Though novelist Dennis McFarland has been happily married to his wife for over 25 years, he easily admits that before his marriage -- during the swinging 70s -- he dabbled in same-sex relations, as one of his Southern characters might have put it. I consider it an important and valuable part of my life experience, and its entirely possible that it better equips me to write about gay characters -- and about people in general, he says. McFarland sat down with Out to discuss his newest novel, Letter From Point Clear, and took the opportunity to sound off on the separation of church and gay, homophobes with their mind in the gutter, and embracing the Yankee in him after a Dixie childhood.
Out: Point Clear is deeply rooted in the South, but with a strong New England influence.
Dennis McFarland: I kind of stand with one foot in both places. I grew up in Alabama in the heart of Dixie, but left the south and have spent most of my adult life elsewhere in California, New York and New England. My family is all still down there and I continue to go back for visits, but I never feel like I quite belong in either place.
We see that tension play out mostly through Morris.
When I was writing about his feelings for the south, they were very close to my own -- the dread of going back, the fear of what I will encounter there. In New England I dont find that I bump up against people who think very differently from the way I think. Often the people that I bump up against [in the South] are people in my own family, which kind of loads it down.
Morris is a very logical and grounded gay character -- unlike so many who are often portrayed as divas with sassy comebacks.
Youre always walking a fine line between writing characters who are somehow recognizable in terms of their type, but trying to be careful that they never become stereotypes. I think that Morris has a kind of ironic wit that we often associate with a certain kind of gay man. But what I tried to give him in addition to that is a big heart and a willingness to at least explore the building of bridges. These characters all come together with expectations of what theyre going to find in each other and they find something different instead.
Did you have a specific experience that planted the seed for this book?
I went to the church that my parents had always gone to and it was a really weird experience for me. It was one of those mega-churches with the television screen and the jazz combo, but I tried to keep myself open-minded. Then it came to the sermon, which pretty quickly veered off into moral relativism and he gave one example of how the world is going downhill, morally: that there was now a state in our country that believes marriage is something other than the union between one man and one woman. At the time I thought, Ah ha! Thatll be my conflict. Ill have a gay married man from Massachusetts come into contact with a southern evangelical preacher.
I dont understand how supposedly loving Christian communities can have so much animosity towards men loving men.
I think were in a moment right now, in modern society, where a lot of Christian communities have stopped being traditionally homophobic and are trying to love the homosexual out of his sexuality. Its a kind of hate the sin but love the sinner approach. But of course thats not going to work for everybody. And the marriage thing is really putting that right up on the surface so that people are talking about it and arguing about it. There are people out there who are trying to come to terms with it, straight people within their spiritual community and within themselves. There are a lot of genuine Christians who just dont have a problem with it, too, and Im one of those. To me its just a clear civil rights issue.
The character of Pastor is an intriguing antagonist -- hes antigay, but also quite young and handsome.
Yeah, well, I wanted to make that part of the tension. I wanted to make him attractive so that would add a little something of tension to the situation.
There is a scene with a local man who buys beer for the young guys in town in order to get them drunk enough to let him suck them off. Pastor almost did it, but he changed his mind.
Pastor is one of these modern Christians who really strongly believes in loving the sinner but hating the sin, and trying to persuade, through love, the sinner away from the sin. And one of the things that Morris sudden presence in his own family does is that hes got to look at all this stuff. It seems that you can ride along very happily with your feelings about things and your beliefs about things until theyre challenged by real life. And a lot of the people who have very strong feelings about homosexuality and what the Bible says about it have never even met a homosexual. Having a real, genuine bona-fide gay person in the house makes him think Oh yeah, there was that time when I was young... There arent very many straight men who havent had gay thoughts.
Gay fiction so often tries to prove something by being graphic, but there isnt much sex in Letter From Point Clear.
Theres this thing about when you put a man and a woman in a room together, theres a certain level of sexual tension assumed because theyre alone in a room together. When you have gay characters it seems to me that youre obliged to acknowledge that as well. We encounter gay characters and theyre never just characters who happen to be gay -- somehow their sexual proclivities have to be a part of the picture. I think that acknowledges, at the heart of it, part of what homophobia is really all about, that people cant get their mind out of the gutters. Theyre actually thinking about what this person does, looking at this guy sitting at an office desk, but what theyre thinking about is what hes doing at home.