Because we share a publisher, I often refer to Rob Byrnes as “my Kensington brother.” I have an actual brother, but Rob Byrnes and he have nothing in common except for the fact that I don’t remember meeting either one of them. Not being able to remember meeting people is a character flaw of mine, which is one of the reasons why I no longer work in retail, but it’s a flaw I enjoy and make no attempt to correct. Why? Because not recalling the first time I meet someone makes me feel as though they’ve always been in my life. When they are someone I enjoy, why bother thinking about what life was like without them?
Rob Byrnes is definitely someone I enjoy. He’s witty and charming, which are two adjectives that can also be applied to his writing. As can the words “authentic,” “solid,” “astute,” and “enticingly complex,” which have been used in reviews of his books.
In 2006 Rob Byrnes’s When The Stars Come Out and Timothy James Beck’s Someone Like You were both finalists in the Best Gay Romance category. Many times before the awards ceremony Becky and I said to each other, “If we lose, I hope we lose to Rob.” During the ceremony, when our category was announced, Becky turned to me and said, “What if we win? What are we going to say? We haven’t prepared anything. Have you thought of anything to say?” I whispered to her, “Don’t worry.” And there was no reason to worry, because seconds later our self-fulfilling prophecy was fulfilled when it was announced that Rob Byrnes had won our category.
Sour grapes? Us? Of course not. We were honestly thrilled. Even if we lost to someone other than Rob we would’ve been thrilled, because we genuinely liked everyone in our category. However, Rob is my Kensington brother, so it’s nice that the award is in the family. And when we began editing our Fool For Love anthology, of course we called upon our award winning Kensington brother for a story.
Timothy J. Lambert: Thanks again for sending “Happy Hour at Cafe Jones” to us. Your main character in the story, Brian, has met someone on the Internet and is about to go on a blind date. Is this an example of Write What You Know? Do you have any blind date/Internet hook-up horror stories that you care to share?
Rob Byrnes: True fact: I’ve made many friends over the Internet, but I’ve never used it to hook up. I have nothing against that, but I’ve usually met my dates–in fact and euphemism–the way God intended: in a bar while very, very drunk. But, back to your question, no, I don’t think you have to have met someone through the Internet to understand the apprehension Brian feels. Will I recognize him? Will he look like his picture? As someone who has been using the same damn author photo since circa 1922, I think I understand the concept of putting the best face forward.
TJL:Speaking of horror stories, how’s Brady?
RB: Awww, you went there. And now Saints and Sinners is going to be ugly next year. Ugly and bloody.
TJL: Is “Happy Hour at Cafe Jones” the first short story you’ve had published?
RB: Actually, my first published fiction was a short story. Short erotica, at that. Back in the late ’90s I was heavily involved with the writing groups on CompuServe, and an offshoot of that was a forum on erotic literature. I’m not into erotica, really, but friends dragged me along. In 1999, they published a turn-of-the-century anthology to which my only contribution was the title “Y2Kinky.” Cute, right?
RB: But the following year, when the presidential election dictated the theme, my dual interests in politics and writing made me a marked man. After a few weeks of badgering, I agreed to write a story for their anthology, Strange Bedfellows. Although I’m happy how it turned out, I doubt I’ll be writing any more erotica. It makes me feel too self-conscious, like people are imagining me having sex while they’re reading. And you know they do.
TJL: Do you think you’ll write more short fiction?
RB: I would like to write more, but it’s a form I have a hard time with. As you know–although a lot of writers don’t–short stories aren’t just fragments of novels. In a novel, you have three hundred pages to flesh out a character; in a short story, you have to work with quick, artful brushstrokes, bringing the character to life in only a few pages. I feel somewhat confident with the art of the three hundred page novel; less so with those brushstrokes. But, as someone who feels he has another decade or two in the business, I feel an obligation–to myself, that is–to work on the craft. It won’t make me rich–hell, it probably won’t be remembered in a year–but we do this “writing thing” for a personal fulfillment that transcends money.
TJL: You and I were both first published around the same time–I think. In 2001?
TJL: Ah, right. TJB in 2001, you in 2002. How do you feel you’ve changed or grown as a writer since then?
RB: I’m not sure I can answer that question without making you wish you had never included me in an anthology I’m confident is going to be amazing. But you asked, so I’ll answer. First, over the past almost-decade, I’ve come to accept the fact that I am not a Significant Writer. [Here, TJL rolled his eyes.--ed. note.] Once, I seem to remember aspiring to something like that, but I’ve come to understand and accept my limitations. I am a “beach-read writer.” Hopefully a decent one, by “beach-read writer” standards, but facts are facts, and I’m fine with that. Second, I have a greater appreciation for the limitations of the industry and the need to self-market. I understand things now that I never understood as a rookie: publishing schedules, marketing limitations, the very fact that bookstore managers might not want you in their bookstore…these are the sorts of things that made me understand, if not always appreciate, the book business as a business.
TJL: “Beach read” or not, you’re a good writer and that’s all that matters. How long did it take you to get your first novel, The Night We Met, published?
RB: The book probably took four or five years from concept to completion to acceptance, which–for someone with no background–isn’t bad. Especially when entire years would pass when I’d write no more than a few pages. No track record sometimes equals no real motivation, if you know what I mean.
TJL: And I do.
RB: At one point, a friend from the old CompuServe days–now known as author Rabih Alameddine; then as this guy “Rabih” who hung around the forums–introduced me to legendary editor Michael Denneny and had me describe the plot of the book that would become The Night We Met. Denneny was somewhat interested and asked me to send it to him when I was done, which provided the kick in the ass I needed to finish the second half. Of course, he ended up not loving the final product and referred me to someone else, who also didn’t love it. But by then I had a completed manuscript, and nine months later Kensington Publishing accepted it. And then I waited for 18 months until it appeared in the shelves. That was the final, great reality check proving that time waits for no writer.
TJL: Speaking of time waiting for no writer, I’ve heard–mostly from you, even though you turned your short story in to us on time–that you’re terrible about meeting deadlines. What do you think are your weaknesses as a writer, whether it’s from a creative or business standpoint? What are your strengths?
RB: You mean I met that deadline you had to keep reminding about? Yeah, I might have met that by a few seconds. But what’s this “mostly from you” comment? Who else is talking about my procrastination?
TJL: You openly say so on your blog!
RB: Procrastination. That is my outstanding weakness as a writer. I know that in an ideal world I should try to pump out a book every year or so, but I can’t do that. Part of that is procrastination; part is because I let the plot percolate in my head before I start committing most words to paper.
TJL: I have the same weakness. I’ve been percolating for two years now. When I do work, it’s during the dead of night when nobody will bother me and I have to have loud music playing. What kind of writing environment works best for you?
RB: The environment in which someone else is doing the actual writing. But, since no one will do that for me, I have a few routines that work best. When I’m in one of my serious sessions, I need quiet in my immediate vicinity, but some background noise. So I’ll turn the TV on in the living room, then go to the office next door to write. And if anyone interrupts my train of thought, I have to kill them. Which is why I can’t hire a cleaning lady. Since I have a fairly responsible day job, my writing schedule is tight. Most of the time, I try to squeeze it into the weekends, with weekday evenings devoted to multi-tasking…meaning drinking and editing. But when I’m on deadline it affects my sleep patterns, so it’s not unusual for me to get out of bed at 1:30 AM on a weekday morning and start writing. After turning on the television, of course.
TJL: Do you let people read your manuscripts before you submit them to your editor? If so, at what point in your writing process does that happen?
RB: Back when I was a novice and working on The Night We Met, I got a lot of input from other writers and readers and I took almost all of it. Hey, when Diana Gabaldon and Rabih Alameddine are critiquing your novel, you pay attention. Then my editor at Kensington Publishing–you might know his name–took a red pen to it and, again, I paid attention. But I was starting to resent all those other fingerprints on my keyboard. After that first book was published I thought I had learned everything I needed to know, so I wrote my second, Trust Fund Boys,without the input of anyone else. Now don’t get me wrong. I still like Trust Fund Boys and it has a loyal following, but the reception from some critics and readers was unfavorable. Which is my way of putting a good spin on things. And I understand that I wrote a uniquely New York story narrated by a very weak, passive-aggressive character. By the way, there’s your Write What You Know moment. While I was licking my Publishers Weekly-inflicted wounds, I realized that I could’ve spared myself grief and still told the story I wanted to tell if I’d only gotten more feedback before submitting the manuscript. Since then, I’ve been religious in soliciting publishing professionals and “civilians” alike for their thoughts, a process that’s been remarkably successful in saving me from both casual mistakes and my worst impulses. In fact, I had almost twenty people look over Straight Lies. I’ve come to appreciate that the manuscript is still my baby, but there’s nothing wrong with getting a check-up from the pediatrician before delivery.
TJL: Your next novel, Straight Lies, will be published in March of 2009. Congratulations! How do you feel about it? Are you nervous or excited, or is it old hat at this point?
RB: I’m happy with the way Straight Lies turned out, but just a bit nervous about the public reaction. It’s a bit of a departure for me. Instead of my usual comic gay romance, Straight Lies is a gay-oriented crime caper. Still funny, I think, but it’s a departure. Then again, I’m always nervous about the reaction I’m going to get when a book is about to come out. And does it ever become old hat? Do you ever take it for granted? I’d hate to think so.
TJL: No. I always get anxious and excited when something I’ve written is about to be published. Then again, I get anxious and excited when I leave the house.
RB: If someone is blasé about the impending release of their creation, I think that lack of enthusiasm would be reflected in their work. And there’s a cure for that: do something else.
TJL: You won a Lambda Literary Award in 2006 for When The Stars Come Out. Where do you keep the award?
RB: You mean the award I stole from you?
TJL: That would be the one.
RB: Oh, yeah, I keep forgetting about that. Just kidding. Of course I can’t forget about it. I sleep with my Lammy every night, and we have a weekly “date night” to keep the relationship fresh. Otherwise, it’s displayed on a very discreet shelf in the living room, or wherever Brady has hidden it this week.
Fool For Love: New Gay Fiction, which includes "Happy Hour at Cafe Jones" by Rob Byrnes, will be published in February 2009 by Cleis Press. Click here to pre-order from Amazon.com.
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