Mario López-Cordero: Fire Island Dreaming
Author: Martin Wilson
October 9, 2013
“I have mixed feelings about the place—it can be incredibly beautiful and incredibly ugly—and that duality fascinates me.”
In his debut novel Monarch Season (Magnus Books), author Mario López-Cordero lyrically explores the heated romantic and sexual entanglements of a group of gay men summering on Fire Island. In his review of the novel author David-Matthew Barnes wrote,” López-Cordero populates his uninhibited literary landscape with a bevy of complex, fascinating, and certainly page-worthy characters.”
López-Cordero, a journalist and currently the senior editor of Veranda, spoke with Lambda Literary about writing his novel, turning the standard gay “beach-read” on its head, and the Fire Island social scene.
Congratulations on the publication of your first novel! Now, you’ve been an editor at and written for various magazines for years. But how long have you been writing fiction? Can you talk about the road to publication? How long had the story for Monarch Season been percolating?
Well I’d been stabbing at fiction for years. I always knew I wanted to make a living from writing, which is why I went to journalism school—the “practical” approach—but fiction was always in the background. I have loads of false starts: snippets of things—a scene, a setting, a character—that I’ve carried around forever, some since college. Monarch Season started as such a snippet. I’d always struggled with the art of extending snippets into actual stories. In the summer of 2008 I had a lull in freelance work and I finally realized that the difference between a snippet and a story is discipline, not art. You just have to sit in the chair every day and write.
[I] had a rental in Fire Island that summer and I was spending a lot of time there. I have mixed feelings about the place—it can be incredibly beautiful and incredibly ugly—and that duality fascinates me. Monarch Season became a way for me to explore that dichotomy. I was also intrigued by the idea of taking what has become genre fiction—the gay Fire Island novel—and making it “smart.” Literary, for lack of a better word, though that word makes me nervous and ultimately seems like just another kind of genre. Why couldn’t a fizzy beach book also respect the reader’s intelligence? In the end I set myself a simple goal: to write an entertaining novel that I would want to read. If I hadn’t reduced it to that I don’t think I would have ever gotten beyond that initial false start. It would have seemed too daunting.
Right.I think that’s always what a novelist or writer should write—a book that he or she would actually want to read. It seems obvious, but I don’t always think writers follow this advice.
Yeah, and for me it was also a way of lessening the stakes and making them manageable, so I could actually get something done. It’s a whole lot easier to sit down to write if you’re not attempting the great American novel.
Writing journalism and fiction are vastly different enterprises—or are they? Did journalism prepare you at all for novel writing?
Absolutely. They inform each other. Magazine writing—at least the kind I do—can be very formulaic, but you can distinguish it through the details. How explicitly can you place the reader in a certain space? How does it look, smell, taste, feel, sound? It’s a talent to be able to home in on the telling element. I realized I’d spent years describing these gorgeous, super refined spaces in which it’s not unheard of to spend five figures on a desk. Translated into fiction, that kind of detail becomes characterization. Through a subtle, off-hand description you get a picture of someone’s life. By the same token, writing out such details in fiction, without the constraints of magazine conventions—where you produce a 500-to-800-word story with a simple arc over and over again—taught me how to be more inventive within those conventions. So I think my magazine writing got better, too.
Writing on deadline for a living, especially when freelancing, also teaches you to be sharp. You have to edit, edit, edit. It needs to be as clean as possible or you won’t get another assignment. As a result, my process is heavy on rewrite. After an initial out-pour where the goal is just to get it all out, I refine and hone and then refine again. In this stage it can take me a day to get through a single paragraph. Sometimes, god help me, a single sentence will take a whole afternoon.
Journalism is also all about engaging the reader quickly. You have to get to the point as soon as possible so you don’t lose someone’s interest. That definitely informed the book and affected its pacing: short chapters and action that relentlessly accelerates.
It’s so true about edit, edit, edit.I know some writers love the revision process. The hard part for me is getting it down to start with. I sort of have to spit out a lot of crap at first so that something is there. Do you write in this way, or are you more deliberate at first? And, going further, do you outline, or do you generally know where you are headed? Or do you discover that as you go?
I definitely pour out a lot at the beginning and that act of invention is pure joy. That’s usually where I become enchanted with a character or place, where I fall in love. Even if the character is unsympathetic, like Jesse Sackett, I am always captivated by them. Sometimes what you write ends up being back story and you have to cut it later, but this getting-to-know-you stage with a character is important to me and I think very valuable. Once that’s out and it sits for a while I go back and sharpen, magnifying here, pulling back there, and polishing the language.
I didn’t outline with Monarch Season, but I think I will with future projects. I’m very methodical in most areas of my life, so it’s weird that I didn’t work out a plan with my first novel. I got lost a lot. I think getting lost is partly inevitable, but with an outline you start out with a better sense of structure and story. Sometimes it turns out your characters don’t like that story—my mantra through my first revise was follow character, not plot—but I now believe it would help me to have a map at the outset, even if only a rough one.
You’ve obviously spent a lot of time on Fire Island. What is your personal relationship with the place?
I spent time there in various configurations for nine years and there are aspects of it that I really love. It’s stunningly beautiful, a narrow spit of sand rising from the Atlantic where there are no cars and you can always hear the surf. The beaches are gorgeous. And it’s only 60 miles from Manhattan, but you may as well be on another planet because it feels so remote. When I think of that Fire Island, in my head it’s all amber twilights, and glassy bayside sunsets, and cool sand slipping through impossibly tanned toes.
On the other hand, for me the social side of the Pines is challenging. I’m a classic Cancer: introverted, exceedingly shy, in constant need of solitude. Given the chance to chitchat with 40 people at a party or converse to two people at a quiet dinner I will always choose the latter. But the Pines is small-scale and geared for pedestrians, so you’re pressed into constant contact. There’s the feeling that everyone’s at camp and that’s without even taking into consideration the dominant social schedule of low, middle, and high teas—a round-robin cocktail party that people dress (or undress) for and a definite scene. It’s intense. Even walking to the store can feel like an event. I’m too self-conscious for it. It just doesn’t feel like vacation to me. When I think of that Fire Island it’s all sweaty palms, and petty snubs, and awkward, paranoia-ridden conversations for which I probably shouldn’t have prepared by smoking pot.
That does sound intense. Why do so many people love it there? And why do so many people hate it? I have actually never been, and one reason is that I just think it’s an even more obnoxious extension of “A-gay” New York culture. Am I mistaken? Your novel doesn’t do much to dispel my notions. This novel is very much a glimpse of the well-heeled and chiseled set.
Well it’s polarizing in the way that any perceived “insider” culture is. You could say the same things about the Hamptons—that it’s an extension of A-list straight New York culture. And obnoxious in similar lights. But let’s face it: it’s expensive to vacation in these places and I think ultimately what we’re talking about is economics. Class. It doesn’t get more volatile and polarizing than that.
Recognizing that we’re being purposely reductive, let’s say that such environments put a premium on image and can foster insecurity—the byproduct of determining who’s in and who’s out. With insecurity comes postures, poses, and excessive behavior. That the Pines has historically been a gay enclave is convenient, because it puts the question of class in a certain segment of gay culture front and center. And that’s what I wanted to explore.
I’m wary of making the Pines seem like too much of a nightmare, though. In this day and age no place is any one thing. Writing a novel is an act of specificity—you can’t possibly encompass every viewpoint. I narrowed my focus to a particular milieu for my purposes, but that’s not to say it’s the only Pines experience. I made many lasting friendships on that island and I know plenty of nice people who love it out there. To be well-chiseled and well-heeled isn’t always synonymous with obnoxious.
Monarch Season is told through various perspectives—Devin’s, Jude’s, Frank’s, and even Jesse Sackett’s. Why did you choose this technique to tell the story? Did the novel start out this way?
From the get-go it was important for me to show that there was a lot of wiggle room for the novel’s moral questions. Perspective gave me an engaging way of showing that. I often repeated the same or similar scenes through the eyes of different people: for Devin the idea of two strangers fooling around in the steam room is devastating, but for Jude, it’s old hat, he even meets his new boyfriend that way. That these two characters are great friends who love and respect each other reinforces the fact that ambivalence and gray areas are a very real part of life.
It was also a handy way to show character and build tension. In another example, a party, seen through Devin’s eyes is kind of a disaster. But Frank, at the same party, can hardly contain his excitement. It’s like I said before: no place is ever any one thing.
Did you ever consider writing, even briefly, from Charlie’s perspective? He seems to be the only one who doesn’t get much of a voice.
Maybe this will sound unfair, but I didn’t want to hear it. I never even tried. When we meet Devin, Charlie’s already checked out. Like Jude, the reader can see that their relationship is pretty much over, but Devin is in a deep state of denial. Devin’s journey is a gradual coming to terms with the fact that so much of his life is strictly for show. There’s no depth. Charlie’s absence made that explicit. Even Devin, in his denial, has reduced him to two dimensions. You only ever hear of his asshole behavior secondhand. It’s like talking to a friend who has a partner with whom you don’t like to be social. For me, the subtext is also that Charlie can’t even be bothered to add his two cents to the narrative. In the end, I thought that was more powerful than inserting him into the text.
Jesse Sackett, another antagonist, was fascinating because he’s so unlike the other characters— sort of a petty criminal, not really gay (so he says), but happy to have tons of gay sex for money. Was it fun writing from this point of view? What (or who) was the inspiration for this character?
Jesse’s chapters are the only ones that came out pretty clean from the outset. I hardly touched them once I had them down. He was immensely fun to write. Almost too much fun.
I needed an outsider who would look at Fire Island with a cynicism and nihilism that everyone else lacked. His perspective is unflinching and completely unforgiving. He represents that polarizing effect places like Fire Island can have. To temper that, I made him a total closet case—in my opinion, the nastiest kind of villain. It compromises his voice because you can’t really trust what he says; he’s not even honest with himself. If he hates Fire Island so much what is he still doing there?
It’s also no accident that he’s at the center of many of the sex scenes, objectified by a set of people who prize a certain kind of masculinity and place it in a hierarchy above their own. Why do we do that? I don’t know the answer to that question, but I know I wanted to ask it. Even I found Jesse Sackett very sexy, if brutally so.
Speaking of sex, this is a very sexy book. Were you nervous about including so many sex scenes, since often they can be, well, embarrassing. And I’ll go ahead and say that yours manage to be sexy and not cringe-worthy, so cheers!
That’s a great compliment! But here’s the true confession: I’m a dyed-in-the-wool, rosary-clutching, gasp-prone prude. It was extremely nerve-wracking. I couldn’t get the idea of what my mother would think out of my head. I kept writing around the, er, main event. And let me tell you, nothing stinks up a sex scene so bad as a dainty euphemism. I had to be pushed. Believe it or not it was my brother—who’s also gay and one of my go-to readers because he doesn’t mince words even if it means I won’t talk to him for a few days—who forced me to revise a pivotal sex scene and revisit the way I handled them. I wasn’t “there” yet he said to me one afternoon just before I hung up on him. I sat back down and thought, fuck it. I’ll write more explicitly and if it doesn’t work, I can always go back.
Well, typing the word “cock” for the first time was a revelation. You can’t argue with it. The cringes start to fall away. Another revelation was reading Christopher Bram’s Eminent Outlaws, a history of gay lit and a must-read for anyone remotely interested in what we do. It made me think that to write a gay novel in a setting where sex is such an important subtext and dance around it would be a failure. For so long gay audiences had to read between the lines for that sort of thing. But we’ve come a long way. We’re gay. We have sex. An honest, three-dimensional portrayal of it deserves a place in our literature.
One of the things I admired about your book is that your characters weren’t always one-hundred-percent likable. You rooted for Devin and Frank, but they had flaws. And you didn’t always show gay culture in the best light. At times, it seems like a shallow viper pit. And, sometimes it is, right? Were you conscious of this while writing—that is, did you set out to show your characters and gay life in such a light, warts and all?
It was important to me that the characters seem human. Devin can be rigidly haughty to strangers, but he’s a devoted, steadfast friend. Frank at times comes off as a charming flirt while at other times he’s a careless cad. For me it was always about duality: our best qualities often have negative counterpoints and I think everyone can relate to that struggle. The key to success is balance.
I was also conscious of the fact that one of Devin’s major issues is his relentless pursuit of perfection. If he has the right sheets or sofa or sweater, then everything will be fine. It’s a fallacy of course, and he eventually learns better, but meanwhile, I wanted the backdrop of the novel to show that there’s no such thing as perfection, no matter how flawless your house looks.
Devin is really the chief protagonist in Monarch Season, and I noticed that he shares a lot of your biography. That is, he’s Latino, and he’s a freelancer who writes stories for glossy lifestyle magazines. I usually hate when people project autobiography onto fictional characters, but sometimes it’s irresistible. Is Devin the character you related to most in the book? How much of you is in Devin?
I always thought that a novel, especially a first one, had to be autobiography on some level—and then I actually wrote one. The short answer is yes, there’s a lot of me in Devin, but the caveat is that it’s mostly incidental. The thing about writing a book is that you have to do a lot of research and research is time consuming. When you create a character who works in the same field as you do, lives in some of the same places, and reacts to some of the same social constraints, then that research is suddenly a lot easier. The details are close at hand. When I thought about Devin in this context it was sometimes like this: there but for the grace of God go I. What would my life have looked like if I had made other choices and it had gone in a very different direction? Greatly exaggerate the circumstances and details and voilà: not really me at all.
He was definitely the hardest character to bring to life—mostly because I struggled to make him sympathetic. Frank and Jude, the other protagonists, are fairly instantly likeable, which wasn’t hard to do, but Devin for many drafts remained elusive, jaded, and aloof (in some respects in the final version I think he still is, but hopefully he grows on you). I don’t know what it says about me. Maybe I was just too hard on him. I kept wanting him to stand on his own and I didn’t want to make excuses for him. In the end, however, he is redeemed and that did turn out to be very important to me.
Monarch Season is a juicy, page-turner. But it’s more than that. It has something to say about relationships, materialism, fidelity, the importance of image in gay culture, and so much more. Were there any messages you were trying to get across in writing this book? Or is there something you hope readers take away from it?
I definitely want readers to think about all those things. I set out to write something entertaining but at the end of the day; I did want it to also resonate with deeper issues. I’m just not sure I have a single, right answer to the questions I bring up. This is but one slice in a multifaceted, tutti-frutti pie; there’s no such thing as single, monolith gay culture, is there? I think we need to entertain all sorts of answers in this world.
But if I had to distill it down to one thing, I think the major sin in the book is dishonesty. I think those characters would be much happier if they looked at their lives such as they are, faced the things that cause friction, and moved on. The lucky ones, in the end, do just that.
Do you have any influences, or writers you admire? What are, say, your top five novels, or top five writers?
I could go on and on about who I admire and I’d maybe be able to give you my top 50 novels, but I’ll narrow it down to who influenced me specifically in writing Monarch Season. Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance was huge for me—it so beautifully captures the poetic, elegiac side of Fire Island.
I think I need to revisit that book. I read it when I was in my early twenties and I didn’t get what the big fuss was. But I’m sure if I went back to it now I would have a different take. Or maybe I can’t appreciate it without ever having visited Fire Island?
You should definitely revisit it, but maybe with less pressure for it to stand up to any hype and instead read it as a story about people like us, just before our world was obliterated. Holleran wrote it before AIDS and the disease plays no role in the plot, but the book is incredibly prescient—mournful, reverent, and elegant, but also celebratory and full of life, so much of which still rings true. It transcends Fire Island and I don’t think you need to have been there to appreciate it.
Also major was Faggots, by Larry Kramer, which deals with Fire Island through a very different, satiric lens. I didn’t want to like it for some reason, but I ended up loving it. Michael Chabon’s essays in Maps and Legends convinced me that writing an entertaining novel, regardless of what genre it might fit into, was a worthy endeavor. Democracy, by Joan Didion, who also wrote for glossy magazines and is one of my heroes, is the story of another jaded insider and it’s written so sharply and stylishly it gave me goose bumps. Finally, I got a lot of inspiration from the novels of Judith Krantz, which I read as a teenager—glamorous, supermarket-check-out-stand books that dealt frankly with sex, fashion, and design. They were a riot to read.
What are you working on next?
I’m trying my hand at short stories. I have another novel brewing in the back of my head, but after finishing Monarch Season, getting it settled and to press, I just didn’t have it in me to start on something so ambitious right away. I thought short stories would be easier—a simple arc, right? Wrong. They are extremely challenging and complicated in very different ways, but very satisfying and helping me to understand structure—the bane of my writing existence.
Photo credit: Christopher Gabello