Sunday, February 10, 2019

Patricia Nell Warren, author, mentor, shero and the Mother of Gay Fiction

Patricia Nell Warren's The Front Runner remains one of the prime inspirations for me to write fiction. News of her death today has reached beyond mutual friends to her many fans. I recall many conversations we had during her visits to literary conferences, and events in San Francisco. 

Her writing and advice were a true inspiration in literature and the global LGBT sports community. I still have the worn 1979 (fifth edition) paperback from my first purchase of a gay novel in 1979, which she signed, along with others over the years. If you haven't done so, you owe it to yourself to read more of her work. Farewell, dear woman.

Karen Ocamb write eloquently of Warren in the Los Angeles Blade.  And here is an earlier obituary in The Advocate.

Warren lived a fascinating life, as abbreviated in her Wikipedia page.
Texas gay historian J.D. Doyle reshared a tribute page written a while back about Warren.

The Lambda Literary Foundation offered this remembrance.

And LGBTQ Nation wrote up a fine piece.

The straight media has yet to catch up to this important moment in literary history.

This is sad, considering the global impact her novel made.

"The Front Runner was a critical and commercial success upon its release, becoming the first book of contemporary gay fiction to reach the New York Times Best Seller List. 

"In their review, The Times called the novel 'the most moving, monumental love story ever written about gay life.' To date, The Front Runner has sold more than 10 million copies and has been translated into at least nine languages, including Japanese, German, French, Danish, Swedish Dutch, and Italian; it was the best-selling gay novel published in Spain, and the first gay novel ever published in Latvia." (Raptis Rare Books)

But so many people knew her as a freind, not an icon of publishing. I don't know if some might disagree with dubbing her the Mother of Gay Fiction. certainly, the pulp and small presses produced many L, G, B and T fiction in decades before. Gay men published many novels in and more shortly after 1974. But the popularity of Warren's second novel, and eventually its two successful sequels, marked a change for the good in queer publishing.

Shortly after the news of her passing, dozens of friends and acquaintances wrote about Warren on social media, sharing photos of meeting the author, and some of her longtime friends shared details about her last months weeks, and days. I was heartened to see that some had been her caregivers in her last years.

Longtime friend John Selig wrote, "For me Patricia has been a cross between a second mom and an older sister. Patricia was a phenomenal writer who loved to garden and cook. She was the best historian I have ever known and a master researcher for all of her writing, both fiction and non-fiction. She adored animals and loved to share stories of the Grant-Khors Ranch in Deer Lodge, Montana where she grew up."
From Gregory Zanfardino, who now manages Warren's Facebook account:

February 10th 2019:
Unfortunately, beloved Patricia Nell Warren lost her battle with cancer in the early hours of Saturday February 9th in Santa Monica, CA.

We would like to thank everyone for the amazing and heart-warming posts that continue to pour in from all who loved her. It is evident that she touched the lives of countless people from all over the world. Prior to her passing, she spoke about how she had such a wonderful life.

Her estate is in the process of establishing a platform for donations that will be used to publish her newly written and fourth book in the "Front Runner" series. In addition, the donations will be use to continue her legacy by keeping all her books in print and to realize her dream of bringing her novels to film and television.

Let's hope that work continues.

Last year, I'd invited Warren to my October 2018 reading in Los Angeles, but she wrote back saying that her health condition prevented it. How selfish of my to not immediately arrange for a visit. I wish I'd spoken to Patricia more often. I should have interviewed her more, even annually, just to catch up and let her share her wisdom and her stories. But her books live on. 

As many know, the novel's title became, with Warren's active participation, the name of the first gay running group, Front Runners, one of many growing sports communities that preceded the first Gay Games in 1982.  

Imagine getting a first edition hardback of The Front Runner, now valued at more than $450 at this rare books store. My worn 1979 paperback may have no monetary value, but to me, it's priceless, has traveled the country with me over the years. 

What's fascinating is reading the stories from so many gay men for whom this was their first or memorable gay book purchase; some swiped, others found it a part of their coming out, as was mine.

That a work of tragic fiction would also lead to a revolution in sports extends the legacy of Warren's accomplishments.

The Hero Dies
I recently read a comparative work, Don Williams' The Spartan, the story of an athlete in ancient times.

While the prose is -appropriately- spartan in descriptions, it acknowledges male love in a pristine manner, but also depicts the short life of an Olympian hero. This is the original kind, with brutal fighting and lots of nudity.

Warren's classic also sets its tragic ending in the arena of sport, in our time. It's no spoiler, after 10 million copies sold, that Billy dies at the hand of a stalking psychopath.

I wonder if that tragic ending became a detriment to the saga of the novel's film rights. Handed over from one to another producer/actor, including Paul Newman, the possibility of a cinematic adaptation dispersed. Warren reclaimed the rights to the book, and her other novels, by starting Wildcat Press.

In the my development of my own gay sports-themed novel, PINS, Warren offered wise advice about the industry, her own and my eventual independent small press journeys and choices.

On a smaller scale, my debut novel had also endured a volley of possible sales and deals through three different agencies, before falling back into my lap. It all turned out for the best, since another year of writing made it better, plus I made all the profits myself, along with libraries, universities, and the dozens of now-gone independent bookstores that supported me.

Warren knew all those connections, and was welcomed at bookstores and conferences around the country. Her legacy may seem diminished under her soft-spoken demeanor, but she knew, and was generous in her advice to fledgling and even other accomplished authors of her time.

Patricia Nell Warren will be missed.

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