From an early age, esteemed prolific novelist Christopher Bram incrementally became aware of the lives and works of influential gay authors. He brings forth this wealth of knowledge in his latest book, Eminent Outlaws, which, decade by decade, charts the rise of gay writers, and how each of them contributed to the education, the enlightenment and the social culture of the American homosexual movement.
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Here, Bram fondly elaborates on the course of this gay literary history lesson, his opinions on small presses, relationships and marriage, some thoughts on James Baldwin, Truman Capote and others, and shares his elation in crafting a work of nonfiction after penning nine novels.
This book reads like an obvious labor of love. How long did it take to write?
About two and a half years, but it’s also a book I was preparing my whole life to write. I was reading these authors as I grew up. As a gay writer myself, I was in the life I was writing about myself. I was a slow learner as a gay man, and I slowly read my way out of the closet. Books like Another Country by James Baldwin and A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood, I kind of read them to find out who I was.
What do you personally want readers to take away from reading this book?
First, it’s kind of an amazing story that a group of writers writing plays, poetry and fiction could ultimately have such a strong affect on culture and social history. I want people to be excited by that narrative and that history. This was the ’50s and ’60s, and I want people to see what a hard time these writers had. We forget that now, how easily intellectuals would use words like “faggot” and “pansy” to describe these men’s lives with such scorn, and how hard it was to come out as a gay man, even in the ’70s. I want people to see that, too.
Is there anyone who deserved to be included in the book who wasn’t?
I don’t think so, but I’ve been wondering about that. My emphasis was always on the narrative, on the story itself, then, when it was over, I still never felt like I missed someone. But authors like Paul Russell, Mark Merlis and Michael Nava, I wish they were more famous, but they’re not major figures in the social scheme of things.
Which of the gay literary icons you profile in Eminent Outlaws do you, as a writer, have the most in common with?
I’d say Christopher Isherwood and how he lived his life and the basic sanity that there was about him. He was not a saint. But of his extended relationship with Don Bachardy: I’m in a long-term relationship myself and can definitely relate. They’re not easy relationships!
Of Gore Vidal and Howard Austen’s relationship, you wrote, “There are intimacies that have nothing to do with sex.” Can you expand on that thought?
In most marriages, it begins with sex, and as time goes on, it becomes less important and you both discover more important ways to connect. It’s a surprising thing that in the beginning there was no sex, even then, for Vidal and Austen, but they were still very important to each other. Austen offered a certain balance to Vidal. Yet now that Austen is gone, Vidal isn’t as happy now as when he had Austen around to give him a center.
What do you think the deceased gay writers in your canon would say about the state of gay literature today?
Tennessee Williams would be fine with things. Isherwood would be fine with it, I think. Gay writers should be able to write freely about their lives, if they need to work within a community or a homestead that would be fine. But Gore Vidal in particular was never happy with that whole concept. He wanted to be universal and the whole idea of being a “gay writer,” he didn’t like that concept at all, though he did so much to break through barriers for the rest of us.
More and more gay writers are turning to smaller presses to publish their work. Are they the future home of gay lit?
For the time being, yes. We are in a transition. Gay books are midlist books—they are not going to become huge bestsellers. But now the publishing industry is going through a shift, in terms of marketing, in terms of e-books, etc. The big publishers are shying away from gay books, so new writers and younger writers are going to have to turn to small presses.
Do you believe that writers like James Baldwin and Truman Capote would have been as successful if they’d avoided including their gay content? Could their work stand on its own without the gay content?
Regarding Baldwin’s fictions, I don’t think it could. His gay fiction was his best fiction. You can write nonfiction and essays, and it’s just your brain and your heart working. Baldwin’s fiction needed his sexuality, his ability to love other people, in there. His best novels are with strong gay content. Go Tell It On the Mountain is what people consider his first “straight” book, but it’s actually the relationship between the two young boys and their romantic friendship that’s really powerful and really anchors the book.
Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms is a very gay novel, and it’s not just in code. He would find ways to include it, but not include it. He would edit it [gay content] out, but it’s still kind of there. In Cold Blood is gay, but he found a way to shroud it from the general public.
Sexuality is very much a part of writing fiction for an author, so if you leave that out, something is definitely missing. If you try to write like that, it almost never works.
If Tennessee Williams were alive today, what would you say to him?
Tennessee Williams was in his own planet! He was an incredible writer, he was a lot like an extraterrestrial. I don’t know if there was any way one could even communicate with him. He was always writing. He never stopped. Even if the writing wasn’t that good, he just kept on writing. I would consider him an unnatural phenomenon, and I think I would just say, “I’m in awe of you,” and take off my hat and bow!
Are you working on any new fiction now?
I’m working on just on a couple of ideas. I’d like to do more nonfiction. I really enjoyed writing this book. After publishing nine novels, it’s nice to discover the other side of my brain.