Following is an entire timeline of my creation of Boy Culture, the novel that became the current film. I’m laying it out once and for all because I have a terrible, terrible memory (one that often suggests wrong details rather than simply blanking) and I am constantly asked about these details and have probably given a million little versions.
Spurring me on is that I recently had the pleasure of being e-interviewed by Matt Zakosek for my alma mater's school newspaper, The Chicago Maroon. (That always reminds me of Bugs Bunny saying, “What a maroon!”) Like me, he's gay, a product or survivor of U of C, named Matt and a writer. Can't ask for a more sympathetic interviewer. Matt asked me tons of things relating to the creation of the Boy Culture novel, since my original short story on which I'd based it was written at the U of C, used to get into a very tough short-story course with the legendary Richard Stern, published in a short-lived campus art mag (published by my roommate) and expanded into a novella that served as my thesis to graduate.
He's going to kill me for not finding the time to do this until 10 minutes after it was published, but I spent part of the weekend rummaging in my art and writing bins in search of the original story, which I scanned and will share here along with photos from the period and drawings I made during the 1989 to 1994 period leading up to the novel’s publication. Like this one, of me with a beard...my Grandma Rettenmund said, "Oh, no, not with your beautiful face!" I hadn't been aware of any beautiful face. I was unconvinced. But, hedging my bets, I shaved.
When I was a junior (aka 20), I had to submit a story to be considered for the Stern class, so overnight I wrote a piece that felt very radical to me and incorporated a lot of my resentment for the school's all-work-and-no-gay atmosphere. (Two years earlier, I had impulsively chosen The Breakfast Club as the piece of art that most affected my life when writing my admissions essay, so I'd found shooting from the hip quite effective at a school known for academic fanaticism.) I based the story on a classmate’s comment that an intimate friend of his from high school—a straight guy—had turned tricks back home. I had been thinking for some time about what kinds of tricks your mind might play on you if you were privy to the hypocritical double lives of people around you, and if you were the type of person prone to crossing lines just to see what it felt like on the other side. When I met this Midwest hustler, he had no personality at all—he was a blank.
I wanted to fill in the blank.
The submission, "Straight Story," got me into the class...but then I had to show up and actually read the thing, including all the anger and sex and profanity. I was scared to death, but I read it with gusto, acting out the parts. The class was impressed...or stunned? Professor Stern was a huge supporter and that was a lot to take in, but I appreciated it even when he eventually said the story had a schoolboy whimsy to it. One of my classmates observed that it was brave for me to do something so autobiographical (I guess the first-person is persuasive!) and also so "sociopathic."
Sometime after I received Professor Stern's notes, in the fall of 1989, I allowed the story to be published in Gratuitous U of C B&W Art. This artsy journal was put together by my third-year roommate, Austin Nichols, and featured contributions from all my best university buddies, JJ Fenza, Tony Breed (my other roomie), Anne Stevens and possibly some more.
When my story came out, people were shocked (to the extent that it was even read) by "Straight Story," which I'd coyly signed "J.O." I clearly recall a good friend of my best friend talking to us about this horrible, vulgar story and wondering aloud who could have written it. I took pleasure in telling him I was J.O.—he looked at me like I'd just farted. Loudly.
Next, I decided to turn the story into a novella for my senior thesis. I had all my friends read my expansion and give their advice (they’re thanked in my kooky acknowledgments, along with a certain guy “who’s forgotten me by now”). Settling on a title-less draft, I worked with Richard Strier, who'd taught a Samuel Pepys class I took (I think!). It was scary finding someone who'd work with you on your thesis, so I think I chose him because I had some experience with him. I probably had to beg. By the time I was handed off to Stuart Tave, I had gone with True Confessions Of A Working Boy as my new title. I have to confess I don't remember any of my interactions with the esteemed Mr. Tave beyond the notes I've saved...so maybe my experience with him was better than hers—’cuz bad stuff I remember.
My thesis was accepted and I graduated in January of 1991.
I’ve been asked about which books may have influenced me in writing my first novel. My memory is hazy about which gay-themed novels I would have read by the time the novella was completed, but I know I’d read Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story and his other works. That one grabbed me because I found it at the U of C bookstore and flipped it open to a scene about “cornholing.” As base as it sounds at first, just the experience of seeing that writers did not have to put on airs in order to communicate essential truths was highly influential. I think I also read Faggots by Larry Kramer, which I want to re-read. I was fascinated and repulsed by it. I remember being influenced by Kramer’s no-holds-barred criticisms of the gay community, and realized it was okay to create a work that was not 100% rah-rah.
There were other novels I would liken mine to or would somehow link to my understanding of the genre I was writing in, but they didn’t cross my path until much later, when I would have been finalizing the full novel—or even after I’d finished it! I immediately think of Andrew Holleran’s Dancer From The Dance, George Whitmore’s The Confessions Of Danny Slocum (which I found at Housing Works well after my novel was a done deal), Ken Siman’s Pizza Face (so underrated), The Irreversible Decline Of Eddie Sockett by John Weir and the works of Christopher Bram (in particular Surprising Myself)—Christopher and Michael Bronski would later kindly take me for lunch to the Bright Food Shop in Chelsea once I was published, making me feel like a literary superstar. (CONTINUED)
After a two-year break, wherein I moved to New York and began working at St. Martin's Press as an editorial assistant, I conceived of and created a fan-centric book on Madonna called Encyclopedia Madonnica that was, in retrospect, sort of a physical version of a Google search with its exhaustive (and exhausting) collection of Madonna factoids. With that under my belt, I was inspired to flesh out True Confessions Of A Working Boy further. I narrowly avoided a Generation X-style interspersing of pomo facts and ironic images within the text, but wound up with a novel whose only major departure from standard form was its confessional theme.
I submitted the newly rechristened Boykultur to prospective publishers—I'd gotten this term from the word girlkultur in a Marlene Dietrich bio. At any rate, it was soon changed to Boy Culture. I was mistaken when I told Matt Z that Alyson had made an offer first; I do think they were eventually interested, but my first offer to publish came almost immediately and was from Winston Leyland at Gay Sunshine Press. A co-worker at St. Martin's Press who had until then worked primarily on the Let’s Go! editions (and later went to Fodor’s and Frommer’s), Ensley Eikenburg, decided she liked the novel and argued for the right to publish it. (Unknowingly, I think I probably offended the editor who'd published my Madonna tome, the very distinguished Thomas Dunne, by assuming he would not want to consider my gay novel...but I was young and clueless about politics.) Ironically, she had to fight against the editor of Stonewall Inn Editions, the gay imprint at SMP. Keith Kahla had read and did not like Boy Culture, did not deem it up to Stonewall Inn’s standards. I do recall him saying it was a good start and I might write a good gay novel in the future. It was pretty fucking annoying at the time—I mean, yes, they’d published Randy Shilts, Edmund White, John Fox and many other books I would not have dreamt of comparing myself to...but they’d also published a book of Divine paper dolls. And lots of fiction that, while good, was not in my opinion far and away better than mine.
There was no room at the Stonewall Inn.
Ensley and Keith squared off in front of Tom McCormack, SMP’s high-profile and very authoritative prez, and Ensley won the right to publish my gay novel outside of Stonewall. I felt like the drag queens of Stonewall, having won this major battle. Okay, I didn’t. And it wasn’t. And I have no hard feelings toward Keith, who is a smart guy who’s done more for gay fiction than any of you have done against it—try as you might. (For a taste of Keith’s personality—he used to punctuate everything he said with a masculinized Bette Davis drag from a cig—check out his savage review of a reviewer.)
Ensley took me on, lightly edited me (though I think she insisted on taking out a few lines that in my mind are still there) and the book was published in September of 1995 to frothy-mouthed raves. Not really, but I had some good and some bad reviews. The one that counts, though, was a nice assessment by Nick Hornby in The New York Times Book Review.
Sales of Boy Culture were brisk. I remember reading in one of the gay newspapers (what’s...the “Internet?”) that, according to A Different Light (R.I.P.), Boy Culture was among a few new books that were enjoying “a saleful first week.” I was delighted. I also was not deluded—the book was selling, at least initially, for two reasons: (1) a dead-sexy, suitably mysterious cover photo by Hans Fahrmeyer, who told me the model was a straight go-go dancer who preferred anonymity and had a toup—check out examples of his work within this paragraph; and (2) a brilliant, creative, edgy cover design by the gifted Evan Gaffney, a sweetheart who would later go on to design many more famous book covers including The Devil Wears Prada. [He also did a sensational, hidden-identity cover for my second novel, Blind Items: A (Love) Story, although his Encyclopedia Madonnica cover sucks pretty bad...totally my fault, since I supplied a lame image and then gave him conflicting input...I still have his original tries somewhere.]
And that was the end of the book’s story in the U.S. for many years. We sold World Spanish, Dutch, French and German rights and the American edition sold for a decade without falling out of print. That edition was taken out of circulation only when the movie tie-in version was issued, which I’m told is selling well, too.
I don’t think I’ve written the great American novel or the great American gay novel, even, but I know that there is something about Boy Culture that captures the imaginations of a lot of readers. I continue to hear from them and be humbled by their reactions.
Who knew writing about a man so intent on pushing people away that he wouldn’t even reveal his own name would draw so much interest?
"Straight Story," original precursor to Boy Culture, 1989:
"Straight Story" as it appeared in Gratuitous U Of C B&W Art, 1989: