Sunday, January 27, 2008

Book Reading with Fred Smith, review for Lawnboy

Saying of the week: "Physical courage, which despises all danger, will make a man brave in one way; and moral courage, which despises all opinion, will make a man brave in another." -- Charles Caleb Colton

I recently attended a reading in San Francisco by a fellow gay writer, Fredrick Smith, author of Down For Whatever and Right Side of the Wrong Bed. It was the first time I have attended a reading by any author, and I came away with several surprises.

My first surprise was how few people attended. Granted, it was a stormy, rain drenched evening, but there were only eight or ten people there. Because he was reading from his second novel, I assumed his first, which has been out two years, would have gained him enough notoriety to attract a larger audience. I knew that he had traveled here from L.A., and he ended up selling perhaps four or five books. I keep wondering if doing out of town readings is worth a writer's time and effort. Clearly it was a money-losing proposition for Fred. So, was expanding his readership by a few people worth the trouble? I really don't have a clue and would welcome comments by other writers.

My second impression was how little reading he actually did. He gave an overview of the plot and the main characters, then read for what amounted to three or four pages (two different places where main characters met for the first time) and then opened the floor to questions. I realized later that to read much more would have probably bored the audience. The point was obviously to feed them just enough to peak their interest, which is exactly what Fred did, masterfully so. The question and answer portion took up the most time and was perhaps the most interesting as there were several good quesitons.

My third impression came from one of the questions. A woman asked: did Fred feel that he took any risks in writing his new novel. Fred gave a thoughtful grin, and then answered the question. I didn't listen to his answer. I was too occupied by wondering about what risks I take in my own writing. It is a question that has stayed with me since hearing it, and what I've come to feel is that every writer takes risks. Every writer opens up their soul and lets himself/herself pour on to the page. No matter how well we try to hide the fact that we are describing ourselves, we can't help smearing ourselves on the page. Each one of our characters reflect a different part of our inner being. It seems to me that the amount of risk a writer takes, is how much of their soul they are willing reveal. And using that as a definition for risk, I believe I take huge risks with every story I write -- a fact that both pleases and frightens me.

My last surprise came from another question: did Fred think the book would be made into a movie? I found it strange that someone who thought enough about reading to show up at a book reading/signing would be so concerned about a movie version. His answer mirrored my own thoughts. He said that he had nothing against movies, especially his own stories being filmed, but he hoped that more people would read the story, that all people would read more in general. I enjoy a good movie as much as anyone, however, I feel that movies rob the audience of participation. It spoon feeds them every image, every gesture, every emotion. A book fires the readers into conjuring up their own images, to partner with the writer to make a mental image that is the story, and because the reader brings their own perspective to the book, each story is somewhat tailored to the reader, making it slightly different for each person. That is the power of novels: it is a collaboration between writer and reader, where creativity flows both ways. I say, let everyone enjoy movies, but also let more people enjoy the creative power of words on the page.

For my book review, I recently finished Lawnboy By Paul Lisicky (copyright 1998)

Lawnboy by Paul Lisicky

Lawnboy is a coming of age story, a tale about fumbling through firsts -- first time away from home, first kiss, first fuck, first love -- and attempting to define one’s self in a crumbling postmodern world. Written in the first person, the teenaged narrator leads us through his experiences as he leaves home to live with a forty-something man who lives down the street, then travels to a different city in Florida to help his older brother (also gay but still trying to be straight to please he parents) restore a dilapidated resort motel. After another disappointing love affair, which makes the young hero take stock of his life, the narrator moves on again, still looking for meaning and happiness, and what he finds are a few sweet, grace notes of renewal.

My impression while reading the first hundred or so pages was, here we go again, another coming of age story about being gay, that is, living the “gay experience” -- gays dealing with the trials and tribulations of being a persecuted minority and all it entails.
Admittedly there is much of that, but Lawnboy blossoms into a story of thoughtful beauty that explores the complexities of love and desire and betrayal.
I admit that Lisicky didn't make me care about his main character as much as I had hoped, but that could easily have been because I'm old enough that I can't relate to the fumblings of a seventeen-year-old. He did, however, keep me anxiously turning the pages to find out what would happen next while making me reflect upon my own teenaged years. The prose is beautifully written, which added greatly to my enjoyment of a worthwhile read.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Gay fiction needs more than sex and coming out

Saying of the week:
"You gotta dance like nobody’s watching, dream like you will live forever, live like you’re going to die tomorrow, and love like it’s never going to hurt." -- Meme Grifsters

For my second read of 2008, I selected a book that has been sitting on my shelf for several years but never gotten around to reading: Paul Lisicky’s, Lawnboy. I have not quite finished the book so I will not include a review in this posting. But in reading the story, it has made me ponder a great deal about what I like, and don’t particularly like, about gay fiction, and I’ll share some of those thoughts.
Like the first novel I read this year, Wild Oats by Jacob Epstein, Lawnboy is a coming of age story, a story about fumbling through firsts -- first time away from home, first kiss, first fuck, first love -- and attempting to define one’s self in a postmodern world. Wild Oats is about a straight boy, Lawnboy about a gay one, so by contrasting the two, I inadvertently gained a perspective of how gay stories differ.
The experience has reminded me that much of gay fiction, not only Lawnboy but many others I’ve read, is predominately about being gay, that is, the “gay experience” -- gays dealing with the trials and tribulations of being a persecuted minority and all that entails. Also, several novels I’ve read seemed more concerned with presenting gay sex than anything else. Of course, most of these novels I’m talking about have a plot, but it is often a very thin one, merely a vehicle to carry the gay theme or sex. The two most notable examples of this type of fiction are the:
1) coming of age story (coming out and dealing with family, friends, getting laid)
2) the romance (the main character spends most of the story trying to get mister right, or wrong, in bed.)
The one impression that I’m feeling about these kinds of stories are that I’m so over that category of fiction. It’s been done and redone so much that, for me, it’s simply time to move on. It seems to me that gay people, like so many others, want to celebrate their differences, want to feel like they’re in a special, privileged club. But the more I study people, the more I’m convinced that we are truly all the same, dealing with the same issues. So the kind of gay fiction that I’ve come to prefer are the stories where the main characters are grappling with important life issues, life and death circumstances, and they just happen to be gay, which adds to their depth as a character and my interest in them.
The most notable example of this kind of fiction that I can think of is Michael Cunningham’s, The Hours, which deals with what constitutes a meaningful life, coping with grief, and transcendent longing. Even though the majority of the principle characters are gay, their gayness is never really pushed as an issue.
(As an aside, a published author in my online writing/reading group recently made the comment that Cunningham’s flowery prose is what won him the Pulitzer Prize for The Hours. The statement merely confirmed my suspicions that this particular writer, along with a sizable number of gay readers, has little appreciation for complex and invigorating plots, depth in characters, or an appreciation for skillfully handling significant issues using masterful prose.)

At the same time I was exploring the issue of my needing more complex stories with gay characters, I received an email by a leading gay e-publisher, rejecting my submission of a novella. The reason I bring it up is that the chief editor raved about how much he enjoyed my story. He claimed that the reason he rejected it was because it is primarily about a gay Native American who helps a grisly old rancher to die with dignity. The romance between the Native American and the rancher’s grandson was a small yet important side story. So the editor told me that if I made the romance the primary story and included some hot sex scenes, they would jump at the chance to reconsider the story for publications. My bad for not doing better research about the publishers needs, but it made me stop and wonder if most gay readers are really that shallow.

Admittedly, my first novel being published in July by Zumaya Publications, Island Song, deals with several gay issues -- getting over the death of a long time partner, coming out, gay bashing, alternative families, even a few sex scenes -- however its main theme is one of a universal struggle that I won’t give way here. And perhaps that’s why I’m ready to move on from novels that deal with only gay issues and sex, I’ve written about them and now my writing is, hopefully, moving on.

I would love to hear from anyone with similar or contrary points of view. This is a topic I’ve only recently begun to think about and would love to explore further with the input of others.

As for a book review, I recently finished Breaking Back.

Breaking Back By James Blake

Breaking Back is James Blake’s autobiography about a year-long period of his life when he had to overcome crushing adversity. In 2004, just as Blake was fighting his way into the top echelons of men’s professional tennis, he fractured his neck (sidelining him from the sport). During his recovery, he lost his father to cancer. Then, only months after his father’s death, Blake contracted zoster, a rare virus that paralyzed his face and threatened to end his tennis career.
His story is an intriguing reflection on the nature of tragedy and a very real testament to the human spirit, and our ability to overcome heartbreaking obstacles. The prose is nothing to write home about, and it sometimes feels a little too sappy, but it is an engrossing read and a worthwhile one.
I must admit I was somewhat disappointed, only because I was hoping for something slightly different. Since I am completing a novel about the trials and tribulations of a gay tennis pro coaching a teenage, straight tennis player on the men’s pro tour, I was hoping to gain insights into what goes on behind the scenes of pro tennis tournaments. Unfortunately for me, there was precious little of that information in the book. It really centers on Blake’s time away from the tour and spent more time dealing with family issues rather than professional one. Still, it kept my interest throughout. It is not, however, a book I would recommend to someone who is not an avid tennis fan, mostly because the tennis jargon would confuse people not familiar with the game.
And for those of you wondering if the rumors are true about his being gay, I can only say that he didn’t mention a girlfriend once. I found that odd considering he mentions all his other friends, repeatedly. So the possibility is out there. We can still hope….

Monday, January 14, 2008

Once more into the breach

Saying of the week: "Every man’s work, whether it be literature or music or pictures or architecture or anything else, is always a portrait of himself" -- Samuel Butler

In September of ’07, I was under the impression that I had finished, for good, the editing of my second novel, Changi. A love story that unfolds within a Japanese POW camp during WWII. It’s a complicated story with several plot twists, funny and sad, memorable characters. I love this story. But I must admit, after reading it a dozen or more times over the previous two years, I was overjoyed to tie a big rainbow colored bow around it and put it on the self. It was clearly time to move on.
Life has a strange sense of humor, however. After purging the book from my mind and having a thoroughly marvelous holiday season with friends in Las Vegas, I came back home to find an email in my inbox from my publisher, Zumaya Publications. They want to publish the story but they have issues, and they proceeded to list some needed changes, changes that would require going through the entire manuscript again. (frown)
My first reaction, of course, was to tap dance down Market Street. The idea of having my story published and read by hundreds, perhaps thousands of readers made me dizzy, or at least more dizzy than normal. But now, here I sit with the manuscript in front of me, ready to charge through the story once again. (deeper frown)
I suppose I could leave it on the shelf for a few more months while I finish up the first draft of my forth novel, but I really hate the idea of some unfinished work looming over my head. The notion of too much of a good thing is a valid one, and at the moment, certainly applies to me and Changi.
So, into the breach once more dear friends, one last push for Queen and Country.

Also, I’m starting something new this year. One of my New Year’s resolutions is to read at least three books each month (editing my own books doesn’t count ). My reasoning is that every accomplished writer claims that the most important thing a writer can do to improve his skills is to read, read, read. And then read more.
So along with reading, I also plan to write a review of each one and post them onto my blogs. The following is a review of my first read in 2008.

Wild Oats By Jacob Epstein
1 Star
An ugly cousin to Catcher in the Rye: college freshman having trouble adjusting; falling in love with a girl and not handling it well; he has no direction, fumbling through some funny and serious moments in his rite of passage of being away at college.
Written in the first person POV, the story plods along, trying to give the reader a humorous glimpse into this kid’s jumbled life as he tries to fit in. The writing is not particularly eye-catching and the humor often falls into the ream of stupid or absurd rather than funny. All in all, an unremarkable read. I think the main problem, for me anyway, was that the main character didn’t do a single thing to make me care about him. So I didn’t care if he flunked out of school, got the girl or not, or made friends. More than once, to my annoyance, the writer drifted from past tense to present, and then back to past. I found myself skipping whole pages and skimming the last third of the book (almost putting it down twice) wishing it would end soon. Of course, I didn’t care much for Catcher in the Rye either, so perhaps I simply can’t relate to this literary theme.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Celebrating the New Year

Saying of the week: "We can’t run from who we are. Our destiny chooses us." (unknown)

It has been a fast and furious and wonderful few weeks to end the old year and begin the new. My partner, Herman, and I were treated to a week in Las Vegas by two dear friends who own a timeshare condo just a half block off the Strip, very close to the MGM.
None of us gamble but we had a splendid time eating at the myriad of fine restaurants, shopping in the casino malls, and people watching. And because the sun made an appearance every day, we also managed to get in several sets of tennis in the sub-fifty-degree weather.

It amazes me how fast Vegas is growing, not only on the Strip but also in the outlying areas. Those beautiful deserts and mountains are being populated with track homes and malls. And on the Strip, across the street from Bellaggio, they are building a massive new complex, The City Center, that boasts of five skyscrapers. I counted twenty five cranes rising above the construction site. One condo high-rise, The Oriental, won’t be completed for another year but the million-dollar-plus condos are 97% sold already! With the housing market whooshing down the toilet, at least someone has some money to spend….

THE BEST PART came after I returned home on January second. Waiting in my inbox was an email from my publisher, Zumaya Publications, telling me that they want to publish my second novel, Changi, a gay, interracial, men-in-uniform story that takes place in a Japanese POW camp during WWII.
What a fabulous way to start the new year. The story took me three years from concept to acceptance letter, and I was beginning to think it would never be read by more than a handful of close friends. Zumaya has not given me a publication date as yet (in fact we haven’t even signed the contracts), but I know they are booked through most of 2009, so I’m hoping for a late ’09 or early ’10 release. That sounds like ten lifetimes away, but one thing I’ve learned is that nothing moves fast in the book publishing world. Patience is as essential as talent in this business.
My first novel, Island Song, a gay interracial romance that takes place on the big island of Hawaii, was accepted for publication in late ’04, and after Zumaya pushed out the release date twice (6 months each time), it is scheduled to hit the shelves this July. All my fingers and toes are crossed....

Anyway, to sum it all up, my old year went out with a colorful bang and the new year is looking more promising than I’d dared hoped for. I feel like some of those gamblers I saw at the crap tables in Vegas, riding a winning streak and wondering how long it can last.

I sincerely hope that you, that everyone, are having as wonderful a new year as mine. And if so, I’d love to hear your good news.