May’s Selection for Seattle’s Gay & Lesbian Book Club: Stories for Boys by Gregory Martin
Gregory Martin’s Stories for Boys (Hawthorne Books) follows the trauma his family suffered after his father revealed a promiscuous gay lifestyle. In societies awakening from the time when homosexuality has been regarded as taboo or worse, his book will be included as one in a succession of catalysts provoking homosexual men to shed the duplicity and masquerade of presenting themselves outwardly as heterosexual.
Gregory Martin visited Seattle recently to discuss his book at the Seattle Public Library’s Seattle Reads program. I met Greg at Elliott Bay Books on Seattle’s Capitol Hill and we discussed Jason Collins’ coming out, the films of Ang Lee, and the implications of Stories for Boys for future generations.
Caleb Powell: Your book hit home from the outset with your father’s attempted suicide, coming out, and then divorce. Your narrative interspersed with strong essayistic momentum, the presence of Whitman, watching M*A*S*H with your father…these interludes complemented the whole. Well done. But I want to focus on one thing you wrote, that nothing is more important to our society than our treatment of homosexuals. We face terrorism, economic disparity, environmental issues, poverty and so forth, so why do you think homosexual rights deserve to be at the forefront?
Gregory Martin: I guess the first thing is that I don’t think the issue of sexual identity is in competition with any of those other things. In the sense that—the fact we may have no more polar bears in the future…is awful. I don’t think it’s more or less awful, necessarily, it’s just awful. I was speaking in respect to civil rights issues. I wrote that it was “the most important moral issue we face as a country since Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King.” Like just today, in basketball, Jason Collins coming out as an active NBA player.
Martin: Yeah. And Kobe Bryant, who was called out a few years ago for making a gay slur, Tweeted yesterday in support of Collins. There’s this domino effect happening, right now, a beautiful thing. Brittney Griner, an amazing basketball player, probably the best women’s basketball player in the country, can come out.
Powell: In the early eighties Billie Jean King, married to a man for years, came out as she retired, and Martina Navratilova came out in the early eighties at about the same time. Women are a little ahead of us men in that respect.
Martin: True, and that’s why the Jason Collins thing is important. Hopefully stories like my dad’s will be more infrequent. I mean, I think there’s always going to be this very conservative, fundamental aspect of our society where being openly gay isn’t possible without tremendous courage. I can see thirty years from now that that’s still being very hard. In Alabama, Texas, the Bible Belt; certain places. But ten years ago we weren’t having this conversation in this country. We really weren’t.
Powell: Have you followed homosexual rights in Europe? Ten or fifteen years ago, more, many European countries had put into place a lot of what America is doing now. Gays in the military, etc.
Martin: You know, I haven’t.
Powell: Politicians like the late Pim Fortuyn in Holland; openly gay. But, right now, the clash is between religion and homosexuality, fundamental Christianity and Islam, Jerry Falwell or the Westboro Baptist Church. In Ian Buruma’s Murder in Amsterdam, about the assassination of Theo van Gogh, mainly for his outspoken views and filming of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Submission, Buruma makes a compelling case that Islamic leaders see European acceptance of homosexuality as proof of Western decadence.
Martin: I don’t know anything about that, but I’m interested. I remember reading about Theo van Gogh’s killing, being affected. I know, in France, just yesterday, they voted to have gay marriage be the law of the country. I think it overwhelmingly won, but there was a strong vocal minority. But actually, it’s embarrassing how little I know about European history.
But for my father, who was born in the forties, grew up in the South, a Southern Baptist home, there was no opportunity for him to explore sexuality. He basically met my mom and thought this is an opportunity for happiness. He didn’t see another path. And our kids, they’re going to have a lot more paths. I think we’re all, as parents, going to be a lot better at helping them find their way for who they are.
Many homosexual men, in the past, would lead two lives. They would experiment or participate in life as a heterosexual person, not just going through the motions, but having sexual relations, marriages; children. You know—Stories for Boys was just picked by the Seattle Gay and Lesbian Society’s Book Club as the Book of the Month for May, and their email talked about how common it was for members to have lived as my dad lived. To have a heterosexual relationship. And I think the tragedy for my dad is that the companionship he had with my mom was pretty beautiful—authentic. It didn’t have anything to do with his sexual identity.
Martin: I’m not. Just Brokeback Mountain and Crouching Tiger.
Powell: It’s about a Chinese man living in New York City with his male lover, his parents live in China and always are asking him when he’s going to get married and have children, and they decide to visit. The gay Chinese man knows a Chinese girl, she needs legal status for immigration, so he grabs a stone and kills two birds by marrying her.
Martin: I love that.
Powell: There are a few pretty wicked twists. The father turns out not to be so rigid.
Martin: I’ll check it out. The thing that I love about Brokeback Mountain is that western stoicism, my mom’s family—they’re all from rural northeastern Nevada, a town of thirty people—
Powell: Your first book, Mountain City.
Martin: Yes. That notion of people never having really any cosmopolitan view of anything, much less sexuality, and at the same time being intelligent in other ways. They’re incredibly competent, smart, stoic in a good way, forward looking but not introspective, but I thought that movie got that right.
Powell: Definitely. Still, about your book, I wonder if you gave your father too much leeway. You created sympathy and empathy, you humanized him—I’ve got two ways to attack. Number one, he wasn’t having loving relationships, his secret life involved multiple sex partners, hedonism, unprotected sex, and endangering your mother. Like a heterosexual man who frequents prostitutes and thinks that okay because it’s outside of love.
Powell: Judgment is crucial and can be benevolent. You addressed his moral failings, but I felt you almost gave them a pass.
Martin: I love to tackle that question and hear that response. There’s a very brief section in the book where I basically say to him, you know, did you ever worry you were going to give mom AIDS?
Powell: Ten years without a physical relationship.
Martin: Right. But the whole time he was having kids he was having affairs. And this is through the early stages of the AIDS crisis. And he did worry, but not enough to stop. Here’s the thing, I think the really difficult line that you walk, as a memoirist, you want to portray everyone, including yourself, as compassionately as you can, but with clear sight. That means not letting people off the hook, allowing the reader to form complex judgments. One of the things I tried to do was to show how frustrated, betrayed, confused, and angry I felt. But the point you’re making: shouldn’t he be held even more accountable for endangering my mom—you made that judgment.
Powell: I did.
Martin: And that’s okay.
Powell: I wasn’t ready for the group hug or grandpa building forts with his grandsons, because I hadn’t resolved my emotions. But he’s not my father.
Martin: You know, I appreciate hearing that, but from other readers—they felt that, well—how could I be so angry? They wondered—why weren’t you more accepting? Can’t you understand where your father’s coming from?
What you try to do as a writer is build this world of moral possibilities where the reader gets to participate. They bring their own thoughts and feelings and you’re basically asking them to say here’s what I acted on. And that forces the reader to play the game. What would you have done? I mean, Tim O’Brien has this great essay where he talks about the story as a form of situational ethics. Forcing the reader to say, “What would you do?” Would you let him off the hook?
Powell: This leads me to the next problem: I didn’t get enough of a sense of your mother. You evoked her, brought her in, but I wanted more. It was like, “She’ll be fine. She’s strong—now about my dad.”
After the divorce your father drained her bank account. That’s insult to injury, yet your point was: “Look at his suffering.” But what about her? Your father never got it.
Martin: He can’t see, in some ways, outside of his perspective. He knows how much he hurt her, but he’s still, you know, he just visited us for Evan’s tenth birthday, and he said, “It’s been six years. You’d think she’d talk to me now.” He cannot fathom the degree to which she has said, “We’re done. No more”
And I don’t think he even, in the months afterwards, really understood. He thought, “Well, you know, I tried to kill myself. That’s how bad I felt. Why can’t you take me back?”
So, you’re right, I think in some ways how you see my dad is the way I was trying to characterize him, but at the same time I did not want to write a story about my mom’s experience.
Powell: What was your mom’s reaction?
Martin: I’m going to back up here and then I’ll tackle that. I think a book can be strengthened by what you leave out as much as by what you leave in. The more you focus the more depth you get. I wanted to focus on my reckoning, my reconciliation with my dad. That’d be the through line. I was trying to balance and give the reader enough about my mom so that you couldn’t say she’s not in the book. But let’s not make her an equal topic in terms of time, of rendering. What you’re telling me as an editor/reader is, “I want to know more about her.”
Powell: No more giving dad rope, let’s hear what mom thinks.
Martin: That’s a valid reading. It’s not the first time I’ve heard your reaction, and that’s okay. There’s this great quote about the novel by Randall Jarrell. He said that, “A novel is a prose narrative of a certain length with something wrong with it.”
Powell: The perfect novel doesn’t exist. It can’t.
Martin: It’s a flawed thing that I made about a time in my life I was trying to figure out. But it was guided by a principle of selection that asked, what’s the main relationship that you’re investigating? The one with your dad. Your mom needs to be a character, but not a major one, she’s important but minor.
One of the fears I had was that if I wrote too much about my mom’s experience that my book would stray. But in terms of what my mom felt, she’s been to readings. At the Utah Book Festival she sat in the audience. Someone asked, “What does your mom think?” And I said, “Let’s ask her?” And so she fielded the question.
Initially, well, she felt reading it was like taking a scab that had formed and just ripping it off. It was very hard for her. So my mom, she’s kind of a perfectionist, and she’s fierce about the truth, and she felt that if you’re going to do it, you need to make it as good and as full of conflict as it needs to be. Many of the details come from me sitting down with her. A lot. Yeah.
Powell: That brings me back to Jason Collins and my own take. Evidently, Collins was with Carolyn Moos, a woman’s basketball player he met at college at Stanford, for eight years. They were engaged but he broke it off a few years ago. Recently she said, “Every morning, he woke up and put on a mask for thirty-three years. . . I just can’t imagine going through thirty-three years of your life and denying yourself out of fear.”
This segues to my wife, who married in her early twenties to Mark. Within a year they divorced and Mark came out. Mark’s a nice guy, he sent a gift to my wife when our baby was born. Mark even introduced us to her real estate agent, Shane, who’s gay and he’s almost fifty. My wife said, “Shane’s always been gay. He never married a woman, and that’s a big difference compared to what Mark did.” Mark’s apologized, my wife’s understanding, but the experience was pretty troubling. Mark wasted years of my wife’s life, Jason Collins wasted years of Carolyn’s life, and your father…he grew up in the fifties, he was abused, lived in a conservative culture, but…this taints how I perceive your father.
Martin: Sure. And you bring that sympathy and wish to protect your wife.
Martin: Hold on (pulls out his smart phone). I want to show you something, I got this email today, 1:08 in the afternoon, look—I’ll read it out loud: “I’m a sixty-three year old mother of two, I’ve been married forty years to my husband, a wonderful man who’s gay. I learned that a few years ago after decades of no intimacy.”
Today. This woman sent this a few hours ago. And the story you just told me, or the story about Jason Collins, I’ve had that story told to me over and over since I’ve started working on this and after publication. A lot of people have personal experiences with—someone who was lived a secret life—or that feeling of being betrayed by infidelity, or having someone they love come out. It’s really common.
Powell: And the opposite never happens. You know, two gay people together for years, and one says to the other, “You know, I’ve been living a lie, I’m really heterosexual.”
Martin: (Laughs) That needs to be my line. Awesome. But I would say, as an author back to you, that that kind of criticism is what I appreciate, a strong response. That hopefully I created a story that came alive and that you have really strong feelings about.
Related: Jason Collins and When Coming Out Won’t Really Matter by Gregory Martin, Seattle Times