A Movie was the first novel I ever completed, but it took over twenty years to find a publisher.
I used to be crazy for movies. All through my teenage years, films—and reading, of course—were my only forms of escape. That’s why movies are so powerful, after all. They allow us to slip out of our daily routines and into a seductive world of fantasy. For a couple of hours we are freed from the burden of personality. But the passive escapism that movies and television provide can also keep us from taking the steps necessary to change and move forward with our own noncinematic lives. A steady diet of entertainment can become a brain-numbing substitute for dealing with the hard realities of life.
That was the idea that prompted me to write A Movie. Gene Swenson, a young man with a dead-end job and few prospects in life, spends all his free time going to the movies. He deals with his life by not dealing with it. Alone, he concocts and acts out ridiculous movie scenes that give an illusion of meaning to his boring life and unsatisfying relationships. One day he sees a camera filming him. His fantasy has materialized into reality—or into madness.
I finished A Movie when I was 18 and revised it two years later. I consider it an “experimental” novel because the narrative voice changes from that of a storyteller to that of an emotionless camera that observes Gene in a continuous “stream” of detail (I was trying to capture something of the nature of film). It was personally experimental, too, because it was the first time I’d written about openly gay characters. This sounds trite now, but back in the 1970s there were few novels with openly gay themes; gay characters in fiction and film had to die or commit suicide. There was no other option. This ingrained societal homophobia was just starting to change when I wrote A Movie. I didn’t romanticize Gene Swenson’s life because he was gay. His life seemed rather sad and absurd to me, and his inability to act except by acting I found exceedingly irritating. But he was my anti-hero, and I loved him, and I injected as much comedy as I could into his story.
A Movie wasn’t my first novel, but it was the first novel that I felt was good enough to be published. Predictably, it was turned down by every agent and publisher I sent it to.
Life moved on. I moved on—from Minneapolis to Portland to New York. I worked an endless variety of jobs so I could pay the rent and keep writing. I traveled in Europe. I wrote Paradise Gardens. Then I wrote The Secrets of Mabel Eastlake, which was published in 1986, followed by Paradise Gardens in 1988. Paradise Gardens was nominated for an award at the 1989 American Booksellers Association. It didn’t win, but an editor at Meadowlands/Lyle Stuart read it and asked if I had a novel for him to consider. I’d already dusted off Paradise Gardens, written about ten years before Knights Press published it. The only novel I had left was my first one, A Movie, written twenty years earlier. To my surprise, Meadowlands/Lyle Stuart took it. It was published in 1990.
But they didn’t do anything with it. Quentin Crisp gave it a good review in Christopher Street, but were there other reviews? If so, I’ve lost them. The book received no publicity. The editor became ill. The publisher was unfriendly, to say the least. Welcome (once again) to the wonderful world of publishing.
Every author has similar tales to tell—of books bought, books dropped, books ignored; of original editors leaving and turning manuscripts over to unenthusiastic second editors; of companies going bankrupt, or acquired by larger companies which lay off editors and dump books. I feel lucky that my three early novels got published at all. None of them fit into any easy categorization. Each one of them was completely different from the one before. They were published in reverse order from when they were written. But they were published, and they are all part of my personal and artistic history.