A writer’s journey is a funny thing. Not that I think that we don’t fold our towels in some magical manner than others. Or that we pay our bills using money from Gringott’s (that’d be nice if we did … ’cause elves and dragons … jussayin’). No, I think that it’s more that we often jot down things that happen to us. We document lives – our own and those characters and worlds we create.
It’s this documentation that I have rambling in my head as of late. Why? Well, first it started off because I am recasting my Angels of Mercy series cast in a YA format. But that wasn’t the end of it. Angels of Mercy was always meant to be a metaphorical exploration of characters – a character study of three main protags over the course of the same timeline – each boy having a different perspective over the timeline and the answers to the drama I’ve thrown at them. Each boy has an angelic name that is emblematic of their character traits. So, recasting them in a YA setting I wanted to change it up, take the Buffy the Vampire Slayer/Supernatural route and make the story about actual angels and demons. I also took them back to the 1907s so I could omit a lot of the tech that characters interact in current stories and focus purely on character. Eschewing trappings of today entirely. Old school, er, uh, as the kids today spell it: #oldskool. (Ya gotta love them kids).
Since I grew up in the 70s I decided that I’d throw in all the stuff that happened back then that I could recall, augmenting with image searches and binge watching TV shows of the 70s to keep in the groove in my righteous way. #RightOnMan!
One of the shows that I binged while writing Mercy’s Little Angels was The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
I loved this show. I watched it religiously when I was a kid. However, the rewatch completely threw me. The writing was still brisk and funny, but with modern eyes the sexisms and subversive language, while progressive of the time, fall woefully short of what we think today – which is as it should be. But there was another thing I took note of: Lou Grant (played to perfection by the inestimable, Ed Asner). Why? Because there were elements of Lou’s character that mirrored my husband’s. J, my husband, is sixteen years my senior and a relative contemporary (give or take a decade) of Lou’s character. He’s of that age, of that time. I always found my husband to be an amusing man – one of the many traits that endears him to me. I fell in love with his mind far before anything else about him. That remains true to this day. With my recent cancer scare it was his complete and thorough knowledge of medicine (as a retired physician) that kept my oncologist’s feet to the medical fire. I credit my slow climb to win this war against this awful disease to him. He is the light that presses into the night when all I feel is darkness. He’s my angel (I’m not religious so for me to say that, it’s something, believe me). It’s why Angels of Mercy was dedicated to him with the first book. He’s always been that light in my life. And my bout with cancer wasn’t the only time he’s done that.
When he and I got together I had a cat I’d had for about eleven years to that point, his name was Gizmo. I say was because he passed in 2006. But the thing is he wouldn’t have made it to that year (I got Gizmo in 1994) if my husband hadn’t been there. In his eleventh year Gizmo was diagnosed with feline diabetes. This completely restructured our lives. But by then J’s life had taken a turn with his own heart disease and so he built a regimen for himself and Gizmo to monitor and administer their meds at the same time. Everything in our lives revolved around Giz and J’s routine. Dinner plans? What time did Giz require his insulin shot (yeah, shot)? Don’t forget your meds too, hon. “I got it …” he’d call back to me as he went to do both. Movie night? Again, times were selected around their med schedule and feedings. EVERYTHING was according to Giz and J’s schedule. But here’s the thing: Gizmo didn’t suffer for his disease for another 11 years. J meticulously monitored, double checking the vet’s current tests and lab results at every turn. Gizmo’s comfort and quality of life was beyond anything I could’ve done for those remaining 11 years of Gizmo’s life. They bonded over that disease. I’d often come home from work to hear the hubster and Giz “talking” in the kitchen while J prepared dinner for all of us (in some shape or form). Until Gizmo’s stroke at the age of 21 (admittedly VERY old for a cat’s life) J gifted him with a care and quality that always left me breathless. When the stroke happened I saw a crack in my stalwart, former college football playing husband. He broke. It was quiet and removed, huddle up to my cat and whispering such sweet words to him about what he’d do to make it better. This from a life long “dog” person. Yeah, you read that right. That’s how far he’d moved along that pet line to embrace my cat. It’s when I realized he was no longer “my” cat. Giz looked to J for everything. J would have to pick Giz up and put him down for feedings. J would follow him into the cat box area in our bathroom and if Giz made a mess, he’d look up at my husband (I witnessed it) and J would just whisper to him that it was okay, he’d take care of it.
Put simply: I’d married a gem of a man.
When Giz passed – we eventually had to put him down because there simply wasn’t any hope – he’d suffered another minor stroke. The end was eminent, there’d be no magic cure. On February of 2006 we took him to the vet to say our goodbye’s and were there to be with him as he slipped away. My husband broke. This man who didn’t do emotional displays, who didn’t do anything public (no social media presence, remember?), lost it. We went home, he cried silently as I drove us there. He went into a pseudo seclusion. His own medicine regimen suffered because he wasn’t doing Gizmo’s any more that kept time. Things got messy. It went on for months. We languished. It was the most silent part of our relationship. We talked about a lot of stuff. We just didn’t talk about Giz much. His bowls, toys and items weren’t packed away for weeks. J wouldn’t let me. It was then that he told me the moment he fell in love with Giz.
When I first moved to San Francisco, to be with J, my cat stayed behind with my ex. When he eventually moved to SF six month’s later (we’d always planned on moving to SF together – but that’s not how it worked out – even if we’re still friends to this day) Giz made the trip up with him. J was there to help sort my stuff from my ex’s. Gizmo was amongst the moving items. My ex had the cats we had (there were three) mildly sedated for the driving trip (some 10+ hours). When J saw Giz for the first time, those big blue eyes catching J’s brown, J said he swore he would take care of Giz for the rest of his life and that he would never let Giz go through something like passive sedation to make a moving trip easier. J never let that happen for the rest of Gizmo’s life. Again, a supposed “dog” person did this.
So, why the comparison to Lou? Because, so many character elements my husband has are perfectly aligned to that character. J has an enlightened mentality to our times, but he also is staunchly attached to his era. It’s a duality I live with that fascinates me to this day. And the reason I am documenting this aspect now.
You see, we’re in a similar situation. Not only with my battling cancer but one of our two cats (that we got 2 years after Gizmo’s passing), Katya, the Bengal, is having health issues. Her eating habits are off. Being a Bengal, Katya is 5/8ths wild. Her breed is special because it was created by a geneticist who bred Asian leopard cats and snow leopards into the standard silver tab because those leopard cats had a natural resistance to feline HIV and Leukemia. Bengals are also known to have robust systems that keep them fairly healthy throughout their lives. Given our situation with Gizmo this seemed like a good thing.
One thing Bengals are subject to: old age. No getting around that. Katya is now 15. And, at the moment, has been faltering. As I write this early this morning, I woke because my husband had been quietly crying with Katya curled up to him as he whispered that she needed to eat more, and that he’d think of something to help. My husband’s a bright guy – remember, he vociferously and meticulously kept my oncologist feet to the fire throughout my cancer scare – writing medical analysis that eventually went to Second Opinion and got them to see his point of view on my case – they concurred. But animals, it seems, are his waterloo. Katya became J’s return to life. He was always proud to show people his “leopard” – she has rosettes like a leopard because of her lineage. Bengals have been clocked out in the wild at racing 40mph. Did you know that? He’ll tell you that if you meet them. Katya is his pride and joy – I’m not saying I take a back seat, but I do often chide him that the “fish wife” wants him and I have to step aside.
Like Lou Grant, a tough guy exterior, coupled with an acerbic wit and a fiendishly clever sense of humor, my guy has a lot in common with Lou. But it’s the last character trait I’ve yet to mention about Lou that cleaves my heart in two: his heart of gold. Like Lou, when you strip away all the bravado, the humor, the wit, when you really boil it all down, you have a man who loves whole-heartedly and is “all in” with what you’ve both got going on in your life.
This morning – at 4:50am I woke to his muffled tears and sniffles as he whispered to Katya curled up into his chest. Like a cat erping up a hairball, J’s emotional displays are a HUGE wake up call. I often tell people I have to really poke him hard to get him to say anything that is hurting him. I tell doctor’s, when we take him to see one, that if J goes, “Ow, that hurts,” it’s equivalent to someone coming along an whacking your arm off with a machete and then pouring iodine on the wound. J doesn’t do “ow.” He’s very quiet that way. So, when I hear him break it’s like an Emergency Broadcast alert has gone off in the house.
This morning was one of those moments.
He kept apologizing. Like Lou Grant apologized. It was messy and sometimes incoherent. And I found myself not too unlike Mary grappling with the helplessness of wanting to help Lou (even if they weren’t married). We fed Katya 3 hours early this morning because she seemed to want to eat. Something she’s been meh about eating for days. J became emboldened and wanted to take care of it right away. So there we were cutting up filet mignon for Katya (yeah, he bought her absolute favorite to have on hand in case she got hungry). She ate. She seems more active for the moment. My “Lou” seems happier, but there’s a knowing sadness creeping in there. A Gizmo laden one I’ve not seen in years. Fifteen plus years to be exact.
I know what’s coming. I see it, even if he’s trying like hell not to. We’ve decided to take her to the vet on Monday morning. She’s not hiding (usually a very strong sign that something is amiss in a cat), she’s not stopped pooing or peeing – so we’re good there. She’s still grooming regularly – another sign that things are semi-normal. She just does EVERYTHING slower. I’m fairly convinced it’s old age that’s crept up on us while we weren’t watching. It seems sudden, it’s caught him off-guard from his prized leopard, but for those of us of a certain age, as I tell him, that old age thing happens pretty quickly when it comes. We suddenly can’t kneel easy anymore. We could do it yesterday, but not now. Things like that.
So, I watch my Lou. I see his worry and concern. And, like Mary, I do what I can to help the big guy out. There’s no easy win here. There’s no magic balm that will set this right. THIS IS LIFE. It’s how it works. He knows that, I know that. Katya certainly knows it on some level. But it did make me realize and distill the man I married. I’m okay with that. Hell, I signed up for it. Tonight, while he kept Katya close to him on the bed, with me holding Zorro (our Somali cat) close, we watched “Victory at Sea” and “Zorro” (the Disney Guy William’s version from the 1950’s) so J could relive a part of his boyhood past. He was six and ten respectively and he talked a great deal about why these two shows (along with The Swamp Fox – which is next on our list) were so prominent in his childhood. The four of us lie on the bed, watching old TV and letting my Lou reminisce about his youth. In this I saw the boy who had numerous mutt dogs – all called Penny for some silly reason – Penny One, Penny Two … yeah, that’s my guy. He named them all Penny so it’d be easy to remember. Well, that’s what he says.
I now think, after his emotional breaks with Giz and Kat, that he named all those dogs (who were terrier mixes, btw) Penny because he needed the next one to fill the shoes of the Penny before her. It was his way of keeping continuity in his youth. That explains a lot to me about the man I married. The man who diligently sees to our pets care. Cat or dog. Like Lou Grant, beneath that gruff exterior is a heart of gold that is undeniable and the source of my love.
Until next time …
Humans love to classify things. We love order amongst the chaos. It’s just how we’re wired to short cut how we see the world. It gives us order and cohesion that is comforting to us. It makes the world easier to navigate.
But I write this as a queer writer. It’s a word that used to be hurled at us to open new wounds, add salt to old, and denegrate us to the point of tears or real physical gut-wrenching pain. As a matter of history, we, as a community, have used that classification to identify who we are and establish our voices in the mainstream political spectrum as we vied for a place at the table to establish and hold onto our rights. In that particular venue we needed to define ourselves so people not of the community could see us collectively as well as individually as Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, etc. In the beginning Gays and Lesbians led the way, albeit with differing agendas. Men established their separatism by holding it close to the bone sexually. Whereas the Lesbian movement was more about poltical rights, personal well-being and emotional quality of life. They both realized in the early days of the movement saw that they needed to present themselves as the next door neighbor. Someone the mainstream knew.
It was important to our early movement to make us seem like any other neighbor. We were human after all. We ate, made a home for ourselves, paid bills, worked, sought personal relationships just like any other human being on the planet. The Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitius did their level best to put us in that light early on. It started the national conversation on the right foot. Our best foot. That’s not to say that there weren’t detractors from within both those groups. As we’ve seen in We Rise, the mini-series that covered those early days produced by out academy award winner screenwriter, Lance Black, there was a healthy amount of discention from within those movements. Queerdom already had a propensity to refuse to be classified so rigidly. For many within who went along, it was a personal compromise they thought was worth it to gain some value and respect in the greater mainstream.
So why the historical recap? Because, as of late, I’ve seen quite a few of my queer brothers (I use queer purposefully – acknowledging that many of my generation have a visceral reaction to that term) across the spectrum as identifying as anything other than “strictly heterosexual,” commenting on works that don’t fit into the gay rigid classification. Where gay men are meant to be “just one way” with each other – much like how the CIS HET world tended to hold against us (why aren’t you dating a woman like everyone else?!). I think while we’ve asserted ourselves in the mainstream conversation we’ve lost sight that it was queerdom we were embracing. The specifics of where we fall within that rainbow laden spectrum is quite literally irrelevant. We just all can agree we’re queer – derisive commentary from close minded heterosexuals be damned. It’s what we are. Outside the perceived norm, which we ALL know doesn’t exist.
I watched as my gay identifying brothers derided Andre Aicerman’s Call Me By Your Name option into a cinema work as “not gay.” I withheld my own commentary on it until I both read and watched the adaptation. It is decidedly not “gay” by rigid classification for those that need it. I know. I used to count myself amongst them. It’s one of the reasons I hold a great ire for MM Romance which is certainly NOT gay, either. It’s gay in name only but is predominantly written for straight women by straight women who are more in love with men in general and choose a male/male pairing so they can have more of that man-pie they crave. It has nothing to do with queer men. I know some gay men who enjoy it. That’s their call. I personally don’t agree with it. I like stories closer to the bone of who we are. Not that they can’t have the romantic trope of a HEA (happily ever after) or HFN (happy for now) endings. Our stories can certainly ascribe to those hopeful ideals. But I like it going into our stories when I don’t know how it will all end. I love that churn I feel, that gut wrenching “no, no, nonononononono,” that happens when things go unexpectedly sour. Why? Because that’s how it happens. The best of circumstances, the best relationships, all hit snags. What I am after is what happens next. What do each of these characters, already maligned in life because of who they are or how they represent themselves rise to the occasion? Do they implode? Do they rise above it (much harder to do in this world – but boy howdy, it’s a great thing to see when they do!)?
At the same time I read K.M. Soehnlein’s The World of Normal Boys. Two works that couldn’t be more different in approach but both explore the exact same turf: “Normal Boys” who defy classification. Boys who find themselves in homoerotic relationships that push against what they expect out of life – the script we, as men, are given to us by society. The one gay boys say, “fuck it, that ain’t me …”
The World of Normal Boys has the main character, Robin MacKenzie, discovering why he’s different from other boys. It’s not because of the exposure to the museums and culture his mother brings to him in New York, though it is certainly part of it. Instead, Robin discovers his sexuality because he begins to crave the touch of those “normal boys” in the form of two non-conforming boys – outlaws – in his high school world. Todd Spicer is a stoner boy, born into a rich aspiring family, but bucking it all and playing a bad boy. Eventually, Todd and Robin find themselves in a sexual situation that Todd easily explains away as his being a free spirit, brought about by an inspirational film he saw about a guy doing whatever the hell he wanted to in life. There were no limits to life that way. His messing around with Robin sexually held no more meaning than smoking the cigarette they shared after their tryst. The other “normal boy” in Robin’s life is Scott Shatz. Scott is a lone wolf (Scott’s own label for himself – isn’t that how we all see ourselves in our teens?). But Scott soon befriends Robin and their relationship evolves to Scott and Robin messing around sexually as well. Scott keeps telling Robin “not to make a big deal about it” when Robin soon susses out that it IS a big deal but Scott and Todd don’t want it to be. What I find so interesting in this work is this is how it works for gay boys. We seek the comfort of other boys who are often not like us, but when pulled away from society expectations other things take flight in the dark, drifting through clouds of marijuana like dark birds who want something secretive that says they are their own man. Only to have the harsh light of day come piercing through their dark dreams and bring them all crashing to the ground of reality. So many gay boys have this story. I count myself amongst them. It was how my early gayboy days revealed themselves to me.
Conversely, though not all that different, Call Me By Your Name, explores the same territory. Men who discover something so revelatory and life shattering that they become swept up by it but find, at the end of the day (or summer in this case), must return to the world better and healthier for their experiences, but no less resigned to life in the rigid normalcy of a heterosexual life. Elio and Oliver meet over a summer of 1983 when Oliver, an American, is hired by Elio’s father (an archeologist) to catalog their findings from recent digs in Italy. At first the story moves about with both men, Elio’s late teen crush on a girl, and Oliver’s supposed romantic summer fling in the arms of another woman. Yet, Elio and Oliver soon start to spiral around one another. An epic dance of two men discovering each other in ways they don’t expect. Mainstream rules say they must reject those feelings at first. It’s part of that script should they have to run to the “troubleshooting” section of that heterosexual manual they all carry. But that troubleshooting doesn’t offer much in the way of hope as Elio keeps longing for Oliver’s attention. When the subject finally rears its head it’s outed under the guise of Elio wanting to discover what Oliver knows about being a man and navigating the halls of love. Hero worship. Oliver, for reasons not provided fully in the work, knows it is something more. He gently lets Elio pull close but eventually pushes him back with a clear, “we need not speak of it.” Saying that with the clear implication that they certainly won’t act on it. Only, they do. And thensome. Peaches, anyone?
Once they come together they are fairly inseparable. Elio’s parents, both educated – delightfully displayed not only in the father’s line of work but also of the intimate moments the three of them share when their mother translates a german work into english as her husband and Elio listen louging next to her. Indeed, the film does this to brilliant effect by having French, Italian and English rotate – often within the same speech as the story moves along. These are not, say, the close minded parents of a similar film that takes place at the same time, Edge of Seventeen, where the parents are working class. Elio’s parents clearly detect that Elio and Oliver are involved in some way. It is the final sequence after Oliver’s eventual departure at the end of Summer that his father has a heart to heart talk that clearly separates European fathers from their American counterparts. While I recognize that not all American parents were close minded (mine weren’t, for example) and all Europeans are open minded, I would think that it is one place where Europeans are ahead of us and have been for quite some time.
What I love most about these works is that they informed me in writing my own. In Angels of Mercy, I quite literally fought against the twin brothers of my series as being rigidly gay. I should’ve known better. Hanging around my queer granddaughter and her queer friends, I know that the spectrum is vast and varied. Yet, I pushed back. I tried to force my boys to be gay and gay only to the point where it was literally strangling the story. I had to step back and have that same heart to heart Elio had with his father – which literally smacked me in the head when I saw it before my eyes. It is better to have the courage to explore love for love’s sake – whatever form that takes. Eventually I was able to let my previously defined gayboys as pansexuals – still part of the queer spectrum, just not wholly of the gay classification. Marco and Pietro discover that they fall in love with who the person is, not what junk they have trapped in their pants.
After all, isn’t that what we’re truly after? #LoveIsLove has greater implications. For me, I’ve learned not to be so craving for a “gay” story – whatever that is. I’d rather it be queer and let me discover it along with the character. It is their journey that brought me to them in the first place, not mine. I want to know what they feel and aspire to, not what I would do.
I’ve come to realize that all my works may focus on first person narrative, but they are essentially ensemble pieces. It takes a village and all that rot.
I am a queer author, writing queer works, and finding myself wholly embracing the term and seek the works of others who want to tell stories that explore that in all its infinite varieties.
Until next time,
– SA C
That Oppressive Script … How Angels of Mercy Changed My Queer Boy Perspective on Sports
(Reprint from Rainbow Gold Reads Review)
Jocks have it hard.
They’ve got a lot to live up to as they pursue their passion in their chosen sport. This isn’t an easy thing to acknowledge on my part. I was one of those artistic queer kids that jocks loved to bag on. So why the change up in opinion?
Simple: I wrote Angels of Mercy.
When Angels presented itself (fully formed to the bitter end, mind you), I thought “Eh, I’ll bang this one out in a month.” I had the ending in my head already. I just had to write to that ending, right? Yeah, not so much it seems.
Here’s what I learned: you see, my main protagonist, Marco Sforza, is built upon my husband’s experiences playing football both at the high school level at Massillon, Ohio (the heart of high school American Football as we know it) and for Clemson U back in the day (admittedly a very different era than Marco’s present day story). So given the disparity in my husband’s and Marco’s timelines, I had to make some adjustments between my husband’s experiences and those that I was building for Marco. But what amazed me is that, at its core, very little has changed with regards to the institutionalization of homophobia within American football – be it, high school, college or pro.
We like to think “It gets better …” but in reality, has it? There are emerging stories about players in high school and college football that have appeared in OutSports where the players have come out to their teammates. In the cases that have been reported the response has been rather positive. Yet, we only have to bring up what happened to Michael Sam to understand that very little has changed with regard to players who hope to play openly and valued for their sportsmanship and not for who they love.
Angels taught me a lot. Not just about my characters and their road to happiness, but also because as I explored Marco’s having to follow that “jock script” all boys are indoctrinated to follow (bag the girl and draw some blood out on the field) Marco goes through some fairly difficult moments in his teenage life. In his desire to play ball and be one of the guys, he’s opened himself up to a major downfall that he can’t see coming – mostly because of the pressure to perform both on and off the field. That pressure is enormous. Yet, there’s a boy that has captured Marco’s attention in a way that no one, boy or girl, ever has. He finds himself on an emotional pendulum – swinging wildly from the life everyone else thinks he should have (girlfriends or friends with bennies, followed by marriage and rugrats), and the life he wants for himself wrapped up in a boy who requires darkness and shadows to survive another hellish day of high school.
It’s a ride my own husband had to play.
Simply put, hiding hurts everyone involved. No one ultimately benefits from that arrangement, despite how much comfort it may bring teammates in thinking that everything is cool, the dude is solid, a man’s man. Marco’s journey changed long held positions and baggage I carried from jocks that tormented me in my own past. I began to understand the pressures boys like Marco – who hide from themselves just to play the game they love to play – are under. But I didn’t want that discussion in my works to be so one-sided.
My granddaughter is queer and I spend a great deal of time with her and her friends. Queerdom is a very different monster with her crew. Just the fact that they embrace the word “queer” has changed my perspective on a word that used to torment me. So I realized that while things may not have totally changed, I also remembered the stories posted in OutSports of players who have experienced support from within their team. So while there is a clique within the team from Mercy High in my stories, I also balanced it with boys who really wouldn’t care if Marco was with a boy. I needed to show that line that things are changing. Maybe not at lightening speeds, but change is coming.
I am not kidding myself in thinking it will change in college or pro-ball in the next five, ten or fifteen years. That may be a long time in coming, but come it will.
With the release of Angels of Mercy – Diary of a Quarterback Part I: King of Imperfections and Angels of Mercy – Diary of a Quarterback Part II: Prince of Mistakes, I wanted to explore Marco’s journey. To be honest, while I started the main Angels of Mercy series from Marco’s boyfriend Elliot’s point of view, the story was really Marco’s to tell. He gets the lion’s share of the series (three books out of the six total).
I am thankful that Marco exists. He’s made me understand my husband’s past so much more. And I am far more sympathetic to athletes who take that courageous step to emerge and live a life out and proud. Their stories will always hold my interest.
I often wonder what I would say to my younger tortured teenboy self that would give my younger self context to understand what those boys go through. Don’t know if it would’ve made a difference or not, but I am glad I’ve grown enough as a writer and a queer man to give them a bit more of a pass and a modicum of understanding that many of them may not feel free enough to live openly and use oppression to express their frustration.
That’s what Angels ultimately explores. Here’s hoping that the trend toward acceptance keeps moving in a positive direction. I look forward to the day when it simply won’t matter.
Until next time …
SA Collins Store (support the author directly)
Recently, I witnessed a good friend, someone who loves what I do get caught up in yet another terrible game of catfishing. The whole debacle was rather painful for her which only brought about pain on my part because you never want to see any of your friends go through something like that. What made this round particularly painful was that my friend only recently started writing herself. She is a champion of my works, something I still find astounding, so naturally I wanted to comfort and help in any way I could. You’d have to be living under a very large rock, and have been there since the early 2000s to not know what catfishing is. For those that don’t, I’ll give you a quick rundown – I looked it up.
Oxford’s online dictionary defines it as:
US informal [with object] Lure (someone) into a relationship by adopting a fictional online persona.
In the case of gay fiction writing, particularly in the MM Romance genre, it is generally a woman who professes to be a (gay) man in order to establish legitimacy within the genre. Catfishing should be a thing of the past – indeed, if there was any real reason for it to have existed at all – because I’d always assumed (yes, I know where that gets me) that the feminism cause was to have parity with their male counterparts in every way. Full equality, right?
Evidently, not so much.
I’ve come to think the real danger of Catfishing is that it sets the feminism cause back decades when someone does it. Sure the degree of that “resetting” is tempered by how prominent or prolific the catfishing author was at the time of exposure. But you see, that’s where I start to scratch my head. Why do it if you’ll run the risk of being caught? And you always get caught. I’ve not witnessed any catfishing author that wasn’t found out at some point in their career.
I get why authors use pen names. There are a great many good reasons to do so. Anonymity being just one of them. I use one. Not because I want to hide behind it – on the contrary, I’ve made it quite public via the Wrote Podcast how I came to use a nom de plume. It was a gimmick on my part. I used it because the book I was writing at the time was being told by the main character’s (MC) point of view. I thought, rather silly of me at the time, why not have him write his own novel? Thus, Sebastian Alexander Collins became SA Collins. That’s the only reason I did it. Which is now rather odd considering that I’d shelved that particular book’s development in favor of my current series.
So pen names, yeah. The reasons to use one are varied and have been used probably for as long as publishing has been around. I get that part of the game.
What I don’t get is the need to use one to purposefully to employ deceit in the name of legitimacy. That part escapes me. Why profess to be a gay man at all when you are a woman? I think that women who do this aren’t confident in their own work enough to let it stand on it’s own under your own (female) name or a pen name that doesn’t try to come across as a (gay) male. And that part is most puzzling to me.
I have a daughter and granddaughter that up until recently had lived with my husband and myself. A multi-generational home. I spend a great deal of my time worrying about their future. Fretting over what society will try and throw their way as they make their way though life. I’m a parent and grandparent – it’s part of the job. I want what’s best for them. I want them to have amazing lives that are (hopefully) better than mine. It’s how my parents reared (not raised, by the way – you raise corn, you rear children) to be. I want equality for them with as much passion and conviction as some of the staunchest feminists out there. The recent women’s march that consumed the globe a little over a week ago was so incredibly awe inspiring that I often misted up as I watched all the videos play from around the world. Truly breathtaking stuff.
Which brings me back to this whole catfishing thing.
I mean, even JK Rowling (arguably the most successful female writer of all time) used a male nom de plume for her first book written after the global phenomenon that is Harry Potter. But she was quickly found out and when asked, she simply said that she did it because she wanted to see if the work could stand (it was her first adult oriented novel) on it’s own – separated from her fame. It was an experiment of sorts. Got it. And she quickly copped to it when it was discovered. I don’t consider that catfishing – and if some do, then I’d like to understand how this fits into that category. Rowling didn’t do it to deceive and establish legitimacy as an author. She already had decidedly established that. I think her use of a male pen name was only to push that association with her even further out to watch if her work really was as good as people kept telling her. Could she be equally successful in the adult fiction category? Would it stand up under that level of scrutiny? Maybe the male pen name didn’t hurt in that regard, I suppose.
But back to the MM romance genre (which is where most of this catfishing seems to come from as of late). I struggle with their reasoning of why do it at all. MM Romance (as a recent genre) was started by straight women writing for other straight women – something that when pressed up into my grill I often fire back that while they can write what they want, they need to understand they are writing about a very oppressed community and with that comes great responsibility. I am all for women writing about we gay men. But if they cross that line and try to tell me how gay men are I’m gonna step up right into their grill and push back … HARD.
But maybe that’s where this catfishing thing stems from. I don’t have any answers here, just pondering the whole thing as I watched the recent events concerning a woman who not only professed to be a gay man writing MM romance, but a veteran, a staunch Trump supporter (which I think was the beginning of her undoing – that one is a real red flag for queers though there are some who actually do support him which is beyond all reason), and always tried to come across as if the IQ level in the room rose significantly the moment they arrived. She kept telling my friend that her male catfish persona was the smartest person around.
To which I replied to my friend, “Yeah, people who feel the need to profess their intelligence, often aren’t that intelligent at all. If you’re intelligent, people will glean that for themselves. You don’t have to go charging into a room like the proverbial bull and bellow I’m the smart one in the room. People will perceive that for themselves.” In reality, that was probably the biggest red flag of all. The audacity to presume they were the smartest at anything. This was revealed to great effect when the catfisher’s author persona “had a heart attack” but was released the following day. As someone who has gone through FOUR such situations as I have with my husband I can tell you that NO hospital would do such a thing. The catfish was unwittingly revealing herself. It was the biggest stupid move she could’ve made, thereby proving my earlier statement. Not the brightest crayon in the box by any stretch of the imagination.
This is something that my husband has always maintained – “Just keep giving those type of people rope. Eventually, they will hang themselves with it. You won’t have to lift a finger.”
But it was still painful to watch someone I cared about go through the reveal. Practically everyone in the writing community that writes MM Romance chimed in. I was just as angry as my other gay brothers. It bordered on nothing less than queer culture appropriation. And again, that brings me back to why not just be who you are (as a sex – not the name being used)? Some of these women don’t seem to get that on the social totem pole Queerdom is at the bottom and not likely to move any time soon – especially with Tyrant Trump and his ilk in office.
Some female authors have said to me on the topic (and we’ve interviewed several on the podcast) that females struggle to “make it” in the business. So let’s look at that, shall we? I think you’ll find the answer to that question rather telling at dispelling (to a degree) that myth.
The first interesting article I read came from the Guardian in the UK. This pretty much has been the established argument. But what I find particularly telling is that while women find it extremely hard to get their works reviewed and taken seriously, a number of those reviewers are women. Why would women not value or press to review other women’s work – if anything, just to give rise to it’s legitimacy? That particular point I find very troubling. I realize there could be extenuating circumstances that preclude them from doing just that. I don’t presume to “have the inside scoop” on the goings on of the reviewing side of the industry.
But it was this little ditty that really was an eye opener … while it doesn’t remove the stigma women face to get noticed, it does however show that in terms of moving vast numbers of book units, women are the dominating factor here. The headline alone explains it –
So while there are more male writers and reviews for their works, it seems that if you’re a woman who cracks the top and becomes a major player, you sell big. BIG TIME sort of big.
Admittedly, this was published nearly two years ago. But I don’t doubt it’s validity. So maybe it’s just getting the work noticed? Because once you do, female writers are extremely successful.
As I said before, I don’t have answers. I am only pondering this as I help my friend pick up the pieces of her burgeoning writing career (she was doing PA work for said catfishing author who insisted that she (my friend) personally endorse this author and recommend them to others). My friend’s personal and professional integrity were called into question because she had unwittingly put herself in the cross hairs of this recent catfisher.
So here’s my takeaway – ladies, write from who you are. I’d rather have truthfulness and authenticity in picking up a book and knowing who the author is to whatever degree they make their lives public. I don’t crave to know everything about them, but a little goes a long way to forming an opinion of their work. I’ve stopped reading other catfishers work simply because I can’t stomach it. That deceit clouds everything. And that probably is the hardest part to swallow. I know what goes into writing a novel. I do it myself. It’s lonely and (at times) grueling work. Literally your blood, sweat and tears go into it. So why run the risk of having all that hard work tarnished by publishing it under a lie? It’s a waste, that’s what it is.
Maybe that only points out the lack of confidence in the work or some form of self-loathing that is just convinced that the work won’t be taken seriously unless it is written by a man. But if women never push at that with author names that proudly proclaim it was written by a woman, will we ever see parity? JK Rowling did it. EL James, Toni Morrison, the list goes on. Women can be extremely successful in the industry. You just have to find some inner Rosa Parks and sit further up in the bus and demand that parity. I know it’s always easy to say, “but I’m not big enough to take this on.”
I would say, “Remember this: the history makers are those who put themselves out there, taking the risks; they don’t play it safe. They don’t go with the status quo. They lean into the hardness that come their way. You, my brilliant sisters, can do this. On your own terms. But it has to start somewhere. Why can’t it be you?”
I once asked an author on our show why she wrote MM romance and not MF romance with a strong female character. The response was rather telling – they claimed that they just couldn’t envision that type of strong female character within the confines of a MF romance trope. I was flabbergasted by that. My immediate thought (I just know the ghost of John Adams rages inside me) was, why not upend the trope then? Why can’t it be you? And maybe that’s the critical difference between male and female writers. Men take risks. They are not adverse to them because from our youth we are conditioned to be that way. Maybe that’s the cue women need to take then in order to bring their cause forward? I’ve always been a supporter of women moving into fields dominated by men. I think it benefits both when there is parity. The world would certainly be a better place if we did.
There is a brilliant book I think all women should read – Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance—What Women Should Know, ISBN 006223062X ASIN: B00DB368AY. It is written by two women I admire greatly. I think they’ve nailed it when it comes to women seeing the value in themselves and believing it. I highly recommend it to anyone. Men would find it fascinating.
But as I’ve said, I don’t claim to have answers, just musings on this recent catfishing scheme within our gay fiction writing community. One thing is abundantly clear: when it happens no one wins. That much is certain. I just wish that women wouldn’t feel the need to do it. Believe me, there is nothing lower on the totem pole than a gay man. Our lesbian sisters are oppressed, too. But in a male dominated society, gay men are still seen as the most perverted, the most reviled. To be honest, writing as us in the MM Romance genre is probably not going to win you any points as an author anyway. So why not be the “you” you’re willing to put out there (nom de plume or not)? I’d love to hear some thoughts on this topic.
Until next time …
– SA C