing.
Your new novel, "Carry the One," is coming out next month. I have to say, I think it's the best of your four novels, and as you know, I love them all. The book pretty much starts out with a sex scene between two women. Were you at all concerned that including an explicit lesbian scene in the opening ten pages would alienate readers or ghettoize the book?
Carol: I suppose I was testing the waters a bit. What I'm seeing, in terms of initial response, is that political and social climate change has made 2012 a more tolerant place. I remember the agent I had when I started out in the late 1980s asking why did I want to have a lesbian character in my book? And that wasn't in a tone that read, "Oh wow, why are you doing this cool new thing!?" And when my novel "Aquamarine" came out in 1992, I read at a women's bookstore way out in the suburbs of Chicago that had a room in the back for lesbian books. So no one passing on the street would see you so much as browsing. I think/hope those days are behind us.
Steve: Of course you're right about there being much greater tolerance for gay subjects and characters. I'm sure you had the experience, as I did, of being in a movie theater and hearing an entire audience freak out when two men kissed on screen or even touched each other in an intimate way. As a young person, it was a pretty jarring, upsetting experience. It made me feel I was in hostile territory. It's hard to imagine that happening now, probably because people have become so desensitized from watching totally mainstream entertainment like "Glee," "Will and Grace," and "Modern Family."
On the other hand, I think there's still a sizable group of readers that can't make the leap to taking the lives and relationships of gay people seriously. It explains why writers like Alan Hollinghurst and Edmund White, who've been labeled "gay writers," aren't as widely read as some of their peers. "Carry the One" has a pretty sexually diverse group of characters, and Alice -- of the steamy sex scene -- is only one. Did you think about that as potentially helping to win over a wider readership when you conceived the book?
Carol: I didn't really. I had these three sibling characters for a while -- two sisters and a brother -- and I worked with them first in a couple of short stories and I really liked them and they seemed filled with possibility. So I decided to use them as the core of a narrative put into motion by a terrible accident, and going on from there, over the next quarter century. So they and their friends and family are a mix of everything, including in terms of their sexuality. I'd say the range of orientations came out of the bigness of the story I wanted to tell. Also out of the world as I experience it, a jumble of straight and gay, bisexual and asexual. [Now there's an interesting character possibility; I loved how Colm Toibin approached that in "The Master," his fictional portrait of Henry James.]
To get back to what you were saying about gay literary writers not being shown to the top tier along with their straight counterparts, I think that is in great part true. And I think this ranking corresponds to real life. I have never been on the receiving end of a hate crime, or even a disparaging remark to my face. But I still don't feel many of my straight friends have considered my relationships as serious as theirs, and some are still squeamish when pressed to look directly at me as queer, to imagine me in bed with my partner as opposed to sitting across a restaurant table from them. I think of this as a secondary sort of homophobia. There's even a tertiary homophobia where straight people sort of congratulate themselves on not being homophobic. Of course, tertiary prejudice is often the best any of us humans can manage when confronted with "other."
Your novels have a very broad appeal and I suspect your readership doesn't divide out along lines of sexual orientation. I think your work appeals to anyone who enjoys a bright, witty, contemporary novel of manners. Is that how you experience your fans?
Steve: It's probably impossible to truly gauge your readership, but based on letters (from way back) and emails, I'd say mine is a pretty even mix of women and gay men. Early on, I got some criticism from other gay writers and queer theorists for being too "assimilationist," probably because my characters are outsiders, even in the gay world. It certainly isn't something I calculated; it just reflects my own feelings of not quite fitting into any group. I wish I could calculate my way to a bigger audience, but I don't think I'm smart enough. Actually, I don't think anyone is smart enough. Most calculations along those lines fail. Even writers who are brilliant at bestselling formulas are brilliant because they believe in the formula. I keep trying to write happy endings, but my books always end on more of a bittersweet note of ambiguity. Yours, too, come to think of it. It's just the way I view life, and to end with a big happy scene with the characters kissing and ABBA playing in the background would seem false.
I think you're right about "secondary homophobia." It also might be that some people get nervous if they recognize parts of themselves in gay characters. On his excellent website, BandofThebes.com, Stephen Bottum wrote about publishers going out of their way to put male and female couples on the covers of books with pretty significantly gay content. Even now. I read one reader comment about "Alternatives to Sex" in which a reader complained that there wasn't enough warning on the cover that it was about a gay man. Like maybe one of those warnings labels on a cigarette pack?
Carol: I'm never sure who I'm writing for, or who's reading me, but I definitely see myself in conspiracy with my readers. If they will surrender themselves to my story, I will try to make it worth their while. I enjoy building in rewards -- in small ways like giving a repeat beat or two to a joke so it's an inside joke between us. In a larger way, I wrote "Carry the One," then compressed it by 100 pages so what the reader [I hope] experiences is 25 years of the characters' lives in 250 pages. I was going for sweep with intensity.
Steve: What was most difficult to cut in that 100 pages?
Carol: I cut out an entire relationship. It was fine but not up to the other plot threads, and I wanted to trim away all but the strongest stuff in the book.
I wanted to ask you what, over the years, has seemed more important -- in life and so to write about -- and what less important?
Steve: My attitude toward writing is basically the same as my attitude toward reading. I finished reading a novel this morning and was looking for the next thing to read. I simply wanted a well-written story about characters I believe in. Stylistically, I was up for almost anything. If I believe in the characters, I'll follow them anywhere. It's what I love about writers like Barbara Pym and Anthony Trollope. There aren't many big events (especially in Pym) but you're taken into a world that feels complete, and you meet the characters on their own terms. What's important to them becomes important to you. I guess I have an aversion to writing about big events and heroic actions. The everyday has always seemed most important to me in writing probably because I believe people reveal themselves in how they deal with small details. Parking in handicapped spots, not using their directionals, to choose two car-related examples.
"Carry the One" begins with a big event -- an accident -- but ultimately it's important only to the characters involved. It's not, let's say, Pearl Harbor.
Carol: Yes, so far I've avoided opening my books with Pearl Harbor, although, of course, it's always tempting.
I think you and I are both fascinated by the larger truth in the quotidian. You love Trollope and Mavis Gallant. I love Rachel Cusk and Alice Munro. And with my own work, nothing pleases me more than when a reader tells me he recognized a small, particular moment; or she tells me she had that exact moment of pleasure herself, in her own life. Although I can't see my reader, I take very seriously E.M. Forster's directive: Only connect. And one way I try to do that is to find the universal in the particular.
Steve: One of the things I especially like about Alice in "Carry the One" is that she's kind of a mess. She doesn't deal well with relationships and she carries a torch for the wrong woman for way too long. She's also pretty randy in a way that complicates her life. In other words, she's human. On the other hand, an unenlightened reader could look at her and conclude that her problems are the result of her being a lesbian. Did you take this into account at all or worry about that?
Carol: Actually, I think she's sort of heroic, a valiant crusader riding full-speed into a battle against her better judgment. And since her brother is straight [albeit most interested in women in pairs] but a massive drug addict, Alice's mess looks paltry by comparison.
You also have characters who are their own worst enemies, creating messes and jams they then have to get out of. But I don't think you ever present these dilemmas in a way that suggests they are gay problems. Rather the opposite -- that they are symptoms of the human condition.
Steve: Right. It makes the characters more complex and human and gives them a place in the bigger canvas. It's always jarring (and boring, no?) to have gay characters presented as the perfect neighbor and friend whose main function is to fix someone's hair or make a fabulous outfit for them. It seems to me that really expresses a great deal of discomfort around the subject. You have to justify their presence in a work of fiction by having them be supernatural in their goodness. You still see that in the way African-American characters are presented as the all-good supporting cast who help the white folks get in touch with their feelings and solve racism.
Carol: I think of those as "gay" characters. They give absolutely no manifestation of sexuality; they are composed only of their affect. Gayer than springtime hairdressers. Women with tool belts [although, to be honest, I kind of don't mind those]. Probably African-Americans feel the same way about "black" characters.
I think if you're going to attempt to write narratives with gay characters, you have to let go of worrying about homophobic responses. Queer is the place you start from, not a condition you are going to argue on behalf of.
Steve: One of the many reasons I'm grateful for my particular sexuality is that I feel as if it gave me an opportunity to be more in touch with my true self. I never felt the pressure to conform to a particular model of masculinity, the way most straight men I've known have felt pressured. In a similar way, we get to invent our own rules in relationships, rather than following a prescribed route. It's one of the reasons I don't have any particular interest in getting married -- despite living in a state where gay marriage is legal and being in a stable, long term relationship. I've always taken the same attitude toward my characters. They're just people with their own individual neuroses and strengths, and I've tried to be true to them without thinking about how they might reflect on gay people in general. If I can see an agenda behind a character or a plot, I start to turn off.
One of the things that makes David Sedaris so hard to categorize as a "gay writer" is that his point of view is so absolutely individual. He's completely open about his homosexuality and his relationship, but the way he sees the world is unique. As much as I love Paul Rudnick's hilarious pieces in the New Yorker, they sometimes seem to come from a collective "gay attitude" rather than an individual point of view. Although come to think of it, I suppose he's toying with that notion. Some of the humor comes from the way he winks at that. "We know we all think this way, right?"
Carol: I think that's more likely. From inside, it's hard to see queerness as a monolith. It's a billion stories. Like, I know there are gay people for whom being queer is still troublesome, or for whom being out feels exposed. I'm way on the other side of the spectrum. I feel so lucky to be queer. When I was straight, I hated the strictures of marriage, of polite society in general. I hated plugging into the program [which was much more of a program back then, credit in your husband's name, taking his name as yours, etc.] Everything got better when I came out. I'm a natural renegade, and so jumping the fence landed me in an unequivocally better place.
Steve: It's interesting that just as openly gay actors are more accepted playing straight roles, openly gay writers such as Emma Donahue and Colm Toibin are accepted writing books like "Room" and "Brooklyn," neither of which has any gay content. The books are taken on their own merits, even after they've written gay novels. It points toward writers getting less stuck in a particular mold or being limited by a label. I've been writing a series of novels about a yoga studio in Los Angeles under a different name. The books have no gay characters. Well, one woman who has a girlfriend but is in the closet. I'm not sure I would have done that if I'd been writing under my own name. The new novel I'm working on is about three siblings, one of whom is gay.
Carol: And my next novel, after "Carry the One," has two lesbians, one straight guy, and someone on the fence. So here we go.