Friends, Lovers, and Cats: Hopefully Ever After

Yes, the cliché is true: writing is a lonely business. At the moment, I’m sitting at my desk, alone in a house where the only sound other than the striking of keys is the persistent mewing of my cat. His demand to go out several times a day—under supervision; the boy cannot be trusted—is a continual reminder that I need to get my butt out of this chair from time to time, too. Ah, the wisdom of felines.

The antidote to literary loneliness is forging a community. I meet other writers at conferences, at readings, and, of course, online. As I noted last time, I met novelist Beth Burnett at this year’s Saints & Sinners Literary Festival, where we shared a panel on humor in fiction. And so a friendship was born. If you want to win my heart, just laugh at my jokes. (Ask my husband.)

Beth’s latest book, Coming Around Again, is available from Amazon and Sapphire Books. I’m thrilled that she has offered to write something for the blog today. As you’ll see, her brilliant sense of humor is matched by wisdom and heart. Please also check out her website here.

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Hopefully Ever After

by Beth Burnett

I was a little worried when Lewis touted me as being funny in his last blog post because as I was writing this post, I realized it wasn’t funny at all. In fact, it gets a little depressing, but ultimately hopeful. Sort of like my books – not happily ever after, but perhaps realistically hopefully ever after. (Which, let’s be honest, is probably why they don’t sell well. Who wants to be depressed and then… kind of uplifted? In a real life, I guess it doesn’t suck as bad as I thought sort of way?)

I wanted to write about why there isn’t more and better lesbian representation in mainstream media. I think gay men have had more representation in mainstream media than lesbians. Remember that show on one of the pay movie channels back in the 80s? Brothers. They all loved each other, even as they dealt with the very controversial subject of one of the brothers coming out and living openly as gay.

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Not that it was easy for men. As I was coming out in the mid to late 80s, the men I loved, the men with whom I formed strong, emotionally intimate relationships were dying. And that wasn’t being addressed in the mainstream media. It wasn’t really being addressed anywhere except in our own communities. Even within our communities, there was distrust and ignorance. I remember one man picking up a wine glass with rubber gloved hands and tossing it in the garbage after the guest who had been drinking from it had left. I heard he’s sick, the man had stage-whispered.

I was a little in love with my group of gay male friends back then. I think it was a way of being in the gay community without actually admitting I was gay. Maybe it was because I was so immersed in gay male culture that it took me so long to find my own. The first LGBT book I read was about male lovers and was called, I think, As If During Sex, though Googling it now brings back nothing. Did it have lackluster sales and go quickly out of print? Was it not worth being catalogued somewhere so some middle-aged lesbian, thirty years later, could find a picture of the cover and somehow bring back the memory of what it was about? Quite possibly, all the pot I smoked in the late eighties and early nineties means the book was called something entirely different.

The point is I didn’t know lesbians existed. And it wasn’t until I moved across the country and started dating women in my mid-twenties that I was introduced to lesbians in groups. There were a lot of us! I read lesbian books and discovered the joy of potlucks. I bought Birkenstocks and shaved my head and discussed Mary Wollstonecraft with tattooed academics.

I watched an awful lot of softball.

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I became enthralled with the power of women when men are removed from the equation. We’re strong. We’re beautiful. We don’t have to shave our legs or lose weight or wear makeup. (Though we can if we want.) I thrived in women’s spaces, I grew. I found my confidence. And somewhere in there, I published my first book.

A book that mostly centered on women.

I published my second book.

A book that focused almost exclusively on women.

Somewhere along the line, I started thinking about representation and how much it mattered to me and how little of it I saw. And it occurred to me that a book doesn’t have to be lesfic to have a healthy lesbian relationship in it. And it doesn’t have to be labeled as gay to have a healthy gay male couple. We can give role models to our readers, no matter who our readers might be. It’s time for all of us to start branching out into creating diversity for young, queer, people of color or older lesbians finding love as senior citizens. It strikes me as a particularly heinous insult to assume that we should only write what we personally know. I mean, one of my characters is a very believable racquetball player and I’ve never even held a racquet.

I guess somewhere in my subconscious, I thought I was already writing diverse books because I AM a diversity category.

It doesn’t work that way. Life isn’t meant to be lived in a circle of exclusion. It’s meant to be rich, vibrant, and full of – well – characters. How can we write deeply diverse and realistic novels if we aren’t living a diverse life?

I guess I had an epiphany somewhere between book one and book four. In Eating Life, my circle-of-friends, slice-of-life novel, one of my characters is a straight man called Ben. He was almost deleted from the book and he’s turned out to be a favorite among my readers.

In my latest release, Coming Around Again, two of the main characters are Carter and David, an interracial gay couple who adopt David’s niece when she’s kicked out of her home for being queer.

Representation matters. I like to think that no matter who you are, you will find something that speaks to you in one of my books. And maybe someday, thirty years from now, you’ll be writing a blog about that lesbian book you read back in 2018 – what was it called? Coming Again?

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Is It Still a Story If Nobody Dies?

A chunk of my first novel, Chemistry, takes place in a mental hospital, where one of the main characters is being treated after a suicide attempt. In addition, a minor character dies. For my second novel, The Heart’s History, I decided to change it up a bit—killing off not one, but two characters, including a successful suicide.

In other words, a laugh on every page.

So you can imagine the adjustment when, at this year’s Saints & Sinners Literary Festival, I got invited to appear on a panel called “Leave ’Em Laughing: Writing and Performing Humor.” Beside me at the dais were novelists David Pratt, Beth Burnett, and J.R. Greenwell, and Jaffe Cohen, the stand-up comic and co-creator of Feud: Bette and Joan. What am I doing here? I wondered. In most of my work, my characters don’t die laughing, if you know what I mean.

The truth is that—spoiler alert—nobody dies in my latest, Channeling Morgan. After books about clinical depression and AIDS, I wasn’t sure I had it in me to write something relatively lighthearted. One might argue, of course, that I needed to write something relatively lighthearted.

I’ve always gravitated toward witty characters who spout clever, often snarky dialogue, but they were usually expressing their humor against a backdrop of … well, angst. Now, however, my characters are plopped into the middle of a satire, where nothing is sacred, and where, yes, a happy ending is preordained. I was frankly concerned that the book would be off balance—too funny, too hopeful. All play and no work makes Jack just as boring as the other way around.

I was full of doubts, mostly: Is it still a novel if nobody dies?

I suppose I could have had somebody slip on a banana peel and break his neck, but in the end I just decided to go for it.

I’m reminded of when Woody Allen followed up Annie Hall, the culmination of his comedic skills, with the dark and very dramatic Interiors. Some people didn’t get it: how could the guy who, just a few years ago, had dressed as a neurotic sperm waiting for ejaculation now make a Bergmanesque movie about suicide and existential pain?

Of course, the themes of Interiors didn’t come out of the blue: if you look closely, many of them are in Annie Hall and Love and Death, albeit disguised as humor. And in later films, Allen found ingenious ways of merging genres, as in Crimes and Misdemeanors (home of the at-once dark and hilarious line “comedy equals tragedy plus time”).

My next book, which I’m currently wrapping up, has its share of angst, but at least all the characters manage to survive until the end. I guess that makes it a hybrid genre. Here’s hoping I don’t get annoyed with a character and knock him off in the next draft.

Next time, tune in for a guest blog from Beth Burnett, my fellow panelist and a person who really knows how to leave ’em laughing.

One Night Stand

This piece first appeared as a guest post on Beth Burnett’s entertaining and insightful blog. Expect some wit and wisdom from her on this site soon!

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Novelists are like parents: once you send your baby out into the world, you never know where it’s going to end up.

A lesbian couple I knew kept a copy of my first novel, Chemistry, in their guest room, with a bookmark stuck in the middle of the hottest sex scene. They claimed that their guests—mostly other lesbians—loved it. I’ve heard that straight women are often into gay romance, and even gay porn—as a means, I suppose, of enjoying male sexuality without the danger and complications that often come with straight men.

But lesbians? I wondered. Why would they want to read about sex between men? One of my first lesbian friends told me that lesbians have hot sex for one night and herbal tea for nine years. With numbers like that, why on earth would they want to waste an ounce of sexual energy on men?

Before the knives come out, this is all tongue in cheek (so to speak). I long ago learned that lesbian bed death is a myth. A couple of episodes of The L Word were enough to shatter that stereotype.

On the other hand, I won’t deny that Chemistry plays right into stereotypes of my own community. To put it bluntly, my first novel is riddled with sex. But that’s kind of the point. It’s the story of a sexual awakening, focused on a character who heals a broken heart by opening himself up sexually. Sex is one of the ways he discovers who he is, so I wasn’t about to be coy with it and end scenes with a description of waves crashing to shore. Instead, I freely showed bodies crashing into each other.

My subsequent work isn’t all that sexy. I like to joke that my latest novel, Channeling Morgan, is the only one in which nobody dies. But it’s also the only one in which there’s no cameo appearance by a penis.

You could say I’ve matured. Or that my testosterone level—even in fiction—isn’t quite what it used to be.

But maybe it’s just that some books need sex and others don’t.

Sex is messy and confusing and, above all, unpredictable. I googled this question, don’t you worry. But, like a lot sex, none of the hypotheses I found was fully satisfying. There is no unifying theory of everything when it comes to sexuality. Maybe, when it comes right down to it, sex is sex. And, just as you can’t really predict who you’re going to be attracted to, you can’t always be sure which depictions of sex will turn you on, either. That’s why there are so many subgenres of porn: one gay site I know of has dozens of categories, from “Amateurs” to “Voyeur.”

So who knows why a lesbian would get turned on my book? Who knows why I got turned on by seeing Blue Is the Warmest Color? Who knows why I love asparagus but hate artichokes? (I mean that literally, by the way. It wasn’t until I’d already typed out the sentence that I realized the sexual imagery. See what I mean? Sex is everywhere and nowhere at once.)

And that woman with the herbal tea? I met her at an AIDS service organization in Boston in the late 1980s. When I was just coming out, into a community with two kinds of people: the dying and the terrified. And lesbians, with only minimal threat from the epidemic, were at the forefront in fighting it.

In the end, it’s love that turns you on.

A Tale of Two Murders

Between the increasing availability of titles for streaming, and my expanding DVD collection (yes, I’m a Luddite: I like to own copies of my favorite movies just as much as  my favorite books; they’re not quite as tangible, but I do like the way they look on a shelf), I’ve begun to fantasize about home-made film festivals:

  • Coming-of-Age Night: Boyhood, Moonlight, Lady Bird
  • San Francisco Night: Vertigo, Milk, What’s Up Doc?
  • A Little Touch of Nicholson in the Night: Chinatown, Cuckoo’s Nest, The Shining

I’m still working on the Streep Soirée, but the choices are too many; I think that may have to become a whole series, maybe one for each accent.

Last night I spontaneously got the whole thing rolling for unexpected reasons. After watching Kenneth Branagh’s immensely unsatisfying remake of Murder on the Orient Express on HBO, I was moved to immediately find Sidney Lumet’s 1974 version to see precisely where Branagh had gone wrong and get the bad taste out of my mouth.

Fortunately, Lumet’s classic version, which I hadn’t seen in decades, was available on Amazon Prime. And so the film festival was inaugurated.

Full disclosure: I haven’t read the novel, though there was a time when I was a great devotee of Agatha Christie, so I can’t be positive whether Branagh’s differences from the Lumet version are actually more faithful to the book. But if you get to pick and choose, then choose wisely. Given what I know about Christie in general and Hercule Poirot in particular, I think it’s safe to assume that Poirot was not intended to be a superhero, chasing one suspect through the supports of a railway bridge, engaging in fisticuffs with another, and taking a bullet in the shoulder in the process.

Those moments in the remake smack of an attempt to appeal to a modern audience more accustomed to Marvel comic movies than a period piece that takes place within the genteel confines of the Calais coach. Why do directors think that “opening up” a story is, by definition, a good thing? I’m reminded of Baz Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby, using Busby Berkeley dance numbers and—god help us—3-D to completely upend what is primarily an intimate story about a few human beings confronting their own moral quandaries. (More disclosure: for all I know, Luhrmann’s messterpiece may have turned genius at some point in its 2+ hours, but I couldn’t make it through the assault of the first 10 minutes.)

Other differences in the plot in Branagh’s version of the story were innocuous enough (combining the colonel and the doctor into a single part, turning another character into a grieving father rather than a grieving brother), and I rather enjoyed the director’s visual pyrotechnics. In one scene, various characters are shot through windows, which reflect their faces to suggest their duplicity; in another scene, the camera is positioned at the ceiling, heightening the mystery while suggesting Poirot’s godlike ability to spot the truth. Less successful are the anachronistic bones Branagh throws to political correctness with references to racism that seem the moral equivalent of the chase scenes—little more than an attempt to make the story feel more contemporary.

It’s a visually beautiful film, despite the obvious use of CGI—which may or may not have been called upon for Branagh’s mustache—but, when compared to Lumet’s version, its beauty is only skin deep. The first thing you notice about the 1974 film, by contrast, is the verisimilitude. As each character parades through the station in Istanbul, dodging fallen oranges and insistent gypsies on their way to board the train, we see ugliness along with the glamour. It feels real, and it feels like 1934. You can practically smell 1934.

Unlike what passes for a mystery these days, Murder on the Orient Express is primarily a story about character. The heart of the piece is Poirot’s interviews with the suspects. For no apparent reason, Branagh moves the interviews around—one takes place absurdly over tea in the middle of the snow—whereas Lumet keeps them inside the train, all but one in the dining coach. The confined space lends an intensity to each scene and gives the actors a chance to shine—if only because Lumet grants them more dialogue than Branagh can afford, what with all those chase scenes and self-indulgent camera angles. Compare Ingrid Bergman’s Oscar-winning performance, thanks to the complexity of her nuanced character, to the breadcrumbs the later script offers to Penélope Cruz, an accomplished and talented actress who could have done so much more if she’d only had a part to play.

Even though every character lies through his or her teeth in the interviews, we still learn something, we still see cracks in their armor. And Lumet brings the solution together slowly, whereas Branagh telegraphs it all a bit too much, leaking the ugly truth out faster than the Trump White House. When the big reveal comes, he has the suspects aligned behind a long table—bizarrely, in a tunnel on the tracks rather than inside the eponymous train—conjuring an image of the Last Supper, I suppose, with Michelle Pfeiffer’s ringleader in the role of Jesus.

The climax of Branagh’s film is dispensed with before you can say “mustache wax,” so it was quite wonderful to see Lumet devote a good 45 minutes to the scene. As Albert Finney and his excessively pomaded head move through the dining coach, pulling the truth from one suspect after another, the audience is riveted—not only by the complexity of the mystery, but by Poirot’s methodology in solving it. This is, of course, the genius of the story: character, not spectacle.

Which raises the question: why on earth do people remake classic films? Remake bad ones, please: maybe someday, somebody will get The Great Gatsby right. But unless you’re going to add something significant, remakes are an exercise in futility. I’m just waiting for someone to decide that we really need to see Citizen Kane in color. Starring Dwayne Johnson, of course.

Drag All Stars 3: “Winning the Crown Is the Only Way Out Alive”

If a drag queen gets crowned and nobody’s there to blog about it, does she still make a fuss?

I had hoped to be prompt in my posts about Drag Race, but I’m a little behind. (Which is not something Shangela could have said in that fat suit from a couple of weeks ago. That moment was so brilliant I thought she had clinched the crown then and there. But I’m getting ahead of myself.)

I think I was so stunned about DeLa’s untimely departure that I had a hard time getting back into the groove. So here I am with a twofer. If Morgan can get eliminated twice, I can put two episodes into a single blog, right?

Truth be told, the penultimate episode was really just filler: Morgan comes back, Morgan goes home, and we’re back to normal. Kind of how we hoped the Trump administration would be.

The episode was noteworthy, however, for the way the knives came out in DeLa’s absence. Maybe she really was a calming influence, because after she left, there were no holds barred. In Trixie’s words, “Winning the crown is the only way out alive.” Foreshadowing?

Despite Morgan’s second elimination, the real focus of the episode seemed to be Bebe. The other queens (and at least one fan) were gunning for her:

  • Shangela: “When you don’t think you have any flaws, that’s a flaw.”
  • Trixie: “Bebe won Drag Race and stopped watching it.”

Ouch. But true. Bebe seemed to believe that her win in season 1, against some of the weakest competition ever, was a triumph. Tell that to Jinkx Monsoon, who beat out both Alaska and Detox four seasons later.

But Bebe survived for another week, and we got the chance to see her try to dance. As she struggled to let herself be lifted by a backup dancer, I struggled to believe that any queen would have trouble getting her legs in the air.

DeLa’s hope for peer judging based on quality rather than personality went out the window when the eliminated queens were brought back to vote, as a group, for the final two. This time, they could have been objective: they weren’t still in the running, so there was no need to eliminate the competition. But instead, they made the worst decision of the season (save for DeLa’s self-elimination, but I’m trying to forget about that): they chose Kennedy over Shangela.

This was a head-scratcher. Maybe they just like her more. Nobody really knows what goes on before the editing.

In her session with the judges, as well as her backstage interview, Kennedy essentially admitted that the other girls had accomplished more than she had: she deserved to win because she needed it more. Oh girl, no.

This is a trope of reality competitions. Project Runway is infamous for asking contestants why they should win, only to hear 90% of them say it’s because they want it so much. No, folks, you win because you deserve to win.

And here’s where the irony comes in. In the final lip sync, Kennedy’s performance was arguably better than Trixie’s. She may be a more boring drag queen, but she’s a better lip syncer. Aside from literally pulling out her hair, Trixie didn’t use the song as an opportunity to be funny. (Let’s face it, Trixie Mattel could get a laugh out of a Sarah MacLachlan song if she wanted to, let alone Miley Cyrus.)

Fortunately, RuPaul is the final judge. And clearly she overlooked the lip sync and based her decision on the entirety of the season. Trixie really stepped up this season. Competing against Shangela at the end, she might not have come out on top, but the stars were with her. The All Stars.

Drag Race All Stars, Episode 6: WTF?

Well, reality TV would be nothing without the occasional twist.

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To be honest, after last week’s episode, I felt like Aunt Pittypat in Gone with the Wind, searching for her smelling salts. Let’s skip over the trivial nature of the challenges and get right to the heart of the “what the fuck” ending.

Until this week, BenDeLaCreme had this season in the bag. In her own season, I found her annoyingly one-note, but this time around it was a different story. Maybe she got better, maybe I learned something, or maybe it’s just that the competition this season is less intense. (In season 6, Bianca del Rio and Adore Delano turned everyone else into also-rans.)

When Adore quit early on in season 2 of All Stars, I was horrified. I was sure she was on her way to the top two. But artists are a sensitive breed—that’s what enables us to be artists, after all. Every time I post a blog or send a manuscript to an editor, I get a little queasy. And I’m not standing on stage in an outfit I designed, with my own makeup, performing for a hypercritical crowd. So I can give Adore a pass.

DeLa’s was a different story, or so I thought. She was winning, and she seemed pretty confident.

Until Morgan came back and whined about DeLa’s decision long ago to send her home. At the time, it seemed like a strategic move as much as a moral one—getting rid of someone who was openly threatening to eliminate the stronger competition. But the road to hell is paved with rough cobblestones, and a girl in heels can stumble.

What Morgan couldn’t accomplish with a vote, she accomplished through a guilt trip. The conflict seemed to throw DeLa for a loop. Drag queens need thick skin. But perhaps when you’re praised all the time, that thick skin gets a little thinner. Not coincidentally, I suppose, the die was cast in the workroom, while the girls were making themselves up. This is often the most fascinating part of the show: stripped down to foundation, their faces denuded of eyebrows, the queens are at their most vulnerable.

And so, DeLa sent herself home, writing her own name in Wite-Out on a lipstick that, I hoped, was meant to say “Kennedy.”

What a drama queen.

Drag Race All Stars, Episode 5: Drag Soup

 

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Barbara Walters is infamous for allegedly asking people what kind of tree they would like to be. Now, RuPaul has brought that idea to a whole new level by asking his queens to imagine themselves as soup.

In an homage to Andy Warhol (the whole show is worth it for the sight of RuPaul in a platinum wig—the first time I’ve ever seen him do drag as a man, sort of), Ru challenges the contestants to decorate their own soup cans to support their brands. The results aren’t half bad, from BenDeLaCreme’s cream of something to Bebe’s peanut soup.

The Warhol theme continues when the main challenge asks the girls to imagine themselves at Studio 54, one of Andy’s favorite haunts. The episode turns into a mini-history lesson, and—as we learned with the “Snatch Game” episode—history is not these queens’ strong suit.

Yet again, we are confronted with the perils of overconfidence. Aja is sure she’s going to win because her dress is so beautiful. And it is rather nice. If this were Project Runway instead of Drag Race, she’d probably be at the top. But alas, nobody said drag was supposed to be pretty. My favorite outfit of the night was Trixie’s pink jumpsuit, complete with overstuffed booty and boobs. She stumbles around in it like Jennifer Coolidge, and that’s always a win for me.

From last week’s episode, it looked like Trixie might be on her way out. But, as I’d hoped, she redeemed herself this week and ended up in the top two.

Aja was not so lucky. Sadly, her pretty dress didn’t read disco, and neither did the hair that she compared to Brigitte Bardot’s. But the judges’ hackles really got up when she called her look an evocation of “Frances Joli.” Ru is none too pleased when you mispronounce the name of a disco diva.

Actually, this whole episode is a bit of a time warp, so it’s no wonder Aja got confused. Andy Warhol’s artistic heyday was the 60s; Studio 54’s was the 70s. Soup can paintings and disco didn’t quite overlap, but these queens are too young to know that. Aja’s distinctly 60s look would not have gone over well at Studio 54.

It seems that the generation gap has finally hit this show. Why should drag be immune? I’m shocked by the number of gay men these days who couldn’t pick Joan Crawford out of a line-up, but I had hoped that drag queens would be an exception. As the vanguard of camp, they’re the last element of gay culture I would expect to lose historical perspective. But all good things must come to an end.

Adding salt to the wound, Shangela keeps harping on Game of Thrones, using it as her catch-all metaphor for the need to build alliances. Gay people—drag queens?!?!—watch Game of Thrones?

Kids today.