Interestingly, your writing first came to my attention through the blog you did way back in September 2011: MM Romance vs Gay Fiction. Apart from the excellent (and necessary) points you made about the importance of categorisation, I found the comments and ongoing discussion fascinating. Especially the fact that the post is still drawing comments as recently as July this year. You’ve even blogged on the subject more recently over at The Blogger Girls: I am not a Romance Writer.
It seems that every time a gay man tries to point out the difference between MM romance and gay fiction or even suggest women should read more gay fiction to help them include some realism in their stories, the argument quickly goes off track into assuming there is an underlying agenda stating that women shouldn’t write mm romance. I definitely don’t want to go down that track here, because those who want to listen will and those who don’t want to listen won’t.
I especially like your definition of romance: “In a romance novel, whatever the main character(s) central problem is, it is solved by love. In other genres, the main character(s) problem is solved by other means and love is a kind of trophy granted for solving the problem.” … in gay fiction “it very likely has to do with self-acceptance, self-awareness or an increase in self-esteem. Sometimes within a relationship and sometimes not.”
You also neatly sum up the HEA as it applies in the mystery genre: “The crime is solved… Sometimes private investigator Nick Nowak’s life ends on an up note and sometimes it ends on a down note. It really depends on what’s going on in his life. But the crime is always solved.”
Early on in the MM Romance vs Gay Fiction blog you stated: “I’m happy to have female readers, but I think my readers are looking for a window into a gay man’s world rather than an idealized gay romance. At least, the ones who like my work.” Did the continued interest in the blog and the way people reacted to it surprise you?
Unfortunately, the issue is difficult to talk about. Too often it is approached as a question of gender as in “Should straight women be writing about gay men?” There are all sorts of things wrong with that question, chief among them is that no woman who writes m/m is going to listen to anything you say after you’ve focused the issue on gender. It’s offensive, so why would they? The irony, of course, is that we’re talking about romance writers. Mainstream romance has had friction with feminism dating back to the seventies or eighties. It should not be surprising to anyone familiar with romance novels that there is occasionally friction between the gay community and MM romance.
MT: I just saw the movie this week. Flynn got to do the screenplay and I think did a great job. Being familiar with the story I was very aware of the number of times the dialogue was about the roles that men and women play for each other. Everyone in our society is subtly pressured to adopt the characteristics of not just their sex but also whatever role they’ve assumed in relationship to their gender (ie Mom, Dad, Husband, Wife). If you’re queer you are inherently unable to fulfill those social norms. Consequently, you choose amongst them. Some men choose a heightened version of masculinity (i.e. leather) while others are very effeminate. Most of us land somewhere in between.
What “Gone Girl” does really well is take a common experience and heighten it to high drama. Most of us, regardless of sexuality, know what society expects of a good husband and a good wife. It would be extraordinarily challenging to create the same experience in a gay thriller. Even if there were a solid social understanding of what a gay man should be (which I don’t think there is yet) you’d still have two people reacting to the same social pressures.
MT: For me, one of the great joys of being gay has been the ability to disregard social norms. There was never a way to fit society’s expectations, so I could simply ignore them. (I’m not so sure this is as true for younger queers – I do see increasing social expectations for young gay men and women.) Over the years, I think the most successful gay couples I’ve met avoid fitting themselves into rigid roles. Those who do play roles have adapted them from the heterosexual world and so ultimately they have no real relevance to the relationship, and thereby don’t function well.
AB: Another statement you made in that blog on categorisation was: “Typically, gay men have the ability to separate love and sex. They can pursue both at the same time and in completely different directions. Typically, straight women view sex and love as intermingled.” Now that marriage and surrogacy is legal in many places, do you see gay men’s expectations on love, sex and fidelity changing over time? Is it a generational thing?
MT: I see an enormous amount of pressure in the gay community to adopt traditional (heterosexual-style) patterns. A decision was made in the US to pursue marriage rather than full equal rights (which would have included marriage, of course) by the larger queer organizations. This means that our community has been packaging itself for heterosexual consumption for more than a decade. The message to the heterosexual world has been “we’re just like you.” I wouldn’t say that it’s a completely true message—nor one that is completely false—it’s simply that individual behavior is much more nuanced. Statistically, men are more likely to cheat during marriage than women. Something like 25 percent of straight men cheat. Assuming that a similar number of gay men will cheat then you have a very high likelihood that a gay relationship will encounter infidelity along the way. Clearly, there’s a benefit to continuing the tradition of non-monogamous relationship (for some – it does not fit everyone) within the gay community.
Please note the word typically in the quote, used twice. I’ve wrangled on line with guys who feel the opposite based on their view of the world. These are broad generalizations. I don’t feel that anyone should be pressured to live in any specific way whatever their sexuality. People should be encouraged to find their authentic selves without considering social norms.
MT: The education I got at UCLA was focused very much on commercial story. It was an amazing education and I loved every minute of being there (it also happens to be one of the most beautiful campuses in the world). The primary effect it has had on my fiction though has been length. We wrote a screenplay every ten weeks. Even when I write a book I write short and fast. Luckily, short books are preferred in the mystery genre so that works out. It’s very unlikely that I’ll come out with a book of more than a hundred thousand words.
AB: When you write, do you see your stories as possible movies? And are your still writing screenplays?
MT: No. I don’t. A film is told primarily in situation (visuals, dialogue, music all combine to show that situation). One situation leads to another. Creating the story. Novels are told in a character’s mental and emotional journey. The movement rests on how a character understands one situation, then the next, then the next.
I did write a screenplay last year, but it was primarily to impress a guy. I don’t have plans to write anymore at the moment.
MT: I have written several books set here (“Desert Run,” “Full Release,” “My Favorite Uncle” and the beginning of “The Ghost Slept Over.”) But a series, I’m not so sure. My pantheon of favorite mystery writers Joseph Hansen, Michael Nava, John Morgan Wilson, Michael Connelly, and Sue Grafton all write mysteries set in California. I’ve probably stolen enough from them already without setting a series here.
AB: Speaking of Full Release, I gather you have the rights back to some of your earlier stories and a new version of Full Release (with new cover and my review) is available on Amazon. Are there any others in the pipeline?
MT: Yes, when my books reach the end of their contracts I’ve begun publishing new editions with some light editing. The second edition of Desert Run should be out in a few weeks.
MT: I actually owned a baby blue Duster when I was seventeen. Originally, giving that car to Nick was a way for me to connect to the period and to him. The Nova he’s given by Jimmy English was chosen primarily for its unlikeliness. It’s a terrible car for a PI. He does get a different car in Boystown 7: Bloodlines but you’ll have to wait for the make and model. When I was a teenager I thought about becoming an automotive designer. Choosing what someone drives in my books is usually a lot of fun for me.
MT: Actually, most of the apartments described have some basis in places I lived or places my friend’s live(d). The French Bakery is based on a restaurant I worked at. Some of the bars are real (and still there) and some are made up. I make up locations if I plan to do anything in them that may or may not be true. For instance, the Outfit collected protection money from gay bars as mentioned in one of the early stories – that’s true. But I wouldn’t want to imply that sort of relationship about places that still exist, some of which are still owned by the same people.
Too often people just see the end point and forget about the different stages that people went through. I’d forgotten it was known as GRID initially. One of the things, I particularly enjoyed about Boystown 6 was the varied way the characters dealt with the issue. Some went back into the closet, some died, some were fatalistic. It must have been a horrible time to live through. Is it painful for you, personally, to write about this topic?
MT: I wouldn’t say painful, no. I would say it puts a point to pain. Writing about that period makes sense of the pain and thus relieves it. Much of the AIDS literature of the late ‘80s and ‘90s was basically a call to arms or a cry for help. It was vitally important to let as many people know what was happening as possible and the best of the books from that period serve that purpose well. Writing about AIDS now, decades later, has a very different purpose. I can write about people’s fears, their bravery, their failings, their denial. At this point in time, I think what is most interesting about the disease is the humanity of peoples’ reactions which I think is universal.
AB: At another point on the categorization interview you stated: “I believe the distinction between gay fiction and m/m is vitally important….. Because readers don’t sort it out. A hardcore romance junkie gets her hands on a piece of gay fiction and she’s angry and often very vocal. She gets on Goodreads or Amazon and she bashes the book strictly on the basis that it was an m/m romance. It doesn’t help the author, it doesn’t help the publisher and it doesn’t help other readers who might not pick up on why the book is being bashed and just think it’s bad. (To be fair, this reader may have gotten a gay fiction book from an m/m publisher. These publishers are, commendably I think, putting out a small amount of gay fiction. Typically, though, they’re not distinguishing it well from their other product.)” I blogged on this subject in March this year. And later this month (October 2014) Dreamspinner is launching a new line: DSP Publications… a boutique publisher of historical, science fiction, fantasy, mystery/suspense, horror, and spiritual fiction. I gather that they are re-badging some of their current titles which don’t fit comfortably under the MM romance umbrella to start with, do you see this as a healthy trend?
MT: There are still publishers who focus on gay fiction outside of the MM world. Wisconsin Press comes to mind. Some of the majors will occasionally publish gay fiction in a small way. Kensington, Cleis (who you mention in your blog.) Within, or connected to the MM world, MLR has a strong commitment to gay fiction particularly gay mystery, Wilde City is publishing a lot of gay fiction and separating it from gay romance on their website. There’s also Riverdale Avenue, which does publish gay books but is more focused on non-fiction at the moment. There are probably more, these are just what came to mind. Dreamspinner’s decision to launch a new non-romance line corresponds to something I’ve felt for a while – and certainly experienced – a decent sized segment of MM readers are interested in gay fiction. That audience isn’t necessarily looking at the publishers I mentioned above – or sourcing their books in a more generalized way - but they will look at books brought out by Dreamspinner under a different name. So, it’s definitely a good thing.
MT: I wish I had a good answer to this question. I mean, I really wish I did, because then I’d be able to reach a larger audience. Despite being a finalist in the Lambda awards twice, I’ve had a lot of trouble getting any notice in what you’d call the gay press (other than Edge where they’ve been very, very nice to me). It might be that some publications take a look at where I publish and discount me because they assume I’m a romance writer, but it might also be that these publications simply won’t write about books unless its someone as well known as Armistead Maupin (who of course began when these same publications would actually write about gay writers.)
AB: You also stated in another blog about the show “Looking” that: “The gay community does a crap job of supporting its own artists, whether it’s musicians or actors or filmmakers or writers the gay community would rather trample over them on its way to supporting this year’s pop diva or some straight guy who can’t manage to keep his shirt on then support its own artists.” Does this upset you?
MT: LOL. Reading the line again I have to say, yes, clearly it upsets me. It’s there in the tone. I do understand that media outlets are supported by advertising so it’s about eyeballs. And eyeballs don’t actually have a sexuality. I suspect that, online at least, a lot of traffic on “gay” sites is outside the queer community. Additionally, I think a lot of gay-oriented websites don’t consider themselves to be in competition with each other but rather with other “entertainment” sites. All the “entertainment” sites tend to gravitate to the same stories regardless of how they brand themselves.
It is really unfortunate that there isn’t a supportive gay press. It damages our community in so many ways. But it’s probably too much to expect advertiser-based media to care about that. It may sound like I’m just speculating but a few years back I complained to what was then After Elton (and is now a kind of de-gayed site) that they no longer reviewed gay books. I was specifically told that book reviews didn’t get enough eyeballs to justify doing them. This, of course, was after the site had been purchased by a conglomerate. Eyeballs had become more important than content.
MT: I adore evil characters. I particularly adore evil women (in stories, I don’t much like them in RL). Culturally, and I think this is still true, women are perceived as weak, harmless creatures. I think it’s pleasurable to see that (often incorrect) stereotype turned on its head.
In one of the Boystown books Nick says, “Nice people always make me want to do bad things.” I think he and I have that in common. I’ve tried to write characters who are simply “nice” and I’m bored by the end of the first chapter.
AB: I have found that some readers almost keep a score sheet on characters, feeling they have to get their comeuppance, perhaps because they lack that power in real life. How do you feel when readers dislike your characters?
MT: The best advice I can give any new writer is to write a book you really like. You’re going to have to read it over and over so if you’re not absolutely in love with it your book it will be a painful process. So, it is unpleasant when people dislike characters I like. (I do sometimes write characters I want readers to dislike.) But you can’t please everyone. Here’s one of my tricks in dealing with Goodreads. When a reader doesn’t like one of my books or one of my characters, I’ll look at what books they do like and pretty much every time I find myself looking at a list of books I either hated or would never pick up. I do often wonder why they bothered with me – which perhaps is part of why I’m very focused on genres.
MT: “Boystown 7: Bloodlines” is with my editor and I should be making another pass in a few weeks. It should be out in March or April of 2015. While I’m doing the edit I’ll very likely start “Boystown 8” for which I have extensive notes already. Thank you for mentioning the women in the books. Since you brought up Mrs. Harker I’ll tell a little story about how she was written. Up to Boystown 6 she was pretty awful. When I was writing that book I had to ask myself if her shift was believable. It was at that point that I realized why she was such a bitch in the first three books she appeared in. Women of her generation had a very Freudian view of homosexuality. It was blamed on the mother. So, I realized, her refusal to accept her son was actually an attempt to not be blamed. Death and loneliness have shaken those ideas and she begins to accept her son (though he’s gone) and to not blame herself.
AB: Now let’s finish up with your comedies. I loved “Perils of Praline” and “The Ghost Slept Over” and “My Favorite Uncle” all seem to have garnered good reviews. Can we expect more books in that genre?
MT: I have three very serious projects that I’m juggling and will be starting the next Boystown book in about six months. I don’t have any comedies on the back burner but... I love writing comedy and will probably pop one out as soon as I get a couple of these other projects finished.
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