Paul Monette: Fine-tuning the Mainstream

Elliott Linwood

(Originally published in the San Francisco Sentinel, 1991)

Writer, Paul Monette

Author Paul Monette has made a significant contribution to contemporary gay fiction with Afterlife, and Borrowed Time written several years ago. Monette was in town on a signing tour, promoting his latest book Halfway Home, and was available for the following interview.

Elliott Linwood: In your last two books, Afterlife, and Halfway Home, the main characters’ options are narrowed and focused by an accelerated kind of environment.

Paul Monette: This is because of AIDS.

Yes, but the choices you portray are more about life than death.

These are stories about consciously opting for falling in love. Partly because I’m a romantic and that’s the kind of story I like to write. But they are also about different kinds of love. For example, the Thanksgiving dinner scene in Afterlife was a statement about the gay chosen family and how real that is, as a substitute for the blood family that none of those characters had left.

The second half of that book is about the relationship I had with my friend Stevie when we found out we were going to have two years together. After re-writing the book I still felt it didn’t get Stevie and me right. By then Stevie had been diagnosed for five months and I got the idea of writing about the gay brother and the straight brother in Halfway Home, but the love affair I wanted to talk about was really about Stevie and me. So I spent the next year really trying to put his character on a page and also to try to give the sense of his curious mix of political anger and despair. When the character Tommy says, “Nobody’s ever known me all the way through,” that’s what he wants. And it’s odd that I am the gay character in this book because I’m noisier than that.

But I was trying to capture something that was really happening, which was, that despite all the rage and fear we experienced, because we were both highly political creatures involved in the fight, we were really happy. I was able to say, I can be this angry and still be happy. I finished the book about four weeks before Stevie died so it preserves all that better than life did.

Even in Borrowed Time, which is non-fiction, you are not the main character. The person you loved is.

But it’s also true what Flaubert says, “Madame Bovary cest moi,” that you’re all the characters all the time.

What will the next book be about?

I’m writing an autobiography called Becoming a Man.

So then, you do become the center.

But Borrowed Time was also about me. It was a portrait of Roger but it’s from my perspective of crisis. People who read Borrowed Time could see what a beautiful relationship Roger and I had and how happy we were, but I decided even before AIDS hit that I wanted to talk about how terrible the closet was, and how unlikely it would seem that someone going through this terrible closeted life would ever find love or happiness.

It’s not a pretty story. I’m about halfway through. I put it aside a few weeks ago because I couldn’t stand it anymore.  It’s a lot easier to write a novel.

The spatial metaphor in Afterlife has the main character in an HIV holding pattern upon a Los Angeles ridge, whereas in Halfway Home the person has AIDS and lives on the edge of a very steep cliff, at the end of a continent, with the immanence of death getting closer and closer. I wonder how this relates to your current projects in terms of social documentary and T-cell counts.

I first started writing, after Roger died, a book of poems for five or six months. That’s probably the rawest account of what the chaos was like. The poems are the grieving. When I wrote Borrowed Time it was consciously in my mind to leave a historical document for the future when history would begin to tell its lies. I wanted gay and lesbian people at least to be able to go back – fifty years from now, this is going to be the main even, this will be our Holocaust – and, people are going to want to know who the enemy was and what happened. I thought if I gave a portrait of the hysteria and the trauma, that they would at least get it right.

When I turned to fiction I was able to work with less of a gun to my head. There’s the gun to my head of my T-cells, but I’ve had the chance to give a kind of portrait of the community in the middle of this now. If you had told me I was going to write a joyous book involving AIDS, I would have never believed it. But I managed to be able to do that in Halfway Home. But that’s what a love story ought to do, draw you into a sense of hope.

I’m also very proud of the women in this book, because it’s the first time I have done so. Ten years ago I wouldn’t include a lesbian in a novel because I was so afraid of getting things wrong. And, although there’s still a certain caution in the characters, I got to this book while involved in a gay and lesbian writers group in L.A. And we had consciously stated the need to populate our books with each other. So, I am less intimidated in portraying aspects of lesbians that I know. This also reflects my personal relationship to the movement’s evolution of self-definition – shifting from homosexuality to gayness to queer – which excites me very much. So, my most hopeful sense of the tribe is that men and women are bonding and I wanted to show that especially through positive characterizations of women as people with their own lives.

What do you read?

Just keeping up with my friends’ books keeps my busy. What I feel about most American writing is that it is about nothing. And I don’t feel that about gay and lesbian writing, which is much more writing which is much more exciting, alive and to the point. Most other American writing to me seems done by closeted straight people in universities for little cliques.

How does this affect what you write?

Besides writing in a minority voice, the conscious subject of my recent book is the threat to our First Amendment freedom and the unholy alliance between the fundamentalists and the Republicans who have made cultural repression their goal. They do not want us writing since they’ve become aware of how powerful our voices are; that we have these stores, colleges, and a literature now twenty years old. So you must burn the books if you’re going to silence a culture.

I don’t think we really know where this cultural repression is going. To use the model of McCarthyism of the 1950s is to not quite understand how insidious the repression really is. It’s not going to wait five years after the second world war to get started, it’s going on full blast right now on every front. And we have a government that simply ignores our existence.

What’s daunting to understand is that even in the media, with the Thirtysomething TV episode recently aired, which I wrote, and, two or three other episodes – these represent the sum total of AIDS on television from 1990 to 1991! That’s just not good enough. I believe that it’s necessary for television, movies and pop culture in general to address this calamity, and make art that reflects that a holocaust is going on. But I don’t believe that it’s going to happen. The best works come out of the mainstream. So it’s very very tricky to want to be accepted by the mainstream since it is such a polluted sewer.

Have you considered the strategy of infiltration?

In terms of infiltrating the mainstream, by the time they get a gay character, he’s homosexual somehow or he’s slightly a post-Stonewall shirt-and-tie gay man, and, he’s not queer at all. By the time the catch-up begins, the culture has evolved again. The media in general just has not gotten the story of AIDS, with very minor exceptions.

In terms of more subversive infiltration, ACT UP and Queer Nation appear as the cusp of a real revolution. And I profoundly believe both of these organizations will survive AIDS, since it’s a reclamation of the avant garde and bohemian status.

I am not, however, casting blame on those who mainstreamed and made important inroads in the 1970s, nor do I want the homosexual, the gay and lesbians, and the queers not to like one another. That would be ridiculous. What we need is a kind of permanent change, and volatility. Since we’ve been so battered, we may have become resilient in such a way as to become survivalists in the spirit in the 1990s, while the rest of the world is crumbling around us.

The repressive world order that is being born today makes 1984 or The Handmaid’s Tale or Clockwork Orange not seem like metaphors at all. That’s in fact what it’s like. The ‘90s in America will see the world’s white Afrikaner class backed to the wall with all their money and power. Whereas, gay and lesbian people can de-colonize an excruciating landscape and make something alive again. Being different seems, at times, our only salvation.