Romance, Realism…and Happily Ever After?
It happened again on another Bold Strokes Books panel, this time when introducing my novel Coming to Life on South High. When asked to identify its genre and categories, I sputtered. “Uh, mainstream? New adult? Uh, love relationships, friends, family, and establishing a career…”
Other writers on panels always seem to have exact, ready responses, and seem to savor describing their plots––a romance between a cop and an ex-con, say, or an S & M murder mystery in Barcelona, or a Lesbian earth goddess who saves the entire planet with good mojo. In comparison to genre writers’ high concepts, realistic fiction can sound so lame: “Uh, it’s about growing up, falling in love…and stuff.”
As both reader and writer, I think my attraction to realism is temperamental. I see the word “superhero” and long for an un-super hero who saves lives by going to work in an emergency ward. I hear “action adventure” and long for a tale about a couple adopting a lonesome orphan. “Fantasy” conjures dragons and other imaginary creatures when I’d rather get to know a moose (ideally named Bullwinkle). “Erotica” makes me itchy and scratchy and embarrassed; I had to close my eyes when I wrote PG-13 love scenes for Coming to Life on South High.
I always write about relationships, but never have thought of myself as writing romance. The word itself makes me feel like an eight-year-old boy crying “Yuck!” The term “romance writer” once brought to mind sweet blue-haired ladies at some conference in Tampa, all wearing identical lime green pantsuits.
Then I was somehow put on a BSB panel with five romance writers and got an earful and an education. There wasn’t a pantsuit in the bunch, and these writers approached the theme, “Happily Ever After,” with professionalism and a serious sense of obligation to their readers’ desires, expectations, and hopes. Each writer was careful to stress realistic relationships, but insisted on positive outcomes for lovers by the end. As Melissa Brayden summed up, “The world is a cruel, cruel place…we need things to work out.” She cited readers who tell her how positive outcomes in romance novels are their salvation.
I’d never thought of such a thing! Of course, I’ve always wanted to please readers with rendering reality into a compelling plot, but never felt an obligation to give readers hope and joy––only that obligation to “be real.” Since relationships often go sour in real life, I’m intrigued by all aspects of that sour disintegration and want to share my intrigue, and be real with readers.
Yet during that romance panel, I was forced to realize in every one of my novels, a renewed, hopeful relationship is suggested in the ending scenes, along with a new sense of acceptance, and even renewal, for the protagonist––almost happily ever after. Even more jarring, I was forced to admit that in real life, after decades wandering through the monotonous wilderness of serial monogamy, I’ve found what seems to be true love for over a decade now. Can that possibly be real?
ON PIVOTING BETWEEN REALITY AND INVENTION
I committed murder in my first published novel, Nothing Gold Can Stay, and killed off a beloved brother in my most recent, Every Summer Day, from Bold Strokes Books.
The recent BSB panels on reality vs. invention in our fiction, BSB Bookathon’s “Gay Fiction/Gay Lives” and BSB/Curve Media’s “Reading in Today’s Reality: Realism and Escapism in Fiction,” inspired me to obsess about the role of realism in my past and present fiction. My new novel, out in June, Every Summer Day, also makes much use of reality, especially geographical locations and medical pathologies, but in many other ways it is completely invented.
The real event, the inspiration for that fictional murder in my first novel, was actually the threat of a murder in our international dorm in London. A romantic dispute over a girl led one guy, a local, to visit the room of another guy and threaten him with extreme violence unless he left London and the disputed girl behind. So the poor kid fled our graduate program and sought refuge with his parents at home in Cornwall. The mystery novel that ensued, Nothing Gold Can Stay, made much more of the threat, actually killing the poor kid off, recasting him as American, adorable and bi-curious, and leaving behind a residence hall full of anxious and terrified students. Meanwhile I made great gay hay out of a quasi-painfully platonic and therefore very tense affair I was having with a South American who was in a loyal relationship with a HIV-positive lover back home (it was the mid-90s when HIV was another bold and demanding murderer).
As fiction works, I also had much hay to make of a residence hall full of interesting people, all of whom became suspects, of course, including faculty and administrators all fermenting in our small, tightly knit petri dish, a graduate program in British culture. Because London’s theatre scene was central to our program, I got to explore that world, too, both backstage and under the proscenium arch. There was also a real serial killer stalking gay London who I transformed into the fictional Prince Bi. No novel I’ve ever written or tried to write has unfolded so effortlessly, because reality handed me so much juicy stuff.
Twenty-plus years ago, after it was published and nominated for a Lammy, reality also handed me a major problem—anyone who lived through those events with me would have recognized themselves and many others, and the novel was going to be published in the UK as well as the States. I was extremely uneasy about that, because I had made a whole cohort of wonderful, nonviolent people, including staff—my college friends—into somewhat sinister suspects in a murder mystery. It also laid bare my protagonist’s lust for a guy who was struggling to stay true to his lover back home.
My solution? I published under a pseudonym and tried not to think about the real crimes against my colleagues I’d committed in using them as grist for my fiction.
I remain uneasy to this day, ever pivoting on this seesaw between reality and invention in fiction. So many writers on the recent panels are writing in genres—gothic romance, say, or vampire stories, or science fiction—and their response was mostly that it was important to try to weave reality into fantastic plots, to ground characters and their motives in recognizable forms. On the BSB Bookathon panel, I felt more than a little bland when everyone else introduced their work—“a gay wizard” or “a murderer cuts through a community”—when I had to admit, of Every Summer Day, “Well, it’s a family story, a contemporary realistic novel.” Even in the two mysteries I’ve written, reality was the basis; and in my subsequent mainstream fiction, reality is the anchor. I guess I’m trying to uncover the beauty and conflict within the ordinary lives of everyday people while exploring where gay lives intersect with that reality.
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