Author Interview: John R. Gordon

(Author photo courtesy Baharei Husseini)

As an author, I always have my eyes wide open to better learn from those that came before me. It’s been almost two and a half years since I started earnestly dabbling in comic writing, thinking it would be a good skill alongside my art, not knowing that hobby would save me when my art failed. But that is no time at all when it comes to writing, and I have so much to learn from those who have tread this path longer than I.

I cherish these experiences for the treasures they are. Reading Hark and interviewing John R Gordon has been one of those experiences where the best thing I can do is sit and listen, knowing that I’m being gifted knowledge and wisdom that will make me not only a better writer, but a better person.

I hope you all get as much out of this interview as I did, and if you haven’t yet, you can read my review of Gordon’s Hark here.

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I’m a writer, publisher and artist; I’m 56 and live in London, England. Hark is my eighth novel and set in the USA. Drapetomania, my seventh, an epic of same-gender love in the antebellum south, won me the Ferro-Grumley Award for Best LGBTQ Fiction in 2019. My earlier novels are all set in London, where I’ve lived for more than 30 years, but recently I’ve been excavating my early deep fascination with American – especially African-American – culture, and so am working on a third US-based novel, Mother of Serpents (about which I say a little more below.)

I’ve also written for film and TV. My best known thing is writing and script-editing on Patrik-Ian Polk’s landmark gay African-American series, Noah’s Arc (we did a one-off Covid special just a couple of months ago, reuniting the cast a decade on). For my work on the film screenplay I received a NAACP Image Award nomination. My oddest job was writing the autobiography of black gay pornstar Bobby Blake – for which – 12 years along – I just received a royalty check of $40.89.

In 2011 legendary film- and theatre-maker Rikki Beadle-Blair & I founded Team Angelica Publishing, a queer-of-colour-centric small press, and have edited and brought out award-winning books by black, queer and trans authors, including Diriye Osman, Roz Kaveney and Chike Edozien.

Tell us about your novel, Hark.

Hark begins the night the statue of a Confederate colonel is torn down in the centre of a dying, opioid-scarred and racially divided Southern town: it’s the night two wild teenagers meet and start to fall in love. White blue-collar/underclass Cleve is broke and drifting into criminality; black, bourgeois Roe is alienated and rebellious. They say opposites attract, and who could be more opposite than Cleve and Roe?

When Cleve finds himself, at age 17, home alone for the first time in his life, he summons the courage to invite Roe to stay over. The young men’s relationship looks set to move to another level when they are interrupted by Hark, a mysterious black vagrant who seems to possess supernatural powers, and who takes them on a strange and troubling journey into the past.

Hark is a touching, vividly contemporary coming of age story; a compelling, fast-paced and ultimately hopeful tale of teenage gay interracial love; and shows us how necessary it is to confront the evils of our shared history, however painful it may be to do so.

What is your favorite novel, and has it inspired how you write? How?

It’s really impossible to choose just one! When I didn’t really know myself, or I suppose accept myself, I was inspired by fantasy: Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, H.P. Lovecraft, and had occasional stabs at extremely derivative tale-telling. This would have been when I was 15 or 16, and was very haphazard. At school we – how unlikely is this? – studied Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, and that certainly inspired me with its fever-dreamily intense use of language and the Southern Gothic idiom, as I think he did artists as different from each other as Nick Cave and Toni Morrison (both of whom I’m a fan of).

At 17 or 18 I came across James Baldwin, and he became my literary idol: in his novel of interracial Greenwich Village bohemia, Another Country, he showed me that you didn’t have to run away from writing about exactly what mattered to you: you could write what you wanted – what you needed to – head on. The issues and history he engaged with sent me reading rizomatically – following small hints and connections – names referenced unexplained; historical threads – and I gave myself an autodidact’s version of a course in African-American studies, finding inspiration in Richard Wright, Chester Himes, Amiri Baraka, radicals like Angela Davis, Malcolm X and George Jackson, and a myriad of others less well known. These writers enabled me to construct a notion, as a gay man, of radical art and representation. At that time – the late ’70s – there really wasn’t anything much that one could call Queer Theory, so I found a model of radicalism – or many radicalisms, as there was much clashing and disagreement between them (sometimes violently so) – through Civil Rights and Black Power era African-American thought and writing.

My own bohemian novel (my least known one), Colour Scheme, attempts to heal the narrative wound of Another Country – the death of the initial protagonist, Rufus, by suicide. In Colour Scheme my own depressed protagonist chooses to live. 

While my slavery days novel, Drapetomania, is carefully grounded in historical reality, certainly the power and clarity of Lord of the Rings as epic storytelling was an inspiration and a touchstone.

What are some key takeaways you’re hoping readers get from your book?

I hope they’ll be charmed by my teenage protagonists, Roe and Cleve, & their budding romance; be moved by Hark’s quest and journey to right some of the wrongs of history (around the crime of lynching); and see that understanding and love between people of different races (or perhaps one should say ‘people raced as different’) can grow through confronting the past and its consequences in the present: that it is clearsightedness, not colorblindess, that is needed now.

What is different about your novel?

I kind of wrote Hark in part against the (hugely successful) YA novel Simon vs The Homo Sapien Agenda (filmed as Love, Simon.) That book – a teen romance set in the Deep South, uses an interracial reveal as a twist, then entirely fails to explore the complexity of that situation. I pointedly reverse this. I explore the dynamics and history informing love in that context, and also explore it both from the (blue-collar) white character and the (middle-class) black character: we see each through the other’s eyes. I particularly didn’t want (black) Roe to be an externally-observed narrative object, there for (white) Cleve’s growth – which is, as you know, a common cliché in white-centered ‘liberal’ narratives, ironically or paradoxically validated by the ‘write [only] what you know’ discourse. In a way the ‘twist’ of Hark is that it’s as much Roe’s tale as Cleve’s, even though it opens with Cleve’s thoughts about things.

Hark himself is an extremely unusual ‘is he mad or supernatural’ character, who both embodies and resists America’s haunting history of racial violence, and draws Cleve and Roe into a quest in which they must confront the way history continues into the present. ‘The past isn’t even past,’ as Faulkner said. Even there he’s not a ‘magical negro’, as his quest is essentially selfish, and Cleve and Roe risk becoming casualties as they get dragged along with him: he doesn’t intend them to learn anything from being with him. Yet I think we also somehow like Hark, and care about his struggle. He is, fundamentally, good-hearted, as I think the book itself is.

All of these themes are explored in a fast-moving tale that has (I hope) a light touch to it.

What are your plans for future novels?

I’m working on two next novels at the same time, which isn’t very practical. One is more in the slipstream of Hark – a novel of the uncanny where a gay couple, one black, one white, & their young mixed-race son relocate from Brooklyn to an old house in upstate Maine. There creepy things start to happen. It’s got touches of King & Lovecraft to it, but is also inspired by black friends who’ve had psychotic episodes. It’s called Mother of Serpents. Then I’ve begun a satirical, semi-journalistic novel about chasing grants & funding in the arts in London, & how the Covid pandemic bursts into that world & turns everything upside down. It’s timely, but perhaps too painful to really dive into now – & of course can’t be finished until there’s some sense of an ‘after’ the pandemic. It’s called (after the Funkadelic track) Standing On The Verge Of Getting It On. Beyond those I want to write another historical novel set in slavery times, this time with a British-Caribbean setting: Hurricano. But that’ll require acres of research, as Drapetomania did, and much deep thought.

What inspires you to write?

On a broad note, to mark and celebrate the lives of – often underclass and otherwise marginal – Black gay men; & to treat those lives with the same degree of literary seriousness (insofar as I have the ability) as cisthet white middle-class lives are treated. Otherwise each novel has its own unique key – an image, a phrase, a concept. I wrote my antebellum epic Drapetomania because I was haunted by the image of an enslaved Black man at the boundary fence of a plantation by moonlight, about to (attempt to) run to freedom. Faggamuffin had two keys – the particular vitriolic homophobia in Jamaica then (& not a huge amount’s changed since, alas); & the idea of a man so closeted he would rather go to jail for rape (of a woman) than alibi himself by coming out as gay. Souljah was inspired by the images of teenage boy soldiers waving AK-47s at roadblocks in Liberia while wearing looted wigs and wedding dresses during the civil war there, & thoughts I had about the collapse of social norms and resultant fluidity of identity. In a sense Souljah became a tale about faith: Stanlake, the protagonist’s traditional African spirit beliefs (I find inspiration in Vodoun & related belief systems); his mother Poppy’s staunch Christianity (distorted by her encounters with a corrupt Nigerian preacher); and the militant nihilistic atheism of the youths who threaten him and his mother.

More recently I’ve thought more consciously about the power and pleasure of doing things with words. Each novel must have a voice, and must (in a readable way) experiment with doing something different with language and register. Drapetomania had to have an African-Americanness of prose rhythm and at points idiom, as well as portray a recognizably C19th idiolect (derived from slave narratives & also novels such as Huckleberry Finn) – while still being legible to the modern reader. So now I feel quite consciously that each book should be a kind of new landscape of words, and express a new form of consciousness.

What do you enjoy about publishing, and what do you struggle with?

Seeing the book become a physical artifact – hopefully with a wonderful cover – is an incredible feeling, & allows you to say both ‘my work is finished’ & ‘other people can see & hopefully be moved by this work now.’ Then of course promotion is a struggle. Like most writers, I would think, I’m quite personally diffident, so find it difficult to bang on about my work. Other people saying you’re a genius is wonderful; saying it about yourself means you likely have a personality disorder.

As an editor, the real achievement is to fall sufficiently in sync with an author and his/her style to be able to offer thoughts & adjustments that seem to them to have come out of their own head. To me that’s an aspect of the function of writer as spirit medium, channeling other voices.

What has been your greatest struggle writing, and how would you inspire other writers to overcome it?

I write about very uncommercial subjects, though I think I write accessibly, so getting my work published & noticed is difficult – tho the new technology means lots of smaller presses have sprung up (Team Angelica, turns out to have been an early adopter of those possibilities). There’s a liberation in being realistic – I mean, I don’t expect Hark to outsell Harry Potter, and if I don’t earn much from it that’s okay, however tempting it is to look at outliers like Fifty Shades of Grey as somehow replicable.

In terms of the actual writing, I think the tough thing is to start, keep on going, finish & then rewrite till you’re totally sick of it – then rewrite one more time. Then stop. You’ve done the best your talent & wisdom allow. There is no perfect. Then try and get it out there. In the meantime try to start something else, so if any given book does get taken up, what you do next doesn’t depend on its reception. Ralph Ellison was essentially paralyzed by Invisible Man’s becoming ‘the best (US) novel since WWII’ for sixty years.

I very much write alone, and consider my novels that free space where I can express what matters to me, without interruption or comment from, or judgement by, others. So I only have people – & then only a few trusted readers – read a book when it’s basically done. I’m able to self-edit, which most writers seem unable to do – I can ‘slay my darlings’ as I think Orwell put it, and take a detached view of my own prose – the more so with greater experience, of course. Probably my TV and film writing has made me more pragmatic and less sentimental about my own work than someone who only wrote literary prose would be. However, I know many people find writers’ groups and the like valuable in creating a sense of community for those whose work is solitary – though I would find the risk of self-censorship and need for – or at least temptation to seek – group approval off-putting.

For myself I try and keep in rapport with writers who inspire me, both through their prose and through reading interviews, letters and biographies. Ralph Ellison bitching to Chester Himes about Richard Wright reminds one that, though yes, they were geniuses, they were people too: they were not Olympian and so categorically beyond anything you or I could attempt to do. Keeping in rapport with one’s literary forebears – the ancestors in the temple – is also a reminder of the importance of fiction as myth-building, as sacred quest, and of writers as bearers of a particularly valuable flame of human truth and spirit. We all need ways to tell ourselves that what we do, all alone and perhaps not feeling in any way valued or validated, is nonetheless important to humanity, and that’s my way of doings so. In African cosmology the ancestors are seen as constantly present to the living, and I find that a heartening creative worldview.

If I were offering one line of practical advice, I would say: whenever you come to a narrative difficulty of any sort whatsoever, ask yourself always, ‘What would really happen in this situation/at this moment?’ and write that. If something feels true to life, the reader will keep on reading.

How can we purchase your book?

If you’re in London, there are (should still be) signed copies in legendary indie bookstore Gay’s the Word, in Marchmont Street, in Bloomsbury. It’s orderable through Barnes & Noble and Waterstones and other chains. And worldwide, of course, there’s Amazon.

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