That's one of the most frequently asked questions from readers and interviewers. Undoubtedly, other writers are asked the same question.
Explaining the various aspects of real life and fiction is kind of like dissecting your dinner before you eat it. It's not pretty. When you order coq au vin at a restaurant, you don't want to see the chicken get plucked.
It also makes me wonder. Why do you want to know? Does figuring out what actually happened versus what I made up make the book better, easier to understand? If I wrote a memoir, would you ask which parts were made up? More than a few memoir writers have been called out for using a heavy dose of "creative nonfiction," a valid genre, but one that's gotten a few authors in hot water (James Frey on Oprah being the most notorious example).
But more, the question leads me to be cautious about revealing the true source of my inspiration. It's not unlike the drag term "showing your candy." You know what's down there, but you don't want to see it.
|RuPaul in OutWeek, long before his Drag Race days.|
I had the honor of recently interviewing the show's producers, Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, for BARtab, the monthly nightlife mini-mag I edit for the Bay Area Reporter. The duo just published The World According to Wonder. a fabulous (and heavy!) coffee table art book packed with luscious photos of the many celebrities their team has photographed over the years.
Included in the book are images from both the documentary and narrative versions of Party Monster, the story of nightlife icon Michael Alig and his sad journey from club kid king to convicted murderer.
|Michael Alig in OutWeek|
So, did I include any of that in Monkey Suits and Cyclizen, my two NYC-set novels? Nope. It had nothing to do with the stories. Yet these two novels are each a roman a`clef of sorts, which is "French for "novel with a key," a novel about real life, overlaid with a façade of fiction.
|Macauley Culkin as Michael Alig in Party Monster|
While looking through the nearly-complete archival PDFs compiled by former editor Gabriel Rotello, I re-discovered my first published article in OutWeek (Issue #11), "Inside the Gay Slave Trade." My essay, while upon a few decades of reflection, could have been better written, but it opened the Pandora's Box on a highly discriminatory and contradictory industry.
In Issue #22, a stand-alone photo and short article documents one action I helped create; what I'd like to think of as one of the more fabulously well-timed and geographically convenient demonstrations, if not ill-conceived by critics.
|The ACTUX demo, covered in OutWeek|
|William F. and Pat Buckley: dead, ya know.|
Critics claimed that any money from anyone donated to AIDS causes should be appreciated. ACT UP obviously disagreed.
The demo made all the local gossip columns, and the rift between downtown activists and society denizens widened. Working for Glorious Food, the top catering company in New York, only became worse, as coworkers either privately congratulated me or openly harassed me.
Subsequent articles vilified me and my ACT UPers only more. A Village Voice feature penned by Michael Musto (with a surrepetitiously taken photo of me) pitted me against the sweet and talented Michael Callen. A TV segment offered up no less than Lambda Legal Defense's Tom Stoddard as my detractor. Sheesh!
If you read Monkey Suits (in print, Nook and Kindle editions!), all this should sound familiar, but in a different form. The exact demo wasn't dramatized, but its spirit held through, I hope.
A few weeks later, after fortunately being hired as a temp to help move OutWeek to its West Side offices, I became the assistant to Publisher Kendall Morrison, who pushed and inspired me to write, learn how to do the job (which included supervising the installation of a duct-crazy air conditioning system) and multitask... a lot! I'm only listed as Publisher's Assistant starting with Issue #43, but had been doing that job for months beforehand.
But back to that first article for OutWeek:
In a usual pattern (that happens consistently nowadays in San Francisco news publishing with the BAR's scoops), my cater-waiter story in OutWeek #11 was heavily cribbed by a mainstream local weekly (the name eludes me; gotta dig through the clipping files: 24/7? Eight Days?). The writer did compliment me and get a quote, calling my essay "scathing."
It then expanded its more objective coverage to include a real cater-waiter and co-worker on the cover (who dated a guy I dated).
My article wasn't exactly the "key" behind Monkey Suits, which I was already writing at the time. But it summated the themes.
And in that same issue of OutWeek are photos of a few sweet wonderful men and women who inspired many aspects of my other "roman a clef" novel, Cyclizen.
But more on that, and the "candy" from my other novels, in a future post. I think I've shown enough "candy" for one day. I was actually planning to spend my Saturday going through my old files, so who knows what treasures will emerge.
|The role of Spencer Cox will be played by _______?|
That news unleashed a flurry of serious and joking Facebook posts among fellow ACT UP alumni over –what else– casting!
Who will play the parts of the prominent activists? Who decides who those prominent "characters" are/were? Can any actor accurately portray the passion, conviction and natural theatricality of the likes of Larry Kramer, Spencer Cox, Peter Staley, Ann Northrup, Ron Goldberg, David Robinson, Bob Rafsky and so many others?
|Extra #342: Moi (lower, center) in Bob Huff's Super8 film|
Even David France's film takes what he cited as a narrative construct. By focusing on Treatment Action Group (TAG), France had to limit his focus on one compelling two-hour story. Yet veteran activist Jim Fouratt criticized the documentary for "re-writing history" and misrepresenting the organization.
Other prominent AIDS and gay-themed films like Milk, And the Band Played On and Angels in America have won deserved acclaim, but did take a specific focus that doesn't tell the full story. But when does a film ever accomplish that? It will be very very interesting to see how this develops.
|Sarah Schulman's 'People in Trouble'|
Queer Nation co-founder and ACT UP alum K.M. Soehnlein has mentioned that he's also developing a novel about the ACT UP days. Having been at the center of it all, he's no doubt going to pen a fascinating account with a depth of authenticity.
In the hands of Hollywood executives and casting directors, will the idealistic, purposed movement be reduced to a glammed-up pageant of cute-ified young actors and forced drama (once again, see Rent, or better yet, don't.)? Will hundreds of extras (as I was one of many in Milk) notice a sense of slight in-authenticity in the work? How could we tell, since we weren't there?
Or will it be a masterful combination of archival footage, personal stories and a film that broadens understanding of our then-maligned and misunderstood activism, and bring it to a wider audience, thus inspiring millions more to take action against injustice?
We'll have to wait and see, just like we'll have to wait for Glee creator Ryan Murphy's film adaptation of Kramer's The Normal Heart.