WG: [00:00:18] Welcome to Queer Words. This is Wayne Goodman, and on this episode, I have the delightful pleasure of conversing with Gar McVey-Russell. Hello, Gar!
GMR: [00:00:26] Hello, Wayne.
WG: [00:00:27] Can you tell us a little about yourself?
GMR: [00:00:30] Okay. I moved to Oakland in 1989. I was born in Los Angeles in 1965, so you can do the math. I have an interesting background because I have a fascinating family.
WG: [00:00:45] Maybe we can talk about that a little later. As this is Queer Words, I always ask: What qualifies you as Queer?
GMR: [00:00:54] Oh, I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Homosexual, Gay man, and I’ve known for a very long time.
WG: [00:01:02] When did you first accept that you were Queer?
GMR: [00:01:05] I came out when I was twenty…three. Something like that. I was in college. Yes, I was twenty-three as UCLA. I was first noticing boys when I was like six or seven.
WG: [00:01:19] And who are some of your Queer hero figures?
GMR: [00:01:21] Oh, goodness. I can think of… going back early… let’s say I could intuit a connection between myself and other people before I knew what Gay was. So, people who fell into that category would be Charles Nelson Reilly, Paul Lynde (even though he’s a bit of a mess), people like that. I would say Queer heroes would include: Marlon Riggs, Essex Hemphill, Vito Russo, Angela Davis.
WG: [00:01:50] Excellent. Who are some of your literary influences?
GMR: [00:01:54] Oh, well. I exist… it was almost like a how-to book for my life, and that’s Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, which the whole idea of other people seeing you the way they envision you was the best education I think I could have gotten. I read that book when I was about eighteen or so and just before going to college. The whole thing–particularly that plot point about the Communists, and how he got involved in Communists. I kind of experienced something like that when I was at school, and–not that I became a Communist or was interested in Communism ideology–people were trying to figure out, “What is Gar? Is he a Trotsky? Or is he a Leninist?” It was like, “No!” Again, it was this idea of people looking at you through the wrong lenses and projecting themselves onto you. As far as literature goes, it was so well-developed a story that it’s always stayed with me.
WG: [00:02:50] Well, the ideal of Marxism and Leninism is that we are all equal, no matter what we look like, or whom we sleep with; however, in practice…
GMR: [00:03:00] [Laughter] “Some people are more equal than others!”
WG: [00:03:05] Oh, yes. George Orwell. Animal Farm. Right. [00:03:15] What inspired you to begin writing?
GMR: [00:03:17] You know, that’s an interesting question because I have this thing: I want to tell stories. I’ve wanted to tell stories since I was a little kid, and, of course, when I was a little kid, I thought I wanted to be an astronomer, but I had this thing in the background where I wanted to tell stories, and I wanted to write articles. I got involved in the newspaper in high school, and when I went to UCLA, I started writing op eds for the Daily Bruin. Then, later, future pieces for NoMo, the Black newspaper and Ten Percent–the late Ten Percent–the Queer newspaper.
WG: [00:03:52] If you had followed your dream and gone into astronomy, you could have been Neil DeGrasse Tyson.
GMR: [00:03:56] [Laughter] Exactly! So, it makes me very happy when I see Black astronomers. That’s the person I probably could have become.
WG: [00:04:06] Personally, I think he transcends his culture. He’s just such a force to be reckoned with in terms of bringing science to people in a way that’s approachable and understandable. And I was thinking: He tells stories. He’s taken over Cosmos after Carl Sagan and has continued the model of explaining complicated, difficult topics of science to people in a humorous way with storytelling. That could have been you.
GMR: [00:04:39] It totally could have been me because, actually, one of my really good writing instructors at UCLA mentored me and said, “Perhaps you might want to do science writing and stuff like that.” I was like, “Yea, that’s a really good idea.” I liked that idea, although, in the end I was leaning–see, this was when I was still in the closet. So, once I came out of the closet, then it was like, “No, no, no, I have to write about this stuff.” But I still have a great love of science and science fiction.
WG: [00:05:05] Many authors, once they get established doing what they think they must do, turn to what they like to do. So, perhaps there is a future for you in writing about science.
GMR: [00:05:17] Absolutely. That’s entirely possible.
WG: [00:05:26] Can you tell us how Queerness impacts your writing?
GMR: [00:05:29] It’s always present. I always say, when I came out, it was being able to gain 3-D vision. For the first time you’re seeing things as they really are. So, I can’t imagine not writing, first off, writing from a Queer perspective. I can’t imagine not writing about Queer lives because, in my opinion, they simply haven’t been written enough. The “coming out” story, which, I know, some people consider terribly hackneyed, to me hasn’t been explored enough because there are lots of different “coming out” stories.
WG: [00:06:03] And you have crafted one in your book Sin Against the Race. An extremely elaborate and complex “coming out” story.
GMR: [00:06:12] Yes. Probably because I have a rather annoyingly complex head sometimes.
WG: [00:06:17] But it’s not your simple, “Hey, Mom, hey, Dad, guess what?” “Oh, we love you!” No, it’s far from that.
GMR: [00:06:25] Yes, yes, but that was my coming out. My coming out was sort of like, “Hey, Mom, Dad,” and everything was roses and sunshine. For my character Alfonso, not so much because he had the pressure of coming from a family that’s very politically powerful and has a long tradition of being politically powerful, going back to his esteemed grandfather. I wanted to sort of look at Queerness in sort of traditional Black power settings. That was sort of the idea behind Sin Against the Race. You have the Black church, you had early Black political institutions. His grandfather was the mentee of W.B. DuBois. That type of thing. Other characters in the book: Sammy is the den mother of the book and the one Alfonso kind of gravitates toward. Sammy went to the 1963 March on Washington when he was a teenager, you know, that type of thing. So, Queers in history is a very important thing because–which is something you do in your writing…
WG: [00:07:28] Yes, thank you.
GMR: [00:07:30] It’s important to talk about that.
WG: [00:07:33] How about your personal approach to writing. Do you have a pattern that you follow?
GMR: [00:07:38] [Sigh followed by laughter] Sin Against the Race was many, many, many years in the making because it took me a bit to figure out what exactly I wanted to do and to give myself permission to do what I wanted to do. I am sort of a cross between being highly organized and coming up with outlines and then flying by the seat of my pants. So, on the one hand, I am working on a new book, which I will get to in a bit.
WG: [00:08:02] We’ll talk about that later.
GMR: [00:08:03] But in that case–and even in the case of Sin Against the Race, once I finally realized where I was going with it–I did start writing outlines to sort of focus my thoughts. I use the Scrivener software–which is a wonderful writing tool–and, one of the things I like about it the most is you can put up a storyboard and have virtual index cards that you can move around on your screen. So, if you’re really, really stuck, which definitely happened with Sin Against the Race in the early stages, and, particularly, the beginning of the book, I put everything on index cards and started shuffling them around and then I kind of figured out where I’m going. Once you start writing, then yeah, just go with where you think it’s going to go, even if it’s not on script, just go with it and see what happens.
WG: [00:08:47] So, you’re a “plotter” who then writes by “pantsing.”
GMR: [00:08:50] Yes!
WG: [00:09:01] Can you tell us a bit about your body of work, things you’ve written over the years.
GMR: [00:09:06] Sure. So, the first thing I had published, ironically, was an excerpt from Sin Against the Race, and that was in the Sojourner: Black Gay Voices in the Age of AIDS. It’s a scene that’s actually still in the book. Before that, as I said, I wrote various commentaries and feature pieces for Ten Percent and for NoMo, for which I won an award. I think I won the award mostly for my writing in Ten Percent. It was called The Arvey Award, named after Arvey Ward, who was the media advisor for the campus newspapers at the time. So, that was kind of cool. I got a little certificate and a biography of Langston Hughes.
WG: [00:09:48] And which campus was this?
GMR: [00:09:49] This is at UCLA. And for the past nine years, I guess, maybe, I’ve been writing a blog called, “The GarSpot,” fiction and muses from a Black, Gay writer with delusions above his station, which kind of describes the blog. It could be about anything. I was just reminded of a piece I wrote about climate change a few years ago, and I do fuss about the political situation an awful lot.
WG: [00:10:15] I have a question about blog readership. Have you found it diminishing over the last year or so?
GMR: [00:10:20] I honestly don’t know. I think my blog readers have diminished a bit. It might be starting to tick up a bit more because I’m connected with a lot more writers on Facebook now, but my personal blog readers probably diminished because I wasn’t writing as often as I had been. I had been writing up to two or three times a week. Now, I’m lucky to do that a month.
WG: [00:10:40] I’ve noticed that more people talk about podcasts now than blogs, and I thought maybe you’ve experienced the same thing with people moving away from blogs and onto [clears throat] Tada!… podcasts! So, that’s why I wanted to ask you about that. Now, where can people find your book?
GMR: [00:11:00] It is available in bookstores, it’s available on Amazon, and I do have links on my website (thegarspot.com)
[Gar reads from Sin Against the Race, a tale of dealing with coming out under less than optimal circumstances in a traditional Black family living in a large city.]
WG: [00:17:20] Gar, what is your involvement in the Queer communities?
GMR: [00:17:23] Well, it’s evolved and changed over the decades. Well, first off, when I came out, one of my coming out vehicles, besides writing for Ten Percent, was to get involved with Act Up, and I was involved with Act Up L.A. for about a year-and-a-half until I moved to the Bay Area. Then I got involved with Act Up San Francisco, realizing that there was a lot of need for better AIDS awareness and that type of stuff in the East Bay. Me and a bunch of friends banded together in my old apartment near Piedmont/MacArthur, and we started Act Up East Bay. So, that was–goodness gracious–twenty-nine years ago. I should note, though, one of the co-founders and really the sort of den mother of the group, who shepherded it along, way longer than even when I was involved, just passed away at the beginning of the month. His name was John Iversen.
WG: [00:18:17] How do you use social media to promote your work?
GMR: [00:18:21] Oh, I send out the usual parade of tweets and Facebook posts. Obviously, and time I publish something new on the blog I spread it out like that. I publicize my readings when they come up, and just sort of keep in touch with people, and that type of thing. I don’t know if I’m any good at it, but I try.
WG: [00:18:41] I don’t know that anyone is any good at it. [Laughter] So, what do you like to read?
GMR: [00:18:47] I am becoming a very voracious reader after living a Rip Van Winkle experience, and just sort of nit-picking for a while and just reading pretty much everything. I’m in a book club, which has been really cool. Right now we’re reading Isherwood, Christopher and His Kind, and something else, which I can’t think of right now, but I’m enjoying it very much.
WG: [00:19:08] Is this specifically a Gay/Queer/whatever book club?
GMR: [00:19:11] Yeah, it’s called The Boys Bookclub, and it’s a group of friends, I think there are eight of us, and we’re all Gay men. Not every book is necessarily Gay-related. We read Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, which is a wonderful book, and stuff like that. So, it’s been healthy.
WG: [00:19:30] Can you tell us a bit about your current project?
GMR: [00:19:32] Well! I’m writing another book, and, sort of like Sin Against the Race, it has a long pedigree. In other words, I started working on it quite some time ago, but I sort of put it down. Now, I’m coming back to it. It’s going to be rather different that it was before and I have it very well plotted out. I’ll describe it as sort of a Gay runaway story, and it’s about two kids who leave very bad situations.
WG: [00:20:02] What age are these kids?
GMR: [00:20:04] They’re probably about sixteen or so. Sixteen, seventeen, not quite legal age. They leave a bad situation in hopes of finding a better one. Of all places, in the middle of the country. I’ll let you stew on that a bit.
WG: [00:20:17] I imagine you mean the flat states.
GMR: [00:20:21] Yeah, I mean, it’s… I’ll say what the title is: Oh Happy Day.
WG: [00:20:26] I’ve heard that before.
GMR: [00:20:28] Yes.
WG: [00:20:36] Do you have any words of wisdom to pass along to other Queer writers?
GMR: [00:20:40] Write your passion, which is advice I give to anybody, and write your truth, regardless of whether people get it or not because readers are a lot smarter than, say, agents or editors even. If you write with a clear voice, people will get you because there’s a community out there that needs the words that you are writing, and they will find you. I’m really flattered to be here. This is lovely.
WG: [00:21:06] Okay then. Well, thank you, Gar McVey-Russell.
GMR: [00:21:09] Thank you.