Originally, our Fool For Love anthology was to be published by Harrington Park Press, an imprint at Haworth Press. While we were working on the first version of our anthology we heard of a new writer, Shawn Anniston, who was also working on a book for Haworth, titled The Glass Orchid. What little I heard of Anniston’s gay romantic suspense novel intrigued me, and I was very much looking forward to reading it and learning more about the author. Unfortunately, Haworth eventually merged with another publisher and Harrington Park Press–along with our contracts–was retired. Months later, when Cleis Press breathed new life into Fool For Love, we remembered Shawn Anniston. Why? Good question. We knew little to nothing about Anniston and hadn’t read a word of Shawn’s work, but, for some reason, my curiosity was piqued. After all, the unknown is almost always more exciting. You have to have a little faith when starting a new relationship, and I’m glad we had faith in the unknown, because from out of nowhere we eventually received a gem of a story called “Matchmaker” from Shawn.
Shawn called me a few days ago. After sharing tales of storms and stormy relationships, our talk turned to writing.
Timothy J. Lambert: Do you remember the first story you ever wrote?
Shawn Anniston: I think the first story I ever wrote was about a bitchy cat who didn’t really want to be bothered. Now that I think about it, that cat’s not so different from the narrator of “Matchmaker.” Should I be worried that I’m still writing the same story I wrote when I was eleven?
TJL: “Matchmaker” is really good. I wouldn’t worry about it, if I were you. What’s changed in you, as a writer, from that first story to what you’re writing now?
SA: Better verbs; less adjectives. Seriously, I come from a family of storytellers, and I never thought I measured up to them. I was a shy kid, so writing provided a place where I could try my hand at the family tradition without feeling like a spotlight was on me. Have you ever told a story and seen someone’s eyes glaze over?
TJL: Of course! That’s why I don’t speak in public very often.
SA: Are your eyes glazing over now?
TJL: No way. Keep talking. Where do you write? How does your environment affect your work?
SA: I usually write in my home office. Where I can’t write is at another job. I’ve tried. I’d like to say I’m stopped by my strong work ethic—after all, I’m not being paid by a company to write fiction—but mostly it’s just that I’m a creature of habit, and a lot of my habits can’t be indulged in the workplace. That sounds suggestive, doesn’t it? I like to reread a lot, and when I do, that’s when I used to have a smoke or more likely now get something to drink, kick back, turn the music up—things a boss might not appreciate. Also, when I’m stuck, the first thing I do is leave my desk to lie on my bed, stare into space, and mentally work out a scene. I’ve never had an office with a bed in it. Bosses don’t seem to appreciate that either.
TJL: Did you study creative writing or literature? What would you say was the most important thing you learned, and does it apply to “Matchmaker?”
SA: Yes, I’ve taken some writing classes and studied a lot of great literature. I think the best thing a writing teacher ever told me–in reaction to a bad story–was to truly understand my character’s motivation for his actions. Even if you don’t put all the information in your story–although I think I do in “Matchmaker”–and even if your character doesn’t always understand why he does the things he does, when you really understand what drives your character, his actions will seem authentic to your readers. Even if they’d like to smack him around for the things he does.
TJL: When I first read “Matchmaker,” Kevin broke my heart a little. I think everyone had a Kevin in high school. Did you?
SA: I agree with you that most people had a Kevin. That may be why I never gave “Matchmaker”‘s narrator a name. He’s all of us who’ve had our romantic expectations dashed.
TJL: Did you go to prom?
SA: I did. I thought I looked pretty good. The pictures, however, suggest otherwise. Also, I can’t dance. So prom was mostly getting pictures taken before ducking out to drink cheap wine.
TJL: I loved the progression of time in “Matchmaker.” I think it’s tricky to have a vast progression of time within a short story, and I think you managed to do that brilliantly. No question. Just thought I’d say that.
SA: You’re great to say so. Are you doing another anthology?
TJL: We’d like to, but there’s nothing in the works yet. We’ll see.
SA: I have to thank you also for letting me send you a story. It shocked me when you said you wouldn’t change anything. I know Becky made a few edits, but for one of my stories to be included in a collection with some favorite writers of mine—that’s indescribable.
TJL: Aw, thanks! Speaking of your favorite writers, your story references Tales of the City. I’m going to assume that means you’ve read Armistead Maupin. Who else do you read?
SA: Every published writer who’s in the table of contents of Fool For Love, along with Ethan Mordden, Alan Gurganus, Edmund White, Paul Monette, Bart Yates, K.M. Soehnlein, Christian McLaughlin, Michael Thomas Ford, Robert Rodi, Christopher Bram, David Leavitt, Michel Cunningham, John Weir, William J. Mann, Stephen McCauley—do you detect a pattern?
TJL: They all sell more books than we do? (Both laugh.) Thinking of those writers you mentioned makes me wonder how you think gay fiction has changed over the years.
SA: Obviously there’s more of it, and it’s more accessible. I think gay fiction reflects the times. That early period of gay fiction, for example, the Violet Quill writers, were finally giving voice to gay men without tormenting them. They didn’t all have to die or be evil the way a gay man—or implied gay man—would in straight fiction. Then AIDS stepped into the picture, and the writing was by turns aching, painful, furious, screaming, loving. In both those periods, gay fiction was more ghettoized. Gay men seemed to exist in a world without very many straight people, just the occasional maddening family member or sympathetic straight woman. Now gay fiction seems to embrace or reject so-called assimilation. Straight characters have become “the neighbors” or “the in-laws,” and gay characters grapple with different issues—living with HIV, raising children, hate crimes, safer sex, growing older.
I will call bullshit on one thing. Some people say the coming-out novel is passé now that gay men have more visibility in our culture. Tell that to a sixteen-year-old in Small Town, Anywhere, or a man with a wife and two kids who can no longer deny who he is. The coming-out novel should be updated for the times, but it still has its place.
TJL: What’s the name of the guy who wrote The Notebook?
SA: Nicholas Sparks, lucky bastard.
TJL: Hasn’t everything he’s written been made into a movie? Do you think that’s possible for gay romantic fiction? Whose books would you like to see translated to film?
SA: Absolutely there’s an audience for gay romantic movies, and it’s probably larger than anyone realizes. I think we’ve seen progress with more supporting gay characters in mainstream movies. Michael Cunningham has broken through, and Stephen McCauley. Then there’s the Brokeback Mountain phenomenon, when people finally caught on that straight women are willing to see a male/male love story. Not that it’s a happy movie, but I think we’re so eager to see gay love on the big screen that what was essentially a painful collision of four lives got called a love story. I think that we’ll probably see more serials on HBO and Showtime before someone finally takes gay fiction to the theaters and doesn’t sanitize it. Wouldn’t Ethan Mordden’s Buddies books, or Timothy James Beck’s Manhattan books, work well in a Tales of the City way?
TJL: Hell yeah! So would “Matchmaker.” Another thing I enjoyed about your story is the fact that the friendships between the main characters are as important as the love story. Was that intentional?
SA: Definitely intentional. Do you remember–of course you remember–those “Love Sucks” meetings in your book The Deal? If there’s any consolation in being knocked around by love, it’s the friends who let you wallow just long enough before either making you laugh about the foolishness of it all, or giving you a figurative kick to push you out of your misery. The narrator in “Matchmaker” is a lot less worried about finding true love than holding on to his friendships. That probably reflects what I think is one of the big mistakes people make when they fall in love. They think one person can be their “everything.” That’s a lot of emotional pressure, especially when you throw in all those other relationship issues–ex-lovers, families, money, jobs, the proper way to hang toilet paper.
Thanks, Timothy—that question clears things up. Friendships were what the cat was missing in that story I wrote when I was eleven. I’ve grown!
Do you have questions for Shawn Anniston? Post them in the comments, and I’m sure he’ll answer. (If he doesn’t, I’ll smack him around and force him to do so.) Fool For Love: New Gay Fiction, which includes “Matchmaker” by Shawn Anniston, will be published in February 2009 by Cleis Press. Click here to pre-order from Amazon.com.
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