When I was three years old I learned how to read. One of my earliest memories is my grandfather saying, “There’s no way he can read. He’s far too young,” and then my mother’s smug look as I read aloud and proved him wrong. When I was finished, my grandfather said, “There’s nothing he can’t do now.”
When Becky and I signed to edit our anthology, Fool For Love: Men Romancing Men, our editor suggested names of writers we should contact to request submissions. Among those names was Felice Picano. My accomplishments as a writer suddenly seemed less than meager and I thought, I can’t contact Felice Picano and ask him for a story. Why would he want to send me a story? Who the hell am I? I voiced these concerns to our editor, who said something like, “All you have to do is ask to reprint one of his stories. Get over yourself and just do it.” Then my grandfather’s words came back to me. There’s nothing he can’t do now. I love books. I love well-written books. I wanted our anthology to be exceptional, so, as Felice Picano is an exceptional writer, I wasted no more time and sent him an email which listed a few of my favorite short stories of his and a request to reprint one.
Felice Picano’s reply was swift. He was game to be a part of the anthology, but the stories I’d listed had all been recently reprinted. I consulted with Becky and together we combed through the titles in our combined libraries, trying to find a story to reprint. We’d submit titles and, again, he’d reply that they’d been recently reprinted. This happened a few times, but what a wonderful experience. Not only was I communicating with a writer I’ve admired for years, but I got to revisit his work at the same time.
After much back and forth, I finally felt emboldened to say, “Do you have any unpublished stories that you think might be right for our collection?” Felice Picano immediately replied and said he might. There was a story he’d started, but never finished. Maybe this was the impetus he needed to finish it. I informed him that I was looking forward to reading it, which was quite an understatement. I assumed I’d either read it in another week or two, or perhaps months later in someone else’s anthology. Because surely he’d had enough of my amateurish prattling.
Apparently not. He sent me the new story, titled “Gratitude,” five hours later, claiming that once he started working on it he couldn’t stop, and he hoped that I liked it. Becky and I read the story. “It’s perfect. It’s wonderful,” Becky said. “It is,” I agreed. “Felice Picano is going to be in our anthology. I’m so glad I learned how to read.”
Timothy J. Lambert: Why do you write? Can you imagine doing anything else?
Felice Picano: I write to read stories no one else is writing. And yes, I can imagine doing something else. I’ve already been an editor, publisher, journalist, art director, landscaper, gardener and cook.
TJL: Proust said that discovery consists not of seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes. We think you still write great stories because you keep new eyes. Do you have any advice for mid-career writers who’re struggling with that concept?
FP: Proust was great, but it’s not eyes and sights for me these days so much as–voices. I’ve found myself opened up to voices like some big old FM receiver and they are now coming to me unbidden with their stories. Four in the past two years have either come to me in night dreams or day dreams and have been quite insistent that I tell their stories. “Gratitude” was one such “voice.” “Gift,” to be published in Van Gogh’s Ear’s Spring 2009 edition, is another.
TJL: How do these new voices differ from stories of old? Because, to me, “Gratitude” seems like a classic Felice Picano story.
FP: Usually the stories being told by these voices are not the kind of people I would ordinarily be at all interested in, never mind write about. The “hero” of “Gratitude” for example is the kind of artsy and pretentious author I’m not sure I’d like to be in the same room with, definitely not read; only his destiny makes him interesting to me. The “hero” of “Gift” is a nine year old, high I.Q., deformed, paraplegic, deep-South boy stuck in a wheelchair who happens to be strongly psychic. The “heroine” of “True Love, True Love…” is a forty year old suburban cheerleader-turned-housewife dying of cancer. The “hero” of “Room Nine” is a glorified academic-clerk who goes around to universities accrediting textbooks. The original of all these “voices” that I’ve tuned into is 8 year Vincenzo Picano, my uncle, murdered in ritual style in 1928, his body thrown into a pond in Rhode Island, a crime never solved, whose story I came across unexpectedly and quite recently, that I’m still trying to understand and tell.
TJL: People seem to be writing and enjoying memoirs these days, another genre you mastered early with Ambidextrous: The Secret Lives of Children, and continued with Men Who Loved Me: A Memoir in the Form of a Novel, A House on the Ocean, a House on the Bay: A Memoir, Fred in Love, and Art and Sex in Greenwich Village: Gay Literary Life after Stonewall. As a memoirist, do you feel your work is more personal, or are you consciously helping document gay history? How is that like or different from your fiction?
FP: The reason I became a memoirist with Ambidextrous is that I used to tell my lover stories about my childhood in bed, and he kept telling me how unusual the events were. Also, in the late 1970s all the writers around me seemed to have grown up as sensitive, girly, gay youths, much put upon and long-suffering. Not me. So I wanted to correct the picture out there of how a gay boy could be butch and seem “normal” and still be artistic and unique. My memoirs are limited in time, place, and often in subject. And I’m usually just one of many characters: often a minor, reacted-upon individual. Partly it’s personal history, partly it is documenting gay life.
TJL: Your short stories are as intricate and engaging as your novels and memoirs. You seem to move between the different formats easily. Is that a misconception on my part? What do you think are the rules for writing a good short story like “Gratitude,” for example, vs. writing a novel that covers a vast time period and still maintains a reader’s interest, as you did with Like People In History?
FP: Usually a story determines its form and length to me, not vice versa. Not always. Some ideas have been screenplays, stories, novellas, and plays before the genre and length got settled. I think if a writer learns various forms and genres this versatility helps a story become itself more perfectly. Although I’ve written my share of short stories based on language, style, or “voice,” I still like stories that actually tell a new story. I know writers who go on at great length about Amy Bloom’s sentences or Alice Munro’s tone. But I have to admit their characters and stories seldom interest or involve me as much as uninterestingly written sci-fi or mysteries. So what’s the point of how well written they are if I’m not reading them? Some days I wake up wanting to have written Turgenev’s very “impressionistic” Sportsman’s Sketches, but other days I love how Tolstoy can totally absent himself from a story he tells.
TJL: What is your writing environment like? I think I work better with loud music playing, and I hate it when there are people around me, talking or looking over my shoulder. I tried to write on an airplane once and was mildly hysterical when I realized I couldn’t smoke while I worked. Do you have any quirks like that?
FP: I can write anywhere. Airplanes, airports: as long as I can make a private spot for myself. I like classical music playing, but it can be a Rameau opera-ballet or a Sibelius symphony or Glass’s Violin Concerto. Not R&B, because I’ll get up and dance. Otherwise, I’m not fussy.
TJL: Do you have people who read your manuscripts and give you feedback before you submit them to publishers. If so, at what point in the writing process does that usually happen?
FP: I used to give my partner and soul mate, Bob Lowe, my manuscripts to read and comment on. Since his death no one has been a good “blind-reader,” that is to say, someone who has no commercial interest in the book or story. Literary agents sometimes are good at this. But not always. I wish I could find another good reader. So often I write things and just put them away for a year or two, or three. At times Edmund White or Andrew Holleran will call me with something they’ve written and need comment upon; and sometimes I’ll do the same with them. Not that often anymore. But we all pretty much trust each other for quality control.
TJL: I get asked a lot about my favorites from the novels and stories I’ve written or helped write. Do you have favorites from your own work?
FP: My favorite is always the work I just wrote or am in the middle of writing or just about to write. But I’ve got a few books that I think might stand up a while: Ambidextrous, Like People in History, Onyx, The Book of Lies.
TJL: Recently, in my presence, a beginning gay writer wondered aloud, “Who am I even writing for anymore? Does anyone still want to read gay fiction?” What would you tell him?
FP: I’d say write for your self and maybe a friend or lover who’ll get the references and in-jokes. Don’t write for any reviewer or any crowd, and above all don’t write for fame. I never did. But do think about the far-future reader and try to help that reader out a bit when writing.
TJL: As part of the Violet Quill, you broke new ground in gay fiction in the 1980s. Do you still think writers of gay fiction are relevant? How do you see the genre changing or thriving?
FP: People are coming out every day. And until there are a wide variety of great, personal, gay movies and TV shows, people will rely on books to help them come out. So many men and even several women have told me how reading my books have changed their lives that I’m always surprised and feel a sense of responsibility I’d never counted on feeling.
Fool For Love: New Gay Fiction, which includes "Gratitude" by Felice Picano, will be published in February 2009 by Cleis Press. Click here to pre-order from Amazon.com.
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