Saturday, March 2, 2013

Reality Shown

"How much of the stories in your books are real?"

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.
The "candy" reference was mentioned on an old episode of RuPaul's Drag Race, one of the funniest reality shows on TV. I recently binged on an entire season of the show. Of course, "reality" shows are their own form of creative video nonfiction. The catty drama is edited down for entertainment value, and the more realistic tedious hours contestants spend sewing and actually working, while interesting, is not worth including hours of footage.

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
My own connection to Alig's reality goes back to my New York City years, when Alig threw a party for OutWeek's spin-off magazine, Hunt, which I edited. It was a crazy night, with gogo boys competing for a cover feature (We cheated and chose them all, except the person dressed as Frank N. Furter).

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 fa├žade of fiction.

Macauley Culkin as Michael Alig in Party Monster
The "key" to Monkey Suits can be found, in part, by reading one of my first expansive features in OutWeek about the catering business in 1980s New York. 

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
At this demo, I and other ACT UP members dressed in tuxedos and handed out flyers criticizing a Skating for Life benefit, which was conveniently held at the massive Armory, directly across the street from the first offices of OutWeek. I dubbed our sub-committee ACTUX, the AIDS Coalition To Undermine eXcess.

William F. and Pat Buckley: dead, ya know.
Then working as cater-waiters at the time, the demo for us pointed out the hypocrisy of attending a benefit chaired by society maven Pat Buckley, whose husband, noted rightwing columnist/author/etc William F. Buckley was at the time calling for HIV-positive people to be tattooed.

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 _______?
This is all leading up to a mention of the news that the Oscar-nominated documentary How to Survive a Plague has been optioned to be developed as a narrative mini-series


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
Why fictionalize pivotal moments in our collective history that are already compelling via archival video footage and oral histories? And how many of them are going to allow themselves –or their surviving estates and families– to be fictionally portrayed without their consent? Are they/we fair game as once "public figures"? Will archival footage be CGIed into faux-vintage footage like those shot at ACT UP's Kennebunkport demos? That demo is documented in one of several videos posted on ACT UP NY's Youtube channel and in Bob Huff's Super8 film, also on YouTube - look for me in the lower foreground at 7:15!

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' 
For my own part, it took two novels to process those years, and I didn't even come close to capturing the movement in its entirety. Sarah Schulman and Felice Picano have already done much better jobs of converting that reality into compelling fiction (and look what happened when Rent composer and alleged plagiarist Jonathan Larsen "borrowed" from 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


  1. Ha ha. Forgot about that crazy AC system. You were the best JIm!
    -Kendall Queer Morrison

  2. After reading all your books to date, the information in Cyclizen and Monkey Suits, brings the era to light for me in a completely different way. Being a straight, married female, in those years I was raising a family, and even though I was sympathetic to the AIds epidemic and some of the gay activism I was aware of, I really never experienced all the horror of it first hand. Your book Cyclizen really brought it forward for me. It also angered me that I was so busy with my own life that I was naive to was occurring.
    I always hated Buckley

    Keep writing, I love your work

  3. Thanks so much for reading my books; wow, all of them? Feel free to post reviews on, B&N and/or Goodreads. Reviews really help sales and rankings.

    As for the "good/bad old days," yes, it was a rather astounding time.