Spine Intact – Epilog

 

 

 

My historical novel San Antone was published in 1985. I did not again work on a novel or a book-length project until 1998.

During that period, I was often asked why I had stopped writing. I never knew quite how to answer that question, because I never thought of myself as having “stopped writing.” I said earlier, writing is not something that you do just when your fingers are flying over the keyboard. It’s a twenty-four-hours-a-day thing, it is the way you think and the way you deal with life. If you are a writer, I don’t think you can give up writing.

Nor did my fingers ever entirely abandon the keyboard. My brother and one of his daughters were involved in children’s theater and at his suggestion I wrote a play for them. For one reason and another—health mostly—it did not get produced. One of these days I should like to go back and take another look at it. I don’t think it was half bad.

I wrote a piece of dinner theater too, one of those audience participation mystery affairs. This was intended for the opening of a luxury hotel in Palo Alto. Shortly before it was to be performed, the producers sent out a publicity mailing, a “help-I’m-in-danger-come-to-X-Hotel-Saturday-night-and-save-me” sort of thing. Though it is difficult to think how she might have done so, a columnist for the local paper took it seriously. She was frightened and, when she learned the truth, angry (and, I should think, embarrassed) and she wrote a scathing column on the wickedness of unnecessarily frightening lady columnists.

This, of course, was exactly the sort of publicity a new luxury hotel does not need and the production was withdrawn.

I consulted on the idea for a movie script. I had to give it back to the producer with the information that it didn’t work, based as it was on a mistaken interpretation of the legal concept of double jeopardy. The movie was made anyway, by the by. It bombed. Far be it from me to say “I told you so.”

From time to time I did bits and pieces of things—titles, opening scenes, a bit of dialogue, a description that popped into my mind, a character sketch. But no novels, no case history books, no male nudes gracing magazine pages.

Why? Mostly I had gotten tired of it all. I had been writing non-stop for more than twenty years. With rare few exceptions that meant 365 days a year. When I began I was a young man and had a young man’s unflagging energy, but by 1984 I was approaching fifty and writing historical novels, which require lots of research and detail work. And writing of any sort, as I have indicated already, is harder work than a non-writer might imagine.

During most of those writing years, I lived with the threat of prison hanging over my head. By the mid-seventies I had moved on to writing mysteries and historical fiction, but there was always the possibility that my past would come back to haunt me in the form of new indictments and trials. Novels about gay men and women were still regarded by governmental authorities as in and of themselves obscene and I must have remained a thorn in the side for many years.

I had lost my dear friend and colleague, Lady Agatha—Elbert Barrow. Out of the blue, in 1977, Elbert took sick. He developed a rare kind of pneumonia as a result of “mysterious allergies”, as the doctors saw it. He began to waste away and ugly lesions, a rare form of skin cancer, began to appear on his arms and legs—sound familiar?

For the next two years we went from hospital to hospital, with little success. The doctors would release him, I would take him home, and within a few days he would call me, barely able to breathe, and off we would go to yet another hospital. His weight dropped from a hearty 160 pounds to ninety. In appearance he went from forty years old to eighty, his hair, what was left of it, from dark brunette to snow white. He was confined to a wheelchair and kept a tank of oxygen with him at all times.

It was a grueling couple of years and heartbreaking to watch this old friend waste away. It was not until he had gone and I began to read newspaper accounts of a mysterious “gay cancer” that I realized the truth: El had died of AIDS before it was AIDS. He was, as it turns out, one of the first of what my friend Luis Cordero has dubbed “the missing generation.”

I had also been through a break up with a long-time friend (well, I thought he was a friend) and business partner, who had emptied the bank accounts and the safety deposit boxes and fled to Hackensack, which I thought punishment enough for his sins. As Sam Houston once put it, “All the qualities of a dog save loyalty.” Or, to quote a delightful little black lady whom I knew many years back, “White trash is white trash, it doesn’t matter what color they are.” It was a painful lesson and one I ought to have learned sooner.

I had parted as well from a long time lover. We will skip the details. It was another lesson I was slow to absorb. Loving one another isn’t always enough.

In time I came to look upon both of those events as fortunate, but at that time they were dispiriting, to say the least. There were health problems and for a time I turned to drugs for relief from the stress—a self-defeating prescription and a lesson which, fortunately, I did learn in time.

I went through a lengthy and unhappy quarrel with my publisher at the time, St. Martin’s Press. I’m not sure even today I quite understand it—a communications failure, certainly, which resulted in the first book-length manuscript I had ever written which failed to be published. Frankly I am glad it didn’t. For reasons we needn’t go into here it was a lousy effort, surely the worst thing I had ever written. I’m glad I don’t have it to apologize for.

I wrote a better book, San Antone, for Arbor House, a Hearst company, but that turned into the sort of experience that most writers only encounter in their nightmares. The editor, Bill Anderson, did a major rewrite on his own (by actual page count about one third of the finished book was not as I had written it; I know, I counted). I did not learn of these revisions until the galley proofs arrived—too late to undo the damage but I pleaded with him at least to let me rewrite three of the worst scenes he had penned.

I thought we had agreed on that but when the book was released it was exactly as he had written it, though it was my name on the cover. By that time I had already seen the first review, in Kirkus, in which the reviewer ridiculed one of the editor’s scenes. He called it “an unintentional parody of a Dickensian retribution scene.”

He was entirely right but what was I to do? I was convinced that the editor’s unauthorized revision was illegal and immoral and probably fattening—but I had not the resources to take on the Hearst Corporation. Nor could I win without ultimately losing. Publishers do not take well to writers who sue other publishers. I was angry, humiliated and frustrated.

The bottom line to all of this was that my heart was no longer in it. I had started writing for my own pleasure but I now found no pleasure in writing. The publishers and editors that I had worked with in the beginning were one and all gentlemen and ladies, who were doing what they loved and believed in and who I felt could be counted upon to do the right thing, the honorable thing, contractual obligation or no.

That was not invariably my experience in dealing with the major New York publishing houses. As had happened in other areas of the arts, publishing was now largely the business of accountants and lawyers. There were, and are, a few small, independent houses for whom writers and writing matter but for the most part, publishing had become a different world and one in which I was not entirely comfortable.

Before you envision me, however, wringing my hands and sobbing, I should tell you I don’t believe that things just happen in our lives. I believe that Life is a teaching, though admittedly there have been times when I seemed to be flunking the course. I think that we attract into our lives the people, events, experiences that we require to learn the lessons we need to learn.

For years I kept these lines of Rabindranath Tagore’s taped to my typewriter and later my word processor:

 

Let me not pray to be sheltered from dangers,

         but to be fearless in facing them.

Let me not beg for the stilling of my pain,

         but for the heart to conquer it.

Let me not look for allies in life’s battlefield,

         but to my own strength.

Let me not crave in anxious fear to be saved,

         but hope for the patience to win my freedom.

Grant me that I may not be a coward,

         feeling your mercy in my success alone;

But let me find the grasp of your hand

         in my failure.

 

Sometimes what we perceive as “failure” is merely the opportunity to learn what we need to learn to graduate. And, yes, sometimes we have to take the same class over. It can seem then as if Life is being cruel to us but it is not. Life is only giving us yet another opportunity to pass the course.

Have you ever been involved with a stinker and broken up? Your heart mends in time, you meet another man, you start going around together and…he turns out to be another stinker? I have seen friends go through this a dozen or more times. The names and faces change but the stinker remains the same. Why?

Let me offer you what could be the most liberating news you will ever hear: if you find yourself going through some unpleasant experience a second, even a third time; if you find yourself in one bad relationship after another; if your bad luck seems to repeat itself over and over—the truth is it probably isn’t bad luck at all. Life, or your higher self, or God if you will, is trying to show you where you need to work on yourself. And (here is the important part) it is always yourself and not the co-workers or the friends or the lovers who need the work. After all, what we are talking about is an Achilles’ Heel. Who will benefit more from learning where or what your Achilles’ Heel is—you or they?

Men marry what they need. For one reason or another, I had “married” that editor at Arbor House. So, what was the lesson I was meant to learn from this conjugal unpleasantness?

I decided that perhaps I needed to turn away from writing, at least from writing as I was then doing it. A rest, then, certainly, but more than just that. I made up my mind that I would go back to where I had begun, writing solely for my own pleasure. If I wrote another book it would be the book that came to me and demanded to be written, and I would write it because it was what I wanted to write and how I wanted to write it.

I took fifteen years off, is all.

In the end writing came back to claim me. My friends at Bolerium Books, as I have explained, proposed this project and reminded me of it each time I saw them. That Italian professor, Fabio Cleto, suggested reissuing some of the C.A.M.P. novels, and whenever I saw him or heard from him he pressed his case.

And something happened that hadn’t happened to me in quite a while—a young man began to visit me in my bedroom at night. He had something on his mind and insisted on sharing it with me. I told myself I wasn’t interested and smacked his hand away. But I did get up the next morning and write down what he had to say.

Only a page at first. Then two.

Not content with disrupting my sleep, the young man began to follow me around during the day as well. He shared his views with me. He talked about where he was from. Really, despite myself, I began to see his world through his eyes. He had a problem, certainly, I could see that. It needed to be solved but I could not see how it would be done.

The two pages became five. Then they were twenty. And fifty. He was a talky sort.

One day I was astonished to realize that I was well along into writing a book. And soon after that it was not just one book either. From being in semi-retirement, I suddenly found myself working on three different projects.

And enjoying it.

Once you’ve got the disease there is no cure for it.

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