Today my interview guest is Anel Viz, an author who has a number of excellent books to his credit, and continues to create an expanding list of fine stories. Today I’m talking with him about his historical family saga set in 19th Century Montana, The City of Lovely Brothers. (Silver Publishing, 2011 in both print and ebook.)
I’ve also written a review of this book at Jessewave. There’s a link to it at the end of our conversation.
So let’s get to it!
Anel, you’ve written stories in quite a few different genres, and often used European settings. What prompted you to write The City of Lovely Brothers?
When I begin a story, I very seldom have a particular plot in mind. My point of departure is characters in a situation, and I build out from there in both directions. I wrote this book so long ago, I don’t remember what my starting situation was except that would involve a feud, and I thought it would work well set in the Old West.
I’d been wanting to write a novel in the manner of Balzac for some time, and it wasn’t long before I realized the the story I was working on provided the perfect vehicle for one. I have a longstanding love-hate relationship with Balzac. On the one hand, he’s so damn opinionated, not to mention wordy and always going off on tangents. On the other, he is very much the father of the modern novel. He manages to create a complete and totally believable world filled with a wonderful variety of convincing characters.
The City of Lovely Brothers is Balzacian in the sense that it has a clear moral perspective that allows for shades of grey, brings in people from different backgrounds and walks of life, and focuses on the devastation caused by petty jealousies and greed. Balzac was obsessed with money. Also, the novel opens opens with a detailed description of where the main action will take place, as Balzac’s often do.
Then, finding myself writing a mini Human Comedy, I saw in it an opportunity to do something else I’d been contemplating for a while: to heighten the immediacy of a historical novel by tying it to the present. At that point, I jumped back and wrote the beginning, to the amateur historian who researched the story. I invented the city of Caladelphia, and renamed all the brothers, but since I could only think of three “Cal” names, I called the youngest Caliban, which is what gave me the idea of making him physically deformed, although still beautiful.
So the past continues on into the present. We have the fictional Caladelphia as it is today and how it was over a century ago, and a fictional narrator who has developed an emotional attachment to actors in the story. He reads their letters, searches for photos of them, visits their graves. Because of this, some readers have told me the book feels more like a biography than a work of fiction.
It does read like a biography. Tell me a little about the research you did for it.
I researched this book extensively since giving it a sense of place was so important. The places I describe in detail—the main house on the Caldwell ranch, Caliban’s house, his apartment in Davenport, the layout of Caladelphia city—are my own inventions, so it was easy research.
I examined old photographs, read up on the organization of a ranch and what amenities (such as plumbing) were available at the time, what businesses were open, dates for battles in the Indian Wars and the building of the railroads, the legal requirements of incorporation… in short, a lot of petty but essential details. And it was fun, in part because my fictional narrator is engaged in the same type of research I was doing.
Were there any surprises in what you learned?
No, not really. I’d seen enough westerns, and my family’s values were shaped by the Great Depression so I heard a lot about those times when I was growing up.
What was the most depressing piece of information you picked up?
What prompted you to ask this question? Do you find the book depressing? I don’t.
No, I didn’t find the book depressing. But I certainly found some moments depressing. The hardship of the depression, certainly. Also the lack of more skilled medical care for Caliban, even within the scope of the period. I couldn’t help wondering what would their story have been like without the progressive deterioration of his hip.
Yes, the end is sad—how could it not be when you tell a person’s life from birth to death?—and just about all the characters get the shaft (I don’t mean sexually), but for me the book speaks to the triumph of the human spirit, to people’s ability to persevere in the face of adversity, and one would have to dig deep to find a story about a love as deep and enduring as Nick and Caliban’s.
That said, the most depressing piece of information was something I already knew and was reminded of, not something I “picked up”: how people suffered during the Depression. As I said, my parents lived through it, and I grew up listening to their stories. It’s a period I’ll probably come back to someday.
Tell me something about your approach to writing in general.
For one, it’s character driven. I’ve already said I knew from the beginning Lovely Brothers story would be about a feud, but the direction it would take did not become apparent until Calvin’s and Calhoun’s characters had taken shape. Also, I don’t tell a love story for the sake of telling a love story.
I’d say the brothers’ feud is not the context in which the love between Caliban and Nick plays out; rather, their devotion to each other provides a moral alternative to the petty resentments that surround them. If you removed their relationship from the book, you’d still have a book; get rid of the rest and what’s left is a very moving but somewhat pointless love story.
That’s an interesting view, although I disagree with your conclusion. I don’t believe love is ever pointless, and for me a love story is its own meaning.
In City of Lovely Brothers sex is frequent and explicit, enriched by the good-hearted sense of play Nick and Caliban share. They’re imaginative and unattached to roles. Their inventiveness becomes essential as Caliban’s hip and leg become more of a problem. Do you have any comment on how you handled the sexual aspect of their relationship?
Except for a couple of my shorter short stories, I have yet to write a book straight through from beginning to end. I jump around, filling in parts when I feel inspired and adding details when an idea occurs to me.
When I was working on City of Lovely Brothers, I put “sex scene” in brackets in the places I intended to have one and came back to them when the rest of the book was done. The only one I wrote earlier is the ride back to Cal’s house after the first time they make love.
As a rule, I write all the sex scenes last, because they’re the hardest. (No pun intended.) I want all my books to be different, including the sex scenes, but there’s not much one can do to individualize a sex scene. Making the sex scenes playful allowed me to put a Nick-and-Cal stamp on them and to make their playfulness more poignant as Caliban’s condition progresses.
Also, I think any long book needs some humor, especially one like Lovely Brothers, where the characters face a constant struggle for survival. So I made most of the scenes that feature sex or nudity lighthearted, like Caliban caught walking naked on the prairie near his house or Calvin Junior’s exaggerated modesty at the swimming hole.
The latter also balances nicely with the young Caliban’s embarrassment at being on display after his accident much earlier in the story. Similarly, Calvin sending the girl Calhoun knocked up to rub salve on his backside provides a break in tone from the brutality of the beating scene that precedes it. (I didn’t put off the nude scenes until the end, only the sex.)
When you sit down to write a story, what over-arching structure do you hold?
Whatever structure will work best for the story I have to tell, and I discover it in the telling. Structure is something I like to experiment with, and every one of my books is structured differently.
To quote one reviewer of New Lives: “Is it short stories or a novel? Yes. Is it whimsical or a dark exploration of gay life? Yes. Is it erotica or literary fiction? Yes.”
As I said earlier, I don’t start a book with a particular plot in mind; I most often use characters in a situation as my point of departure, and it’s common for me to have written a sixth, sometimes a quarter, of a book before I decide what structure it will have. Only then do I actually set about planning it and make an outline.
As a writer, what would you like your stories to be remembered for?
Ah, yes. Being an author confers immortality, does it not? Not to imply that the stories by themselves hold interest, I like to think that the value of my work lies in the following:
1) Finely crafted English prose—rhythmic, lucid, succinct, well paced, literate. Not necessarily easy—I don’t mind challenging a reader with new ways of seeing the world, non-traditional organization, complex sentence structure, “big” words, etc.
2) Substance, meaning I don’t want to write fluff. All my works deal with issues at some level, and those issues are more important to me than the love story I couch them in. Another aspect of what I call “substance” has to do with creating real, multi-dimensional characters, where the reader intuits that there’s more to these people than even the author can possibly know.
3) Originality, that every book I write is different from the others, and only the writing style and the meatiness of the content bear my individual stamp. The same person who reviewed New Lives said about another of my books, “Someday this reviewer will find a predictable story in a Viz work, then will examine the book to discover that the cover has the author’s name incorrect.”
I like that–it fits you, too. What’s your current project? Is there something new in it for you besides the story itself?
I have so many! Novels (or novellas, since I can’t tell in advance how long they will be), including contemporaries, historicals and futuristics. I have a story coming out in the next issue of Wilde Oats called “Epithalamion” that may or may not turn out to be the opening chapter of a novel about Richard II.
I have plans for revising “The House in Birdgate Alley” and making it the first in a series of novellas about Johnny Rice. I’ve written parts of I what hope will one day be a novel about a man whose position in the world is ruined because of his addictive infatuation with a hustler.
Another about a family torn apart by disagreements on how to deal with a terminally ill parent. Another about a man suffering from aphasia—a very challenging project because, since he can’t express himself, it will be told from everybody’s POV except his.
Another set in France during the Anglo-Burgundian conflict in the Hundred Years’ War. A story about escaping from the real world by turning oneself into a book. Some readers have requested a sequel to “The Thought Collector”. That’s just a sample.
And yes, they’ll all have a central love story of sorts, but, as you see from my descriptions, that’s never my primary focus nor my reason for writing them. I’ve started them all. Will I write finish any of them? Wish me luck!
Gladly — good luck! That’s a long list. What’s a pet peeve you encounter in reading gay fiction? Or any fiction, for that matter?
In gay fiction, that the book is almost always a romance and nothing but. As a result, the gay men who inhabit those stories are made to conform to what readers expectation from the genre, and they come off as types rather than individuals. We don’t see the whole person.
Every aspect of a gay man’s existence ends up playing second fiddle to his love life. I can recommend Victor Banis’s “Cooper’s Hawk” as an example of a story where that doesn’t happen. We see the emptiness in his life after the death of his partner. I’m not saying that all M/M gives us nothing but stereotypes or I don’t enjoy reading M/M, but it does raise my hackles when it happens.
As gay man and a member of a minority, I resent being forced into a mold to tickle somebody’s fantasies.
For a pet peeve about fiction in general, I’d single out trivial dialogue that doesn’t advance the story or give any insight into the character speaking.
An example would be someone introducing mutual friends: “Bob, I’d like you to meet my friend John. John, this is Bob.” — “Hi, Bob. So I finally get to meet you. I’ve heard a lot about you.” — “Gary’s told me a lot about you, too. I’m really pleased to make your acquaintance.” — “Same here.” ad infinitum. Why not just tell us Gary introduced them and leave it at that? Or cut the scene altogether? It’s one of the advantages of writing a novel instead of a play. The so-called “Show, don’t tell” rule should be applied judiciously. Show only the important stuff, and tell the rest.
Do you have any observations or hopes about the evolution of LGBTQ fiction?
LGBTQ fiction has an enormous untapped potential. If only its authors were willing to experiment and worried less about playing it safe! I’d like to see them branch out into other genres besides romance.
Better yet, I’d like to see romance become a more supple genre, open to a greater variety of plot types. Over the past century, romance evolved into something very narrow and, for my taste, too set in its ways. All the sub-genres—westerns, mysteries, historicals, paranormals, etc.—follow the same basic pattern.
I fight against this reductio ad “boy-meets-boy/crisis/HEA” in my own work, but publishers seem to think all their readers are clamoring for more of the same, so it isn’t easy to place my books.
Four publishers turned down Lovely Brothers before Silver accepted it with virtually no changes besides copy edits. It was either too long, or the love interest didn’t get under way soon enough, or I focused too much on events peripheral to the love story. Yet, if I can trust readers’ feedback, none of my other books have grabbed them with as quite much force.
Maybe publishers will be willing to take a chance on me once I’ve made more of a name for myself. I’ve been writing for only a half a dozen years. At the moment, I’m waiting to hear back on a story I’ve submitted about a woman whose obsessive homophobia sends her on a crusade that jeopardizes her marriage.
Very relevant to the gay experience, but it doesn’t have a single element of romance. A good story well told doesn’t have to follow a set pattern in order to enthrall readers.
It boils down to this: I wish there were more LGBTQ fiction that does more than simply tell a story. Okay, I’ll admit it: I’d like to see more literary works. I know “literary” has become a dirty word in some circles. So has “liberal”, and neither deserves it. Nor does “romance”.
A work should be judged on its merits, not by its genre. And there’s no reason a romance can’t be literary. Lord knows they used to be, and many still are. Literary is not a synonym for flowery or pretentious; it means the book is a serious work of art—nothing more, nothing less.
Is there some story that you’ve wanted to write, but haven’t felt strong enough yet as a writer to tackle it?
It’s one I’m working on now and have been for nearly three years. It will be huge when it’s done, a true leviathan, so long I imagine it will have to be published in two or more volumes, but it’s a single novel, definitely not a series. I returned to it a week or so ago after putting it aside for several months.
The Pyramid of Nepensiret deals with Egyptologists from different countries and different eras, all working to solve the same unanswered question. It covers more than three millennia, not in chronological order, with scenes that take place during Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign, the Franco-Prussian War, the Dreyfus Affair, Kristallnacht, the Battle of Britain, the Six Day War, and the Stonewall riots.
Fitting all the pieces together is a major challenge, and the amount of research required is staggering.
Fascinating concept! And again, good luck! Is there a particular part of the world — somewhere you haven’t actually lived — where you’d like to set a story? What is it about that place that speaks to you?
Russia, either under the tsars or Soviet rule, or perhaps during the Revolution. Both my parents are of Russian descent, and I have cousins in New York who emigrated here in the ’90s whom I stayed with for two weeks before they moved here (two weeks doesn’t count as living there, does it?) and others still living in St. Petersburg. And I love Russian novels. My favorite is War and Peace. Problem is, I don’t have an idea for a story yet.
Powerful setting. I think a Russian story would suit your writing so well. What about a place/time that you’re confident you’ll never use as a setting? What’s the turnoff about that? Is there a genre you avoid?
Gee, I don’t know. Borneo? I consider any time period fair game. I’ve even written a story set in an imaginary Bronze Age culture.
I’m attracted to historicals because I’m an old man now and somewhat out of touch with pop culture. Writing something contemporary would require too much research. I don’t have much of a knack for SF; the closest I’ve come to writing that is urban fantasy. I have written a YA story under a different pen name. (You didn’t think my birth certificate reads Anel Viz, did you?) And someday I may write a book—a fiction book—that doesn’t have a single gay, love interest or sex scene in it. And nobody will buy it.
What a provocative end to an interesting discussion — thank you, Anel Viz!
To learn more about Anel, visit his blog is here. http://anelviz.blogspot.com/
My Jessewave review of The City of Lovely Brothers is here.