Thanks for agreeing to be in my hotseat, Jeff. In some ways you make interviewing you easy because you have written so many great essays which cover most aspects of your life: “Edge: Travels of an Appalachian Leather Bear”, “Binding the god: ursine essays from the mountain south”, both available from Lethe Press and one published by Ohio University Press, “Loving Mountains, Loving Men.” But for those who haven’t read them, hopefully this interview will encapsulate who you are and what you write! However, I strongly urge people to read the above collections if they want to know more.
You describe yourself as being: a gay poet, into leather, vampires, paganism, and very thankful not to be normal, not to be average. You are also a proud Appalachian and an even prouder Bear.
So let’s start with the first: Poetry
You once said you are a “poet in a world almost entirely indifferent to poetry.” Unfortunately, I must confess that I fit into that category. However, in my role as a judge of Elisa Rolle’s Rainbow Awards, I was asked to read your collection, “A Romantic Mann” and found these weren’t the poems that seem to thrive on being too dense for mere mortals to consume, they were readable and enjoyable, especially when read out loud. Your poems covers all sorts of topics, but the ones I enjoyed most were the tributes to gay heroes who died before their time: Alan Turing and Mark Bingham, along with a moving tirade against the massacre at Virginia Tech where you are currently employed as an Associate Professor teaching Creative Writing and Appalachian Studies.
JM: I love the concise intensity and music of poems. A good poem is efficient. Within a relatively small number of lines, it can have a big emotional impact on a willing reader. If fiction is about character and plot, and essays are about the intersections of personal experience and reflection, poems are ideally—for me at least—about deep feeling and the sensuous details of life in the physical world.
Thanks for the comment about my poems being readable, especially out loud. I write them to be read out loud, and I have a passionate detestation for so much contemporary poetry that seems to bend over backward to exclude readers. Some poets lauded by Academia these days seem to regard lucid meaning as old-fashioned. I have absolutely no use for those folks. That sort of “poetry” is elitist experimentation at its worst, what I contemptuously call “dicking around with language.” It’s a waste of everyone’s time.
AB: You often refer to the fact that Joni Mitchell and country singers are a constant source of enjoyment and inspiration. Is it the words or the music?
JM: With Joni Mitchell, it’s the words, for the most part. Several of her CD’s—especially Blue, For the Roses, The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Night Ride Home, and Hejira (my favorite CD of all time)—are full of top-notch poetry. On the other hand, Mitchell’s music is amazingly unique. When I was a young man, I taught myself to play piano, guitar, and Appalachian dulcimer just so that I could play her music. Lately, I bought a book I’ve waited decades for, Joni Mitchell Complete So Far…, a songbook that contains all her exotic guitar tunings, plus last autumn I bought my husbear, John, a digital piano (or “pie-anner,” as I like to call it), so our household has been especially musical over the last few months.
I have a complicated relationship with American country music. Much of the inspiration I get from male country music singers is purely erotic, since I find so many of them hot as hell, and I’ll confess that I’ve worked three or four or five or six of them (I’ve lost count) into my erotic fiction in thinly veiled ways. Writing erotica is a fine way to abduct a man without going to prison.
As for the music itself, I like the ways a lot of it incorporates elements of American folk music (much of that influenced by the heritage of the British Isles). Since I grew up in the mountains of southwest Virginia and southern West Virginia and have spent all of my adult life in Appalachia (except for the occasional vacation), I also appreciate the ways it celebrates small-town, rural, and working-class life. As a liberal, however, I’m much less pleased by the conservative religion and politics some country music expresses.
Poems are often seen as being romantic, Shakespeare’s sonnets being a classic example. Yet one of the most common criticisms female readers aim at male writers of mm romance is that their stories lack romance. Now you freely admit to being a romantic, reading poems to a lover in bed, writing them poems. In fact your autobiography, “Edge: Travels of an Appalachian Leather Bear” has 45 words based on that theme.
AB: How important is romance to you? Has your need for it or definition of it changed over time?
JM: A year or so back, I actually published an essay called “Romantic” in Who’s Yer Daddy?: Gay Writers Celebrate Their Mentors and Forerunners, an anthology that recently won a Lambda Literary award. In that essay, I listed some of the qualities that, according to The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Major Authors, define literary romanticism: a love of history, the supernatural, and the Gothic; a defiant individualism; a dedication to the natural world; an emphasis on powerful feeling and lyrical autobiography; and a fascination with the local, the rural, the regional, and the commonplace. Those traits certainly still sum up my personality and my writing.
Then there’s the colloquial definition of romance and the romantic, as in “romantic weekend,” “romantic evening,” etc. I was on fire with high hopes of romance when I was young and single. Those early fictions that I devoured in my youth--Wuthering Heights, Dark Shadows, Patricia Nell Warren’s The Front Runner and The Fancy Dancer—certainly stoked in me grand dreams of all-consuming and mutual passion (sort of like Madame Bovary reading novels and becoming infected with unrealistic expectations).
Let’s just say that I am much less romantic now. A lot of romance is based on illusion and novelty. From what I’ve observed, both aging and long-term relationships make folks less romantic and more realistic, more practical. This, like bodily mortality, is a sad and inescapable fact.
AB: Your long-term partner, John, ensured your fortieth birthday was memorable by booking you into a suite at Key West and laying on the luxury. Is that your definition of romance?
JM: That was romantic, yes. He and I are both big fans of bodily comforts, most especially good food and drink and the occasional vacation. Those shared traits have helped keep us together.
AB: Do you think that men see romance differently from women?
JM: Hmmm, I’m not sure there. Perhaps many women are brought up to expect great romance in a way that many men are not? Or to devote themselves to their mates in ways that men are not?
AB: You noted a curious emptiness once you found your mate: “Perhaps that was what was ending, the romantic illusion that touching another man’s body, the right man’s body, might leave me entirely changed, transcendent. Now, for all intents and purposes married, my romantic quest fulfilled, the sole element my life seemed to lack was longing.” As a young man you were inspired by the tortured lovers, Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights, the characters in the Gothic TV show “Dark Shadows.” Is having a Happy Ever After a two edged sword?
JM: Most definitely. I’m a very passionate person and a lover of violent intensity, and neither passion nor intensity is easy to experience in the midst of routine. I think one of the reasons I write fiction is to re-experience fervid passion through my characters.
The first writing of yours I read was an essay in Paul Alan Fahey’s anthology about infidelity: “The Other Man” which revolves around you being the other man and your love affair with Thomas who you later described in “Edge” as: “Charming, sexy, and charismatic, Thomas deftly played me for a fool, occasionally meeting me for adulterous weekends when his lover was out of town, keeping the fishhook firmly wedged in my palate by professing his love for me. When it finally becomes clear to me that Thomas will not leave his lover, that, despite his protestations of love, I am only a dalliance, I break off the affair….My first response to what feels like monumental failure is self-hatred and a sense of my own inadequacy.”
This episode in your life prompted a lot of your writing, for which the literary world is very grateful, but it seems to have exacted a heavy toll: “By the time I got to Brighton with twenty Study Abroad students, I was half-hysterical with longing, sick of being The Other Man, sick of being single. Prematurely bitter and weary, I was well aware that my youth and my chances were rapidly running out.” The killer must have been when he broke off with his long-term partner and promptly took up with another man.
AB: Looking back today from the position of a steady relationship, do you have any regrets? Is monogamy an unreal expectation in gay relationships?
JM: I regret that the deepest passions I felt were for men who were not good for me or who did not return my depth of feeling. That has been my greatest character flaw, albeit one I had absolutely no control over. My heart betrayed me again and again. Those bitter experiences were indeed artistically productive, so there’s that silver lining, at least.
Monogamy, well, I think it works well for some people, and it works not very well at all for many, many, many more people. I have no use for it myself. When I was single, I thought I’d be romantic, monogamous, and domestic if I ever met a man who wanted to share a life with me. I was wrong on all three counts…though I guess I’m pretty domestic when it comes to cooking, since, on my father’s side of the family, I come from a long line of country cooks.
AB: “For the next twenty years, I was to yearn for an affair as ardor-drenched and devoted as those Warren and Brontë depicted.” Your students think differently as you also despaired after teaching a class of “uncomprehending youths, these children who were telling us that romantic devotion, the fuel for so much of the world’s greatest literature, was simply impractical and insane.” Why do you think this decline in longing for intensity has happened?
JM: Good question. Longing and intensity are about focus, and thanks to all the damned electronic gadgets that people of all ages are addicted to these days, focus seems more and more shot to hell. With so many distractions and opportunities for entertainment, erotic and otherwise, perhaps many of us are losing the capacity for depth, obsession, and passion. Can you see Heathcliff, spurned by Catherine, flipping open his iPhone and looking for another beauty in the general vicinity of Wuthering Heights? Would I have fixated so madly on Thomas if I’d had access to flirtations via the Internet or phone apps? If I hadn’t been so starved for erotic experience and love because I was shy and far from the centers of gay life? I don’t know.
AB: How do you equate love and romance with your other passion: gagging a man, tying him up and beating him before fucking him silly?
JM: Well, I mentioned intensity before. Rough sex is intense. Therefore, for me, it’s a form of romance, yes. A kind of reverential poetry. Plus power inequality is romantic: one strong man who overpowers and possesses another. And the trust element—“You’re going to surrender your body to me, allow yourself to be put in a position of powerlessness because you trust me”—I think that’s hellaciously romantic.
AB: I worry that many readers of “MM Romance” miss out by demanding there be monogamous romance in every story without understanding that love can be powerful without the traditional hetero-normative trappings. Your novel “Fog” which involves a kidnapping could in no way be seen as a traditional romance and isn’t meant to be, but the characters do fall in love. This kidnapping theme is visited in a few of your essays. Do you still have fantasies about capturing someone against their will and having them fall in love with you?
JM: I have abduction fantasies all the time, though at this point they’re all about lust, not love. I had one last night, in fact, about a young man I saw in a wine store a few days ago. Why? Because, as discussed above, I find power inequality hugely arousing. Because, even at age fifty-four, I have an above-average sex drive, which means I find myself strongly attracted to men almost every time I leave the house: in the wine store, on campus, in the grocery store, on the biking trail. Because, due to the low percentage of queer folks (the latest statistic I’ve seen: something like 3-5 % of Americans identify as LGBT), the likelihood that one of those men might want me in return is next to nothing, especially in the rural/small-town areas where I feel at home. Because, at this age, I find myself almost always attracted to men significantly younger than I, and I know that, even if they were gay, very few of them would be interested in a gray-bearded Daddybear or want to share a Daddy/boy or leather Top/bottom scene. In other words, almost all of the men I encounter in my daily life whom I would like to ravish would very much not be willing or interested. Over the decades, this realization has eroticized forced sex: kidnappings, abductions, etc. Since I’m not a psychopath, since I have no interest in hurting or traumatizing anyone…or going to prison…then consensual BDSM (the possibilities of which are receding each passing year) and the writing of erotic fiction are my only outlets. Forced “noncon” or “dubcon” sex (funny little words I encountered on the Internet, standing respectively for nonconsensual sex and sex in which the consent is dubious) isn’t politically correct, certainly. I don’t care. I can no more police my erotic responses than anyone else. I’m just lucky in that I can create fictional worlds like Fog in which I can kidnap and ravish a man…or vampire fiction like Desire and Devour, where I can not only ravish men I want but I can slaughter my enemies without consequence.
JM: When I was a kid and helping my father doing this or that country chore—gathering and chopping wood, weeding the vegetable garden, making maple syrup—and I’d complain about the labor involved, he’d point out that rest never feels better than after hard work, just as good food tastes better when you’ve worked up a real appetite. The same with erotic experience. When I was single, my erotic outlets were few and far between, so leather sex—well, sex of any kind—was treasured and precious. Now that I’m in a long-term relationship with someone who doesn’t share my passion for kink, BDSM remains a luxury that I only rarely get to experience. That’s frustrating, but it also makes the infrequent leather scene especially longed for and especially intense when it’s finally savored. Nothing like going to the table hungry, to use the gastronomic terminology above.
Oddly, most of the leather guys I’ve played with are, like me, in stable relationships with men who aren’t into the BDSM scene. I don’t know why those “mixed marriages,” so to speak, are so common. Maybe that’s not true in urban areas, where there are so many more people and thus more choice in terms of dating and choosing a mate. Surely there are Top/bottom couples somewhere—say in the San Francisco Bay Area?—who are sharing regular leather sex? I hope so. I want that kind of life, the next time I’m reincarnated. As it is, my attachment to my home region of Appalachia has limited my options mightily.
AB: Lately I’ve heard of people having their jobs threatened simply because they are in the BDSM scene. Is this another barrier to break down?
Yes, indeed. One’s erotic predilections have nothing to do with one’s job efficiency. Sounds like more puritanical prejudice. The folks who fired those people should be “lashed until they drop,” to borrow a phrase from A Confederacy of Dunces. It’s a dirty job, but I’d be glad to do it.
JM: I have. Because I’m a university professor who teaches creative writing and who now directs Virginia Tech’s MFA Program in Creative Writing, it sometimes feels risky to publish material that’s so frankly erotic, especially when it deals with BDSM. I get the distinct impression that my honesty in that regard has handicapped me in many ways. Perhaps I’m mistaken or over-sensitive, but it seems to me that my publications are ignored or dismissed by most of my university colleagues and by the mainstream creative writing world.
Even in the subcultures about which I write, I’m too country for a lot of LGBT critics, and too queer or erotic for a lot of Appalachian Studies folks, so the very niche that I’ve successfully filled—Appalachian/gay/erotic—has limited my readership and my exposure. Plus many critics seem to feel that any work that is profoundly erotic, no matter how well written, can’t have literary merit. It’s “just erotica,” or, worse, to use the word a colleague of mine used when I went up for Associate Professor, “porn.”
So I’ve paid for my honesty, or so it feels to me, in all sorts of ways. Do I wish I’d hid behind a pseudonym? Abso-fucking-lutely not. Using another name would have felt like cowardice to me. Other writers are welcome to use pseudonyms, and that’s their business, and I don’t judge them, not one bit. But for me…if my publications are about anything, they’re about creative freedom and honest expression and being true to your feelings and your self, and the world be damned.
I gather you’ve identified with these in many ways since childhood, especially while growing up closeted. “To lie in the dark, thirsting, powerless to appease that thirst. To know that most objects of that thirst would regard me with fear and hatred. To realize that my life, celibate and gay in a small university town, feels like a chained coffin.” Yet you also recognize in them this obsession with chasing their victims: “Like the vampire’s, my appetite is not concerned with morality. Rather, …. I am interested in touching beauty and feeling as deeply as I can before I die. I have been trapped half-dead in that coffin for years, Thomas has snapped the chains, and my hunger has emerged red-eyed and ravenous.”
AB: Vampires star in “Desire and Devour, Stories of Blood and Sweat” which also brings in a number of other themes from your memoirs: your Celtic roots, travels to Europe. Is it a break from reality? “reality has become decidedly unaccommodating: too restrictive of my passions, in need of constant imaginative revision. More and more, my writing, poetry and prose, edges toward wish fulfillment. More and more, fantasy has become significantly more appealing, a space with much more room for my loves and hates, much more room to swing a sword.” The modern generation won’t accept a tortured human, Heathcliff, so why do they accept the tortured heroes of “Twilight”?
JM: I don’t understand the Twilight enthusiasm, though I do get snarly when folks who hear about my vampire stories accuse me of jumping on the contemporary craze for fictional bloodsuckers. I always respond by pointing out that I’ve been into vampires since the late 1960’s, when I first started watching Dark Shadows.
One student in a Virginia Tech creative writing class I visited once gently accused me of “selling out” when I said I’d gotten an advance for my very first vampire fiction (my very first fiction, actually), Devoured, a novella in 2003’s Masters of Midnight: Erotic Tales of the Vampire. “Selling out” meant, I assume, writing something for money. I’ve never written a word just for money. Royalties are nice, but I write for the challenge and the fun of it, for the relief that creative expression gives me. After all, I started out as a poet. No one writes poetry for the money, because poetry doesn’t sell well. I once received a 62-cent royalty check for my first full-length poetry collection, Bones Washed with Wine.
Sorry. Back to vampires. As should be clear by now, I’m a man of intense passions, loves and hates, and the contemporary world of law and order trammels me considerably. I’ve always resented the limitations and weaknesses of being human, and I’ve always craved power: the power to take what I want, to avenge slights, to protect those whom I consider members of my clan. Vampire fiction, at least vicariously, gives me that power, the power to wreak my will upon the world.
One of the epigraphs I used for Devoured was a quotation from Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents, a book I found revelatory: “it is impossible to overlook the extent to which civilization is built up upon a renunciation of instinct, how much it presupposes precisely the non-satisfaction…of powerful instincts. This ‘cultural frustration’ dominates the large field of social relationships between human beings.” No shit!
In the dedication to Devoured, I thank Andrew Beierle, a fellow writer who arranged for me to be part of Masters of Midnight, for giving me “the opportunity to recreate the world and thus ease my cultural frustration.” So there you go. I suffer a high level of frustration, due to the conflicts between my “powerful instincts” and the demands of a civilized façade. Writing eases that frustration in harmless ways.
AB: Can we expect more paranormal themes in your stories?
JM: At some point, I’m hoping that Lethe Press, the wonderful folks who’ve published most of my work in the last six years, will issue a collection of my paranormal stories. In assorted anthologies, I’ve published a Civil War ghost story, three paranormal Viking stories, a couple of Celtic-themed stories set in the British Isles, a time-travel tale set during the Trojan War, and a vampire story in Steve Berman’s Suffered from the Night: Queering Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
This summer, after finishing a crime/erotic thriller/suspense novella, tentatively titled Carpetbagger, I’m planning to write a full-length novel focusing on my ongoing vampire character, Derek Maclaine, as he takes on the demonic coal companies in West Virginia.
AB; You describe yourself as a Wiccan. I must admit ignorance of what the term meant before “Loving Mountains. Loving Men” enlightened me. I had assumed it was all about witches and spells and worshipping nature. Is it a case of giving something a name causes the problem? In this world where being an environmentalist is accepted, couldn’t you just say you love and respect nature? Or do you like that label?
JM: There’s a difference between loving and respecting nature and locating divinity in it. Let me explain.
My partner and I are both good cooks, and we love to eat, and we’re always trying to lose weight, so in the last few months John’s taken to regular jogging on the nearby New River Trail, which leads through woodland for miles and miles. For a while, I walked on the trail while he jogged, but that didn’t seem to be doing much, so then I started biking pretty strenuously (strenuous for a sedentary academic), about eight miles every other day. The route I take, from Pulaski, Virginia, where we live, to Draper, Virginia, just around the mountain, is a green tunnel through thick vegetation this time of year (June 2014). When I’m out there, by myself, whizzing past blooming honeysuckle and multiflora rose, past rabbits and birds, that’s where I feel deity most clearly, in particular the Horned Gods of the wild, the Celtic Cernunnos and the Greek Pan. That’s more than enthusiastic environmentalism. That’s spirituality. In the stone circles of Europe—Stonehenge, the Standing Stones of Callanish, the circles on Mainland Orkney—and in the Appalachian woods, that’s where I feel God/dess most strongly.
And in thunderstorms, since Thor is another patron deity of mine. Up until about ten years ago, I was focused on Celtic pantheons, since I have Scots and Irish blood in me, but then, around 2002, I started delving into Viking mythology and Icelandic sages. I’ve since expanded into an enthusiasm for Norse deities, as reflected in my third poetry collection, Ash: Poems from Norse Mythology, and my latest novella, The Saga of Einar and Gisli (included in On the Run: Tales of Gay Pursuit and Passion, edited by Jerry L. Wheeler and published by Wilde City Press). Those Northern European gods and goddesses are also appropriate for my bloodlines, since I’m an Appalachian mutt who has English (Anglo-Saxon) and German ancestry as well as Celtic.
AB: After reading stories of your own youth in “Edge” and “Loving Mountains, Loving Men”, I can see many situations are reflected even if they are fabrications. Would this have been what you wished your early years were like?
JM: I certainly would have wished for a passionate and loving relationship with a boy as sexy as Mike Woodson, Cub’s love interest, that’s for sure. Cub’s an odd amalgam. It’s autobiographical in that almost all of the characters in the novel are based on real people, and all the settings are real places too, but in another respect it’s not autobiographical at all, because the plot is 95% fictional. None of those things happened to me, except for my grief when a lesbian couple I knew broke up, and I went to Morgantown to visit them after the break-up.
AB: It’s interesting how at first you hated living in the wilds of West Virginia and couldn’t wait to get out and now you are a strong advocate of everything Appalachian and even teach Appalachian studies. Why does stereotyping prevail in this age of the internet? Why do people fear difference instead of celebrating it?
JM: I think the fear of difference works almost at a genetic level, which would make sense in primitive tribal times, when other tribes could be dangerous. From that genetic heritage, we get the equation, “Difference equals danger.” That was probably an accurate assumption several thousand years ago. Now, in such a globalized world, it’s an instinct that folks still feel but need to ignore in most circumstances.
The stereotyping of Appalachians and Southerners has gone on for a long time, at least since the “local color” literary movement that thrived in the last few decades of the nineteenth century. Folks like to generalize; they like to pigeonhole. It makes thinking simpler. The Internet hasn’t really made a difference. Popular media often still represent My People as backward rednecks and ignorant, inbred hillbillies. I resent it; I’m used to it.
JM: Oh, Lord. Here we go. A Rebel rant! Surely you knew those questions would madden me?
AB: Yes. (smiles)
JM: Most of what I publish is controversial, and my position on the American Civil War—what a lot of white Southerners still call “The War of Northern Aggression” or “The War Between the States”—is probably my most controversial stance. I regret that, because I don’t like to offend people (unless they’ve insulted me or those I care for, in which case I take deep delight in offending them), but I feel obliged to be honest in all things, political correctness be damned.
Of course I’m not a supporter of slavery. Yesterday, I visited my sister in West Virginia. Her husband is black. Her son is biracial. The fact that I have black in-laws is a very valuable education for me. It allows me to see the world in ways that many white people can’t. I’ve seen the looks of disapproval and hatred that my sister and her husband have gotten as they’ve moved through the world together as an interracial couple. I’ve heard the story about how my nephew was first called a nigger. As an Appalachian gay man, I’ve been a member of two minorities all of my life, so I empathize with minorities of all kinds. And my brother-in-law’s family is part of my extended clan. When Obama got elected, an event that moved me to tears, I actually joked that my in-laws were finally in the White House.
Were I a white Southerner in 1861, I might have been a supporter of slavery, simply because slavery was taken for granted by many, many people at that time as part of the usual order of things. As it is, I am a white Southerner who grew up in a region that admired and still admires the Confederate struggle and Confederate heroes like Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, JEB Stuart, and Turner Ashby. Furthermore, I am the descendant of a Confederate artilleryman, Isaac Green Carden, a fact I am hugely proud of. I come by my Rebel sympathies naturally.
At this point I know a good bit about the Civil War simply because I’ve been reading about it pretty constantly since 2008 or so. Certainly slavery was a huge reason for that war’s inception, but for the common Rebel soldier, most of whom did not own slaves, that war was about a destructive invading army moving into the South, thanks to Abraham Lincoln. What does a man do when his country is invaded? He fights. I am a regionalist with very strong attachments and loyalties, much more so to my region than to my nation. I have no doubt that I would have done just as most country boys across the South did in the early 1860’s: I would have put on Rebel gray and tried to kill as many invaders as possible.
Those Rebel boys believed in the South’s right to secede. I think they were right. I grudgingly admire Abraham Lincoln as a man of great conviction, a political genius, but I believe he should have let the South go its own way. If he had, all those soldiers’ lives would not have been lost, and slavery would have died out anyway. Many of the Confederacy’s greatest men objected to it and believed it was a dying and unjust archaism. And Reconstruction would not have poisoned race relations for generations to come.
As it was, between the extremist abolitionists of the North and the fire-eating secessionists of the South, and Lincoln’s determination to force the Southern states to remain in the Union, the land was a blood-soaked slaughtering ground for four years, and the South--my land, the land that has shaped me in uncounted ways—was physically and economically devastated.
What irks my ass, to use one of many vulgar mountain colloquialisms I’m fond of, is that in many quarters, certainly in academic quarters, talking about the Confederate experience with any sympathy is automatically regarded as backward and racist and not to be tolerated. Anyone with the gall to admit that he admires Rebel soldiers or sympathizes with the Confederacy runs the risk of being regarded as a stupid redneck, a conservative country hick. There’s a kind of urbane class contempt. There’s a kind of silencing.
Well, my response to attempts to silence me is nearly always a knee-jerk “Fuck all y’all.” I’m an artist. I’m less interested in politics than in human emotion, human suffering, and human endurance. Confederate soldiers and civilians suffered and endured horrible things. They were human beings just as much as the triumphant Union soldiers and the black slaves. Why are their stories not to be told? Why does their suffering not count?
I’m not black, and I’m not a Northerner. Other people can tell those tales and focus on those aspects of history, and I respect their attempts to do so. I’m a white Southerner, so it falls to me to honor my ancestors. I absolutely resist the stupidly simplistic way the Civil War is most often represented these days: “North = Good. South = Evil. Those evil people deserved their suffering. The right side won.”
There are more thoughtful, nuanced, and complicated ways to look at history. I visited the American Civil War Museum in Richmond, Virginia, a few years back, and they have their exhibits arranged to tell three different stories: the Confederate experience, the Union experience, and the black experience. More recently, that organization has come up with a new logo: “Confederacy * Union * Freedom.” There’s the way to tell the story right: all sides.
I’m about done with this riled-up Rebel tirade, I swear. Just one more thing. Many folks don’t understand how close that war still feels, at least to those of us who live in states where Civil War battles occurred. Covington, Virginia, and Hinton, West Virginia—the two small mountain towns where I grew up—and Pulaski, Virginia, the small mountain town where I now reside—all have monuments to the Confederate soldier. My 94-year-old father, when he was a child, he had lunch with his mother’s maternal grandfather, Isaac Green Carden, that Rebel artilleryman I spoke of earlier. I write this in Pulaski, and about eight miles away is what’s left of the battlefield of Cloyd’s Farm, where a ferocious conflict occurred in May 1864. I can lie in bed at night and hear trains moving through Pulaski along a rail line the invading Yankees tore up after the Battle of Cloyd’s Farm. Pulaski lies in the upper part of the Valley of Virginia, the lower part of which was decimated by Philip Sheridan in the fall of 1864. Ulysses S. Grant had ordered Sheridan to destroy the Valley so thoroughly that “crows flying over it for the balance of the season will have to carry their provender.” Girls in Edinburg, Virginia, begged Federal soldiers not to burn the mill that was the community’s primary source of livelihood. Those soldiers doused the fires.
That history shouldn’t be forgotten. And history feels very close when you live and move amid landscapes where those events occurred.
These same female readers are also known to complain about smelly armpits, an abundance of hair and pot bellies, all the things bears love. Yet, in some ways these two extremes have something in common because in one of your books, you describe, Bob, one of your Mountain State buddies: “I first consciously noticed something I’d unconsciously admired in Keith and Tony and have seen since in many bears, something I find exceptionally appealing. When it came to looks, dress, and mannerisms, Bob was very masculine, but he also embodied sweetness, gentleness, domesticity, and kindness, more traditionally feminine characteristics.” Which suggests outward appearance prevents people detecting these traits.
AB: Why do you like bears and being a bear?
JM: Since I hit puberty, I’ve been attracted to those great gifts of the god-sent chemical, testosterone: the mammalian secondary sex characteristics of mature men. Even when I’m lusting after men much younger than me, it’s what makes them look like men, not boys, that catches my eye. “The Holy Trinity of Beards, Body Hair, and Brawn,” as I call those traits in one of my essay collections, Binding the God. I’m a lover of what’s wild and what’s strong, so I’m attracted to beards and body hair because they’re physical reminders of the wild animals we are, and I’m attracted to brawn because it’s the embodiment of strength.
Bears also tend to resemble the country boys I grew up around, the kind of men I was first attracted to as I grew up in southern West Virginia, the kind of men I patterned my style of masculinity after, and the kind of men I still most powerfully desire. In Binding the God, I tell the story of how John and I went to a San Francisco bear bar, the Lone Star, and John pointed out how most of the guys there looked like they were from West Virginia.
AB: Do you ever wonder or despair about what is going to happen to these twinks (or boys) who have been admired and identified only by their cuteness?
JM: I had a friend in college—a former friend, I should emphasize, for we fell out nearly two decades ago—who was a charming twink with many admirers. Now he’s around fifty-eight, I’d gauge. I doubt that aging has been any fun for him. As much as I complain about aging, at least the concept of “Daddybear” gives me a way to feel desirable. Thank God for men with Daddy fetishes.
AB: Why can’t some readers accept difference? Is it because they project into the characters’ heads and everything relates to them instead of stepping into someone else’s shoes?
JM: Good question. For many of us who love to read, there are two types of books that especially enrich us: those books that we can strongly relate to because we have much in common with the characters, and those books that give us glimpses of lives very different from ours. For instance, I love Denise Giardina’s novels about the West Virginia coalfields, Storming Heaven and The Unquiet Earth, because they’re about mountain people and I’m a mountain person, but I also enjoy teaching the fiction of Zora Neale Hurston, because it focuses on black women in Florida. From Hurston, I’m able to learn how folks different from me lived their lives, at the same time that I’m discovering how much I have in common with those characters on deeper levels than race, region, or socioeconomic position.
JM: I’ve already published a lot about the intersections and conflicts between my gay identity and my Southern or Appalachian identities in Loving Mountains, Loving Men and Binding the God, so I don’t think I have much more to say in that regard. I suspect I’ll continue probing history, however. I’ll certainly keep writing poems about desire, and the ways that aging thwarts desire and reduces erotic outlets.
As for what compels me to write, along with that vicarious living and relief from “cultural frustration” I mentioned above, I’m trying to make sense of my own obsessions and internal conflicts. I’m trying to record the details of my life as one that’s representative in some ways, in hopes that what I publish might help readers like me feel affirmed and mirrored. I’m trying to commemorate people and places and events that might otherwise be dismissed, ignored, or forgotten. Finally, I write because my whole sense of self—critical acclaim or not—is wrapped up in the concept of being a writer. If I stop writing, then I’m not a writer, and then I’d be nobody.
JM: Salvation, the sequel to my Civil War novel, Purgatory, is due out from Bear Bones Books/Lethe Press in August 2014. It continues the adventures of lovers Ian Campbell, a Rebel soldier, and Drew Conrad, a Union soldier, as they make their way through the mountains of western Virginia, encountering several colorful, intolerant, and dangerous characters along the way.
Most of my fiction, as you cogently pointed out in a Facebook message, indulges in “variations on a theme,” or a handful of themes, and I suspect that will continue to be true in the future. Certainly Carpetbagger, the new erotic novella I’m about done with, has elements in common with Fog (forced captivity) and Purgatory (a Northern and a Southern character as contrasting protagonists). That novella is supposed to be the last section of a new volume collecting some of my previously published erotic fiction. The working title’s Beautiful Captivities. That book’s likely to appear in the latter half of 2015.
That collection will also contain one other new piece, an experimental braiding of fiction, essay, and photographs. The photographs were taken during what I jokingly call “The Infamous Philadelphia Photo Shoot,” which occurred in November of 2013, thanks to my wonderful publisher, Steve Berman of Lethe Press. There I was, swilling high-quality bourbon in a fancy big-city hotel room, with assorted leather accouterments, a professional photographer, and a professional porn star. Quite the adventure for a middle-aged academic.
Yeah, I’m being coy. Sorry. Folks will have to buy the book to know more.
After that, there will be the full-length Derek Maclaine novel I’m hoping to get written in what remains of my 2014 Summer Break. Derek will be ravishing hairy young men and messily murdering mining industry executives, so that should be huge fun to write and will provide further relief from my “cultural frustrations.”
I’m about done with writing Civil War poems, though, so after that I’m planning a series of poems based on the Norse runes and another series based on my botanical enthusiasms, since I earned a degree in Nature Interpretation a long time ago from the Forestry Department at West Virginia University and know a lot about wild flora and fauna. Appropriate for a guy who regards the aforementioned Celtic Horned God, Cernunnos, Lord of the Wildwood, as one of his patron deities.
I would like to end by thanking you for your support. My publications, as I’ve whinged earlier, are often ignored, so I very, very, very much appreciate your interest in my books and your willingness to conduct this interview.
AB: No, thank you for being so patient and taking the time to answer my questions. For those who are interested, I have reviewed most of Jeff's books and the links can be found here
You can also check out Jeff's website
and he can be found at Facebook here and his books Cub and his paranormal Desire and Devour have their own pages.
Apart from his great fiction, I can thoroughly recommend the memoirs and essays. They give a fascinating glimpse of his life, his world and the people in it.
His books can be purchased by following the links on the name and cover. Most are available through his main publisher Lethe Press/Bear Bones Books but links are also provided for the other publishers. Most are also available through ARe, Amazon, Smashwords and other retail outlets.
by the 14th July 2014.