lost-library

Tom Cardamone : The Mary Interview

by William Johnson

In the recently released anthology Lost Library: Gay Fiction Rediscovered, writer and editor, Tom Cardamone has assembled a stunning collection of essays from 28 contemporary gay writers that examine some truly inspired, but out-of-print, gay books.

Gay authors, including the likes of Paul Russell, Phillip Clark, Larry Duplechan and Michael Bronski, provide a series of evocatively written essays on books that serve as both cultural and artistic touchstones.

Tom Cardamone sat down with Mary to talk about Lost Library, what he hope readers will take away from the collection, and a great book he discovered while putting Lost Library together:

What was the impetus behind this project?

This book was something that I was looking for.  I was looking to read this book and I could not find it.   I was an emerging writer and I had published one story in one place and then got accepted into an anthology, and I started talking to other authors.  I was really looking for guidance.  I was asking a lot of other writers: What should I read? What do you read?  I was getting all these suggestions for these great books, but the suggestions always ended with the refrain, “Oh it is out of print, so you are going to have to hunt for that,” or “I’ll lend you my copy, because you won’t find it anywhere.”  We were always talking about all these lost treasures.   I realized how common these statements were, so that made me want to seek out books about gay novels.   I realized it was really this undiscovered country.  People were not reviewing this material as much as they were lamenting it.

How did you go about choosing the authors to review these “lost” books?

This project came about very organically.  I literally asked five writers that I knew if they would contribute.  If they said yes, I asked them to then refer me to somebody else.   I basically asked them, “Who do you think would be into this?”   Finally I asked the last five or six authors whose books I read if they’d be interested.   A lot of the books these authors suggested were new to me and surprising. It definitely turned into a kind of organic dinner conversation.  I was really happy with the process.

Were there any books that you discovered while editing “Lost Library”  that just blew you away?

Well Christopher Coe’s novel “Such Times” had been mentioned by a multitude of people.  When I finally got around to reading it I was literally struck by lightening.  It is simply just one of the best gay books I have ever read.

I am not familiar with that book.  Can you tell me a little bit about it?

I hate to diminish it by saying it is simply an ‘AIDS novel set in New York.’   It’s the power of the prose, the description of that genuine life defining love affair and having it cut short by an unannounced plague.   I wish I had the words to describe the power of that book.   It is more than a love affair.   It is more than a tragedy.   It’s almost a poem that Jean Genet would be jealous of.   There was one point when I was reading this book at lunch, I always read while I eat, and I had to put the fork down.   I realized it was disrespectful to eat while I was reading this book because the protagonist, who is the author in many ways, is dying, and you really can’t eat at someone’s funeral.

And “Such Times” is still out of print?

Yes.  A large number of writers did not live long enough to create a body of work that was self sustaining. Joseph Conrad, the writer of Heart of Darkness, I think he wrote something like a hundred novels and that buoyed the two, three or four that are still around.  A lot of people who were around in the 80’s and the 90’s were robbed of that chance.

Do you hope by publishing “Lost Library” that some of the books reviewed might be brought back into print?

My hope lies with the reader.   I think we need to keep our best voices in print and alive and in the front of the line.   Somebody once said that maybe books don’t need to be reprinted to stay alive since we all shop online, and know we can discover books quicker because of the internet.  I vehemently disagree with that.

This book comes about at an interesting time.  There seems to be a lot of younger gay men looking for something authentic in gay culture, and a lot of them are looking back at the past to find it.   Young kids are having parties in old West Village bars like Boots and Saddles.  Zines are being published that look back on queer life in the nineties.  I heard one blog describe this as a post-post gay generation.  Any idea what this movement is about?

Culturally, I think that finally we are just now having the opportunity to catch our breath.  I mean collectively all the different generations have reached this point where we can take a deep breath, and realize that we are at the half way point of a civil rights battle that we will win.   I think that the complacency that we all bitch and moan about with gays is that we just fucking know we are going to win (laughs).   It is pretty fucking obvious (laughs).  It allows a lot of people to kick back and move to Ft. Lauderdale, but for those of us who don’t, or for those people who live somewhere where it’s still more of a battle, you get to reflect.  And when we see Will and Grace, and the six movies in the last 15 years that made it to the mall that included us, we automatically say there has got to be more to who we are. I think that is what Lost Library does; it highlights some of that more.

So now seems like a good moment to reflect on our history?

We had to die and fight and die again to even have a history.  The editor at the publishing house is great, but was not that familiar with gay literature.  She asked me why I had so many 20th century authors represented.  They wanted to know why I didn’t go back a little further.  I was like “Oh Honey I can’t…This did not all start happening till about 50 years ago.  Then we had to have a period where every gay character committed suicide on the last page, and before we got over that hump it was another twenty years.”   So that the nineties are so represented in Lost Library is just a reality; it’s an important era we have to revisit.   The books that are not in print right now just reflect how fast that decade went by.   What a dangerous, dark, and hopeful time it was.   We are revisiting it for a reason, because we didn’t have the time to hold on to everything that was given to us.

How hard was it to track down information about some of the authors whose work is mentioned in this book?

There are a couple of writers I could not find any information about. A few I haven’t been able to know their story, besides the stories they gave us.  I’m hoping this book will not only spur interest in their work, but also allow us to hear more about their lives.   I’m hoping to hear from their friends, or their relatives, or even them.

What is the one thing you would want readers to take away from the book?

Only take one thing.  The table of contents. Rip it out and take to your used book store.   I swear you’ll have a literary adventure that spans decades, continents, races, cultures and experiences.

A portion of royalties from the “The Lost Library” will benefit The Housing Works Used Bookstore and Cafe: Fighting AIDS one book at a time.

To purchase “Lost Library: Gay Fiction Rediscovered” please click here.


Below is a chapter from the collection, Stephen Greco’s  heart rendering essay on the novel “The Blue Star.”


Robert Ferro “The Blue Star”

By  Stephen Greco

I’ve just reread The Blue Star, Robert Ferro’s third novel —or his second-to-last, to use a method of ordering that felt inescapable in the year when the novel came out, 1985. It was a time when all the young gay authors I knew were thinking that their next books might well be their last. Robert certainly thought that; he told so me many times, when working on Second Son, a thoughtful and surprisingly entertaining AIDS novel that appeared in 1988, the year Robert died of the disease just six weeks after his partner of many years, the novelist Michael Grumley, died of it, too. For Robert, I think, Second Son had to be about AIDS. He was constantly sick by then, and the prospect of his death was too momentous to leave unexplored. The Blue Star, on the other hand, seems about life and the forces that drive it, unhaunted by “a death out of order,” which is how Robert referred to AIDS fatalities.

According to the slightly yellowed flap of my copy’s dust jacket, The Blue Star begins with “two heroes, reflective Peter and Byronic Chase, indulging their youthful appetites in Florence.” By day, the boys feast on la dolce vita in conspicuously well-tailored clothing — this is the early 1960s — and by night, after hours, they cruise along the Arno and find love and violence. Then they are invited to tea by a worldly, lecherous old aristocrat, Count Niccolo Virgiliano.

The next afternoon, after an extensive toilette, we presented ourselves at Palazzo Virgiliano, which abutted the Pitti and was favored with a private entrance to the Boboli Gardens. A butler in a striped coat took us up in a small mahogany elevator, delivering us into a three-storyed paneled library in which the floor, tables, and all the chairs were covered in bright green baize cloth.

“Numbers three and five,” muttered Chase [who has previously explained that some statements are needed so often in life that numbers make them easier to use: three meaning “Do you love it?” and five, “Where will it all lead us?”] A door opened and the count came in.

Virgiliano was over sixty, very tall, thin, and grey, and he had crossed over that line between the truly aristocratic and the truly effeminate. In the fifteenth century his family had had its historical moment with the Humanists and lived in the reflected glory of this moment ever since. Grandmère Chase and Count Niccolo’s mother were contemporaries and had met in the forties. Chase said Niccolo had known every gay tourist to visit Florence since the Brownings. English translations were his hobby, American boys his passion. . . . Tea was brought in, on a tray with thirty objects for three people, and Niccolo asked if I would be mother. I had no idea what he meant and gave him a perfectly stupid look.

“Pour, Peter,” Chase said, and Niccolo smiled.

From that tea, over the next 20 years, everything follows: Peter’s loss and rediscovery of his first love, Lorenzo, who grows from a stunning teenager into a beautiful man; Chase’s marriage to Olympia, Niccolo’s princess niece, for the express purpose of joining bloodlines and fortunes; and the voyage of several of these characters up the Nile on a yacht named La Stella Azzurra — The Blue Star— in a climactic chapter that happens to elucidate a similar though shadowier voyage that Robert described years before in his first novel, The Others.

As the passage above suggests, time was second only to family as an important theme in Robert’s work. (He inscribed my copy of The Blue Star “through the years …”) Not far into the story a temporal shift occurs that I remember finding jarring at the time, partly because the author’s voice, already authoritative, ascends into infallibility: “To tell the story it is necessary to jump back a hundred years, to New York City in 1857, to an ancestor of Chase Walker — his great-great-great-grandfather Orvil Starkweather, and to begin with a brief history of Central Park, and something of the Masons.”

It is at this point that The Blue Star blooms into a tale of a family conspiracy spanning centuries — generations!— as Orvil leads the building of a secret Masonic temple beneath Central Park. Secrets, conspiracies, and cabals are at the core in The Blue Star, as they were for Robert at the core of human existence. In fact, the depiction of hidden powers and arcane knowledge — to be revealed only to those worthy of seeing how such stuff spins into history (i.e., readers and other initiates) — is what makes The Blue Star so distinctly a gay novel, gayness for Robert being a kind of revealed knowledge. Yet like The Others and Robert’s second novel, The Family of Max Desir, The Blue Star is more than a gay novel. It appeared just at the moment when one could feel so-called gay literature stepping beyond genre, into the mainstream — an arrival merited by authors as masterful as Robert and his Violet Quill colleagues, who didn’t merely write about gay life, but drew on the gay imagination to write about “life as a whole.” Transcend convention.

The Blue Star, in particular, shows the gay imagination catalyzing the observation and description of things both common and mysterious, like sex and love, which affords the reader a fresh appreciation of the breathless thrill of existence. “Euphoria” is how Robert’s friend, the poet and translator Richard Howard, described this quality, in his blurb for the book:

Robert Ferro possesses that rarest gift in a fabulist, euphoric imagination. He may revel of course in quite the darkest of double-plots, in crone-princesses and epicene wizards, in a cloud-cuckoo gaiety where no one is ever sick or hurt, where work is heresay, and all are witty (gallows-humor without the penalty is Ferro’s forte), but his real achievement is to detail the contents of happiness.

“The contents of happiness.” Isn’t that a felicitous phrase? It applies not only to Robert’s approach to literature but to his understanding of life and the exacting way he pursued life’s nicest possibilities. The blurb was printed on the rear cover of the novel’s original hardback edition, which depicts an azure sea at dusk, as seen from a terrace, through an elegant stone archway. On the front over, through another archway, is more sea and a stylish white yacht, along with title and author. If I am not mistaken, Robert worked closely with the artist on that jacket illustration. He might also have sweet-talked Richard Howard for the blurb and worked closely with Dutton, the book’s publisher, to polish the jacket copy. Some might have thought Robert a control freak, but he was really a perfectionist, attentive to the smallest detail, like the placement of an amethyst-glass vase on a windowsill in the beach house in Sea Girt, New Jersey, that Robert and Michael often shared with friends on weekends. That house — another story, I’m afraid — had been his mother’s, and its maintenance as an idyllic escape for himself and loved ones was one of Robert’s greatest pleasures and perhaps one of his greatest achievements. The walls of the downstairs powder room were specially muraled with stone arches and a tranquil blue sea, just like the book cover.

That house helped make The Blue Star possible, in a big way. He often went there to work, and completed large portions of all his later novels there. Moreover, Robert had a talent for living well, which deeply informed the voluptuous living in his novels — the kind of good living that is sacramental, not consumerist. Robert and Michael traveled with their own bed sheets, for instance, just in case, because one has certain standards. Lots of people have written about the legendary tea salons the boys hosted at their West 95th Street apartment — again, another story, except to mention that the teas seem, in retrospect, to have taken place in a kind of temple: the long living room of the boys’ graciously-proportioned, pre-War apartment, made even more palatial by a pair of towering faux marbre columns that Robert had installed at great expense.

Those salons were always packed with cultural luminaries, gay and otherwise, and it was at one of them that Robert first told me of the new book he was writing.

“It’s going to be beautiful, Muzzy, if I can just pull it off,” he said in a whisper. “But let’s not speak of it here, among these people.”

He might have been fetching a plate of crab puffs from the kitchen at that moment, and might well have been confiding the same thing to everyone else, but Robert did take care to make me feel special. He called me Muzzy, after the Carol Channing character in Thoroughly Modern Milly, a nickname I felt was an immense honor. Then he accorded me a more important honor, early one morning, down at the shore. I came downstairs and found Robert outside, on the terrace, with the manuscript of a story I’d given him. He had read the thing that morning, instead of working on The Blue Star. It was the first real fiction I’d ever written, a story entitled “Good With Words,” and I was delighted that he’d agreed to look it over, even if apprehensive.

You,” he said, pointing his finger decisively, when he spotted me at the bottom of the stairs. Everyone else in the house was still asleep. “Come over here.” I was too terrified to pass through the kitchen and pour myself a cup of coffee, from the steaming batch Robert had already prepared for his guests.

For an hour we sat on the terrace and talked of writing, as the waves crashed away beyond the thicket of rugosa and a scrawny strip of beach. Writing was sacred, Robert reminded me. Writers were priests, and a calling was not to be ignored. He explained that he’d found my story good, and that this meant I should stop monkeying around in magazines — I was senior editor of Interview at the time — and start taking myself more seriously as a writer.

My little story was printed in Advocate Men and eventually made its way into The Penguin Book of Gay Short Stories. And I wrote other stories. But it would be years before I completed my first novel, Dreadnought, and even then it was Robert’s spirit that helped me get through the ordeal of writing it — much as Chase in The Blue Star takes his time becoming the vessel he was meant to be, and does so after a tap on the shoulder by fate, in the form of Niccolo, whose chief talent is taking one’s self seriously.

Yet not too seriously. The Blue Star also expresses what might be called a respect for fun as a supernal quality — fun when it’s combined with pleasure and joy instead of substituting for them, as often happens in American life. This side of Robert was often on display during weekends at the beach house, when gossip had to be shared and games played. It was customary, for example, for Robert and Michael to welcome me and my boyfriend, Barry, for a weekend with a little note they’d secreted away beforehand in a certain rabbit-shaped box in the room of the house that I preferred, the Suite Orientale, so-called because it boasted a pair of extravagantly exotic, red-black-and-gold lamps in the form of Chinese courtiers. Upon departing at the end of a weekend, Barry and I would leave a note for our hosts. One weekend, I had planned ahead. The note we left was the first clue in an elaborate treasure hunt that led to further clues — ten of them, I think, in the form of parts of a map, which I had hidden throughout the house all weekend, right under Robert’s nose. The last of the parts led directly to the treasure: a miniature casket brimming with fake gemstones I had collected from shops in New York’s button-and-bauble district, off Seventh Avenue. I had placed the casket in the powder room — the one with the Blue Star murals.

The reason I speak so much of the beach house is that both it and Robert’s writing reflect a deeper quality that was essential to him as a man and an artist. Robert always said that the key to life was rearranging the furniture. Consider that statement’s practically Victorian resonance — imperial in its ambition to remake Nature in accordance with our needs, our beliefs, even our esthetics. Indeed, in his personal life Robert did as much decorating, landscaping, and commissioning of suits as his characters do, and this all reflects an urgent faith Robert had in an individual’s pure agency.

In the years since Robert’s death, I’ve re-read his novels frequently, just to stay in tune with his wavelength. I also direct the annual literary prize that bears his and Michael’s name, the Ferro-Grumley, which I co-founded a year after they died. I guess you could say that the prize itself is a kind of conspiracy, devised in Robert’s name to draw attention to the kinds of truthful, luminous writing he aimed for in his books and sought in those of others, books that continue to sit upon our shelves, as seductively incandescent as a blue star.

Stephen Greco is Executive Editor of Classical TV, a broadband portal for full-length performances of opera, ballet, modern dance, jazz, and theater. Greco’s first book, a collection of erotic fiction and non-fiction entitled The Sperm Engine (Green Candy) published in 2002, was nominated for a 2003 Lambda Literary Award and praised by Out magazine for its “breathless bravura.”

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COMMENTS / 2 COMMENTS

This was just such a great interview. I didn’t know Joseph Conrad was gay. I am definitely gonna pick up the book.

As part of the generation with the luxury of ‘catching our breath’ collectively, it’s just so valuable to learn about these hidden histories.

Colin added these pithy words on Apr 11 10 at 12:51 am

Hello,
I’m happy to be one of the writers they have an essay about in this anthology (for my 1994 novel, User), although I don’t feel particularly “lost,” because I’ve published 3 new books in the last 4 years, and one with a mainstream publisher, Tarcher/Penguin which won a prestigious European award. I do, however, appear to be “lost” to the creators of this anthology, since, despite my wikipedia page, facebook and myspace presences I never heard a word about this anthology until this very moment. I’d also like to point out that there are several well-known “gay” novels, plays and films way before the 50s, such as Radclyffe Hall’s 1926 Well of Loneliness and Carl Dreyer’s excellent Michael. That’s what I’m more worried about, the notion that gay identity came into being right before and after Stonewall, which ties fledging gays to that one rather thin contemporary model.

Bruce Benderson added these pithy words on Apr 12 10 at 7:24 pm

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