A few years ago, Becky and I shared an office in her house. One night, while we were at our respective computers, supposedly working on one of our novels, she laughed aloud. I thought, Oh, cool. She must be writing something good, and didn’t say anything so as not to disturb her genius. Minutes later, she laughed again. And again. And then again. After yet another giggle, I couldn’t take it any longer and said, “What’s so funny?”
She said, “I’m reading The Search For Love In Manhattan.”
“Oh.” So much for working. So much for genius. Scratch that. There was genius, but it was Joel Derfner’s. I was familiar with his blog. His writing is witty, sardonic, engaging, and very good. I hate him.
So when we had an opportunity to edit an anthology and were compiling a list of writers to contact for stories, of course Joel Derfner’s name came up.
“What about Joel Derfner?”
“What about him?”
“He’s good. We should ask him for a story.”
“Yeah, he is good. I hate him.”
“Good. I’ll send him an email tomorrow.”
The story he sent us, “De Anima,” was an extremely well-crafted piece of brilliance. The highest compliment I can pay Joel, as well as his writing, is to say that I continue to hate him.
Timothy J. Lambert: How’s the musical coming? Did you get the funds you needed?
Joel Derfner: HA! The problem is that, because unlike other industries theater has not become more and more automated over the years, it has also not gotten less and less expensive. So to mount a show off-Broadway you’d need at the very least $500,000. To do a really excellent production with good publicity you’d need more like $750,000 or even $1,000,000. And since the musical that I’m currently trying to raise money for is a Holocaust show, the fact that Bernie Madoff has left every Jew in New York penniless is turning out to be a real problem.
TJL: Can you compare the rewards or challenges of writing full-length memoir, Swish, with Gay Haiku, or the musical drama about Terezin you’re working on?
JD: One of the main differences for me is that, to put it crudely, a book exists in space and a musical exists in time. When Swish was about to come out, I was much more terrified than I am when I have a musical about to open. If you’ve made a mistake in the musical, then when the curtain comes down at 11:00, the mistake doesn’t exist anymore, and you can fix it for the next night or for the next production, and after you’ve fixed it, there’s no evidence left. But with Swish, once the book was printed, any mistake was going to exist forever, because paper exists regardless of what time it is and what position the curtain is in. So even if there was a new edition later on, there would still be proof of my inadequacy in the world until I died. There’s a paperback edition of Swish coming out in June, and my editor said I could make some edits if I wanted to. So I sent her a list of 187 fixes I wanted to make. She e-mailed back and she was like, um, I really meant like six or eight. So I’ve had to learn to be okay with it. Or at least to pretend to be okay with it.
TJL: Regarding Swish, what’s the reaction of people from your life to seeing themselves in print?
JD: The one person people have asked me about most is my father–they’re like, how does he feel reading these things about him and about your mom? And the answer is that I have no idea, because he hasn’t read the book, because I’ve forbidden him to. And his vision is very, very bad, so it would take a lot of effort for him to disobey me. I sent an expurgated version of the manuscript to his wife so she could read it to him, with all the sex taken out, but I told her she had to read through it first to make sure I hadn’t accidentally left anything in that he wouldn’t be able to handle.
TJL: How did you decide what to put in, or what to leave out? How do you set boundaries?
JD: It’s funny–over and over again I found myself thinking, oh, well, I can’t talk about that part of it, it’ll make me look like a shallow, petty asshole; I’ll just leave it out. So I’d write it leaving that part of it out, and I’d end up looking like a shallow, petty asshole. It was only when I put the ugly parts in that it became okay, because I looked human. And those flaws have turned out to be one of people’s favorite things about the book.
TJL: You’ve been blogging a long time–did that prepare you for dealing with those issues that a memoirist faces?
JD: What blogging taught me was that if I write something about somebody and he reads it, he’s going to come to it with a different perspective than I do, so I have to be very careful how I say things. In Swish I’m incredibly judgmental and petty and high-handed about a lot of people, but I think (at least I hope) that the writing makes it clear that that’s about my own insecurity and jealousy and fear. I mean, not that I’m insecure, jealous, or afraid. Just, you know, hypothetically speaking. There’s one passage in which I write about somebody else and discuss what I think of as a real character flaw. I tried and tried and tried to find a way not to talk about the flaw, and in the end I couldn’t make the chapter work without it. It’s one of the things about the book that I’m most unhappy with. It’s a moment that’s not about my own insecurity and jealousy and fear–it’s just talking trash about somebody. The person involved has read the book and is still my friend, so I guess there’s no harm done in the end, but I still don’t like it.
TJL: In Swish, you describe the experience of going to an ex-gay retreat. In “De Anima,” you write about a similar experience, but from the perspective of the man who’s left at home while his boyfriend goes. Were there reasons for that narrative distance?
JD: First, I want to point out to your readers that in fact I was there undercover, as somebody pretending to be interested in becoming ex-gay, so that I could write about it, rather than because I wanted to become ex-gay. But it was such a profound experience–deeply moving, both hysterically funny and incredibly upsetting, that I felt I couldn’t write a story about it without dishonoring the pain that these people feel. There may be a piece of fiction in me about the ex-gays, but if there is it’s got to be a serious work–not that it wouldn’t be funny, because, I mean, come on, it’s just that the phenomenon is too complicated and fraught to deal with respectfully in a short story.
TJL: What’s the worst piece of writing advice you ever received? What was the best?
JD: The worst piece of writing advice I ever got would have to be to take a gig that I didn’t think I ought to take. It was to write an SAT vocabulary novel–a 50,000-word novel that used 1,000 SAT vocabulary words (bolded, to be defined in the margins of the book). It was a young adult thing, and I couldn’t figure out how I was going to use the vocabulary and still give the narrator a consistent and believable voice, and I was going to say they should find somebody else to write it, but after talking to a few friends I took the gig anyway, because I needed the money and besides how hard could it be? Well, I’ll tell you, I have never been unhappier writing anything in my entire life. Months and months I worked on this thing, and it got more and more tortured, and when I finally sent it in they rejected it. I went back and looked at it the other day–it was just hideous. There was a paragraph about the phenomenological difficulties posed by the existence of the waffle potato fry. And I think the best writing advice I ever got was that if I wanted to write something I had to sit down and start typing, even if I had no idea what was going to come out or how to make it work. Because at the end of the day if there are no words on the page then there’s nothing to work with, and you’ve failed. Actually, I think that would have to be tied with another piece of advice I got, which was to read as much as I possibly could. If I have a voice or a style it’s only because I’ve amalgamated the voices and styles of authors I’ve loved.
TJL: Where do you write?
JD: I take my laptop with me wherever I go, so really the answer to that question is “everywhere.” But honestly my favorite place to write is on the subway. It takes forever to get anywhere in New York, so there’s always a lot of time; and there’s no Internet access and no television, so there’s no way to procrastinate. I mean, you can listen to the crazy homeless guy in the middle of the car yelling about how the Department of Homeland Security is after his cat, but you get that so often on the subway that it becomes more like background noise.
TJL: You seem pretty versatile–what do you see as the next step in your writing career?
JD: I have no fucking idea. I want to write another memoir, but I’m facing what I think of as the Tolstoy problem. You know how Anna Karenina begins, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”? Well, at the moment I’m not unhappy enough to write another memoir. I suppose I could stop taking my anti-depressants, but I think maybe that ought to be a last resort. “De Anima” is one of only three short stories I’ve written, because fiction terrifies me, so maybe the next step is a novel. With memoir and a blog the story’s already there, I just have to tell it in a compelling way. Same thing with musicals, even–the lyrics are already there, I just have to find the music for them. But with fiction, I’m like, Gosh, should she pick up the phone here? Or should she stab herself? Or be abducted by aliens? It’s all overwhelming and then I just give up and turn on Law & Order: SVU.
Fool For Love: New Gay Fiction, which includes "De Anima" by Joel Derfner, will be published in January 2009–any day now!–by Cleis Press. Click here to order it from Amazon.com.
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