Sex, Art, & Film

As I was saying last week, I’ve learned that for reading from your work at an open mike, it’s important to put yourself out there.  So last Wednesday, at the Magnet event in the Castro, I stepped to the mike and read a passage that included the following gay love-scene passage.  (Warning:  it’s tame by Internet standards, but it’s still adult content.)

He took Peter by the shoulders and nudged him onto the mattress

I once made the mistake of reading a “tame” scene in front of the Smack Dab audience, and I could practically hear the crickets by the time I was done.  This time, I was determined not to repeat the same mistake.

The artwork Peter sees on the wall of his lover’s bedroom in the passage is Andy Warhol’s 1982 painting Querelle, which you can view and read about here.  I suspect this movie poster has been adorning the bedroom walls of many a gay bachelor pad for the past thirty years.  The blue-painted version of this movie poster is the poster I envisioned Peter looking at as I wrote this scene.

The Grifters (1990).

All that said, You Are Here doesn’t have that many sex scenes.  I got my general philosophy toward sex scenes from none other than my own mother about twenty years ago.  We had just watched on videocassette one of my favorite movies of all time, Stephen Frears’s 1990 noir masterpiece The Grifters, and after the movie was over, my mother commented that the filmmakers had done the sex scenes right — that is, they showed enough sex to let her understand what was going on, but not so much sex that she got embarrassed or uncomfortable.  I’m pretty sure she forgot ever saying that, but I didn’t.  And I think her advice holds true for “Querelle.”  Warhol used bold colors — particularly the red-painted tongue — to heighten the eroticism of the two young men in the picture, but in no way that feels offensive.  This is the kind of art I aspire to — art done right.

One final note:  so as not to give the story away, I changed the name of Peter’s lover in the audio clip to “the man.”

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Smack Dab

Last Wednesday night, on a night so unseasonably warm that I drank a cold lemonade at an outside café beforehand, I took a turn reading aloud from my work at Smack Dab, the open mike hosted by the inimitable Larry-bob Roberts and Kirk Read and held at Magnet, the Castro-based health clinic.

Unseasonably warm in San Francisco, third Wednesday in October, 2012.


I owe both Larry and Kirk a large debt for selflessly hosting Smack Dab, which takes place on the third Wednesday of every month and is open to anyone who has a poem, story, or song to share with the public.  Best of all, the event is totally free.  The space, the mike, and Larry-bob and Kirk’s banter to open the show, all of it costs nothing to both readers and listeners.  Kirk explained to me in an e-mail that he and Larry-bob started the show in 2003  because there were no ongoing performance events in the Castro at the time, and that he and Larry-b0b wanted to create an event “that was free and didn’t happen in a bar.” (On top of their hosting duties, Larry-bob and Kirk are also published authors:  How I Learned to Snap (Kirk) and The International Homosexual Conspiracy (Larry-bob).  I think they’ve got day jobs too.)

As I’ve written before, my one big regret when I published The Love Thing is that I never read aloud any tricky passages to a live audience beforehand.  I learned of Smack Dab only several months after publishing The Love Thing — too late for me to practice any drafts before a live audience.  But for You Are Here, I was ready.  In the months leading up to publication, I made the journey to the Castro and read the attack scene from Chapter One, the ‘curse’ scene from Chapter Five, the plead-for-life scene from Chapter Nine.  Larry and Kirk are nice guys, but they really don’t want you reading longer than five minutes, and so I practiced reading my passages at home, repeating the words aloud again and again, to make sure I could read the sentences out smoothly, without wanting to cringe or laugh out loud, within that time limit.  If I could read the toughest passages with a straight face in front of that crowd, I figured, then I’d have no trouble sending the book to print.

What still surprises me is that for all the experience I’ve gained by reading at Smack Dab, I still haven’t quite mastered the dread I feel in the hours leading up to those five vulnerable minutes in front of that mike.   My mouth still gets bone-dry when those five minutes are over.  But, on the other hand, my hands don’t shake when I hold the book in my hand, and I more or less have learned to keep my voice steady. I’ve also learned the trick of speaking directly into the mike — if you don’t, no one hears you.  That said, I still don’t like standing near the mike, which feels too much like an intrusive stranger.  By now, I’ve learned that reading at an open mike lays bare the fear that all writers face when they expose their work to the public — and the courage they must summon if they want to be heard.  And I’ve witnessed that courage, that naked honesty, in many of the other writers who’ve stepped up to that mike.

So, how did I do last Wednesday?  What, exactly, did I speak into the mike for thirty or so people to hear?  That’s a topic for another blog post.



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The Card-Sharper With The Gift Certificate

Over the next few weeks I’ll be sharing a few of my favorite details from “You Are Here,” and I can’t think of a better way to start than the novel’s beginning, where the hero, Peter Bankston, who works the register at a fictional coffee shop, is standing on a stepladder at a chalkboard, trying to draw an elf.  The picture he’s trying to draw — “a group of shady-looking elves playing poker with Santa Claus, with the elves in background trading glances and the one in the foreground holding a Valerie’s Java Shop gift certificate behind his back” — is, in fact, a parody of a famous painting I’ve long admired, Georges de la Tour’s 1635 masterpiece “The Card-Sharper With the Ace of Diamonds”:

Georges de la Tour, Le Tricheur A L’As de Carreau (The Card-Sharper with the Ace of Diamonds), the Louvre, Paris

The scene depicted here, I must admit, has absolutely nothing to do with my story.  And yet I thought it only fitting that I give the painting its rightful due to open the novel’s action.  I had no idea this painting even existed when I first walked into the Louvre more than 16 years ago.  I’d gone to Paris by myself for a week because I was taking French-language classes at the time (at The French Class, run by La Très Formidable Dominique Brémond).  So I had all the time in the world to wander through the museum’s cavernous halls.  I stopped by the Louvre’s more popular pieces — the Venus De Milo, the Winged Victory, and, of course, the Mona Lisa, where I recall jostling with a horde of tourists and their flashing cameras — but this was the painting I went back to, the painting that made me stop and look.  What I remember best is how surprised I was at how much I enjoyed looking at it — the detail, the tension, the sheer immediacy of the scene — without having to be told that I should like it.   I’ve since repeated that experience with many other works of art in many other museums, but I’ll never forget the painting that started it all.  And since I first laid eyes on that painting at around the same time I started creating the character of Peter Bankston, I simply couldn’t resist paying a little tribute.  Merci, Monsieur de la Tour!

Later on in the story, Peter draws a parody of a Pablo Picasso portait of his mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter, but, alas, I’ve got no kinship for that portrait; I randomly found it on the Internet one morning while I was writing that scene.  I couldn’t tell you which painting it is, since I never saved it.  But I presume it’s the painting of a woman with “a bluish face and emerald hair and plum-colored irises.”

Do you have a favorite work of art, a museum experience you’ll never forget?  If so, I’d love to hear about it.


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My First Event

I just wanted to extend a warm thank-you to everyone who stopped by my ironing board at the Temescal Art Hop last Friday night.  (I got word from my husband that the lead actor from “Entourage” was there, but I never saw him.)  I had gone into the event thinking I’d be happy to sell even one copy, and I was not disappointed, thanks to the generosity of my friends and neighbors.   Below is a picture of me and my friend Natasha Ravnik, who I met in a local writing class a few years ago.  I feel very lucky to be living in such an artistic neighborhood.

Me and Natasha



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Meet Miles Bettencourt

Although I wrote the first draft of You Are Here in the late 1990s, I didn’t really kick my writing into full gear until 2008-2009, the novel’s final time setting.  As any good gay marriage historian knows, 2008 is the year that a slim majority of California voters shamefully voted to amend the state constitution to deny gays and lesbians the right to marry — a vote that even today feels like a personal slap in the face to me.  So I channeled that anger into my fiction — specifically, into the character of Miles Bettencourt, a guy who had a lot of anger in previous versions of the novel, but now, thanks to the marriage ban, enough anger to make him truly terrifying.

Click on the audio file to listen to a brief passage introducing the reader to Miles.  In it, he is very much in the dark.  His struggle to find the light again was one of the many pleasures of writing this book.

Meet Miles Bettencourt

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Meet Peter Bankston

One of the strategies I employed while revising You Are Here was to read the entire book aloud to myself.  (I didn’t do this for The Love Thing, and I regret it.)  If anything sounded unnatural to my ears, I rewrote it — or, more often, I took the awkward-sounding words out.  Even still, I needed the services of a good copy editor to get the tone and pacing down right.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the attached audio file of the first few paragraphs of “You Are Here,” in which the novel’s hero, Peter Bankston, attempts to draw a chalkboard masterpiece.  (It’s about two minutes long.)  For you art history majors out there, his Christmas drawing is a parody of a famous painting that hangs in a famous musuem; I’ll give you the answer in a later post.


Meet Peter Bankston




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Sydney Carton, The Beginning

While I wait to hear from the publisher about my own book, I now have time to give a shout-out to my friend and fellow indie author Eileen Granfors, whose novel, Sydney’s Story, has been published in paperback this past week.  Over twenty years in the making, Sydney’s Story, a prequel to Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, recounts the formative years of Dickens’s Sydney Carton in London.  Granfors tells me she wrote the book to fulfill a promise to her high school students back in the 1980s, who struggled to understand Sydney’s character.  “My students thought Sydney was either a loser or a dupe for his final actions in Tale,” she told me in an e-mail. “Few saw him as heroic.  I told them there had to be more of the story, but Dickens hadn’t given it to us.”

So using Dickens’s scant references to Sydney’s previous life in Tale as a starting point, she thoroughly researched life in London in the late eighteenth century to present us with a lively and vivid portrayal of what Sydney’s life might have been like in the years before he makes his entrance in the Dickens classic.  For Granfors, though, all that research appears to have been a labor of love, and a product of her teaching years.  “Any book I taught,” she told me, “I researched as much as possible from the historical view. I thought it was interesting that Dickens wrote A Tale of Two Cities as a warning to Britain about the excesses of revolution. That’s one reason that Lucie Manette-Darnay is such a typical Victorian girl. She is strong, but she also faints a lot and cries a lot.”

“I am in touch with a lot of my former students on Facebook,” she added.  “I can’t wait for them to see the dedication of the book to them.”

As I’ve written before, when Granfors isn’t writing books, she’s reviewing them on Amazon.  And you can read more about her and her fiction on her website, here.

Congrats, Eileen!

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Surprised By Joy

Last Friday I went to my neighbor Clive Matson’s house for his monthly Poetry Saloon.  (I’ve written about Clive before; he’s a poet and creative writing teacher whose website is here.)  In past months I’d gone with samples from “You Are Here” to try out on Clive and his other guests.  But since “You Are Here” is now undergoing a second round of edits, and since I had no other of my own work I wished to share,  I decided to read aloud a William Wordsworth poem I’d stumbled on by accident about a year or two ago.  And so I started to read:


Behold her, single in the field,

Yon solitary, Highland lass!

Reaping and singing by herself,

Stop here, or gently pass!

Alone she cuts and binds the grain,

And sings a melancholy strain;

O listen! For the vale profound

Is overflowing with the sound.


(You can read the rest of the poem here.)

Afterwards, a woman I’ve gotten to know through the Poetry Saloon turned to me and said to me, half-kiddingly I think, that I irritated her.  How did I irritate her? I asked, surprised.  Then she smiled and said I irritated her because I always seemed so “happy.”

Her comment took me by surprise.  I honestly don’t think I’m any happier than the next guy.  And I doubt she would have made that comment if, say, she saw me dragging myself out of bed on a Monday morning.  But if she’d said nothing to me on Friday night, I might not have noticed that, in fact, I was extremely happy at that moment.  After all, the weekend was beginning, I was sitting in a living room with other writers, and I’d just read a favorite poem.  I’m embarrassed to think I would’ve missed the moment had she said nothing.

So as you start you week, I wish you this:  please take a moment in your busy life to notice what makes you happy.  Don’t rely on friends to point it out to you.  And if you have a favorite poem you’d like to share with me—a poem that means something to you, that makes you happy—I’d love to hear it.  I need something to keep me going while I wait for my manuscript to come back from the copy editor.

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100-Day Novel Writing Challenge: Lessons Learned

In the end, there wasn’t much suspense:  the 100th day of my 100-day novel writing challenge came and went on April 25, even though I managed to finish the project on April 15 — on day 90.  I want to thank all of you for your support and encouragement.  Best of all, I’m excited about the new story — the characters, the plot, the premise, everything — and I look forward to sharing it with you (but not yet, I’m afraid).

So what did I learn by writing a 102,000-word novel draft in 90 days?

4:50 In The Morning Was Easy .. Because I Couldn’t Sleep:  I suppose the worry of actually donating money to an anti-gay marriage charity would have been enough to keep me up a night.  But as the weeks went by, and I got more confident I could complete the project, what kept me awake was not so much the bet but the story itself.  What would happen next?  What would the characters say and do?  And yet I never wrote fewer than 1,000 words a day.  As a friend told me a long time ago, “The opposite of fear is faith.”  Unfortunately, my body couldn’t quite seem to absorb that lesson at three in the morning.

Weekends Are Harder Than Weekdays:  As difficult as it was to get up at 4:50 a.m. every weekday, at least I had a schedule.  I’d be finished by a quarter to seven and then breeze through the rest of the day with the confidence that I had the important work behind me.  With so much more free time on the weekends I thought it would be easier, but no:  I had errands, I had yoga, I had stupid computer games to distract me.  (I officially removed Words With Friends from my Facebook profile this week.)  On the plus side, by writing in the late afternoons most weekends, I had the advantage of being tolerably awake as I wrote.

Winter Is Better Than Summer:  Or at least this is what I suspect.  The weather’s lousy; you’re stuck in the house anyway.  If nothing else, pounding out two or three pages a day gave me something to do.

Take A Hike, Internal Critic:  In writing my first two novels, I could feel my internal critic hovering over me, telling me the sentence I just wrote wasn’t good enough.  I could spend an hour working and re-working a single page, or even a single paragraph.  But for this draft I didn’t have that luxury.  I stopped worrying about whether or not I was writing Literature, or whether the grammar hung together, or even if what I wrote made sense.  Heck, I chastised myself even if I backed up my cursor to fix a typo.  All I did was write.  For the first two books my single one-day writing records was probably between 800 and 1,000 words; for this project, I averaged between 1,500 and 2,000 words, topping out one day at 2,500.   Why didn’t I learn this discipline sooner?

I Shouldn’t Have Had To Make The Bet:  In February I went to the San Francisco Writers Conference, where I had the pleasure of listening to author Lisa See.  In her keynote speech she told us that if there was one piece of advice she wanted us to take home with us, it was that writers should write a thousand words a day.  Editor Alan Rinzler put it more bluntly in his own speech:  If you don’t write, he told us, then you’re not a writer.  In other words, I shouldn’t have had to play chicken with the anti-gay marriage crowd to write the first draft of my latest novel.  I should’ve been able to make the commitment no matter what.  And so this is the promise I make to my readers today — no more bets, no more gimmicks, just writing.  I’m going to work on this project every day until the damned thing is done.  My hope — my dream — is to have a final draft ready to go through the editorial process by the end of 2014, for a summer 2015 publication.  And by then, maybe, the anti-gay marriage crowd will be out of business.

In The Meantime, What’s Next?:  I have temporarily invited my internal critic back into the house to go over what I’ve written and decide what I want to keep for Draft Number Two.  (The critic has already weighed in on one point:  “Dude, your handwriting sucks.”)  In the meantime, the manuscript for my 2012 book, “You Are Here,” is undergoing some spit and polish with the very nice, very knowledgeable, and very thorough editors at iUniverse; the process should be over by end of May or early June.   I’ll let you know when I have a firm publication date.

One Last Thing:  I had earlier promised that if I succeeded in writing a novel draft in 100 days, I would donate the $100 that would have gone to the anti-gay marriage crowd to Planned Parenthood.  I am now happy to report that I did not renege on that promise.

Thanks, everybody!  You are all so fabulous!


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Day 90: The Job Is Done

It’s a holy mess and I don’t remember half of what I’ve written.  But it’s a 102,000 words long, it has characters I love, and most of all, it has a beginning, a middle, and an end.  I am very happy to announce I just finished my novel draft.

Of the 90 days of this novel-writing challenge, today was the hardest.  I knew I couldn’t say it was “done” until I got through this day, but still I put it off until after I’d done my Sunday chores and finished the Sunday crossword puzzle.  And yet I put it off.  And put it off.  I think it’s because I didn’t want the story to end, to say goodbye to the characters.  I know I’ll be getting to know them better in the rewrite, but still, I feel like they’ve moved on.

I actually have a lot more I want to share with you about this whole process, but I want to get my thoughts in order.  In the meantime, I just wanted to thank everyone for seeing me through this challenge; it really was a big help to know I had people out there watching for me, making sure I wouldn’t miss the deadline.

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