Much to my mother’s chagrin, I’m one of those stubborn sorts who, if you tell me I have to do something, will do the exact opposite. Because of this characteristic, I haven’t seen a lot of popular movies, jumped on the Amy Winehouse bandwagon, or cleaned my room in years. Nor did I get hooked on the blog Josh & Josh Are Rich And Famous until months after the fact when Becky told me how much she enjoyed tuning in to their adventures and suggested I do the same.
“They live in Minneapolis and are planning on moving to Manhattan.”
“I like their point of view. They have a unique voice.”
“I’ll send you the link, in case you feel like checking it out.”
Weeks later, I found the link again and realized I wouldn’t have to get out of my chair to view it. Why not? I clicked, went back to their first post, and was immediately sucked in. Becky was right, as she so often is, about their unique voice and interesting point of view. I followed their move to Manhattan with interest and was reminded of when I’d made a similar journey years earlier when I was around their age.
Over time, one of the Joshes, Josh Helmin, revealed his aspiration to be a writer. Becky and I filed that fact away in our brains and recalled the info later when we were looking for contributors to Fool For Love: New Gay Fiction.
Timothy J. Lambert: I killed a lot of brain cells in the 1990s. Remind me of how you came to be in our anthology.
Josh Helmin: Well, good sir, if I remember correctly, I believe the whole adventure started when you and Becky began reading the blog that I write with my best friend and something you saw there gave you an inkling that perhaps I might be an eligible authorial candidate for your anthology. The rest, as they say, is history.
TJL: Were you surprised that we contacted you for a story?
JH: Was I surprised? Oh my god, you could have knocked me over with a feather. I was 22, I had just moved to New York City with my best friend, and we were trying to make our way from the bottom up in the creative world, and you and Becky asking for a piece was the first big break that I got as a New Yorker. It was incredible. I remember staying in on Friday nights while my roommates were out painting the town several shades of pink and I’d sit at this unfinished Ikea table in the corner of our awkward New York kitchen and write and write and write. And then “Like No One’s Watching” was born.
TJL: Because someone might learn something from our honesty, let’s be honest: We rejected the first story you submitted, not because it was bad–on the contrary, it was good–but because it didn’t quite gel with the tone of the anthology as a whole. After we said, “Nope. Try again, please,” did you make voodoo dolls in our likeness?
JH: Oh wow! So we’re truthin’ it, huh? Well, I have to be honest then and say that I didn’t remember that the first piece wasn’t right for the collection. I have no idea what that first piece even was, actually.
TJL: I might be wrong. Like I said, my brain cells are damaged. Didn’t you first send a story about a guy dying of AIDS written from his lover’s POV and remembering how they first got together, etc.?
JH: Oh yeah! Totally. That was me. Definitely glad I did the fresh story for you guys. Much more fitting. So, no voodoo dolls. Yet.
TJL: Oh, good. Then I’m not as senile as the white hair I found on my arm the other day would lead me to believe.
JH: That doesn’t mean you’re senile. It means you’re a freak.
TJL: Good! That’s a relief. But, at least you weren’t discouraged at all by our initial rejection. I’m proud of you for that. What do you like to read?
JH: My reading tastes are all over the board. The bottom line is that I like to always be reading something. I’ve definitely got a thing for the collected works of Michael Cunningham, Barbara Kingsolver, and Julia Glass. I’d also say “Call Me By Your Name” by Andre Aciman is one of the best books I’ve read in a while. Now that’s how to write a gay love story, people. I mean, seriously.
TJL: I really like the details in “Like No One’s Watching.” The descriptions of Mark’s room, what he’s drawing, what he sees, for example. You’re quite good giving just enough details to set the scene for your reader, but not lock them into a particular point of view. There’s still room for an imagination to wander. Is that something you think about when you’re writing?
JH: I love you for catching that! Yeah, I think when I wrote this story I was trying to leave it somewhat open for the readers because I know that when I read love stories I often like to bring a lot of myself to the experience and sort of project what I want onto the story. So I think I gave enough information that things are clear and set up enough to make that world work, but there’s still plenty of room for readers to bring their tastes and finishing details to the table.
TJL: Is “Like No One’s Watching” anything like your high school experience? How much of you or your friends do you use for your writing? Is there truth in your fiction?
JH: It’s very tempting for me to bring lots of stuff from my life and from the lives of those around me to fiction. Isn’t it for most people? But, interestingly, in the case of this story, it’s almost one hundred percent fiction. I didn’t base the characters, story, or actions on anything at all except a fictional vision I cooked up in my li’l brain. I think the closest that the story comes to borrowing from my life is that I did theater as a high school student–um, which gay amongst us didn’t, right?–but other than that it’s pretty much all fiction. All lies. Lies, I tell you! Unlike Mark, for example, I certainly cannot draw. It’s all stick figures up in here.
TJL: I was really glad you provided us with a young adult point of view. Do you think you’ll write more young adult stories? You’re quite good at it.
JH: Oh wow, you’re so sweet! I’ll send you $20 later. For a while I thought my contribution might be a college-age story, but I think part of me thought back to being a high school student and what I would have just died to read then, and so I wrote that story. Et voila! I admire the work of YA authors David Levithan and Rachel Cohn so much–both what they’ve written separately and together–and in some ways I think they’ve inspired me to give YA a second thought. Perhaps there will be more young characters from me in the future.
TJL: Once upon a time you mentioned maybe attending a writing workshop, or something similar. Did you do that?
JH: I did take a fantastic Gotham Writer’s Workshop class here in New York, and I think I’d do it again, but what I really found is that the most important thing is to write, write, write. And regularly. That above all. Then writing classes become the cherry on top and the place to perfect and clean up what you’ve been working on. But first: write.
TJL: Just writing is the most difficult part of writing, I find. Sometimes, it takes a Hurculean effort for me to simply get out of bed and open a Word document on my computer. But you have a day job, not to mention all the various Josh & Josh side projects. How do you find the time to write?
JH: Well, I’m one of those kids that cannot stand being bored. (Unless I plan time to be bored. Which I do sometimes. But I digress. And embarrass myself simultaneously with my idiosyncrasies. So.) I like having a lot of creative projects plugged in. I find that I do my best work when I’m busy, so I just use my handy Google calendar and carve out time, pure and simple. I think about it this way: If you want to be a runner, you need to run a lot, and regularly. Get in those miles. If you want to be an ornithologist, you better get out there and start watching some damn birds. If you want a sick body, you better get to the gym. And, most importantly, if you want to be a writer: WRITE. It’s that hard and that simple. But I say grab your creative cojones and just do it, whatever it is that you want to do. Taking action toward that goal is the most important element of the whole thing.
TJL: Do you have people that read your writing and give you feedback?
JH: My best friend, Josh K, is a great sounding board. He really lets me know when something is working–often by his physical reactions–and when something isn’t working, also by his physical reactions. And he doesn’t coddle, which can be good. He makes me work for it. My circle has now widened to several other writers whom I trust and show things to once they’re in a more finished state, but Josh K is still the guy to whom I know I can show anything and he won’t stop being my friend if it’s crap.
TJL: What are you working on now?
JH: Well, funny enough, Josh and I were recently given the opportunity to put together a book of our own, so we’re working on that. We’re still writing our blog as well, and we’re working on pitching a satellite radio show. Josh K is also a filmmaker, and I helped co-write his first short film, so we’re both busy working on that project as well. There are a lot of creative juices squirting and flowing over here in NYC. Wait, did that sound wrong? Um. You know what I mean.
TJL: Please tell me you’re not moving back to Minnesota.
JH: I’m not moving back to Minnesota until they drag me outta here. I’m having too much fun. There’s too much yet to be done. I can’t wait to see how it all turns out.
Fool For Love: New Gay Fiction, which includes "Like No One’s Watching" by Josh Helmin, will be published in January 2009–any day now!–by Cleis Press. Click here to order it from Amazon.com.
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