Reading Moby Dick when I was seventeen made me want to write novels. Absalom, Absalom! had the same effect. I majored in English literature in college, and I went to New York and wrote for a year. A friend said, “The trouble is, you don’t know anything about what you’re writing about.” Bingo.
I didn’t know how to learn how to do what I wanted to do. I went to graduate school, concentrated in the English Renaissance Lyric and wrote a dissertation on John Donne. This was the early sixties.
I got married—it was a way of resolving the conflict in my life—had children, was teaching in a university, and finally decided I had to start over on everything but the children. After a long time, I left the university and left my marriage, and in my last summer before moving to Boston, a young friend of mine was murdered by homophobes. His name was Charles Howard.
During the summer after Charles Howard’s death in 1984, we all were coming out and organizing politically, and experiencing grief at Charles Howard’s death, and we knew all of this was important. We were doing on a local level what writers were writing about on a national level, creating a gay community. I had read enough to know that our history was important to gay people. A major effort of the women’s movement and the black civil rights movement had been to recover their history, and I thought we should write this down, the events of that summer of 1984, to prevent them from being lost.
When I started I found I was writing a Faulkner novel. I was a southerner, and most novels by southerners since Faulkner sounded something like Faulkner. A friend said, “Please don’t go on this way.” I kept at it for a year, then quit, unable to go on. Finally, one night I was in a meeting, and I heard a man talking about himself and his experiences, and the hurt his experience had caused him, and I realized, that’s the voice I need in my novel. I went home and started to write again. I wrote, This is what happened on Saturday, the day of the dance. And after that, I never stopped. I kept writing, hearing that voice in my head talking of the pain he had experienced. I knew about this. This became Ceremonies.
This is what had happened. Without knowing I was doing it, I had taught myself how to write. The years in college, in graduate school, teaching Shakespeare every year, and all the books I had read. I had completed my apprenticeship and when the time was right, when I witnessed an event to write about—the murder of Charles Howard—I was ready to write about it. And I could do it my way. I knew how to do it because I had read all those books and taught all those classes and had all that experience. I never thought about how Faulkner did it. I didn’t think ever about the New York publishing industry. I thought, nobody else has ever written a book like this, and I’ll write it first, and after I’ve finished it, I’ll show it to the publishers.
There must be other ways to get to where a person has to be to be able to write. I think I had to spend a very long time in my apprenticeship before actually beginning to write. I suspect that other writers can pick up what they need to know sooner, earlier, maybe better. But one of the effects of a long apprenticeship is that I learned the things that are necessary. Shakespeare taught me how to start a scene and to tell a story with a lot of characters. Melville and Faulkner taught me how to tell a story characterized by high moral seriousness. I don’t think I know it all even now, but I’m on my way.
As it happened, the publishers didn’t want to see my books. My subject—gay men and women fighting back—was one they were not accustomed to dealing with. Even some gay readers were not accustomed to such stories. But it was a good subject, a necessary one, and my book was needed, so I kept on. After Ceremonies, I wrote two subsequent novels, Race Point Light, about a man fighting back during his whole life, and Adam in the Morning, about the Stonewall riots. All three of these books were about their times. What it was like to be gay in 1984 in a small town in Maine, or gay in the West Village in New York in late June 1969, or a nomad and gay between about 1950 and 2005 determined to find a place in America. I ended up publishing these novels on the web as ebooks, unencumbered by the power of the publishing industry to limit our freedom to read the subjects powerful and true to us. I learned in my long apprenticeship how critically important a literature is to a community—serious books apprehended seriously that reflect back to a community its facts, its history, its concerns, attitudes, myths and legends, and so become what they imagined.