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Photo by Khary Simon

Interview by William Johnson

Funny, hyper-intelligent and forthright, Michael Denneny has probably done more for gay publishing then just about anyone.

Denneny left academia after getting his PhD in political theory at the University of Chicago (he studied with Hannah Arendt), moved to New York City and quickly dove into the world of book publishing. He has worked and edited at some of the top publishing houses in New York: Macmillan, Crown, St. Martin’s Press. Denneny has edited a crop of luminaries that has included such diverse writers as Renata Adler, Ntozake Shange, and Randy Shilts.

Denneny left academia after getting his PhD in political theory at the University of Chicago (he studied with Hannah Arendt), moved to New York City and quickly dove into the world of book publishing. He has worked and edited at some of the top publishing houses in New York: Macmillan, Crown, St. Martin’s Press. Denneny has edited a crop of luminaries that has included such diverse writers as Renata Adler, Ntozake Shange, and Randy Shilts.

In 1976, Denneny helped cofound Christopher Street Magazine, one of the first gay publications to focus on gay male literature. Christopher Street Magazine provided a previously unavailable showcase for gay authors who wanted to write about gay subject matter. Christopher Street Magazine was truly a pioneer publication. It was one of the only publications where emerging gay writers could have an authentically ‘gay’ voice. The magazine provided a spotlight for many notable writers, including the likes of Christopher Bram, Scott Heim and Edmund White.

In 1987, Denneny established Stonewall Editions, at St. Martins Press, which was the first gay male publishing imprint that was part of a larger corporate publishing house. Stonewall Editions published everyone from Paul Monette to Quentin Crisp.

Currently a freelance book editor, Denneny took some time to talk with Mary and share some key snapshots of his life in publishing.

Starting Christopher Street Magazine:

At the time I felt effecting electoral politics was an impossibility—the least we could do is turn the page on internalized homophobia. There was a great deal of discussion that we were living under an oppressive society, and the worst form of oppression was the internalized homophobia that we had incorporated into our own thinking. What was needed was a cultural change. We needed to change our imaginations. We had to figure out how to imagine the lives we were living without looking through the lens of heterosexual culture. In the early 70s there were these intense discussions about whether such a thing as gay culture and literature even existed. A lot of us were part of GAA [Gay Activist Alliance]. My first boyfriend, Ernie, had been on the publications committee of GAA along with Arthur Bell, Vito Russo and bunch of other people. They believed we should start a magazine. Then Ernie and I broke up and it made things very difficult. Meanwhile, Ernie’s best friend, Arthur Bell, who was a columnist at Village Voice, had this boyfriend who was this twenty-year-old little blond boy from Kansas named Chuck Ortleb. When things got so tense that Ernie and I could not even work together anymore, I worked through Chuck. Chuck and I became very close. We were constantly having these discussions about gay culture and gay politics. In the early 70s, we actually put out two issues of this magazine called Out Magazine. The second issue was hijacked: four thousand copies disappeared. I’m sure it was the Mob. I think After Dark Magazine, which was a proto-gay magazine, hired the Mob to hijack our copies.

Chuck, though, was still utterly convinced that we needed to start another magazine. We fought about it for another year. And then it took another year to get it going, and that became Christopher Street. At the time there was this general discussion about gay writing and its importance in representing the community. Christopher Street’s primary function was to promote these writers and develop a community around gay literature. Everyone knew each other. There weren’t that many people around. You knew Ed White, you knew Andrew Holleran, Robert Ferro and all these other people.

We started out the magazine thinking there was all this gay material that could not get published. There were these famous unpublished Auden pornographic poems floating around, and we thought everyone had this stuff in the bottom of their drawers. We were totally wrong. Writers are no fools. Since there was no place to publish this material, they basically had not written it (laughs), which we realized after couple of issues. By the third issue, we realized we had published everything lying around. In one issue, Ed White published five different articles under five different names (laughs). We called up Andrew Holleran and said we need you to write something because we have five extra pages here. It took about a year before other people started sending stuff in.

Money to fund Christopher Street:

Money came from us. We sold stock in Christopher Street. We started out with $9,500 dollars. We sold stock in the magazine for $200 dollars a share. Ed White bought stock, I did and Arthur did. If we had known anything about the business, we’d have known it was impossible and we would not have done it.

We came up with some tricks. We only worked with small to mid-size printers. We basically got up to $200,000 dollars in printing debt. To a big printer, that would have meant nothing, but to a small printer in New Jersey losing $200,000 in your accounts-receivable, it is a huge loss. If they had insisted on payment, we would have gone bankrupt and they would have gotten nothing. We basically ran on debt. We did have one angel, a guy named Steve Trimor, an older gay gentleman, who had been very successful in the electronics industry. Every time we were going bankrupt he could be counted on. One year, the deal was that Chuck and I had to have dinner with Steve once a month and he would give us a check for $10,000 dollars. We were constantly on the economic edge. We had a substantial audience, but our costs were too high. Since we were a national literary publication, not a local gay newsprint paper, we could not run vernacular ads, which really hurt us. I am surprised it lasted as long as it did. [Ed. Note: Christopher Street ran from 1976 to 1995]
We came up with some tricks. We only worked with small to mid-size printers. We basically got up to $200,000 dollars in printing debt. To a big printer, that would have meant nothing, but to a small printer in New Jersey losing $200,000 in your accounts-receivable, it is a huge loss. If they had insisted on payment, we would have gone bankrupt and they would have gotten nothing. We basically ran on debt. We did have one angel, a guy named Steve Trimor, an older gay gentleman, who had been very successful in the electronics industry. Every time we were going bankrupt he could be counted on. One year, the deal was that Chuck and I had to have dinner with Steve once a month and he would give us a check for $10,000 dollars. We were constantly on the economic edge. We had a substantial audience, but our costs were too high. Since we were a national literary publication, not a local gay newsprint paper, we could not run vernacular ads, which really hurt us. I am surprised it lasted as long as it did. [Ed. Note: Christopher Street ran from 1976 to 1995]

You can read the rest of the interview by purchasing the spring issue of
Mary. Please click here to purchase.
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COMMENTS / 2 COMMENTS

[...] first editor at St. Martin’s Press, the legendary Michael Denneny, was very taken by the story, only he said the dinner guest should have been poisoned. And then a [...]

How I came to write gay mysteries « Get It Write added these pithy words on Mar 12 12 at 12:13 pm

[...] first editor at St. Martin’s Press, the legendary Michael Denneny, was very taken by the story, only he said the dinner guest should have been poisoned. And then a [...]

How I Wound Up Writing Gay Mysteries – Lev Raphael. | Stranger in Translation added these pithy words on Dec 06 12 at 9:19 am

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