By William Johnson
Art by Khary Simon
Through out his career Andrew Holleran has provided a series of beautiful, and finely tuned, literary portraits of a particular type of modern gay man: characters whose intelligence and self awareness is not always enough to properly guide them through the often precarious aspects of the modern gay life. AIDS, aging, the search for passion and adoration, the joys and pitfalls of elevating physical beauty, the supportive and constraining ties of familial bonds—Holleran’s characters often find themselves wading through these issues with frequently heartrending and humorous results.
His debut novel, Dancer from the Dance, published in 1978, is often rightly declared as being one of the best contemporary gay novels ever written. The story encapsulates the euphoric and perverse heights of the 1970s New York gay club circuit, and one character’s search for love and meaning amid the riotous and freewheeling scene. The novel pulls off the incredible feat of being effortlessly funny, sad, lyrical, satirical, humane and profane all at the same time.
Holleran’s later work, Nights in Aruba, The Beauty of Men, Grief, and the essay collection The Chronicle of a Plague, continues to mine the ways gay men live their lives; the writing is all steeped in Holleran’s singularly hauntingly and evocative tone.
Holleran’s work has appeared in Christopher Street, The New Yorker, and The Gay and Lesbian Review. He was one of the founding members of the famed Violet Quill, an early 1980s group of writers that included Edmund White, Felice Picano, Robert Ferro and George Whitmore, who dedicated themselves to writing gay content for gay readers.
Holleran currently splits his time between Gainesville, Florida and Washington D.C., where he teaches creative writing at American University. He graciously took some time to talk with Mary about topics ranging from the plasticity of Donna Summer, the wonders of using the camp voice, the dwindling power of the coming-out narrative, and why he does not keep a blog.
Your first novel, Dancer from the Dance, has this real distinct camp voice. Did you have any touchstones for cultivating that voice when you began that novel?
The novel began with that camp voice, and that voice came directly from letters I was writing with friends from New York. At the time, I had left New York and I was spending the winter in Florida. This was before computers, everyone wrote letters and the mail was extremely important. It was like Christmas day when you went to the post office. I had friends who wrote in that way. Also, when I first came out in Philadelphia, I remember reading those give-a-ways, or leaflets, in gay bars where you had a column written by a drag queen. I don’t know if the writer was a drag queen—but she or he took a drag queen’s name, and they wrote these little gossip columns about the bartenders and stuff. I thought that voice, and the voices of my friends in their letters, were so funny. I thought, “Why not start off with letters? Why not start off with that kind of voice?” That is really what made the book possible.
Did you have any trepidation beginning a novel with that kind of nontraditional tone?
Oh, I was in complete freefall at that point. I had nothing to lose. I had been writing for ten years. I hadn’t had any books published. I thought I was going to write one more book, and then quit and go to banking school, or something. I really thought, “I can’t keep doing this any longer.” When you are in that mood, you are very free in a way. It was really the voice that produced that book. There is a famous story by W.H. Auden—and I am sure I am going to garble it. Auden said when someone came to him and said, “I want to write about this…this…this and this.” [Auden] would listen to them and think nothing of it. But if someone came to him and said, “I have this line I can’t keep out of my mind…” “That…” Auden would say, “could be turned into a poem.” That is the weirdness of writing. I think you can not intellectualize it. It is a sound. It is a voice.
You mention letters being an inspiration for Dancer; recently I read David Bergman’s Violet Reader, which collects the letters between you and the author Robert Ferro. Were those letters the springboard for Dancer?
That is interesting. Good question, but no. Robert’s letters, which I loved so much—I still have some in my closet—were a different beast. Robert wrote a kind of refined, high camp, which was just delicious. The camp voice in Dancer was very low down. It was not quite as …hmmm…let me see…high (laughs). Oh boy, I’m really eloquent today. Robert’s camp voice was a much more refined voice. Nobody did it like he did it. But yes, Robert and I corresponded with each other a great deal during those years.
Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckenridge is the only other modern book—that I can think of—that slightly appropriates that camp voice. There seemed to be no other contemporary writers working in that mode.
That’s interesting. I always think of Myra Breckenridge and Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint as an example of writers, who at one point in their careers, busted out in this wacko voice, which they never used again. Yet both of those books are standouts. So, you are right to think of Myra Breckenridge. The trouble becomes ‘why can’t these writers do it again?’ Or why can’t I (laughs)?
It’s weird. Last night I got a letter from a friend who does not correspond much—my mail correspondence, at this point, is down to one or two people because of the Internet. The note was from a friend in New Orleans: (a) it was so nice to hear from him, (b) it was so nice to get a letter, (c) when I finished reading it and I put it back in the envelope, I thought to myself, “This is how Dancer started. Why don’t I write again—by starting a book with a letter?” But —I find—you can’t really do those voices more then once. I mean think of a book like Huckleberry Finn. Did Mark Twain ever do that voice again?
I went back through a lot of Vidal’s stuff, and he really didn’t….
I don’t think he did either. And did Phillip Roth ever write anything again like Portnoy? I don’t think he did. Well, we discovered a literary principle (laughs). I don’t know what to call it.
Well I’d say in your later work that “camp voice” does come back, but it’s used sparingly. I see it in snapshots in your later work.
You mean in the dialogue?
Yes it’s in the dialogue, but it’s not built into the narrative like it was in Dancer.
I love that tone, and I love to write it. Oddly enough I am writing a character based on a person who used to talk that way. It’s another version of queen camp. The odd thing is I wanted to write about this character for a long time, and now that I am doing it I am seeing that he can’t carry the book. It’s that strange thing in writing when you love someone in real life, and you love their humor, and sometimes you put them on the page and you have to objectively say this is not working (laughs). The challenge is to find a way to present the character in ways in which you are not asking for more importance than the character deserves. It can be tricky passing on to other people the humor and the thrill of what really is this special kind of camp. Camp is an amazing thing. I should ask you: Where do you think camp is today?
I think a new generation is cultivating some of the older aspects of gay culture—like camp. But what is so great is that they are reshaping it in these very modern ways. I had a younger friend email me recently about teaching a Polari class at the Learning Annex. Also…I mean…let’s face it…I am calling this magazine Mary for a reason.
That’s good (laughs).
Dancer was also built around the love of dancing and soul music. Out of all your contemporaries, were you the only one who liked soul music? Were you the only one who went out dancing?
God, that’s an interesting question. I could go down the roster of the Violet Quill. You know Robert Ferro used go to parties that I never even knew about. Robert went to a lot of gay black parties. That is the book that Robert never wrote that I wanted him to do. Were the others going out? Felice Picano was the other end of the spectrum. He was into the Flamingo. I started off at the Loft, which I found out about from a friend who lived on St. Marks Place, and then from the Loft I went to the Tenth Floor. After the Tenth Floor, I thought everything was pretty anticlimactic. Everything became big, and Saturday Night Fever came along and corporatized [the scene]. Even though the Flamingo and the Saint were very well done, and I can’t say I did not have some very good times there, I felt that the underground quality of the music had been lost.
All the music we danced to was soul music; it was before disco. I’ll never forget being at the Cock Ring one night and hearing the “Hallelujah” chorus set to a disco beat (laughs). I was like, “This music needs pogo sticks; I’m getting out of here!” Disco just got…ugggh. But what in this country does not get sucked up and exploited? The life of a general, genuine, cultural expression is shorter than dew, because nowadays the media machine is just desperate for content. I remember when WBLS [Editor’s Note: WBLS is a New York based soul music station] actually used to play the only music you heard at the clubs when you went out to dance. There was even a gap between what WBLS played and what you heard in the clubs, because initially what you heard in the clubs you heard nowhere else. Then there came a day when you were in a gym and heard it all as the backdrop for the aerobics class; I thought, “Well, that is that.” Anyway, this is a long digression for your question. I was not the only one who went out. Felice danced, and I’m sure Edmund [White] danced. But that was really the meaning of life to me for those few years.
I went to my first disco when I was still in college. It was on the Upper East Side, and Richard Burton’s wife at the time had opened up a disco. It was that period in the late sixties—the Twist had just ended its reign of popularity. I remember going up to the DJ and asking if he would play “Respect” by Aretha Franklin. It was my first time learning you do not ask the DJ to play a song when he is doing his thing. That was my first experience. I was not out. I was not gay. I was dancing with a woman. Flash forward to years later. I was taken to the Loft, by my friend Daniel, when it was still on lower Broadway. At that time we were dancing to “Girl You Need a Change of Mind” and all that wonderful music. Initially I could not really enjoy it, because I was very self-conscious about dancing. You were gay, you were dancing, and you were constantly trying to maintain some kind of reasonably butch exterior (laughs). There was a conflict between trying to be sexy and macho and to dance. I used to love people who were not bothered by that. We can talk for hours about the way people danced. It is a wonderful subject. The people who are free, and the people who are not free. The music that made you free for a moment; then you lost it because the song playing next did not. The way the evening is built on this musical journey. Needless to say, it took me a while to be a good dancer.
Do you still listen to a lot of that soul music?
There is a program here on public radio in Gainesville, Florida where they play that music for one hour. The music is thrilling and totally emotional. And you end up dancing alone in your living room (laughs).
The music still has a huge following here in New York. I remember hearing about a tribute dance party for Frankie Crocker [Editor’s Note: Crocker was a hugely influential DJ for WBLS who popularized a lot of early soul and disco records.] Apparently the place was packed. The music still has a huge fan base.
Whatever happened to Frankie Crocker?
He died in the early 2000s.
Do you think he was gay?
You know, I have no idea. He was very flamboyant. I am sure we can find out with the power of the Internet.
The power of Internet (laughs). That’s frightening (laughs). Objectively speaking though that music is very powerful. The traditional view is that you always love the music of your youth, but I do think pre-industrial disco music was pretty wonderful. You know the irony is I used to resent Donna Summer. I thought Donna Summer was plastic and slick. Now I listen to Donna Summers, and I have changed my mind a bit, but at the time I felt she was totally corporate and slick. What do you think of Donna Summer?
Well I appreciate her. She has a stupendous voice, but I like soul music. I like a little grit and dirt. Something that Donna’s Euro-sheen disco lacks.
It was a Euro-infection, but there are songs of hers—three or four—that do get to you.
We called it big-box music.
What is that?
Songs for the big dance spaces. Songs with a big expansive sound—for places like Twilo or the Sound Factory. We called that kind of music big-box music. I think in one of your essays you called it “roller-skating” music.
(Laughs) Well it was. There was a rolling skating place in Brooklyn that my friend always wanted to go. I imagine that was what the Roxy was like. Just an enormous space.
Well it’s changing. Spaces are becoming more intimate again. The nature of New York real estate is making it hard for big spaces like that to exist. So it’s a return to the small rooms.
I didn’t know that. I was told there is no place to dance period.
Oh there is always a place to dance. I think you get to a point where we no longer know where to go. But in NYC there is always a place to go dancing. Never let anyone tell you there is no place to dance in New York.
That is what my gut feeling is—I do believe what you say is true. It’s just too powerful to stop.
It’s for a different generation. That’s just the way these things go. Different music—different venues. More outer borough places.
How small are the places?
They are little bars. You go to these little bars, the DJs have a small setup and they pump out the beats and the ‘kids’ cut up.
It’s incredible. It’s really coming full circle.
Which in a roundabout way leads my next question: Looking back at the past—many of your characters are afflicted with a pervasive, melancholy-tinged nostalgia. Even in the foreword to your essay collection, Chronicle of a Plague, you mention that you often get accused of…
Morose delecation (laughs)
Yes, you have been accused of having an affinity for the melancholy (laughs).
You know to be honest—looking back—some people are nostalgic in the crib, and I am probably that. That is why I miss the camp voice. All my books have humor in them, but there became a certain point when people thought of them not as humorous, but as melancholy things. In life I love to laugh, and yet when I sit down to write, for whatever reason, the other side comes out. Now, as you get older and start looking back, you actually have a real justification for all that (laughs) morbidity. But now, because it’s almost justified, you kind of rebel against it. You think: “Wouldn’t it be funny to write something in the other direction?”
YOU CAN READ THE THE REST OF THE ANDREW HOLLERAN INTERVIEW BY BUYING THE FALL ISSUE OF MARY. TO PURCHASE THE ISSUE CLICK HERE.
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