Angels of Mercy – Volume One: Elliot
(His Summer of Love)
is NOW available!
(Already labelled a BEST-SELLER in pre-sales!)
My first serious work that began over a year ago and I can’t believe it’s release is finally here!
You can find it at the following locations for purchase:
AllRomance/OmniLit (Best Seller Status)
From the cover of the book –
On the cusp of his senior year at Mercy High, Elliot Donahey, an out but terminally shy gay young man who keeps to the shadows – never wanting to be seen or noticed – suddenly finds himself in the arms of the highest profile jock on campus, local star quarterback, Marco Sforza. Their lives, and those closest to them will never be the same.
Set against the backdrop of competitive sports, this character study work deep dives into the lives of these young men who each must “play the game” so Marco can continue to play the game he loves. They are just trying to find some small slice of happiness to call their own amidst their hellish final year of high school.
Author’s Note: Angels of Mercy is first and foremost, a character study. A great deal of it is inner-monologue. Elliot will pause the action, will break momentum as he grapples with his world – all the while flipping a finger to the fourth wall. He knows you’re there. It was far more important to me as its author (and a gay man) that the reader come away with the whys of Elliot’s choices in how he navigates his often tumultuous world. The same can be said of Marco (his jock boyfriend) who will pick up the tale with Volume Two (due summer of 2015).
I’ve read much queer literature and what I find rather interesting is that for the majority of it, very little is written about the character’s headspace. When you live in a world where you constantly have to be vigilant as you navigate through, it can make for some very powerful storytelling. That is my goal in writing these boys’ lives. I want the reader who may not be queer themselves to come away with what it might be like to be in a gayboy’s shoes – constantly polling and pulse-checking your world because your very survival depends upon it. All of that while you hope, you secretly pray, that you’ll find someone who will see you too and find they can’t live without you in their world. A small slice of happiness to call your own. And though you do everything to keep to yourself, you may still run into those who find your very existence threatens who they are and how they think the world should run. I pull no punches with this work. They are hormonally charged eighteen year old young men who are sexually active. While the sex is present in the work it is not gratuitous in that the main character does evolve from his physical intimacy with his high-profile boyfriend. It is not a genre romance read either, though it has a very strong romance threaded in the work. These elements bring a light to their world that attracts all the wrong attention.
In a time where more queer youth are coming out to their teammates and their loved ones, I find that work of this nature is both timely and necessary to tell. I hope you’ll find it as interesting and provocative a read as I believe it is.
A BIG THANK YOU to Jay Brannan who was my musical muse for the project. Rob Me Blind is such a truly brilliant album and I couldn’t have my boys as deeply and emotively rooted were it not for this musical inspiration that came from the brilliant and talented bard of Jay Brannan. Please do search him out on the web and on iTunes. You will NOT be sorry you did!
A Boy and His Wings – To and Fro …
An Album Review for a Modern Day Bard – Adam Ray
Before I begin, I want to tell you a story – it’s what I do.
You see, I get caught up with other artists. Having lived my life trotting the boards of the stage myself as a singer and actor, I have been enamored with those who see life through an artist’s eyes. To hear or see their interpretation of things is truly magical. And I am not one of those “it has to be about me or nothing” types. I so hate those divas. It only shows the pettiness and the inner-frailty of what they do. Like the bullies in high school, they carry bravado like armor and will bash anyone who isn’t as great as they see themselves. No, I’m not one of those.
But I’ve been around enough of them to know it when I see it.
Having done this for almost the entire half-centennial time I’ve occupied space on the planet, I’ve had the pleasure to work with some truly amazing people. Some were the biggest names in the biz, others not so much though their talents certainly warranted a greater audience. I am the type of performer that actually cheers others on because I know what they do doesn’t take anything away from me. I’ve learned that by watching others who can’t handle it. So instead I love to champion my fellow artists (especially if they’re queer) because the life of an artist, regardless of medium, isn’t an easy one. And those who carry true genius in their craft often come with inner demons and frailties that they work very hard to mask from others. Sort of like we put on makeup, painting ourselves into you want others to see you, rather than embracing what you were given.
Anyway, to my little story (and it does have a bearing on this review – so I beg a little patience). You see, last week I was caught up in the euphoria of Steve Grand‘s pre-release momentum for his debut album (of which I was a Kickstarter supporter). So I wanted to do my part. I wrote a track-by-track review and informed Steve I was going to post it. He was generous and encouraged me to “go for it.” I got his blessing to use the tracks (as sound clips – not the full tracks) so people could get a sampling of the album that so many supporters and fans have been waiting for. For me, and my humble blog site, it was rather heady – like a pre-pre-release party, albeit digitally.
It’s been a fairly rousing success for everyone involved. Steve loved the review and told me so. It got retweeted between Steve and others to about 80K Twitterites (my term for it). That was rather amazing. My stats went through the roof. So in a way it was a party of sorts – well, in my head if not physically.
So why am I telling you all of this? It’s quite simple really. But to answer that I want to ask you a question (and be honest in your reply – no one is really gonna know but you).
Have you ever had one of those moments when you’re caught up with something that is so enthralling or exciting and then someone – usually a stranger – taps you on the shoulder and in the midst of everything they whisper into your ear something that truly resets your emotive clock?
Yeah, well, that’s what happened to me …
It was in the height of that euphoria that Adam Ray, who I hadn’t been aware of (looking back I began to think: Jesus, what rock was I under?) before he sent me a simple tweet in the midst of all the tweets going to and fro in the Twitterverse.
It was simply this (my moment of Adam digitally whispering in my ear):
So to my question: have you ever had one of those moments?
… Because for me, this was one.
Things were swimming along with people checking out my review for All-American Boy so I thought: why not click it and check it out? Little did I know what I was about to experience.
This review hopes to capture how like Dorothy stepping from the sentimental sepia of Kansas into a kaleidoscope of Oz, Adam’s offering to me to sample his song “To and Fro” was a moment where everything in the party came to a stop. The rush of that emotive river, stilled by the plaintive strings and guitar that demanded my attention in the quietest of manners. By the end of the video, which shows a simple picture of Adam (from what I can tell) as a boy, the song poured out of my headphones and cleaved its way into my heart – I wasn’t merely hearing it, this was a consumption that went to my soul – it burnished its way there.
You see, Adam writes about what I write about: the journey of what it is to be a gay man and discover what that means for ourselves. To shed what society puts onto us to be one of them, not to define our own masculinity by what the accepted (if two-dimensional) norm is. Sadly, some of us don’t make it. To and Fro is about that. I went from giddy about All-American Boy to tears within the span of a little over four minutes. But since that song is toward the end of this album, I’ll save my full commentary on it when I get to that song in the track listing.
So, as with Steve’s review, I’ll give my final summation first:
BOTTOM LINE –
The Clown Parade isn’t a good album of songs. It just isn’t – and bear with me here – you see, what Mr. Ray has gifted us with (and I do mean GIFTED), is a schooling in how to be a modern day bard. This album isn’t good; it’s not even great. It is so damned superlative that, as a wordsmith, I’ve been wracking my brain to come up with a word that truly encapsulates how fucking brilliant the work truly is.
Monumental? Stellar? Right magnitude, but they’re so overused.
Stupendous? Astounding? So 1960s, don’t you think?
Fantastic, Incomparable, Virtuoso? – yeah, all easily applicable here, but still not on the mark.
Clown Parade is more of an emotive musical journal of a gay man’s journey – in this case Adam’s own. But really, so many gay men can relate to it on so many levels because there is so much here that I’ve learned over the years we all pretty much have in common. He presents songs that are soul shatteringly explosive and revealing (The Painter), all the while self-deprecating (Loaded Gun), often bordering at times on self-loathing (Battle). To a very great degree it’s what we, as gay men, are taught by those who are not one of us. But that’s not to say this is a downer album. Because it’s not. It may seem that at first blush, but like the Wizard of that grand emerald colored city, Adam has many layers to the curtain he’s now chosen to throw aside. What Clown Parade is I can tell you best using Mr. Ray’s own words from the song “Wendy“:
You were the light that made the shadows run and hide
You took the mirrors off my walls and made me look inside
It is this light that is prevalent (whether metaphorically or by calling it outright (as above)) that he shines defiantly at himself, and by extension he dares us to do so and challenges who we are and what life has dealt us and how well we may (or may not) have done with it all. All of this as his brilliant and well-crafted prose, like dousing us with turpentine, the colors of our lives running into a myriad of emotive paints, he dips his fingers into them and paints us in alternating pain-ridden hues, cracked with lost loves – abusive relationships both internal and external, and forces that put us at odds with ourselves. But as I say, this is not a downer of an album. Actually, it is quite liberating to let this album emotively wash over you and cleanse your soul. Every word may be from Adam’s own past, but damn it if they didn’t have direct correlations to my own. In this way it has an immediacy to it, a base truth, that as gay men, we pretty much all share. We can’t truly escape it. The mainstream heteronormative establishment works very hard, despite growing acceptance in equality, that we are still not part of the “real” club.
But that isn’t to say that the mainstream won’t get something from it as well. And they should.
Nashville, are you listening?
THIS MAN IS YOUR FUTURE.
BECAUSE HE’S SO REMINISCENT OF YOUR PAST.
Listen up to your roots coming back at you and take heed. Adam brings Country truly home by taking it to its historic roots. And I am not talking as we know it today. I am talking its real roots – those men from centuries ago who were true storytellers. Men who went from town to town to tell these musical stories. They were our form of social construct – morality tales, tales of strife and of overcoming obstacles. Sounds kinda like what Adam has here, if you ask me. Bards of ages old. Musical tales of the human condition.
The kind of Country music before patriotism and nationalism became a commodity. When being an American actually had some sincerity to it. Where it was about the story that was being woven before an audience that was the point of it all. In a very real way, it’s theater of the most popular kind. This is what Adam truly is, no matter what genre of music he uses, he is a storyteller first and foremost. His musical talents are undeniable, but it would be a gorgeous instrument with nothing to play were it not for his incredible deep-diving often revelatory compositions.
Yet, it is this very thread of truth, of self-discovery that is truly an awesome thing to move about you as you listen to these tracks. And while they may be a gay man’s tale, it is human to its core in ways that I have found sorely lacking in today’s musical “pre-fab” offerings – something Mr. Ray and I share. I used to think that I was just getting old, that music had moved beyond me. Instead, I see with brilliant men like Adam Ray and Jay Brannan (the only other person on my list who I consider a true bard), that it is the music industry that has lost its way. Indie is where it’s at.
That Adam does so from a Country format is really no surprise. As I said in Steve Grand’s review, while my own musical journey is from the world of Opera (as well as musical theatre), I grew up listening to and being exposed to musicians from all facets of the musical spectrum. Country was fully present in our house. I grew up listening to the greats of the past: Buck Owens, Loretta Lynn, Lynn Anderson, Freddie Fender, Glen Campbell to Hank Williams (Sr.), Patsy Cline and Skeeter Davis. I knew all of their songs and would join in whenever we were with my dad’s side of the family in upstate Washington, or in Wisconsin and one of my many uncles (Dad had 23 brothers and sisters) picked up a guitar and the country songs started to fly. So, like Adam, I get that. It’s in my blood too.
And as a sidebar, while I do listen and appreciate musicians from every genre, I have to say what keeps me rooted in Country music is that the male singers sound like men. I don’t know why that is. I don’t think it’s a gay thing; I don’t. It may be one of the reasons I navigated to the world of Opera – because I loved the sound of male voices. I’ll take a tenor (like myself), baritone or bass anytime over the ladies. Sorry, just the way I roll, I guess. Maybe that is a little gay, but I seem to favor the lower registers. Not to say I don’t love soaring vocal inflections that rise, like Superman, into the vocal stratosphere. Adam has that and they rise with such vocal clarity and emotive resonance that it rattles my own understanding of the world as I’ve come to know it musically. I appreciate dexterity when it’s done correctly. Adam has that naturally. These words and his vocals are my own heartstrings being played back to me, like he’d been watching me all of these years.
I am no fool; I know that isn’t remotely true. But I’d be hard-pressed to find a song where I can’t relate to it in some very direct way. This journal could be my own, my husband’s, or any one of my friends.
Adam is truly one of the most gifted singers (and songwriters) I’ve encountered that had me rooted in what he was all about from the moment he took his first breath in To and Fro. He had me; I was hooked. This is not merely a country offering either. Mr. Ray works in musical theater (he is currently touring with “The Book of Mormon” around the country – even stops by in my own neighborhood of San Francisco next month (April) – and after hearing this album, you bet your sweet ass, my butt will be in one of those seats cheering him on, even from a distance, in the dark, with the rest of the fans who came for the show) so his reach is broad and make no mistake, he is adept at it all. But for me, this album has cemented something more lasting: it is the words that he writes, the absolute truth he offers, with all of its flaws and imperfections that will have me clamoring for more. I dare you to listen to this and not find something in it for you. Words and music alone can’t always sway, but Adam’s vocal prowess is undeniable. It is meteoric and blazing – a much needed hug after a long hard day that will lift you up in that you will not feel quite so alone. For me, Clown Parade has already joined my very short Desert Island Discs list (music I couldn’t live without if I had to choose); it is simply that good.
Oh, and can I just mention A FUCKING STRING QUARTET nearly throughout the work! I had a musical orgasm over that one, I can tell you! Who does that any more? Class act, Mr. R. Just sayin’ …
So I don’t have an all-encapsulating word that applies. But I do have a word that I love that completely captures what I went through listening to this album: obtenebration. It is an archaic word but it means the absolute point of darkness before you see the light. Adam’s album is that light – piercing and radiant. His vocals rise and descend with such confidence that you can’t help but be caught up in the journey. The music is so gorgeously arranged and executed by the brilliant artisans Adam chose for the project. He told me in an early email exchange that it was the hardest thing he has ever worked on and one of the things he is most proud of in his life. There is no doubt about the quality and care that is burnished and lovingly presented in this offering. So while I can’t give you a word that truly says everything I love about this man and his works, I can give you that singular archaic word that describes where, even with all of my vast experiences over the half-centennial years of existence on this planet, this work adequately gave me personally, a real-life example of what obtenebration means.
And from the first note, it brought me light.
This is the type of voice my confused 16 year old self would’ve loved to have in my life. Warning me of emotive pitfalls, encouraging me that I am loved, that I do matter. That my journey is a shared one even if it doesn’t appear that way in my day-to-day travels. Gay men’s voices about their lives, about their accomplishments, their foibles, follies and incredible emotional highs. Men who live their lives courageously when the world at large tries to knock us down. You are one of those men, Adam. Far stronger and more brave than you know. Or maybe by now you do? I’d like to think so at any rate.
And just so we’re clear, Adam. You can tap my shoulder and let me know what you’re up to any old time. I’d be all the richer for it. I know that now, you’ve convinced me of such with this brilliant light that is The Clown Parade.
The track by track listing:
01 Intro –
Like a soft Copland-esque opener, this is Americana. It is a lovely and meandering musical roll across your mind, painting pictures of picturesque landscapes and broad vistas. I listened to it several times before Adam sent the lyrics to me for this review. There was something that kept gnawing at me about it though. Something I couldn’t quite put my finger on that was so eerily familiar. Then the lyrics arrived and just before the words to Missouri (the first vocal track) were the words to the chorus of “Oh Shenandoah”. My husband laughed. He’s from the classical world as well (pianist who trained under George Szell of the Cleveland Orchestra) and he just said why didn’t I ask him because he caught the first few notes as they played from my speakers and though they weave the melody between alternating instruments the theme is there. He’s used to playing with melodies buried in compositions – even as trained as I am in it all, this one was so brilliantly arranged that I ended up smirking, thinking: well, fuck me. Score one for #TeamRay. This piece moves from the intro right into the first vocal track when you get to the word Missouri in the Shenandoah melody. A subtle, lovely and brilliant touch. Americana beautifully threaded in a work that only grows and expands on this with each track that follows.
02 Missouri –
The folly of youth and young love. This one definitely picks up the tempo from the somber opening. It is a tightly arranged and beautiful segue from the intro to give us the gift that is Adam’s vocal talent. His voice is warm and inviting, enticing us with its opening lines that anyone could identify with –
Do you remember/ that night under the stars
When love was innocent/ and forever didn’t seem so far
Laying there side by side/ in the dew covered grass
Holding each others hand and wondering if true love lasts
These are thoughts we’ve all entertained with a heady romantic encounter – even if we’ve never really distilled them into actual words. I personally love the way that the subject of this fleeting declarations of attraction are stilled by the knowledge that it was but a moment in time when they both needed some healing before moving on. It is the slight sentimental leaning to lamenting a road not pursued that makes this one golden. This story is left wanting … and that’s a good thing.
It is notable from the start that the title of this song is Battle and not War. The first denotes that it is one step, even if a backward one, that may be lost, but it is certainly not the war – why? Because obviously the singer is still around to tell us the tale. The war is not over. To my way of thinking, so you’ve lost a few battles? Hopefully, you’re a smarter warrior for it. What doesn’t kill us, and all that rot.
I’m not a good man, baby, I’m not a good man
I’m did my best, baby, I’m doin’ the best that I can
But it’s a battle putting out the fires within
I wrestle demons, baby, but they’re strong and they win
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After inquiring with Adam on the back-story of this piece, he told me that it has less to do with him directly and is more about family history. In a way I was heartened by this. Not because I require him to be the center of each piece, but because it speaks to the eagle-like vision he has over what intrigues him to write about – in this case, pain someone close to him went through, though not his own front and center journey. I love how he deftly imbues the pain of an abusive relationship and the devastation it can bring to anyone involved. It is something that has touched us or someone close to us so we all know the havoc it can cause – leaving everyone in pain and wallowing in self-doubt and denial. A brilliant cautionary and emotive tale. This is what a bard does best. Adam has it in spades.
05 My Love is the Best
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You drive me crazy and you push every single button
You pick a daisy and you wear it in your hair
You flirt with all the guys just to see if I’ll get jealous
I try and play it cool and say that I don’t really care
But you know that I do
And you love to watch me sweat
See you what you can put me through
And I’ll ace all your tests
Until the day you realize that, baby
My love is the best
Lover’s games. Nothing is sweeter, nothing more gratifying than the confidence between two committed people who are so confident in their love for one another that playfulness ensues, bringing a new round of desire to spark between them. This is decidedly where Adam takes a diversion into the playfulness life has to offer. The chant is infectious, and the vibe is gentle as a lover’s caress or a subtle nuzzle behind the ear. There are doubts on display within the context of the song, but hey, we all have them no matter how strong you think your relationship is – but the rewards are well worth any doubting demons who rear their ugly heads. Love for one another – yeah, that’s what’s best.
Another review compared this song to something that was alliterative to Sir Elton John’s classics (Daniel, for one, comes to mind). And certainly, I can see the similarity. But I counter with something I love more about this particular offering by Adam. This is a boy’s tune, regardless of your sexual orientation.
Men are taught in modern society that our emotions are not to be expressed. Somehow doing so is seen as womanly – which being the father and grandfather to two smart women I find utterly appalling as if that was something to be despised. I think this does my gender a great disservice. It promotes a disconnectedness to those around us and to the world at large. And that doesn’t mean we have to go soft either. So like Pan in this song, I think Wendy is an allusion to the loss of innocence, of not wanting to grow up, of hiding what we, as men, truly feel but aren’t permitted by society to express – fear, abandonment, resentment, rejection. Every boy is Pan.
Wendy, whether in fully personified form as a girl, or for us gay men, as a metaphorical manifestation of our connection to our emotive center, our willingness to be fragile, caring and empathetic, men are by and large being done a huge disservice in connecting as men to each other, irrespective of their sexual orientation, to being a father (should the situation arise), and certainly to women (misogyny is still alive – even amongst gay men (yeah, I said it)). Men need to heal as a gender. For me this was the take-away for this piece. What do you come up with?
Pssst! Here’s a hint: I pinged Adam about who “Wendy” was and I found I wasn’t far off the mark. See, he really is a bard. Message received: loud and clear.
And there’s so many songs I didn’t write for you
Before the storm before the fall before our tragedy in blue
Never knew how to be a man tried to stay a boy like peter pan
I flew away and hid my heart from you in never ever land
You tried so hard to understand
So, If you hear me now I hope that I’m not out of line
And If you have found someone to love I hope that he is kind, that’s fine
But if you look up and smile at the moon tonight
Then maybe singing this song for you was the first thing I’ve done right
This is your song
What the heart wants and what it needs aren’t always on the same page. Hurricane for me is about this. Those bad relationships that are all consuming but in it you realize what they burn most aside from passion, is a bit of your soul – a piece at a time.
Hurricane you broke me down again
Just when I thought I thought you were finally moving on
You kissed my lips and left a frown again
And like a storm you made a mess, and now you’re gone
But I’m the fool who stood out in your rain
Who found sick pleasure in your pain
We danced a circle ’round the drain
08 The Fall
Here Adam reaches a bit esoterically – and it is done to brilliant effect. The sparseness of the arrangement (both vocally and musically) gives you the utter devastation that warrants the mood of this biting piece.
You cut me but I supplied the sharpest blade
I gave you a ring but I pulled it from a hand grenade
You kept me safe inside barbed wire fences
I kept you warm but you got burned and left defenseless
In the fire
In the fire
09 The Painter
I truly loved this piece. That it was the first piece Adam wrote late one night/very early morning in the theater after a night of performing only speaks to the dedication he has to his craft that goes well beyond a simple paycheck (something else he and I share). It is also indicative of what sort of game Mr. Ray brings to the table – FULL-ON “A” GAME. It is clear from the prose of this work that it is the message that is driving Adam to push at our comfort zone and look at how we view our own intimate relationships. I’ve certainly been there in my past – though thankfully my 20 year (legal) relationship with my husband puts that squarely in the past. But yeah, this one brought it back home for me.
Find a crack in the wall of this castle we built
Drive a nail in and hang me to cover your guilt
You gave me a brush but said, “Paint in the lines”
And we’d paint in the dark hidden from smaller minds
Oh, but you were the painter and I was the muse
You were a hammer and I was a bruise
I’ll be your palate which colors you choose
A tragedy painted in blues
10 Loaded Gun
I drink too much and, baby, I’ve had some one night stands
I get lonely that I need someone to hold my hand
There’s a hole in my heart that nobody can fill
I keep on searching every bed, and every bottle, and pill
Loaded Gun is a fucked up mess of a song. Once you hear it you’ll know what I mean. It’s pretty straight up honky-tonk/juke joint material. Here Adam brings out all the vocal bag of tricks. He may be singing about how fucked up he is and where his fuckedupness has led him, but damn it all if it don’t have a catchy finesse to it that makes you wanna bounce in your seat or tap your hand on the steering wheel while you’re grooving to it. Sometimes being fucked up, or at least writing about it, can be a hot mess in a good way.
The subject matter is far darker than the tune lets on. There is some really fucked up shit going on in that song, bro.
11 A Single Word
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Roll me in sugar and wrap me up in shiny colored plastic
.99 cents gets you sweet cliche pump the bass lets really blast it
But can the truth ever set us free or is that word too fucking dirty
In these sterile rooms where dreams are manicured
You said listen up boy if you want you ever wanna be heard
But I don’t wanna change a single word
A broken music industry where you sell your soul to Satan himself to grant your every desire for success and fame. Seems slightly reminiscent of Damned Yankees – only that was about baseball, wasn’t it? Well, I think (and apparently so does Adam) that the pre-fab shit that is being marketed and sold as bona fide Country (or really any genre, let’s be honest) with auto-tune so prevalent that the youth of today have no idea what a real honest-to-God good singer truly sounds like. All that’s needed is the proper image and everything else can be fabricated to elevate the “dreamer” into superstar status.
Oh, and don’t offer up that “they have to perform live, though” – yeah see, auto-tune works in that arena too. And there are articles that point how rampant its use is within the industry. Talent is not nearly as required as a sexy look or a nice rack of tits to promote something to be sold. Hell, even Paris Hilton had a song out – so obviously anyone can do it. Thankfully, I get none of that from Adam’s work. There are subtle vocal inflections that are purely human in nature that would be a huge target for auto-tune to correct. Not because Adam sings off key; I wouldn’t imply that for a fucking second. No, because what it does is remove those rustic human qualities that give us that Stradivarius quality that makes Adam’s voice so distinctive from my own. Opera and Musical Theatre, if done traditionally, is predicated on its artisans being a good tunesmith and vocalist. Adam makes a very strong case for why that is needed now more than ever with this song.
Of course, the “fucking dirty” word in this case, is gay, how the construct of Country music as an industry won’t allow someone, no matter how talented or vociferous in his positive message of acceptance and inclusion, won’t invite his dreams to the dream machine factory. Sterile walls and beautifully manicured halls are, in fact, riddled with bigotry and exclusion. The plastic only covers the blackness that lies underneath a broken construct and the withering heart masking its dark exclusionary secret in patriotism and conservative values as if they are the true keepers of the dream.
Adam, you’re absolutely right about not changing a fucking single word.
12 To and Fro
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From Verse 3:
Small town USA
A tough break if you are gay
A little boy climbs
Up a big oak tree
Because the harder they pushed
The less he could fight
Tied a knot round his neck
Whispered “mama don’t cry”
And let go
the rope swings to and fro
Sometimes sticks and stones
They bury bones, they bury bones
And sometimes words alone
They bury bones
You told him he’s going to hell
You told him he’s wrong
You told him he’s going to hell
And now he’s gone
Small town USA
Home of the “free and brave”
Okay, time for the waterworks and nothing short of it. In Adam’s own words (from Broadway World):
One of the songs that is most precious to me, “To and Fro” was inspired by the stories of a couple of my cast members who grew up gay in an ultra-religious and unsupportive environment (even enduring religious therapy to “heal” them). We were in Kentucky at the time, and I read an article about yet another LGBT youth committing suicide because of bullying. I was bullied relentlessly growing up so the topic is one I feel extremely passionate about. I remember I was so angry and sad I was literally shaking when I wrote it.
Yeah, I am with Adam on this one, too. As an older gay man, I am all about protecting our queer youth. I can’t imagine being thrown out by the family you were born into. Those type of people confound me. So fucking selfish beyond all measure. So many of our queer youth are in absolute danger and I feel so helpless when all I want to do is find some way for them to be all right and know someone cares about what will happen to them. I was lucky in that even back in the 70s and 80s when I was growing up, I had incredibly supportive and loving parents who loved me no matter what. I didn’t have to live through that hell. But you can bet your sweet ass I was ever so thankful I had who I had as parents. I never took it for granted. I knew I was one of the lucky ones. But it didn’t mean I didn’t live through the horrors of it with my friends in the gay community as I grew up. I saw it with my own eyes.
13 The Clown Parade
While I could wax poetic myself on this one what I will say before I leave you with Adam’s words on it, is that while I’ve reached a point in my life where I don’t paint things to make people happy or comfortable being around me – you see what you get, case closed, move along if there’s nothing to see – then now I have a theme song for it. This song begs you to root for those of us who have to deal with image issues. And yeah, even the people who appear beautiful on the outside can have some pretty ugly demons going on inside – book by its cover and all that, you know?
What do you want them to take away from The Clown Parade?
You are enough. Your “imperfections” or “mistakes” make you beautiful. Don’t EVER paint yourself a clown just to march in their parade. Don’t ever subscribe to the damaging and regressive definitions of ‘normalcy’ and beauty that are widely accepted in this world. I marched for years in circles and found myself nearly 30 staring at a stranger in the mirror. Music gave me the courage to wash off my ridiculous make-up. I made a decision to trust my heart and discovered that truth will only set us free…if we face it head on. I just hope my journey can inspire people to simply be themselves and go for their dreams. Don’t limit yourself. Men don’t have to be tough and buff and strong. Women aren’t catty, weak, objects of desire. I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for the toughness and strength of intelligent women like my Mom, and I wouldn’t write they way I do if I didn’t have father who was sensitive and supportive. An LGBT individual can be a country music artist, a Christian, a mother/father, a role-model…anything he/she wants to be. The parade is over. Let’s march to the beat of our own drums.
The Clown Parade is about that. It is a song worthy of its own musical.
Actually Adam, I was thinking that a book needs to be written to go along with your score. It’d make one helluva musical, don’tcha think?
Hmmm … (tapping finger to chin)
Until Next Time …
Musician and Engineering Team Credits
ADAM’S SOCIAL LINKS
Pre-Release Album Review –
Steve Grand’s “All–American Boy“
Official Release Date – March 24, 2015.
Music is truly the universal language. As a word-smith and a former opera singer myself, I often use music as the inspirational source of my own works. Steve has already been there for me once with my werewolves of Sparrows Hollow. With the release of his first complete album, I think I may have found a musical landscape that I can root the main character of another work of mine – Angels of Mercy.
So onto the review:
Is it possible to produce a seminal work on a first offering? Without a doubt this offering by Steve Grand makes a very strong case for it.
Mr. Grand hasn’t just delivered on his promise to produce an album worthy of crowd sourcing; he’s set a very high bar for those who follow. All-American Boy is not only a brilliant artistic offering, but it is also worthy of going down in the annals of gay history as truly emblematic of what we, as gay people, can bring to the table – both creatively and emotively. Steve hasn’t only amassed a brilliant and often times hypnotic work, his lyrics are purposeful and thought provoking. There is a strong emotive core through the work from the first track to the last.
Simply put: there isn’t a single weak track in the lot.
There is an infectious and emotive quality here that transcends the work – a positivity of what living honestly can bring out in a person. All-American Boy is a work that we should all be proud of, whether you were a part of his dream or not, because the prose and melodies will resonate for some time to come – he has captured what is core to us all, no matter what orientation you may be or how you self-identify. All-American Boy is at times bold (We Are The Night – FINALLY we gays have a quality anthem of our own), unapologetically audacious (Run), reflective (Back to California), to outright sexy (Soakin’ Wet).
The songs here are indicative of our hopes, our fears, our loves and our losses. They represent the many facets that make up the rich and vibrant tapestry of our community – an often times well-worn with feelings of euphoria of first/new love (STAY), crushing blows of unrequited love (All-American Boy) or somewhere in-between (Lovin’ Again) that we immediately connect with the work. Steve is a master wordsmith and a wizard with pop hooks that deep dive into who we are as gay men, or by distilling it even further, as people within the scope of humanity.
In one breath he will flash the honesty of how we live our lives as gay men but then as quickly as it comes, he moves onto an emotion or visualization that anyone can connect with. Why this is so important is that Steve is drawing a line to how being gay is merely a facet of who we are, that it is only one element that makes each of us as priceless as a Stradivarius. He deftly speaks to both, while wrapping you in a wall of sound that is instantly reminiscent of the classic sound of Philly from the sixties as it is fresh and modern of today. I think this is Steve’s strongest suit – he clearly knows what threads to pull on within ourselves, within our shared human context and emotive cores and he weaves a wondrous musical tapestry that belongs along other monumental offerings throughout the ages (Carole King’s Tapestry, immediately comes to mind). That this is his first official offering is truly awesome to hear and speaks to a journey that only shows a bright future ahead.
The collection of production talent Steve has entrusted his baby to are all to be commended on a vibrant and engaging effort. The band is spot on and never lets up emotively even if they do so musically for effect.
I, for one, cannot think of a better way to have spent my money than on Steve’s project. Truly the emotive dividends it will repay me over the years have no measure or value you can place upon them. They are immediately priceless as they are unabashedly presented – honest, true, and adeptly woven. This is music that draws upon nearly every facet of the collective American songbook. As an older cat in the gayborhood, and a writer and musician myself, I am grateful that as I see my golden years before me that we are leaving our future stories in such capable and loving hands. I am honored to have been a small part of his dream. The project has exceeded every hope I could have for it and Steve’s generosity and sheer brilliance of spirit bubbles to the surface of each song like luxurious cream in a good cup of joe – both familiar and inviting all at the same time. This is a brilliant and defining moment for Steve and crew. I hope they are truly proud of their effort, because the effort couldn’t be brighter than 10 or 10 million supernovas in the heavens above.
The only draw back? I want more.
Onto the track break down:
So why do you think I have any reason to post this sort of track-by-track review? Well, as I’ve stated above in my summation, I was a Kickstarter backer to the project. So in a manner of speaking, I was a producer. Certainly not a high-roller, mind you, but a producer of sorts, nonetheless.
Additionally, I was a DJ during the 80s and 90s and have a massive vinyl and digital music collection. I followed the music rags religiously (back then), am a classically trained (union card carrying member – under a different name) opera singer, and I am a novelist/author. Word-smithing is my game. I am also an honest, out gay man who writes about our lives in a literature format. So I think that gives me a certain degree of cred to speak to this work.
Oh, and sidebar – can I just say “YAY!” for an album that doesn’t FADE OUT at the end of each song? I LOVE that about this album! Ready-made for live performance. Bang on brilliant in my book!
But enough about me. This is about Steve’s offering – so let’s get to it shall we?
Track One: Say You’ll Love Me
Admittedly, while I am generally beyond pleased with the entire offering on this album I was a bit surprised that this was the first track (initially, that is). Not that it is a bad song. As I’ve said already there really isn’t a weak track in the work. But Say You’ll Love Me does do one thing from nearly the first note – it hooks – instantly bringing to me those long car drives that you instantly want to sing along with. The beat is infectious and begs rapping your hand on the steering wheel (not that I advocate being distracted while driving – just to be clear). But the lyrics hit you square in the face with the opening line:
“Close the door,” he says,
“This will only be a minute.”
But sometimes minutes can get
caught in suspension.
Immediately you’re caught up in the moment. He’s put you square in the central character of the song, a place many of us have been before – love of a good friend that goes unrequited (in this instance because the guy in question is straight – and so many gay men have been in this exact position (sometimes more than we want to admit)). Where the title track of this album wallows a bit in the pain of unrequited love, Say You’ll Love Me speaks clearly of the promise of the road not taken. This song is straight up novella – it is short, concise but never wavers in deep diving into those painful and complicated moments we all have had when a love isn’t returned. The licking of wounds to make things last, even if it isn’t the outcome you’d like.
Musically, this one is a roller-coaster ride of the wonderment that can be if the road were taken – if societal conditioning and norms didn’t preclude honest conversation between two caring adults. So you get the dreamlike state of being when Steve soars with the possibilities of what could be if the guy in question would say yes. But like Icarus, the dream dies during flight and we’re cast back down to the reality of it all and the soaring chords and drums are quelled so Steve can rebuild his case to offer something else. It’s all for naught, but the vibrancy and soaring dream is a lasting one long after the final chord is struck.
In the end, I realized after listening to the whole album, there really couldn’t be any other choice as the opener. The intimacy of his friend telling him to “close the door” is like a deep musical journey we’re all about to begin. So you schooled me on that one, Steve. Excellent choice – I stand corrected.
Track Two: Red, White and Blue
The pain of love on the rocks rings true here. The melodies and musical choices are reminiscent of classic Mellencamp, with a smattering of The Knack, INXS or Springfield while bubbling along with the sort of songs that were prevalent during the eighties. This is music that is timely as it is timeless. The hand-claps are a brilliant touch that connects us all to our collective musical and emotive pasts where being in bad relationships that flashed and burned ruled our hearts only to find ourselves trying to hang onto something that probably shouldn’t be but we can’t help ourselves. I mean, c’mon – haven’t we all had those bad boy relationships? Yeah, well pour another whiskey and let this one play – this is our new theme song.
Track Three: We Are The Night
Okay, sidebar here – I played this for my granddaughter who recently had a boy in her school tell her he’s gay. They’re thirteen. Now, to be honest, I’ve told her that she should get herself a GBF because they can both get through the hellish years of high school together. Told her that’s how I did it, and she could too. So when her friend at school in her class, who knew she had two gay granddads as we are quite active at her school, came out to her she was ecstatic that she had her GBF. They’ve sort of been inseparable since then. It’s a lovely thing to watch. So that’s the setting for what I am about to say with this song.
WE QUEERS FINALLY HAVE AN ANTHEM TO CALL OUR OWN! (Yeah, I am sorta screaming that to the sky).
And let’s not mince words here: this is for ALL the queer youth/community out there that need EVERY ONE OF OUR VOICES of support and love. Well, Steve has definitively laid down the gauntlet on the best way to proclaim we’re here and we have to really support one another. This is a fantastic song for reasons that go way beyond the scope of just being gay, or bi or whatever. It is for all the kids and adults who have always felt on the outside. This is a song for the rest of us. This is the song I would have cried over coming back to me from my headphones (okay, I teared up a little just remembering my hellish teen years that happened so long ago). This song would’ve been so welcome in my small insular world back then. I know it was a different era, but Steve, this song healed that young, confused 16 year old me who was trying to sort out what it all meant. You’ve gone a long way to putting those terrifying and lingering feelings to rest. I can’t thank you enough for these healing words. That you include the spoken part that addresses and includes the trans community at a time when tolerance, understanding and most of all, support and love is desperately needed for these amazing and vibrant people is truly a lovely thing to behold.
Aces in my book. Nothing short of it. This is a song for the ages.
Easily, with one exception, my absolute favorite track on the album (which I’ll come to anon in this review – just keep my granddaughter and her GBF in mind when I get there, okay?).
Track Four: All-American Boy
Now we’ve come to the track that started it all.
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There isn’t much to add here other than this one is a classic already just because it is firmly entrenched in the collective musical consciousness of those who were deeply affected by the song and the powerfully drawn and produced video that began this journey for everyone involved.
No words can adequately express the importance of this song in this album. There was no other way to bring this project to life without giving this titular song its well-deserved and proper due.
It has an infused church-like gospel quality that speaks to the soul and spirit of love, whether accepted or left unrequited. It is what we all strive for and whether successful or not, we strive to carry it forward despite the wins or losses along the way.
Track Five: Soakin’ Wet
Rick Springfield, much? Okay, but you know what? Unlike that classic rock song, this one reeks of sexiness that tosses caution to the wind and just revels in the euphoria of the moment. The way the second verse comes back to you from the raucous and driving chorus is like a memory that has been lingering too long in the dust of time only to slam you in the face with memories and feelings you thought you forgot about until (in the case of this song) “he’s” back. Yeah, this is full-on clothes off time folks. Water, wet exposed bodies and heartfelt memories that goad you to do something completely rash and in the moment that you can’t help yourself and just runaway with it all – this song captures that moment wonderfully without crossing the line to being too pop or schmaltzy. It’s infectious and brings a little summer fun in the dead of winter. A bright and bouncing beat and melody that will have you humming and singing along like you knew this song from way back and like the memories of the two characters in the song, you might even find that you think Steve had planted this in our heads a long time ago and only now just pulled it to the fore and we all go – “Oh yeah! I remember this one…” It’s eerily that familiar.
Classic and new in one package. Full-on awesome-sauce.
Track Six: Lovin’ Again
This one was a delightful surprise. It has a subtle jazz influenced verse line that exhibits Steve’s broad and adept reach into different aspects of our collective American songbook. It has all the impact of classic Billy Joel and those classic rock anthems of love gone awry and how the heart will have what the heart wants even if it is the worst thing for us. The backing vocals are a lovely if simplistic element that give it that rock anthem feel.
Track Seven: Whiskey Crime
Okay, so before I got to this rustic gem I was sensing that Steve had a theme going here. Does the guy get a kickback from every time he mentions whiskey? Seriously, bro – wtf? I mean I like Diet Coke (sorry don’t imbibe here as it is a serious issue with Native Americans) but I don’t think I would set so many songs with it. But hey, that’s just me, I suppose.
That being said, I have to say I love this track, mostly because of its rustic honky-tonk feel. It lends itself to the bar-back doubling as your psychiatrist. The only downside? I am not sure the mix with the backing vocals is where it needs to be. I think a little more forward with them would have balanced the mix a bit better. I am willing to concede that not having heard it but I think they are getting lost in the mix – especially since they are shown to brilliant effect as the opening to the song.
Track Eight: STAY
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Well, now he’s gone and done it. This one is the best example of what Steve does so well. He calls up so many elements of our rich musical past and gives us something for everyone – no matter what your musical tastes have been to this point. This is a full-on party song about the discovery of new love. I loved this song so much I mention it in one of my books (Angels of Mercy – Volume 2: Marco (shameless plug below, so sue me: it’s my blog)). The reason for including it in my own works? Well, it’s mostly because this one was released shortly after the viral video storm that was All-American Boy. Everyone was expecting country again and when it first starts with the mandolins you think – okay, yeah. But then we get horns and claps and all sorts of elements from differing walks of our musical life.
It captures how that wow factor moment of being caught up in someone new to where you don’t see much beyond them because they shine so brightly is what drives this song home emotively. Unlike Whiskey Crime the backing vocals here are spot on and are fully present in the mix. They immediately call up the exuberance of youth and of new love – where everything is just amazing and wonderful. It beckons you to stomp your feet, clap along and join in the chorus. You can’t help yourself – it’s simply that good. My summer song is set – for this year or any other.
It made such an indelible impression that I mention it in my own work. Stay will do just that – STAY.
Track Nine: Next to Me
While not a weak number, this one is a small diversion from the other tracks in that it is rather light on the lyrical element and plays to our baser desires – which isn’t a bad thing. It’s a fun song that will no doubt be a crowd-pleaser when performed live. This song begs for live performance – a crowd stirrer of the highest order. I can already see the audience jumpin’ around in a happy frenzy as Steve calls the shots from the stage.
Titillatingly Magical …
Track Ten: Time
Nothing hits closer to home for an audience than story-telling songs. They are part of the collective consciousness and are easily the most enduring. Here the lyrics take on a poetic quality – descriptive from the heart. This isn’t headspace talking here; it’s what the heart wants. It’s what the heart remembers. It’s what we want to remember most – even after a breakup. You want to hold onto those things that made it all worthwhile.
The mix of this song is really quite lovely. The balance is spot-on. I even loved the synth keyboard string arrangements (thank God the mix held it back from sounding like synths playing strings! Coming from a classical background I am all about REAL string sections but understand when budgets won’t allow for it. I just can’t stand synth strings that scream: hey, I’m playing fake strings here! It’s like nails on a chalk board for me. This mix carefully avoids that mishap).
Track Eleven: Better Off
Love lost. Yeah, we’ve all pretty much got our war stories there. This is very much like an ethereal ode to the death of love, the parting of ways, the rising above the mean and harsh words that often accompany a break up. It’s often a foolish exercise in how petty we can be in life. Nothing hurts more than love gone sour – no matter where the source of that love springs from. Steve sets this poetic ode to love-lost in the cosmos because it is a collective story that we can all relate to. It is expertly drawn and deftly executed. The mix of the song gifts you with an aural layering that the song requires to drive the expansive emotive message home.
Track Twelve: Run
I read somewhere that Steve wrote this on the porch of a friend’s house one morning with a bottle of whiskey (would it be anything else? I mean, c’mon, really?). This one is where the inexperience of youth rears its often ugly head. Where the “I don’t give a shit” rises and tries desperately to drown out the noise that surrounds them to the point of going bat-shit cray-cray. What else is there to do but Run? (Like how I worked that in? *cue rim shot* Okay, I agree. It’s smarmy – I’ll stop now).
The song is driving from the moment the first notes are struck and it never lets up. Like the flash in the pan a youngster can go through (James Dean, River Phoenix or Heath Ledger are just a few well-known instances that come to mind) where that mentality can also lead to a tragic and oft times untimely end. It is as much a cautionary tale as it is an anthem to the audacity of youth. It’s brash, it’s harsh and totally in your face unapologetic. But we were all there at one time. I look back now and think – what the fuck was I thinking? Yeah, some truly monumental moments of epic fucked-upness in my closet. This song brought all of that to the fore. Gee, thanks Steve! (<— Just Kidding)
Track Thirteen: Back to California
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Okay, remember that little side story I told you about my granddaughter and her new GBF? Yeah well this afternoon I played her the video for it. The song took on a whole new meaning for me (and by extension for her). I’d seen the video before but it didn’t distill itself with such clarity and soul cutting bite as it did this afternoon.
I put it on for her to let her see how a story played out between a teen girl and her GBF. Whether this was an auto or semi-biographical moment that Steve actually went through or not is almost beside the point (no disrespect to the author – I am all about your words, Steve – as an author I sincerely mean that in ways you just don’t know). No, what was of import here was that as she watched it, she began to draw her own conclusions of what the possibilities for her and her new GBF have in store for them both.
She’s spending the night over at his house as I write this. So while I commend Steve for putting this together (maybe even from his own past) I found I used to think about the girl in my life that was my bestie back in the day and how we did everything we could to keep each other sane throughout high school. Only now, having watched my granddaughter watch the video and its message and watching her eyes lighting up with where it could go for the both of them, I saw something truly magical take root. The torch was being passed to another generation of gay boys finding a girl they can confide in and hold close. I am truly proud of her for being there for him. He’ll need her loyalty more than he knows. Thankfully, his family is fully supportive, so no danger there.
So yeah, out of all the songs on this album this song means the most. It is the most sentimental for reasons that transcend the offering here. But that’s what makes the whole project so brilliant and all-encompassing. It is a body of work that stands individually but when combined is a powerhouse of creative spirit and musical expression.
So are there any drawbacks to the album? It can’t ALL be positive, right?
Okay, I’ll grant you. Some of the mixes weren’t what I would’ve done but those are creative choices by the team that Steve surrounds himself with. I have to respect that – and I do. Deeply. As a content creator myself I am all about respecting the craft of others.
There is a single thing I thought was missing though – a simple piano and voice piece. Back to California is a truly lovely piece, my favorite as I’ve explained earlier, but there is something so gripping about a singer and a solitary instrument that was lacking from this album. That’s not a bad thing in and of itself, I just found I would’ve liked this one pit-stop somewhere to quiet things down a bit. The wall of sound can be overbearing at times – despite the masterful musical breaths the songs take within themselves. A simplistic element, letting Steve shine as solo, was something I found wanting from the work. Perhaps next time he’ll grace us with such an offering.
The studio musicians (whether they are Steve’s actual performing band or not) were all expertly chosen which only elevates the work to a prominent level, easily putting it on par with larger studio offerings and in my opinion, easily exceeding the miasma of over-processed work that is flooding the market. Steve is a brilliant and engaging personality. He is thoughtful and respectful of our collective gay history, he has a steady eye to his future but knows that there is no sense of entitlement, he is all too aware that his current rise is on the backs of those who were courageous before him. This is why I respect this man and his dream so much. Our lives and loves, the efforts we put into reaching our own equality are in very capable hands with Mr. Grand and his crew.
As an older cat, I gotta say – “Dayum brotha – you really got it goin’ on, don’tcha?”
At the time I wrote my (soon to be released – 4/1/15) first epic work, I reached out to my other musical muse, Jay Brannan who allowed me to quote from his works in my novel Angels of Mercy Volume One – Elliot (it’s about an out but terminally shy artistic gay young man in his senior year who does everything he can not to be seen, suddenly finds himself in the arms of the highest profile jock on campus). Jay was kind enough to allow me to quote a line or two of his songs in the book as my main character is emotively rooted in Jay’s darker aspects of gay life (he’s a gay fanboy for Jay).
So on balance I wanted Marco (his jock boyfriend) to have someone else to root himself in. With All-American Boy, I think I’ve found that album. Marco is a quarterback at the high school and I could totally see him digging what Steve’s message is all about. I already have him mentioning the song STAY in the work. But now he too can root himself in a musically emotive core. So thanks Steve. I know you were an inspiration for my werewolves of Sparrows Hollow (my first release) but now you’ve given me a broad canvas to emotively write about a jock who never wavers in his love of the boy who always questions if what they have is real. Is it true? Because gay boys often have to do that to stay safe. The world is changing; we are evolving (even if, at times, it appears we take just as many steps back as we do forward). But I write from the same source as Steve and Jay do: about our collective experiences, about our lives as we live them, with an eye to our future but mindfully respectful of our shared past.
Until next time …
When Werewolves Go Lit(erary) –
This is a continuing conversation I’ve been having with an author pal of mine – Jayne Lockwood (who also writes under the pseudonym of Savannah Smythe) and is based in the UK. We started this as a means of exchanging ideas, listening to each others gripes and fears, sorting out what we do and why we do it, and how we can possibly market the damned things we produce. They are captured via a chat session on Yahoo so they are a stream of consciousness at the moment they happen. We realize that since we aren’t really editing for perfection, that we may “step in it” from time to time. We embrace that. We know we may mis-speak, may say something out of turn without much thought going into it. It is ALL part of the dialog. We want to look back at some point and see where this journey has taken us as we write what we write.
Jayne Lockwood: Okay, so you’ve had a few trials and tribulations recently with your work and the definition of the word “literature.” How would you describe your writing? I’m talking about in general, not just Angels of Mercy (AoM) … and why?
SA Collins: I think actually that my recent release of the “fluff” piece I did was the most instructive on what kind of writer I am. I mean, it was supposed to be a “fluff” piece about werewolves. How much more fucking non-lit can you get, right? Yeah, well, it seems I can. I didn’t know my wolves would go all “lit” on me. It was quite the revelation. I think it is because I am wrapped up in their headspace (I tend to write first person), regardless of the work I do, with the human condition in it. I find the inner-monologue to be of vast interest. It is where the most grey in all of us reside (50 Shades of Crap aside…).
Jayne Lockwood: LOL, let’s not mention that…
SA Collins: Oh, can we? *shudders*
SA Collins: And in a real way the monsters in my werewolves really distilled that for me. I mean, it has always been the ultimate metaphor in literature (esp. in the gothic tropes) to use the monster as a representative of the monsters in all of us, whether we choose to let them out or not.
Jayne Lockwood: The examination of the human condition is a great one, but I don’t think it is just the premise of literature. What I’m trying to say is that examining the human condition can be done in lesser books …
SA Collins: Sure, but the transcendency of the work is what I think is the dividing line. It was what I was getting at in the summation of my last blog post. A lot of works examine the human condition but very few of them invite that deep dive into why they affect us so. Tom Sawyer gave us many more questions than Twain ever attempted to answer. That is what I think Literature does. And to be clear it isn’t the easy questions we come away with that I am speaking to – I mean it is the hard questions we often don’t want to look at.
Jayne Lockwood: True. And so did John Steinbeck. To write great literature, you have to produce something of lasting artistic merit. And it doesn’t have to be a very long book to do that.
SA Collins: I don’t think the artistry is necessarily the key factor here though it is the art of prose that does ultimately sway an audience. I think that literature itself sort of brings the artist out more in the use of words. And to your point, that was also what I said in my summation – length doesn’t have anything to do with it. The Old Man and the Sea, for example.
Jayne Lockwood: I’m thinking of Of Mice and Men as a case in point. A very slight book, but packs a powerful punch. So you’ve got your piece of literature. It’s beautiful, perfectly edited, superbly crafted. How do you market it in this modern age?
SA Collins: I used Look Homeward, Angel (LHA) on purpose as a point of comparison. Why? Because by many critics and literature scholars it is considered one of the greatest American literary works of all time – and it was one of the reasons why my husband drew the conclusion about my work in Angels. Because there was a segment of the literary circles that agreed LHA was a literary work but it rambled. It meandered. It didn’t do what it did concisely. It also took nearly a quarter of the book before you even got to the main character. So there was some give and take on how it was perceived. BUT what it did do was that it presented a complete picture of a complex family that showed all of the foibles and follies of humanity in it and it did it beautifully.
Jayne Lockwood: I’m thinking of a comparable work in James Joyce’s Ulysses.
SA Collins: Absolutely. To answer how I would approach AoM – or do you mean any modern work of literature today? Hmm, I’m not so sure what you’re probing at here …
Jayne Lockwood: I’m saying any form of literature.
SA Collins: Oh I get you … hmmm, that is a hard one. And here’s what I’ve learned from my own journey: when I wrote Angels I thought I was writing a bit of fluff, a simple M/M romance genre thing. The problem is while I was writing it – it was all I had in my head. I just heard Elliot’s voice (probably because he is so near to my own – even if he makes choices I never would). I didn’t say, “Oh, I am gonna write the gay Gone With The Wind now.” It’s just not how an author approaches something that becomes literature. That wasn’t my perspective. I just thought I had a cracking good story and I wanted to get it down before it left my little ol’ pea brain. That was the impetus to write what I did. I think most authors approach it that way. It is only when the work is completed can you look at it and go – well, fuck me, what did I just do there?
Jayne Lockwood: I totally agree.
SA Collins: I think that Wilde, Wolfe and the rest did what they did. It was for others to put that label on the work. I can totally see that now. I get that my work is “like” literature more than general genre fiction. Why? Because I do ramble. I let my characters ramble a bit – because we all do to varying degrees. That’s what makes it a character study body of work. I want it honest; I want it true. But I think most authors do – it is the depth of that character dive that I think that separates me from most general fiction writers. Think about it: if I wrote DaVinci Code (which I happen to have the movie on the TV right now), that book would be vastly different than the one that Brown released.
Jayne Lockwood: It might have been better… Although a lot of people dissed that book, I actually enjoyed it. People seemed to get sniffy because it was quite “light,” but that’s okay. I had to laugh when you said on your blog that you had given yourself a month to write AoM. I gave myself a year to write The Cloud Seeker (TCS)…
SA Collins: Aw, (regarding DaVinci) thanks for that! Well, that’s the funny part. When I dreamt it up I thought – oh, this is a simple little m/m romance thing with a bit of a thriller take on it. Simple enough.
Jayne Lockwood: Simple enough? HAH!
SA Collins: But you see, that’s where I was when it all began. Isn’t that fascinating to ponder a bit on? I had no idea (when I started) that Elliot was going to mentally and emotively vomit all over me. What happened very quickly was that all of those pent up things in my past started to pour out in the course of distilling them and reliving them. Elliot seemed to begin to lead me through his story. I’ve read the sample you sent me of TCS and I was really loving the prose you put there. Truly.
Jayne Lockwood: Thank you! That means a lot. I’ve been accused of being too “wordy” and “not literary.” But I think a true writer (controversy alert) cares deeply for their characters.
SA Collins: Sure they do. They are their creation. I would never assume that they don’t. But I think where I diverge from others is because of my theatrical training – as an actor I have to come up with why I would pick up that tea cup in a certain way and at a certain point in time (not just because the director said so – not good enough) … more of, was it because of an abusive grandmother who would slap my hands if I did it wrong? That sort of thing.
Jayne Lockwood: Got it. You self-analyse, so why wouldn’t your characters do the same?
SA Collins: Absolutely. Though I don’t think that your character question is controversial. I think it is germane to being a real writer. You have to care for the work and the characters in it. Just as in live performance, the audience will know the difference if you don’t (or as they say if you “phone it in”).
Jayne Lockwood: Absolutely. If you don’t care about your characters, why should anyone else?
SA Collins: Yes, it isn’t enough when the director tells you as an actor to cross to the left side of the stage on that particular line – you have to examine (or you should) why that moment in time evokes that response in your character. So it is those machinations and inner workings that I want to examine. I want to flesh that out for a reader in my works. I think this is the fertile ground for literature. The deep dive into the very essence of who and what we are as human beings.
Jayne Lockwood: I agree. If you want fluff, there is plenty of it around.
SA Collins: It is why Elliot revisits certain aspects in his life over and over in Angels of Mercy – to pulse check that he truly has the hottest guy on campus to call his own. To him it is beyond any hope he would ever have in life; therefore, it can’t be real. He has to keep mentally slapping it up on his emotive wall to see if the “experiment” he thinks it is will still hold true. He learns over time that Marco will never willingly stray from him. Marco is a fighter in their relationship. Elliot has never had that from anyone. Support, yes. Someone who will fight for his love? Not a chance (at least up until Marco enters his world).
Jayne Lockwood: It’s human nature to ask “why me” ?
SA Collins: I think it is, but I often ponder why more authors don’t really ask that question of their characters. Perhaps it is just me, but the “showing” gets rather banal after awhile. And let’s be honest, not many can actually do a good job of showing (which is why it is such an over wrought line used on newbie authors). As for my work, I couldn’t just leave it at that for the reader. I had to show by telling (through his inner-monologue) why Elliot felt that way. I had to lay it out for the reader why gayboys often deny themselves happiness outright.
Jayne Lockwood: Has the purpose of the book (AoM) morphed into an attempt to get people on the “outside” to understand the psychology of gay men?
SA Collins: To a very real degree, yes. I don’t think many authors tackle this (well, certainly not in the M/M Romance genre – it can be way too superficial for my tastes). There is so much speeding it along – and then, and then, and then. Jesus, why not explore why the “and then” exists in the first place and come away with a little more depth? For gay men, and I’ve spoken at length with my gay brothers on this topic many times over my half-century existence on this planet, it (happiness) is unusual for us. We don’t expect it. We can’t believe it when it is. We distrust it out of turn. Society has taught us this. We grow up like other children only to experience that when we feel differently then we are the broken ones. Elliot has to do this (poll whether he’s okay with everything when it happens or not) to protect himself. It is Marco who must obliterate that by example. Marco realizes very quickly that he has to man up and show (and tell) and demonstrate that he is unwavering. Every time Elliot doubts, Marco shows him how deep his feelings run for Elliot. And teens do this to a great degree – EVERYTHING is heightened, over-dramatic. Now add gay teenboy angst on top of it and there ya are = ELLIOT.
Jayne Lockwood: Because at its heart is a cracking good read.
SA Collins: I hope it is. The work took on a life of its own. I mean, my work will always be about giving a non-gay reader insight into facets of gay men as I create them. No superficial walks in my world. That is a very good question you pose there because I’ve only just recently come to the conclusion that Marco is not really gay at all. He is really pansexual. For him it is truly the person inside he falls in love with. But (and this is critical here to properly understand his character) he says “gay” for Elliot because he knows, in his heart of hearts, that anything other than that would hurt Elliot. Elliot wouldn’t be able to accept it and allow them to move forward. It would be too tenuous to him. That is a big part of the self-deprecation and denial that is often inherent in gay men. We’ve been taught that by society. It’s getting better and more men are accepting of who they are and that they DO deserve happiness. But there is a VERY long way to go. My work still has relevance in that regard. At least I think so.
Jayne Lockwood: I think you’re right. There is still a lot of homophobia out there as well. Define “pansexual.”
SA Collins: Pansexuals differentiate from bisexuals in that their attraction is inclusive of transsexuals – it is very pure in that it is the person inside that ignites and inflames – the sex/gender is almost irrespective of it all. I should add that there’s a lot of homophobia (self-hating) within the community believe it or not.
Jayne Lockwood: It isn’t a term I’ve heard before. Is it homophobia within the community, or snobbery?
SA Collins: No, there is an inherent homophobia (for lack of a better term) because they despise things within our own community, as if we’re all unclean. You only have to look at gays actively involved in the gay conversion therapy to see it. There is a gay friend of mine who is on FB (I am sure you know him or have seen him) but he holds himself up as a gay activist but he constantly berates others within the community that he thinks are unclean or not to the standard he holds for himself. I would say that it is snobbery but it transcends that because of the vehemence that he exhibits when he rants. There is a self-loathing if it doesn’t meet a certain degree of being perceived as normal or mainstream. And I find that troubling as a member of that community. As we strive for acceptance and equality, must we be so quick to cut others out or shame them into being like our heteronormative counterparts? I don’t think that is the way to go. We need to embrace all of it. The leather community, the people in the sex industry, whatever walk of life because let’s face it deary – those things exist in the straight community as well. In fact, the BDSM came from us and was adopted by the straight community (as we’ve seen – sometimes in the wrong way as with 50 Shades of Utter-Bullshit). But I digress. Getting back to your pansexual question, I think this is why Marco can have really deep seated feelings for Holly because it is who she is that he responds to – but when compared to Elliot, even she comes up short.
Jayne Lockwood: Which means, his love for Elliot is pure and true.
SA Collins: Yeah to your last about Marco and Els (Elliot). He comes to realize that it is truly who Elliot is that he can’t be without. I also think this is why Marco “lies” to Elliot about his being with a guy/girl at the same time in the first book. It isn’t true. He also isn’t wholly honest that the girl had no interest for him. We know in Marco’s book that isn’t true. He fucking loved being with Holly (literally, because he loved fucking her). It just wasn’t going to hold a candle to what he felt about Elliot. He knew he’d never be fully there for her in that way so he had to let her go. Elliot was more important to him. But his fear of rejection by Elliot (because he’s a jock) is what led Marco down a rocky road of questioning what his sexuality is all about. He gets his answer, and ultimately it doesn’t change his deep attraction and desire to bring Elliot to him.
Jayne Lockwood: To your last point, I have another author friend who says he isn’t popular with the gay community either because of what he used to do for a living. He’s such a lovely bloke. It’s a real shame.
SA Collins: What did he do for a living? Work with politicos who voted against us?
Jayne Lockwood: He did something that many would perceive as unseemly, just to make ends meet.
SA Collins: ‘Cause I gotta say that that is about the one thing that I have issue with – those who work against us. Other than that, not much else gets under my skin. If he isn’t working against us as a community then it won’t be an issue for me – tell him to look me up … not that I am looking to step out on the hubby – let’s be clear! *laughs*
Jayne Lockwood: I didn’t think for one moment!
SA Collins: I mean that I am very sex positive here. I have numerous friends who are IN the porn and sex industry (see Boomer Banks and Rocco Steele below – two prime examples of brilliant and dynamic men who have so much more going on for them – well beyond their porn star status), after all. I play fairly and respect (nearly – cause haters who are only about the hate don’t rate much in my book) everyone.
Jayne Lockwood: He’s happy with his partner. Everything has turned out ok so far. He’s an FB friend.
SA Collins: I treat them all as humans first and hope they love the crap outta me for it.
Jayne Lockwood: I don’t have a problem with anyone’s profession or sexuality either, as long as they’re not promoting hatred. Can’t be doing with that.
SA Collins: Totally on board with that. But yeah, to your point on literature, because it is our topic today, I think that when my werewolves started expounding or waxing on deeper psychological elements of what it meant to be a monster, then I knew I was using my Weres as something else altogether. I was actually calling back to what gothic horror really was – a proper examination of we humans.
Jayne Lockwood: Finally! At least someone is …
SA Collins: Actually it’s like the cable show Penny Dreadful (here in the States). I want my Weres to evolve to that sort of story. I think I’ve begun to lift it out of the fluff stuff and go after real gothic pathos here. Like right now, book two is actually from Hank’s father’s perspective. He has quite a bit on his mind, it seems about everything having to do with his son now in the pack. It’s taken on a different mantle. It’s become a deep dive into fatherhood, monsterhood, and husbandhood – his plate is pretty fucking full coming back home.
Jayne Lockwood: There’s definitely a market for more intelligent lycanthropic books (did I spell that right?)
SA Collins: Yeah you got it.
Jayne Lockwood: Which one are you thinking of carrying on from? Henry or Shrill? (Point of clarification – Amazon banned the original work HO’M,O – Henry O’Malley, Omega due to a dark thread in the plot so SA re-released a watered down version of the same story as The Shrill of Sparrows)
SA Collins: What I love about (John) Logan’s work in Penny Dreadful is that it is the monsters who can cope with the harsh realities of Victorian England. The humans are the ones who struggle and make epic mistakes. I sort of like that.
Jayne Lockwood: Because they are human.
SA Collins: Shrill will always be a standalone copy – the “werewolf-lite” version of it. So yeah, it is the human frailties that I think are really interesting to hold up to the monsters. I want my Sparrows series to examine that. I mean Cal is a father, a werewolf AND a husband whose wife has gone terribly long without her man giving her “what for …” in the bedroom.
Jayne Lockwood: So, in order not to descend into chaos or make bad choices, we need to be more like werewolves? I haven’t seen Penny Dreadful yet, so I might be talking out of my arse.
SA Collins: Cal’s a busy boy in Quarrel of Sparrows (the follow-up to HO’M,O/Shrill). And no, you’re not talking out your ass (sorry, it’s the Yank in me) re: Penny. It is very well done. Full-on balls to the wall honest-to-God pathos going on in that show. What is interesting in it is that Logan takes side trips that you start in with – what the bloody fuck is this about now? Only to find out that the way ’round trip you just took for an episode informs you on the entire arc you’re on with the whole thing.
Jayne Lockwood: Getting back to your Weres, it sounds like he has his work cut out (in Sparrows Hollow, West Virginia – where the story is set), but does he think like a human or a werewolf?
SA Collins: Cal is most definitely human throughout. But he is constantly at war with his inner wolf. The whole cast of boys are, actually. What I am doing that is drastically different – which book two will explain – is that I am introducing a new type of wolf into the genre.
Jayne Lockwood: Does he have any Were traits at all?
SA Collins: Oh yeah he will “wolf out” – no doubts there – mostly because he has to train his boy in what they are. They are the only two of their kind. In this, I introduce a new classification to the Were’s genre – a Gamma (as opposed to Alpha, Beta or Omega). It goes back to that spell that Ruth cast when she was pregnant with Hank that didn’t succeed in separating the wolf from Cal/Hank but redoubled and instead bound the magic to them.
Jayne Lockwood: THAT sounds like an interesting read. When do you think it will be finished?
SA Collins: I want it out by the time the blog tour starts in mid-March, so I can promote the release of book two while I am talking up book one.
Jayne Lockwood: So they (Father and son – Cal and Hank) are unique?
SA Collins: Yes, the Gammas are not beholden to any pack law. They can be destructive as all hell and can go completely off the rails (Ruth, Cal’s wife and Hank’s mother (who is a witch), is the one who comes up with the term because of her cosmology studies when she was in college). So Cal and Hank are Gammas – they have a way to use their wolf talents and strengths and can even imbue that magic for a time into their pack to strengthen them. But it comes at a cost, as they shall soon see. BUT there is a wrinkle in this because Cade, Cal’s former lover in his old pack, has been doing his magical homework and has sort of created something like it himself during the intervening years since Cal disappeared and Hank was growing up.
Jayne Lockwood: Got it. Where did this idea come from?
SA Collins: The idea came because I wanted to do something about the heteronormative perception that the “bottom” was the weak guy in the gay relationship – believe it or not.
Jayne Lockwood: You have to have a wrinkle …
SA Collins: That was the impetus for my Gamma
Jayne Lockwood: Aah, now I’m getting it
SA Collins: Omegas in the gay Weres trope are the soothers of the pack life. They often are physical (to some degree) with most of the members of the pack – they ensure pack cohesiveness and common interests. The Alpha and Betas rely on the abilities of an Omega as they augment their strength in a pack. But Ruthie’s little mishap gave birth to something else in Cal altogether. And since she was pregnant with Hank at the time he also has the same trait now.
Jayne Lockwood: So is he the ultimate power bottom? Although I hate labels.
SA Collins: Yeah, kinda sorta. But the bottoms aren’t the weak ones. Think about it. It takes a helluva lot of courage to be there for your man in that way. A real top (that isn’t just trying to be a prick but actually gets that it is a mutual thing/pairing they’re after) understands that he wouldn’t get what he wants if he didn’t have a man who was willing to go there for him. Just sayin’… The thing is, I want to use the sex as a way for these boys to remain rooted in their humanity through all the gross bloodshed that is going to come their way.
Jayne Lockwood: I think people expect sex as part of the deal with werewolves.
SA Collins: Perhaps, but in my world it is also how I will bind Hank to the boys emotively. He will assume the responsibility for each of them. Right now he doesn’t know how much that is part of the deal. He’s still reeling from the fact that he has eight boyfriends. Yeah, it’s very specific in my Weres world. And with Cal/Hank – it takes on a whole new meaning – remember Cade’s comment at the end of HO’M,O where he said that movin’ in that boy was like dippin’ his wick in a very powerful force? Or something like that, well magic is involved in their sex.
Jayne Lockwood: I just wanted to touch on book covers, whilst you’re here as well.
SA Collins: Sure. Fire away
Jayne Lockwood: How do you decide on what to put on a book cover? We had another discussion about the cover for Angels, in which I said it wasn’t about American football, but actually, it is, or the game dynamics that can be applied to real life. What makes a great book cover, one that “pops” on thumbnail and makes people want to click on it?
SA Collins: It was interesting for Angels because the whole series actually came from an image I think I’ve told you before, where I imagined a couple of boys on the Bixby Bridge (which is on my site) and cop cars on either side with lights flashing and the entire scene bathed in a heavy fog. There is another boy falling from the bridge with his arms outstretched and the fall has created a draft of “wings” behind him. That was the image I had in my head when it first came to me. I always thought that was the final book image. But now I am not so sure. I mean, it is a very indelible image in my mind about the books, but I don’t know if it would make a great cover. What was core for me was what will POP? What will stand out? And then I started to play with metaphors. The only one that mattered to me was football in and of itself – because all of the trauma these boys go through stem from that singular point. Just look at what’s happened with Michael Sam in the sport. So unfair on how he was not assessed because of his true talent, despite what the commentators say. But let’s say what if Marco was a painter, or a runner or some other damned thing, I don’t know it would be just as pointed.
Jayne Lockwood: Okay, but book one is from Elliot’s perspective, and he hates football …
SA Collins: Yeah so it was even more important to me that football be on that cover – weird, huh? But if you noticed I looked for a very specific image – that of a football player pointing to the reader, as if saying ”YOU.“ I’ll admit it isn’t everything I want in it, but it does the job. The color scheme is strong enough that it does standout against the other half-torsoed men on all the other covers. In a way – exactly – if someone thought I was being high browed from the get-go then I think they’d pass on it. Sad but true, that.
Jayne Lockwood: I get what you’re saying, and I LOVE the cover. It’s been around a while now and it’s what I associate with the book. If you changed it, I’d think WTF, but it got me thinking as to what the book is actually about. And someone else said on the blog that the book didn’t immediately say “literature” but is that a bad thing?
SA Collins: And can I stop and just say – do we HAVE to have half-naked men on EVERY cover – oh for fuck sake! But in this way I sort of straddle all of those tropes and cover ideas.
Jayne Lockwood: Ha ha! I do my eye-rolling thing when I see pecs and nips. Like, here we go again … So readers know from the get go they are getting something different?
SA Collins: It has an athletic male on it, it is colorful (even though it is rather monotoned), and more importantly (at least to my way of thinking), it isn’t what everyone else is doing. Well that is the hope – first get them to click on the damned thing because it does look different, then the write up is my gig – that’s where I better do my damned work to “elevator pitch” them to hell and gone to pick up the damned thing and BUY it.
Jayne Lockwood: I don’t do pecs and nips either … Just handsome men in suits. If they want pecs and nips, they have to READ THE FUCKING BOOK …
SA Collins: Yeah. And I appreciate that perspective of yours, believe it or not. In a very real way it gives balance to your erotic works inside. It’s very much the “less is more” or “let your imagination wander” sort of thing.
Jayne Lockwood: That’s it. The write up is crucial. I hate the write up ...
SA Collins: It’s funny because I’ve decided that self-pub is my plan B to get Angels out there. But if I really want it to succeed or have a real shot at it, I think I’ll have to really try traditional pub by going for a real literary agent. I think that it is the only real way I have a shot to get it out there. Given with the resistance I’ve experienced with HO’M,O and Shrill, I don’t think the promo- blog tour groups would be able to handle the violent homophobia that is at the core in Angels very well.
Jayne Lockwood: Yes, I’m with you on the self-pub/trad thing. You need backing. Some people make lots of money by self-pubbing, but they are in the minority.
SA Collins: I need deeper pockets and a bigger marketing team for this type of work. Perhaps that is one of the greatest deterrents to writing literature – because you really can’t self-pub or market it very well. Not on your own.
Jayne Lockwood: And from what I’ve seen (not that I’ve delved extensively) the blog tour thing seems to be the premise of romance. The deep pockets thing veers dangerously into “vanity” publishing – which I won’t do. People will either like my book or they won’t. The product is good, but spending ££££££ is not an option. Most people are scared rigid of Closer Than Blood when I’ve tried to pitch it … The trouble is, my books are too darned long (about 100,000 words) and it’s as if they are saying, “Oh, that’s so much time to spend on a book. Life is too short. Let’s buy a fluffy romance instead that I can read in a day …” Or as someone said, maybe my books just aren’t very good! Fuck that. They are!
SA Collins: No I think it is that there is so much shit out there (which was the nature of my emotive rant on my blog) that the good stuff is being lost in the mix.
Jayne Lockwood: So much shit. I agree. It’s hard to wade through it all …
SA Collins: I think this steady diet of fluff, and badly written fluff at that, that I think that the well-crafted work is just being missed.
Jayne Lockwood: The trouble is, no-one really sets out to write a crap book, but some don’t understand the time and effort needed to make it good. That might make me sound like an arrogant cow, but it’s true.
SA Collins: I don’t think it’s arrogant at all. But the thing is while self-pub has been a boon to new stories making their way out there, the problem is we have people who have no business pubbing doing so and really making it difficult for those of us who really can do what we do.
Jayne Lockwood: Yup
SA Collins: And I am not being snobby about that. I’ve a shit load of books I got through the first page and it went right into the “fuck it” pile on my e-reader.
Jayne Lockwood: Yeah, I have a few of those as well. I don’t review them because, well, it would be a bloodbath and it’s not up to me to squash anyone’s dreams. Some people think the same about my writing! Glass houses, anyone?
SA Collins: So many people don’t know how to craft a story or flesh a proper character out. Now I don’t toss something because it isn’t how I write. I mean, I’ve loved your stuff and Brad’s stuff and been totally fine with the characters and the plots in those just fine. So it doesn’t have to be anything like my work. But I do tend to write what I want to read. Don’t know if that’s how all authors write, but I know it’s what I do. There is one topic I did want to touch on briefly, if we can. Or we can hold off for a later time.
Jayne Lockwood: No, it’s cool. Shoot.
SA Collins: So when you decide on a story, what is the singular thing you fixate on? As a content creator I am always fascinated by what sparks another author to write about. Is it the character, an image, a situation you want to explore? All of the above?
Jayne Lockwood: It can be. With Lexington Black, it started out from another story I have in the pipeline, called Madison Blue. That hit the rails a bit, but I thought, why not do a series with those kind of titles? So I had the title, then I had to write the book! With The Cloud Seeker, I always wanted to write a novel around 9/11, but I wasn’t sure if I had the writing chops to do it justice. It took years for that to happen. In the end, it seemed obvious to base the novel around my village and weave the story through it. Sometimes it can be a picture, a single line of dialogue. Anything that creates a spark.
SA Collins: For me it is our human fears that I want to explore. It’s really interesting because let’s step away from my Angels or Weres for a moment and let’s look at Fae Wars – Fear the Feigr (which I’ve set aside while I wrote Angels). It is REALLY about male sexual insecurity. And I am using a trope to examine that with by using the Norse Feigr (which aren’t all that well-known in mainstream society (save for the eye candy Thor movie series of late)) and decided to really explore what makes human (straight) males afraid of their own sex and sexuality. My Feigr are massively scary to heterosexual human males because they challenge what it means to be a man on many levels.
Jayne Lockwood: This is where writers are very different. I don’t work like that, mainly because I’ve never had the schooling to think in that way. That came out all wrong. What I meant was I need physical triggers to create a story. Rather than emotional ones.
SA Collins: I see. That’s really interesting … For me it’s headspace.
SA Collins: I know you just went “duh” about what I said
Jayne Lockwood: Nope, I’m just thinking that maybe that is what literature is all about … no, that wasn’t what I mean! I was just thinking that literature is all about emotions, and my stuff isn’t.
SA Collins: It’s a fascinating thing when authors compare what they do and how they do it. It’s almost a cracking story in and of itself.
What is literature? And where am I in the mix?
The art of crafting the next ‘Great American Novel.’
So here’s the deal: Angels of Mercy is something I’ve been blogging about for a while now. It is a very long and involved work that when I first visualized it seemed like it was something I could crank out in little over a month.
Yeah, let me restate that so you get the fullest brunt of what I (now laughingly) thought:
A TRILOGY I could crank out in little over a month. Yeah, I’d set the bar way too high it seemed and had little common sense (at the time) about practicality and the effort it takes in this thing called writing or worse yet, even the audacity of remotely calling myself an “author.”
The thing is, I am unequivocally, an author. Writing is my game. But what kind of author does that make me?
For the record, here’s my signature from any email you would receive from me. I only present it here as ‘Exhibit A‘ as we examine this topic I am rather passionate about today:
SA CollinsAuthor of Gay Literature Fiction across multiple sub-genres
w. | www.sacollins.comt. | @sacollinsauthorkik | sacollinsauthor
“When I was born I was so surprised I didn’t speak for a whole year…” – Gracie Allen
“Literature is using words to artistically and expressively convey an intimate and probing look at the human condition and of human nature. It poses just as many questions as it attempts to answer that leaves each reader with their own take on what it all meant. By it’s very nature, it promotes discussion, debate and analysis because it is open-ended in what it is. It may attempt to leave you with an experience you might not ever have had, but it will do so in a very profound and engaging way. It is lasting and stands the test of time because it does one thing that will outstrip any marketed fluff work because it addresses the core of who we are as humans, regardless of the setting or the situation posed in it. The reader can transcend that character’s bindings and circumstances and evaluate what they would do or how they would feel in that situation – using all of their own life experiences to sort out what the character may or may not be able to do. That is what literature does beautifully. And it invites that level of deep examination.”
You see, Angels does pose many questions that it never attempts to answer than your average generalized fiction. My works, by their very nature, don’t adhere to genre type tropes or “rules.”
As a sidebar: rules, for me, yeah, I tend to not like them. Let the story be what it needs to be, dammit!
Make no mistake: with Angels I put my boys through literal hell. Oh, they do get a big ol Ever After, Happily (my nod to my musical muse Jay Brannan who inspired the work with his brilliant and seminal album, Rob Me Blind), but not without going through some very traumatic and epic trials along the way – proving to themselves and to the reader, that they truly understand the meaning of what love is, what love ought to be, how love can get you past anything that comes your collective way.
Marco Sforza, the high profile jock at Mercy High, never wavers as the boyfriend of artsy out but terminally shy gay Elliot Donahey. Indeed, it is Elliot who constantly questions if what he has with Marco is real – despite how many times Marco proves to Elliot that he will never waver in his devotion to all things Elliot. That was an important distinction I had to make in the work. I was tired of the old trope that the “straight-acting” jock was the weak one. Marco is nothing if not strong and diligent in his devotion of Elliot. And gayboys constantly poll and reevaluate our worlds. I know I did as a teenaged boy. I constantly was throwing shit up on the wall of – is this right or not? Is this real or not? Constantly. There wasn’t a day in my hellish four years of high school that I wasn’t doing that.
Angels dives deep into these boys minds (each volume is told from their perspective) and is 70-80% inner-monologue, you hear every nuanced thought that they go through to establish where they are in what I throw at them. For Marco, it is the script that all jock boys have memorized of how to be, and who to date and what is and isn’t acceptable behavior. But Marco isn’t like all the other teammates. He’s in love with a boy. And that boy is social toxin for a popular guy like Marco. Elliot even warns Marco away when Marco tries to befriend him (for reference sake in this scene I show below, the girl named Cindy is the head cheerleader in the class who warns Marco in a very biting way that Elliot is the “resident fag on campus.” And while not the most prosaic example, it does clue you into how Marco is starting to have his inner-monologue moments as he begins to embrace the boy who will fast become the love of his life) – Here is Exhibit B:
He sighed, and rolled his eyes.
“Look, I get that you’re still sorta new and need to make even more friends. Popularity at this school is a full-time business. Sadly, some of us aren’t allowed to open up shop, but that’s my shit, not yours. So let me spare you the angst that will rain down on you just by talking to me. I’m the resident fag on campus.”
His eyes roved over me again, bringing a new round of blush to my face, watching if those words would push me away all by themselves. Nothing doing, buddy. But keep talking. I just love listening to you.
I just shrugged. His eyes narrowed, unconvinced of my acceptance of who he was.
“Yeah, well, you’re not from around here, not really – a year’s time just doesn’t give you the historical context, so I get that you don’t understand what a catastrophic mistake you’re taking just standing here listening to me. Seriously, your school cred is bleeding out your backside while you just stand there. Misguided, if incredibly hot guy, that you are.”
I felt my face flush just at those words alone. He thinks I’m hot! Inside I was doing a happy dance! Fuck me, say it again – Please Elliot!
But he continued, “You should really listen to Cindy. She hates me. The feeling’s mutual. Thanks for trying, but it just won’t work. And I couldn’t take the pressure – or the additional torment.”
His eye scanned the length of me bringing a new round of blood coursing along my skin.
“So let’s do us both a favor and end it here while we’re still young and can bounce back from the emotional shock, shall we?”
I couldn’t think of anything more absurd. But his eyes… yes, I even got to see the other one at this point, just under the fringe of his bangs. Double the sensation of his watching me. I couldn’t say anything. I was speechless. He completely robbed me of my voice. I’d never felt this way about anyone I’d ever met. He stared at me. I wanted to say something, I did. Part of me was screaming to say something to refute what he’d mistakenly thought about me. But instead, I just stood there, probably just blinking at him. Cue the Bugs Bunny cricket soundtrack – such a fucking moron. What a fucktard.
“Oh-kay… yeah, weeeell, see ya,” and he skirted around the table. “Or not… “ he said over his shoulder and he was gone.
Only then did I move, shocked that I even found the wherewithal to begin to breathe again. I scrambled after him into the throng of students milling about, a thousand conversations adding to the din that was raging both inside and out of me. I tried to find him in the hall, no dice. Fuck!
I barely had two minutes to get to my locker, grab my next textbook and make it to class.
– Angels of Mercy – Volume Two: Marco (Chapter 2, Scene 2)
Before we get to the foul language thing in literature (a point I will most definitely come to because it was the first thing I raised when my hubby labeled my stuff “literature”), I just want to draw a line here that Marco already is trying to eschew his responsibility of that precious script the jock boys are supposed to follow. All he knows is that he is totally smitten with Elliot. He doesn’t know why at this point, but it just is. That much he is aware of. Now to be clear: Marco has experimented with another boy in his past (but the reader doesn’t know this at this point in the book – this is only chapter 2 of Marco’s take on things). But it’s something Marco has attributed to hero worship and nothing more.
Now for the foul language and literature thing. When my husband first said that my work was nothing short of literature, my first rebuttal were two points I didn’t think he could get around:
The language and the sex. You see, they are hormonally charged teenage boys (they’re eighteen so heads out of the gutters now, ’cause they’re legal).
My husband had two works for me: Lady Chatterly’s Lover or The Catcher in the Rye.
Good points, that.
Because while I want my boys to examine their lives and their choices with inner-monologue, I also did not pull any punches with the sex or, as in the example above, the language. The sex and the language are what, for me, make the work actually, you know, work.
I recently got into a discussion about this very topic with other authors on LinkedIn. This was in regards to a YA work, but I thought as I was writing in that vein of New Adult (which is the logical extension of YA as those youngsters evolve into more mature themes) I thought I should chime in on the topic. My take? That language (whether foul or not) should only be used when it supports the nature and narrative of the story. The character and the situation has to support it. That is why it appears in Angels. It is indicative of how the teens are in the world today. My argument for swearing in books is that teens want to see the world as they see it reflected back to them so they don’t feel so out of it. As a parent, and a grandparent, I know that we do what we can to mitigate what our children are exposed to in life. We want to protect them. But as I said to these other authors – to what end? It was a fool’s paradise to think that by limiting it in our works we were somehow keeping it all from them. The simple truth is, we can’t be there to protect them every moment of the day. Shit is going to slip by us and they will be exposed to it. Often by their peers. The whole argument was balderdash in my mind. Didn’t mean the work had to be literally dripping with foul language to make its case either. As with all things, a judicious application of that kind of prose was called for. But to eschew it simply because it was vulgar language? Not on your fucking life!
Or as the hubby puts it: Do you think back in the day when their parents or grandparents had sex in their small home in the mid-west that the kids didn’t know what was going on? Or that curse words or swearing wasn’t prevalent in the public discourse? It was. It has been that way. To deny it’s existence and to hold the truth from the printed page (whether in ink or in pixels on an electronic device of the day) I think is absolutely ludicrous. Ultimately, it serves no purpose and says more about the pent up Judeo-Christian guilt complex we as adults have over these types of words rather than anything a teen or tween would put on them. Make no mistake, they hear the shit every damned day.
But I knew my experiences were vastly different from those boys around me. As a gay teenaged boy, I found, quite by happenstance, John Rechy’s bold soul-exposing The Sexual Outlaw. I needed men like Rechy because I CRAVED another gay man’s voice to instruct me (even in a fictional or quasi-fictional narrative) on the nature of homosexual intimacy. I fucking literally – Ate. That. Shit. Up!
John Rechy became GOD to me. At least in the literary sense. I owe that man because he helped keep me sane and focused as I navigated the torrential and often unstable waters of high school in the late 1970’s and early 80’s when being gay was definitely NOT the thing that was done easily or safely.
I needed Rechy. I needed him so fucking badly that I burned with it. For most of my high school years I burned for his words to soothe me. I needed him to calm my fears and show me that there was something out there beyond the hellish life of high school. Even if it was fraught with new dangers and hidden meanings, there was still something other than fear, death and abuse that was so prevalent in the media where gay characters were concerned.
His works also led me to Gordon Merrick. While Rechy is definitely a literary writer, Merrick was pure romantic fluff. One gave me confidence and knowledge, the other took care of my heart. These two men keep me going in those hellish years of high school. When the bullying became too much I’d pull those paper bag covered books (to hide what they were to others) and read them with tears on my face, licking wounds and letting these men soothe my battered soul. They were my bibles. I had them in my backpack every damned day over those four long years in high school. I didn’t feel safe if they weren’t with me.
I put on a good face for my school mates and my family, but inside there was nothing but fear going on.
That is what I weave into Angels. I wanted to play with those tropes that I actually lived through. I also am weaving the collected experiences of not only myself but my husband and other gay brothers I knew out there who have shared their experiences. Angels is a massive work that addresses what it means to be a gay man. Now admittedly, it isn’t every gay man because no narrative could successfully capture that. But what I attempt to do is put to complete opposites together and watch explore how their choices, both good and bad, effect what comes out in the long run.
I hold up a mirror to gay men at their prime of youth as they step into their adult lives. It examines how the choices they’ve made in the past that seemed to make sense back then can have horrifying repercussions down the road that the character had no way of foretelling would come their way. It explores the societal roles and mores that are often foisted on men (both in general and on gay men in particular) that make nearly any decision problematic. I ask a great many questions of which my boys only answer a few – leaving the reader with making up the difference in their own mind about homophobia, it’s cause (in the case of my novel), the missteps or foibles my boys stumble into without intention of doing so, the family dynamics that are in play – even when they are the most supportive family around, how you as a gay man can feel so utterly alone in a sea of support.
Angels is not a simple work. I didn’t really know that going in. I see it now. And while it was always intended to be an unflinching intimate look at a young gay man’s psyche as he makes his way to find happiness, it was also meant to be an ensemble piece. I like ensemble pieces. It’s those complex relationships that provide the color and texture that my boys play against. They have to be real, they have to be just as multi-faceted. No cardboard cut-outs in my worlds. My dramatic training won’t allow it. I’ve read other works that moved in this type of vein.
Look Homeward, Angel (if you haven’t read it) is a massive work as well. Indeed, the main character doesn’t make his entrance for nearly the first quarter of the book. Instead you are informed and become intimately acquainted with the members of his family in the turn of the twentieth century North Carolina. On the onset you keep asking yourself (as a reader) who the main character is because the ensemble is vast but deeply engaging. I fell in love with Wolfe’s prose. Where Forster (my other literary love) was concise and eloquent, Wolfe was expressive and brilliant in extended and well-crafted words and artistic phrasing that bordered on if it didn’t outright succeed on genius. I often had a notebook nearby just so I could jot down and capture those brilliant words or phrases because they moved me so when I was reading the work.
To be honest, it would’ve been a book I would’ve hated as a teen. I am glad my husband introduced me to it as an adult. I can appreciate it now without any literary baggage from my youth.
In a very real way, I can see how Marco, Elliot and the boys from Mercy, California are in the same vein as Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel or Gore Vidal’s Burr, or Tennessee William’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Those works have numerous sub-text going on. My work does too. There have been very long discussions with both my husband (who edits my work – I trust no one else regarding the preservation of my voice in literature than him) and the beta readers who preview the work as I write, regarding how my boys progress in the story and how the secondary characters support the narrative.
I am constantly responding (when beta-readers prompt me when previewing the work (as it is unpublished at this juncture)) when asked by them: What do you want to know from me? What feedback do you want me to give?
For me it is simply this –
- Are the characters believable? (I think this is a given from any author in any genre or work)
- Is the progression of the story organic in nature?
- Does the character ever seem to go “off the rails” without cause?
- Is the main character (MC) engaging? Do you root for him?
- Are the supporting characters engaging?
- Do you find the MC likable? Do you identify with him (for any reason)?
- Is the character study narrative (which often breaks the fourth wall) of concern or does it detract from the overall story?
Now, granted, most of those questions would come from any author working on any piece. I’d have to concede that point. But, herein is the critical difference for me: whatever the reader says in return goes through very careful analysis by myself and my husband. A round of talks on the pros and cons of what came back is distilled and weighed against the full arc of the story (because only we know the entire story) and sometimes the nature of what is given back to us may indicate initially that there is confusion in certain areas – but those are probably intentional on my part and any confusion response would only serve to underscore that type of approach.
My husband did offer one critique in defense of my waving away that my work was literature. It came from my cousin. A mother of a gay son. A woman who had read many things but never read anything like I had written. Certainly, nothing with a gay protagonist. Amazingly (well, to me at any rate) she said that she identified with Elliot (the out, but shy, gay kid) because she too had been bullied by the popular girls in school and knew all too well what that felt like. She came to root for him because of that inward alliance she felt with him as a character. She also told me that the struggle that I have Elliot go through with his “nothing but supportive” parents was revelatory in that as a mother to a gay son, she always took on the mantle when they didn’t connect that she was doing something that made that happen. It wasn’t until she read how Elliot struggled to give his mother the proper credit for the absolute unwavering love and devotion she has for him – even if he ultimately doesn’t know how to connect with it. That is what my cousin took away from Elliot.
IT WAS EPIC to hear that! As an author you have no idea if your work will ever connect with anyone. You just don’t. You think that you’re the only person who will ever find the work of value.
And to be clear – when I say value, I mean value more than the money that I collected from the effort. I’ve often said I would trade 10K five star reviews if I get ONE gay boy who finds my work meaningful. ‘Cause I am writing for him and guys like him. Guys like me at that age (or any other). Doesn’t mean I won’t be appreciative for any of my readers because I will be humbled by them all, but it is to those boys like me that will always tug upon my heart. I will always make time for them.
Before I wrap this up I have two more points to quickly make – even when I attempted to write fluff stuff for a “fan” of mine (my first real fan actually beyond family and friends – though now I consider him family) I found I couldn’t do it. Well, I mean I could write it – but it’s also heady and rife with inner-monologue.
“It’s a fucking WEREWOLF story!” I kept saying to myself. Fantasy, right? Yeah, as it turns out – even werewolves can be literary-esque. Who knew? I sure as hell didn’t, I can tell ya that!
Even then, Hank O’Malley and Riley Raintree and my other wolf boys of the Sparrow’s Hollow wolf pack are very literary too, it seems. I can’t seem to escape the heady prose of inner-monologue even when I am expounding on the trials and tribulations of being a shape-shifting man in the wilds of Appalachian West Virginia. It’s my style, I suppose. My author voice.
It’s as if that quote from Gore Vidal keeps ringing in my ear regarding an author’s style (as opposed to craft):
Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn.
– Gore Vidal
Now THERE’S a man with style. I gained my love for Gore Vidal through my husband. And I relish the hell out of that man’s glorious body of work.
And here’s another little side trip that was recently posed to me by author pal, Jayne Lockwood (the inserted commentary is mine):
First off – I LOVE your cover as it is. It pops when on thumbnail, and is instantly recognisable.BUTYour cover hides a literary work. At first glance, it could be a book about American football. Would that alienate some of the readership you are trying to woo?At second glance, it could be a piece of fun fiction. The depth of the book isn’t hinted at.Look at other novels of literature that you admire. Do you see anything that links them? (Genuine question – I haven’t looked either.) John Rechy’s City of Night has a cool nighttime cityscape cover.Angels of Mercy is about beautiful young men. First love. What goes on teenagers’ heads. School social dilemmas. Coming out. Prejudice and homophobia. Family dynamics.American football? Nope. <— (I disagree and I’ll come to this anon)I’m playing devil’s advocate here, just making you think about it….
It was something to seriously consider. And better to do it now rather than after I had launched any marketing campaign.
Before I get into my take with what Jayne poses to me to reconsider my current novel cover iterations, but let’s take that with Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel throughout the years since it’s first publication, shall we?
Here is the cover my husband read in the mid-1950s (he’s commented that this picture from a Google Images search could just have easily been his dog-eared copy):
But this wasn’t the only version of the book cover through the years (as a matter of reference the very first picture in this blog post is what is the current edition – which my husband says is now his favorite):
From the 1940’s through 1990’s (though I will withhold one cover to make my counter-point to Jayne’s quoted comment above):
Or how about this one?
Or what about this take from 1929? Modernist much? Art Deco gone awry? How does this cover possibly relate a family in the mountains of North Carolina?
Now here’s the kicker to all of this book cover stuff – the PULP fiction cover from the 1950s:
My husband laughed at this one because there is NOTHING remotely reminiscent with regards to the actual story. As a matter of reference, it was originally published in 1929. He said the current iteration has elements that tie back to the metaphors in the story. That is what makes it a great cover.
So back to Jayne’s point and question, and even her thought on the potential to short change my literary work with the covers I’d designed myself.
My husband’s take on it (which I hadn’t considered) is born out of Jayne’s second sentence in what I’ve quoted above (emphasis is mine):
First off – I LOVE your cover as it is. It pops when on thumbnail, and is instantly recognisable.
His point being that my cover does pop, it does what it is intended to do. And the elements do tie back to the metaphors of my story in a very direct way as well. It does garner attention on a grid of other books on Amazon or Barns and Noble. And as for the “is it about American Football?”
The answer is a resounding YES.
And here’s why: While the story does not deal with the machinations and the ins and outs of the actual game, what it does do is that it uses the arena of competitive sports as the premise for these boys to deal with the dark topic of homophobia and the like.
So my counter is that the story does deal with football in a very real way – even if it isn’t deluged with play-by-play analysis. Indeed, my other author pal, Brad Vance wrote a masterfully brilliant novel that I fast-tracked onto my Desert Island Book List (meaning: a book I can’t do without). It too had football and competitive sports as the backdrop in how that field messes with men’s minds and hearts. That work is Given the Circumstances. If you haven’t read it, I highly encourage you to do so – post haste!
In fact, this work is what brought me to Brad himself. I began a correspondence with him that has happened on and off to this day. Indeed when I had a mini-melt down over this whole writing mess, he was very quick to swoop in and offer words of encouragement. Something I am deeply grateful for to this day. Brad is one of my absolute favorite people. Brad’s cover hints at the football connection but the work isn’t about the game directly but the mental and emotive things that swirl around the protags of his story. Like Angels, he uses the gridiron and the diamond (football and baseball, respectively) as backdrops to address the deeper psychological drama that plays out in men’s minds and hearts in these circumstances (see how I tied it back to your title, Brad?).
So in a very real way, my covers do EXACTLY what I want them to do. To get a reader to see them in a grid of other titles. They do look different, they do pop. They only serve the purpose to have someone pick it up to READ the synopsis blurb where I get to “pitch” the story to a potential reader. That is what the cover should do. Will some not bother, perhaps. No more than those who didn’t pick up Brad’s work either.
Now, having said that, my cousin (Remember her? The mother with the gay son?) did say that she probably wouldn’t have thought to pick up the novel to read it based on the cover. But she did say it was eye catching. So yeah, there is a balance to consider.
I’ll think about it. But really, if the whole “I’m searching for a literary agent to pick this up and sell it,” then it is really out of my hands at that point because a publisher will be making the marketing determination in addition to the cover artwork. So it all may be for naught.
So yeah, literary works. They’re definitely a tricky monster – whether you’re writing about geeky artsy gay boys (like I was) or their uber-cool and popular jock stud boyfriends (like my hubby did in high school and at Clemson), or they are werewolves roaming the forests outside a fictitious town in West Virginia circa 1956, you can still write literary oriented works. The topic at hand, the situation your characters go through are merely the vehicle. My takeaway from all of this is that what I do within my works are that I don’t shy away from very tough questions I want to reflect back to society. Especially those with a decidedly queer perspective like I write.
My hubby has the right of it. It isn’t the volume of what you write. It isn’t the prose you use (though it does help elevate it quite a bit), but rather it is the manner in which you tell the story. The voice you use and how you work with the questions you are addressing and giving an unflinching voice to walk a reader through those tough calls in life. Allowing them to answer questions your characters often can’t – even if it ultimately comes from their own experiences rather than anything you as an author have put down.
It begs discussion and analysis, because it ultimately holds up a mirror to ourselves. Even if the main character is a shy gay boy and you happen to be a 50 year old heterosexual female mother of a gay son. If you can see yourself as that main character, if you can draw some sort of conclusion to those questions that you as an author pose but never fully answer, then you just might have true literature.
But let’s be clear: Just slapping the word literature (whether in regards to your work or in a group you create on Facebook or in the social strata) on something doesn’t make it so. And I embrace that. It really isn’t for me to say what the work is. That’s for others to put on it. But I do know one thing: It needs to have a lasting commentary on the social structure before us. It needs to encapsulate unequivocally the human condition and nature with all of our faults and foibles as well as our joyous and tremendous gifts life has given us. It needs to be bold and unflinching and most importantly – it needs to have NO guarantees. This is where I think that general genre fiction fails to make the final step into true literature. Any guarantee in a given trope or genre impedes to a great degree anything that can cross over and become both timeless and timely all at the same time.
That is what I’ve come to learn is true literature. In that case, given what I know I’ve done with Angels of Mercy, I think my husband just might have something there when he says that’s what it is.
Even if I never started out to do that in the first place…
Until next time…