by Cooper Lee Bombardier
by Cooper Lee Bombardier
Cooper Lee Bombardier:
Concrete Blonde - "Side of The Road"
"Feeling my liquor/feeling alone/nowhere to go/so I guess I'll go home/you were the first/and the only one/by the side/of the road..."
“Side of The Road” is by the great Los Angeles band Concrete Blonde. This song was one of my faves from the mixtape I made for tour '97 titled Tattooed Outlaw Hitchhiker Bitch. It's a road song, and it's about the loss of innocence, hard-won yet unwanted wisdom, reminiscing with an old friend and lover about good times and burst dreams. Johnette Napolitano's 40-grit voice scrapes sorrowfully over the simple yet heartfelt lyrics, the usually hard-hitting band is reduced to a kicked tambourine and a plaintively-picked banjo. It is about drifting along with the events of life so far you don't know where you need to be. Going home sounds tempting, but you realize you don't belong there anymore, either. It's the discovery that we are all, at heart, rootless and alone.
The Geraldine Fibbers - "Lilybelle"
"In the dark/she is rocking/ not to records/but to voices/ in her head/Lilybelle Lilybelle Lilybelle/ hot as hell/ 3 am and it feels just like high noon/ in her head/come to bed/ when the air cools down/ I'm gonna skate away..."
"Lost Somewhere Between The Earth and My Home" was pretty much the soundtrack of my queer San Francisco life from it's release in 1994 until the turn of the century. Even now, when The Geraldine Fibbers pop up on my iTunes' seemingly psychic shuffle, the music stands the test of time. Everywhere I went, the album seemed to be playing, or the Fibbers were playing a live show. Once I even went out to lunch with the band, and Carla Bozulich shared my salad. I thought I could die happy in that moment -- I usually steer clear of starfuckery, but Carla was such a perfect rockstar crush. I'd fall in love with the thick veins popping out on her straining throat whenever I'd hear her raspy scream. Lilybelle speaks to loving the desperate crazy of our lovers and our selves, fitting to that time when we all had big feelings and big ideas and our whole town was a queer playground, sexual frontier, and art nirvana; everything was about discovery and experiment and identity -- but so few of us had the tools back then to navigate it any other way than as a cacophony, just like this song.
July 30th, 2012
In Portland, Oregon’s historic Crystal Ballroom, the house lights dim, ambient music fades, and the roar of conversing voices coalesce into a delighted hum of anticipation. Beer sloshes from plastic cups onto shirts and shoes as the crowd surges forward, and the warm footlights glow up onto hirsute men who begin to strut across the stage, flaunting follicles Melvillian to near-monstrous in size and style. Their aesthetics range from gutter punk to American Gothic. They are young and old, slim and stocky, foreign and local, from every vocation, class, ethnicity, and sexual identity. What these men all share: facial hair worthy of competition.
This is people-watching at its prime. Many patrons sport sculpted facial fur. Some also swagger in fanciful outfits which compliment their bearded bounty. Bowler-derby hats, ascots, and canes abound among the multi-generational crowd, along with lederhosen and German bar-maid dresses, leather pants, lots of tattoos, pea-coats and Greek fishermen caps, and top-hats. Some cephalopod-like mustaches seem to wriggle forth on their owners’ faces, curling tentacles of hair defy gravity. There is at least one Abraham Lincoln. A man in his late thirties is dressed like a garden gnome, with a very tall red conical hat and a flowing blue blouse. His long reddish beard comes to a gnomish point somewhere around his xiphoid process. One young man rocks a WWII-era officer’s dress uniform, while his companion wears a full Scotsman’s outfit complete with a peaked cap and kilt, complimented by his full rusty-brown mustache and van dyke. Their chins raise and their chests balloon when I ask if I can take their picture.
While my own facial crop is far from contest-worthy, I jump at the chance to attend such a bountiful celebration of the man-flag. As a transman, the ability to finally grow facial hair was an enormous milestone in my journey to male. It took years of hormone therapy, but now I can grow a beard or mustache that exceeds that of a teenager. I go to learn — like many trans people, I’m a perpetual student of gender —to see what I might divine about maleness and masculinity. I go as a spy, undetectable as anyone other than a man who’s always had the promise of facial hair on his horizon.
I grasp my own plastic cup of bland beer, and make my way toward the stage through the throng of attendees at the first annual West Coast Beard and Mustache Championships. I attend by myself, and unburdened by idle chit-chat or the impatience of others, I am free to explore. I’m on my own private anthropological investigation.
Competitors from Austin, Texas unfurl a large Lone Star state flag from the balcony and pump their fists into the air like 60s radicals, to which some in the audience hoot and yee-haw in return. Their massive mustaches and beards bloom from beneath well-worn cowboy hats, as if supporting the innate Texan belief that everything is bigger in Texas. Finally the judges take their seats at a table festooned with a hand-painted banner for the Stumptown Stash and Beard Collective, whose logo depicts a beaver wearing a handlebar mustache standing atop a stump. The judge wearing a white polo shirt and ballcap is Phil Olsen, president of Beard Team USA. He strokes his stately full and rounded beard with a soft brush as he contemplates the line-up. It is time for round one: Natural Mustache.
Phil Olsen started in Bearding while traveling in Ystad, Sweden in 1999. It was a coincidence that he happened upon the World Beard and Mustache Championships, hosted by the Svenska Mustaschklubben —The Swedish Mustache Club.
“I had a substantial beard at the time and fit in really well,” says Phil, whose dark, rounded beard and gruff demeanor belie a surprisingly eloquent and musical voice — he could be a radio announcer or a voice-over actor. Phil is the founder of Beard Team USA, the acting president, a frequent competition judge, and the visionary who introduced the sport of Bearding to the United States.
“I take full credit for the trend,” says Phil. “The people who know me recognize what I’ve done for the sport. People close to me know how hard I’ve worked.”
“America was underrepresented,” he says of the 1999 Worlds. “Most of the competitors were Germans. I speak German and they thought it was pretty cool.” In 2001 The Association of German Beard Clubs asked Phil to organize in the United States. He started Beard Team USA in 2003 at the Worlds in Carson City, California. The recent surge of interest in facial hair is “difficult to explain — [Bearding] is a natural thing.” Phil pauses. “Being clean-shaven is unnatural. Shaving is altering your appearance, removing a masculine characteristic. Shaving is for men who want to look like women.”
This doesn’t bode well for men who, due to genetics or heredity, can’t grow much of a beard, but Phil sees that as just their natural state. “They can save it or shave it. I would admire those who save it, but I would understand those who shave it thinking it doesn’t look good,” he elaborates. For those whose profession requires them to be clean-shaven, he says “I feel sorry for these guys. The requirements are irrational, but that is the fault of those adopting the requirements, not those who must comply with them.” Pity a man who suffers from pogonophobia. It’s not that a lack of facial hair makes a man less of a man, rather, Phil is advocating for men to celebrate this aspect of masculinity if they so choose. “Men who want to have beards should have beards. Men who want to look like women should look like women. I believe most men want to have beards. Too many of them shave because they think someone else wants them to.” Despite his sometimes provocative pro-beard quips, Phil’s stance on gender might not be so black and white. He doesn’t think that women who can grow a natural beard are trying to look like men, he thinks they are trying to look more like themselves. “Since such women are a very small minority of women, it takes a lot of courage to let their beards grow. I would not criticize them for shaving it in order to avoid being a curiosity.” Phil is adamant to make everyone feel that they are welcomed in the sport, whatever their facial hair ability or proclivity.
As for what inspired him to grow a beard, Phil says “I didn’t ‘grow’ a beard, it just grew. I am not sure — is it evolution or creation?” Phil values individuality. He says that people should be themselves. A semi-retired lawyer, Phil says that having a large, full beard hasn’t affected his work. He gets exclusively positive comments on his beard. “I am very fastidious in maintaining it — it adds to my professionalism.” Part of the mission of Beard Team USA is advocacy. He says that some believe having heavy facial hair is akin to uncleanliness, like not showering or brushing your teeth.
“I am breaking prejudice by showing that a beard can compliment a person’s appearance.” The mission statement on his website declares that “BTUSA opposes discrimination against the bearded, mustached, sideburned, and goateed.” Phil has, on several occasions, written letters to various organizations requesting that they permit an employee to have a beard.
Some employers have a strict dress code which precludes beards, others try to enforce a “look policy.” For many employees whose workplaces fall under the at-will employment doctrine, there is little protection from being fired if having facial hair violates the dress code, unless the firing can be demonstrated to violate religious freedoms, anti-discrimination laws, or medical exceptions.
“We oppose discrimination in any form, and are open to fighting it. But the more effective strategy is to set an example. Beards are [becoming] more accepted. I don’t feel out of place in a courtroom because I have a beard.”
To date, there have been three beard competitions in Portland. The first one was in September 2010, an outdoor event at The Pirate Festival. Phil Olsen was a judge at that one, too.
“It poured rain most of the time but nobody seemed to notice but me,” says the Tahoe City, California resident. He sees Portland as a great city for beards, but is quick to add “You could talk to lots of people and they would say their city is a great place for beards. Beards are growing everywhere.”
Phil is not sure which chapter of Beard Team USA is the largest. The Stumptown Stash and Beard Collective is very active, so is the Charleston, South Carolina group, which is hosting a competition soon. The Los Angeles chapter will also be sponsoring a competition in a couple of months.
“I made an effort for [Beard Team USA] to not be like the Rotary Club. There are no rules, no dues, no secret handshake. [The goal is] to have fun, and spread Bearding.”
The Beard Team USA website states that:
Membership in America’s team is open to everyone. There are no annoying applications, dues, membership requirements, or gender tests. Unlike some sporting organizations, Beard Team USA encourages the use of performance enhancing substances.
“It’s [also] a family thing.” Phil sees the family-friendly atmosphere as part of the inclusive nature of the sport. “In Portland there were lots of families, people brought their kids.”
“Everyone has a great time,” explains Phil. “It’s universal — the camaraderie is what the events are for — everyone agrees. People from different walks of life find friendship through an odd interest. In Sweden, I saw that it brings people together. I encourage people of different ages, locations, countries, religions, languages, racial backgrounds to get involved — I want everyone to feel included. The competition should be playful. It’s all in fun, but it’s not a joke.”
When I was a little kid I’d lather Barbasol thick as cake frosting on my face. It was easy to imagine my beard beneath the white shaving cream shadow on my reflected visage. I’d slap my cheeks loudly with my father’s aftershave, breathing in the wonderful stink of musky lime – Hai Karate! The alcohol was cool then dried with a sting. My father had shaved off his beard before leaving for his two-week summer Army drills, and I freaked. Who was that man, standing at my father’s sink? One of our neighbors across the street was a long-haul truck driver like my grandfather. But my grandfather had been a Marine in the Pacific Theater, he was clean-cut and trim with neatly Brylcreemed hair. I would go talk to shaggy-haired Mr. Stoddard, fascinated by the blue thick outline of a naked lady tattooed on his leathery-brown forearm, obsessed with his long Frank Zappa mustache. I always knew I’d grow up to have facial hair –—somehow.
During the third round of the WCBMC, Full Natural Beard with Styled Mustache, a woman in the audience declares: “It’s like a man pageant.” The WCBMC contestants are not unlike male birds strutting their splendid plumage. There are few opportunities that I can think of for men to be admired for their looks in this way. I wonder if such pageantry is an important outlet missing from our culture. What exactly is the cultural significance of facial hair competition?
“It’s about men wanting to look like men,” Phil says.
Justin Cate, founder of both the Stumptown Stash and Beard Collective and the WCBMC, as well as the event’s emcee, thinks it is just another arena for men to be competitive, as men often are. “I don’t think it says anything necessarily about manhood, but it does illustrate the ability of social networking to be able to foster the growth of a group, consisting of just about any demographic one can imagine.”
“Before this modern competitive scene started, facial hair may have been a way to display individuality, and show indifference to the standard, corporate way of life. Now though, it seems to have become chic or another fad that has infiltrated society,” Justin says.
The commodification and marketing of men’s grooming seems to be on one end of an American male cultural spectrum, and on the other end are guys growing three-foot long beards. I wondered if competitive facial hair is a statement against the pampering, pruning, and plucking of men? Justin says that his impetus to grow a beard stemmed from sheer laziness at first. “But for me, as well as nearly all of the competitors, grooming has become a daily routine for us. I would argue that many of my friends have to spend more time grooming than many clean-shaven, or corporate types.”
Phil has developed his signature rounded technique over the years.
“It appeals to me, so I keep it that way,” he says. Like asking a famous chef to divulge their secret ingredient, it seems rude to ask how he achieves this magical roundness. He could be my beard Obi-Wan Kenobi, if only I had the guts to ask. All in good time, young Skywalker, I tell myself, scratching at my muttonchops, all in good time. But Phil freely offers general Bearding wisdom: “You have to start experimenting with different ways to style, shape, condition, and groom your beard. It has to fit your personality. My main advice is to have fun with it.
There are many women in the audience at the WCBMC, and quite a few are strolling the ballroom in mustaches. Some are Fu Manchu-types cut from black felt, others are more convincing —thick synthetic hair, attached with spirit gum. As far as I can tell, there are no naturally mustachioed or bearded women present. At least two women compete in the Freestyle Mustache heat, albeit with artificial mustaches. The crowd hoops and hollers right along for them, especially for the woman in a German Fraulein dress, which accentuates both her cleavage and the humongous handlebar mustache which extends several inches beyond each cheek into the festive air. She roars like a lioness while two-fisting steins of beer above her head. The crowd goes insane. Phil reiterates that he wants everyone to feel included and to have fun in Bearding, and says the women are welcomed by the guys.
“Any woman with a real beard should enter the competition.” He explains that the fake beard category has been historically conflated with the ladies category, but he doesn’t agree with that practice. “There shouldn’t be categories between men and women, it should be just divided by real beards and fake beards.” After a pause he adds, “I feel sorry for women who have to put on a fake beard to have a beard.”
Last summer, the Independent Film Channel (IFC) premiered its latest reality show, Whisker Wars, bringing national attention to the subculture of Bearding. The program was created by producer Thom Beers, who has graced cable television with other testosterone-pumped hits like Deadliest Catch, Ice Road Truckers, Ax Men, and Coal.
“It has raised the profile of the sport and created tremendous interest. I’ve been working toward that [level of exposure] for years and [the show] is excellent for that,” says Phil Olsen. But he now sees negativity and hostility where there previously was not. “The show thrives on conflict — that was never a part of Bearding before. We never had booing or disrespect.” It is no surprise to Phil that programs like this trump up disaccord. “It is unnecessary to create drama — as long as you are inquisitive and perceptive you can see the drama that is already there, you don’t need to inject it. I try to promote the integrity of the sport and to welcome everyone, to make it friendly and open. Controversy has come up over judging. I’ve tried to make it as open, transparent, and fair as possible. I try to make sure that the judges don’t know contestants and are not affiliated.”
Phil says that the competitions are a fairly new thing, they’ve been catching on since 2009, and there seems to be an event now almost every couple of weeks. Phil sounds as serious as a heart attack when it comes to fairness and appropriateness in his sport. Its all in fun, but it is not a joke, after all. But drama is the meat of reality television. As Thom Beers told The Hollywood Reporter: “…it’s not just about the job, it’s finding a culture where there are rules and codes, heroes and villains. That’s what’s fascinating to me.”
“Some contests have had a secret judging criteria — that’s a big mistake.” Phil says. “The most important thing is to have a fair contest and avoid the appearance of impropriety.” Listening to Phil talk about unethical judging reminds me of something Norman Mailer wrote: “Masculinity is not something given to you, but something you gain. And you gain it by winning small battles with honor.”
On January first, my younger brother announced the beginning of what he was calling his “Beard Year.” He vowed to not shave for twelve months.
“After many failed attempts at growing a big beard, I started doing research. I got a lot of good advice on the internet which was helpful. So I set a goal, one year: from January 2012 to January 2013.” His beard loomed larger, especially on the horizontal plane, every time he posted new pictures to Facebook. He finally caved, nearly six months in. On Memorial Day weekend he shaved.
“ I was hopeful to follow through with it. To grow a giant beard and maybe enter the Nationals if I could in fact go through with it,” he said.
I recently shaved clean for the first time since last August for a job interview. I didn’t have the hugest beard — there are fourteen-year old boys and grandmothers who can grow a more robust beard than me — but it was over six months of intensive growing, and I was quite fond of my biggest, longest beard to date. There was something comforting about it, like a security blanket, or a favorite hat. It was also like a part-time job; or keeping a pet such as a small rodent or lizard, a living thing which required at least a minimum of human interaction every day. It will be a long time, if ever, before I’d be able to compete in the Full Natural Beard category. However, I experienced a bit of chin dysphoria when I shaved — I couldn’t believe how tiny and pale my chin seemed, in fact it took me a couple of weeks to accept that this was now my face: my beardless, gray, shorn face. I just didn’t feel quite like myself for a while. I asked WCBMC’s Justin Cate if this is normal.
“I shaved just after I realized that I wouldn’t be able to go to the 2009 Worlds. That was one of the only times I’ve seen my chin in the last 15 years or so…the last time I shaved, I felt a little naked. I don’t know that I’ll shave anytime soon, as my beard has become a part of my personality.”
Phil invites everyone to join in the fun this fall at The National Beard and Mustache Championships. They will take place in Las Vegas, Nevada at the Clark County Government Center Amphitheater on Veteran’s Day weekend. Phil expects to see familiar faces from all across the country as well as from the international community of Bearding. “It is open to everyone: no rules, no dues, have fun, everyone is welcome,” Phil tells me. “I encourage everyone to grow a beard for America!”
“For the first time in history, the Nationals will utilize the seventeen-category system commonly employed at the World Beard and Moustache[sic] Championships. The categories range from the delicate Dali moustache to the anything-goes full beard freestyle,” the announcement reads. With six months until the Nationals, participants have plenty of time to “practice your poker, grow your beard or moustache, and make plans to be in Vegas!” The seventeen different competition categories, as observed by the Worlds, are worth reading over. Pretty rich stuff. Turn to it for pictures, history, inspiration, humor, past category champions, and general beard-geekery. The category description for Full Beard Natural reads: “This is it! The Marathon, the main event, the Real McCoy, the Superbowl…Length is important, but isn’t everything. Mass, density, shape, color, and overall impression all count. This category always draws the largest number of contestants and the most heated competition.”
The Crystal Ballroom crowd is getting drunker, the cheering rowdier. During the WCBMC’s fourth heat, Full Natural Beard, I catch myself nudging elbows with a stranger wearing dark glasses, a black fedora and a huge black mustache. He and I point at a contestant’s antics, and laugh together. My face is sore from smiling. It is hard to put my finger on exactly what it is that makes watching a beard and mustache contest so enjoyable, but it really is. I have been having a ball all night. It strikes me that I often have a similar reaction at a crowded dog-park, where there is huge satisfaction taken in observing variations in a species.
I realize the source of my muscle-ache-inducing smiling is this: it is the joy of diversity. It is the pleasure of witnessing flaunted difference —the amazingness in how alike, and yet unalike, we all are.
I may never have the beard it takes to be part of this sport as a competitor, but I am reassured by the infectious enthusiasm of the Beard Team USA President that there is a place for me amongst beardsmen.
“Bearding is the easiest sport there is,” Phil Olsen says. “To get started, you do nothing.”
Click here to read the interview in Lambda Literary.
Carter Sickels’ debut novel, The Evening Hour (Bloomsbury), takes us into the life of Cole, who works as a nursing home aide in Dove Creek, a rural mountain town in West Virginia. Dove Creek has thrived and now is threatened by coal mining, particularly the mountaintop removal method that is destroying homes, drinking water, and the very landscape that is home to the community. But the increasingly damaging mining isn’t the only pressure Cole is facing. Stuttering, shamed, conflicted Cole must make a choice to stand up or risk losing everything that matters to him. Sickels writes with grace about a people and a community that could easily slip into simplistic caricature in the hands of a less diligent author. Instead, we spend time in a world on the brink of change, with complex characters who have everything to lose.
Sickels, who now lives in Portland, OR, gave his first reading for the book to a sizable crowd at the downtown landmark, Powell’s City of Books. The tall, soft-spoken, and sometimes shy author joined me in my kitchen for coffee recently to talk about his book. One on one, he was enthusiastic to talk about his connection to Appalachia, his writing process, tenderness between men, and coming out as trans at the same time his novel was released earlier this year.
What have you been up to since your book was released?
I’ve been doing readings in Portland, Seattle, New York, Philly. I’ve been doing some interviews, and obsessively going to Facebook to see if anyone’s commented. (Both laugh.)
Have you been getting a positive response?
Yeah, so far. I’ve had a few reviews and they’ve been good. It seems like the book is reaching different parts of the population.
Will you talk about that a little more? This book, to me, seems like it could have a lot of different audiences: fans of literary fiction, people interested in environmental issues, cultural and class issues…
My hope is that it is a strong literary novel and attracts that audience, but isn’t just limited to that. People are really interested in the environmental aspect too. And I think people are really interested in stories about rural areas and communities.
The mountaintop removal in the book creates this outside, omnipresent pressure on Cole and the other characters in the story. It bookends the pressure building up on Cole around his drug dealing, people becoming more addicted and damaged by their addictions, and the law starts moving in, the pressure ratchets up a lot. What attracted you to writing about mountaintop removal?
I knew it was going to be set in Appalachia, I was writing about this rural space and class issues. I found out about mountaintop removal when I was doing some research on coal mining and environmental issues in Appalachia, and I had no idea what it was. It blew me away, it was really shocking. At the time there wasn’t a lot of attention around the issue, maybe just a couple of documentaries. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I called up an organization that I read about in rural West Virginia called Coal River Mountain Watch. I was living in New York at the time and asked if I could come down and see what was happening, and it was an amazing experience. What was happening was so devastating. I also got to meet these great people, and they were so unlike anyone in my life in New York City. They reminded me of people in my family, very local West Virginia, or in my case, rural Ohio. Most of the people I met didn’t go to school for environmental studies or anything like that…
But they became activated…
Yeah they became very activated because of what was happening to their homes and they were so on top of things, so smart and savvy. They knew the political landscape ofWest Virginia, and also what was going on nationally with environmental issues. And their lives changed in such a radical way that I have never really seen before.
In a way, they had nothing to lose, everything they knew and believed in was essentially under attack. One of the major conflicts in your book is the bind that some of these people are in, they are stuck working for this company that is essentially destroying their home…they get nestled in the arm of this giant that is basically crushing everything over here, which is an all too common story for many poor communities in our country, for example the Native tribes that have nuclear waste stored on their lands. Maybe there’s this expectation from those corporations that disenfranchised communities won’t fight back?
Yes, that’s absolutely the expectation. But the people I met are really fighting back. In my novel, I don’t really have a lot of those activist characters, but I met this woman, Judy Bonds, she died last year, she was the one who got all of the organizing rolling. She was amazing. She was five feet tall, grew up there, she was a waitress. Judy told me she’d never thought about any of this, ever, environmentalism, none of it. She became totally radicalized, and she was so tough, people were scared of her, she was such a tough little spitfire. As that movement grew, and more people from the environmental movement started showing up, I saw people change and open up in other ways, and become more progressive. People became more open to diversity. All of these anarchist kids showed up from Earth First, and I had no idea how that was going to work out. But it seemed like it did.
It sounds…beautiful! (Both laugh) So, were people open to sharing what was going on in that community with you?
People were open with me, to a point. I remember this moment where I was talking to this guy who was dressed all in camouflage, a very tough, über-macho guy. He was talking about his grand-daughter getting sick from the drinking water, and he just started crying, it was really intense. I felt like there was some sort of openness there, even though I was clearly an outsider. I established a good connection with a few people, and one person especially, Bo Webb, became a close friend. But we have very different lives. I was nervous to give him the book, but he really liked it. He wrote a little review on Powells.com.
That’s great! So sweet. You mentioned that you have family in rural places like Appalachia, was it easier to focus on a region that is a little removed from where your relatives might be living?
I think it would have worked to set it in Ohio, because I would have created a fictitious place, with images of what I’ve seen in rural parts of the state. The reason I set it in West Virginia was because of the mountaintop removal. Culturally, it is similar.
In The Evening Hour, many characters are on the verge of finding their voice. Fighting back against the mining company helps Cole find his voice for the first time. Both with an actual speech-impediment, and also a lot of shame. At the end, there’s a little bit of a cliff-hanger: is he actually going to leave, or is he going to stay and help out his community. Talk about Cole’s transformation a little bit…
I wanted to write about how folks were living their lives in rural West Virginia with this intense destruction happening all around them. I was interested in writing about how people hold on to their sense of home when the landscape is literally shifting. I really was drawn to Cole as a character, and everyday life in this town. He starts to find his voice when he meets Lacey and her daughter Sarah Jane. They are much more aware of what is going on. Then disaster happens and at that point Cole takes action, he realizes that he has something to give to his community.
There’s a scene in the book where Cole is with Sarah Jane, while she is taking pictures of the mountaintop removal, and she knows so much about the issue, and Cole asks why she can’t have fun like a normal kid. I loved that exchange, it felt very real – many of us have felt a little like that around our really hardcore activist friends sometimes. (Both laugh) Cole is interesting, he’s a very complex character. He has many contradictions that I found that fascinating. He has such a strong sense of duty and connection to his grandparents and his place in Dove Creek. There’s his deep care, interest, and respect for the people in the nursing home, he brings human touch and connection to them, warmth that they don’t seem to be getting from anyone else, and yet, he’s ripping off their heirlooms and stashes of cash.
One of the first kernels of an idea I had for Cole came from reading a New York Times article about this guy who was a dealer. He bought drugs from the old people and sold them in the community, and he had a real respect for the people he was buying drugs from. That was so interesting to me, and the story stuck with me. I also knew I wanted to set it in a nursing home. One of the first things I wrote was Cole feeding one of the residents oatmeal, and then stealing his money out of his drawer. In one way I was challenging myself with characterization, and wanting to develop complicated characters. I had a tendency as a writer, and a lot of writers have this issue: we want our protagonist to be a likeable and good person, to protect our characters and keep them from doing bad things. I wanted to push myself.
I appreciated that about the character of Cole, because I think his complexity is more honest, people aren’t just black and white, the way people tend to rationalize things is so complicated. I liked that he had these different facets…
He grew more sympathetic to me as I was writing him.
Another contradiction with Cole was that he didn’t use drugs himself, he sold drugs to people, and also when people in Dove Creek became more addicted, or more harmed by their addictions, he seemed to be repulsed or terrified by that, but he didn’t seem to feel culpable for his role in that…
Cole had to distance himself from these things. Like with the coal mining, he ignored his role in that at first, too.
Well, it’s kind of survival-mentality, only being able to see your own immediate needs. I read that into him, not sure if that was what you intended, his inability to see the long-term effects of his actions…he needed to just get through the day. But his actions also fed this distant idea of getting out of Dove Creek.
Yeah, a need he can’t quite articulate. In the last scene, where he finally looks at what’s been happening, what I was hoping for was a waking up, not just in terms of the mountaintop removal, but it’s the moment where he realizes that he has stolen from people he loved, and he starts to feel a sense of responsibility.
Can you talk a little bit about the spiritual aspects of the book? As much as Cole was oppressed by the religion of his grandfather, he was also somewhat buoyed by it. There was a way where scripture verse seemed to flow out of his thought processes and at the same time you see how intense his grandfather was, in shaming him, calling him a sinner.
I’ve always been interested in and drawn to religion, and to the many contradictions within it. I was reading nonfiction books about Appalachia and oral histories, and religion was something that came up often — it’s a strong part of personal and cultural identities. The intimacy and the vulnerability that people showed each other was really beautiful, and surprised me. I wanted to write about the complexity of the beliefs – this kind of beauty and emotional experience, coupled with the fundamentalism and anti-gay sentiment. Cole’s grandfather’s religion is oppressive and scary for Cole, but it’s also something that gives him comfort. I also was drawn to how nature played a role in spiritual beliefs. When I was reading these oral histories, people spoke again and again of hearing God in a small voice and of finding salvation in the mountains.
At your Powell’s reading, I noticed that a couple of times people wanted to know how the book was connected to your own life. Why do people seem to need to know that the story is somehow connected to your personal story?
I think this is just the world we live in – reality TV, social media, etc. Memoir sells more than fiction, and people seem to feel better if they know a novel is “real.” When I was a kid, I read constantly, but I don’t remember reading much nonfiction, unless it was for school. I read novels and they opened up worlds of possibility, showed me lives different from my own, revealed all kinds of “truths.” This is just the story that called to me, that I felt compelled to write. I identify with Cole on some level, even though we have different lives. I tried to tell Cole’s story with honesty and compassion, and I hope that people can find truth in the novel.
Was it important to you to have queer undertones in this story?
You rarely see gay characters who are living in rural areas in contemporary fiction. Not all queers want to live in cities. People stay in small towns for different reasons, but sometimes they stay because this is home, because they love the land, they feel this deep connection. Reese, the openly queer drug dealer, is one of my favorite characters in the book. He’s a flamboyant queen living in this small, conservative town – I wanted to explore the complexity of that, to show that one doesn’t cancel out the other.
The relationship between Cole and Terry was also important to me – Terry was Cole’s best friend all through high school. I wanted to show how there can be tenderness between men, even in such a hardscrabble place. It’s mentioned several times that Cole and Terry think of each other as brothers, and that is a very real part of their relationship and one that’s accepted. It’s later revealed that they also had some component of a sexual relationship – you could see it as normal experimentation, or you could see it as them being gay. That’s not really the question for me: if they’re gay or not. Instead, I think their relationship is one of intimacy. In Terry, Cole finds safety, and attention, and he finds love. I wanted that relationship with Terry and Cole to seem very fluid and natural, and also complicated.
Through the process of publishing this novel, you’ve also been coming out publicly as trans. How are those two experiences intertwined? What has the response been like?
It’s been complicated, but for the most part, positive. I had to make a lot of decisions about how out of the closet I wanted to be, and to make them somewhat quickly. I’m still navigating this journey. I do think there is a lot of overlap – coming out with my first novel, and coming out as trans. You’re sharing this vulnerable part of yourself with the public. There were moments that felt very scary to me, but mostly it felt extremely liberating.
Do you think that there is a big disconnect between the literary community and the queer literary community? Or do you think queer authors are integrated well in the literary community?
I don’t know how well I can speak to this. Queer writers, historically, haven’t been published by mainstream presses, or they’ve been labeled as queer and then segregated. And, there are a lot of queer readings in queer spaces, which I think is important, but, they also don’t reach a wider audience. Sometimes I would like to see the communities integrate more, but I don’t think there is a huge disconnect between the literary and queer literary communities.
Now that your book is out, you are doing interviews and readings. Do you like the social/public aspect of being an author, or do you prefer the behind-the-scenes life of a writer? What are some highlights from your speaking engagements?
Writing is the part that matters the most. The public part is necessary—you have to get your book and name out there—but it’s something that still feels very strange to me. The best part of being published for me, so far, is when people tell you that the book meant something to them. It’s such an amazing, humbling experience when a person just starts talking to you about the characters or particular scenes, or how the book made them feel. I always feel surprised, and overwhelmed with gratitude, whenever someone tells me they read my book and liked it.
Do you feel like you get the community, support, and stimulation that you need as a writer while living here in Portland?
I’m still fairly new to Portland, but it seems like a very literary, cool city. There are a lot of different reading series, and great bookstores. I had a lot of local support behind my book when it was published, and that was great, and unexpected.
What has your experience been like with a large publisher?
The Evening Hour is my first book — I don’t have experience with smaller presses. But I can say that Bloomsbury has been extremely supportive, and I feel lucky to be with such a great press.
Are you already working on your next project? Do you want to share a little bit about it?
I am working on something, but it feels too soon to talk about it. I will say that I think that this project will be more autobiographical.