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8 September 2009, 3:00 pm 3 Comments

Dale Peck: The New Gay Interview

TNG reader Paul Morton sits down with gay novelist, Dale Peck.

arts_dale-peck_584At 42, Dale Peck may be a little too advanced in years to maintain his role as an enfant terrible. It’s been over a decade since Martin and John (1993), his debut novel about a young gay man who imagines a series of alternative realities for his lover and himself during the age of AIDS, first earned him, at age 25, an enviable measure of notoriety. A few years later, he began writing reviews for the New Republic in which he savaged much of today’s literary elite employing the tone of a half-mad monologist. He capped a long study on what he saw as David Foster Wallace’s assaults on the novel’s form, and of his peppering of Infinite Jest with “exoticized African-Americans, women, and homosexuals,” with this bit of rage: “[I]f the author of Infinite Jest maybe shut off his goddamn word processor and tried to find someone who would passionately shove a dick up his ass he might realize, first of all, that life is just as tough down at the wine-and-cheese party, and, secondly, that the human mind will in fact force most actions into some sort of satisfactory narrative form.” His review of Rick Moody’s memoir opened with, for better or worse, the most famous sentence Peck has yet written: “Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation.”

In the years since his literary criticism was collected in Hatchet Jobs (2004), Peck has moved in different directions. He’s written two children’s books, Drift House: The First Voyage (2005) and The Lost Cities: A Drift House Voyage (2007). This year he has published his first young adult novel, Sprout, about a 16-year-old out gay boy in Kansas who dyes his hair green. It’s a return to the material that served him so well in Martin and John. This time he treats the Kansas of his childhood in a less savage, more bittersweet light.

I met Peck at his apartment in the East Village on Aug. 14. There was still a slightly deflated balloon on a ceiling from his boyfriend’s 30th birthday a week before. It was a hot day and he poured me some water and a glass of white wine. He had two black cats, Number 8 and Number 9, who kept us company.

The New Gay: You keep returning to Kansas. Your vision of Kansas in your previous work is very gothic. It feels like a foreign country. In Sprout the strangeness is still there, but there’s also a little more warmth. Is this what Kansas is actually like — I’ve never been there — or are you purposely exaggerating?

Dale Peck: Certainly speaking for the earlier books — Martin and John and Now It’s Time to Say Goodbye (1999) — I would definitely say there was an element of exaggeration. It’s also important to remember that there’s a big 30-year gap between right now and the time that I’m writing about when I go back there. A lot of the strangeness of Kansas has to do with the fact that I was born on Long Island. My mother died a month before my fourth birthday. And I think by the time I was seven — I’m not exactly sure when my father got divorced — but by the time I was seven, my father had been married and divorced two more times and then we up and moved to Kansas. So, we moved from an island surrounded by an ocean to literally as far from water as you could get in the continental United States. And we moved from a crowded suburb and a huge Catholic school to a little town of about a thousand people in the middle of nowhere [and] to a school with a couple of hundred students across all the grades. On top of that, my mother and her two substitutes had kind of disappeared and everyone was very vague as to what had happened. So all that strangeness and dislocation just got sublimated and otherwise projected onto Kansas. I went from riding bicycles in the neighborhood and hanging out with friends and stuff like that to just going for five-mile walks in empty fields by myself, [to] being recruited by various crazy fundamentalist churches, [to being] sent away to Bible camps and everything else. It was all just pretty strange, I have to say. So there’s all that psychological baggage and I took that and made a literary manifestation of it…

In my head, I always referred to Sprout as Martin and John: the Comedy. It wasn’t my idea to write the book. I was actually asked to write a young adult book by my editor. [She was] the editor of the Drift House books [and she] specifically wanted me to write a gay YA that wasn’t about coming out. This was about four years ago that she asked me to do it. There’s been a fairly major change in the gay YA market just in the last four years. At the time, virtually every gay YA was about coming out, was about gaining acceptance. And she just wanted me to do a book that just had an interesting gay lead character. And obviously for any teenager, coming out is going to be part of the story in some way, shape or form, particularly if you have more than one gay character in the book. But it was just not going to be the focus. And for some reason, immediately when she suggested that to me I just touched on certain scenes from my life that had already made an appearance in Martin and John in one guise that I just wanted to do over. That I wanted to write about not from the point of view of 25 years ago when it happened to me but from a contemporary point of view. And just see what I would come up with…

There’s that one scene that’s virtually a carbon copy of one in Martin and John of the two boys hanging out by the pond where the brother of one of them drowned. Which was based on a completely true incident. [In] the latter incident my friend Lamoine [Peck’s real-life childhood friend to whom Sprout is dedicated] went swimming with his brother. I think they were about 10, 12 months apart in age, really close. He fell asleep and when he woke up [his brother] was just dead in the pond and nobody knows what happened. Well, at least no one has ever said what happened. Who knows if anybody knows. I think I’ve returned to [that] eight million times in various guises…

Lamoine wasn’t gay. And we never actually had sex or anything like that. But we did have an incredibly close bond based on the fact that we both lost our mothers and both had violent fathers. And so it was just taking that sort of stuff and translating it. Maybe I wanted to be a bit nicer to Kansas in general but at the same time point out the fact that particularly when it comes to things homosexual Kansas definitely lags behind a bit.

TNG: When you were sketching Sprout out, did you consciously want a character who the reader would want as his friend?

DP: Maybe that’s just the YA guise…It’s very hard to do an anti-hero, an anti-hero who is not sort of cartoonish and kitschy as the protagonist of a book. In Martin and John I think John is definitely empathetic or sympathetic to the reader. But at the time I always thought there’s also kind of a user quality underneath all that. John has a real sort of “I’m a victim, pity me” undercurrent to everything he does…

But in Sprout it wasn’t the guise I wanted…It just so happened that I had started writing this book and I was maybe three or four months in and three or four chapters in when the Times asked me to review [S.E. Hinton’s] The Outsiders on its 40th anniversary. And I had already come up with this idea that Sprout would be writing the book and the book would be an essay that he wrote for the essay contest at the end and it would sort of play off on that… And it wasn’t until I re-read The Outsiders that I realized that it was taken straight from that. The book works in exactly the same way. And I think for tons and tons of us, it’s not that I wanted Ponyboy to be my best friend, I wanted him to be my boyfriend. I wanted to run away with him. I wanted to go live in a tree or in another country with him or something like that. I definitely had someone like him in mind. Outsider. Loner. Smart. Articulate. You need to come up with some reason why he’s speaking so clearly. Apt metaphors and acute perceptions well beyond his years and all that. I don’t think I was ever thinking likable per se. But I definitely wasn’t thinking unlikable.

I also wanted [Sprout] at the same time to be culpable, to some degree, [at] the end. Not to the same degree I think that the characters in my adult books are…I definitely wanted to shunt [the responsibility] more onto the adults…My friend Lamoine ran away as a consequence from beatings he received from his father that everybody in the world was aware of. And no one did anything about [it]. He did not actually disappear forever, but instead he spent the rest of his life in and out of prison. He never recovered. He became a drug addict. He had a really…sad, tragic ending. Well, he’s not dead yet as far as I know. That was kind of the last straw. He ran away and after that things just spiraled out of control and never recovered. And I do think it’s because all these adults look[ed] the other way when they could have and should have done something.

TNG: You give Sprout’s father an interesting moment. Because you’ve written so many awful fathers in the past, it was nice to have the moment where he puts a condom on Sprout’s bed and says, “I don’t want to know about it but I don’t want you dead either.” It was nice to actually see you create a father who had a kernel of love in him, or at least a kernel of somewhat responsible parenthood.

DP: That’s another reason why I call the book Martin and John: the Comedy. Here’s the drunk dad who’s shown up in story after story after story. I wanted to render him physically harmless this time around. And I wanted to make much more clear something that was not clear to me as a young person and even as a young man when I first started writing. The reason why my father was such a crappy father was because he was living in his own world of psychological torment that nobody had ever attempted to understand or help him through. And to use this pop psychological term, his whole adult life was acting out. [He took his grief and pain] out on everyone else around him, particularly his wives more than his children, but everyone bore the brunt of it. So here I wanted to take that pain which I have certainly taken him to task for on many an occasion or the pain that he inflicted, and this time show a person who was simply suffering his own hurts and who is guilty of nothing more than neglect. I don’t think Sprout ever feels unloved by his father. He certainly doesn’t feel taken care of by his father but at the same time on a certain level, he feels extraordinarily self-sufficient, right? There’s enough money for [Sprout] to do what he wants to do. And he’s left alone and he doesn’t seem to be suffering in that respect. It’s just a certain amount of wisdom and understanding that his father might be imparting by these sideways gestures. Not only leaving a condom on your bed, but tak[ing] a condom from the package that [he’s] using to have sex with [Sprout’s] English teacher. And leave it on [his] bed. And it’s “Thanks…dad. You tried.”

TNG: I was originally going to ask you if you were trying to write a book you would have liked to have existed for yourself when you were a teenager and then I realized that when you were a teenager nobody could have conceived a book like this. That would have been in the early ’80s.

DP: Yeah, I don’t know if I would have wanted it then or not…Maybe if there had been more of those books around at that point I would have been looking for them. But at the same time because there was so little context, I did not remotely want to sort of address the idea that I might be gay until I was out of Kansas, until after I was out of my father’s house. I was completely aware of the fact that I was sexually attracted to boys and not sexually attracted to girls. I was romantically attracted to boys. I was also romantically attracted to girls. It was very theatrical. It was very black and white. But I think anything too head-on just would have sent me running in the other direction. I remember one time spending an evening with someone and we were trying to figure the very first image that we ever identified as erotic. And I finally nailed it and to me anyway it speaks volumes about where I was at the time. I think the first image I ever identified as erotic was that image in The Empire Strikes Back after Luke Skywalker’s had his hand cut off — by his father of course — and he’s in that clear glass cylinder filled with water and that pair of little white shorts. And he can’t talk while they’re teasing him. And [he’s] sort of floating in there. Obviously nearly naked, but at the same time clearly not touchable.

TNG: Well, that’s bondage.

DP: I used to totally, totally have fantasies about Luke Skywalker in that case, almost but not quite reaching the barrier.

TNG: Bondage.

DP: It was kind of bondage. But not, because you couldn’t get to him. It wasn’t me in there, it was just that divide. It was just about the gaze which is almost the definition of pornographic. But I think anything that direct would have been way too much for me…

[Peck and I spend a few moments discussing some of the authors he criticizes in his book Hatchet Jobs.]

TNG: Hawthorne and Twain wrote for children and wanted to write for children. Hawthorne would read his work to his own children, hoping that they would understand what he was saying. Is this part of the reason you dislike the writers [whom you criticize in Hatchet Jobs?]. None of them would ever stoop so low as to write for kids?

DP: I don’t want to put words in their mouths, or speak for them. But it is hard to imagine someone like [Jonathan] Franzen or certainly older guys like [Don] DeLillo or [Thomas] Pynchon [being] remotely comprehensible to or dealing with children. I could see Pynchon doing a short story. He could cross over into the mode if he wanted to, if he wanted to reign it in just a little bit. One has no idea what Jackson [Pynchon’s son] is being raised with. I imagine on his third birthday he was given One Hundred Years of Solitude. That was Pynchon’s idea of a children’s story…It’s not so much that they don’t want to write for children, per se. I never specifically wanted to write for children. The idea appealed to me. For me, it’s always been a case that ideas come to me in genre form, whether it’s weird post-modern fragmented literary form, whether it’s high-concept thriller, whether it’s children’s book, whether it’s play or screenplay. This or that or the other thing. Ideas, when they come to me, [have] a very specific iteration. I’ve had ideas [for] screenplays that I could never have as novels. I’ve had ideas for plays that I could never have for novels. And it’s frustrating to me because they’re ideas I really like. And I’ll probably never do them as screenplays or novels unless I suddenly become independently wealthy. I get paid for what I write. That’s how I pay the rent. So I have to concentrate on that. But when I get an idea it’s an idea in a specific format. And when my agent said to me, “Do you want to write a young adult gay novel?” I immediately had an idea and I couldn’t imagine it in a different voice. I couldn’t imagine making Sprout a little bit more jaded, a little bit more grown-up, a little bit more knowing, making the language a little bit more brutal. There was something about that game about what you could and couldn’t say to get that book in a library. That was so specific to the young adult genre that I think really gave the story its power. And encapsulated this theme of being inside/outside, being accepted/not accepted. And of course all of that would go away in an adult novel.

TNG: What were you reading at this age? I think you mentioned you were reading things like Jackie Collins.

DP: So we lived in the country, about 10 miles out of town, and I didn’t start driving until I was 15 or 16. And even then I couldn’t drive on my own until I was 17, at which point there are very few 17-year-olds who drive to the library to get books. And I was not one of them. So basically I was dependent on which books came into the house. My older sister read a fair bit, so I read many of her hand-me-down girl books. Judy Blume and a lot of Judy Blume imitators. Books I don’t remember…

And then once a summer my stepmother would bring home a stack of books from her parent’s house. My stepmother has a brother who’s only two years older than me. So they were mostly his books that would come to me after he was done reading them. It would be a lot of boy books, a lot of Hardy Boys and this and that, but snuck in there would be Peyton Place. “Indian summer is like a woman, fickle and you never know when she’s going to come.” Peyton Place was the Jackie Collins of the 1950s. It was incredibly scandalous, but of course it was all innuendo which [was] perfect for [me]. I think I was reading it when I was 13-years-old. Then I graduated to Valley of the Dolls, which I must have read 25 times, which has that scene where Jennifer North looks out her window and finds her husband the count is in the fountain with one of the Moroccan stableboys or horseboys or whatever the hell he is, cavorting naked. And immediately Neely O’Hara intervenes. Have you read Valley of the Dolls?

TNG: No.

DP: My goodness, you have to read Valley of the Dolls. They’re camp classics, at this point. So little things like that would be snuck in there. It was just very random. There was a phase when my stepmother got into The Valley of Horses novels by Jean Auel. Those weird novels of prehistory. I always think of Darryl Hannah because they made a movie out of one of them. But she’s running around with a bunch of Neanderthals who can’t actually talk, but speak in sign language and there’s a lot of grunting. Clan of the Cave Bear, I think was the first one. Really fascinatingly goofy terrible books. Lots of stuff I don’t remember. And then I graduated from there. At some point me and a group of friends all got into comic books. And because we were living in Nowheresville, Kansas, only mainstream comics were available. So when the cool kids were reading Swamp Thing and later on Sandman, I was still reading X-Men. And whatever mainstream Marvel comics were coming out.

TNG: Edmund White in his book about Rimbaud talked about how when you apply great art to genres you can take them to another level. Are you trying to look at Jackie Collins or Stephen King or young adult novels and imbue them with something else?

DP: I don’t think so honestly. Part of the reason I got into writing more commercially palatable books is simply because I was blacklisted after Hatchet Jobs. And I would submit books and I couldn’t get them read. I sold the Drift House books under a pseudonym. And they were incredibly popular. There was an auction for the books to get them to go that way. And it was only after the auction was completed that we told people that I was the author, in this kind of “put up or shut up” maneuver. And it turned out my editor and publisher were great about the whole thing. The children’s publishing world is very insulated from the adult publishing world…

I don’t know where I’d put Sprout. I think of it as literary fiction, but YA literary fiction, so not particularly genre-y per se. But when I do something in a more mainstream mode I’m acutely conscious of not trying to talk down to people who read [in] that mode. Not trying to edify them or make them do something else. And at the same time I’m trying to make sure that I don’t fake it because I think you can really tell. Don DeLillo has never written a children’s book, but Don DeLillo did write a thriller under a pseudonym and it did very poorly precisely because he tried to fake it and I don’t think you can fake it. The people who read Jackie Collins and the people who read Stephen King and the people who read J.K. Rowling care immensely about what they read. They might not care about the same things that people who read Thomas Pynchon or Toni Morrison care about and they might not be as smart as those people or have the same educational profile, but they care just as much if not more about what they’re reading. And they can smell bullshit a mile away. So for me it was important to say I can’t do this better than the genre. Because that would be a recipe for failure. At the same time I have to represent myself as the kind of writer I am. It’s why I could never write pornography, per se. I can’t do it because I can’t take it seriously for that long. I can write a straight up sex scene but I can’t write the long drawn out narratives that you need to get the real frisson that you need to give the sex scene anything more than a one-handed appeal. And I don’t really think I can write a romance novel for that matter, either, just because I’m such a wild disbeliever in romance even though I’m in a blissfully happy relationship that’s kisses and flowers and everything else. I just couldn’t fake it…

TNG: Was there a way in which [writing Sprout] was healing for you? Were you creating an alternative adolescence for yourself?

DP: In that sense, it’s very similar to Martin and John in that John writes all these stories in an attempt to imagine a better life for himself but all those stories turn out terribly. Every story turns out terribly. And it was very important to me even as I allowed myself to consummate the relationship with Lamoine that I never did in real life, to not then go the extra step and then make it a fairy tale. And have the two of them run away at the end like Maurice and Scudder at the end of [E.M. Foster’s] Maurice. So in the end he disappears from Sprout’s life in the same way Lamoine disappeared from my life. So I had to do that. So yes and no. I was so in love with this kid and I honestly believe he was more in love with me than I was with him. Except with me it was romantic and with him it was not romantic. We were so important to each other. There was a part of me that always imagined that we would end up together. We would be together because we had this bond that was out of time as only 15-year-olds could imagine these sorts of things. And I wanted to give that its full gay expression I guess. At the same time, I couldn’t go that extra step and give it a full happy ending.

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  • Joe Clark said:

    Maybe you can act like an editor and break up these 1,000-word continuous utterances into actual paragraphs so we can read them.

  • bil t* said:

    Nice interview Paul, and I like that you kept his responses intact and unedited. I had no problem reading it. Kudos!

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