WG: [00:00:18] Welcome to Queer Words. This is Wayne Goodman, and on this episode, I have the delightful pleasure of conversing with Richard May. So, can you tell us a little about yourself, Richard?
RM: [00:00:29] Well, thank you, Wayne. You’re my partner, so you know all about me, but –
WG: [00:00:34] Maybe, but not all.
RM: [00:00:35] But for the listening audience, I am a short-story writer. I’ve been writing short stories since I was nine thanks to Mrs. Sheets’ fourth-grade assignment that we take a big sheet of paper and draw a picture and write a story about it, and that’s how I write to this day. I find a visual that starts telling me a story, and then I try to write it as fast as I can.
WG: [00:01:01] Great! Thank you. Since this is Queer Words, I’m going to ask you questions about being queer, like: What qualifies you as queer?
RM: [00:01:10] Well, I have a life partner, Wayne Goodman, and he’s another man, so I think that makes me queer.
WG: [00:01:17] Okay, and when did you first accept being queer?
RM: [00:01:22] I came out later in life. I came out for good–making a decision to be gay when I was twenty-eight. I had a boyfriend from the Ninth Grade on and a girlfriend from the Eleventh Grade on in high school. We went to different high schools, so I didn’t run into too much trouble there. But I couldn’t make up my mind. For a while I just dated women in college, and then I dated men.
WG: [00:01:50] And who are some of your queer hero figures?
RM: [00:01:53] Harvey Milk is certainly a hero because he learned how to work the political system and get elected. Until we were part of the political system, nobody was going to respect us and give us power. You have to have some people inside and some people outside. I think Oscar Wilde was a literary and personal hero. I mean, that he lived his life with a wife and a lover. I admire him, although a very tragic end. Who are my queer literary heroes? I’ll have to think about that.
WG: [00:02:29] Well, that’s the next question. Who are some of your literary influences?
RM: [00:02:34] [Laughter] My favorite writers–a couple of them are queer–I love Wayne Goodman’s writing because I love what he does, and I can say that honestly, not because he’s my partner and interviewing me right now…
WG: [00:02:45] Shameless plug…
RM: [00:02:47] But I really do believe what he does is interesting. I love his retelling of three very-much lost, basically, to modern ears, gay novels: the first in Russia, the first in England and the first in the U.S. I also liked his story about two Mahjong sharks traveling around China. I found their adventures interesting, enlightening, and, very often, hilarious. I also like the novel of Michael Alenyikov and wish he would write more (Ivan and Misha). I would also put in a plug for Genanne Walsh and her novel, Twister.
WG: [00:03:27] I know you have a particular penchant for Jane Austen.
RM: [00:03:30] My favorite dead authors, I guess, are Jane Austen, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and D.H. Lawrence. I admire them for different reasons. I mean Jane Austen is just so funny, and she’s such a close observer of life, which I would like to be and hope I am. Nathaniel Hawthorne just wrote such interesting, twisted stories. Herman Melville, I think his South Sea adventures, including Moby Dick, are stirring to any young lad or old lad. And D.H. Lawrence is, I think, the most beautiful descriptive writer in English.
WG: [00:04:11] Can you tell me what inspired you to begin writing?
RM: [00:04:15] Mrs. Sheets! Mrs. Sheets was my Fourth Grade teacher. She had very pale white skin and very dark hair and kind of very thick, as I remember. Like I said, she gave these little nine-year-olds this assignment to take a big sheet of paper–we had these big pads that were hung on racks, and so we could stand next to them and draw pictures. There was a space for pictures and then lines below it, so you had a guide to print–in your Fourth Grade printing–what the story was, and my story: I drew a picture of a Dachshund chasing a bowler hat, and I tried to draw in the wind to show it was a windy day, and that’s why the hat was rolling down the street. And I wrote a little story about the Dachshund, and the Dachshund got the hat because I believed in happy endings then, and I still do today.
WG: [00:05:26] How does queerness impact your writing?
RM: [00:05:30] I only write queer stories. Basically, I only write Gay male stories because that’s what I know. Jane Austen was told when she was writing: Write what you know. I don’t agree with that entirely, but I agree with that as a basis. I, sometimes, will have female characters, but I don’t know if I’m the right person to write from the female perspective. I do like to write from different perspectives because I like to be that person for a while. So, I write stories mainly about Gay men, how they meet each other, how they develop a relationship. I started writing those because I had a very unhappy end to a long-term relationship (with my partner before Wayne) who, basically, had late-onset schizophrenia who started drinking and made my life and his very unhappy. I think more my life because he was drunk most of the time. And so, for a year I wrote happy-ending stories, and I still have those. Sometimes I look at them and think, “These are really bad” or, “Maybe I should just work on this one,” and I wrote over 80 of those happy-ending stories, and it made me happy, so I decided I’m going to write happy stories. I don’t want to bring people down.
WG: [00:06:50] Can you discuss your personal approach to writing? Do you have patterns that you follow? Are you a “plotter” or “pantser”? How do you fit into that spectrum?
RM: [00:07:01] I hope this is a pattern. I’m a big believe in writing at the same time of the day in the same place with the same tools. Then I don’t have to worry about finding… Where’s my computer? Do I need to find a coffee shop with wi-fi? My goal–I retired six years ago–I wanted to write three hours in the morning and then plan literary events in the afternoon. Well… now I’m happy if I can write an hour each day. Luckily, I’m a very efficient writer; I don’t need very much time. After my coffee I put water on my head to wake up. I don’t waste time writing–messing around–pre-writing. I can sit right down I can look at the illustration I’m working from–or the painting, or the photograph, or sometimes it’s just a memory of a specific, vivid image of a man–and then I read a few sentences at the end of what I was writing or editing the day before, and I’m off!
WG: [00:08:05] Because I know you better than most people, you seem to be inspired by photographs and pictures.
RM: [00:08:12] Exactly. That’s how I write. I’m not inspired; they actually tell me the story. I had my first writer’s block since I was nine years old–and that’s a long time ago, since I’m almost 72. I had a writer’s block for several months and no stories were talking to me. Usually, I see something and the image sparks a story in my brain. I walk around, it’s like Fahrenheit 451, the story is telling itself in my brain, and I feel like I’ve got to get a little of it down. If I can get a piece of it down, then I can come back to it later. Otherwise, I’ve found they just disappear.
WG: [00:08:54] Can you tell us about your body of work?
RM: [00:08:56] I’ve got three-and-a-half unpublished novels because everyone said, “You should write a novel,” even though I liked writing short stories. I also like writing vignettes, little playlets, but people said, “You should write a novel,” and I worked in publishing, and that’s mainly what got published: fiction novels. That’s certainly what mainly sold. So, I tried writing novels. Like most people, I suppose, my first novel was very autobiographical, and I concluded I’m really not a good novelist because of the way I write. I take the D.H. Lawrence approach to writing: I don’t want to spend a lot of time planning, I might spend a lot of time researching to get the period or what people wore or what they ate, but then I just write and I let the story flow. That works really well for short stories, but not so well for novels. A novel needs structure and D.H. Lawrence–I don’t know how he did it–but he wrote some beautiful novels that had beautiful middles, and my middles were always not very good.
WG: [00:10:08] That’s always the tough part for any writer: Act II.
RM: [00:10:18] I should mention I have two published short-story collections. One is about queer redheads–cause they’re men and women in that–and the second one is Inhuman Beings, Monsters, Myths, and Science Fiction.
[Rick May reads from “Catman” in Inhuman Beings. It’s a short story about a shapeshifter who befriends the narrator.]
WG: [00:14:05] I want to shift gears and ask you what is your involvement in the Queer Communities?
RM: [00:14:10] My current involvement is mainly literary. In New York, where I mainly lived while I worked in publishing, I was involved in a queer charity, and I worked on the LGBT Pride March for many years. I was involved the Brooklyn queer political club, Lambda Independent Democrats, and was briefly President of that club before I moved back to California to help take care of my parents, who–sort of–made me. Or shamed me into it. Ironically, after I made a commitment to move back, I was asked to run for the lowest level political office in New York State: County Committeeman. I could have been one of the first Queer elected officials in the country, but I wasn’t. Out here, I didn’t become as involved in the Queer Community because I found my political expertise wasn’t needed in San Francisco, such a politically sophisticated city full of politically-motivated queer people. What I decided to do when I retired is to promote queer authors, specifically, to get them into bookstores, connect them with bookstores, show the bookstores they can make some money, they could sell some books by queer authors, and make some money for both the bookstore and the authors. So, I organize a reading series called “Perfectly Queer” with Wayne and we had readings at one bookstore that closed on Market Street, and now we’re at Dog Eared Books in the Castro. We expanded to the East Bay. So, my primary involvement in the Queer Community is going to people’s readings, supporting friends, and, actually, providing them a space to read.
WG: [00:15:54] And how do you use social media to promote your work?
RM: [00:15:59] I’d say I’m much better at promoting other people’s work than my own work. I tried promoting my work and being, I guess, a regular author and doing, sort of, what the author in “Cat Man” says. I mean, I’ve never wanted to do a website, and I don’t think I ever will. I did try a blog, because people said to, on my first book, and it was an awful lot of work and I don’t really have much time to write. So, working on a blog an hour a day takes my writing time, so, I’m not going to do that. I just found that I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t feel like doing promoting through social media got me any sales, got me any recognition, and I thought about it, and I thought I really don’t think about those things anyway. I really like the act of writing, and if someone else wants to read it, that’s terrific, but to me, writing is for me.
WG: [00:16:50] What do you like to read?
RM: [0016:52] I think I have a wide range of reading. I like to read mysteries. I like Cara Black mysteries especially. I’ve always liked mysteries. I remember reading the Joseph Hansen detective stories (Queer!). Cara Black stories are not Queer; they’re set in Paris, which is almost as good as being Queer. And I read, I forget the name of the author, but his detective is in Albany, New York. If you go back and read books, they’re not necessarily going to be as good–or your reaction is not going to be the same, at least–and I’ve just found that that particular series, to me, didn’t hold up. At the time, I thought the writing was quite good, but I think there are so many people writing now at queer-identified work (too many of them not Queer) that the availability and the quality of what we have to read is much higher. But I also like to read historical novels. I like to read just about anything. I read a lot on World War I; it interests me. I like to read what my friends are writing. I think, “If I can’t buy their book that’s shameful.” I should be the first one to buy their book. So, I have all these books by friends, and I try to work my way through them.
WG: [00:18:07] I find it interesting that when you listed your favorite queer authors, just about every one of them is someone you know, which is very unusual. Most people don’t know their favorite authors, so it gives you a different perspective, I believe.
RM: [00:18:22] Yes. I know these people, and I’ve found their work, but I know a lot of Queer people with books and I don’t necessarily think they’re my favorite authors, even though they might have a perfectly good book. Michael Alenyikov I got to know because I found his book Ivan and Misha in the Noe Valley Library, my neighborhood in San Francisco, and I read it and wrote him a fan email. I thought he lived in New York because the novel is set in New York, most of it, or Odessa in Ukraine. It turns out he lives a few blocks from me, we met for coffee, and over the years he’s become my best friend. Genanne Walsh I knew because we were in a writing group together.
WG: [00:19:04] Can you talk a bit about your current project?
RM: [00:19:07] I guess I have two. I had been working for three years on my third short-story collection because I thought that’s what I should do. The first two were interesting to do. I did a third called Gay All Year. It was based on my Kindle short-story series, an erotic series. I like the stories, but then I found I had trouble with it. I had already written the stories, but then I edited for a year, and the series never quite coalesced. I realized that some of them were historical stories and most were current, so I tried to get rid of the historical stories and make everything current, and then I felt like not all the stories were fine on their own but when they were with other stories, there was a definite difference between “very good” and maybe just “good,” and I wanted them all to be “very good,” so I ditched some that way. And then a story that I loved I thought maybe I had misappropriated, done cultural misappropriation too far, and even though I thought it was a wonderful story, maybe it would get me into trouble. After over a year, I just thought, “This is just not working.” I don’t want to just work on a book like the piece because it takes so much time. I don’t know how people can write for five years, ten years, twenty years on a novel because I don’t see how they can do anything else. I can’t; I don’t have enough time with my other commitments. But then, I had been working, just for fun, on these myths because in my second book there’s a myth section–and I really like the idea of finding a myth–and I realized I’ve got four of these myths. If I wanted to do a book, I could, but I’m not going to do a book necessarily. I’m just going to write myths as long as they are interesting to me. So, I am working on myths. I just finished a Roman myth, and I’ve been researching and I’m starting to write a Viking myth, and I have a Korean story. They’re set in modern times. They take a mythic figure or a mythic situation and put it in modern times. Like the Vikings are in Minnesota. The Korean story, they’re in Seoul and the guys work in Tech, but the story is a Korean story about virgin ghosts.
WG: [00:21:24] Some of your writing is what you would call “erotica” and I want to ask you how does erotica fit in the spectrum between Queer Literature and pornography. Somewhere in the middle is Erotica. How do you distinguish it between the two extremes?
RM: [00:21:42] There’s what I think and then there’s what everybody else thinks, which is why I’m probably not going to write much erotica anymore. That and the market for erotica is mainly straight women, and I would like my own tribe to read my material. I would like other Queer people to read my stuff. I feel like I’m writing specifically for Gay men and so I just concluded they seem not interested about themselves erotically. Maybe that’s the problem with easy pornography on the website and so they look at erotica as pornography. Erotica is not pornography, but I find that most people identify it as pornography. In Erotica, the story is first and the sex is second. In Pornography, the sex is first and the story is secondary. Where they are in the spectrum is way off to the side, much further than all the other genres are from “Literary Fiction.” I’m not writing that anymore. I just trying to write stories and leave more to the imagination.
WG: [00:22:45] I think most people would be surprised to find out that the bulk of gay male erotica is purchased by women and not gay men.
RM: [00:22:54] It’s written by straight women and bought by straight women.
WG: [00:22:59] Is there any way it could be more appealing to Gay Men?
RM: [00:23:03] I don’t really think so. I might write a few stories because I think there’s a place for erotica. It seems natural to me for Gay Men–for men in general, but Gay Men especially–that sex is part of the getting-to-know-you because it just is, in my experience, and I don’t think I’m so different from most other Gay Men, at least in large cities.
WG: [00:23:28] It’s kind of interesting that Lesbian erotica (or pornography) many times is written by heterosexual men, and now, conversely, Gay Male erotica (or pornography) is being written by heterosexual women. Who knows…? Do you have any words of wisdom to pass along to other Queer writers?
RM: [00:23:49] That makes me feel old, but then I am. I think the wisest thing you can do as a writer–there are two smart things–and this isn’t new; everybody else is going to tell you this, too. First, read voraciously. Read everything. If you’re not going to be a reader, then you’re not going to be a writer. I say give yourself a 50-page rule; that’s what I do. I read a lot, and I read 50 pages and then I decide if I’m going to read any more. As an editor, I can tell on the first page whether the person could write any more and write very well. I now usually give people 50 pages because some people rev it up and get better, and then the rest of the book is really good. The other thing is to write. Write every day. Don’t sit down and think, “I’m going to write the Great American Novel (Poem/Short Story/Play /Whatever),” just write. Very Zen. I think writing is very Zen. Find the flow within you. Don’t write with your head; write with your spirit.
WG: [00:24:52] Thank you very much Richard May for being my guest on Queer Words.
RM: [00:24:56] You’re welcome Wayne Goodman.