James MagruderAre you gay?

Everywhere except Uganda.

 

What does that mean?

In America, the only way I pass for straight is if I stand absolutely still and don’t speak. In Kampala, which my partner Steve and I just fled in mid-March in the wake of the anti-gay legislation getting passed, the Ugandans we knew kept asking when I was going to take a wife and have children. They advised me to shoot for four, with one serving as backup in case anything went wrong with the first three. Lots of things can go wrong in Uganda.

 

Did you feel you were in danger there?

Not initially. Since Steve and I are ancient and monogamous, our brand of white mischief was confined to the second floor. We were careful to rumple the spare bed every morning, and when we had female visitors, I might slide a pair of my American Apparel briefs into the bottom of the guest bed to throw our house girl, Alice, off the scent. But servants, like mothers, always know, don’t they?

I have to say, though, that after the passage of the Anti-Homosexuality Act on the 24th of February, each successive day in the city felt more sinister. A list of two hundred names of prominent homosexuals was printed in a tabloid. Hotel clerks began calling the police when two men checked into a hotel together. Because of an anti-pornography clause in the bill, women were being pulled off motorbikes and publicly stripped for wearing provocatively short skirts. The day after we left, Alice called in the police—you have to pay the police to come to you—and tried to get our compound neighbor, Susan from Seattle, arrested for not turning us in all those months. And for being a witch. The scheme failed.

 

Why didn’t Alice turn you in herself?

And forfeit her last paycheck?

 

Why were you in Uganda?

Steve was monitoring clinical trials run by Johns Hopkins University to prevent the transmission of HIV from mother to baby. They’ve had an amazing success with their protocols, which makes the current legal situation even more devastating. Driven underground, the gay population won’t get treatment. Health workers can be arrested for promoting condom use for men who have sex with men.

As for me, I wrote a play and finished a novel that had been biting my ass for years. I helped two teenage girls write the book to Mango Roses, a musical about “defiled” women and led a month of adaptation workshops in Mira Nair’s film institute. (www.maishafilmlab.org) I read those Tom books one never quite gets around to: Tom Sawyer, Tom Jones, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Also The King James Bible, Angle of Repose, Democracy in America, The Master and Margarita, A House for Mr. Biswas, A Visit from the Goon Squad, Ironweed….

 

Are you happy to be back in Baltimore?

And on my very first SSRI, yes.

 

You have a failed Broadway musical, Triumph of Love, in your past.

Don’t be impertinent. (pause) If the New York Times had liked our little show, I would never have started writing fiction. In 2001 I finished a draft of a play at MacDowell a week early and instead of heading home, I attempted a piece of short fiction for the first time since college. A portion of that first story appears as the prologue in my new book, Let Me See It. (www.jamesmagruder.com)

 

Have you ever slept with anybody at MacDowell?

No, but the talent crushes can get intense.

 

(sigh) Okay. Tell me about the book.

Let Me See It is a linked story collection that tracks two gay first cousins, Elliott Biddler, who is from a white-collar family, and Tom Amelio, whose father is a butcher, from their childhoods in the Age of Aquarius up to their early thirties in the ACT-UP Era. The two don’t really meet until 1985, when they’re both twenty-five and living in Manhattan.

 

Oh, another AIDS novel, can’t wait, cue up Pet Shop Boys.

Jill McCorkle says that the first novel is about one’s mother. I certainly did that with Sugarless. (www.jamesmagruder.com)The second, if one can stand it, takes on the father. And she might be right, because it wasn’t until I began trying to link my stories, in many instances years after their initial composition and publication, that I realized the magnitude of my daddy issues. The unexamined loss of Elliott’s and Tom’s fathers—to divorce, to early death and cultural estrangement—color their actions as they make their way into the world as young gay men. Their reactions to the virus ultimately divide them.

 

Is there a lot of sex in the book?

Is there a lot of sex in life? The stories are as raw as they need to be.

 

Do you have a favorite among them?

I’ll admit to an especial fondness for “Elliott Biddler’s Vie Bohème,” which is set in Paris in 1980 and draws upon a striking venereal episode in my past. That story has, rare for me, a happy ending, and moreover, it’s written in third person, which is tough for me. I’m partial because sixty-seven journals rejected the story before New England Review took it in 2011.

 

Sixty-seven rejections?

Over a six-year span. Editor Carolyn Kuebler said that sounded like a record for NER.

 

Any ideas why?

I suppose it was the gay content and all the spoken French and that it was a lousy story in its first sixty outings. The lesson here is don’t submit too early. After every tenth rejection or so, I would find myself re-jiggering sentences and blithely licking fresh envelopes, thinking I’d nailed it at last. Finally I had the courage to tear it apart with Baltimore fictionistas more skilled than I. I mean, I started writing stories without any training—

 

Besides a lifetime of reading.

Well sure. But I didn’t really start reading short stories until after I’d begun trying to write them. I think of Let Me See It as my apprenticeship with the form—a twelve-year MFA, if you will. On the other hand, I kept sending out “Vie Bohème” because I always believed that the reading public would be eager to hear about my first case of the clap. So I suppose the other lesson is that one must persevere with one’s narrative follies.

 

What is the significance of the title? 

Can’t give that away. My original title was Stiff With History, but my agent thought that was too suggestive.

_______________________

JAMES MAGRUDER is a playwright, fiction writer, and award-winning translator. His adaptations of Moliere, Marivaux, Gozzi, Dickens, and Hofmannstal have been produced on and off-Broadway, across the country, and in Germany and Japan. His stories have appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Subtropics, New England Review, New Stories from the Midwest, and Bloom, among other places. His debut novel, Sugarless, was shortlisted for the William Saroyan International Writing Prize and a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award. He teaches dramaturgy at Swarthmore College and lives in Baltimore.

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