Matthew Gallaway: “Henry James was a seriously hot gay bear”
Author: Antonio Gonzalez Cerna
February 4, 2011
Opera, HIV, and The Velvet Underground
Blogger and novelist Matthew Gallaway sat down at his computer to answer a few questions about his debut novel The Metropolis Case (Crown), (reviewed by David Blaustein last week), the burdens of blogging, and his ideal literary threesome.
1. Let’s start with an easy question. What book is on your nightstand at the moment?
Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David Markson. Next up: Hate by Tristan Garcia and Branwell by Douglas Martin.
2. Are you enjoying reading it?
Yes! Markson’s book is what you might call post-modern stream-of-consciousness about a woman who may or may not be insane and who may or may not be the last living person on earth; despite that “heavy” description, it’s actually very funny and is a highly entertaining combination of high art and philosophy with the mundane and hilarious.
Hate is a newish French novel about AIDS, and Branwell is about the (gay) Bronte brother. (I recently finished Martin’s Outline of My Lover and really enjoyed.)
3. Here’s another fun flirty question. If you could have a threesome with two other literary greats—a bookish ménage à trois—who would those writers be and why?
Umm, whoa. Let’s say 1) Henry James, because in addition to being a great writer, he was—at least in some pix I’ve seen—a seriously hot gay bear, and 2) Walter Benjamin, because I love his prose and philosophy and find him (in pictures) very bookish and introspective but somehow kind of adorable? (I have no reason to think he was gay, although—and this could me projecting, obviously—I find something very nonheterosexual about his writing.)
4. For about two years you blogged as The Gay Recluse. Do you think blogging influenced your fiction writing in any way? Do you miss it?
I didn’t start blogging until I finished by manuscript, so I don’t think that blogging influenced The Metropolis Case too much, but going forward it’ll definitely be more of an element.
The Gay Recluse was an interesting blog for me because it was like wearing a mask—I was more acerbic and political—but it also became kind of exhausting to continually place myself in the middle of political controversy; receiving tons of hate mail is only fun for so long.
I learned a lot, but am probably happier (or at least mentally healthier) blogging under my own name now, and being more “literary” and “reflective.”
5. I’ve read that you’re a huge SF/Fantasy nerd, but that aside, what’s the first “gay” book you ever read—the first one that made you blush, maybe? And how old were you when you read it?
Appropriately enough, I think it was Ursula Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness, which was the first book I read in which (if memory serves) there was something approximating a homosexual love scene, which at the time got me thinking about these kinds of possibilities (terrifying as they were to me at the time).
6. Your novel, The Metropolis Case, is partially set in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood. Can you tell us a little about the choice for this setting?
I chose Washington Heights because I think there’s an element of living uptown that lends itself to viewing “mainstream” American culture very critically; it’s almost like being a foreigner in one’s own country, which in some ways is a metaphor for being gay, or at least an outsider, which I think is an attribute that defines many artists and is something I wanted the book’s characters to share.
There’s also the fact that Maria Callas grew up here, which is kind of awesome!
7. My favorite character in the novel is Anna Prus, largely because I love saying her name. How did the character evolve as you started writing?
Anna was always meant to provide a connection between the other characters; her story is in some ways less developed—or related in less detail—but is critical to the overall architecture of the book. I also loved the idea of having a dramatic soprano who gets her big break at the age of forty, which is relatively ancient for so many arts in our youth-obsessed culture.
8. Ellen Wernecke of the Onion’s A.V. Club gave your book a D+ (ouch!).
Yet other critics have responded with praise, including Scott Timberg at the New York Times, who wrote that your book is “so well written—there’s hardly a lazy sentence here.” How do you respond to Wernecke’s criticism?
Obviously Scott Timberg knows what he’s talking about!
I think Wernecke’s review was basically like someone who says she didn’t like an opera because people were singing, and everyone knows that people don’t sing in real life. She completely misunderstood and mischaracterized the conceit of the book, which was to contrast operatic melodrama with obviously less grand passages of psychological introspection.
In terms of a plot, the book is not meant to be “believable” in any way, and it’s not like it’s a secret that I lifted many plot devices from actual operas that are melodramatic or beyond any kind of “realistic” coincidence.
One of the benefits of being a gay writer is refusing to abide by traditional post-war literary categories, and Wernecke seems to have very rigid ideas about what literary fiction should or should not be. (I was also annoyed that she said that I offer no history of Martin’s promiscuity, when in fact there’s an entire chapter devoted to his hooking up—described in very explicit terms—with another guy via the personal ads in the Village Voice; such mistakes strike me as irresponsible for a professional book critic.)
But the fact that she was soooo “insulted” by the book makes me think I was doing something right, because as someone said to me: “if nobody’s hating your book, nobody’s probably loving it either.”
Failing grades aside, I’m glad Wernecke took the time to review it; bad reviews don’t bother me nearly as much as some of the comments that follow, for example when people say: “Oh that book sounded interesting, but now I’m not going to bother.” I hate when people let reviewers make decisions like this for them, rather than forming their own opinions.
9. One of your characters in the novel, Martin, is HIV positive, but he’s not dying tragically like, say, Michael Cunningham’s Richard Brown in The Hours or Tony Kushner’s fictionalized Roy Cohn.
What made you decide to make your character Martin HIV positive in this chronic, contemporary way?
I think our country on the whole is in a state of manic denial over what happened—essentially the death of a generation of gay men, most of whom would still be alive but for the disease—and we have yet to come to terms with this tragedy, even though we’re not dying in the same numbers (thankfully).
For this reason, I wanted to acknowledge HIV/AIDS as more of a presence—a lurking condition—than an active killer, something that even helps Martin to confront his memories and form a philosophy about the value and potential of his life, rather than condemn him to an early death. (I also wanted to draw parallels between AIDS and 9/11, which I don’t believe has been done, as obvious as it seems.)
10. Some reviewers have proposed that Martin is a sort of literary stand-in for you (you’re both music/cat lovers, both gay), is that a fair comparison? How is it unfair?
It’s fair in many respects, such as the ones you mention, Martin is a stand-in for me, but I see myself in all of the characters. Martin is an exaggeration of me in many ways: for example, I was never married to a woman, and okay, I wish I had his money!
On the other hand, I’ve been in a relationship for over a decade, which is something that Martin is only beginning to explore in the book.
11. I mentioned that your character Martin is a music lover. You’ve also written about your passion for the Velvet Underground in other interviews.
Let’s say, hypothetically, that I’ve never owned or seriously listened to a Velvet Underground album or record. Where should I start?
I love that you’re asking me this, because usually the question is “what opera should I listen to?” and I’m actually much more qualified to talk about the Velvet Underground.
Although every one of their albums has great moments, I would probably start with the self-titled third album, which has “Pale Blue Eyes,” “Candy Says,” and “What Goes On,” all of which are quietly orchestrated masterpieces. The first album also has some beautiful songs—plus Nico sings a few—but parts of it are basically unlistenable.
12. Last question, and perhaps the most difficult to answer. I have a theory that for major publishers like yours (Crown, a division of Random House) the letters LGBT form a 4-letter word, in the worst sense.
Publishers purposefully edit out the labels “gay” or “lesbian” or LGBT in any marketing collateral or publicity, which is tricky for an editor like me who is always looking for LGBT relevancy.
Do you think Out writers are better off using this strategy? In a marketplace where niche is increasingly trending, isn’t it better to market directly to gays and lesbians instead of sort of lumping them in with “mainstream” readers?
Is it better to market to the mainstream (i.e., straight White women) and hope the gays and lesbians figure out the gay angle and support you regardless of whether you market to them explicitly?
This is a very complicated question, and one that I think requires a step back. In terms of writing, I think my story (i.e., spending close to a decade writing and then getting published by a commercial publisher like Crown) proves that openly gay writers CAN in fact tell our stories in ways that—at least as I see it—need to be told.
It’s very much a part of the American literary tradition that all sorts of “outsiders”—whether defined by ethnicity or class or nationality or gender—have been elevated to the literary canon, and it’s past time for the nonheterosexual experience to be likewise embraced.
I admit that I was very lucky: not once throughout the entire revision process did anyone ever try to “de-gay” the any element in the novel or otherwise make it more palatable to a nonhomosexual audience.
At the same time (and despite what I just said) in terms of marketing, I agree that LGBT unfortunately represents a kind of ghetto that I think is best avoided as an explicit label (which isn’t to say I would ever deny being gay or try to write “straight”).
Like any writer, I want to reach as broad an audience as possible, and I felt that gay-oriented media and reviewers would find the book on their own, which has to some extent turned out to be the case. (Of course there are certain gay media outlets that are largely oblivious to the existence of books, which I suppose is another issue.)
I’ve also been pleasantly surprised by certain readers—such as a self-described “follower of Christ” from Texas—who reviewed the book quite favorably, and moreover identified most strongly with Martin, the HIV-positive character. This kind of compassion strikes me as fulfilling an important role of fiction, which is to build bridges among different people in our society, and to increase our empathy for one another.
So the short answer: write for your ideals (or the way you think the world should be), but be prepared to make compromises in order to help get the word out (or address the world as it actually exists).
Thank you for your time, Matthew! I wish you all the luck with your novel and I hope you have a terrific year of touring and book signings ahead!
Read more about Matthew and The Metropolis Case on his website.