Sunday, February 9, 2020

Remembering Robert Conrad, our Wild Wild Crush

The death of actor Robert Conrad on February 8 brought on a slew of remembrances from fans online, most notably those who recalled him shirtless, in tight pants, and often tied up, in the unusual hit TV series The Wild Wild West. 

That the show's barely disguised erotic aspects aroused many gay men (mostly teenagers at the time) is self-evident in any of the show's episodes. It also brought forth several memories of my first published short story, and how my own meager PR skills at the time seem fairly quaint.

In The Wild Wild West, which premiered in 1965, Conrad played James T. West, a James Bond-like agent who used innovative tactics and futuristic gadgets (steampunk before there was such a thing, and futuristic for the 1800s) to battle bizarre villains. 

As a youngster in grade school, the homoerotic aspects perhaps eluded me. I do recall owning a denim vest that made me feel cool like James West, and, imitating one of West's many gadgets, I even tried to insert a penknife in one of my shoes. That didn't turn out well.

What did turn out well, in my vague memory, was a Show and Tell grade school morning where, after possibly hours of rehearsal, I enlisted several other boys to reenact almost an entire episode of the show. Had we audiotaped it? Written down a script? I don't recall, other than constructing a large cardboard wall for one of the boys to crash through.

Some claim that the show may have even had an influence in the rise of gay BDSM culture. As Jack Fritscher, editor of Drummer magazine wrote in my query: 

"Robert Conrad was an archetype of the classic American physique, leather-and-western clothing fetish, and bondage action considered basic by the founders of Drummer. Publisher John Embry wrote about his personal passion for 'Bob' Conrad.  Drummer was built on a continuing series of pictures of hunky movie stars in S&M situations that began in Drummer #1, June 1975, with Paul Newman, Burt Reynolds, Steve McQueen, and Robert Conrad. 

"We featured the peerless Conrad in Drummer issue #1 to set a certain 'tone' by offering his shirtless poster for sale in Drummer mail-order. A torso cover drawing by Bud of LA referenced Conrad's famous stripped torso on display in bondage in nearly every episode of Wild Wild West, the series that brought thousands of young gays out and led them to Drummer and Folsom Street."

While SM gay culture was thriving elsewhere, my own introduction to the show was in syndication in the 1970s. Our family had moved our older television to the basement, and a northern Ohio TV station, WUAB, broadcast a set of shows, including Gilligan's Island, Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie and others. 

But The Wild Wild West remained my favorite, as my teenage libido was struck by Conrad's feisty antics, frequent shirtless scenes, and his very tight pants. Never before, or since, had a male actor's body been so blatantly put on display, along with his dashing outfits.

Jump ahead to the early 1990s, as my years of (mostly hand-written or manually-typed) scribblings developed into a few novel beginnings and a few short stories. I had begun to befriend authors and editors, mostly through my fledgling journalism efforts at Outweek, and somehow managed to be invited to contribute to a new anthology of fiction edited by prolific author and editor Ethan Mordden.

Having just learned the basics of word processing, I found that my story about being bitten by a dog, and receiving my first G.I. Joe doll as a boy, grew into a long list of TV and pop culture crushes. As a play on scholarly writing, I added footnotes to various actors and cartoon characters.

"Forty Wild Crushes (or Whenever I See a Dachshund I Think of G.I. Joe)" became part of Waves: An Anthology of New Gay Fiction.  Contributors included John Weir, Brad Gooch, Scott Heim, Michael Cunningham and several others.

PR, Sweetie Dahling
In covering the anthology, Kirkus Reviews (link above) offered my first literary review as well. 

"These writers, Mordden contends, are more activist and more stylistically inventive. This is certainly true of Jim Provenzano's 'Forty Wild Crushes,' which takes the form of an elementary school memoir – with hilarious footnotes."

Having a year before moved to San Francisco, in 1993 I enlisted fellow contributor Richard Davis to share a reading at A Different Light bookstore on Castro Street (The location is now Dog Eared Books).

Back then, before any sort of online availability (other than comparatively primitive bulletin boards), writers and performers relied on newspaper event listings. As a new Assistant Editor at the Bay Area Reporter at the time, I received a slew of colorful flyers and mailed press releases, which I filed by issue number in the weekly paper (where I still work, and once again edit event listings; some things never change).

But I knew a few listings would not be enough to get people into A Different Light to hear Davis and I read, and to buy books. 

So, with the aid of our layout designer at the B.A.R., some nice fonts and a bit of collage work, I put together mini-flyers at the local Kinko's on Market street, cut the pages into four little squares, and for a few hours before the reading, handed out the flyers outside the bookstore, not unlike nightclub promoters down the street.

It worked.

My memory may be exaggerated, but I recall at least twenty attendees. To make my own reading of my 40 crushes more entertaining and visual, I bought a large book of multi-colored construction paper, and photocopied then hand-painted images of each crush, which included several grade school classmates. 

Another crush included the classic animated kid's show, Jonny Quest, where my preteen gaydar presumed that Race Bannon and Dr. Quest were life partners. Hey, it could have been true.

My story mentions in particular an episode where Race disguises himself in purple berry juice. Later adult viewings of the show starkly showed its consistent racism, so enough of that.

Still, an air of younger innocence remains in the story. At the premiere reading, recruiting the aide of (soon to be bestselling author) K.M. Soehnlein as my page-turning assistant, I read the tale with visual support. Back then I couldn't quickly find a video of the specific 'berry juice' episode, but I did today!
Soon after the anthology's publication, I submitted the story to the then-new San Francisco edition of Frontiers, a large-format gay news and entertainment magazine (LGBT had yet to become the more inclusive standard descriptor). 

I had been contributing arts and travel features to the magazine, and was paid well ($200-$300, good pay at the time).

The editor and designer lavished space on the story's layout, with several photos of the mentioned crushes, including a shirtless beach photo of Robert Conrad. The issue also featured a cover feature and interview with the affable and sexy Colt model Steve Kelso. The former bartender is now a farmer who's quite politically engaged on Twitter. But don't expect nudes. You'll have to look elsewhere for those.

Time Warp
Jump ahead to 2016. Having come down from the high of my fifth novel Message of Love becoming a Lambda Literary Award finalist (its companion novel, Every Time I Think of You, won a Lammy in 2012), I had a bit of writer's block with what I thought would become my next publication, Now I'm Here

Timelines, song titles, and character development formed a confusing cluster of ideas. One productive decision I made was to add my lengthy, unpublished pumpkin-farming semi-autobiographical story "Tractor Pull" to Now I'm Here

I'd originally played with using that story's title for a collection of short stories, but made the better decision to use "Forty Wild Crushes" as the title.

One problem I had with foraging through my old short fiction, published and not, was that many older Word documents were unreadable on my new computer. I had to manually scan several stories into PDFs and extract the text.

After months of shifting and correcting, retyping and formatting, for the cover, I chose an original painting by fantastic painter Kenney Mencher. I even bought the painting, which hangs on a wall in my home.

I also did a few readings of stories from my collection at the (also now closed) Books Inc. on Market Street, and at a Lit Crawl reading event that I host annually at Martuni's.

So, thanks to the late Robert Conrad for being part of this long journey. I won't go into his later rightwing political views, his alleged bisexuality as a young 'trade' stud, or other personal views. You can dig those up elsewhere.

You can also dig up a 2016 video of me reading "Forty Wild Crushes" with the illustrated collage book (It's a bit awkward and I was overcoming a terrible cold) with Baruch Porras-Hernadez and prolific author and editor Rob Rosen, who's archived it on Facebook.

But even with all this new media – Facebook ads and promos, Instagram, etc. – I feel that it never surpassed the old-fashioned style of making flyers and promoting my long-ago reading event like a simple street huckster.

You can read more about the story collection on my website. I'll leave you with one of a few reviews, from Edge Media 

"Forty Wild Crushes is an enticing, poignant and highly engaging collection that presents men and relationships of all ages and from all walks of life, some of whom we can all relate to and others we would just as soon avoid."

Yes, there are a few jerks in the stories. Not every character is nice. Just as Conrad's real life had some problems, I hope you'll consider the best of him, and the best of my writing, some of it inspired by a handsome actor.

And follow me on the things!

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Hindsight in 2020; a decade of writing

Since I haven't blogged in weeks, what better time than on the last day of a year, and a decade, full of ups and down, books and breaks. The 2010s were pretty good for me, book-wise. I self-published two novels, Every Time I Think of You, and its sequel, Message of Love, which won a Lambda Literary Award, and was a Finalist, respectively.

I also self-published my short story collection, Forty Wild Crushes in 2016, and in 2018, Beautiful Dreamer Press published my sixth novel, Now I'm Here. I still love typing that, "my sixth novel." So many frustrated writers never finish one, let alone get it published.

In work writing, I got to interview dozens of performing artists for the Bay Area Reporter, my pleasant, fun and challenging day job.  Features ranged talents like Cazwell, Carol Cook, Peaches Christ, Debbie Harry, to Ross Mathews and Sister Roma.

For the past three decades, aside from a few wacky and tedious temp and freelance jobs, I've been rather lucky to make a living as a writer. Again, a rare thing, and one that I cherish.

Like you, I've lost a few friends, but gained some as well. I've burned a few bridges, but built a few others, and you know, I can swim.

2020 24 hours to go
The good news to look forward to are not one, but three literary projects. While I don't consider it bad luck (I don't really believe in luck, per se) to mention the projects outright, I will hint that they're two audioooks and my seventh novel. I suppose I should add those into 2019 accomplishments, since the audiobooks are in production with a talented narrator, and the seventh novel was finished this year.

While going through some old family photos with my brother over the Christmas holiday, I was heartened to see a Christmas Day photo when I was nine (see first photo). Huddled over a tiny manual typewriter, my little fingers started typing away, making what would become small handmade book gifts foisted upon family and friends.

And while, like luck, I don't believe in fate, something in me has always wanted to tell stories. People ask how one can become a writer, and I'm hesitant to offer advice. I simply could not not be a writer.

I'll link to a few New Year's Eve posts which excerpt me fourth and fifth novels.

In Every Time I Think of You, Reid gets a surprise visit from Everett, who's hoisting a champagne bottle in the snowy cold outside his door.

A few years later (in Message of Love), as the two bond and form a life together, in Everett' father's Pittsburgh condo, Reid shows his love on New Year's Eve by attempting a naked handstand.

I never had either experience. Sometimes I vicariously live through my characters, creating what might have been, had I found true love at a young age. 

For now, I'm counting the hours until it's closer to midnight, to gather with a few friends, one of them also an accomplished gay author. That is, if I don't get a text saying he's already gone to bed. That would be okay, because life and holidays aren't always as fabulous as expected. That's why we make up stories.

A look back through a decade ends up filtered. We try to forget the pain and loss, the fumbles, and focus on the good memories. Good writers do that. Great writers stir up the pain and loss as well. You'll see a new level of maturity in my next novel, I hope.

I also hope you make a decade's worth of good memories, starting tomorrow.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Author Q&A with Jim Provenzano - Now I'm Here and other novels

In my new Q&A with NF Reads, I share a few secrets about writing, book covers and creative inspiration.

An excerpt:

What are the real-life stories behind your books?
That’s a frequent question at readings. Reality and creativity are so blended that a pat answer could be ‘everything and nothing is a real-life story.’

That said, I have a few examples.

In Now I’m Here, my latest published novel, Joshua plays piano and gets a little bit of fame for playing a piano solo version of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” I actually did play the song for a piano recital in high school, but Joshua’s later larger TV show fame is made up.

David was raised on a pumpkin farm, and I actually worked on an Ohio pumpkin farm, but only for one season. This shows how I take a small bit of my own life, and years later, grow those experiences into fiction.

What inspires your creativity?
A scene or story that simply will not go away often serves as a spark to writing. I’ve been writing since I was a child. I even made little hand-drawn comic books on colored paper as gifts for my family, which provided a very nurturing environment.

How do you deal with creative block?
I do something else. I don’t consider non-writing periods as a ‘block,’ as much as times when I write elsewhere; at work, on my blog (, or when I assign myself an interview at work. 

I love my job, which sometimes includes interviewing performers and celebrities. Being forced to condense an interview and briefly yet accurately tell their story, on deadline, aids my other writing.

In the ‘90s, I spent my early years growing the early drafts of several novels. By 2011, I’d planned to get back to Now I’m Here, but the first spark of inspiration for Every Time I Think of You came to me in a dream. At first, I cranked out what I thought might be a nice short story, then by dawn, went back to sleep, knowing it would become much more.

I kept imagining more scenes, and since I’d struggled for years with previous works, I gave myself a deadline; 500 words a day, and nine months to finish.

It became a very exciting year. With three published novels, I had more confidence, but also imagined a singular audience. It was like riding a bicycle, knowing it could work, that the two main characters, even secondary ones, fascinated me, especially when my brain decided they would do things I hadn’t expected.


Sunday, October 27, 2019

Naming; the Seeds of Character-Building

As Halloween celebrants set about carving up pumpkins in creative ways for the holiday, consider extracting the many seeds from the gloppy guts of your purchased or homegrown gourds. Yes, they're tasty when baked and salted. But for me, those seeds represent another form of organic growth, related to the very important artistic process of writing, particularly the naming of characters.

In the early drafts of my sixth novel, Now I'm Here, at first I used names of actual people to solidify my initial inspiration. A few find/replaces later, I found a somewhat biblical theme under-riding that work-in-progress. Thus the name Joshua for my main character. The piano-playing teenager becomes somewhat zealous in his devotion to music, particularly the rock band Queen.

In these thematic essays, I've focused on the marvelous Freddie Mercury, and the music aspects of the work. With Halloween only a few days away, let's turn to Joshua's love interest, David Koenig.

Omitting the real name of the cute high school acquaintance on whom I had a crush since grade school, let's bump to the second name I gave the character; David. One day, as I stopped at a local small grocery store, I saw bags of edible seeds on display. As kids and as an adult, I had enjoyed home-baked pumpkin seeds, but seeing that bright red, yellow and green bag so clearly displaying the name, I chose the new and final name for my farm boy.

I thought of the biblical couple Jonathan and David, but that felt too obvious. In search of a last name, I pored over my favorite source, Egerton Sykes' Who's Who: Non-Classical Mythology. 

It was in that book that I found perfect names for major characters in my first novel, PINS. Donald Khors' last name, while a known contemporary name, also represents the Slavonic god of health and hunting, and takes the image of a stallion. Many of the names in PINS reflect the equine metaphors and the actual wrestling team name, the Colts. Each of the several cars in the novel also bring horse breeds into the story: Bronco, Mustang, Pinto.

The fun in finding such correlations serves to narrow the symbology of a story while revealing a sort of true nature to a character. While in the writing process, when trying to figure out how a character should or could behave, I found a point of focus by recalling the symbolic/real name.

For David, however, I couldn't find a name in Sykes' book that fit him. I knew I wanted a Germanic or Norwegian name, since many of the southern Ohio farming families of the era had ancestors from those countries. This brings up a character's family history, an essential part of thorough development. Even if it's not included in the published story, an author should know his or her background, at least for a few generations (orphans and supernatural creatures excused, perhaps).

This is why I find so many pop-oriented books, gay romances in particular, to be lacking. It's all set in the 'now,' with little sense of history (unless of course it is historical). When you can't feel a sense of the grounded nature of a character, they seem flimsy and less believable.

Koenig sounded right when I discovered it from poring over a phone book from Ohio that I'd saved for decades in a box of other research materials for Now I'm Here. An online search confirmed it.

K├Ânig is the German word for king. While David is by no means royal –he's humble, shy, even reclusive– he does 'rule' the fields where his father's pumpkin and corn fields are annually harvested. It seemed organic, true, ethnically logical, and a little bit sexy.

Now I'm Here cover photo shoot
I've humble-bragged here and elsewhere about having worked on a pumpkin farm for a few months in between colleges in 1981. The exhausted, overworked 20-year-old me at the time had no idea those grueling yet satisfying experiences would gestate into parts of what would be my sixth novel. That younger me was still dreaming of the idea of a first novel, in between all the labors.

That's just one story of one name, with a few tangents. I could go on about the nature themes in my two previous novels, Every Time I Think of You and Message of Love, but the two main characters' names, Reid Conniff and Everett Forrester, are pretty obvious.

My second novel, Monkey Suits, refers to Egyptian ruling class versus slave culture (the first and near-final scenes are set in New York City's Metropolitan Museum's Temple of Dendur; pretty obvious!), and when you read it, you can figure out how the four main character's names and natures match the four elements.

For Cyclizen, it's not only about a bike messenger and AIDS activist, but the name puns refer to mythical centaurs, Hercules, and a few other creatures.

This isn't done just to be clever, but to provide me a guide to focusing the story, and keeping the process fun.

But back to pumpkins! Have you saved the seeds? Rinse them, soak them in salt water, or sweeten them with cinnamon or pumpkin spice if you like.

You may not notice the pumpkins on the book cover, but since we shot it in May 2018, I'd saved a few small and big ones from October 2017! One can't just go out and buy pumpkins in Northern California in Spring.

And when you reach the last chapters of my latest, Now I'm Here, I hope you'll enjoy a bittersweet pumpkin and Halloween-related moment in the novel.

And please, do post reviews on Amazon, GoodReads and elsewhere. It's a way of sharing, but also helping get the word out on independent authors' stories.

Happy Halloween!