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Allison Burnett

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B.K. Troop and I

Posted: 11/16/11 07:42 PM ET

As a straight male screenwriter, I never imagined that I would one day be a celebrated gay novelist. If I had known, I would have dressed better and not kept my love for Antiques Roadshow a secret.

Here's how it happened: In 1998, I sold an original screenplay to United Artists. It was the best script I had ever written, and so, for the next two years as the film hurtled toward production, it became my calling card. Producers and executives kissed my ass, writing assignments fell into my lap, and Movieline hinted that this could be the role that finally landed the film's lead actress her Oscar.

Sadly, right before shooting, my script, like the faces of so many aging Hollywood actresses, was improved to the point of caricature. The movie opened to scathing reviews and disappointing box-office numbers. Overnight, my meetings with producers became post-mortems. Instead of modest thanks, I muttered anxious disclaimers. At last I understood those Hollywood maxims that begin with "If you don't like...," followed by some complaint of screenwriters, followed by, "...then go write a fucking novel."

Which is exactly what I did.

I was no stranger to narrative prose. In my 20s, I had written a thousand pages about my life in Manhattan. Because, at the time, I had no connections of any kind, almost no one read them. Looking back now, I wondered if any of it was worth reclaiming. Reading over the material, I realized that much of it was, but only if I could find a new narrator, an outside point of view that would free the stories from the merely autobiographical.

Enter B.K. Troop -- a fat, balding, slovenly, erudite, witty, chemically imbalanced, drunken gay man. When he appeared in my imagination, full-born, I did not question it; I just began to type. To have done otherwise would have been to bitch-slap my muse. Lucky for me, B.K. did not stop talking until I had, stacked before me, the finished manuscript of a novel entitled Christopher.

It had never occurred to me that my letting a gay man narrate my novel was such a big deal, but a few weeks after the book sold to Broadway Books, my agent confessed to me that my gay male editor was so excited to have discovered a new gay author that she thought it best that I not breathe a word to him of my heterosexuality. As I am candid to a fault, the thought of living in the straight closet was anathema to me, but I reminded myself that an author's sexual orientation really ought to have nothing to do with the acceptance of his work. If readers were so narrowminded as to hold my straightness against me, then they weren't entitled to the truth, were they? After all, it's not like I had chosen to be straight. I mean, given the lack of easy sex, who would?

When Christopher came out, the mainstream press hardly noticed, but the gay press was more than kind. The Advocate picked it as one of the best reads of the summer. The Chicago Free Press called it "one page after another of witty, outrageous, raunchy, insightful, tender, and romantic prose." Instinct warned, "You'll find yourself cracking up and thanking higher powers that you aren't this much of a flaming queen!"

Then my friends started to weigh in. When discussing the book, women rarely brought up B.K.'s sexuality. Gay male friends were supportive, openly delighted by the literary ventriloquism. It was only my straight male friends, all of them ostensible liberals, who expressed disquiet. Most were bewildered. Some refused to read the book. Others thought I had lost my mind. I mean, what if people confused me with B.K.? What if people thought I was gay? Others, more open-minded, expressed the polite hope that my next novel would be more mainstream.

It wasn't.

B.K. had more to say.

By the time my next B.K. novel, The House Beautiful, came out three years later, I was out of the straight closet, and yet the generous support of the gay literary community did not waver. I appeared on gay radio shows, a GLBT literary journal published an excerpt, and I did signings at gay bookstores. If only the straight literary world were this kind to gay novelists! The sad fact is that despite the fact that 90 percent of B.K.'s narration concerns the lives of straight people, the mainstream press ignores him. It's as though the books' spines had been marked with an invisible pink triangle. Borders and other chain stores relegate them to the gay section in back. Amazon labels them, for some reason, Gay Poetry.

Everyone from my film agents to my closest friends heaved a collective sigh when, two years ago, I came out with a novel entitled Undiscovered Gyrl. It's narrated by a 17-year-old, promiscuous, female blogger, but so what? No one cared. I guess it was better to be mistaken for a girl than a queer.

My partnership with B.K. has taught me a lot about the challenges gay novelists face in the mainstream marketplace. They are confined to a ghetto from which few ever escape. And it doesn't seem to bother anyone except the gay writers in question. The world goes on its way, unaware that it's missing anything. My best consolation is this: it's better to be ghettoized than homeless. And despite the modest size of gay readership when compared to that of the great wide world, it's a community full of loyal, passionate, intelligent readers, for whose support I am deeply grateful. Which is part of the reason that B.K. is back.

In my new novel, Death by Sunshine, published by Writers Tribe Books, B.K. Troop is past 70 and in failing health. Certain that he is on death's doorstep, he boards a train to Los Angeles to make a movie deal on his novel Christopher. While I will not give away the plot, I will say this: not even Hollywood and its worship of youth, beauty, and box office can conquer B.K.'s indomitable gay spirit.

Death by Sunshine is now available on Amazon.com. To learn more about Allison Burnett, visit allisonburnett.com.