Writing a novel is taxing enough. Writing about writing a novel proves even dicier. I recall something Nora Ephron wrote in her superb 1978 essay collection Scribble Scribble (and I am paraphrasing here):
My own takeaway from this is that over-analysis can tend toward the reductive, boiling down the magical task of plotting, characterization and tone into a jumbled miasma of index cards and caffeine. Your writing should do the talking. Much more, and you come across as some literary poseur, which I am so not. I write in fits-and-starts in my shorty (and usually stained) robe. I misplace dialogue notes I've made on the back of ATM receipts. On some days, I review what I smugly thought was prodigious output and realize it's just typing -- and not very good, at that -- with not one worthwhile sentence to be pried out.
Yet here I am. Rodney Ross is running his mouth, as my late Dad would call it: "Windier than a bag of asholes"...which is a very wrong and very brown visual...as I discuss The Cool Part Of His Pillow, my new novel from Dreamspinner Press.
I must be frank. I am not a devotee of M/M fiction. I respect the genre and have been quite titillated by some of it. Yet often there's a sameness; a lot of sexual passages have a feeling of deja vu. (But then again, so does sex with my partner, at times.) I also resist my novel's strict classification as Romance, not out of snobbery, but because I don't wish to generate reader disappointment.
I came from the bloodlust industry of advertising. I understand categorization, focus groups, demographics. I despise them but I understand their practicality. TCPohP is less plot-driven and more character-centric, and I am so grateful to DSP's Elizabeth North, who saw the possibilities in my hopeful lil' manuscript, and to Lynn West, the Editor-In-Chief who appreciated the dense detail that is my calling card. No one was a scold about too little sex, never once was there an implication that the tone, especially the opening chapters, bordered on grim angst or, God forbid, I was never commanded to "lighten up!" I wouldn't classify TCPohP as escapist reading, but it's still a good beach read, something to pop open in an airport terminal...and isn't all fiction escapist? You willingly leave the shackles of your own day-to-day for shackles (in the case of 50 Shades of Grey, at least) of another sort.
But worry not, gentle reader: TCPohP is, of course, about romance, and after it's whisked away by horrendous circumstances, the remembrance of romance and the search for the possibility of new romance.
But sexual satisfaction is not what drives the focal character of Barry Grooms, and HEA is about as elusive an acronym for him as GOP (political jab intended). A widower after 20-plus years with Andy -- killed in a horrendous construction crane collapse on Barry's 45th birthday -- Barry is on a journey, one studded with denial, full of missteps and missed opportunity, that propels him from the Midwest to Key West to New York City to the small town he grew up in. Barry's life optimism has been upended to wicked pessimism. I've been cited in some quarters for this, that the character is a STFU snark. My goal was that the skeptical humor I bestowed this damaged character redeems some of the more mournful passages, when he goes on that lonely search in the center of night for the cool part of his late partner's pillow, only to realize the entire thing is cold. The whole empty, plump pillow can be kidnapped. There is no one to share it with.
So is Barry unlikeable? Criticism to that effect begs definition. Is being eminently likeable the overriding characteristic we seek in a focal character? Then explain the flawed Don Draper, the felonious Tony Soprano or full-of-himself Tony Stark, the addicted Nurse Jackie. It's a fine line, made of barbed wire, and where do you draw it, when a hero becomes an anti-hero? Pedophilia, avarice, murder? I'll take identifiable over embraceable any day of the week but, as Sondheim wrote in Sunday In The Park With George, I'll leave that for others to decide, as "they usually do".
It was said by someone certainly more celebrated and wealthier (Robert Harling, of Steel Magnolias) than I that "laughter through tears is my favorite emotion". That sounds about right. I think of the "Chuckles The Clown" episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show...the twists and turns of a Terms Of Endearment...I recall the unexpected sting of reality after giggling my ass off at some gallows humor. This isn't new, and now entire series, like The Big C, mine laughs from dire circumstance. I don't flatter myself by placing my work alongside any of those cited above, but the groove is there: I want readers to recognize their own foibles and frailties and have a good laugh as they watch my fictional character(s) flail.
Some of the examples in the previous paragraph also circle back something TCPohP has been tsk-tsked for: the many pop-culture references. Barry's an unapologetic theatre queen, a child raised on 70's TV, those are his coming-of-age pushpins (and, in full disclosure, my own). How many times have I resorted to Googling a sports reference, some arcane parallel to a historical figure, distant geography? Everyone has their own frame-of-reference, and the last fifty years has, for better or worse, been shaped by pop-culture, from Marilyn's skirt billowing over a subway grate to those krazy Kardashians.
I can aspire that my next novel (or trilogy...a menage a trois seems to the new story arc trend) nestles more easily into a cubbyhole but, knowing my predilection for the extreme, a main character will probably begin literally rotting in Chapter 5 -- like, their lips falling off into a soup tureen -- and conformity to the M/M mainstream will be out the damn office window again. What are the point of rules when you're making shit up? Writers are cantankerous contrarians who, at the end of the day, write what they write because they must.
And, upon that, I must get back at it.
About the Author:
As a former advertising Creative Director, he's accustomed to making stuff up.
Past achievements include multiple ADDY Awards and an optioned screenplay and play (both currently unproduced). Other screenplays earned Honorable Mentions or runners-up citations in the Monterey County Film Commission, FADE-IN and the LGBT One-In-Ten Screenwriting Competitions. Most recently, he won a 'Most Creative' citation in the Key West Mystery Fest writing competition.
The mid-40's are that time in a gay man’s life when the major paradigm shifts from sexy to Sansabelts, from Calvin Klein to caftan. But when Barry Grooms's partner of twenty years is killed on Barry's forty-fifth birthday, his world doesn’t so much evolve as it does explode.
After navigating through the surreal conveyor belt of friends and family, he can't eat another casserole or swallow much more advice, and so, still numb, he escapes to Key West, then New York. He embraces a new mantra: Why the hell not? First, he gets a thankless new job working for a crazy lady in a poncho, then has too many drinks with a narcissistic Broadway actor. Next, it's a nude exercise class that redefines flop sweat, and from there he’s on to a relationship with a man twenty years his junior, so youthfully oblivious he thinks Karen Carpenter is a lesbian woodworker.
Yet no matter how great the retreat from the man he used to be, life's gravity spins Barry back to the town where he grew up for one more ironic twist that teaches him how to say goodbye with grace.