Where are you?

I’m at Legend Upper West because it’s the only establishment within a one-mile radius of campus that isn’t swarming with undergrads. It’s the first day of school. Their excitement is too exciting. It’s a humid day and it feels like summer, and there’s too much libido and lust for learning in the air. I’m sitting here with a bowl of plain white rice.

Maggie KastWhy did you want to write about the 1930s? It wasn’t exactly a great time.

It was the worst and the best. People were out of work and poor, but rallying and organizing for change. Lynch mobs threatened black people, but black and white marched together in protest for the first time since legal segregation was enacted in the South. Gay people, labeled “inverts,” were closeted and threatened with violence, but “pansy clubs” proliferated in the cities, a new one springing up every time the Vice Squad closed one down.

Banasky photo1Your book seems a little morbid, just from the title. Is it morbid? Why are you so obsessed with death?

I’m not! At least, not any more than the next weird writer. The Suicide of Claire Bishop isn’t necessarily about suicide. It is about the fear of death more than it is about death. And sometimes what we fear most is actually what we desire, which is what Claire discovers in each episode of her life. She is very much afraid of and shies away from looking at her own depression. The book opens when she is sitting for her portrait, but instead the artist paints an image of her potential suicide. This painting of what she’s most afraid to look at in herself knocks Claire out of the stuck-place she’s in. We stick with Claire from her thirties to her eighties. As time goes by, she clues into what she really wants, who she is, what she’s hidden from herself—and it has little to do with what she’s been chasing (stability, a “normal” life, a nuclear family). So, no, I don’t think my book is overly morbid. I would call it hopeful, in fact. It’s about the connections forged between people who feel very separate and alone—often more alone with others than on their own. It’s about people getting comfortable in their own skin, shedding others’ expectations, and trying to figure themselves out.

NinaRevoyrMost of your earlier books take place in urban environments and deal with race and culture. What’s with the mountain adventure novel?

I love mountains and wilderness as much as I love the city, and I’m a big fan of adventure and survival stories. When people’s lives are at stake, you get to see who they really are. Besides, questions of race and class don’t disappear when you go from urban settings to rural ones. In some ways, they may even be more heightened.

Arnold-Daniel1-400x300-2Wait, your new book, Snowblind, is a short story collection. Why’d you write one of those? Don’t you know people don’t read short stories?

Don’t panic. I can promise you Action! Adventure! Derring-do! The stories in Snowblind are mountaineering adventure tales in the vein of Jack London or Robert Louis Stevenson, but with modern characters and climbs. For reasons beyond me, stories with satisfying narrative arcs have become taboo in certain literary circles. I think stories should be gripping, and I’ve yet to meet the reader who genuinely feels otherwise.

claire fullerOur Endless Numbered Days – isn’t that the name of an Iron & Wine album?

Yes! Are you a fan too? Shall we skip the books and the writing and just talk about music? No? OK. It’s also the title of my debut novel. I wrote the book while listening to all of Sam Beam’s (also known as Iron & Wine) music on a loop and now when I put it on I’m ready to write. But it’s not just that I love his music, the title is also very appropriate to the story.

Masha-Hamilton-2

Masha Hamilton is the author of five novels, including The Camel Bookmobile and 31 Hours. Her latest, What Changes Everything, braids together stories of Americans far from the front line whose lives are irretrievably linked and changed by America’s longest-running conflict, and explores the grace of unexpected human connections in a world often too harsh and dangerous to face alone.

Your wife, the daughter of Korean immigrants, decides to repay her mother’s sacrifice by buying her a convenience store. Tell us about your first reaction to her idea.

Well, I looked forward to getting free snack food and earning dividends on the hefty profits Gab thought we could make. I even looked forward to working a shift now and then – I thought that would be kind of funny. The humor dissolved pretty quickly once we started looking at stores and putting together the numbers, at which point we realized this would change our lives. And that was before we opened.

 

At what stage of owning the deli did you begin to conceive of it as a memoir?

I didn’t start off thinking that way at all, and didn’t take many notes, until one day when I was feeling miserable and went to see a friend who owned a coffee shop in Manhattan, and he said, “Don’t let this period be forgotten, write it down, because as miserable as it is, you’re going to remember and cherish it the rest of your life.” And he wasn’t a writer, just someone who’d gone through the travails of starting a family business. So I started keeping notes, but even then it wasn’t for another year that I seriously thought about writing about it. For one thing, I hadn’t written much in the first-person before – I kind of frowned on it, to be honest; I was raised to use the pronoun “I” as little as possible, especially in writing – and had never taken much interest in New York as a subject. At some point, though, I realized I’d had sort of a classic New York experience, like the Griffin Dunne character in “After Hours” who’s sitting in a café one night and ends up getting chased by a Mister Softee truck and turned into a sculpture. That idea, that a dull, everyday person can be transported at any moment to some utterly improbable place – is one of the essential myths of New York, isn’t it? Anything can happen.

 

Tell us a little about working with the famous George Plimpton at The Paris Review. What did you learn from him? What do you miss most about him?

The first time I met George he was in his boxers and black kneesocks and he got mad at me for calling him “Mr. Plimpton” instead of “George.” Then he walked out of the office and I didn’t see him again for about three weeks. He was not a heavyhanded editor. He wanted people to do things on their own and exercise their own judgment. He was trusting. He had a light touch. This not only made him the ideal boss for a bunch of 25-year-olds but delightful company –- the most delightful company most of us who worked for him ever had. That’s what I miss most about George –- just hanging around with him.

 

While you are working at the Review, the magazine is struggling, just like the deli. Did your experiences there help you with the deli, and vice versa?

Those were not the best years for either the deli or the review, but I’m not sure there was ever a time when either one wasn’t struggling at least a bit. That’s one of the lessons I hopefully learned, to recognize things for what they are. It’s very New York to be petrified of stagnation and constantly pursue the cutting edge, but as Willy Loman the coffee salesman says in the book, “Why change if you’ve got a winner?” Indeed, why? Why not leave things alone? Of course, a WASP would say that: we hate change and want the world to go backward, or at least stand still. It’s not always the appropriate attitude, but accepting the status quo – as in a corner store that does what it’s always done, and does it reasonably well – shouldn’t be something you’re afraid of, either.

 

You ended up really liking working at the deli. What most surprised you?

There are, I hope, a lot of reversals to be seen in the book. For instance, early on I talk about a job I had as a teenager pumping gas, and I say that while I liked the work, who knows how I would have felt about serving strangers the rest of my life. Customer interaction was definitely something I struggled with when we opened the deli, but by the time we closed it was my favorite part of the job. This is something I’ve also noticed about my mother-in-law, who’s spent half her life at cash registers: she really seems to enjoy it.

 

Overall, what was the best part of the experience?

Seeing through my mother-in-law’s eyes. There’s another moment early in the book where Kay wants us to put in what I see as a ridiculously low bid for the deli we want, and when I challenge her to explain why, she says the owner won’t respect us if we don’t come in low. Now, I have no idea whether that turned out to be true or not, but my mother-in-law is a smart businesswoman and it was moments like those that not only helped me to understand her better, but to see the world a little differently. The things I learned from Kay weren’t qualities that tend to be associated with the literary world, where the job is basically to be discerning and smart. They were things like consistency, stamina, lack of self-pity and fearlessness. In a sense it was an attitude – how to treat people, how to handle pressure and conflict.

 

What do you miss most about owning your deli?

Having my dogmas shaken up. You know you’re doing something worthwhile when things you felt totally secure in believing or never even questioned start coming under assault. And I miss Dwayne, our sandwich maker, who died in 2009. Half of Brooklyn misses Dwayne.

 

Now that you’ve been a shopkeeper, can you give us the inside scoop on New York’s Korean delis?

They’re struggling. The heyday of Korean delis is over. There’s no official count, but talking to people in the business, you get the sense that New York has only about half the Korean delis it used to, and the rest will largely be gone in another ten years. The city is killing them with fines, the rents are beyond insane, and there’s too much competition from Duane Reade and Subway. Koreans aren’t the only ones getting out, incidentally – everyone is, or wants to be. When I talk to deli owners now, they say I should be glad our family sold our store when we did, because it’s worse now than it was then – and back then people said it had never been so bad.

Now, New York being what it is, I don’t expect the Korean deli to be seen as anything other than a blip in the city’s ethnic history. Certainly they played a role in the overall change of the New York’s livability over the last few decades. (I know an author who claims that by staying open twenty-four hours and being bright nighttime presences on what were then dark and scary streets, Korean delis played a critical early role in the turnaround.)

But as a New Yorker I do think it’s worrisome. New York has always had an image as being open to newcomers – you know, the cliché about anyone being able to make it here if they’re tough enough and they sacrifice. The deli is an iconic business because it’s the kind of job anyone can do – you don’t need any qualifications or experience. You don’t even have to speak the local language. It’s hard to imagine New York doing well if delis aren’t viable, and I worry about what happens if New York stops being seen as a great place to come and get ahead. New Yorkers probably think that will never happen, but honestly, stranger things have happened in the city in the last few years.

 

How has your wife’s family responded to you writing this story?

We were living together during much of the time it was being written, and often I’d come up to the dining room table from my desk in the basement and ask, “Does anyone remember how much a ‘Cash-in-a-Flash’ ticket cost?” or something like that. So it was something we were always talking about, and Kay’s response when I told her I wanted to make her a focus of the book – no surprise to anyone who knows her – was fearless and enthusiastic. (I think she said, “Is there going to be a movie? If so, I want to be in at least three scenes.”) For all of us I think there wasn’t a question after the deli closed that there was a story to be told. It was one of those experiences where you look back and say, I’m not the same person I was when this started. We kind of digested those feelings together.

 

How would you react if your children gave you a deli when they were older?

I’d disown them. No, seriously, that’s a great question. I’d never thought of that. You know, I used to think that the key to a happy life was having just the possibility of things changing in unexpected ways, that tomorrow you might find yourself doing something you’d never thought of. A deli forecloses on that – you have to reconcile yourself to doing the exact same thing in exactly the same place till possibly the end of your life (though it has its own set of pleasures, which I didn’t quite appreciate before). I like the idea that my children would give me a store, because it combines those two things – an unexpected change with the sedentary pleasures of running a small business. I hope I’d have the guts to say yes.

 

What would you do if you had any skills to do something else?

I’d be an activist, true and blue, like the older characters in my book, but with current concerns. I went to the rally for Planned Parenthood, Title X, in NYC last weekend and listening to all the speakers, I thought, that is what I should have been. But of course, I am only a little bit that. And of course, just as when an attorney says she should take two months off to writer her novel, well, it takes a little more than wishing.

Why did you write Sam Steward’s biography? It’s not often one runs across a biography of an unknown person.

As a writer with an interest in American art and culture of the 1950s, I kept bumping into Steward’s name. In other people’s biographies, social histories, cultural histories, oral histories, monographs, and memoirs. And I already knew the name Phil Andros, his pen name, through my reading of gay pulp fiction and gay pornography of the 1960s and 70s. So when I suddenly realized that Steward and Andros were one and the same I got very excited.

 

What did you hope to do?

At first I simply wanted to know what had happened to his papers after he died. It took me about a year to track them down. But when I finally gained access to those 80 boxes of material that no one else had ever seen – well, I realized that even though Steward was far from a celebrity, his life was of cultural importance. Simply put, the scope and magnitude of his work as an underground writer was amazing – and so was the life he had lived. It was at that point that I realized I simply had to write about him.

 

Why?

Biographers rarely come across such exciting subject matter. Steward’s voice was fresh and unique, and – more important – his life experiences were unlike anything that has ever been written about up to now. Most important to me as a biographer was the fact that he was entirely, obsessively truthful about everything he had done. His papers consisted of a massively detailed confession. The fact that he had kept such phenomenal records of his experiences – sexual and otherwise – gave me the raw material for an incredibly story.

 

Did you have any particular personal reason for writing the book?

Well, partly to satisfy my own curiosity. Not just about Sam, but about the texture and trajectory of gay lives in the mid-twentieth century. Steward describes his various moments of sexual self-realization as few others have done, and he does so in the context of a particularly toxic and hateful period in American culture. His diaries in particular are amazing for that reason alone. I hope that someday they are published in their entirety.

 

Do you think Steward’s life story is typical of the lives that gay men lead during the 1950s?

No, that would be an enormous generalization. But at the same time one sees that there was not much room in American society for a homosexual man to live a settled domestic life with another man. Steward was sexually active with a very large number of men throughout his life, and he had very few intimate sexual relationships. Partly that was his own personality, and partly it was determined by the society in which he lived. A lot of my work in writing Sam’s life story consisted of figuring out to what extent his life story was shaped by the circumstances in which he lived, and to what extent is was shaped by his essential nature. Through him, though, I think one gets an incredible view of what men were getting up to sexually during that period. Because, as you’ll see when you read the book, many if not most of the men Sam had sex with lived as heterosexuals.

 

Did Steward think of himself as “gay”?

The word “gay” came into usage to describe some of the men who engaged in homosexual activity starting in the 1930s, but it only became a preferred term of self-identification among homosexually-identified males in the mid-1960s. I don’t think Steward ever cared for the term.

 

How would Steward have described himself?

I think he would have described himself as primarily homosexual in orientation and activity.

 

Why would he use such deliberate terminology?

In writing Steward’s biography I’ve tried to evoke the world before gay liberation — a world with different understandings of homosexual activity, where understandings are demonstrated by word choices. For example, homosexuality was at that time considered a form of “perversion” — but if you called a gay man a pervert today, he’d probably punch you in the nose!

 

I see.

Sam had a poet’s sensitivity to language, and he was a pioneer in writing positively about his own homosexuality and the homosexuality of others. He did it through careful word choice – just as Kinsey did. Throughout the book I try to demonstrate how well Sam did it.

 

To many younger people this is all going to seem very strange. Speaking of which, how do you think Steward’s life experience will inform the minds of the younger generation?

In his journals Steward reflects over and over again on living in a society that wants either to deny that homosexuality exists or else to condemn it as bad and wrong. In his writings Sam gives us his life experience (and the experiences of other men around him) as they are collectively attempting to reconcile their essential sexual orientation – something, after all, that they were born with — to a seemingly endless variety of pressures to conform: spiritual, legal, professional, and social pressures. Conflicts of this sort remain with us to the present day, but they are nothing like as terrible as they used to be. For that reason, I think that anyone who has ever questioned his or her sexual identity – or cared about someone else going through that struggle – will find much in this book that looks and feels familiar.

 

You write in your book that Steward never had a long-term partner and that he never even lived with anyone.

Yes. He did have people stay with him briefly, but for the most part he lived alone.

 

What do you make of that?

Well, I think that like many writers and poets, he was essentially a solitary person who shared the best of himself through his writing. I think he cherished the moments of intimacy he achieved through sexual activity; but I also know he was most comfortable on his own. Many artists and writers are like that; they need time and space to be left alone with their thoughts, and are most comfortable (and productive) in solitude.

 

Do you think he was incapable of living with another person?

I think he had a series of early life experiences that shaped his personality, and that perhaps made prolonged intimacy with another person very difficult for him. But I know he longed for that intimacy even though it was difficult for him to manage. He lived with that paradox.

 

Steward sounds like a sex addict, but you never describe him as one. Why not?

I thought it might be better to let readers draw their own conclusions about how much sex is enough sex. Plus – I am not anti-sex!

 

Why not just say he was a sex addict or sexual compulsive?

Because who is to decide such things? Shouldn’t they be left to the individual? Moreover, in Steward’s case, sex was not just a pastime; it was his vocation. Exploring and describing his own sexuality in full – that was really his life’s work. Saying “Steward had too much sex” is like saying “Madame Curie handled too much radium.” It may be true, of course, but in saying so, aren’t you missing the point of everything they did, everything they stood for?

 

Do you have any tattoos?

No.

 

Are you partnered?

Yes. I am a partnered gay man. My partner values his privacy however, and so do I.

 

Let’s talk about the writing of the book. What was the most difficult part?

Selling it to a good publisher.

 

Why?

It was hard for editors to imagine a market for the book. Even my current editor, when I finally found him, felt that he was taking a risk.

 

Did he tell you so?

Not in so many words. But I sensed that if I didn’t deliver something extraordinary, the book contract would simply be cancelled. That sort of thing happens pretty frequently these days.

 

How was writing the book difficult?

Well, at first there was no clear roadmap to Sam’s life apart from a brief, elliptical memoir he had published in 1983. And while the pulp pornography he had written was extraordinary, pulp pornography is not something that is often discussed in literary biography. Given the perceived obscenity of the subject matter, I really wasn’t sure it could be.

 

Were you worried that the book would come across as salacious or titillating?

Yes. The question of tone was really what made writing the book so difficult. I was dealing with highly inflammatory subject matter that could so easily have bored or disgusted people – even those who are sympathetic to homosexuality.  And of course not everyone is.

 

How did you find the right tone?

I rewrote the book endlessly. Also I edited it down from an original draft of 1600 manuscript pages to the current 550.  And I just happened to be in group therapy during those years with a therapist named Will Swift, who is also coincidentally a biographer.  Together in my group of about ten guys, we would sometimes discuss the most difficult moments in Sam’s life, and discuss as well some very touchy and controversial issues such as sexual addiction and sexual compulsivity.  Each of the ten men in the group had a different viewpoint, and it was good for me to hear all of them.

 

Were you worried that readers and reviewers would think you were simply gossiping about a person’s private life?

Well, in one sense I was lucky:  my writing about Sam’s sexuality could never be interpreted as a betrayal, because he himself had fought all his life (and against terrible odds) to be honest about his sexuality in his writing.  Moreover, he had devoted so much time and energy to reflecting upon his sexuality and noting down all its particulars.  In that sense he was the perfect subject for an intimate biography. After all, he made his entire personal life transparent for his future biographer.  Most writers and public figures don’t do that; they protect themselves from that kind of intrusion.   So – if the book is ultimately considered remarkable, it’s in large part because I had the most remarkable of subjects. You can’t read Sam Steward’s life story without coming to a whole new understanding of American society and culture during the middle years of the last century. And you can’t read it without coming to a whole new sympathy for the lives and daily experiences of gay men.

 

What is Steward’s greatest achievement, in your opinion?

He created a lifelong sexual testament, one which took many forms: data and statistics; diaries and journals; fiction; visual art; journalism. It is only when you see the whole body of work together that you really understand what he was getting up to.

 

What did you like least about writing Steward’s life?

I experienced a lot of sorrow for him and through him, particularly in his later years. He was a very lonely man for much of his life, despite being popular and loved. There were weeks and months during the writing of the book that I was profoundly depressed by what I was experiencing daily on the page. Sam endured a lot of rejection during his life, particularly as a novelist and writer. By the time the gay liberation movement came along, nobody of the younger generation wanted anything to do with old guys like Sam. Younger gay men saw the gay men of the previous generation as closet cases and cowards. It wasn’t true, of course, but that’s how they saw it.

 

What about his emotional development?

I think Sam was emotionally damaged by the early childhood experience of losing his mother and being essentially abandoned by his father. Added to these traumas was his inability to fit into the small-town world around him or to be the angelic little boy his adoptive aunts wanted him to be. He realized and wrote about this later in life: he knew he was in many ways a very closed-off, narcissistic person. He also knew that his narcissism and his alcoholism were linked, and that the alcoholism made the narcissism worse.

 

You write a lot about his alcoholism.

Yes. It’s very much part of his personality. Like many alcoholics, Sam was aware of his self-destructiveness even as he was self-destructing, and he wrote about it very well, particularly in describing the drinking years.

 

Do you feel that his sexual activity was self-destructive?

Well, I guess I would have to say that, at the very least, his compulsion to have sex so much – and with so many strangers — and often in ways that resulted in physical harm to his body – used up an awful lot of his time and energy. Particularly after he got sober. In a way, he substituted one compulsion (sex) for another (drinking). The compulsive nature of his sexual activity – he was constantly seeking out anonymous sex – really kept him from getting on with his writing. It was repetitive and time consuming, and he would get lost in sexual pursuit in the same way a drinker gets lost in the bottle. He didn’t just lose whole weekends having sex – he lost whole month-long vacations!

 

How is that kind of sexuality self-destructive?

Not so much self-destructive as deeply distracting. You have to remember that Sam was a very gifted literary novelist whose first novel received a glowing review from The New York Times. And he was a wildly popular professor whose classes were always oversubscribed. If he’d wasted less time on drinking and anonymous sex he might really have become famous. On the other hand, the written record he has left behind of his sexual activities is so utterly extraordinary and so utterly unique that I can hardly say that I’m sorry he chose to spend so much of his life having sex. Because he did it mindfully. That’s one very big difference between the drinking and the sex. The drinking led nowhere. The sex led to the writing about sex, and the record-keeping, and the art, and the photography….

 

What do you like best about Steward?

Well I’d like to say it was his sense of humor, which was wonderful, but really it was his honesty. Sam really told the truth about everything. He could take the most painful, the most deeply personal things and simply lay them out for his reader. There’s a rare clarity to his writing. You could easily overlook that kind of clarity, or take it for granted. But believe me, it’s rare – particularly when the subject is sex. And Sam did it every time.