“Chelsea Station”, the New York literary magazine for gay writing, is out now. At over 110 pages of writing, it’s a bumper edition of fiction, memoir, travel writing and poetry. It’s available either as print or as downloadable pdf here.
It includes my story, “The Beauty that Brendan Sees”, which tells of the friendship between Brendan and Larry over twenty years. I don’t usually pass comment on my own work, but it feels to me one of the best short stories I’ve ever written: certainly, it’s one of the gentlest, and is as near as I’ve ever got to being uplifting.
Here’s an extract to give a flavour:
He met Larry at Elazio’s cigar emporium off Madison Avenue in the days when he was young and searching for props to make him seem older, more distinguished, more masculine. He’d been fussing over some cheap cigars when he felt the big man loom up behind him, put a hand on his shoulder. “Hey, Elazio,” a booming voice said to the little wizened man behind the counter who resembled a nut-brown tobacco leaf, “looks like the young gentleman’s a beginner. Show him the good ones so he gets a real taste.” He winked at Brendan and shooed Elazio away to bring out some of the contrabands he’d got by a roundabout route through Canada from his wife’s cousin’s neighbour’s business in Havana. “No point not having the best, son,” he said, “and this place has the best, if you know how to look for it. Hell, the only thing this shop don’t have is a sweaty set of mulatto girl’s thighs. Not that I’d have much use else for them.” He smacked his lips in the lascivious way that Brendan soon discovered made everyone say, “Oh, Laurence!”
He rolls the cigar as he lights it, puff, puff, puff. It relaxes him and he realises he is looking forward to the end game. In the background, Amalia Rodriguez sings; he and Larry saw her once, long before that time she came to New York to kill herself and couldn’t do it. They watched her wring herself empty, and Larry said anyone that miserable had to be a dyke, but he was joking and he’d enjoyed it because he was content to wait with Brendan amongst a small knot of common people outside the stage door to get her autograph. She is singing a happy tune, light; Brendan doesn’t understand Portuguese, but he knows for sure it is about orange groves and beaches with little fishing boats dragged up on to the sand. Hearts are broken in fado, and hearts are mended; this is one of the mending songs.
“Hey, Brendan, you ever realise smoking cigars gave Cuba its name?” Larry once asked him.
“What do you mean?”
“Go on. Say coo.”
“Feel it? The shape your mouth makes?”
“Like a kiss.”
“Na, man. More like a suck. Now say baa.”
“Just like exhaling. Coo-baa. Coo-baa. You say it every time you take a draw of you cigar.”
“Kind of oral, these Cubans.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Ain’t I the lucky one?”
At about a fiver for the digital issue, it’s well worth it. With material from all over the world included, it’s another fine outlet for writers. Take a look.
I’m very chuffed to have been accepted for the next edition of “Chelsea Station”, a magazine of gay writing from New York. Edited by Jameson Currier, the whole enterprise seems very ambitious; they’ve published several novels and the magazine is now in its third edition.
I’m especially pleased that the story I submitted, “The Beauty that Brendan Sees”, was truthful enough in its setting to be accepted by a New York based magazine, given that I’ve never been to New York. It’s usually said that US magazines are rather protective of their turf, and tend to be suspicious of anything from outside the country; I believe that’s especially true of academic journals. However, Currier is obviously an open-minded guy looking for good writing from anywhere, and I’m pleased that the story was convincing.
Although sex and relationships are pretty powerful drivers in my work, this is only the second purely LGBT themed story I’ve written. The first was “Drowning in the Shallows” from nearly twenty years ago now. That was a pot-boiler of a story about a jilted lover that was so highly personal, I had to find some way to distance myself from the subject matter. Just out of a hugely damaging relationship in which I’d been kicked around like some pathologically devoted stray mongrel for most of my twenties, I’d responded to a bit of kindness and a few treats the way a spaniel puppy might, and got myself into a relationship any emotionally mature person wouldn’t have touched with a barge pole. After six months or so of intense passion, I was then dumped in what one could describe as a fairly shitty fashion.
It served me right, of course. I’d deluded myself about what it was and what it could be, and, justifying it all as “going with the flow”, my behaviour was pretty reprehensible. The resultant freaky breakdown I had was a response not just to those six months but to the misery of the previous ten years that I still hadn’t dealt with. In the ensuing chaos, I bumped around as if in a pinball machine, being embarrassing and needy and miserable and drinking too much and hardly sleeping. I made a wrong decision professionally, and fucked up a third and final chance with a young woman who might have been very special to me. So – just desserts.
The story, then, told of that break up, but first versions were just so outrageously self-pitying, I had to do something with it; so, the ‘dumper’ became a bisexual games-player, and the ‘dumpee’ a lesbian. I think that allowed me to look at it much more objectively, and I managed to do things symbolically and structurally that I couldn’t have managed otherwise simply because I had the distance of writing about someone who wasn’t me.
I think that fictionalisation of our lives is essential to capturing the truth of our existence and making it universal to the reader: it’s a theme I explored in the videos for young writers in school published by Learning and Teaching Scotland a couple of years ago. Here it is again:
The finished story appears in “Occasional Demons”, but I do remember entering a version of it anonymously for a Radio Clyde / Glasgow University competition judged by Janice Galloway. When I was placed first equal, I was quite proud of her comments: she said while she wasn’t absolutely sure it had been written by a gay woman, she was amazed that it had been written by a man, and that she hadn’t expected the ending at all. I took a great deal of heart from that (although a few years later she backtracked on those comments somewhat). Of course, the other winning story – which I can’t remember but which was terrific too – didn’t have swear words and gay sex scenes in it, so it was a shoe-in for the title and broadcast on the radio. At least I got an equal share of the prize money, which was enough to buy my then partner Geraldine and I a pizza and a bottle of wine in the local Italian restaurant.
I’ve heard lots of debates over the years amongst writers concerning ownership of the work we do. Should straight men write about gay women? Can whites write effectively about blacks, or non-Muslims about Muslims? There are a plethora of magazines, events and competitions that are becoming more and more exclusive – women only events, gay anthologies, immigrant literature competitions – and that’s all absolutely fine by me unless it encourages the potentially preposterous Esquire’s “Men’s Fiction” e-series, as if men are some disempowered minority who need affirmative action. And I’ll wager most of the stories Esquire publish will be by and about straight, white, professional men at that.
A lesbian friend did look askance a bit about me writing a “lesbian story”, but I think the reaction from women, gay and straight, to that piece has been generally positive over the years, even though it is, I have to stay, still more than a little overwrought. I do think there are certain groups within society who have the right to identify their own agendas and protect their own boundaries, simply as a bulwark against the discrimination they have suffered and still suffer, or to provide an environment in which they can grow. I hope, though, that those boundaries can be blurred enough to allow genuine dialogue with and sincere responses from those who lie nominally ‘outside’ them.
The problem, I think, is in where we draw the lines of those boundaries. I remember the advice the Writer in Residence at Glasgow University gave me when I took a sheaf of my stuff along to him as an eager first year student; I won’t mention his name, but he’s a major Scottish literary figure and a lovely writer. “Write about what you know” was the old faithful he trotted out. What does that actually mean? Does it mean that writers can never write from the point of view of the opposite sex, of different genders, of alternative lifestyles? That we can’t write about people who are not us, people who are older or younger, richer or poorer? Should we avoid writing about drunks and drug addicts unless we’ve been there and got the vomit-stained t-shirt? Are serial killers off-limits unless we’ve a few bodies buried under the floor boards ourselves? And what, then, of vampires, werewolves and zombies? It was all very confusing for a rather awestruck 17-year-old me. Luckily, I realised I’d misinterpreted the advice (I think), grew out of that phase and decided to branch out into characters I could never be.
As for “Drowning in the Shallows”, I once got a card from the real life ‘dumper’; she congratulated me on getting my collection published, and signed it with the name of “her” character in the story. I found I couldn’t forgive her for that presumption, for taking ownership of my story, of my work, of my catharsis.
I felt she’d had enough of me already.