Interviewed by Jeffrey Ricker
Rob Byrnes has been making me laugh since I met him in 2009 at a writing conference in New Orleans. He also deserves credit for prodding me to submit an essay to an anthology that became my first published piece of creative writing. The author of six novels, he won a Lambda Literary Award for When the Stars Come Out (2006) and was a Lambda finalist in 2009 for his novel Straight Lies. His most recent novel, Strange Bedfellows, was published in 2012 by Bold Strokes Books. Originally from Rochester, New York, Byrnes is a graduate of Union College and lives in New Jersey with his partner.
Your first novel, The Night We Met, came out in 2002. What inspired you to become a writer, and what was the process that led to the novel’s publication?
I was encouraged to read a lot as a child, which no doubt was an influence, but I think the desire to write is innate – like the desire to create music, or even become an accountant. That said, I was in my early thirties before I tried to tie the desire to actual work. I failed at first, of course, but I kept writing, and sought out peer support through the CompuServe writing forums. (Remember – this was the early ’90s!)
The men and women I met online became mentors and taskmasters, and the forum served as a workshop for the novel that eventually became The Night We Met. And let me add that when you’re getting personal feedback from people like the writers Diana Gabaldon and John L. Myers – not to mention the artist who eventually became the noted novelist Rabih Alameddine – you’d be a fool not to take their advice.
That’s not to say that publication of The Night We Met was a slam-dunk after that. It took a few more years, a lot of rejection, and perhaps a bit of luck before the book was published in 2002. Still, my willingness to put my words out there and listen to some (occasionally raw) feedback was the most significant step I took on the path to becoming “A Writer.”
You’ve written six novels with two different publishers over the course of a decade. From your perspective, how has the landscape for queer fiction changed in the time you’ve been writing it?
The Bad News first: Independent LGBT bookstores are close to nonexistent; the major chains are less welcoming of our titles; and many publishers have significantly cut back their lists. Unless your name is Christopher Rice or Edmund White, it’s almost impossible to get any sort of mainstream attention, and that is going to impact sales and readership.
For example, The Night We Met was published by a mainstream publisher, in hardcover, and available with all the other “new releases” at Barnes & Noble, and went on to sell 8,000 copies. But that was 2002. It doesn’t work like that today. In 2014, my novels are published in paperback with limited distribution, and I’m lucky to sell 800 copies.
Now the Good News: There are more LGBT and LGBT-friendly independent publishers, and the Internet has led to a great democratization of the industry. Social networking also allows for a great deal of connectivity and self-promotion. In 2014, it is much easier for a writer to get his or her story out there, even if it’s more difficult to target readers and find a following.
The one problem I see with writing in an era when anyone can publish anything is that we’ve lost the gatekeepers. Even though many promising novels over the years were no doubt lost to the whim of an individual, publishing houses, editors, and booksellers traditionally sorted the wheat from the chaff. Today, there are few people left to do the sorting, which negatively impacts sales across the board.
How has your writing process evolved over that time?
I am not an adaptable creature, so I don’t know that my writing process has evolved. Perhaps the biggest change I’ve made over the years is to seek out advice and guidance from beta readers before submitting my manuscript to the publisher, and I’ve also humbled myself to hire an editor before the publisher’s editor takes a crack at it.
I think one of my favorite things about your writing is the humor (and, in a somewhat related way, how characters cross over from one title to the next). In my experience of queer fiction, humor seems in painfully short supply. It’s all just so serious. Is that humor a conscious choice on your part?
Humorous content is absolutely a conscious choice. I appreciate somber, “serious” novels, but I don’t know that I have that in me. That said, I’ve tried to challenge myself as a writer through some recent short stories which downplay the funny business. “Patience, Colorado,” in Men of the Mean Streets was noir-ish, and “Carver Comes Home” in Best Gay Romance 2014 also has its bleak moments.
The recurring characters in my novels have also been a conscious choice, an effort to create an alternate fictional universe. In fact, a few characters have made appearances in all six books, sometimes as a lead, sometimes in one scene. If nothing else, that keeps me entertained.
You won the Lambda Literary Award in 2006 for Best Gay Romance with When the Stars Come Out, and you were a finalist for Gay Mystery with Straight Lies. What does such recognition do, if anything, for your writing?
Honestly? Not a whole lot. It’s great to win recognition from your peers, but winning a Lammy isn’t a career-changer. Not that an ego-boost isn’t a good thing.
Like most writers, you’ve also got a day job, but yours is pretty high profile as president of the East Midtown Partnership in Manhattan. How do you balance those roles? Do you keep them completely separate?
Let’s be frank: the job running the Partnership pays the bills, and – after paying my editor, conference fees and travel, books promotions, etc. – the writing career can be a money hole. Or, to put it in raw numbers, the Day Job pays 110% of my salary.
Time is limited, and the Partnership requires (and deserves) as much as I can give it. Therefore, my beloved writing career has to suffer. However, it’s not neglected – I still have early mornings, evenings, and weekends, and have managed to write five of my six novels while holding down that job. I certainly don’t have the luxury of sneaking time to write novels at the office, but I think I’ve found a balance.
Are you ever tempted to mine content from the day job to use in your writing?
The Day Job offers life experiences, so, yes, aspects creep into my writing. But only aspects. However, my earlier career was in politics, which I’ve been able to mine much more effectively… especially in my most recent novel, Strange Bedfellows, which features all sorts of political chicanery and backstabbing. Let’s face it: political shenanigans are always going to be more interesting than economic development.
You’ve mentioned that you’re a huge fan of crime writer Donald E. Westlake and that he was an influence on your writing. Can you tell me a little about how his work has influenced you?
I first encountered Westlake’s crime caper Bank Shot when I was a tween, and spent the next 40 years devouring anything and everything he wrote, especially the Dortmunder series centered on a rag-tag criminal gang struggling with an absolute lack of luck. I loved how he took broad humor and over-the-top characters and made them real and relatable. The fact that the Dortmunder Gang always found the brass ring just out of reach was irresistible, too.
My three crime capers – Straight Lies, Holy Rollers, and Strange Bedfellows – borrow heavily from the Westlake Canon, albeit with an LGBT twist. I was never prouder than the first time a reviewer compared the series to Westlake’s books.
What are you working on now?
And now, for something completely different!
I love writing in the LGBT genre, and shall return (hopefully with another crime caper) soon. But right now I’m working on a “mainstream” (whatever that means) work about New York City in the 1920s. I’ve been talking about it for almost a decade, and researching it for even longer, and it’s time to finally put pen to paper. I am not a young man anymore, and this is something I need to do before I completely run out of steam.
And, since we’ve bonded over a shared love of wine: red or white?
White. But not too sweet. A good Chardonnay has curative powers heretofore only known to The Gods.
Are there any other questions you wish I’d asked?
Boxers. If you must know.
Jeffrey Ricker’s latest novel, The Unwanted, was published in March. He is currently completing an MFA at the University of British Columbia.