Miss Americana and The Heartbreak Prince

One question that always exasperates authors is the old standard, where do you get your ideas from?

I get why it annoys writers to be asked this; who wants to be psycho-analyzed on a panel or at a reading? It’s a process, of course, and one that cannot be distilled into a quick, witty, quotable sound bite–and the ultimate truth is, it’s almost always different in every case–whether it’s a novel, an essay or a short story; I certainly have not gotten inspiration the same way every time. A lot of the Alabama fiction, for example, that I have written/am writing/have thought about writing, comes from stories my grandmother told me when I was a child about the past–mostly her family’s past, and certainly those stories were self-aggrandizing and self-serving, and still others were apocryphal: the ancestress, for example, who killed a Yankee soldier come to rob her during the Civil War? Yeah, that one was almost certainly lifted from Gone with the Wind–but I have since come to find out that Mitchell probably took the story from legends as well–that story seems to exist everywhere in local legend throughout the former Confederacy (I mention this in passing in Bury Me in Shadows, which also originated in one of my grandmother’s stories).

A while back, I started thinking about doing period novels centering gay male characters and telling their stories about the times when prim-and-proper society swept all things gay under the rug and homophobia was king (or Queen, I suppose). I had already come up with a great idea for a gay noir centered around a health club that operated as a money-laundering front for the local mob in a city in Florida called Muscles, which I hope to write at some point…I cannot recall exactly how or why Muscles led into thinking about other one-word titled gay noir novels set in different periods of the twentieth century; but there you have it. I think Muscles led me to think about setting one in a gay bar in the early 1990’s, built around the time gay porn star Joey Stefano was arrested while performing at a Tampa gay bar for public indecency; Indecency was such a great title that I couldn’t forget it–and I also figured I could link the two books, the way I always link my books together in an Easter eggy kind of way that the majority of people don’t notice but pleases me immensely. Right round that same time a gay man who was very active as a fundraiser and a donor for political causes died; he had started out owning a company that published gay-interest magazines with nude models and had been arrested, and served time, for using the mail to deliver pornography; I wanted to write about him and the rise of gay porn films in Southern California and call it Obscenity. So there it was: a trilogy of loosely connected gay noirs I hoped to write someday…and then one day, as I was blogging–I think maybe two years ago? I don’t recall–my mind was wandering (as it is wont to do) and I started riffing about an idea that was forming in my head as I wrote the entry for a book set in 1950’s Hollywood, dealing with the underground gay community, McCarthyism, and scandal-mongering that would open with a gay movie star’s body being found naked in the surf at the beach…only the autopsy found that the water in his lungs actually contained chlorine…so he hadn’t drowned, he’d been murdered and the body moved. I called it Chlorine; and that was, for me, kind of the end of it–I wrote the idea down, created a folder for it, and posted the entry.

So, I am sure you can imagine my surprise when I checked Twitter a few hours later and had a ridiculously high amount of–what do they call them? Mentions? Anyway, I had no idea what had triggered this–I rarely get much interaction there–and so when I went to check…some people had read my blog and were all about Chlorine–and the more they tweeted about it, the more people had gotten drawn into this conversation. I was thrilled, to say the least, to see so much attention on-line for something that was really just an amorphous idea…and then a great first line occurred to me: The earthquake woke me up at nine in the morning. So I opened a new Word document, typed in that line, and next thing you know, I had an over 3000 word first chapter written, and the entire plot was forming in my mind already. I took voluminous notes, and decided that, once I got finished with everything I was in the midst of writing already, I would give Chlorine a shot.

And in the meantime, I could start reading up on the period, gay Hollywood, and root myself firmly in the period.

Which is how I came across Robert Hofler’s The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson: The Pretty Boys and Dirty Deals of Henry Willson.

On November 29, 1954, The Hollywood Reporter’s gossip columnist Mike Connolly wrote about the proud, happiest day of Rock Hudson’s life. The movie star had just been cast in George Stevens’ cattle-and-oil epic Giant, and Connolly’s one-line blurb commemorating Rock’s celebration party was as cryptic as it was pumped with news ready to break: “Saturday Mo-somes: Phyllis Gates & Rock Hudson, Margaret Truman & Henry Willson.”

In one of his rare acts of discretion, newshound Connolly dispensed with the ampersand that should have wedded the names Rock Hudson and Henry Willson. Fifty years into the future, “Mo-somes” could be read as slang for the two men’s sexual orientation. But not in 1954. Back then, “Mo” meant something far less provocative but nearly as colorful

“Mo” was short for the Mocambo, the Mount Olympus of Sunset Strip nightclubs. Pure tinseltown fantasy, the Mocambo was an over-heated study in contrasts where oversized tin flowers and humongous velvet balls with fringe festooned flaming candy-cane columns that framed a dance floor designed to induce claustrophobia when more than two couples got up to fox-trot. The tables were equally miniscule, making it possible for the establishment to charge lots of money for not much food, which nobody could see. Overhead, rococo candelabras gave off so little illumination that revelers kept bumping into each other by mistake, and sometimes now, as they tried to check themselves out in the flecked mirrors that recast everybody’s reflection in tones of warm, flattering, fake gold.

I had a vague idea of who Henry Willson was before I read this book–he appeared in the Rock Hudson bio I read a few months ago as well as in Tab Hunter’s memoirs–and of course, Jim Parsons played him in the Ryan Murphy alternate-history Hollywood. I was also vaguely aware–my memory is a lot dimmer than it used to be–of the gay Hollywood underground; the Sunday afternoon pool parties at George Cukor’s, for example–and I had read some gay Hollywood histories (the ones by William J. Mann are particularly good), but I knew my main character in Chlorine needed a Henry Willson-like agent, and so I needed to research Henry Willson. Willson was, of course, notorious in his time and the passage of time since his heyday has done nothing to soften that image. He was the definitive “casting couch” agent–and per this book, which is very well written and very entertaining–men who wanted to be movie stars (whether gay, straight or bi) were more than willing to service Henry if it meant a leg up in the business. And Henry did work very hard for his clients, polishing rough material into diamonds for the camera. He taught them how to speak, how to walk, the proper silverware, how to behave in public; manners and etiquette. Henry believed that talent wasn’t as important to being a movie star as having star quality–the indescribable something that all major stars have, that is impossible to describe–and he knew what he was doing. He also frequently renamed them–hence the proliferation of the one syllable first names with the two or three syllable last names: Rock Hudson, Tab Hunter, Troy Donahue, Chad Everett, Guy Madison, etc.

This book provided a wealth of information as well as inspiration for me, as did the Rock Hudson biography I read several months ago. This period of Hollywood history is fascinating, and I love that writing this book–or rather, planning and researching, since I haven’t really started writing it–is giving me an amazing excuse to study gay Hollywood history and the post-war film industry.

Make no mistake about it–Henry Willson was good at what he did, but he was also a terrible person; trying to make it in a homophobic culture, society and industry at the time in which he lived would definitely twist a person. He was an arch-conservative; a Log Cabin Republican of his time, friends with the horrific Roy Cohn. Was it camouflage to help protect him and his clients from the Red Scare days of McCarthyism, when being queer was also just as suspect? Or was he really that terrible of a person? The author makes no judgments; rather leaving it to the reader to. make up their own minds about who Henry was as a person. As terrible as he was–and some of the things he did, like the casting couch, were pretty unforgivable–I did feel sorry for him in some ways, and in basing a character on him I kind of have to find the humanity in the monster. He was not attractive in a business that revolved around beauty; while the straight male pigs who ran the business used their power to force women to sleep with them, Henry used and abused his own power to get beautiful men to sleep with him.

My own main character–a second-tier movie star who slept his way into parts and a career–is also not entirely likable; but I think I’ve gotten deep enough inside of his head to at least make him identifiable and relatable to the reader…but I guess we will just have to wait and see.

I do recommend this book, if you’re interested in Hollywood history in general or gay Hollywood history specifically.

This Is Me Trying

And so here we are, sliding into Wednesday like we’re stealing third base.

I just realized yesterday morning that this coming Monday is Labor Day. A three day weekend! Huzzah! And one that I completely forgot about until Facebook memories reminded me about past Southern Decadence weekends, which are always Labor Day weekend–except for this year, of course.

Maybe, at some point this weekend, I’ll curl up with Frank Perez and Howard Philips Smith’s definitive history of the event, Southern Decadence in New Orleans. You should really consider getting a copy–and while you’re at it, you could get the e-book of Bourbon Street Blues, which is set during Southern Decadence. It’s so weird not having Decadence this year–this year has really sucked for everyone. I feel bad for the few people who are having a good year in some way, because the massive suckage has ruined everything–which really makes celebrating those successes all the more important for the rest of us, to claim a small victory over this shitty year whenever we can.

In my sad, almost desperate attempt to find something good in this year, I realized that, failing everything else, I’ve read some amazing books this year; have watched some excellent television shows; and the pandemic work-at-home-making-condom-packs has also enabled me to watch a lot of films I’ve never seen, which has also been not only educational but interesting. The Cynical 70’s Film Festival, for example, has been pretty awesome, and has reminded me a lot of what it was like growing up in that decade of earth tones and mood rings and disco balls and bell bottoms–just yesterday at the office between clients some of the kids and I–I wasn’t the one who brought it up either–started talking about the Bermuda Triangle, which was a thing in in the 1970’s (this was triggered by the storm system heading up the Atlantic coast, which startled both of my co-workers, who’d always thought Bermuda was in the Caribbean–I laughed and said, yes, I’d always thought the same until I read The Deep and this led into an entire discussion of Bermuda’s geographic location which led, as free form conversations tend to do, a lot of jumping around on the topic of Bermuda, which led to the Bermuda Triangle). It wasn’t a real thing, after all; just another one of the many weird conspiracies and so forth that existed and proliferated in that crazy decade–although Area 54 and UFO’s seem to be turning out to be an actual thing (both of which were very popular topics of discussion and wonder in the 1970’s–hence Close Encounters of the Third Kind).

Maybe I should look into the Bermuda Triangle. Hmmmm.

Last night the Insomnia Curse was broken and I slept like the dead. I woke up at five, looked at my alarm, and rolled over and went back to sleep. My alarm–which I hadn’t set–went off  at seven this morning (maybe I dreamed it; it was set for six from the last two mornings) and so I was able to shut it off and sleep a bit more. I feel marvelously rested and awake this morning (despite the Internet outage; I am freeloading off the Cox Wi-fi–which I don’t understand; I have access to this as a Cox customer, but my home wireless is out; how can one work without the other? I don’t know and I don’t want to hurt my brain by trying to figure it out). Anyway, according to the Cox website our home wireless should be back up by around 1:30, so I am okay with using this until such time as ours comes back up. It’s okay; there’s any amount of on-line work stuff I can do until the wireless comes back up and I can stream movies whilst making condom packs again–today’s choices range from Bonnie and Clyde (technically a late 1960’s movie, but it was one of the films that signaled the change in Hollywood film), All the President’s Men, and Klute–but I am always amazed at how helpless we’ve become without the Internet or access to it, you know?

I was extremely tired last evening when I got home from the office; I was tired a lot during the day, but kept having these weird spurts of energy, and even had one after i got home from work. I sat down in the easy chair after doing the dishes and unpacking my backpack and rewatched this week’s episode of The Vow, which I kept dozing off while trying to watch on Monday night. It’s a very interesting show–cults have always been of interest to me (the 1970’s, by the way, was a big time for them) and I have always kind of wanted to write about one. When we were living in Kansas, there was actually a local one; the Way. There had used to be two colleges in Emporia, the county seat: Kansas State Teachers College (which evolved into Emporia Kansas State College and finally to what it is now, Emporia State University) and the College of Emporia. C of E was a religious school; Presbyterian, to be exact, but it had gone bankrupt and closed down in or around 1973, after which the campus was purchased by the Way International–which was a cult. When we first moved to Lyon County, since my sister and I were both teenagers, everyone warned us about the Way College of Emporia and to be careful. The members were easy to identify, really; for one thing, they always traveled in pairs, wore Polo-style shirts with name tags identifying them as members of the Way International, and they also wore khaki style pants. They also were always smiling and had a glazed look to their eyes. There were also all kinds of rumors about what went on at the campus; armed guards–and I remember seeing them–patrolled the grounds and the boundaries, keeping the curious away; and of course there were always stories about weird bonfires and ceremonies being seen from a distance, and “this guy I know is friends with a cop and they always get calls from the people who live around the campus about dogs disappearing and hearing screams from the campus and…” you know the type of thing; the story that has grown exponentially from what was originally said so you aren’t really sure what the kernel of truth in the story actually was; I actually have a file folder labeled The Cult in my file cabinet with some research I did about the Way International over the years, with an eye to writing a novel about it some day. (Obviously, The Cult is too obvious a title to actually use for such a book)

Who knew Kansas in the 1970’s was such a gold mine of material for a writer?

I’ve also been researching Chlorine while being too tired to focus on either reading or writing anything–I am definitely itching to get back to Little Fires Everywhere, and when I finish working today I am going to get Chapter Seven of Bury Me in Shadows whipped into shape for sure–and there’s such a glorious wealth of material about the closeted stars and closeted Hollywood of the time; I am kind of surprised no one has done a noir about underground gay Hollywood of the time already. (Of course, now that I’ve said that, there will probably be eighty-five million of them before I get this damned thing done) It was such an interesting period–obviously, there are biographies of the gay stars of the time (Rock Hudson, Montgomery Clift, Anthony Perkins, etc.) and there’s even a biography of Henry Willson, the gay agent played by Jim Parsons in Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood, who represented all the beefcakes male stars of the time–but I am also interested in the ones who never quite made it as movie stars, either, and the clients of Willson who were beefcakes but not gay–like Guy Madison, who was certainly gorgeous and hunky and eventually had a hit TV show. I bet their stories are just as interesting as Rock Hudson’s and the other big closeted stars.

And on that note, tis back to the spice mines with me. Have a lovely Wednesday, everyone.

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