Paul Burston’s The Gay Divorcee is his fourth novel. Its subject is Phil Davies and his upcoming civil ceremony with his boyfriend Ashley, who is referred to by Phil’s friend Carl as ‘the Incredible Sulk’. The problem is that Carl is already married to a woman called Hazel …
Paul and I met on the eve of the book’s publication and talked about the London gay scene in which the book is set, and the changes in gay life over the last twenty years that he has witnessed as both a writer and a journalist.
What was your inspiration for the book, and the moment at which you thought “yes, that’s the subject”?
I always start with a character. I don’t think about plot. And I wanted to write about a character that was ordinary. The last two books were about celebrity. The main characters were celebrities. I wanted to get away from that and write about ordinary gay men. I was thinking about the current changes in gay life. The major one was civil partnership, which is something I did myself and was very much on my mind. I had a friend who was once married to a woman and had then married his male partner of twenty years. That got me thinking about the potential for a story about a man who gets married twice. I thought that would be an interesting idea to explore. Gay marriage versus straight marriage, as it were. That was the starting point with the character of Phil.
Once I started to write the story it evolved into something different than what I expected. But that always happens. My books never turn out to be what I think they’re going to be. All I knew was that it would begin with a straight wedding and end with a gay wedding.
When did the character of Ashley enter the picture?
Pretty much from the beginning. For there to be tension in the story it couldn’t be the perfect romance, there had to the potential for it to go wrong otherwise it’s a straightforward story of someone getting married. I’ve met many Ashleys, and I’m sure we all have. I wanted to write about one those gay boys who live for the moment, who live for themselves, and don’t really care much about anybody else. The mainstream likes to view us as shallow, hedonistic, and irresponsible, and sadly all too often we live up to that stereotype. Ashley is one of those people.
I do have a certain amount of sympathy for him as well. I think that if you don’t have sympathy for your characters, even the ones you don’t like so much, they don’t really live and breathe. I had to find ways to understand the way he was. He isn’t all bad.
What about the other man in Phil’s life, Carl?
Carl was based loosely on people I know. He is the steadfast loyal gay friend of twenty years. I wanted there to be some historical perspective in the story. Even though the story is set now there is a sense of what people of my generation went through – the worst of the 80s, the worst of AIDS, of going to funerals every week. If that wasn’t there the story wouldn’t have had as much weight.
I think often that gay male friendships are as important as our love relationships and I wanted to pay tribute to that.
Do you think it’s typical of gay life that there is a greater longevity in friendships than relationships?
Maybe, maybe. I have gay friends of twenty years or so. And I’ve been in three long terms relationships. I’m in one now that I don’t expect to end. The idea of what family is for gay men is often different. Friends are family. It’s the distinction that Armistead Maupin draws between biological and logical family. Phil’s logical family is Carl.
The book is very much about the scene, the way we live now, especially as that life is represented in the mainstream gay media. When you’re approaching that subject – and I’m thinking specifically about the scene with club opening and the gay media parasites who are there – do you think you may be biting the hand that feeds?
Yes, but I think that as a writer you have to follow your instincts and not worry about that. The books I write are comedies, and satirical, and they’re holding a mirror up to the world I live in. I do that as a journalist and I do that as a novelist. You cant shy away from telling the truth as you see it for fear of offending someone who’ll give you a bad review in some gay free-sheet. I’m not going to lose sleep over that. Especially ones that review plays they haven’t seen and then give them five stars. Who cares what they think anyway?
There is an element of biting the hand that feeds. There is this thing about being a gay writer, which is that you’re somehow expected not be like other critics and you’re supposed to rave about everything. I’m a journalist not a cheerleader. If people see themselves in the book and are upset by it then fuck them.
Often people assume it’s about somebody else. Let them think that.
Do you think the many free press papers have changed the scene significantly?
Completely. Before Boyz was launched, which is the first of the freebies as we see them now, there was Capital Gay and the Pink Paper. They were about news, there weren’t really scene papers until Boyz came along. I think what Boyz did in many ways was good. It was an accurate reflection of what was happening in the gay world. We went from being a political community to a commercial one, and there was this scene with the big growth of Soho in the early 90s, and they reflected that. The problem with any free paper is that they don’t always have the editorial freedom because of the pressures of advertising. You can’t be a journalist and an advertiser at the same time. You’ll just write advertorial.
Do you think people expect credibility from the gay press?
They used to. I don’t think people turn to the gay press for reporting but to see pictures of people in clubs. I’m not sure the gay press has the same function anymore. The scene mags are about the scene. And in the end the scene isn’t that important. After all, it’s only a disco.
How do you find your role as a journalist now compared to when you started out?
When I started there was more focus on the legal and social injustices. I became a journalist after being an activist. My journalism was very polemical and in your face. As one-by-one the injustices have fallen away the focus has changed so I tend to write more about cultural changes. Of course there are issues. I still write pieces in Time Out that work people up. The whole GHB thing, barebacking, homophobic violence. But when I started, everything was political because our whole existence was political in a way that it isn’t anymore.
To go back to The Gay Divorcee, there is a careful balance maintained between the heterosexual and the homosexual world in it. It isn’t solely about how the events work themselves out in the homosexual world. The same is true of the previous book, Lovers and Losers. The emotional side of the book comes from the woman, Phil’s wife Hazel, who is on the outside looking in. What does that say about the way that you view the world?
I hadn’t thought of it in that way. Lovers and Losers was a love letter to the fag hag. For me, I’ve never felt comfortable in gay-only environments. They’re fine for one thing only, which is to have sex. But socially they’re far less friendly, far less sociable, than mixed environments. I don’t live in a hermetically sealed gay male world and so that is reflected in what I write as a novelist.
In this book I wasn’t planning for Hazel’s character to be as important as she becomes. The character who was the inspiration for Phil never saw his ex-wife again. In order for there to be a problem to be solved it seemed natural to have it be that Hazel and Phil hadn’t divorced.
In all of my books the characters I like the most are the women characters. They’re the ones I feel the strongest connection with. The gay men are observed.
What do you think is the fundamental difference between the two worlds?
One of the things I want to do as a writer is to look at what it means to be gay man. Are we different than heterosexuals? I don’t think we are. I think we make ourselves more different than we need to be. Culturally we are different because we do not have the same responsibility. You can go on being a teenager until you’re 40 or 50. I don’t think that’s a healthy way to live your life.
I think there’s something a little tragic and pathetic about living a life of endless hedonism to the exclusion of everything else. The lives lived by the other characters in the books are a way of reflecting that back.
I think I’ve got more comfortable with that. I used to just go for laughs.
What do you think of the current state of gay fiction about the way we live now?
There’s a dearth in Britain of gay books about life as it is being lived right now. They tend to be set in the Victorian era, or the 80s, or the rarefied world in which Alan Hollinghurst characters tend to operate. There aren’t that many people writing about contemporary gay life as it is being lived now. Rupert Smith does. Clayton Littlewood in his book Dirty White Boy does. I think that’s because publishers are shy of it. It’s ok to write gay stories as long as they’re set safely somewhere else. It’s bizarre because television has been ahead of that. Queer as Folk was a decade ahead of gay fiction.
What did you think when you read the line in Beige saying you were the Jackie Collins of Soho?
I’m not going to diss Jackie Collins because what she does she does very well. I find her books all the same. I love Jacqueline Susann who is the prototype. People tend to think of Jackie Collins as being like Jacqueline Susann. They’re entirely different. There’s depth, there’s character. Yes they’re both camp, if you want to see them as such. People have only seen the film of Valley of the Dolls. Read the book. It’s heart breaking. It’s ahead of its time. I don’t think Jackie Collins has written a book that can be compared to it. So as flattering as it is to be compared to someone that successful … well, it’s a nice quote to have, but I don’t see it myself.
With this book I’ve been compared to Jackie Collins, Douglas Sirk and Armistead Maupin. It’s quite a range.
When did Bitchy Queen’s Blog enter the story?
There was such a blog last year that was very vicious and was promoted by a certain gay magazine, and was full of pictures of people in clubs with lots of vile comments about them. It was being hailed by this editorial as some kind of antidote to the puffery of the gay press but it was just vile internet bullying. It was disgraceful. I, being a hot-headed person, attacked it in my blog, and so I was attacked in the bitchy blog. Some of the things said about other people were so vicious, so unprovoked, so mean that I became obsessed with it. I found out who the people writing it were. I won’t say as I don’t want to give them any publicity. Or risk a law suit.
The blog came out of that. And I wanted a narrative device to move the plot along. So it became almost a Greek chorus.
I tend to read a lot of blogs. I think the online phenomenon is interesting. Satire is a great weapon. If you can parody something successfully you can take away all its power. It also creates a whodunnit element. You can also tell some truths and not take any responsibility yourself!
I can’t possibly comment.
There is a line in the book which says that it has taken 10 years for the internet to reduce the lives of gay men to just being about sex. How much of that is serious and how much is a sideswipe?
A lot of the observations in the book are very much filtered through the characters. That observation comes out of a conversation between Carl and Phil. Carl is represented as a symptom of this new internet age; when people have lost the ability to communicate. In fact Carl’s character is one of those people that other people think are cynical and jaded. But they’re romantics at heart. Although he spends all his time online, and we spend all this time poking each other on Facebook, we don’t spend the same amount of time looking each other in the eye and having conversations.
Gay men don’t need much encouragement to behave like dogs. It’s pretty much hard-wired into us. So yes it is a sideswipe but it’s not meant to be taken too seriously. Most of what I joke about in the book has a kernel of truth, but it’s not entirely serious. I don’t believe the internet has ruined our lives. Of course I don’t. I wouldn’t be on it so much if I thought that. But I do think it has changed our lives and not always for the better.
What are your feeling about gay civil ceremonies, and the whole political question of gay marriage, after writing the book?
I think it’s interesting how the gay marriage debate has become such a hot topic. Not just because of homophobes not wanting us to have it, but also gay people saying we shouldn’t do it, that it’s like aping straight people, and all this nonsense. If you don’t want to get married don’t get married. And shut the fuck up and let other people do what they want. The point is that we have the right to choose. Either you believe in gay equality or you don’t. If you don’t then you’ve no right to be speaking, frankly. I don’t want to join the military. I have lots of objection to it. But I will defend to the death a gay person’s right to do so if they want to. This idea that to get married is to ape straight people … well, I eat, shit and sleep, so do straight people, but does that mean we shouldn’t do those things? I can’t stand this retarded quasi-queer-radical bullshit.
A friend of mine was getting married and this old queen there was saying, ‘this is so undignified’. And this is a guy who’d spent Saturday night on his knees in a dark room. Now, which is the more dignified? Someone who wants to make a public commitment or someone who spends his life sucking every cock he can? I think the right to love and be loved is crucial to every human being’s identity. It’s key. That’s not to say everyone should be monogamous, or married. It’s that you should have the choice.