July 2013

Sarah Van Arsdale

features

An Interview with Christopher Bram

Christopher Bram is that rarest of writers: he sits down at the desk, writes a book, finishes it, gets it published, and then does it again, with evidence of neither angst nor chest-thumping. Writing is simply what he does, and he does it brilliantly. This means that now, he has eleven published books; last year, it was Eminent Outlaws, a sweeping, novelistic portrait of gay male writers of the late twentieth century -- something of a grand dame in his body of work. Several books before that, he garnered acclaim for his novel Father of Frankenstein, which became the movie Gods and Monsters.

Bram's writing is masterful: opening one of his books is like stepping into an architecturally perfect house, with plenty of secret stairways and windows that look onto surprising views. In his novels, each character seems to be his favorite, and becomes the reader's favorite, as we fall in love again and again with the varied inhabitants. This remains true whether it's the character Bram creates from the very real person James Whale in Father of Frankenstein, or the alluring and confounding Abbas Rohani in Exiles in America, or Isaac Kemp, the ex-slave who draws the passion of the title character in The Notorious Dr. August.

Bram's sly wit, elegant styling, and sheer range of topics contribute to the feeling that you are reading the work of a truly great writer, and you want to settle into that house he's built for you and stay a while.

And now you can explore more of the worlds of Chris Bram that have been unavailable in recent years. Five of Chris Bram's books have just been reissued by Open Road: four novels -- Surprising Myself, Hold Tight, In Memory of Angel Clare and Gossip -- and his collection of essays, Mapping the Territory.

If you were to look for a thread that's common in the five books being reissued, what would it be? Or would you not look for such a thread? 

The obvious connection is that they're all gay. I've spent my life writing gay stories, both because of who I am and because these were stories nobody else was telling. But it really is a great subject, one that opens in many different directions. It begins in love and sex, but extends into family, work, politics, even religion.

The four reissued novels all explore episodes in different times of gay history, from 1940s New York in Hold Tight to 1990s Washington in Gossip. Later novels of mine, such as Gods and Monsters, reach back even further in time, to the First World War and 1930s Hollywood. And my last novel, Exiles in America, looked at a gay couple at home during the invasion of Iraq. I didn't plan it this way. I like stories and I am not afraid of history. I feel free to roam around in time, looking for stories that appeal to me. Gay life for me is what Yoknapatawpha County was for William Faulkner. The essays in Mapping the Territory fill in some of the gaps along the way.

But all your books explore gay history in one way or another. They kind of normalize gay life in several different times and places, and the reader is able to read the story as a story, and not necessarily as a gay story. What are some of the thematic ties in these reissued books?

The thematic ties are harder to describe. I have a horror of repeating myself and I try something new each time out the gate. But all of my books represent pieces of me and so they can't help but connect thematically.

One theme that appears again and again is the conflict between big love and little love. The phrase was coined by my friend Mary Gentile, who went to college with me and has been one of my best readers and toughest critics. Mary recognized early that my characters are often torn between their love for something personal and immediate and love for something larger and more difficult. In Surprising Myself, Joel finds himself divided between love of sex and self and his love of his partner, Corey. In Gossip, Ralph is torn between political loyalties and his affection for a closeted Republican. And so on. Sometimes the larger love is just plain wrong, as in Hold Tight, where Hank Fayette, a white sailor from Texas, has no trouble accepting his homosexuality but is angrily confused when he falls in love with a black man, the smart-mouthed Juke. He feels his very identity as a white man is being thrown into doubt.

I'm not sure where this pattern originated in my work. It might come from my experience as a gay person: all of us must learn to choose between what we were taught to feel and what we really feel. Or maybe I just read too much George Eliot in college.  

As far as I can tell, you've read too much of everything. Much of your work is so realistically drawn that it looks like memoir; and yet, the stories are so different from one another that you couldn't possibly have lived them all. I understand what you're saying about how each book represents a part of you. Does that also mean there's a seed of memoir in each of the fiction books?

I think of myself as a realist, but I don't write autobiographically, unlike many novelists. Because Hold Tight is set during World War II, few readers think it's based on firsthand experience. But most people assume my first novel, Surprising Myself, is autobiographical. Yet even there I took imaginative leaps. My parents never divorced, my father never worked for the CIA, nor did he quit to become an actor. Unlike Joel, I went to college. And I was never a fan of Ayn Rand. Okay, there is some autobiography. I gave Joel my Boy Scout experience, my Swiss relatives, and my guitar-playing sister. But then I invented a lot of new things. My own life seemed so dull and ordinary; I thought it'd be more interesting to make up a new life.

However, there is lots of indirect autobiography in Surprising Myself. Or maybe I should call it fantasy autobiography. For example, when my mother read the novel, her first question was, "I wonder where you got that father from." I pointed out that he was nothing like my dad. Mom said, "Oh, I know. But I wonder why you needed to imagine such a dad." Which is exactly right. My father was a serious, moral, and responsible man. Which was a real pain when I was going up. It was liberating to imagine an irresponsible, flakey dad.

Could the astute reader find more autobiography in your books? Maybe with the aid of a magnifying glass and a codex?

There are similar autobiographical fantasies playing in my other books, only it would take someone who knows me intimately (and a good therapist) to tease them out. In Gossip, my fears about selling out politically were projected on the thrill of sleeping with the enemy. And in In Memory of Angel Clare, my fears about AIDS became mixed with my worry about how well I'd behave if a loved one became ill.

An idea for a story will often seize me long before I understand where it came from. Later I will figure out its source. But I've learned to have enormous faith in my unconscious. The usual literary advice is, "Write what you know." My advice is: "Write what you don't know that you know." You can discover far more that way.

Because you also write nonfiction -- and in fact, the essays in Mapping the Territory include both memoir essays and nonfiction essays -- does writing fiction inform your nonfiction, and vice versa? Or are they distinct animals, each pacing its own cage?

I love the image of two animals in separate cages. But it might just be one animal in a cage pacing in front of a mirror. It's hard to tell; the light is so bad.

I almost went to graduate school in history -- I often joke that I'm a sidetracked historian. (I also joke that I'm a sidetracked movie director, but that's another subject.) I still love history and there's a strong nonfiction base in my fiction. This connects with your earlier question about my realism. I believe in both reality and realism. The closest I get to fantasy in my novels is when my characters dream.

But storytelling is the same process whether you are working with established facts or making up new facts. I realized this when I wrote Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America. That was my first, large-scale nonfiction book. I found myself stringing facts like beads on a necklace. I couldn't invent any of those facts, but the story dictated which ones I'd use. Sometimes a bead was missing. I couldn't make it up, as I would with fiction. I had to look for it, poking around in old magazines and biographies. If I couldn't find it, I had to say so, admit it was missing. And there were beads that didn't fit anywhere.

But the string -- the story -- comes first, whether you're writing fiction or nonfiction. I'm still trying to understand exactly what that string is. It's about emotional sequence, and drama, and human gravity. It's as difficult to describe as keys in a piece of classical music, and what happens when you change from one key to another.

You've just improved mightily on E. M. Forster's description of the story inside the writer as a tapeworm. Thank you for giving for a new image for that.

Maybe the string is simply the reality of the people who are my subject. Sometimes when I'm reading a novel that doesn't work, I find myself thinking, "This author is just making it up as he or she goes along." Well, duh. Of course they are. We all are. But a successful story makes you feel that these people and their lives existed before the writers started putting words to paper, and their life will continue to exist long after we stop reading.

Yes. Like you're just opening the shade on a window and peering down into the fiction world, catching it at that particular moment. You know, Chris, you're the best person to have in an audience during a book reading, especially if comedy is involved. You love to laugh and you laugh easily and readily. I've seen that humor in some of your work. Do you work on that or does it come naturally? Do you think you're as funny in writing as you are in person?

Actually, I think I'm funnier on the page than I am in person. That might be because so many of my friends are so funny aloud. Draper, my boyfriend, is very funny, as you know, witty and surprising. So are you. So are our other friends. To tell the truth, it's a relief to hear I'm funny in person.

But I do like to laugh. It's such a human emotion. Comedy on the page comes to me naturally. I don't have to work at it. I'm keenly aware of the incongruities of real life and not afraid to include them when writing a scene. In fact, comedy is just another piece of my realism. I'll often hit upon a detail, thinking it's real and surprising, only realizing after the fact it's laugh-out-loud funny.

This happened early on when I was writing my AIDS novel, In Memory of Angel Clare. AIDS is such a serious, heavy subject, and I wasn't sure how to make it real. Early on, the protagonist, Michael, a young AIDS widow, is in Paris and meets an American boy his own age. Michael wants to impress him with his suffering, but he gets carried away with his story and begins to cry. In a desperate attempt to show sympathy, the boy looks for something so Michael can blow his nose. He has nothing to offer except his street map of Paris.

Okay, maybe that's not laugh-out-loud funny...

Yes, it is!

Good! But it is human. And it gave me the confidence to write a novel about a tragic experience. But I believe that comedy is as serious as tragedy, and maybe more true. Comedy is about mixed emotions, contradictory feelings, unfinished thoughts. Tragedy simplifies things to sorrow and pity with dignity. Comedy strips away our dignity, but the best comedy enables us to see ourselves in a foolish character: "Oh my, I've been just as stupid. I should know not to judge."

Of course; you want the character to remember that time he used a street map for nose-blowing. So reviewers are willing to acknowledge the humor in your novels, but while there's a lot of sex, that often goes unremarked.

Sex is as important as laughter for me in storytelling. Well, it's another part of my realism. Sex is not just a sensuous act, but an expressive act, a dramatic act. People reveal a lot about themselves in bed. Or they can anyway. When it's just sex, I usually skip over the act and say something like, "Afterwards they smoked cigarettes." But when something in addition to lust is being expressed or worked out, I write a scene. For example, the first real sex scene in Surprising Myself isn't until fifty or so pages in, when Joel and Corey have been together for three years. They have all these other bonds and memories and emotions, which crowd into bed with them. And Joel finds himself fantasizing about all the guys he didn't sleep with. He is both confused and excited.

You're right; people rarely talk about the sex in my novels, but I suspect that's because so much else is going on. The sex is blended with the rest of life. In novels by, say, Edmund White or Alan Hollinghurst, there's often not much else going on except sex, so readers really notice it.

Your work stands in the canon of gay literature, and in fact your latest book, Eminent Outlaws, brilliantly shows the sweeping influence of gay male writers in the twentith century. But today, it's a different world than it was when some of your books being reissued came out. What is the state of gay literature now, in a time when gay marriage is achieving acceptance, gay bookstores are gone, and anyone can find a new identity (and an accepting community) online? 

I am very lucky in that I came of age during a golden age of gay and lesbian books. Our stories were considered unsuitable for TV and the movies. Books were the only game in town. Publishers learned that there was a solid audience for gay and lesbian books -- not a huge audience, but big enough to turn a nice midlist profit. That has changed in the past ten years, for various reasons.

First, books are not the only venue anymore. There are gay stories on television -- many gay stories. Some are stale and cartoony, but others are quite good. My own favorites include the gay plotlines in Ugly Betty and Six Feet Under. Now and then a good gay movie comes along, although they're more rare than good gay television. Book readers are a minority anyway, so gay book readers are a minority within a minority. But for a time anyway, folks who weren't naturally readers came to gay books because there was nowhere else to go.

The other big change is the publishing industry itself. The 2008 recession hurried along developments that were already underway. The midlist book died. Gay books are nothing if not midlist, but so are other genres, such as literary fiction. The big mainstream houses are now more interested than ever in bestsellers, nothing but bestseller. They're reluctant to handle titles with a smaller audience. Luckily, we've recently seen the arrival of the e-book, which is more cost effective and free to explore these smaller niches. We are witnessing the rise of self-publishing and of small houses like Chelsea Station Editions, as well as the arrival of a large, inclusive outfit like Open Road. You published your excellent last novel, Grand Isle, with SUNY Press. They are all exploring this strange new world. The trick now is to discover how to publicize these titles, how to get the word out and match readers with new work.

Because wonderful new work is still being produced. My favorite gay title this year -- my favorite fiction title, for that matter -- is an incredible collection of short stories by Benjamin Saenz, Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club. It was published by a small house in Texas, Cinco Puntos Press, but then won the PEN Faulkner Prize, which is how it got my attention. I assume that's only the tip of the iceberg of the riches out there. But we are in a time of transition right now, discovering ways of introducing books to readers. The Internet is invaluable here, providing a new kind of word-of-mouth. The old print media didn't always do the job well, but we have more options now.  Some days we might feel like we're drowning in options. But these are very exciting times.