Q & A on IN THE PINK
Q: What was it about the world of In the Pink that attracted you?
Many of my mother’s closest friends were gay men, so I was used to being in their company. But there was more to it than that. The writer Robert Olen Butler, who’s been teaching creative writing at Florida State University for forever, claims that the fundamental element of good storytelling depends on what he calls the Unified Theory of Yearning. By yearning, he means the kind of desire that goes way beyond wanting. I can want money, sex, or a prestigious job, but yearning is what drives that desire. Butler claims, and I agree, that the most universal yearning is to find our place in the world, a place where we belong and feel accepted—where we can finally answer the question: WHO AM I? It’s what’s behind all kinds of “identity” movements of race, and gender, and religion. I think that yearning was what created and drove the circuit scene. I believe it was Butler’s kind of yearning, to find my place in the world, that attracted me to Rachael and her friends and her world.
Q: Did you ever questions your sexuality?
If by question, you mean did I ever wonder if I was gay, the answer is no. I am what I call “hard-wired straight,” which is why I don’t buy the notion that homosexuality is a choice. If it were, I probably would have made it. I suffered from a serious case of what I call g’envy—gay envy. Our friends were so successful and confident, I admired them, wanted what they had. Oddly enough, if I had been conflicted about my sexual preference, I don’t think I could ever have become so immersed or accepted in that scene. Of course, being married to Rachael was a big part of it. People got it—I was the married straight guy that fit in with the boys. It was a totally different story after she and I split. The few times I tried going out with my gay friends I would get hit on by men who assumed I was gay, or wouldn’t believe I was straight, or thought I was in the process of coming out. It was messy and no fun at all.
Q: What was the most difficult part of writing In the Pink?
I began writing the story many years ago as a chronicle of what I always knew was an unusual situation, a straight guy immersed in a gay world. I was pretty good at writing vivid description. I could take a reader to the moment, the sights, and sounds. What I couldn’t do is convert an unusual situation into a story. What I mean by that is I didn’t know how to answer the question: so, what? What did that experience show me, teach me? There was only one way to answer that question. Give it time. Only with time and distance could I begin to make sense of the story, which I came to see as a search for acceptance and belonging. Gradually, I began to add more reflection to the writing as I whittled away at the parts of the story that, as entertaining as they were, didn’t contribute to what I was trying to convey. The story became my MFA thesis and had a couple of literary agents interested enough to shop it around. It turns out that what was unique about the story—straight guy/gay world—made it difficult to place in a niche. After many rejections, I moved on, wrote a novel, and came to terms with the fact that In the Pink was never going to see the light of day. Then, a faculty member at my alma mater took an interest, made some suggestions, and placed the manuscript in the hands of someone who got it and published it. I’ve just compressed more than 15 years of some ups and many downs into a paragraph. If there’s a message, I suppose it’s you just never know—which may be the stupidest message ever.
Q: What do you want people will take from In the Pink?
One thing I’ve learned is that this story doesn’t lend itself to an elevator pitch. Tell someone that you’ve written a story about a straight guy immersed in the gay party scene, and they’ll assume that In the Pink is a coming-out story, or an addiction/recovery tale. The fact that it’s neither probably has something to do with how long it took to get published. I hope that readers will look past the spectacle and excess to see that, at its heart, In the Pink is a story about a guy trying to find out where he belongs. Of course, the ironic revelation is that the place he’s found is one in which he can’t ever belong. And that’s not because he’s sexually attracted to women. It’s because he wants membership to a club without paying his dues. All I saw were these fabulous people having the times of their lives. What I missed was the shame and guilt and anguish many of them had endured to get where they were. And then, stack AIDS on top of that. Looking back, it’s remarkable to me that people were so accepting. If the situation were reversed, I’m not sure I would have been quite so welcoming.
Q: Do you miss being In the Pink? If so, what?
I suppose we all get nostalgic about certain times in our lives, when we were younger--and hotter! In the book, I point out that it’s possible to mistake intensity for meaningfulness. Some of that life was chasing after bliss, which can be pretty damn elusive and transitory. But there is real meaning in friendship, and laughter, and celebration. There were times I would prefer to forget, but many others I will cherish. The silly and the sublime. Like the Sinatra songs says—"That’s Life.”
Q: What is the relevancy of In the Pink, which takes place decades ago, to today?
I think this story of my seeking love and acceptance in a relationship, and a lifestyle, is universal and timeless. I hope the story also captures a particular time of exuberance in the face of pain and death. My sense is that the generation after mine places less emphasis on sexual preference. I sure hope that means that young people don’t have to face the shame and guilt that many of my friends did. Also, thank goodness, AIDS is not the death sentence it once was. If there was any upside to all that darkness, it’s that it created a camaraderie and unity that I suspect has been lost in a more accepting age. Many of the external trappings of the circuit exist now the worldwide rave/EDM scene. There will always be something irresistibly tribal about a group of people gathering to lose themselves in a thunderous beat. But I believe there was something unique about the time and place depicted in In the Pink—an exclusivity, us against them—that people who weren’t there can’t fully appreciate. But at least they can read about it!
Q: Does In the Pink conjure up any feelings of guilt or remorse in you?
Yes, but not the ones people might expect. Of course, there was a lot of self-indulgent behavior, and I contributed my share. The thing I wish I could change, however, is the way I parted ways with Rachael. Not the fact that I did it—but how. Instead of facing up to her, I did the one thing I knew she couldn’t forgive: betray her. That was a cowardly act, one I will always regret.
Q. Have you stayed in touch with any of the characters in your memoir? If so, what has been their reaction to it?
I moved from Washington, D.C. in 2004, but remain in touch with some of the people from In the Pink, many of whom, though I don’t see them often, I consider lifelong friends. I live in the suburbs of South Florida, am happily remarried with two stepsons, so my life has certainly changed. But so has theirs. We all had to move on. Those that didn’t paid the price. When I learned that In the Pink was going to be published, I reached out to a few people that I felt should know beforehand. I contacted the real Dr. Hector, whose life had spiraled precipitously after the period depicted in the book. He and I had completely lost touch for many years. I was relieved to find out that he is recovered, healthy, and happy. He had no reservations about being in the book. That was a relief. Neither did Rachael’s ex (David in the story). He couldn’t have been more gracious and supportive. I imagine that by now, those familiar with my story are asking, “Gee, that’s all really interesting, but what about Rachael?” The answer is that I did not contact her. I did my best to write this story as honestly as possible, tried not to judge anyone except myself. But it’s my story. And I don’t know how I could have written it while trying to blend her version of what happened with mine. That’s not how memoir works. Rachael remains one of the smartest, funniest, and most interesting people I have ever met. Like I say in the book, I hope she found what she was looking for. Now that In the Pink is getting published, I expect that she will have her own sense of what happened and why, and that it won’t line up completely with mine. It shouldn’t. I hope that the passage of time has allowed both of us to look back on that period of our lives with some perspective—our own.
Q: Are you concerned that certain elements of the gay community will take issue with the way they are portrayed in your memoir, or that you might be accused of cultural exploitation that reinforces certain stereotypes about being gay?
Yes, I am concerned. But there’s nothing I can do about it. The reason I say that is because, unlike a reporter or social scientist writing a book-length examination of gay culture in the 90s, I am writing about a personal experience, restricted to what I saw, and did, and felt and my effort to impart some meaning to the experience. In no way am I implying that all gay people in the 90s were capable of, or even interested in, participating in the circuit party scene. By definition, memoir narrows the scope of the story to the writer’s experience. It’s my responsibility to tell that story as honestly as I can. The rest is up to the reader.