Reality Is Overrated

At a recent writers’ conference, I got cornered by a Famous Novelist (let’s call him FN1). We were waiting together for an elevator when he turned to me and said, “I read your latest novel and really enjoyed it.”

I was dumbfounded. We had been on a panel together a couple of years ago, so I knew he knew who I was, but the idea that someone I had read and admired for years had actually read and enjoyed my own work was a lot to take in.

Before I could manage to murmur a humble “thank you,” FN1 went on, his eyes alight with curiosity. “So,” he said, “I figured that the writer in the book is [insert Famous Novelist 2’s name here], but who’s the actor?”

I felt my eyes widening, my stomach clenching. “Um, no,” I stammered, “it’s not FN2. It’s a composite. They’re all composites.”

He scoffed with a jovially haughty wave of the hand and got into the elevator. Clearly he wanted dirt, and I was no longer any fun.

The title character of my novel, Channeling Morgan—the actor FN1 referred to—is a closeted movie star. Early on in the book, he hires the main character, Derick, to ghostwrite his autobiography. But Derick’s real ambition is to be a novelist—and his role model, Graham Whitcomb, is the famous writer in question. That is, the famous writer in the book, not to be confused with FN2.

I had indeed met FN2 (whether FN1 knew that, I have no idea). So there are pieces of Graham Whitcomb that were informed by him—the charm that mesmerizes his students, something in the way he holds himself. But the character also contains pieces of other famous writers I’ve met, as well as not so famous writers, and people who aren’t writers at all. And sprinkled in among his qualities are things I made up out of whole cloth.

The truth, of course, is that all my characters are composites. Even the ones who seem to spring forth from my imagination like Athena from Zeus’s forehead: when I look more closely, I can always see a germ of someone real, even (and most disturbingly) myself. I hadn’t written a roman à clef. Though Channeling Morgan is a satire, I had no agenda to spear any particular fish.

So it really threw me that FN1—who almost certainly knows FN2 personally—had seen him in the character. What piece of Graham, I thought, had he been reacting to?

Graham Whitcomb’s signature trait is that he’s a bit of a sell-out, giving up his authentic voice in order to achieve fame and fortune. That’s not at all how I see FN2 or any of the other real people who may have influenced the character. That’s my addition to the story, my way of turning Graham into a cautionary tale for Derick (a tale he spends the entire novel ignoring, of course—hence, plot).

I don’t know any movie stars personally, so Clive Morgan has no such origins in real life. Rumors about closeted movie stars go all the way back to Charles Laughton, though, so there was plenty of secondhand material to choose from to flesh him out.

When I met my husband, he enthusiastically and quickly read my first novel, Chemistry (ah, the early days, when you’ll do anything to impress). When he started to ask questions about it, I confessed that it was autobiographical, based on a previous relationship. That got him even more interested, and he read it a second time—not out of delight with the story, but in an attempt to understand me better.

I tried to convince him that it wouldn’t matter. In fact, my contention was that reading the book as fiction would give him a deeper insight into me. After all, even a novel I call autobiographical contains tons of invented scenes, characters, and settings, so to the outsider’s eye, there’s no telling what was transformed on the way to the page. The advantage of fiction is something else entirely: even when the author him- or herself doesn’t realize it, fiction has a tricky way of highlighting the internal stuff—the emotional and spiritual underpinnings that reveal truths far more profound than who did what when.

As Kellyanne Conway might say (if she were literate), novels offer alternative facts. To be more precise, real life is full of facts—what color a person’s hair is, what they do for a living—while literature offers truth: what it all means, the values and psychological influences that underlie the chaos that constantly surrounds us.

James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces, was infamously berated by Oprah Winfrey when she learned—after recommending his memoir to the world—that it was actually mostly fiction. Readers felt misled by the book, as if its impact were somehow lessened by the knowledge that it wasn’t simply a litany of facts, that each scene and each bit of dialogue and each described smell wasn’t a faithful representation of the actual events that had occurred in Frey’s life.

I once heard a rumor that Frey had originally intended the book to be a novel, but was advised that novels don’t sell. (Wherever would he get that idea?) Memoir was the hot genre (when will its 15 minutes be up?, I keep asking myself), so he presented the book as a record of his own experience rather than fiction inspired by his own experience. Best-sellerdom and scandal ensued. (This version of the story may be an urban legend, but it adds a whole level of meaning. See what I mean about fiction vs. “reality”?)

There’s something prurient about humans. Everyone wants to know the “real story”—the dish, the dirt. The ubiquity of social media, of course, has only made a bad thing worse. Now 7 billion people seem to think their stories are all fascinating (even if 80% of what you read on Facebook is still a lie). And the other 6,999,999,999 scroll through their phones and read the lies as if they were the word of God.

Truth, they say, is stranger than fiction. But that’s only because people are less willing to suspend their disbelief for something that’s labeled fiction. A novelist has to make everything sound probable, lest readers scoff and call it “unrealistic” (which has oddly become the worst of literary insults), even though real life is full of coincidence and paradox and absurdity.

On the other hand, if you take nonsense and lies and label them reality, you can get away with anything. Look no further than 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

So there’s the reality before your eyes and the reality reimagined by a novelist and printed between the covers of a book. To my mind, a novel is more honest because it admits to being a personalized, incomplete reflection of the world. Anyone who tells you “this really happened, exactly this way, because I saw it with my own eyes” is a liar or a fool.

For me, the deepest truths are most potent when they’re furthest from actual events. As one of the characters in Channeling Morgan puts it, “Sometimes, to be yourself, you have to be someone else first.”

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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.

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.

Drag Race All Stars, Episode 4: Sisterhood of the Traveling Pantyhose

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The Olympics are playing havoc with my TV viewing. According to the guide on my TiVo this week, Drag Race was a rerun, so I decided to catch up on some figure skating instead. Only later—jumping back to live TV after watching women hurled into the air and miraculously caught before smashing their heads on otherwise pristine ice—did I discover that I’d been misled. Suddenly, I was confronted by a very BenDeLaCreme-looking Paul Lynde, and I knew that this wasn’t just a new episode: It was the “Snatch Game” episode, the most eagerly anticipated of every season.

Maybe now we can rephrase that. With the exception of said Paul Lynde, this was perhaps the weakest installment of “Snatch Game” ever. Apparently, the girls are running out of ideas. Could it really be that they’ve done all the best divas already? How many “Real Housewives” can this show sustain?

I suppose it’s just part of the cultural wasteland we see all around us nowadays. There’s a difference between the divas of old (Barbara Stanwyck, anyone?) and those of today, who seem to consist largely of Internet wannabes, reality TV should-never-have-beens, and pop singers who can’t really sing.

But I digress. …

First of all: Trixie, darling, no one plays Ru on this show but Ru. You should have learned that from Milk way back in season 6.

And then there was the inexplicable choice of Maya Angelou—or, as ChiChi spelled it, Mya Angelou. What’s funny about Maya Angelou? And why was I so shocked to discover that ChiChi even knew who she was? She didn’t know why the caged bird sings, though, that’s for sure.

Now’s as good a time as any for a spoiler alert. I hate to say “I told you so,” but … Oh hell, who am I kidding? I love saying “I told you so.” And you read it here last week, folks. Bye bye, ChiChi.

There is a disturbing possibility breathing down the neck of this elimination process, however. Drag Race is in danger of turning into Survivor, where contestants forge alliances and then get rid of the people who are most likely to beat them. That strategy put Trixie in serious jeopardy this week. But fortunately, in the end, Shangela took the high road and got rid of the person who, on the merits, deserved to go.

As Lashauwn Beyond said, way back in season 4, “This is not RuPaul’s Best Friend Race.” But it’s nice to know that the cattiness can remain in the workroom and doesn’t have to infiltrate the judging. They may not be best friends, but they can be sisters (albeit of the Blanche and Baby Jane Hudson variety).

 

Drag Race All Stars, Episode 3: Don’t Cry over Spilled Milk

I’m starting to believe that everything you need to know in life you can learn from RuPaul’s Drag Race.

For the longest time I’ve felt that way about Sondheim. As far as I’m concerned, the history of the moral universe is contained within Into the Woods and Sunday in the Park with George. If there’s anything else in life that’s not touched on within those shows, it’s not worth knowing.

A similar alchemy, albeit less intellectual and with far worse music, is going on in Drag Race. You could call it a more accessible version of the same phenomenon. As I’ve noted before, this show is all about knowing yourself—an artistic theme most clearly articulated in Hamlet, but really dating back to Homer. RuPaul just shows you how to do it in stilettos and a bouffant.

With props to Thorgy Thor, I will acknowledge that this season seems to be edited to elucidate the theme in a manner more focused than usual, the episodes link by an arc of self-discovery. Last week, when Thorgy lost, in part due to her inability to see herself from the outside, Milk was suffering from the same problem. And this week, it came to bite her, as well.

Assigned to play a stalker in a sketch parody called The Bitchelor, Milk didn’t just chew the scenery. She spat it out in Trixie’s face. Her hysterical screeching and talking over everyone felt more like an adolescent hissyfit than a performance. And yet, true to form, Milk thought she had done a stellar job. When she ended up in the bottom, she was flummoxed once again: “I did not see this coming. At all.”

Oh gurl, really? Shangela had the perfect comment on that self-delusion: “Somebody put something in her cocktail. Cosby?”

Milk thought she was perfect for the part because she used to stalk her boyfriend on Myspace. I guess they’ve been together for a long time.

On the other end of the scale was ChiChi, who played the quiet half of a polymorphous couple. Actually, I have no idea who her character was. Sadly, neither did she.

The difference between ChiChi and Milk, however, is that ChiChi knew she was terrible. She lamented how she tends to compare herself to the other girls and keeps coming up short. The comparison is getting to her, as surely as it got to Thorgy.

Every queen on the show—and by extension, every one of us who’s watching, and those who aren’t—has her own talent. It’s a competition, so these queens are inevitably going to be compared. But the only way for anyone to stand out is to be her most authentic self. ChiChi is unlikely to deliver the nuanced humor of a Trixie Mattel or a BenDeLaCreme, but that can’t stop her. She can still be ChiChi.

That said … editing. ChiChi’s vulnerability is coming to the fore. Be prepared for her to be the next queen sent home.