Let me set the scene: It's the middle of summer 2008 and as a freelance writer in between assignments, I have escaped Manhattan to a rental in Fire Island with my dog and a stack of books for company. In ordinary circumstances these things could keep me occupied for at least a week, but nothing in that stack of books is striking my fancy and Stanley, a whippet with expressive, Garbo eyes, nevertheless can't speak.
Which is how it all started. Though the books I'd packed were probably great, the only thing I remember about them is that none of them matched my mood. You could see waves of heat rising off the blinding sand. The Atlantic was a glittering reflector, the horizon a fuzzy haze of blue. There was nothing to do but lay out, slathered up in SPF, and catch the flapping sea breeze. What I needed in those days before e-readers was a good gay beach book, like those I'd read by Larry Kramer, Andrew Holleran, and Felice Picano.
Necessity really is the mother of invention. Since I didn't have one at hand, I set out to write my own. Monarch Season was born.
My only ambition was entertainment. Aside from a gay perspective, I craved the kind of novel I'd devoured as a teenager -- I'd spent high school summers between honors English immersed in the likes of Judith Krantz -- though updated for my older, citified sensibilities. What would pique my interest now? What would pique the interests of the Speedoed sunbathers dotting the sand around me? Using those summer afternoons in high school as a springboard, I conjured up a wish-list set of qualities that I knew I'd want to capture.
1. Make it Sexy. The beach is not the venue for a chaste love affair -- everybody is already half naked. A good chunk of the things I first learned about sex I learned from Krantz and Jackie Collins. The key for me was to make the boinking feel like it was integral to the story as well as believable from the characters' points of view.
This is harder to do than it might at first seem, especially for a self-confessed prude. But if you can't stop worrying about what your mother might think when she reads the sex party scene you're writing -- and trust me, she will -- you are dead in the water. Also: Once I dug in and understood context, that is, that for so long gay men have had to get their kicks from reading between the lines in literary books that by necessity disguised sex, I realized that to write a contemporary Fire Island story that wasn't explicit would be unfair and anachronistic. Not to mention boring.
2. Make it Smart. Just because you're in the mood for something frothy doesn't mean you don't care how well it's written. Call it the sex-and-syntax clause. An escapist, accessible story and sharply written prose aren't mutually exclusive. There's room for poetry. There's room for insight. A portrait of a people, time, and place can be carefully rendered and produce a picture that makes a lasting impression.
3. Make it Juicy. I first read the word "couture" in a Danielle Steel book. This was before the Internet, when that kind of information felt insidery and exclusive, at least to a small town boy like me. Outside of sex, glossy, slick details are what kept me reading the summer books that stand out in my memory. What are people wearing, where do they live, what do their houses look like? It sounds a little superficial until you realize that those kinds of details, played well, help you understand a character. Sometimes those details are character. And when it comes to a summer read, if the details fleshing out the picture happen to come in the guise of Prada swim trunks and Jean-Michel Frank consoles, so much the better.
4. Make it Funny. Humor is a great equalizer. Without a little sarcasm, flashy details and explicit sex scenes start to get a little leaden. A summer book that can't laugh at itself will soon wear thin. When I was writing Monarch Season, dialogue revealed itself as a perfect vehicle for comic relief. I love, love, love the screwball social comedies of the 1930s, especially the Thin Man films starring William Powell and Myrna Loy. Talk about frothy--the conversations between those two are glamorous, revelatory, and dripping with wit. I thought of them when I began to type.
5. Make it Quick. Regardless of whether you have a week or a weekend to loll around with a summer book, what you definitely don't have is a lot of patience. You need to get to the meat of the story, pronto, or you'll quickly lose interest. Pacing is key. I purposely wrote short, episodic chapters that keep the ball rolling because I had so often abandoned books that spend three pages describing the exact color of pink on a rose or the way sun casts light on stone. The story should engage from the get-go and keep you interested till the end. What good is a great beach read if no one can finish it?