Sunday, November 4, 2007

Gay in the Age of Paranoia

Celebrated gay author Christopher Bram's critically acclaimed last novel "Exiles in America" comes out in paperback November 13, quite an achievement for a literary-quality, queer-themed book.
Bram, who lives in the West Village with his long-time partner, the filmmaker Draper Shreeve, is no stranger to success. His first novel, the coming out story "Surprising Myself" (1987) wowed critics and his novel "Father of Frankenstein" (1995) was made into the film "Gods and Monsters," starring Ian MacKellen, Brendan Fraser, and Lynn Redgrave and for which director Bill Condon won the Oscar for best adapted screenplay.
Bram tells compelling stories about complicated queer lives with rare intelligence, wit, and compassion. "Exiles in America" explores the relationship of a gay male couple, a college art professor and a psychiatrist, whose lives are turned on end by their blooming friendship with a charismatic Iranian painter and his wife. The story, in part, explores post-9/11 paranoia, justified and not, and is as well a critical examination of the suitability and meaning of the marriage paradigm in the context of a gay relationship.Bram sat down recently to discuss the book and how queer stories are catching up with cultural and political events.
CHRISTOPHER MURRAY: How did the story evolve for you? What compelled you to write it?

CHRISTOPHER BRAM: Initially I just wanted to write a novel about a gay couple in a long-term relationship. It's surprising how few novels there are about gay marriages. Most gay fiction is about first love or doomed love, not domestic love.Early on I decided to give my couple an open marriage, in part because nobody writes about that either, but also because it would guarantee some kind of drama. Then I added another couple, an Iranian family with children. They too have an open marriage, necessitated by the fact that the husband, Abbas, a painter, is primarily gay.And I set it the eve of the Iraq War, which was when I wrote the book. I knew something would happen in the Middle East, but didn't know exactly what. After that I just let my characters loose, all the while looking over my shoulder at current events.
CM: Why did you choose to write about a cross-sexuality, cross-cultural love quadrangle?
CB: I always enjoy mixing things up. I've done it in all my books. Whether bisexuality really exists or not -- and I think it does - it's a gift for a novelist. It complicates things wonderfully. Homosexuality is a gift for fiction, too. It brings together different classes, nationalities, religions. The cross-cultural mix here enabled me to explore Islam, which intrigued me long before 9/11 made it important to more Americans. And since Abbas is married, I was given a major female character to develop, his wife Elena. One frustrating thing about gay male stories is the limited number of roles for women. But bisexuality changes that. Elena was the character I most enjoyed writing. She's more aware than the other protagonists, the one in the trickiest position. And she will say almost anything; she is fearless.
CM: Do you get hot and bothered writing sex scenes like the ones in "Exiles in America"?
CB: Not really, strange to say. I enjoy writing sex scenes. I'm certainly not afraid of them. I hope readers get hot and bothered. But for me sex in fiction is always about emotion, even if it's just friendliness. Something personal is being expressed, otherwise I'd skip a line and say, "Afterwards they smoked cigarettes."Daniel and Abbas begin as fuck buddies but the relationship becomes more emotionally complicated. So I had to make clear how important sex was to both men without giving a full catalog of their encounters. And I needed to find fresh metaphors and ways of describing sex, which is difficult after nine novels. I don't like to repeat myself. But I enjoy the challenge.
CM: What was the original reception to the book like?
CB: Pretty good, for the most part. It won this year's Ferro-Grumley Prize. Gay men in couples certainly appreciated it. As one friend put it, "My god, a gay novel where the couple argues and it doesn't mean they're doomed?" And many reviewers understood the mix of sex and politics and why it was there. But I also got some of the strangest reviews I've ever had. A couple of critics, presumably single, couldn't understand why Zack and Daniel were still together.Yes, they share a house and a dog and endless conversations, but they don't share a bed anymore after 20-plus years, so they must not be a real couple. More troubling were the reviewers who couldn't understand why the police and politics suddenly appear in the story. They blamed me, as if it were something I did just to juice things up. I don't know if they don't follow the news or if they wanted to hear only about boyfriend problems, but they resented the story for acknowledging that people's liberties are at risk in this country.I thought readers would be impressed that here was a novel about gay open marriage and the Homeland Security Act.
CM: I hear you and your partner the filmmaker Draper Shreeve are working on screenplays together too. What's up with that?
CB: Ever since we met we've talked about movies -- it's one of our great bonds. We even made a couple of short films. He would direct and photograph and edit. I would write and act and even serve as script girl.Then we started writing feature screenplays together, which can be tricky but not as dangerous as you might think. We learned how we work best together. And it's a great thing to share. Some couples raise children together, others renovate houses. We write screenplays. None have been filmed yet, but one was optioned and a new one was commissioned, so we sometimes make money from it.
CM: What are you working on now?
CB: Draper and I finished a new draft of a script about Tallulah Bankhead, which is being developed for Patricia Clarkson. There's also a kinky romantic comedy we're working on together. Meanwhile I've made a solid start on a new novel set in the 1880s, all about a theater troupe that comes to a factory town in Pennsylvania and becomes involved with the family of the Presbyterian minister. It's like a Victorian companion piece to my New York theater novel, "Lives of the Circus Animals."
CM: How do you avoid the trap of being pigeonholed as a "gay" writer for a limited audience?
CB: I don't. I can't. The culture we live in, book culture in particular, is so nervously heterosexist that the presence of a major gay character will almost always peg your book as gay. The fact that I try to mix things up more than Edmund White or Andrew Holleran, say, doesn't mean I don't get lumped with them. David Leavitt and Michael Cunningham both recently published novels with no sexually active gay men, but their books are still seen as gay novels. Which wouldn't be bad if it didn't mean we were treated as completely "other" and of interest only to a limited audience.I don't know what we can do about it. It's frustrating that 38 years after Stonewall we're still seen as exotic. Which might be one of the reasons for the strange reviews of "Exiles." "Hey, this is a gay novel. Why is he bringing in the war in Iraq?" As if we're too exotic to care about the important issues that trouble everyone else.
CM: What's one of the best things about being a gay writer?
CB: I'm tempted to be sarcastic and say, "The millions and millions of gay dollars." But the best thing about being a gay writer is gay readers, who are often very smart and very committed. I wish there were more of them. But they're a kind of compensation for being pigeonholed or ignored by straight readers. Real gay readers read steadily and hungrily, and not just the bestsellers or the big name books. They are very curious, and always looking for something new.
CM: How are the stories we are telling about gay lives changing these days?
CB: We don't have to do Homosexuality 101 anymore, so we are free to tell any kind of story we want. The writers, editors, and readers all want something new. Despite my complaints about the state of gay fiction -- and I complain as much as anyone -- there is always a new book that surprises me with news I haven't heard before.For example, last year there was a very fine novel by Aaron Hamburger, "Faith for Beginners," about a mother and her gay son visiting Israel on the eve of the Second Intifada. It had everything: family, politics, religion, sex with a Palestinian. There was also a terrific novel by John Weir, "What I Did Wrong," a sort of weekend-in-the-life account of a gay English teacher in Queens; it deserves to be compared with the best of Saul Bellow. This year there was a wonderful novel by Brian Malloy, "Brendan Wolf," about a gay man who becomes involved in the scamming of an anti-abortion rally in Minneapolis. It starts as a noirish story, but opens up into something bigger and richer.That's only three books, but should make clear that our best work is now all over the map, which is very exciting.
CM: If you could have sex with one famous writer of the past, who would it be and why?
CB: This week I would have to say Leo Tolstoy. I'm re-reading "Anna Karenina" and have fallen in love with the author all over again. Tolstoy was basically straight, of course, although he admits in his diaries to having warm feelings for men but not knowing what to do with those feelings. It'd be interesting to share a bed with him, especially in his late 30s, around the time he was writing "War and Peace." I don't know if we'd actually have sex. But it'd be fun to see him in a nightshirt -- I understand he had great legs -- and we could have good long conversations about religion and history and harvesting wheat, although he'd probably do most of the talking.

©GayCityNews 2007


Charlotte said...

Check out our trailer on Gay Marriage Produced to educate & defuse the controversy it has a way of opening closed minds & creates an interesting spin on the situation:

Blogger said...