The Dance Continues
Catching Up With Andrew Holleran
By Owen Keehnen
This interview was originally published in Chicago Outlines in August 1996.
In 1978 Andrew Holleran exploded onto the gay literary scene with the instant classic Dancer from the Dance. Five years later came his follow-up Nights in Aruba, and five years later he published Ground Zero, a highly praised collection of essays.
Now after eight years Andrew Holleran is back with a new novel. The Beauty of Men is the painful story of Lark, a survivor of an AIDS decimated group of friends in New York. Middle aged and still in shock from his enormous loss, Lark has moved to northern Florida to care for his paralyzed mother. The emptiness of Lark's life there prompts a deep exploration of his past and his current state as an aging gay man. Depressed and in a state of "identity limbo" Lark finds brief solace at the local boat ramp tearoom and in his fantasies of a relationship with one-night-stand Becker. Given this brief synopsis it should come as no surprise that The Beauty of Men is not a lighthearted read, but it is a compelling and rewarding one. Lark's profound sense of loss and remorse is tempered by both undeniable truth and periodic humor.
So it's been eight years since your book of essays, Ground Zero, and fourteen years since your last novel Nights in Aruba. Why have you been away so long?
I guess it was just writer's problems - starting novels that didn't work, finishing a novel that didn't work, making outlines for novels that didn't get going. Then this came out without my even planning it.
That's usually a good sign. The Beauty of Men centers on 47-year-old Lark. He is a survivor of a generation of men in New York who were decimated by AIDS and now lives in northern Florida. What is it you wanted to convey about Lark's generation?
Somewhere in the third chapter there's a passage between Lark and Sutcliff in Newark and Lark thinks of them as stockbrokers who has just survived the crash or had invested everything in a business that failed. What I was trying to get at was that everything ended in such ruin, such a devastating loss of everyone and everything, so much human wreckage.
One strong theme throughout the book is that aging is also a certain death that gay men must endure, death by invisibility. That nothing is left when identity is based on desire and one's worth is only seen mirrored in men's eyes. Would you care to comment or elaborate on the effects of losing youth and beauty in our culture?
I think your question says it all. That's exactly it. If you base your identity on your cruisability quotient and your looks then you have to be prepared that at a certain point your identity is going to fade and you are going to become a ghost in that promenade gay people put such great store in. That's something that the commercial, upbeat, glossy gay media/culture doesn't prepare us for. It's a big fact of life and it would have been a much bigger fact, ironically, if it hadn't been for AIDS. That generation that pioneered a lot of clone culture would have been going through aging and I don't think they would have done it quietly. We lost a social experiment with their deaths.
A common theme in your fiction seems to be the distance between the lover and the beloved. In The Beauty of Men that's reflected in Lark's obsession with one-night-stand Becker. What intrigues you about that state?
I have a theory. One extreme is you don't have a lover because you don't want to. When someone is obsessed with relationships that fail it's because that person has programmed in their mind that they're not supposed to work. Then there's a large middle group with gay men sincerely looking for another person or mate. It works once or twice for a while and then doesn't work any longer and they end up aging with friends in the hope they fall in love again. Then there's a small fraction of gay men who seem to be serially monogamous who will probably always have a lover, but that group is far outnumbered by the second group. Two male egos together are very tough. Men are just not raised to cowtow to other men. As to why the scenario of the unobtainable lover fascinated me, I guess it's just because I'm gay and it's central to a lot of gay men for all of those reasons.
Lark is in Florida caring for his paralyzed mother, which is an apt metaphor for his own "paralysis of living". What parallels did you wish to draw from this situation?
Exactly that. The whole thing is kind of a limbo, everything is suspended, there doesn't seem to be any solution to Lark's life and the problems around him. There was a lot of that with AIDS for a while. It was a metaphor for that stasis.
I know you live there, but I found it interesting that you put Lark in a rural Florida rather than an urban environment. What did you want the setting to highlight?
I found no compulsion to do urban anymore because I'd done it with my first novel and all I could do was update it and others have done that. Also, I had this curious feeling that there was this Diaspora involved because of AIDS. Let's say a gay man grows up in a small town, he escapes to the city to be gay and lives in the ghetto for a while. Then for whatever reason he's done with the ghetto and so he moves to the suburbs or to a smaller town. It does happen and it raises all sorts of interesting questions. After you've gone to the city, explored gay identity, immersed yourself in it's culture, lived your gay ghetto fantasies, and then move to a small town you have to discover who you are in that context. You're not who you were before you moved to the city. A small town also allowed me to express that sense of isolation that has been a big part of AIDS. There's something about the boat ramp for me that mirrored that whole crash and burn quality of that generation.
Could you explain the concept of the temple of the tearoom?
The book was going to be called The Boat Ramp till the marketing people rebelled and said, "This will not sell copies." It took ages for me to come up with another title. I think the boat ramp is a metaphor for everything and I love that the toilet there is both a temple and a community center. The hard thing about writing is you want to find a microcosm that is reflective of a macrocosm. You can't go searching for these things, you either find them accidentally or you don't. I went to the boat ramp myself for sex, to cruise, to meet people and ended up fascinated by the sociology of the place. This is where Lark has ended up and you can either view it as a wonderful place or a horror. It's both, and that again was a part of Lark's exile status. He doesn't even go to Gainesville bars anymore but ends up haunting these public parks.
As a man of comparable age who has no doubt struggled with some of the same problems of loss and aging, how therapeutic was writing this book for you?
That's so true! In a way this book dumped all my worst, most nightmarish, most pessimistic, most nihilistic ideas about everything. Not that this is Moby Dick, but I read a piece about Melville coming out of his room after he'd written Moby Dick and he said, "I’ve written a wicked wicked book but I feel as white and innocent as the lamb." It's the feeling as a writer that you externalized something, communicated it to other people, and gave your misery form. It was unintentional. I was severely depressed at the time and all I could think was "Thank God I can write!"
What do you want readers to come away from this book feeling?
I feel very bad abut that. I've never ended a novel on such a down note. I don't want to depress people, but I wanted to be honest. There's no point in not telling the truth. I wanted to say, "We have to pay attention. If we live on the surface we have to expect that the surface is going to vanish and we're going to have to find our resources in some other way." I'm rebelling against the notion that gay life is a trip to Cancun in the right bikini and to raise another voice that said, "This is our reality too and don't pretend it's not."
Dancer from the Dance, Nights in Aruba, and now The Beauty of Men. What do you see as the common thread running through your fiction?
I'd say it's the difficulty in integrating the homosexual identity with the rest of identity. In Dancer everyone has isolated themselves in the ghetto. In Nights you deal with the problem of family and that split in a different form.
The identity split of the past self and the current circumstances? So much of Lark's life seems to lie in the past.
That's so true.
On a different note. Did you expect Dancer from the Dance to be the sensation that it was?
No. I wrote it in a total state of innocence. It was the last book I was going to write because I'd given it enough time. Then all that wonderful stuff happened. It was like a dream. Then I became self-conscious and thought "Will they like the second one? What did they like about the first?" It’s a stupid frame of mind to get into. I think not writing for a while was a reaction to that. I didn't know what was expected or what I should say next.
Do you have a first memory of wanting to be a writer?
In 8th grade we were asked to write reports on Alaska and Montana and I became know in my class for setting them in a context. The information was always transmitted between two people on a deck overlooking a sunset and when I'd start describing the sunset the class would shriek! I think that's when I discovered writing was fun and that I could just let go.
Do you have any advice for the novice writer?
It's a monk's life. I think often writers forget writing is dependent on life and fall prey to that idea that if they just go to the room and write they can make the book. They become victims to the idea that you can make something up out of yourself. I would say don't worry about writing so much, just worry about living.
Thanks Andrew and all the best with your writing and especially your life.