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Friday, August 3, 2012

Author Interview: Lewis DeSimone


Have you ever been so captivated by a book that you couldn’t put it down? That's how I felt when I read Chemistry a few years back, and just recently, The Heart's History.

Today, it’s my pleasure to interview the author, Lewis DeSimone. 

The Heart’s History is the extraordinary story of a group of gay friends living in Boston and the changes that take place in their lives between 2002 and 2007.
 
I'm anxious to talk to Lewis about his new book but first, can you tell us a little about yourself, Lewis?

Thanks, Gale.  It’s wonderful to have this opportunity to communicate with your readers.


I grew up in Boston, but I’ve been living in San Francisco for almost 20 years now.  I came out to California to get my master’s degree in creative writing at the University of California, Davis—and since San Francisco was so close, I decided to stay here rather than making the long journey back
east.  I fell in love with the city at first sight, and it’s been very good to me as inspiration for both my work and my life.  I feel truly at home here, as if I’ve found the place I was always meant to be.


Except for graduate school—when all I had to do for a living was teach one class per quarter (heaven for a writer)—I’ve always had a full-time day job.  For the past several years, I’ve worked in marketing—which has given me some skills that come in handy when the time comes to promote my writing.  On the whole, though, the day job does slow me down as a writer.  I have to make a very conscious effort to set aside time to write, and unfortunately I’m not as diligent as some.  I’ve never been one of those people who can get up extra early to put in a few hours at the computer before the whistle blows.  Basically, I squeeze it in here and there.  Or, when I’m feeling really inspired (or under deadline), I’ll get into a zone and find myself plowing through.  That’s the best—when I look up and realize I’ve been at it for hours, with several pages to show for it.

Your vivid descriptions of Boston immersed me in the scene and your love for San Francisco comes across in your first book. In Chemistry, Neal and Zach are drawn into a romantic relationship and Neal suddenly finds himself dealing with the realities of his lover's mental illness. The Heart’s History also tackles some deep issues—friendship, intimacy, aging, AIDS, love and loss, even politics. You give us a lot to think about. What do you hope a reader will ultimately take away from the story?

I hope people come away from the book with a sense that they’ve gotten to know a few interesting characters, whose stories epitomize the diversity and complexity of contemporary life.  One of the themes I was most interested in exploring in The Heart’s History was the question of what it means to be gay at this point in time, when the traditional signposts of gay life are fading away.  I tried to show a variety of points of view in the book about sociopolitical issues, particularly same-sex marriage and the changing image of AIDS.  One character, for example, Greg, seems to jump into marriage as if it’s the natural course of events—which it is for many straight people.  Harlan, on the other hand, stands apart, seeing marriage as almost an assault on his image of gay culture.  And while everyone’s debating this topic, their close friend Edward is quietly dying, almost in the background of the story.  That’s another thing I want to deal with:  these days, AIDS is widely considered a manageable disease, but that’s not true for everyone.  AIDS pretty much defined an entire generation of gay men, but for younger people it’s just part of history.  But of course, the cliché is true:  if you don’t study history, you’re condemned to repeat it. 

The characters in both books became very real to me. I read Chemistry in 2010 and I still find myself wondering what happened to Neal and Zach. The new book has a larger cast and yet you manage to bring every character to life. Did you base them on people you know? How much of yourself do you put into your characters?
That seems to be something everyone wants to know.  I’ve learned to take it as a compliment:  if people assume the characters are based on real life, that must mean that they seem alive on the page, which is the best thing I could hope for.

The truth is that the characters in The Heart’s History—and the overall plot—are almost entirely fictional.  There are pieces of me dropped in here and there, and a few plot elements that were inspired from real life, but no character was consciously based on anyone else, including myself.  Many years ago, I went to a memorial service for a man I didn’t know (he was the lover of someone I worked with).  I was only recently out of the closet and had very few gay friends, so this was a brand-new world for me.  And I found myself imagining what it must be like, to be part of that world and then suddenly lose someone so close to you.  That was the origin of the story.  From there, the characters just started popping into my head. 

Chemistry, on the other hand, is fairly autobiographical.  A lot of the story is similar to something from my own life, but I moved the action from Boston to San Francisco and modified the characters somewhat.  My best friend, for example, influenced the character of the narrator’s best friend, Martin—but the real-life person, who was a schoolteacher, was horrified that I’d turned him into a florist.  I happen to love florists, so I’m not quite sure what that’s all about.

In The Heart's History Edward is the central character around which the others revolve, a fact brought home by a prelude before each chapter.

Opening--

"This is Edward with his life ahead of him. He’s twenty-five at most,
skin still smooth and pink, hair thick and falling absently over his brow.
He’s standing before the floor-length windows in the Hancock Observatory.
Copley Square can be dimly seen in the distance, a Gothic corner of Trinity Church rising anachronistically against the gray of Boylston Street.
Edward’s arms are spread wide, as if to embrace the city beneath him.
There’s a faint smile on his face, less pleasure than anticipation.
He’s new in town, he’s young—all he can see is the future.
The camera catches only a three-quarter profile, so you can’t clearly make out his eyes, the green eyes that turn everything he sees to gold. When Edward looks at you, soft, moist eyes reflecting the light, you know that even you, as long as he can see you, even you are beautiful."

Despite being the pivotal character, we never hear Edward's point of view. Each friend and even his lover, Robert, project their own perspectives onto him. Does the reader get a real picture of Edward or is he a totally different man?

That kind of goes back to what I mentioned earlier, about going to the memorial service for someone I’d never met.  That man was a complete enigma to me, and I could imagine him only by listening to what his friends said about him.  So when the time came to write the book, I decided to hold on to that sense of mystery.  We always see Edward only through someone else’s eyes.  But the truth is that that’s how we see everyone:  we can never know what it’s truly like to be someone else.  In the end, we can never fully know anyone. 

There’s a bit of contradiction in the various characters’ views of Edward, but I like to think that only makes him more real.  To Kyle, Edward is a pure soul; but Harlan remembers the hedonistic and sarcastic sides of him.  I happen to believe that both perspectives are true.  We all have multiple dimensions to our personalities.  No one can be summed up in a sentence—at least nobody interesting.

Some of the men in this circle of friends seem to have little in common. Harlan is slutty, and commitment phobic, while Bill is steady and serious. Would the men still be as close if they were straight? 

Every circle of friends, it seems to me, ends up assigning roles:  the smart one, the pretty one, the truth-teller.  But those differences are largely on the surface.  What true friends really see in each other is a shared humanity—particularly the vulnerability at the heart of bravado.  Harlan, for example (it seems like I’m always talking about Harlan, but he is one of my favorite creations), projects to the world a discomfort with intimacy, but as the book goes on, you begin to see the depth of his feeling, and especially, the seriousness of his connection with Edward. 

While the book does delve extensively into the ways in which gay people have changed in recent years, I barely touched upon the other side of the equation:  how straight people have changed.  I think the truth is that we’re all opening up our eyes a little more and learning from people who we used to think we had nothing in common with.  I suspect there are many straight men who have friendships like the ones depicted in the book.  I know that I have friendships with more than one straight man that are just as emotionally meaningful as most of my friendships with gay men.  So I’d like to think it’s possible.  I’d like to think that a straight man could read this book and see himself in the characters.  Women don’t seem to have any trouble with that.

Edward is struggling with AIDS and Robert says to him "I want to know everything about you." Edward answers him by saying, "You do." Do you believe knowing everything about someone makes a relationship with them more meaningful?

Not at all.  As a matter of fact, quite the opposite.  One of the great things about relationships is that they’re a process of constant discovery.  Knowing a person is rather like dividing by two:  2 becomes 1; 1 becomes 0.5; 0.5 becomes 0.25, but you never get to zero.  There is no zero.  You never know the whole story.  That’s what makes the story itself so interesting.

Intimacy isn’t about knowing someone completely; it’s about knowing him more and more deeply.  The longer I’m with someone, the better I’ll understand him, and the more I’ll reveal about myself.  But every bit of it takes time.  Who knows?  Maybe that’s what keeps us going.

When Edward says “You do,” I think what he’s really saying is that Robert knows him well enough:  he knows the most important part of Edward, which is the love that they share.
Reading this book put me on an emotional rollercoaster and I didn't want it to end. Are you planning to write a sequel to Chemistry or The Heart’s History?

There are no plans for a sequel to either book, but I don’t think I’m through with these characters.  Neal, the narrator of Chemistry, is scheduled to make a cameo appearance in a future book.  When I was outlining this new book, I realized that it made sense for its protagonist to be old friends with Neal, and I wanted the reader to see what Neal’s up to these days.  As for The Heart’s History, I’m envisioning a spin-off rather than a sequel per se:  a couple of the minor characters just might get their own book.  I’ll keep you posted on both projects.

Are there other works in progress?

Well, before either of those “sequels” I just talked about can happen, I have to finish the book I’m currently working on.  This one, you may be happy to know, is a comedy.  After writing about mental illness and AIDS, I needed a break.  The new book will be a more straightforward love story.  I’m loving every minute of it.

Thanks so much for being here today, Lewis. I'm looking forward to the new book and the spin-offs.

For more information, please visit www.lewisdesimone.com

The Heart's History is available at Amazon:



Reviews for The Heart’s History


“A thoughtful and engaging examination of contemporary gay life and love”—Publishers Weekly

This is Edward—architect, friend, lover, mystery.  Everyone has his own Edward—a kaleidoscope of images struggling to define a man who has never let anyone get too close.  But now, Edward is dying, and his loved ones are desperate to understand him, to connect fully with him, before it’s too late.


In this beautiful and haunting novel, Lewis DeSimone, author of the acclaimed Chemistry, takes on current notions of how to define gay culture in the so-called post-gay world. The Heart's History examines the conflict between the desire for assimilation and gay culture’s long-held belief in its unique cultural identity.  Edward’s illness is set against the backdrop of a sea change in gay society, a time when AIDS is assumed to be simply a manageable condition, and when the drive for assimilation—through marriage, or the military—has begun to trump the distinct characteristics that were once a source of pride.  Deftly shifting perspectives to paint a compelling portrait of a man and a community on the cusp of a critical transition, The Heart’s History offers hope that, despite the impossibility of ever achieving true oneness with another person, it is the attempt itself that grants life both joy and its deepest meaning.

****

“Lewis DeSimone is a great writer.  His prose is thoughtful, deep, layered and real.  His characters are living. It’s about love and sex and AIDs, about human connection and the ultimate unknowability of another person.  It’s about the slow assimilation of a larger gay culture that used to be more angry and badass.  It’s a really good book written by a very skilled author.”—Michelle Tea, author of Valencia

****

“Lewis DeSimone’s beautiful novel captures the many facets of contemporary gay life, from sharp humor, long-lasting friendships, and the urban club scene to the insecurities of aging, the uncertainties of romance, and the agonies of a loved one’s loss.  It also illuminates a difficult and inescapable truth:  we mortals are all elusive mysteries, all in the end unknowable, but that mystery is the very fuel of love.”— Jeff Mann, author of Fog: A Novel of Desire and Reprisal and Purgatory: A Novel of the Civil War

****

“Lewis DeSimone’s Heart’s History is a novel of trouble and wonder. It moves in unexpected directions and looks into the complicated, real-life struggles that lesser writers tend to simplify or avoid. It is adult in its scope, and generous in its understanding of how loss changes us as both groups and individuals. As soon as I finished, I wanted to start reading all over again.”—Paul Lisicky, author of Lawnboy and The Burning House

****

“In The Heart’s History Lewis DeSimone gives us a profoundly moving story about reaching out and pulling back, about intimacy and mystery, written in shapely and nuanced prose. Even better, it also reminds us of important truths about life, gay and otherwise:  that time changes everything, that love changes shape, and that friendship can change a world, if we let it. That makes it a book to read closely, with tenderness … and repeatedly. ”—Peter Dubé, author of Subtle Bodies and Hovering World

****

“A stunning portrait of love”—Rigoberto González, author of Butterfly Boy 

****

“DeSimone has given us a big-hearted, earnest novel that does what novels should do: he’s painted a picture of the intimate lives of people living through a particular time, and he’s given us a character—Edward—and a story that truly resonates.”—Trebor Healey, in Lambda Literary Review


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3 comments:

JP said...

I enjoy learning about the thought process behind a story and the short excerpt makes me want to read more. Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I'm always happy to discover a new author and your book sounds like one I'd be interested in. It's going on my TBR list.
Susan
fishywoman1@hotmail.com

sxswann said...

Thanks for introducing me to another author that I have not read before. Both of these books look like very good reads. Adding to the To-Get list now :)