Art history- Felice Picano
Like many in the Arts lives were touched by Fire Island and inspired. Felice Picano is the author of more than thirty books of poetry, fiction, memoirs, nonfiction, and plays. His work has been translated into many languages and several of his titles have been national and international bestsellers. He is considered a founder of modern gay literature along with the other members of the Violet Quill. Picano also began and operated the SeaHorse Press and Gay Presses of New York for fifteen years. His first novel was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award. Since then he’s been nominated for and/or won dozens of literary awards. Picano teaches at Antioch College, Los Angeles.
Felice Picano graduated cum laude from Queens College in 1964 with English department honors. He founded SeaHorse Press in 1977, and The Gay Presses of New York in 1981 with Terry Helbing and Larry Mitchell; he was Editor-in-Chief there. He was an editor and writer for The Advocate, Blueboy, Mandate, Gaysweek, and Christopher Street. He was the Books Editor of The New York Native. At The Los Angeles Examiner, San Francisco Examiner, New York Native, Harvard Lesbian & Gay Review and the Lambda Book Report, he was a culture reviewer. He has also written for OUT and OUT Traveller. With Andrew Holleran, Robert Ferro, Michael Grumley, Edmund White, Christopher Cox, and George Whitmore, he founded the literary group The Violet Quill, considered to be the path breaking gay male literary nucleus of the 20th Century.
In his memoir Men Who Loved Me, he described his close friendship with the poet W. H. Auden. In his later memoir/history, Art & Sex in Greenwich Village, he wrote about contacts with Gore Vidal, James Purdy, Charles Henri Ford, Edward Gorey, Robert Mapplethorpe and many contemporary and younger authors. In True Stories, Picano wrote about other people including Bette Midler, Diana Vreeland, as well as friends and acquaintances from his childhood and early adulthood. In his newest book, Nights at Rizzoli, Picano writes about being a book clerk and bookstore manager in the early 1970s with Salvador Dalí, Jerome Robbins, Jackie Onassis, Gregory Peck, Mick Jagger and S.J. Perelman.
Timing was crucial to Picano’s career. He began publishing mainstream novels in the mid-1970s and was earning a wide readership with them when he decided to write gay fiction instead. That decision led him to pen literate works with “well-constructed characters and settings,” to quote Library Journalcontributor Theodore R. Salvadori, while it also brought him friendships with other intellectual gay authors such as Edmund White and Andrew Holleran. Reflecting on his diverse career in an interview released by a recent publisher of his work, Picano said: “I’ve been accused of committing literary suicide several times over the years, because I keep on doing what I’m not supposed to do in my writing. I was enjoying a very successful mainstream career when I became one of the first openly gay writers. By the mid-eighties, I was writing gay literary novels and, after I had gathered a little bit of a reputation in gay literature, people told me I was making a mistake when I co-authored The New Joy of Gay Sex. I always seem to be doing something wrong. But I’m following a trajectory that I more or less understand.”
The New Joy of Gay Sex was an updated version of the work that psychologist Charles Silverstein had originally created with Edmund White. The original version had not covered safety issues, as when it was first released, many of the safety issues related to sex had not yet been realized. The work that Silverstein and Picano put into the updated version made sure that safe-sex practices were included, as well as information reflecting the AIDS crisis and gay rights activism, making it a resource far more useful to a modern audience.
Picano has authored several memoirs, beginning with Ambidextrous: The Secret Lives of Children and continuing on in Men Who Loved Me: A Memoir in the Form of a Novel. The first volume tells the story of his childhood and the second continues on with his early adulthood, as he develops a better understanding of his identity, traveling through the United States and Europe over the course of his story. The volumes, originally published in the mid and late eighties, were republished in 2003. In 1997, Picano released A House on the Ocean, A House on the Bay, in which he recalls the years of the 1960s and 1970s when he lived in Manhattan and partook of the pleasures of Fire Island, New York. “Picano is definitely gifted enough to ensure this book’s popularity with lesbian and gay readers everywhere,” declared Charles Harmon in Booklist. In the Library Journal, Richard Violette called Picano “a leading light in the gay literary world,” adding that in A House on the Ocean, a House on the Bay, “his glints of flashing wit and subtle hints of dark decadence transcend cliches.” In Advocate, Malcom Boyd wrote that the memoir “is exquisitely etched in finely honed detail.”
Picano’s novels have brought him at least as much critical success as his memoirs. In Like People in History, Picano wrote what he called a gay American epic. Set in 1991 with flashbacks to six periods of shared history going back to the fifties, Like People In History tells the story of cousins Roger Sansarc and Alistair Dodge. For Alistair’s forty-fifth birthday, Roger brings him the present he had requested—pills that will end Alistair’s life and stop his suffering from AIDS. Roger is a fairly untrustworthy narrator, telling his rememberances of events with definite evaluation of the situation; he does not tell it how it was, he tells it with commentary. According to Michael Bronski, writing in Lambda Book Report, “Roger is preening, self-involved, self-promoting, and self-indulgent.… The amazing thing about Picano’s decision to portray Roger in this light—a daring decision that could easily have been the downfall of the book—is that it actually makes the novel work better. With Roger as the narrator, all the events, the trends, the cultural fads … take on a new beauty.” Bronski continued that Roger’s commentary “creates a context for actually evaluating the gay male culture that Picano describes in such detail.… Picano has provided a built-in bullshit detector.” Even with the serious subject matter, reviewers referred to the title as less an epic than a beach book, but even those reviewers, including Charles Harmon of Booklist, felt that Like People In History “succeeds as a story that doesn’t take itself too seriously.” Though reviewers did not initially expect Like People in History to be a critical success, the epic won sevgeral awards in 1996, including a Lambda Literary Award nomination, the Ferro-Grumley Award, Le Figaro Litteraire Citation for the top five foreign language books of the year, and the Gay Times of England Award, earning it not only popular but also critical praise.
Published in 1998, Looking Glass Lives is a gothic romance dealing with reincarnation. The story takes place in two different times, during the Civil War Era as well as modern day. Narrator Roger Lynch and his wife, Karen, purchase a house that had belonged to spinster Amity Pritchard during the Civil War. As Roger and Karen work to restore the house, Roger’s cousin and childhood lover Chas invites himself to come and stay with them. When Roger finds the diaries of Amity, he “discovers that the lives of Amity, her sister Constance, and Capt. Eugene Calder bear a strange parallel to Karen’s, Chas’s, and his own,” according to Phillip Oliver in Library Journal. The story of the first love triangle is tragic and ends in murder; while Roger studies it, he sees that the events may be destined to happen again. Jaime Manrique wrote that Picano “succeeds in creating a smart, sexy page-turner full of thrills.”
New York Times Book Review contributor David Lipsky called Picano “a word machine” who “approaches the page with a newcomer’s joy.” In his review of Picano’s The Book of Lies—a roman a clef loosely about the Violet Quill Club (in the book, Picano renames the group the Purple Circle)—Lipsky noted that the characters are “outsize and the novel is written in a dishy, larger-than-life style.…The results are surprisingly entertaining.” A Publishers Weekly correspondent, assessing the same work, concluded: “Picano is successful in his gossipy recreation of the group of gay literary innovators. In depicting the near future, his amusing assumptions demonstrate a keen tab on trends and the possible new technologies ahead. The surprises at the end keep the reader’s head spinning.” The Book of Lies is told by Ross Ohrenstedt; Picano commented about his narrator, “I’ve jokingly, but perhaps accurately, said that Ross Ohrenstedt in this book is the single most unreliable narrator in fiction since the governess in The Turn of the Screw.” With such an unreliable teller of the tale, the reality inside the novel is dubious. Ross is, depending on which time he tells it, a grad student, an assistant professor, and competing for tenure at UCLA. His research causes him to delve into the works and lives of the Purple Circle. When Ross discovers a mysterious manuscript, he latches onto it, determined that solving the mystery will be the key to his academic success. His investigation takes him across the country, meeting all the surviving members of the Purple Circle, who seem surprisingly tight lipped about the evidence he brings with him. He suspects consipracy, and this only urges him on to solve the mystery. Karl Woelz wrote in Lambda Book Report, “Book of Lies has something guaranteed to please just about everyone.”
Talking about why he wrote Book of Lies to Greg Herren of Lambda Book Report, Picano explained, “I know I did want to write what no one else had done, i.e. a ‘post modern’ gay novel—composed of the apparatus of contemporary literature.…And the Violet Quill—which has been glorified and attacked in equal measure—was just waiting for its fictional deconstruction. It was too obvious a target for me to ignore.”
With Onyx, which was released in 2001, Picano returned to a more traditional narrative, but took a chance in another direction; Onyx is an AIDS novel, published in an age when the common thought is that AIDS novels “don’t sell anymore,” wrote Greg Herren in a review for Lambda Book Report. But this did not seem to bother Picano; as Herren noted, “Taking chances is something that Felice Picano, in his long and varied career, has never shied away from.” Ray Henriques and Jesse Moody, a long term New York couple and the main characters of Onyx, are facing the end of Jesse’s life as he loses the battle against AIDS. Ray is HIV-negative, and Jesse encourages Ray to continue living his life. Ray finds himself in the middle of a new sexual awakening; while he is there to support Jesse, he begins a relationship with Mike, a married man confused about his own sexual desires. Jesse and Ray face the reality of love and loss, of life continuing even after the death of a loved one. Roger Durbin, writing a review for Library Journal, praised, “Picano is honest and excruciatingly descriptive.” Drew Limsky, in a review for Advocate,called the book “an especially sensual work as well as a perceptive one.” And Herren concluded, “The ultimate strength in Onyx lies in Ray’s character, an ordinary gay man called upon to deal with incredible amounts of tragedy; a modern day Job.”
Several of Picano’s works have been translated into French, Japanese, Spanish, Dutch, Danish, German, Hebrew, Polish, and Portuguese. He described his writing in CA: “In my poetry I am keeping a sort of notebook of fragmentary experiences and understandings. In the past, this meant a polarization of subject matter: poems dealing either with perceptions gathered from the world of nature as revealed in Big Sur or Fire Island; or poems dealing with contemporary aspects of urban life and characters—portraits of epileptics, deformity lovers, obscene phone callers, etc. Of late, however, my poetry has become more autobiographical—though not at all confessional—integrating interior and exterior worlds. And forms have changed from lyric and monologic to more experimental structures such as self-interviews, imaginary dialogues, and letters to unknown persons.
“In fiction I write about the possible rather than the actual, and so, I suppose, ‘Romances’ in Hawthorne’s sense of the word, even with ‘realistic’ settings, characters, and actions. My novels, novellas, and short stories deal with ordinary individuals who are suddenly thrust into extraordinary situations and relationships which test their very existence. Unusual perceptions and abilities, extrasensory powers, and psychological aberrations become tools and weapons in conflicts of mental and emotional control. Previous behavioral patterns are inadequate for such situations and must be changed to enable evolved awareness and survival, or they destroy their possessor. Thus, perspective is of the utmost importance in my fiction, both for structure and meaning. I am dedicated to experimenting with new and old points of view, which seem to have progressed very little since the pioneering work of Henry James and James Joyce.”
Picano added that he also works in film and theater, starting with adaptations of previously written works: “These intensely collaborative efforts—apparently so very different than other solitary writing—have proven to be fascinating not only because I’ve learned the strengths and weaknesses in collaboration, but also because through experienced theater and film director’s views of what the public requires, I’ve learned how completely idiosyncratic I and my perspective has been, is, and will probably continue to be. Few writing experiences can equal the intensity of theater rehearsals leading to opening night, and nothing can equal the simultaneous frustration and elation of having others speak the works you’ve written.”
Now, decades later, I’ve realized how those daily examples of my mother’s storytelling and her sense of the importance of those stories have influenced me, perhaps decided me, to become a writer. Equally, unconsciously, influential for me in terms of what I’d write were my attempts to solve those mysteries in and between our parents’ families—and our physical distance, even exile, from the rest of them.
I led a cushioned life until the fourth grade. There, one day, quite by accident, I had my first encounter with unreasoning prejudice, and met my first life enemy.
In the book titled Ambidextrous: The Secret Lives of Children, published in 1985, I wrote of this encounter in detail. It centered on my ambidexterity. I’d learned to read and write on my own, using my older siblings’ schoolbooks and notebooks. I watched them write and taught myself that too. My mother—pregnant with my younger brother, Jerry—would correct me. By the age of four I read at first-grade level; when I entered kindergarten, I was reading third-grade books. One reason for my early success in any subject I was interested in was that I’d learned alone, forging my own methods. I used both hands to write and was very fluid in printing and script. I’d begin a sentence with my left hand and continue it with my right hand. In drawing, I’d shade and color-in using two crayons simultaneously.
My fourth-grade teacher, a middle-aged man, opposed my ambidexterity, my creativity, anything in fact but using my right hand. He went further, he used me as an example of everything wrong with a child. The more intolerant he became, the more I resisted. My parents didn’t believe me when I told them of his irrational behavior. His persecution worsened. I was appalled by the injustice of my situation, trapped, on my own for the first time in my life. No one, not even my God, seemed able to help me. I began to rebel, in school and out. An explosion between my teacher and me was inevitable and it occurred. I was ten years old. I’d been a perfectly behaved child at home and at school—but when our little war was over, I’d become a monster of egotism and suspicion, filled with hatred.
And I was forever left-handed.
In the late winter of 1971, I was twenty-seven years old. I’d travelled, I’d had adventures, I’d lived in a variety of places among an assortment of people. A few months earlier I’d left the first bookstore I’d worked at, not only earlier than intended, but somewhat under a cloud, and with less savings than I would have liked. At the same time, a complicated and emotionally wrought romance with the late painter Ed Armour had begun to distort into something even more incomprehensible and unsatisfactory: I saw no way out but to end the relationship.
It was in this state of virtually total life crisis that I decided to become a writer. I dared myself: I staked everything on it.
I looked through notebooks and diaries, read scraps of plays and stories and finally lit on the 1968 novel fragment. After some scrutiny it seemed to hold up. A bit of thought and I began to outline it more fully. Amazement! I found I had characters, a plot, scenes, everything! As pieces of the novel began to fall into place in my outline I became excited. Certain scenes played themselves out in my mind—I could hear what my characters were saying to each other, could feel as they did, could see, smell, taste, know what it was like to be them.
By the time my savings ran out, my book still hadn’t sold. I took part-time work and tightened my belt. As editor after editor turned it down, I saw I’d have to find a job. Through Dennis Sanders’s recommendation I began work that fall at Rizzoli Bookstore.
Unlike the other bookstore I’d worked at, Rizzoli was unique. Truly international, its employees had to speak one or more foreign languages fluently. As a result our staff was unusual, many foreign-born, or Americans brought up abroad: many younger ones were biding their time while awaiting a break in their true careers as writers, painters, musicians—our manager had trained as a concert pianist. After I’d been there some months they seemed like a family—caring and close, but also emotional and irrational. Working at Rizzoli could be like a party where business also happened; at other times it was like being caught in the final act of some demented nineteenth-century opera.
After a year, my agent returned my ms. to me, unable to sell it. I was disappointed, but continued to work at the bookstore, and write.
Writing this novel had been creatively explosive: as though I’d been chock-filled with poems, stories, essays, plays, films, entire novels trying to get out. Among them would be my first published story, poem, and novel. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
For the next two-and-a-half years I continued at Rizzoli, moving steadily upward in its hierarchy—my usual course—and becoming steadily discouraged about finding a new agent or selling my novel. One poem I wrote in this time is titled “The Waiting Room,” which pretty much sums up how I felt—on the brink of, but held back.
Our children’s book manager, Alex Mehdevi, had written and published Tales from Majorca, folk stories from his homeland. When I told Alex of my frustration at being unpublished he was kind enough to have his own literary agent read my novel.
Jane Rotrosen phoned me before she’d even finished reading my ms. The title should be changed, she said, and she had other minor suggestions but she agreed to represent the book—even with its previous history! She spoke fast and made an appointment for us to meet.
The Kurt Hellmer Literary Agency office on Vanderbilt Avenue was a warren of small, dark rooms filled with manuscripts and shelves full of books. Jane and I went to the Pan Am Building, where we sat thirty floors above Park Avenue and she talked about my novel with all the detail, expertise, immediacy, and enthusiasm I could, hope for. As soon as I made those minor changes, she would send out the book. We sealed the deal with a handshake—and Jane has been my literary agent ever since.
Months went by, yet no editors seemed willing to take the ms. Jane couldn’t get a fix on why not. Was it too new? Its combination of fictional world, characters, and style too different?
In February of 1974, Jane took me to dinner for my thirtieth birthday. My novel remained unsold. Meanwhile at Rizzoli, I’d been promoted to store manager and my boss had just explained the company’s expansion plans, and my role in them. I’d said what I’d told each employer—I was a writer: the first book contract I got, I would leave. He and I knew the chances of this happening diminished daily. His offer included salaries and positions beyond my expectations. I told Jane this and of the decision I faced: I wanted to be a professional writer!
We returned to my apartment and Jane asked what was in the notebooks atop my nonworking fireplace. Unfinished works. She went through them, and stopped at the outline and opening chapters of a novel I’d titled Who Is Christopher Darling?
I’d begun it in the summer of 1972, basing it on the Greek myth of Phaeton—son of Apollo who’d driven his father’s chariot across the heavens far too close to the sun, and who had to be destroyed. My updating retained the allegory with a sharp twist, and it was told as a psychological thriller. Its ideas reflected my interest in child prodigies and savants, and in the language and mores of Elizabethan and Jacobean England.
Jane thought it publishable. If I wrote up a fuller outline detailing characters and scenes, she’d get it to editors already intrigued with my work.
In a few weeks Don Fine, publisher of Arbor House, signed me to finish the novel. It was to be retitled Smart as the Devil, a more commercial title, he and Jane thought (I didn’t). I’d receive an advance against royalties large enough to pay my bills while I left my job and wrote the book. My boss was surprised when I told him all this but the money involved was so small he gave me leave and agreed to keep all our future plans open.
From March through early October of 1974, I worked on the novel, moving out to Fire Island Pines that summer into a cottage I shared with Jon Peterson and two new friends, lovers named Nick Rock and Enno Poersch. As they all worked part-or full-time, I had the place to myself and was able to make real progress. I wrote two drafts, revised a bit after Jane had read it, and again after Don Fine read it.
Smart as the Devil was published by Arbor House on February 28, 1975, my mother’s birthday. It wasn’t given a large printing, and was not well advertised or promoted. It was excellently if not extensively reviewed, picked by the Mystery Guild book club, and paperback rights were sold to Dell, giving me somewhat more income. The book became one of five finalists for the Ernest Hemingway Award—for the best first novel of the year—partly due to the uniqueness of entire sections having been written in seventeenth-century English. It didn’t get the award, but the nomination gave my reputation a boost.
I returned to Rizzoli after finishing the novel, but I had a new book I was eager to write, based on a personal experience. When I’d returned from Europe I’d moved into a studio apartment in the “Village,” its two windows facing the street. One night, I got a phone call from a young woman. After a variety of questions and answers, it turned out I didn’t know her.
She knew me, plenty about me, virtually everything about me! It took a while to figure it out; then I realized, she had binoculars—I was being watched! Whenever she phoned after that, I tried to elicit information from her—I’d lived in London too! I found out little. One night a young woman slept over with me. The next day my voyeur phoned: her words and tone of voice angry and bitter. I found that odd, given how flip she’d been about the many more young men who’d slept over. When I pointed this out, she said it was because she didn’t take the men seriously as rivals.
Clearly this went beyond sport: she’d developed a fantasy life about me. I was flattered—and freaked! As a social worker I sought help for her. She refused and threatened blackmail. I said I didn’t care who knew what I did in my own home. I warned her not to call anymore—it was harassment, a Federal offense. From then until I moved, I would flinch every time my phone rang—was it her?—even though I’d changed my phone number and it wasn’t listed. I kept my window shades down, but I felt aware at all times that I was being watched—that I might be in danger.
But I wondered what would have happened if I’d been different: if I’d been a young man as needy of a relationship as she seemed to be. What if the relationship had bloomed, become complicated by hidden neuroses, even psychoses in her and by his growing determination to know who she was and to find her?
That was the basis of Eyes, which Jane, Don Fine, and Linda Grey, the editor at Dell who’d bought Smart as the Devil, all liked. I sold it on several chapters and an outline and wrote it during the summer and fall of 1975.
Eyes was published in 1976, following a falling out with my publisher. Editing my ms., he’d excised a short chapter describing a crucial secondary character. I deemed it necessary to give weight and color to this character, whose role was almost that of a fairy-tale witch in what was an otherwise minutely realistic narrative. When the book was published, I found out he’d not put back the chapter and I broke off relations. My editor at Dell agreed to replace the chapter and it first appeared in the paperback edition.
This second published novel was well received, sold better than my first, got more attention—reviews from several women’s magazines—and earned higher book club, paperback, and foreign advances. As the book became read by more people, I realized that in attempting to investigate an incident in my own past, I’d come to symbolize in my female voyeur the questions so many young women were facing themselves—how they could be equal to men yet still feminine; how be sexual and emotional yet intelligent; how be themselves yet appropriate companions.
When the paperback was published in 1977, Peter Caras’s artwork—a woman’s hands in close-up, holding binoculars through which a half-naked man can be seen looking back—was stunning and appropriate. It helped the book become a best-seller, though word-of-mouth played an even larger role.
Eyes sold well here and in England until quite recently. It was translated into French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, and Japanese. Several television and film-makers were interested in it, and it was under option for over a decade. Even so, the “unhappy” ending—the only realistic one for the story—kept it from being produced. That and the fact that a woman’s p.o.v. is required to make it work. I’d suffered over that while writing the book: had to, in effect, become a mentally disturbed woman to have it come out without compromise or faked emotion.
I wrote the novel throughout 1976. The Mesmerist was published by Delacorte in September of 1977, with excellent cover art—again by Peter Caras—which also appeared on the paperback. My original title was “The Mesmerist and Mrs. Lane,” which I still think superior. The Mesmerist was chosen as an Alternate Selection by the Literary Guild. It was better promoted and advertised than my previous books, more widely and better reviewed. It sold triple the earlier books in hardback but eventually less in paperback—Eyes was such a runaway seller. The Mesmerist was translated into six languages and published widely abroad. The biggest immediate change for me was that I’d sold hardcover and paperback rights to Delacorte/Dell and in England and come up with a big enough sum for me to quit work at Rizzoli, move into a larger flat, keep a summer place myself, travel, even invest.
And to celebrate itself. If Black was Beautiful! as the slogan had it, then Gay was Proud! Weekly meetings at the Firehouse were attended by larger groups and ended in a dance, helping to attract, centralize, and allow people to celebrate themselves. Out of the Firehouse rose other, less political gay and lesbian clubs. The first totally gay dance club was the Tenth Floor, a “private party” stressing Black and Latin Rock and Soul music in Manhattan’s West Twenties, which attracted a crowd involved in music, design, and fashion. This same group had begun to transform Fire Island Pines into a stylish, unambiguously gay resort.
By 1975, a new gay social set had emerged, quite different from “Activists” with their academic and political background. Defined by membership in the arts, the media, recording and design professions, it was known as the “Pines-Flamingo Nexus,” after the resort and the new discotheque with its five hundred members that had become its Manhattan center. This small, homogenous, sophisticated, self-conscious group began many trends in the next decade in fashion, music, and social behavior. Their imprint on gay life was instant, long-lasting, and ultimately international.
Some feared such “ghetto-ization,” ergo the proliferation of more heterogenous clubs—among them Le Jardin, Twelve West, the Paradise Garage, Les Mouches, and Studio 54. The latter, Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager’s glitzy club, caught the public’s imagination, and soon designers, movie stars, and Social Register hopefuls were joining gays on its dance floor and in its lounges—and in summer, crowding the Botel and Sandpiper at Fire Island Pines. This same mixture of gays, jet setters, entertainers, personalities, and talent formed a highly creative social and artistic community that gave the seventies a distinctive high-gloss style, culminating in the “Beach” party of 1979, a charity drive at the Pines that commanded a full page of the “Society” section of the New York Times the following day.
I’d become a part of this group almost from its inception: in Manhattan as a member of the dance clubs, in the Pines as a full-time summer resident from 1975 on. Since others were offering their photography, music, sculpture, illustration, and design, I decided to offer my poetry and fiction.
Magazines of gay writing had begun: Andrew Bifrost’s Mouth of the Dragon in New York, and Winston Leyland’s Gay Sunshine Press in San Francisco. Even Manhattan’s Gaysweek began a bi-monthly “Arts and Letters” section. Most of my earliest published poems and short stories appeared in these journals. Other gay magazines were Fag Rag and Gay Community News in Boston, Body Politic in Toronto, New York City News, Christopher Street, the Native, Mandate, Stallion, Blueboy, et al. in New York, the Advocate and Drummer in California. I wrote for them all—reviews, poems, stories, essays.
I—and other writers—began to give readings of poetry and fiction at the newly started lesbian/gay groups mushrooming on campuses at Hunter College, Columbia, Princeton, and Stanford universities.
A question now arose: I had a book of poetry, another volume of short stories, all written out of and addressing my experiences as a gay man: how could I get these books out where they could be read?
The answer, according to my agent Jane, my editor Linda, and my friend Susan Moldow, who also worked in book publishing, was that I couldn’t! Few gaythemed books were published—and they had always been special: Vidal’s novel, Rechy’s City of Night, Isherwood’s Single Man, Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room. No one could live off writing them, and no publisher would put out books by unknown gay writers, dramatists, or—heaven forbid!—poets. I was told to forget it, told to do what gay writers had done for years: keep them to myself, and continue writing nongay novels.
That struck me as unfair; worse, as usufructage; even a species of slavery. I’d begin my own publishing house and publish nothing but the work of gays. I’d hire, utilize, and work only with gays—artists, typesetters, printers, binders, distributors. I’d stock my books in lesbian/gay-owned bookstores. The company would be called the SeaHorse Press—named after the marine species in which the male bears and gives birth—and I felt it would work.
SeaHorse Press’s first title was my Deformity Lover and Other Poems—chosen because the author didn’t have to be paid. George Stavrinos’s cover illustration and the high quality of all aspects of the book got it noticed. In the gay media, reviews were lengthy and laudatory—from its first line, the book assumed the reader and writer shared the gay experience and went on from there to detail and particularize that world. Critics also appreciated the book’s range of styles and forms: lyric, epistle, ode, sonnet, dramatic monologue were all represented.
When the book was reviewed by nongay media, the reaction was far more mixed—some tried to but were unable to hide their prejudice. For others it was simply too different, too alien. One bright woman poet couldn’t grasp why I would opt for rhythms that sounded to her like “popular music: phonograph songs!”—which was exactly what I wanted. The poet/translator Richard Howard encouraged me, and the late Howard Moss, poetry editor of the New Yorker, thought the work strong and asked to see new poems; but he could never bring himself to publish any of my gay work. Others invited me to send work to those many small poetry quarterlies that seem to define American verse today.
I continued to write poetry and many newer poems were published in magazines and anthologies—a high-school textbook published one I thought fairly gay, “Gym Shorts,” to illustrate “image.”
You really look good in those gym shorts
now that they’re worn
and you’re filled out to fit them
You used to look good way back then, too.
Was it ten years ago?
Yes. I saw the games. I was watching.
Watching those gym shorts
grip muscled sides
as you dribbled and sped
playing king of the court.
Watched how the gold stripe you alone wore
marked you apart from the bodies rising
when you netted the ball
as if picking a rose.
How your shorts sort of fluttered
against trembling thighs
when you sprang to the floor
and ceiling spotlights stroked you.
You were sweat and smiles and modest lies
leaning on the railing
You shivered. So I loaned you my coat.
You thanked me.
Those gym shorts were new then,
like childrens’ Christmas wishes.
Three poems appeared in The Oxford Book of Homosexual Verse. I’ve only had one more book of poems published, a chapbook, Window Elegies, by the Close Grip Press at the University of Alabama in 1986, but I was pleased and honored to read it at the Poetry Society of America, a usually less adventuresome organization.
SeaHorse Press, however, was launched. Especially as my book went through four printings. The second title was Two Plays by Doric Wilson, the third, Idols, poems by the talented Dennis Cooper, then Kevin Esser’s man-boy love novel Streetboy Dreams. Clark Henely’s hilarious Butch Manual became a bestseller, and in 1980 I edited an anthology of poetry, drama, and fiction by lesbians and gay men, A True Likeness.
As the press continued to grow, so did its list—Alan Bowne’s play Forty-Deuce, a collection of stories by Brad Gooch, Jailbait (cover photo by Robert Mapplethorpe), poetry by Robert Peters, Rudy Kikel, Gavin Dillard, and Mark Ameen, George Stambolian’s interviews, Male Fantasies Gay Realities, and a translation from the French of gay novelist Guy Hocquenghem’s novel Love in Relief. Later on, I’d use the prestigious SeaHorse imprint on titles I would edit for Gay Presses of New York—our reprint of the 1933 Charles Henri Ford/Parker Tyler novel The Young and Evil and Martin Duberman’s About Time:Exploring the Gay Past.
The SeaHorse Press turned out to be a great deal of work, fun, and a way to meet lesbian and gay authors all over. But it didn’t solve the problem of writing gay material and getting it to a wide readership.
While writing The Mesmerist, I was approached by a film producer at Universal Studios who wanted me to write a gay-themed movie. His idea was for me to explore the darker side of gay life in Manhattan. He offered a single image which, while striking, ended up remaining unused. There was a basis to his idea. Arthur Bell, openly gay columnist for the Village Voice, had been writing a series on several bizarre and grisly murders of gay entrepreneurs. Bell was chasing leads and tying together clues when his life was threatened; he stopped the series.
Through my own contacts, I could go further: sex partners, acquaintances, and a close friend worked in the hierarchy of discos, bars, bathhouses, and private sex clubs which had sprung up in Chelsea. I began to ask questions and what I discovered began to intrigue me.
A former lover, the playwright Bob Herron, was a community leader in the Village through the Jane Street Block Association. He told me of an undercover unit of the New York City Police Department formed to investigate the seemingly related murders Bell had reported. I met a member of this unit who answered some of my questions. Shortly after, the unit was disbanded. It was supposed to be investigated itself, but that never happened.
I had more than enough material and some of it was very hot. But I knew that presenting as factual what I’d found out would lead to death threats or worse: I’d fictionalize it. I put together an outline and got it to the film producer.
He was horrified. It was so gay, so raw, so disturbing and violent he could barely read my outline. No doubt, he was being realistic about its chances of being filmed in a homophobic industry. Upon my return from California I mentioned the outline to my editor, Linda Grey, who read it and, bless her, said, “It’ll be a terrific book!” I wrote a single, gripping, opening chapter and Delacorte bought it.
The Lure was my fourth published novel, my most controversial, and until recently the best known. Someone recently called it “pulp.” Someone else “a cult classic,” which seems pretentious yet in terms of sales and influence isn’t inaccurate. The hardcover was well packaged, promoted, and advertised and it was the first gay-themed book sold by the Literary Guild: an Alternate Selection. It sold very well in hardcover and paperback and was translated into many languages. Its greatest foreign success was in Germany, where it sold steadily for a decade under the title Gefangen in Babel. “Warning: Explicit Sex and Violence,” the ad read for the book club advertising The Lure: and it’s true, I’ve never written anything quite like it again and have resisted all requests and demands for a sequel or to have it made into a film.
I wrote it in Manhattan and at Fire Island Pines throughout 1978. A long time, given how tightly plotted the book is and how fast it reads: many people told me they were up all night reading it. Author Edmund White called it “hallucinatory—as though one were drugged.”
Some gays hated The Lure—and me—for its uncompromising portrait of the sleazier scenes that had arisen out of Gay Liberation, of which few political activists were proud. To them, I was washing dirty laundry in public. Worse, I was providing damaging confirmation to those opposing gay rights. At the least I was betraying the movement.
My intentions were different: I’d wanted the reader—gay or not, male or female, young or old—to share what it was like being gay in Manhattan: experiencing fear, doubt, the constant questioning of one’s own and everyone else’s motives, yet joy and camaraderie and love too; and always, motiveless bigotry and hatred.
Most nongay reviews (The Lure was reviewed widely) and the mail I received confirmed that I’d succeeded in that task. No matter how badly I portrayed some gays or some aspects of gay life in the novel, no matter how thin a slice of gay life I’d concentrated on, I’d drawn it richly, in the round, sympathetically, and without the usual knee-jerk judgementalism. And I’d portrayed those arrayed against gays worse: irrational, ruthless, often deadly. Years later when The Lure was being used in college courses about minorities or about psychology or even about urban life, I knew my critics had been wrong: I felt justified.
I’d also achieved something else. With The Lure’s success I’d tied together that work I’d been publishing—classed as “commercial fiction” despite that Hemingway Award nomination—with my own private life and interests. It was the first time these two disparate, even opposing, forces would come together for me—and to date, the last!
I’d met Edmund White socially in 1976. He’d just published The Joy of Gay Sex with Charles Silverstein, but I admired more White’s stories and his earlier novel, Forgetting Elena. I’d also met George Whitmore around this time, and we became friends. George told me of a remarkable novel he’d read in galleys. Titled Dancer from the Dance, the new book was about the Pines-Flamingo crowd by an unknown author—Andrew Holleran. I read it and confirmed for myself his talent and the book’s truth, humor, and brilliance. A few weeks later, at a party at the Pines, I was introduced to Holleran: we’ve been good friends ever since.
Dancer was published in the autumn of 1978. My Deformity Lover had come out earlier that year, as had a fascinating nonfiction book, After Midnight, by Michael Grumley, author of Hard Corps, a study of the S/M leather scene. Michael’s lover, Robert Ferro, had published a short enigmatic novel, The Others, in 1977. George Whitmore was writing poetry and articles. Edmund’s lover, Chris Cox, was compiling an oral history of Key West. In the spring of 1979, White’s Nocturnes for the King of Naples was published; that autumn my novel The Lure.
In the following months, we seven were constantly thrown together within the gay cultural scene and found out we shared many interests. I don’t recall who suggested we meet on a regular basis to read and discuss our work. I know the first meeting was held at George’s apartment on Washington Square. Casually, later on, we came up with a name—the Violet Quill Club—sometimes called the Lavender Quill Club.
No matter how light-hearted we were in talking about it, once together we were in earnest. We’d seen what happened to gay writers before us who’d not been able to write about the gay experience, forced to tailor their talent to the heterosexual majority—William Inge, Thornton Wilder, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Edward Albee. Few of those who had succeeded in what Roger Austen called “Playing the Game” for the sake of their careers had escaped personal damage: alcoholism, psychosis, self-destruction, suicide. We refused to take that route, even though (especially for Edmund White and myself) a public coming out might well mean the destruction of our careers.
We knew not to expect our work to be critiqued fairly, even competently. The literarily powerful New York Times was virulently homophobic and reviews of gaythemed books were openly hostile, often written by “closeted” gay writers. But our books were sympathetically reviewed elsewhere, and other writers worked quietly in our cause.
Yet with public criticism on such a simplistic level, we lacked that dialogue we needed to grow in our work. The Violet Quill Club would provide it, as well as occasional technical aid in the niceties of prose fiction. We discovered we were all writing some sort of autobiography, but besides individual tales of growing up and “coming out” we hoped our gay-themed work could be enlarged to treat the “big” themes that have always attracted writers—love, death, how to live one’s life.
Through appearances in Christopher Street and the New York Native, we became known as a group to other gay writers. As a group, we strengthened each other individually and began to wield influence. Those who admired our writing or our uncompromising stance called us the New York School, Those who felt excluded or threatened called us the Gay Literary Mafia. Many younger writers have told me that our work and our publicity lessened their own fear of ostracism and helped them define themselves as gay writers.
Our meetings were neither regular nor often: in all, no more than eight times over a year and a half. Like all groups with strong egos, the VQ Club eventually ended. With one exception, we all remained friends. In some cases even closer friends. In the years since, we would often meet together for “tea” or spend weekends at the Ferro family summer place on the Jersey shore, which we jokingly renamed “Gaywyck.”
As of this writing—summer 1990—only three of us are still alive, and one of those three is infected: AIDS has taken and continues to take its toll. But the group’s importance should continue to live on. The curators of the American Literature Collection at the Beinecke Library at Yale University believe the VQ Club to have been the key group in producing, popularizing, and legitimizing gay fiction in America: they are collecting our manuscripts and papers.
The VQ Club was responsible for an efflorescence of new books by its members, among them White’s Boy’s Own Story and The Beautiful Room is Empty, Ferro’s Family of Max Desir and The Blue Star, Cox’s Key West, Holleran’s Nights in Aruba, Grumley’s Life-Drawing, and Whitmore’s Confessions of Danny Slocumand Nebraska. I’d completed my novel Late in the Season (1981) when we began to meet, but my novella An Asian Minor: The True Story of Ganymede (1981), and several short stories which I eventually collected, were written or rewritten for VQ Club meetings. Our discussions gave me enough confidence to later write more autobiographical works.
Late in the Season was published by Delacorte, although with a tenth of the attention given The Lure—because it was a “smaller” book. It was in fact something new: an “idyll,” a love story about two attractive, successful middle-class gay men during one late summer month as their “marriage” is tested by, among other things, one of them having an affair with a young woman.
I’d written the book from a double p.o.v. as I had in Eyes, and in a way, it’s a companion piece to that book. Except that it’s a series of prose poems: aquarelles, even. It opens like this:
It was a perfect day for composing. The morning mist had finally burned off the ocean, unfurling the blue sky like a huge banner of victory. Kites were fluttering at various levels of the warm, balmy air. From down the beach came the sweet-voiced distortions of children’s cries in play—the last children of the season—adding extra vibrancy to their sounds, piercing the scrim of post-Labor-Day-weekend silence that had softly dropped a week ago. Already the first dying leaves of an autumn that came early to the seashore and would blaze madly for a mere month of picture-book beauty had flung themselves at the glass doors this morning. They had saddened Jonathan then, perched over his large mug of coffee, feeling the hot sun on his closed eyelids. But now the morning felt so clear and sunny, so absolutely cloudless, he felt he might strike it with the little glass pestle in the dining room bowl, and the day would ring back, echoing crystal, like a gamelan orchestra.
The novel’s poetry has made it a lasting favorite among my readers. While it was sold to British and German publishers, Late in the Season attained a smaller, if more discriminating, readership than my earlier novels. It fell out of print at Dell and was reprinted in a trade paper edition by Gay Presses of New York, where it’s been a steady seller.
As has been my gay short-story collection, Slashed to Ribbons in Defense of Love, published by GPNY in 1983, now in its third printing. I’d gathered all my stories from gay magazines, added the novella “And Baby Makes Three,” and a final, autobiographical tale, “A Stroke.” The book was published at a time when the short story was making one of its periodic comebacks. Besides fine reviews in the gay media, it was well received in general. Writer’s Digest listed it along with collections by Barthelme, Carver, and Beattie as the best of the year.
Gay Presses of New York was put together in 1980 by myself, Larry Mitchell, who’d begun Calamus Press, and Terry Helbing, who’d begun the JH Press. Our idea was to combine administrative and overhead costs and to publish one new title per year. Our first book was a play in three parts the author wanted printed as one and produced in a single evening. Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy still hadn’t been produced as a trilogy when GPNY bought publication rights. The book came out in 1981, the play opened off-Broadway in 1982, where its successful run led it to Broadway, and it received the Tony Award in 1983.
The great success of Torch Song Trilogy allowed GPNY to flourish. We spread our net wide, pulling in lesbian authors, gay dramatists, nonfiction writers, novelists, etc. The 1985 catalogue showed seventy-five titles in print. I knew GPNY was secure when my partners bid for my new works along with commercial publishers. We continued to encounter bigotry: book clubs wouldn’t purchase rights directly from us, a large distributor wouldn’t do business with us. Prejudice dies hard.
Throughout, GPNY has been hard work with little or no profit, done as a challenge and as a service to the readers and writers of the lesbian/gay community. When Newsweek ran a cover story on gay writing coming into the mainstream in 1989, it completely ignored GPNY and SeaHorse and Calamus, as well as other important lesbian/gay presses—Daughters Ink, Gay Sunshine Press—who were fully responsible for the inception and continued existence of a lesbian/gay literature.
I was happy enough for GPNY to publish my first book of memoirs. Ambidextrous: The Secret Lives of Children (1985) is a true story in the form of three novellas covering three years in my life, from the ages of eleven to thirteen. I began the first, “Basement Games,” in the summer of 1983, driven by a need to deal with the most difficult problem I’d ever faced and the people involved. When I’d written it, I realized it was only one of three formative crises that had determined who I would become as a person and writer. I wrote “A Valentine” in the next few months, and spent the first third of 1984 writing the third and most complex section, “The Effect of ‘Mirrors’.”
The reception of Ambidextrous was strong enough for me to consider writing another volume. While I planned to be chronological, I didn’t want a full sequential account. Like most lives, mine had gone through long fallow periods followed by sudden times of action: only those “highlights” would be my material.
I was impelled by more than memory and self-healing. I’d begun to feel increasingly limited and caged inside the novels I’d been writing. The tight, suspenseful plots and fully rendered p.o.v.s of characters required to drive my House of Cards (1984) and especially To the Seventh Power (1989) were making writing less “fun,” more work. I tried other areas of writing: in 1985 and 1986 I worked on a screenplay of Eyes with director Frank Perry. I adapted my novella An Asian Minor at the request of director Jerry Campbell and it had a good off-Broadway run in 1986 as the play Immortal! That same summer my one-act play One O’Clock Jump was also produced off-Broadway.
Despite these distractions, I still wanted to use the individual “voice” I’d found in my poetry and short fiction and develop it into a more supple, varied, sophisticated prose. I was searching for new structures too, capable of the closest detail, yet open enough for sudden wide shifts in time, place, and character.
A short version of “The Most Golden Bulgari,” the first part of the second book of my memoirs, appeared in George Stambolian’s excellent anthology Men on Men in 1986. “A Most Imperfect Landing,” the second part, was written in May 1987 and first published in a gay literary magazine, the James White Review, in 1989. I wrote the final part, “The Jane Street Girls,” in the spring of 1988.
Gary Luke, editor of the Plume line at NAL, bought paper rights to Ambidextrous and hard/soft rights to Men Who Loved Me—as I’d cheekily titled the sequel. They were published together in the fall of 1989 and are the books I’m most proud of: they contain all I’ve learned so far of style, form, and technique in rendering the funny, tragic, sad, frustrating, incomprehensible, and ambiguous quotidian of our lives.
Not all reviewers grasped my purpose. While some found the books “distinguished” or “brilliant,” others called them “bad jokes,” “put on tell-alls.” Unsurprisingly, complaints have been leveled at my prose for daring to mix “high” and “low” styles; also at the contents of the books for mixing the “popular” and “literary.” Some British critics called the books flat-out lies, assuring their readers and me that children never have sex. But I’ll continue to experiment with and develop this new style. At this time I’m utilizing it in a novel about the complex love-hate relationship of two gay friends over a busy, incident-filled, thirty-five-year period.
Looking over these pages, I see many deal not with myself, my life, my family, my friends, my work, but with larger issues: social and political forces—the Civil Rights and Student movements in the sixties, Gay Liberation and the world created by gays in the seventies. In a review of both memoirs in a Boston newspaper, Allan Smalling wrote: “Picano bids us to see his experiences as exemplary.… Whether good or bad, his life experiences virtually define what it meant to come of age in America in the ‘Fifties and ‘Sixties.”
The seventies and eighties too—once I feel I’m able to write about those decades—not an easy or happy task and not one I look forward to or think myself equal to. One example of the problem I face, think on this: two of my Fire Island Pines housemates and friends were among the first known American men to have been stricken with and died of AIDS. This past decade has been one in which I’ve watched my entire community, an era, an entire way of life—as rich and full as any I’ve known—swept away by disease as utterly as the Holocaust swept away European Jewry, and with about as little response from the rest of the world.
As those few friends left to me continue to sicken and suffer and die, I often wonder if that’s the reason I lived through those times, knew those people, suffered those losses, became a writer, learned the value of storytelling from my mother—so that eventually I might bear witness to that era, those people, this great loss, and make it literature.
Felice Picano contributed the following update in 2004:
I’m reminded of the ambiguous Chinese toast that goes: “May you live in interesting times.” I had already lived in very interesting times both for myself, the country, and the world when I wrote my autobiography for Contemporary Authors, but I had no idea how much more “interesting” they were about to become.
It’s probably safe to say that most of what critics and academicians consider my major work has been published since July 1990, when I handed in that essay. Certainly my life has altered considerably since I wrote the autobiography. A few weeks after I’d mailed it, my partner and I went for HIV tests, as we’d been doing regularly. Having lived within the very heart of the maelstrom of the disease from before the time it even had a name, we naturally assumed it was only a matter of time until we were proven to test “positive” for and develop what was then still a life-ending illness.
That week, my partner tested positive, and astonishingly, I did not. (I haven’t so far.) He’d already endured weeks of shingles, a neurological “marker” illness for AIDS. He soon developed other symptoms, and ten months later he was dead. No sooner was he cremated than my last close friend my age in Manhattan, the writer/critic George Stambolian, nearly crashed a car he was driving, forcing me to take the wheel. His neuropathy worsened and two weeks later if was confirmed he too had AIDS. Three of us became his caretakers, and he died in January 1992.
I’d already lost ninety percent of my acquaintance to HIV, including my younger brother. In the next decade via AIDS, cancer, and car accidents, I would lose his wife, my older brother, his wife, both their children and my father who’d outlived my mother by sixteen years.
I operated in a constant state of crisis, trauma, and shock. But I kept writing, and, it’s generally believed, I wrote better than before. Presciently, I’d written in the CA autobiography that I was supposed to witness and write of my times, and I certainly did that. I’d also written there that I planned to write a book about “The complex love-hate relationship between two gay friends over a busy, incident-filled, thirty-five year period.” Those friends would become changed into second cousins, and that book would become Like People in History, my most popular book since The Lure, and the most honored to date.
In the midst of the panic and madness of Bob Lowe’s illness, I met with Dr. Charles Silverstein who I’d known since the heady days of the Gay Activists Alliance right after the Stonewall Riots that established Gay Liberation politics back in 1968. Charles had helped persuade the American Psychiatric Association to remove the label of illness from people simply because they were homosexual. He’s a formidable man, tall, stout, bearded, intelligent, and sensible.
Our discussion was about a complete overhaul of Silverstein and Edmund White’s co-written path-breaking guide, The Joy of Gay Sex. Gay life had changed so much in fifteen years, Silverstein felt the book needed updating. Edmund White had been living in Paris for years, too distant to write it. Silverstein wanted me to join him as co-author, partly because he was uncertain of his own writing ability. My memoirs, Ambidextrous and Men Who Loved Me, had helped me acquire that elusive quality—literary cachet. But I’d also very much kept up with health issues. Bob and I (along with Edmund White) had been among the first to meet in 1980 to form a group of professionals that would soon become known as the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the first organization and the first real weapon against the spread of AIDS in the world.
Though published in 1976, the earlier book was in fact more of a Swinging Sixties text. “Being raped? Lay back and enjoy it?” Freaking out on drugs—”-Everyone does sometimes.” The world the book pictured was sunny, open, devil-may-care—and dangerously out of date. Drugs and alcohol were now known to be crutches and addictions; rape could now lead to a death sentence. So very much had changed, that ninety-nine percent of the book had to be rewritten, with many new entries brought in—even information about condoms hadn’t been included in the first edition.
We sold the outline to HarperCollins editor-in-chief Susan Moldow, who let us package the book, including hiring the artist, Ron Fowler. I negotiated the contract from a pay phone in the Intensive Ward corridor where Bob lay dying. I wrote my half of the book in those first totally stunned months after his death: having a non-fiction project to do was very useful to me and kept me going during what must be counted the nadir of my existence. During our nationwide book tour in the summer of 1991, Silverstein had to return home when his partner began to die. But The New Joy of Gay Sex was well received, well publicized, sold well, and was later published in England, and translated into German, Japanese, Dutch, Scandinavian, and Hebrew. The guide was also the second most stolen book from libraries and bookstores in America, and gained the further dubious distinction of being the book with the most attempts of censorship against it in U.S. libraries and bookstores.
Silverstein had brought in his agent at William Morris to sell that title. My literary agent since the beginning said that was fine: she preferred not to be associated with the book. I thought nothing of this statement at the time.
A year later, I’d finished another big writing project I’d planned and worked on for years, a science fictionepic titled Dryland’s End. This was the last of my books that Bob Lowe—who’d been my first reader for fifteen years—read in manuscript. I gave it to my agent, who returned it some weeks later saying she’d been unable to read more than a few pages: It was totally beyond her. In 1994, it was sold to a small New York press, right after my next novel, Like People in History, was sold to Viking-Penguin. My agent had been unable to get past much of the content in that book either, and had sent it back to me, requesting I instead write a best-seller. I insisted this book would be one. When we’d first met in 1974 and she’d told me she was interested in turning me into a “literary star,” I’d reminded her that stars not only shine brightly, they also shine forever. Evidently she’d forgotten that last part. Her inability to follow me where I found myself going with my writing ended our professional relationship, although we’ve been able to pick up the personal end of it a bit lately. I sold the big novel to an old friend at Viking-Penguin.
These two biggest (in many ways) books of my career, Dryland’s End and Like People in History, were published in the spring of 1995. Naturally, the mainstream book got all the attention. I went on a month-long book tour for it, extended as the hardcover went into four printings. Rights were sold to major publishers in England and Germany. In 1996, I went to London. When I arrived the book was number three on the best seller list. Without America’s restrictive “gay/straight” labelling, my gay epic had become a national bestseller in the U.K. and Commonwealth overnight. I appeared on BBC radio and tv programs and gave readings at the Barbican Center; I was interviewed or featured in all the newspapers and my book went into double digit printings. The tabloids had a field day speculating which now British rock star I’d bedded. The novel sold almost as well in the U.S., tying for first place in sales at the Quality Book Club in 1996 with David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. It has since been published in Germany, France, and Canada, and a Spanish language edition is being prepared.
Like People in History, about two gay cousins who meet in a New York suburb at age eleven in 1955 and whose lives take them to Vietnam, Beverly Hills, San Francisco, Woodstock, Fire Island, and finally to Manhattan in the age of Act-Up, is the story of gay men within and part of American history; at that time a completely new and untold tale. The novel received good reviews in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, Guardian (Manchester), Le Figaro, and Le Monde, where it was named best foreign language book of the year. It received five literary award nominations, and won three awards. I’m happy to say the book is dedicated to Bob Lowe’s memory.
But literary honor counts little when a person has been as stricken, as surrounded by and eventually as utterly unmoored by so much death as I have been. No wonder I eagerly went on book tours and extended vacations, to Europe, all across the U.S. and Canada, and to Japan (1993). I even lived a summer in Berlin (1994), Germany, trying to help a friend write a difficult screenplay. But nowhere I went did I really feel comfortable. New York, my home for decades, had become a place of ghastly memories. Bicycling around Manhattan, it was all I could do to avoid many places, and finally entire neighborhoods that I couldn’t stand to even see again. Although I made some new friends among young people there and worked as a volunteer in various charitable organizations, it wasn’t the same as being with friends you’d grown to manhood with.
No surprise then that during a New Year’s stopover for readings in Los Angeles, when my conductor/pianist host, Armen, offered to sublet me his apartment while he worked two years for the Paris Opera, I said yes. At the end of my 1995 book tour I moved to Los Angeles, mixing half my things with his in the spacious flat. I’d had a few friends in L.A. who I used to visit and I saw those people and even bought a car from one—an actor waiting for a part, working for an auto dealer. I also mixed with Armen’s friends, and slowly developed a new social set. Again, it’s not the same as those people you’ve grown up with, but on my sixtieth birthday recently, a large party was thrown for me, and over forty of these new friends showed up despite rain and bad weather, some driving from Santa Barbara and Palm Springs, other places I’ve grown familiar with in this area.
In the year before Bob had become so ill, he and I had flown out to Southern California. I’d lived here briefly several times in my life and I’d continued to want to relocate here. As a successful attorney in a partnership, Bob could easily open an office and move. We had looked around both West Hollywood and the Hillcrest-Mission Heights area of San Diego as potential new homes.
After my L.A. sublet ended, I stayed another nine months in another flat in the same development, then a week before my father died, I moved the remainder of my possessions to Los Angeles, driving an overladen twenty-two-foot-long U-Haul truck across the U.S. during one of the hottest Augusts on record. I dodged or sat-out statewide thunderstorms in Ohio and Indiana and threaded through day-long tornadoes across Nebraska. The truck broke down once, at the New Mexico/Arizona state line. I was told to drive slowly and not very much per day the rest of the way. So I dawdled in Arizona, seeing sights like Canyon de Chelly and Meteor Crater, and I came to like the state as much as California.
A week after I’d moved, my father died and I flew back to New York to bury him. Six months earlier I’d closed out his home and put him into hospice care and I tried to ensure that he didn’t suffer too much from the combined afflictions of heart disease and cancer. He was eighty-four years old.
Six months later, I moved into a small house high in the Hollywood Hills where I’ve lived ever since. Here I’ve found a modicum of the peace and quiet that escaped me for so long and in the process have become a dedicated flower, succulent, and vegetable gardener. Because of the proximity to so many hiking trails, I’ve also became a hiker, and so have kept in pretty physical good shape, to offset my aging, gray hair and beard.
Even so, my personal life never recovered. Bob had been my soul-mate, and the few men who interested me later on couldn’t help but see his photos, and understand from my tone of voice in speaking of him the depth of our connection. Furthermore, the psychic damage caused by having this last prop of my very difficult life pulled out from under me more or less when I was at my most vulnerable, remains in place to this day. Anyone who gets too close to me is warned that people around me tend to die; their personal safety seems to lie in keeping a little distance. And while I may have acquired more than a little fame and reputation, especially in gay life and literature, when forced to, I have to compare myself to that extremely equivocal wedding gift in Henry James’s late novel, The Golden Bowl—a seemingly perfect object with a hairline crack that makes it fragile and almost useless, perpetually flawed.
Here in the Hollywood Hills, I’ve also set up a point from which I’ve travelled more, exploring by car California and the American and Canadian West. Here too, I’ve written some of my best books, and revived one book from the past.
I’d written a first draft of Looking Glass Lives at my rental house in Fire Island Pines in 1979. I revised the short novel a year later. When I showed it to my literary agent she read it and found it too intellectual and philosophically challenging, and I’d put it away. The work had been revived by me in 1989, intended to become a publication of Gay Presses of New York, a company I’d co-founded with Terry Helbing and Larry Mitchell. A few years after Terry’s death from AIDS, Larry’s sight, which had been worsening due to macular degeneration, suddenly got much worse. Left alone to do all the work for all four presses, as well as to caretake my partner, family members and close friends, I was overwhelmed and forced to close down GPNY for good in 1992.
Five years later, I was approached by editor-in-chief Scott Brassart of Alyson Books in Hollywood to give him a book to publish, I decided to offer him Looking Glass Lives, which I felt was ready for publication. Alyson did use the illustrations that Provincetown-based artist Ron Fowler had done for the book over a period of two years and which GPNY had paid for. But alas they decided not to use his striking cover art. Looking Glass Lives was about a reincarnated love-triangle. Set in contemporary times and in the Civil War era, it is one of my most unusual and spiritual books, one of the few in which I explore some aspects of the Eastern thought I’ve come to accept. The book was surprisingly popular, given that it was aimed directly into a gay male market, further confirming for me that the separation from my agent had been correct.
Meanwhile I’d been planning and working on a new novel. The Book of Lies was written as an academic mystery/high comedy, centering around a writing group similar to one I belonged to at the end of the 1970s—The Violet Quill Club. This group of friends, lovers (all writers) had met infrequently but had gained prestige early on from various newspaper articles and mostly because the books produced in our short time together formed a sort of early high water mark of modern gay male fiction. In 1994, poet/scholar/editor David Bergman published a volume of our work—stories, essays, excerpts from novels, letters—titled The Violet Quill Reader, containing the work of myself, Andrew Holleran, Edmund White, Christopher Cox, Robert Ferro, Michael Grumley, and George Whitmore. That book helped the group gain what has now become a kind of legendary stature. Bergman’s scholarly study of the group’s lives, loves and writing, The Violet Hour, in the works since then, was just published in 2004 and will doubtless continue to draw attention to our group’s pivotal place in the formation of a contemporary Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual/Transgendered literature.
However if anyone goes to my novel to discover the truth about the group or its individuals, they’ll find themselves trapped, led around by the nose, befuddled, addled and indeed as the title implies, lied to, in various ways. A completely post-modernist text, the novel consists of a first person story told by what one British reviewer called “the most unreliable narrator in literature since James’ governess in The Turn of the Screw.” Interspersed with this less than candid Ph.D. student’s narrative are a plethora of anecdotes, letters, phone-calls, faxes, e-mails, and contes trouves: an entire panoply of contemporary communication that further muddies rather than clarifying the truth. Originally published in England by Little Brown/Abacus, The Book of Lies is one of my recent critical successes, if not one of my best sellers.
The third volume of my memoirs, A House on the Ocean, A House on the Bay, begun in 1989 and not finished till 1996, was published by Faber & Faber in 1996 and was another critical success. Like The Book of Lies, it was nominated for several awards. I’d lived almost half the year every year at Fire Island from 1975 to 1985, and this book was about that life, that place, and the people I had encountered and related to there—and also about how I became an author.
I had an odd experience writing it. The two novella-length halves were written separately, over a period of eight years, and when I came to do the book, I at times simply incorporated into one or another of these other pieces of writing I had sitting around on the subject. Oddly, this mishmash of “bleeding chunks” of prose, somehow fit together. And although I can see all the stitchings, readers often complimented me, saying the memoir is among my best structured and best written works.
In my fifties and because of Scott Brassart and Jay Quinn at Haworth Press, more of my earlier books were returned to print. Late in the Season was republished in 1994 as part of Stonewall Inn Classics out of St. Martin’s Press and I wrote an afterward to it. Alyson put my 1981 novella An Asian Minor (sans David Martin’s delicious artwork) with my 1983 story collection Slashed to Ribbons in Defense of Love,into a single volume that Brassart named The New York Years—so I wrote an introduction for that. And when Alyson reprinted The Lure in 2002, I wrote another intro, in effect explaining the gestation and history of these books. I then wrote three more introductions for Haworth Press’s reissue of my three memoirs in a uniform edition in 2003.
One of my most difficult works, one that required three years to write on and off, was the novel, Onyx,published in 2001. The difficulty unquestionably arose because it was to be so personal a book for me. In effect, the novel explores the successful relationship of two mature gay men pulling apart as one of them sickens and dies, leaving the other as an unwilling survivor. For this novel, I abandoned my usual fun and games experimentation with novelistic structure and point of view for a straightforward third person exploration of character and action. What may be unusual is that in Onyx I follow the dying partner to the moment of his death. Another surprising aspect might be that he adjusts to his critical situation far better than his partner. And yet another startling aspect is that the men, rather than being the stereotypical gay party boys, are deeply embedded in family life, their home, their sister’s children, etc.
Obviously autobiographical, Onyx was the best reviewed of my novels to date, and despite it’s altogether dark and tragic material, it was also one of my best selling books in the past decade. But shortly after publication, my editor left Alyson to pursue his own writing, in effect ending our excellent five-book streak.
Somewhat at sea again, I encountered opportunity in another area of writing, the stage. I already had a stage history. During the 1980s I’d transformed my novella An Asian Minor into a play with added music and dancing for Meridian Gay Theater, with the help of director Jerry Campbell who then put it on. An updating of the story of the Ganymede story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses into contemporary times, Immortal ended up having a five month Off Broadway run and was a great deal of work and a lot of fun. Shortly after that, my one act play, One O’clock Jump was co-winner of the Jane Chambers playwriting award and I got to direct the black comedy for the Off-Broadway stage. It too went on to have a stage run of several months and was subsequently staged at The Seattle Rep and most recently at the Tennessee Wiliams Festival in New Orleans.
Around that same time as my second play closed, film writer and director, Frank Perry, (David and Lisa, Mommy Dearest) asked me to co-write with him an adaptation for film of my 1976 novel, Eyes. I’d already worked on a screen version of the book in 1978 in Los Angeles, with producer Milton Sperling, and subsequently a half dozen actors (Sissy Spacek, Lindsey Wagner, et al) and directors had optioned the novel and tried their hand at it, but the story continued to defy everyone’s attempt to get it on screen. Perry and I had no better luck with it, but it was an excellent experience working with him, and it opened me up to future performing writing.
Since then I’ve gone back to work polishing and collecting published and unpublished short stories for two possible collections, keyboarding and gathering essays, reviews, and poems for more future books. I’ve also gone back to an unpublished novella from 1976 and turned it into a full length novel. Several years ago, a friend recommended that I collect, annotate, and present all of the material I had gathered and still had in storage from my days as publisher of Sea Horse Press and editor of Gay Presses of New York. I did so, and in 2002 I presented it at University of Southern California’s ONE Institute, as an exhibit called Early Gay Presses of New York.
That exhibit went on to be shown at the Main Library in San Francisco and the Anderson Library at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, and I wrote lectures to accompany it for presentation at those places and at the Canadian National Archives in Ottawa, Ontario, when I spoke there this past February. As a result of the interest garnered, I’m planning future exhibitions of the work and I’m also writing a memoir, tentatively titled Art & Death in Greenwich Village, dealing with the fifteen or so years I was involved with these pathbreaking GLBT publishing companies.
In addition, in 2004, Haworth Press will republish my sci-fi gender-bender epic, Dryland’s End in a proper manner. A small press production, it was swamped when it came out in 1995 by the success of Like People in History, put out by a major house. Also due out this autumn, from the University of WisconsinPress, is a short autobiographical novel, Fred in Love, about me and my remarkable cat and friend, when we were two free-wheeling bachelors in Manhattan in the 1970s.
Living in Los Angeles, naturally enough I’ve acquired a show business manager and media agent and I am kept very busy writing and rewriting plays and original screenplays, and preparing film and tv treatments based on some of my published work. One of those scripts is science fiction, as is a recently written novella, Ingoldsby, a unique time-travel story told entirely in documents. As my epic is set up for two sequels, science fiction may well end up being my focus for the coming decade.”
He has received the Ferro-Grumley Award and Gay Times of England Award for best gay novel and the Syndicated Fiction/PEN Award for best short story, as well as the Jane Chambers Play Award in 1985. He was a finalist for the first Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award and was nominated for five Lambda Literary Awards. He received the Lambda Literary Foundation’s Pioneer Award in 2010, and the City of West Hollywood’s Rainbow Award and Citation in 2013.
For more information visit Felice Picano here.
Out Magazine 2010-