Christopher Bram: Charting the Outlaws
Author: Frank Pizzoli
July 11, 2012
“I would find a story thread, follow it, see where it would lead me, often to another thread and then another and another. I did not have to make up the funny lines. My subjects provided me with the best lines… “
Christopher Bram was born in 1952, Buffalo, New York and grew up in Virginia Beach, Virginia, where he was a paperboy and an Eagle Scout. A graduate of the College of William and Mary, he moved to New York City in 1978 where he lives with his partner, Draper Shreeve. He currently teaches at New York University.
Bram has written nine novels–that range in subject matter from gay life in the 1970s to the career of a Victorian musical clairvoyant to the frantic world of theater people in contemporary New York. He has also written or co-written several screenplays, including two shorts directed by Shreeve. His 1995 novel Father of Frankenstein, about film director James Whale, was made into the 1998 movie Gods and Monsters starring Ian McKellen, Lynn Redgrave, and Brendan Fraser. The film was written and directed by Bill Condon who won an Academy Award for the adapted screenplay. Bram was made a Guggenheim Fellow in 2001. In May 2003, he received the Bill Whitehead Award for Lifetime Achievement.
Bram’s newest book, Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America (Twelve), covers a 50-year period and deliciously fills in details on the lives of a dozen gay writers who changed the fabric of our culture.
Bram took some time to talk with Lambda Literary about his new book, the publishing industry, and the state of literary fiction.
The opening sentence of Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America is that the gay revolution began as a literary revolution. Is that because publishing makes one visible?
That’s part of it, part of the bigger picture. In 1948, when the book begins, homosexuality was illegal in all 48 states. You couldn’t even talk about it. Then right after World War II, a few writers started telling stories about it, fictional accounts because if they had told true stories they’d be open to prosecution, charged with committing crimes. But because they were telling fictional stories about homosexuality, they could get away with it, first in novels, then in plays, and poetry. Because writers were able to talk about homosexuality, critics could talk about it, too, usually negatively, but people were talking about it. These early reviews were often poisonous. It was appalling to read them right up into the early 1970s. But talk created openness, which led to more books and more talk. And the attacks began to soften.
Let’s not forget about that great quote attributed to Gandhi: “First they ignore you, then they make fun of you, then they attack you, and then you win.” Gay books and plays were the target for a lot of the early mockery and attacks.
In Eminent Outlaws, you place a particular focus on the celebrity personas of post World War II Gore Vidal, and then Stonewall-forward Edmund White. John Leland, in his New York Times review, criticized you for not including many pop and/or outlier gay writers: James Purdy, Reynolds Price, Dennis Cooper or Augusten Burroughs, David Sedaris. What are your thoughts on Leland’s critique?
Well, as I say in my introduction, this book is not meant to be an encyclopedia of all gay writers. I’m just doing a dozen or so writers that enable me to follow the major plotlines of a 50-year period. I’m covering a lot of territory. I did not want to write an index-card literary history, so people were inevitably left out. I’m puzzled by some of the names Leland mentions. I mean, Reynolds Price? I’ve actually read quite a bit of Price: he was kind of closeted. He finally wrote about gay relationships in The Source of Light in the 1980s. He was very coy with a main character who is in love with both a woman and one of his students. He plays the game of “Which will he choose” for 400 pages. I can’t even remember if he goes for the guy or the girl at the end. It gets awfully tiresome.
Leland was just trying to show off; he wanted to show off how much he knew. It’s easier to talk about what’s not in a book than what’s in it.
Leland also, in his review, opines that although you connect the emergence of more openly gay literature to the 60s African-American Civil Rights Movements and the Anti-War Movements, you—his word— “curiously,” do not connect the emerging gay sexual revolution to the broader sexual revolution of that same period. Jean Carlomusto presents in her documentary film, Sex in an Epidemic, what I call a clarifying delineation that weaves those parallel gay and straight sexual shifts together, but they actually took place separately.
I mean, straight Plato’s Retreat and gay The Everard Baths and Everyone Disco Together (sic), came after those venues. Was that part of your thinking in not combining these social phenomena because those Zeitgeists didn’t talk to each other initially?
Well, this is a literary history. I’m not covering the entire gay movement. But I do talk about the sexual revolution. First indirectly, when I discuss the loosening of censorship for both gay and straight writers after the war—suddenly people were able to write about real sex. Then I address the connection directly when I talk about the coming of AIDS. I have a whole page describing the sexual revolution and its connection to the gay sexual revolution.
To tell the truth, I don’t think Leland really read my book, not cover to cover the way most people read. I think he just read the jacket copy, then flipped through the index to see if I included the things he thought were important.
You think he perused it?
He perused it. I mean, he made so many complaints about things that I actually answer. At one point he complains that I don’t talk about women. I address that in the introduction, saying I reluctantly decided to do only the men because the story was complicated enough. The women have their own narrative and I don’t feel qualified to write it.
So no, I really don’t think he read the book.
You mentioned that you couldn’t write about sex—straight or gay—before World War II. Then came John O’Hara’s sex romp A Rage to Live (1949, 1964 movie), which is about my adopted hometown of Harrisburg, PA. His title always cracks me up because I can’t imagine anybody in south central Pennsylvania having a rage for anything, let alone living.
In the period after World War II, publishers suddenly found that sex sold. Think about those paperback postwar novels with sexy covers. Even Flannery O’Connor’s books had half-naked women on the cover. Publishers found that gay sex sold, too, but then backed away from it, the mainstream houses anyway. The paperback pulp houses picked it up, however, and the smaller presses.
If the general culture was homophobic, how did Gore Vidal sell The City and the Pillar?
It wasn’t homophobic, not at first. There was a window of curiosity of three or four years when mainstream publishers were willing to explore.
The most amazing story I stumbled upon was that Vidal wrote The City and the Pillar, in part, because he told a straight editor over drinks about “these men” he’d been noticing around town. The editor, who didn’t know Vidal was gay, encouraged Vidal to write a novel about “these men.” He thought it would turn out to be a hot subject
In the way that your writers who changed America broke the long silence, your manuscript added to their narrative. How did you organize Eminent Outlaws?
I would find a story thread, follow it, see where it would lead me, often to another thread and then another and another. I did not have to make up the funny lines. My subjects provided me with the best lines. If I couldn’t find something, however I couldn’t make it up. I had to admit I didn’t know or skip over or research or find some connection. And I was dealing with a much larger cast of characters than I usually deal with in a novel, although I do like writing ensemble novels. I’ve written several novels which will have half dozen major characters. This time I had a dozen and I had to wait and see what emotional drama would arise naturally out of the material.
So if you reached a dead end you struck it from the timeline or moved on?
Yes, but often the threads took me places I hadn’t planned on going in advance. I hate to admit it but, in my original proposal, I did not include Christopher Isherwood. But I followed Gore Vidal to Hollywood and he met Isherwood, and the older writer became a major piece of the story. He’s one of my favorite characters in the book.
And Vidal met Isherwood after The City and the Pillar and his after his Edgar Box period, the mystery novels he wrote under that name to make money since he’d been shunned
I had to do a flashback, in effect, to Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin period. (These are the stories that later became the 1951 play and 1955 film I Am a Camera, both starring Julie Harris, then the 1966 Broadway musical Cabaret and same-name 1972 film with Liza Minnelli.) Then came books that didn’t quite work, like The World in the Evening (1954), followed by the great work: Down There on a Visit (1962) and A Single Man (1964). Except for The Berlin Stories, his best work came after he met Vidal
In following those threads, you demystified Vidal for me. I’ve read yards of his work, admire him greatly, but don’t think I’d like him as a person.
Well, when you don’t treat him as timeless but watch his life unfold, Vidal becomes more human. I’ve been reading him since I was a teenager in the 60s and loved reading him, especially his essays. But I realized early that he wouldn’t be the kind of guy I’d want to hang out with.
But unquestionably, his essays are astounding commentary, and the syntax, the synthesis of events and thought.
And we get to see a positive side of him in his essays. We know Vidal is curmudgeonly and he hates everybody; he sure hated Truman Capote. But he loved Tennessee Williams. His two essays about Williams are wonderful appreciations of him as both a man and an artist. His essay about Isherwood is quite wonderful too. He did a terrific early essay about John Horne Burns, author of The Gallery. He could love as well as hate, which we forget.
It’s difficult to accept the reality of one of our heroes being imperfect, as we all are, that Vidal and Capote could they have carried on like they did….Perhaps Vidal was worried about Capote surpassing his The City and the Pillar with his release of Other Voices, Other Rooms, at the time called “Other Vices, Other Rooms” by detractors?
Released a week apart. And Capote was getting a lot more attention than Vidal. As I say in the book, Vidal admitted it was hard, that Capote came to literature more naturally than he did. Vidal had to work at it. Capote was kind of an idiot savant in a way. He was not terribly scholarly, unlike Vidal who was, who read a lot, whereas Capote seemed to have some natural gift that Vidal didn’t have. Vidal needed to work at it; he resented Capote who didn’t. Vidal knew he was smarter than Capote, but sometimes Capote could just naturally write really well.
Maybe early on, Vidal’s style suffered a rigid streak from having read so much from the Congressional Record to his blind grandfather, Sen. Gore?
Yes. But later he was more industrious, a very hard worker, constantly writing, not just the novels, but screenplays, journalism, and he was constantly reading.
Not wanting to ever be dependent again on a bad review or being shut out, so he went to Hollywood to make money, holding his creative noise?
Yes. And also helping Vidal get over Capote and those Hollywood years was his partner Howard Austen. He had this man in his life who, even though they never had sex, and Vidal proudly confessed that, they were still very supportive of each other. He was an anchor for Vidal; he kept him on an even keel.
Austen, whom Vidal advised to change his Jewish name from Auster in order to get hired in a bigoted New York advertising world, kept him very well hidden…
Vidal didn’t hide Austen, but he never talked about him in print. The relationship finally came up in the Gay Sunshine interview when John Mitzel asked Vidal who he was going to leave his money to. Later Armistead Maupin interviewed Christopher Isherwood and Don Bacardi and they mentioned Vidal and Austen, asking why Gore never mentions Howard: “They are as much a couple as we are.” So acknowledging his relationship with Austen happened late. Only after Austen died did we see how important he really was to Vidal. He seemed lost without him.
Vidal wrote about Austen’s death, returning to Los Angeles for medical care, and opened that door for readers, down to their last moments together…
That’s the best portion in Point to Point Navigation, his account of Austen’s death.
Are you working on anything right now you’d like readers to know about?
No. Just kind of exploring a couple of possibilities. I’d like to do another non-fiction book. I really enjoyed writing Eminent Outlaws because it uses a different side of my brain, but an emphasis on story and character.
Is there a second Eminent Outlaws ahead?
I don’t know. It’s too soon. Where the book ends right now is a time of transition, and I don’t know what the next volume would be. If there’s another Edmund White type figure to start up the narrative. I don’t think there is. In a way, White is almost like the last man of letters. He’s a look back to another era, but people used to say that about Edmund Wilson, and we’ve seen other men of letters since.
With release of Eminent Outlaws, you shared with The Week what you called six groundbreaking works by gay authors. With the exception of Gore Vidal’s essay collection, your list focuses on relationships. Philip Gambone wrote in Something Inside: Conversations with Gay Fiction Writers, that your fiction is psychological and emotional. He says you find interesting material in the lives of ordinary gay people. You’ve discovered yourself, your homosexuality, through reading about others in gay relationships. Relationships fuel your creative engine?
Relationships are the most interesting thing to write about. But there’s all kinds of relationships: lovers, families, friends, even enemies. It’s hard to kind of come up with fiction that isn’t about a relationship. Even with Robinson Crusoe, what we remember is the second half when Friday shows up, not so much the time when he’s alone.
John Irving’s new novel, In One Person, resembles through a different lens John Weir’s What I did Wrong, where they’re not changing places in the bedroom but nobody has any trouble with anybody else’s sexuality. A new relationship sensibility emerging?
I think the straight writers have recognized gayness is a great subject and they want to explore it to. I think straight readers are a little less comfortable with it, but the writers say “I want to write about this too.” The most famous example is Annie Proulx and Brokeback Mountain. She recognized this is a great subject and wrote about it. Indian writer, Bharati Mukherjee, in her Desirable Daughters, has a terrific story about three Indian sisters and who go back and forth between the United States and India, and there are two, not one, but two gay characters in it, two men who turn out to be gay, and it makes perfect sense. A short story writer and novelist, Charles Baxter, now and then he will have kind of like gay characters show up in ways that again make sense. He realizes this is part of life. I find it very exciting.
And there were writers who were not out for many years and then came out and themselves wrote about homosexuality?
I remember reading John Cheever and not knowing he was gay. When I found him writing about homosexuality in Wapshot Chronicle and Falconer, I thought, of course, it’s a great subject. And then, years later, after he dies we find out he was bisexual. But now there are writers who we know are straight, but they recognize gay life is great material.
All this is sounding post-gay in that homosexuality in and of itself is no longer much of a drawing point unless it meaningfully connects with other aspects of a character’s life or a storyline, a through-line that holds readers’ interest, gay or straight?
It’s not just a post-gay dilemma. It’s fiction that’s in trouble right now, not just gay fiction, or fiction that’s going through a wobbly period. I think straight novelists are having as much trouble too. There are certain genres that are in better shape than others, but I think literary fiction in particular is going through a kind of sticky place right now. Gay has always been like this box people wanted to get out of, and as I was saying earlier, in a way Gore Vidal was. He was pushing post-gay back when he said there’s no such thing as a homosexual person, only a homosexual act.
Literature is not the same as athletics. Those who pass the book contact finish line first may not be running with the best manuscript under their arm. Were you making a statement about when these works of literature occurred and what was happening in the cultural and political Zeitgeist. I mean the differences in acceptance of homosexuality in the years between The City and the Pillar and A Boy’s Own Story are tremendous.
Literary quality is important but it’s not really the most important thing for why a book matters, why a book hits. I mean I had big problems with the writing in The City and the Pillar, even A Boy’s Own Story, and Larry Kramer’s Faggots, and I talk about that but make clear they are still important books. There are other books I prefer more. Vidal became a much better writer than he was when he wrote The City and the Pillar, but it has a certain raw power that makes it important and keeps it important.
Speaking of first times, there was an initial period in gay literature, say the 70s and 80s, when anything “gay” got published. Do you think a lot of really awful manuscripts ended up on shelves in book stores?
But a lot of good stuff did too. It’s hard to say what’s going to hit and what’s not. I think what got published in that initial round in the 80s and early 90s—and remember, it was still hard to get a novel published—was brought to market because the publishing industry was much more open to gay material than they’d been before, or they had been recently. Some so-so books got published too, but look at straight literature. There’s how many just so-so to mediocre to just outright-bad books getting published? So with increased numbers, more books on the whole being published meant that more good and bad books entered the market.
So not that we would hold our community to a different or higher standard. We basically joined the world of publishing.
Yes. That’s how it works.
On how it works with selling books, I want to ask you this because Edmund White had mentioned, and I don’t mean this as a rude question, he noted you said to him you weren’t sure that publishers were interested in “gay fiction,” meaning that it would be more difficult for you, and others, to actually sell those kind of manuscripts?
Well what has changed, it’s not just gay fiction, it’s all mid-list fiction. It’s literary fiction. And in the past five to ten years, publishers have grown less confident. They don’t believe in mid-list books anymore, and gay books are by definition mid-list, meaning they’re not going to become best sellers. In the golden age of gay literature, if you want to call it that, from the mid 70s to the mid 90s, a gay book could sell 5,000 copies in hardcover and be considered a big success and make a nice profit. That’s unthinkable for publishers now. They do not know how to make enough money off of sales figures that are reasonable, but not low.
So if we take the old book formula of a book costing $25 with $15 of it paying back investment and $5 each for author and publisher for re-invest back into midlist, that’s over?
Yes, pretty much over. I think the problem for gay fiction right now is that the mainstream houses aren’t sure what will sell—period. Not just gay books, but other books. However, the slack in gay titles is now being taken up by smaller houses. We’re back to the early 50s when paperback lines and little presses like Greenberg handled gay books. Nowadays we have Cleis, Chelsea Station Editions, and the new Magnus Books by Don Weise.
In other words, smaller houses could run with titles longer while waiting for a return not based on quarterly numbers or a two week splash to prove oneself in book chains?
They paid low advances and they could still make a profit. Publishing now has taken Hollywood as their model, which means huge advances, huge publicity and you must have a great opening or you’re lost.
Like a movie making back investment in one or two weekends?
All the investors want the first dollar back in the first four days…and right now the reading market is going through a transition. People aren’t buying books the way they used to. My theory is because of the transition from books to E-Books. They want to read what they already own in wood pulp, what they’ve already invested in, and therefore don’t buy new titles—that’s just my theory and don’t know if it’s true.
Regarding what sells, what doesn’t, regardless of topic or genre, there’s David Bergman’s book The Violet Hour which addresses The Violet Quill, a group of seven white men held up as the icons of gay publishing from that heady era between Stonewall and the advent of AIDS. Three of them remain alive: Edmund White, Andrew Holleran, Felice Picano. Four unfortunately are not with us in person—Christopher Cox, Robert Ferro, Michael Grumley, George Whitmore. All seven met only seven times over the period of a year and they set into motion what many call the literary movement. Some argue it was not a literary movement. You say in Eminent Outlaws you’re not sure that it was as significant as perhaps it is, was looked upon then or even looked upon now. Edmund White said in my last interview with him that they used those meetings partly to “divide up turf.” Ferro got family, White got childhood, Holleran got New York and Fire Island, and so on. That wasn’t the only thing that he said about that period. What are your thoughts on the group?
Well, I see The Violet Quill as a myth. They were seven friends who met only a few times. Two of them are undeniably great writers—Edmund White and Andrew Holleran, and each did important work before they met. They continue to do important work. Three of the writers died before they could make a strong mark: Robert Ferro, George Whitmore, and Michael Grumley. George Whitmore did some terrific stuff, but then he died of AIDS. Christopher Cox did some good work before he died, but only as an editor. Felice Picano made his big breakthrough later, with Like People in History.
The Violet Quill was six good writers (Christopher Cox wrote very little) who did good work, but they were not the only game in town at this time. A lot of other good writers were doing terrific work, too: Armistead Maupin, Larry Kramer, David Plante, and Harvey Fierstein. Christopher Isherwood was still working during this period. David Leavitt broke through in 1984. So the Quill was a small part of a larger crowd. They were important as individuals, not as a group.
The myth of the group attracts many of us simply because writing is such a solitary activity. We love the idea of a group of writers working together. The truth of the matter is that all writers have their own little support communities, friends with whom we share ideas and encouragement. But none are as famous as the Violet Quill.
Gay is no longer exclusively defined as white, educated, effusively cultural, exclusively homosexual, an ever-expanding definition of queer. When you look at Lambda Literary Review, the annual awards, works that are selling, there’s a lot of sub-genre smash-ups of race, economic class, HIV status, disability, sex, gender. Are these current writers, same as Quill writers, all white, all male, providing readers with exactly the same source of comfort as those men did? Creating visibility?
Yes, they’re providing the same as an earlier generation of gay writers. There’s some really wonderful stuff. I was just rereading poems by a terrific Puerto Rican poet, Emanuel Xavier. His Pier Queen collection was just reissued—it was originally published in the 90s. It’s verbal snapshots of a population we usually don’t hear about, mostly black and Hispanic kids who hung out at the piers in the West Village.
As I remember from those days, they would get off that last stop on Christopher Street, by the Lucille Lortel Theater which has lots of gay theatre names in stars on the pavement, go down to the pier at the street…Christopher Street was then what Chelsea is today…
At Christopher Street, yes. Xavier’s poems were really strong when they first came out, but now they seem even better. They function as both history and literature. But there are other writers like Xavier telling new stories, stories that we haven’t heard before. There’s Rakesh Satyal, an Indian writer who did a terrific book called Blue Boy, about a young Indian-American boy in Cincinnati, Ohio, White’s hometown, an Indian-American boy’s own story. It’s a coming of age novel about his double identity as both a gay kid and an Indian kid. James Hannaham a couple of years ago did a really interesting book called God Says No about a born-again African American gay kid, who is a real fuck-up. It’s very funny and very painful. There’s all these great stories still to tell that haven’t been told yet.
In his interview with Richard Canning, Gary Indiana says that gay people are no longer a clandestine aristocracy and that with no secrecy there’s no sensibility either. Does oppression, repression make for good art, or is Indiana reflecting back on his own period?
I find that a myth too, that things were better in the Little Orphan Annie Secret Decoder Ring Society age—to steal a line from Pat Bond in the documentary Word is Out. We can be nostalgic about those times: Oh yes, we were all in it together and we all loved Judy Garland…
I don’t remember that, at least it wasn’t everyone. You?
I don’t remember that either. I remember people who enjoyed Garland and musical theatre, opera, but it wasn’t everyone. I’m a middle class kid from Virginia, so the idea of aristocracy doesn’t appeal to me. But I don’t remember any gay aristocrats, clandestine or otherwise.
And early in the 50-year period covered in Eminent Outlaws lots of men were not returning home after World War II, instead settling here in New York City and meeting each other away from the playful but confining Armed Forces. Some observers have described the war as the largest forced collectivization of men in history. If there was ever a period in the 20th Century where men were going to find each other, it was going to be while at war?
Yes, yes. Allan Berube talks about that in Coming Out Under Fire; just suddenly all these men and, and gay women too, were suddenly thrown together and meeting each other.
In his interview with Richard Kenney, Colm Toibin says that gay liberation is like Northern Ireland, once the troubles are over, the novelists have a different story to tell, one which isn’t as intrinsically dramatic. Yet the stories told by poet Emanuel Xavier are just as vital to readers as where earlier stories written for an all white, male caste of homosexuals.
The world outside has changed, but you still have to “come out” and enter into that world, and doing so remains a very private, often still difficult, experience, even now in 2012.
With all these shifts in not only gay publishing but politics too, are we at a tipping point?
It’s amazing in just the last couple of years—last June with New York State approving marriage equality and Obama coming out on the issue—that’s quite amazing, really wonderful.
You know, there was a period when New York City was very different than it is now, when it was about the creative work, it was certainly more affordable. Fran Leibowitz said of Interview readers that they all knew each other. Creative people wanted to be around each other.
They still want to be around each other. I don’t think that has diminished. But they don’t meet in bars and cafes in Manhattan, but out in Greenpoint and Bushwick or on the Internet or through online literary blogs and magazines. There might be less public literary life in the places we expect to see it, but it’s still going on, dispersed not just into other boroughs but through the whole country. You just have to look for it a little harder.
Portrait – Meeting Christopher Bram: