Following is an entire timeline of my creation of Boy Culture, the novel that became the current film. I’m laying it out once and for all because I have a terrible, terrible memory (one that often suggests wrong details rather than simply blanking) and I am constantly asked about these details and have probably given a million little versions.
Spurring me on is that I recently had the pleasure of being e-interviewed by Matt Zakosek for my alma mater's school newspaper, The Chicago Maroon. (That always reminds me of Bugs Bunny saying, “What a maroon!”) Like me, he's gay, a product or survivor of U of C, named Matt and a writer. Can't ask for a more sympathetic interviewer. Matt asked me tons of things relating to the creation of the Boy Culture novel, since my original short story on which I'd based it was written at the U of C, used to get into a very tough short-story course with the legendary Richard Stern, published in a short-lived campus art mag (published by my roommate) and expanded into a novella that served as my thesis to graduate.
He's going to kill me for not finding the time to do this until 10 minutes after it was published, but I spent part of the weekend rummaging in my art and writing bins in search of the original story, which I scanned and will share here along with photos from the period and drawings I made during the 1989 to 1994 period leading up to the novel’s publication. Like this one, of me with a beard...my Grandma Rettenmund said, "Oh, no, not with your beautiful face!" I hadn't been aware of any beautiful face. I was unconvinced. But, hedging my bets, I shaved.
When I was a junior (aka 20), I had to submit a story to be considered for the Stern class, so overnight I wrote a piece that felt very radical to me and incorporated a lot of my resentment for the school's all-work-and-no-gay atmosphere. (Two years earlier, I had impulsively chosen The Breakfast Club as the piece of art that most affected my life when writing my admissions essay, so I'd found shooting from the hip quite effective at a school known for academic fanaticism.) I based the story on a classmate’s comment that an intimate friend of his from high school—a straight guy—had turned tricks back home. I had been thinking for some time about what kinds of tricks your mind might play on you if you were privy to the hypocritical double lives of people around you, and if you were the type of person prone to crossing lines just to see what it felt like on the other side. When I met this Midwest hustler, he had no personality at all—he was a blank.
I wanted to fill in the blank.
The submission, "Straight Story," got me into the class...but then I had to show up and actually read the thing, including all the anger and sex and profanity. I was scared to death, but I read it with gusto, acting out the parts. The class was impressed...or stunned? Professor Stern was a huge supporter and that was a lot to take in, but I appreciated it even when he eventually said the story had a schoolboy whimsy to it. One of my classmates observed that it was brave for me to do something so autobiographical (I guess the first-person is persuasive!) and also so "sociopathic."
Sometime after I received Professor Stern's notes, in the fall of 1989, I allowed the story to be published in Gratuitous U of C B&W Art. This artsy journal was put together by my third-year roommate, Austin Nichols, and featured contributions from all my best university buddies, JJ Fenza, Tony Breed (my other roomie), Anne Stevens and possibly some more.
When my story came out, people were shocked (to the extent that it was even read) by "Straight Story," which I'd coyly signed "J.O." I clearly recall a good friend of my best friend talking to us about this horrible, vulgar story and wondering aloud who could have written it. I took pleasure in telling him I was J.O.—he looked at me like I'd just farted. Loudly.
Next, I decided to turn the story into a novella for my senior thesis. I had all my friends read my expansion and give their advice (they’re thanked in my kooky acknowledgments, along with a certain guy “who’s forgotten me by now”). Settling on a title-less draft, I worked with Richard Strier, who'd taught a Samuel Pepys class I took (I think!). It was scary finding someone who'd work with you on your thesis, so I think I chose him because I had some experience with him. I probably had to beg. By the time I was handed off to Stuart Tave, I had gone with True Confessions Of A Working Boy as my new title. I have to confess I don't remember any of my interactions with the esteemed Mr. Tave beyond the notes I've saved...so maybe my experience with him was better than hers—’cuz bad stuff I remember.
My thesis was accepted and I graduated in January of 1991.
I’ve been asked about which books may have influenced me in writing my first novel. My memory is hazy about which gay-themed novels I would have read by the time the novella was completed, but I know I’d read Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story and his other works. That one grabbed me because I found it at the U of C bookstore and flipped it open to a scene about “cornholing.” As base as it sounds at first, just the experience of seeing that writers did not have to put on airs in order to communicate essential truths was highly influential. I think I also read Faggots by Larry Kramer, which I want to re-read. I was fascinated and repulsed by it. I remember being influenced by Kramer’s no-holds-barred criticisms of the gay community, and realized it was okay to create a work that was not 100% rah-rah.
There were other novels I would liken mine to or would somehow link to my understanding of the genre I was writing in, but they didn’t cross my path until much later, when I would have been finalizing the full novel—or even after I’d finished it! I immediately think of Andrew Holleran’s Dancer From The Dance, George Whitmore’s The Confessions Of Danny Slocum (which I found at Housing Works well after my novel was a done deal), Ken Siman’s Pizza Face (so underrated), The Irreversible Decline Of Eddie Sockett by John Weir and the works of Christopher Bram (in particular Surprising Myself)—Christopher and Michael Bronski would later kindly take me for lunch to the Bright Food Shop in Chelsea once I was published, making me feel like a literary superstar. (CONTINUED)