October 27, 2006

Swish: My Quest to Become the Gayest Person Ever and What Ended Up Happening InsteadAvailable Now!

Click here to read reviews of Swish.

A few years ago I wrote a book called Gay Haiku. Writing a book had never been a particular goal of mine, except for two weeks during the eighth grade, after I read Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms; my resulting desire to be an author lasted until I finished Breakfast at Tiffany’s, at which point I realized it would be much more interesting to be a prostitute. But in 2003, as part of a fund-raiser for a theater company some friends of mine and I were starting, I wrote 49 haiku about all the bad dates I’d been going on and all the bad sex I’d been having since my boyfriend and I broke up. The haiku turned out well, so I wrote 20 more and sent the collection to an agent as a manuscript called 69 Gay Haiku. She liked it and sent it to a publisher; he also liked it, but he said 69 haiku wasn’t enough and 110 seemed like a more appropriate number. I was upset, not because the prospect of writing more haiku was so horrible, but because 69 Gay Haiku was the only decent title I had ever come up with for anything and I was loath to discard it. I suggested the title 69 Gay Haiku Plus 41 More but the reception with which this idea met was singularly unenthusiastic.

When the book appeared on shelves, however, I stopped being upset about the title because all of a sudden I got to tell people things like, “Monday’s no good for me, I’m having lunch with my publicist.” (The only thing I’ve ever said more glamorous than this was, “Yes, I can meet you at your apartment for anonymous sex tomorrow morning, unless I have to go to Prague.”) The fact that my publicist and I spent the entire lunch in question gushing about how vigorously we wanted to rip Chris Meloni’s clothing off didn’t matter in the least; what was important was that I could use her in a sentence. This was by far the best thing about becoming a published author.

The worst thing about becoming a published author was that, inexplicably, it did not make all my problems go away. Walking into Barnes & Noble and seeing my name on a book jacket was exciting, of course, but when I left the store the thought filling my head was not Gee, now my life is perfect but Why didn’t the cute cashier fall in love with me as I purchased my own book? Am I fat? Or could he just see that I’m a bad person?

I spent a long time considering the possibilities. Perhaps the book had failed to make all my problems go away because it was too small? Too cute? Was it too pink? To do what it was supposed to do, did a book need more than seventeen syllables a page?

Finally I decided that the only solution was to write another, better book. For a while I toyed with the idea of a collection of light verse, amusing myself to no end producing nonpareils like:

Ozzily Tozzily
Wicked Witch Elphaba
Spied on Miss Gale, feeling
Down in the dumps.

“Hmph,” she remarked, somewhat
“Long way to go for some
Lousy red pumps.”

However, I realized before long that, if my aim was to produce a more dazzling book with wider appeal, Gay Double Dactyls was unlikely to do the trick. So I invited my editor for Gay Haiku to lunch (by which I mean I invited him to buy me lunch) and said, “I have to write another book for you to make all my problems go away, what do you want?”

“Well,” he said, trying unsuccessfully to hide his consternation at my having ordered a meal composed entirely of partially hydrogenated fat, “there’s that thing from your bio in Gay Haiku about trying to become the gayest person ever. I guess you could write a book about that.” I agreed immediately, because our waiter had returned with the appetizers, and I am rendered so powerless in the face of mozzarella sticks that I would have said okay if my editor had suggested I write a book about scaling Mount Kilimanjaro in a bustle.

So when I got home, full of the contentment derived from a stomach full of fried breaded cheese, I set about my task. Before the publication of Gay Haiku, panicked because my bio for the book jacket was late, I had scribbled down a paragraph that included the sentence “In an attempt to become the gayest person ever, he took up knitting and got a job as a step aerobics instructor.” As far as the new book was concerned, those two achievements meant little in isolation, of course, but they were not my only credentials: I also wrote musical theater and cheered on the gay cheerleading squad and had had a lot of gay sex. I felt that, though I had a long way to go to reach the status of, say, J. Edgar Hoover, I was nevertheless starting from a position of strength.

My first task was to decide where to begin. Figuring what the hell, sex sells, I started writing about casual sex. This would be an easy topic, I knew, as I had a wealth of experience upon which to draw. I had to make up some names and a detail or three to fill the ever more numerous gaps in my aging memory, but on the whole things were going swimmingly until I looked down at my computer screen and saw that I had started to write about Johnny Depp.
Please do not get the wrong (though breathtaking) idea. I have never had sex with Johnny Depp, at least not outside of REM sleep. But I had begun to explore an idea that wouldn’t make any sense unless I related a story about my childhood reaction to a television character played by that gentleman, and this story required me in turn to relate certain other stories from my past, and before I knew it I was writing something completely different from what I had set out to write, something that involved discussions of New Age bookstores and Miss Manners and the Ancien Régime.

Obviously, this would never do, so I decided to scrap the whole thing and start over. But as I reached for the delete key it occurred to me that, in fact, juxtaposing the anecdote about the Scottish guy’s dirty talk with a disquisition on Marie Antoinette’s executioners made me understand each of those two things in a slightly different, more interesting way than writing about either one of them alone. They felt connected under the surface.

“This is more complicated than I expected it to be,” I complained to my boyfriend on the phone.

“What’s wrong with that?” he asked.

“What’s wrong with that is I started writing a sidesplittingly funny discussion of sex and I ended up discovering things about my own character, that’s what’s wrong with that,” I snapped. Then I hung up and went on to the next chapter, which was about knitting, except that before long I realized that it was also about my mother.

This kept happening over and over again. I would start writing about some stereotypically gay pursuit in which I was involved and learn along the way that my interest in it came not just from my being gay but also from some deeper need it met. I undertook new gay projects in furtherance of my quest—I went to gay summer camp, I became a go-go boy, I married Liza Minnelli—but even these turned out to sound unexpected echoes with other, seemingly irrelevant, parts of my life.

This introduction used to end with a cute bit about how the subtitle of the book was a lie, because I wasn’t actually on a quest to become the gayest person ever, because first of all who would do that with R——— S——— still in the public eye, but I was told I couldn’t use R——— S———’s real name, which took all the humor out of it. Then my editor pointed out that in any case to introduce the book this way was a facile piece of chicanery that sidestepped the truth. I thanked him for the critique and pointed out that he was fat and that no one loved him.

But upon reflection I think my editor was right. It’s not that my quest to become the gayest person ever was a lie; it’s that writing about my quest to become the gayest person ever led me to realize that I was actually on a quest to become myself.

I told this to my boyfriend, who is a psychiatrist, and he said, “Well, that makes sense. You definitely have some narcissistic traits.”

“Don’t touch me,” I said.

There is no question but that my quest to become the gayest person ever has failed. I take one look at the plays of Oscar Wilde or the dialogues of Plato or the headlines about the Republican-Politician-Arrested-for-Solicitation-in-the-Men’s-Room of the Week and I want to hang my head in shame. But what I’m hoping is that, like Columbus landing on San Salvador, I’ve reached a new world: a land of vistas to explore, horizons to pursue, indigenous peoples to subjugate. And, now that all my problems are going to go away, I’m all set to start doing those things, just as soon as I’m done having lunch with my publicist, because in last night’s episode of Law & Order: SVU Chris Meloni took his shirt off and so she and I have a lot to discuss.

Joel Derfner

P.S.: If I’ve dated you or slept with you and any of the anecdotes in this book seem to be about you, they’re not. They’re about somebody else. You were divine.

P.P.S.: I know I said the same thing in the introduction to my last book, but this time I mean it.

Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *