Saturday, January 17, 2009

About 'Still Dancing'

Still Dancing collects twenty of my short stories about the impact of AIDS on the gay community written over the last three decades. Ten are from my 1993 collection Dancing on the Moon and ten are more recently written, and for this new collection I've chosen stories that revolve around gay New Yorkers — those lost, those surviving, those displaced, those undaunted, and those who became expatriates.

I’ve been a New Yorker now for thirty years. I arrived in 1978 after graduating from Emory University in Atlanta and lived in a small and expensive apartment in the West Village that I could barely afford. In my early years in Manhattan, I worked as a telephone operator, a legal proofreader, and an entertainment publicist, sometimes all in the same day. Many of my early AIDS stories were inspired from my experiences with my friend Kevin Patterson when he became ill with AIDS. Kevin was a playwright (A Most Secret War) and a theater publicist (he worked at the Public for many years). “Winter Coats,” the story in the collection about two friends shopping for a winter coat — one who is struggling with AIDS — was written after an outing with Kevin. The tale of the two friends with AIDS sharing an impromptu cab ride around Manhattan in “Reunions” was a story I pieced together while I was with friends at a diner on Ninth Avenue after Kevin’s memorial service. The details of “What They Carried” are drawn from my actual experiences while caring for Kevin when he became ill with AIDS — the overwhelming things I and his other friends physically carried to and from his hospital room and his apartment in his final days. In the process, we created our own community, network, family, and support group. This story was written during the week following Kevin’s death as part of my grieving process. It is one of the most truthful stories I have ever written, and is as close to being nonfiction as it is fiction. I always approached this story as a sort of personal therapy and a story I had to tell, not a story that would ever be published. Even though I wrote this story when I was thirty-two years old, it is still the story of a “young man.” At the time, I had only had published two short stories with gay themes and a handful of essays on being gay — and felt I was still learning how to write fiction. (This story is also one of the few works that I have written that I cannot be objective about because it holds so much truth for me. And it is one of the handful of things that I have written that can instantly bring me to tears when I pick it up to read it again.) Since this story is also collected in a writing textbook that is used at several colleges, I still get e-mails from students and find that I revisit the story many times during the course of a year.

My early AIDS stories were published in Dancing on the Moon thanks to my friendship with David Feinberg (author of Eighty-Sixed), who showed my stories to his editor, Ed Iwanicki, at Viking. David and I were in a Gay Writers Workshop together back in the mid-1980s that met regularly in the members’ homes and our friendship continued up until his death in 1994. My friendship with David is also reflected in the story “The Chelsea Rose,” which opens Still Dancing, though David and I never lived in the same building. “The Chelsea Rose,” along with “Manhattan Transfer,” is one of the more recently written stories in the new collection, about the history of the inhabitants of a Chelsea apartment building, depicting the migratory path of its residents and the deep devastation the epidemic left on a generation of gay men. “The Chelsea Rose” begins in the late '70s, just as I did in Manhattan. “Manhattan Transfer” takes one of the marginal characters in “The Chelsea Rose” and focuses on him twenty-five years later, as he grapples with surviving the epidemic, being HIV-positive, and looking to give a new meaning to his life.

I do draw inspiration from my own life for my fiction — though I am not usually a “true character” in my stories — and I’ve always felt that the issues AIDS summons up — loss, grief, illness, death, among the early ones — needed to be discussed and included in gay fiction. I thought the exodus of many gay men from the city to go back to their families needed to be detailed — which was part of the genesis of “Montebello View,” about the separation of two lovers. The gay community in New York has always been on the cutting edge in shaping the national culture — in fashion, theater, advertising, and art, for instance — and I wanted to show the impact of ACT UP beyond the national news reports and the local chapters springing up — which was how “Civil Disobedience” came about, about two teenagers in a small Southern town mirroring an ACT UP demonstration. I thought sero-discordant dating was an important topic that also needed to be addressed, which is why “Fearless” was written. And these early “issues” changed with the advent of protease inhibitors and drug cocktail medication therapy in the mid-1990s — and these issues also needed to be presented in gay fiction. “Health” was the first story I wrote after this shift, about a man with AIDS suddenly restored to health and wondering what to do next. Like “What You Talk About” and “Fearless,” “Someone Like You” is a dating story, but this one, written in the third decade of the epidemic, reflects the easing of the divide that had separated sero-discordant partners as HIV infection became more medically manageable. And this shift in important issues becomes so wide that the satirical letter writer in “Do I Know You,” RSVPing to a gay wedding invitation, must remind himself of how far he has traveled in his gay life. And one of the new issues that I find that I am dealing with as an aging gay man is sentimentality — which is reflected in the title story, “Still Dancing,” about a gay man who must continue to pull himself out of his apartment and experience his life. It is based on a desire to revisit my Southern roots while learning how to two-step, and was inspired by the dance classes which were held at the Lesbian and Gay Center in the West Village in the mid-1990s and sponsored by a group of expatriates called the Southerners.

The gorgeous photograph that is being used on the cover of Still Dancing was also taken by a New Yorker—Matt Chapin, who is a member of the NYC Photo Club, which meets regularly at the LGBT Center in the Village, and which was where I spotted Matt’s work on exhibit this summer as I was assembling my AIDS stories into a new book.

I am grateful to the editors, publishers, readers, and fellow writers who helped shape these stories. Along with Ed Iwanicki and David Feinberg, I am most indebted to Anne H. Wood and Brian Keesling, who have weighed in on all my writing. Anne and Brian and I met via a writing workshop we took together at the Writers Voice at the uptown West Side YMCA back in the mid-1980s. David Leavitt was our moderator/leader/mentor/guide. Brian and Anne and I have been getting together ever since then—now approaching something like 25 years—to have dinner and critique our latest scribblings and would-be manuscripts.I have also been blessed by working with Hermann Lademann on Where the Rainbow Ends, and Kevin Bentley and Andrew McBeth on Desire, Lust, Passion, Sex, and their imprints can be found in Still Dancing, along with those of Sean Meriwether, Lawrence Schimel, Darryl Pilcher, Robert Drake, David Bergman, Greg Wharton, Ian Philips, David Waggoner, Jay Quinn, and Martin Tucker. Special thanks are also due to Arch Brown and his foundation, the New York Foundation for the Arts, Anne-Laure Hubert and Olivier Gainon of CyLibris, who brought my AIDS stories to a French-speaking audience, and especially to Steve Berman of Lethe Press, who has given me—and many other gay writers—a new home for our works when it is most needed.