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A conversation with Larry Duplechan

kaos talks exclusively to Lambda Literary Award winning Blackbird legend Larry Duplechan, about the movie they made out of his book, interracial love, the AIDS crisis, the death of gay bookstores, and more....

WORDS BY ZEON KANE

||| Hello Larry, thanks for joining us today from sunny California! Congratulations on the movie adaptation of your 1986 novel "Blackbird". How was it for you?

Not so much to tell, really. Patrik-Ian Polk had been talking about doing an adaptation of Blackbird since the early 1990s. And he'd pop up every few years and say, "I'm gonna make the Blackbird movie", and then he'd do something else. And about a year ago, he said it again, but this time he had a little contract for me to sign, which I did. About a year later, somebody posted a blurb on Facebook about Mo'Nique starring in Patrick Polk's adaptation of Larry Duplechan's novel, Blackbird; which is how I found he'd actually made the film.

||| Always the last one to know, huh? Have you seen the movie?

I saw the film at its L.A. première in February, and I liked it. It wasn't my book - in fact, he made some big changes to my story - but it's a good little film.

||| I'm hearing a "but" in there...

Unfortunately, I had to get lawyers involved to get the producers to pay me my (very low) fee for my film rights. That experience has soured me to the whole thing, so I'm distancing myself from the film. I'm glad I saw the film first, before having to go to the mat with the producers. But still, I can't say I like them very much.

||| That's a real shame. "Blackbird" is a much-loved gay literary classic, and a rarity in that we are able to follow our hero, Johnnie Ray Rousseau, through several stages in his life in the sequels. It's been a while since 2008's "Got Til It's Gone" - is there another chapter to come in Johnnie's story?

I don't think so. I left Johnnie in a really good place at the end of Got Til It's Gone: in love, about to get married, his demons pretty well slain. I think I'll just leave him there.

||| How much of you is in Johnnie? Is there an element of autobiography in there?

An element?!? Yeah, I'd say so. Johnnie is basically me. Not everything that happens to him happened to me, and some books are more directly autobiographical than others; but Johnnie is pretty much Larry, monologuing. His favorite movies and music, his sense of humor. My friends all tell me that reading my books is like listening to me talk. For better and for worse, I imagine.

||| So everyone can get a little piece of you! That's good to know. Now, one of things that really changed in the "Blackbird" movie was the race of certain characters, from white to black. Despite supposedly being in a post-racial era, race is still a red hot issue in America, and particularly in the gay community. There's a lot of talk right now about prominent black gay men (Derrick Gordon, Michael Sam) having white boyfriends - what are your thoughts on that?

Oh my gosh, that is so not a short-answer question. Okay... I'm married to a white man for 38 years; so clearly, I'm all for people loving who they love.

But on the other hand, I do understand Black gay men who long to see prominent Black gay men hand-in-hand with other Black gay men. All minorities crave representation - we want to see ourselves reflected, in positive ways, in the media. But reading Michael Sam to filth because he's got a hot little white swimmer under his arm, just isn't productive.

It saddens me to see how quickly and how violently we can turn on and devour our own. I hope that's enough. You're more than entitled to follow-up questions, because this is a very, very important issue.

||| It seems to be a very American issue, much more so than in, say, the UK, where interracial love is almost the norm! America, gay and straight, just isn't comfortable with interracial love, is it?

Well, as I'm forever explaining to my non-American-born friends, we in the U.S. of A. have still not gotten over slavery. The fact of it, the repercussions of it, the legacy of it. And I don't just mean fawning over 12 Years a Slave like no one had ever told that story before. The American construct of race is a creation of the Antebellum South; and we can't seem to escape it. Whatever other racial/ethnic groups have had to endure in America (and in no way am I trivializing the near-genocide of Native Americans), African-Americans are the only group that was ever legally non-human. Chattel. Property.

And the mental hoops White people had to jump through in order to live with the fact that they owned people, was the source of all the horrific myths that Black Americans are still fighting against: the myth of our animalistic nature, the myth of our sexual wildness, the myth of our mental inferiority, and on and on.

And one of the things that nobody seems to be addressing in all the hoopla regarding gay Black people and their Caucasian spouses/lovers/dates, is the fact that the White person is still viewed as some sort of prize. Why is nobody assuming that the Black partner is the trophy?

God, I'm going to get in trouble for this ...

||| What was it like for you and your partner in the '70s? Was the prejudice worse then? Are Americans more tolerant now, or less so?

Are we talking about tolerance regarding race, or gayness or both?

||| As an interracial couple.

Greg and Larry at Long Beach Pride, 1994.
Well, Greg and I met in college. So we started out "adult life" as a couple. We didn't have the "my Black friends" vs. "his White friends" problem, because we made friends together. We surrounded ourselves with supportive people; and people who had an issue with us, steered clear. This was particularly important, because our respective parents turned their backs on us (at least initially), so creating a family of friends was essential.

We didn't go out into "The Gay Community" very much; since "The Gay Community" is largely loose affiliation of entities dedicated to getting White gay dudes laid, and mostly we were home, trying to make a marriage. And when we did venture out dancing or something, I don't remember overhearing any name-calling as we walked down Santa Monica Boulevard together, or anything like that. Of course, we were in Southern California, not Southern Mississippi.

And, modesty aside, we were beautiful young guys; and one of us was a beautiful White guy; so I was spared a lot of the things I heard other Black gay men talk about at that time - being denied entrance to gay bars, or being hassled or whatever. Because I wasn't with a group of Black men; I was one Black guy with this handsome white guy. So I wasn't perceived as a threat. Mostly, I remember people saying things like, "I'll take one of each - chocolate and vanilla."

||| 38 years - seems like all that "trying to make a marriage" paid off! Some people might say what you've achieved is rare for gay men.

Well, we were lucky. We worked at it, but also we were lucky. We didn't get HIV, which was just luck of the draw, because in 1976, we had no idea. And looking back, it seemed like when one of us was acting stupid, the other one wasn't. So, while we nearly broke up a few times, we never actually did.

I just saw something today on Facebook: "A perfect relationship is two imperfect people not giving up on each other." That's Greg and me.

||| There's a lot of work being produced now about the AIDS crisis - incredible films like "How To Survive A Plague" - and the forthcoming "The Normal Heart". As someone who lived through that time, how does it feel when you see these works?

It's tough. We lost dear, dear friends to HIV/AIDS, starting in 1989 with our best friend, William Edward "WEF" Fleischman, who was (if memory serves) 32-years-old. So, I tend to cry a lot during those films. But I do try to see them, because (and I think it's true of a lot of gay men of my generation) I have a very "Never Forget" attitude about the subject. Some gay people, young and old, would rather we didn't talk about that time; but I think if we do that, we spit on the graves of all those men we loved.

||| It's insane that many of us don't want to talk or think about it. "How To Survive A Plague" should be mandatory viewing in all schools, alongside education about the Holocaust and slavery...

I just watched "Common Threads"... Do I remember right, and you said once Vito Russo was a friend of yours?

Vito Russo.
Yes. Not lifelong bosom friends, but friends. I had been a huge fan of Vito's since college - I'd seen one of his first Celluloid Closet lectures at UCLA in the late 1970s and devoured the book. Being a gay film buff, he was like my patron saint.

As it turned out, he did a blurb for the cover of the first edition of Blackbird; so I begged my senior editor at St. Martin's (Michael Denneny, an unsung hero of gay literature) to introduce us, which he did. This was about 1986-7. My husband and I had a wonderful lunch with Vito, gabbed and gabbed.

Then around 1990, Vito happened to be doing Closet (probably among the last times) on a gay cruise we were on. And he let us hang out with him pretty much the whole time. I literally sat at his feet and listened to his stories.

He was a wonderful, wonderful man. I could go on ...

||| The AIDS crisis is now over, apparently. Condoms are rapidly disappearing from gay porn, and there's even a gay hook-up site for men seeking bareback sex. Again, as someone who lived through the height of the epidemic, how do you see these developments?

I'm not going to pretend I don't know fucking feels better without condoms. I know that. And I understand that what straight people get to call making love, we have come to refer to as "bare-backing", making our way of intimacy seem inherently unhealthy and dangerous. But the fact remains that there is still no cure and no vaccine for HIV/AIDS - please correct me if I'm wrong. And as to the popular the argument that it's now "a manageable disease, like diabetes" - well, I don't want diabetes, either.

But each man has to decide his own acceptable level of risk. Far be it from me to tell you, or that guy over there, or that guy over there, what to do with your respective dicks and butt-holes. That's your business and not mine. Condoms or bareback, morning-after pill or night-of pill - it's each man's life and each man's choice. I try not to judge. Out loud, anyway. Because we know for sure that "use a condom every time" works about as well as "just say no". It's just not that simple. I wish it were.

||| Larry, the first time I saw your name was for the blurb on the jacket of another author's book, "Skin Deep" by John R. Gordon. It was in a gay bookstore and I was 17. I was lucky enough that a good friend introduced me to your work not long after that, lending me out-of-print copies of your early work. That kind of experience - a young gay kid discovering things in a bookstore - isn't likely to happen these days, is it? What do you think about the loss of gay bookstores, and the current state of gay literary publishing?

Picture by Davide Laffe Imaging.
Joni Mitchell sang, "Everything comes and goes, marked by lovers and styles of clothes." I tend to be rather sanguine about change, because it's one of the few inevitables of life.

I miss gay bookstores, of course. When Blackbird was published, we had a book signing/reading at A Different Light Bookstore in the Silverlake area of Los Angeles (left). We brought in bottles of champagne and had a party. I invited everybody I knew. It was an event. And that store is long gone.

The last reading I did for Got Til It's Gone was at the Different Light in West Hollywood in 2008. By that point, my husband and I had a running joke about going into A Different Light and "visiting the book", because there were so few actual books in the store - it was mostly magazines and porn. And my reading was one of the last events held at that store before it, too, closed.

So yeah, it's a different world. I can't have a book signing party on Amazon. But the good news is, you can buy my out-of-print novels on Amazon, sometimes for the price of shipping.

As to "the current state of gay literary publishing", I wouldn't have a clue.

Back in the 1980s, when I started writing, I could read every "legit" gay novel that came out in any given year. Each one was an event. Now, I don't read many "gay books", unless I'm judging the Lambda Literary Awards, which I have done a few times since I won the Lammy (in 2009 for Got Til It's Gone). From that experience, I think there is still some very good "gay novels" being written; and a good deal of dreck. The downside of the legitimization of self-publishing is that the market is glutted.

The good news is, if you're a gay writer and you write something, you can get it out there. Whether you can get anybody other than your Facebook friends to know your book exists is another matter; but you can get it out there. You can have your say. Back in the olden days, you had to get some stranger to think your book was worth publishing. Now, only you have to think it is. Whether or not that's a good thing, probably depends on what side of the equation you're on.

||| Larry, you have an impressive physique for a man just shy of 40. What's your secret?

I'm not sure if "just shy of 40" was a typo or a joke. I'm 57, or "just a shout away from 60". Either way, thank you.

I have always taken good care of my body. I started working out with weights in my 20s and I've never stopped. From what I have observed, it's much tougher to "get back in shape" once you've let yourself go, so... don't let yourself go.

||| Larry, thank you for talking to kaos today. Come back again soon!

Anytime. Just ask me.

Larry Duplechan's official page is here.

Check out Larry Duplechan's art at Choklit Daddy's Sketchbook, and our earlier interview with "Larry" about his work as Choklit Daddy.

Read more exclusive interviews at kaos.

7 comments:

John G said...

A lovely & fascinating interview with a writer whose work I've always loved: thank you for this - even if he makes me feel I should do a ton more exercise!

Anonymous said...

why didnt you ask does he support gay marriage? good interviews otherwise!

Kraig Jones said...

Larry Duplechan this is an awesome interview and has really moved me this morning. I feel like I know you much better. Thanks so much for sharing. It made my day.

Hasani Olujimi said...

Loved the interview. I don't know what your voice sounds like but one popped up in my head and I felt as if I was in the room during this interview. Awesome love it and love you man!

Johnny M Gayzmonic said...

I love the interview. Don't get me wrong. But that picture of the jeans just starting to slide down? Makes me weak in the knees.

Eduardo Gallegos Parra said...

Nice article....excellent points made about the Gay Community and white men getting laid...and like you and your sweetie we have also had to develop friendships based on mutual respect of who we are as individuals. One fool had the nerve to say we looked alike. C'mon I'm brown and hubby is white. Overall a nice interview.

Andrew Adam Caldwell said...

Terrific interview of a terrific thinker and writer.

 
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