Words and Wisdom from Ben Monopoli
We haven’t made any secret of our respect and regard for Ben Monopoli. Plainly put, we have a serious crush on the way he thinks. After reading everything he’s written (that we know about, anyway), we really hoped for a chance to pick his brain. Smart, funny, and generous, Ben granted our wish in the form of a short interview. We share those words with you here. Enjoy.
*Spoilers right ahead. If you don’t want to be spoiled, read the books. In fact, read them anyway. Carry on.*
We think we can safely say that your stories don’t follow “the formula” or genre expectation, rules and guidelines. Do you think this affords you as a writer greater character and story development? Allow you to explore the not-so-pretty part of people that most fiction and romance/love stories gloss over or ignore. We can be good people but still have those occasional selfish or uncharitable thoughts, and you do such a good job of showing this. How do you tap into that, and how do you think that differs from mainstream or traditional fiction and romance/love stories?
My books, at least the first two, probably do follow a genre expectation, but the genre is literary fiction (“lit fic” sounds less pretentious), which is what I read most often. I like the navel-gazey books that get into the nitty-gritty of people’s lives. I want a lot of detail, a lot of insight. John Steinbeck is my favorite writer—the amount this man understood about human nature, it’s crazy. You read something like East of Eden and it’s easy to see that it’s everything he knew about everything. He put it all in that book. I think that’s what literary fiction tries to do and that’s what I’m most interested in. My first two books represent everything I knew about life, love, loss up to that point. Part of that is that people don’t always do the right things, they make mistakes that are really obvious and stupid; they do the wrong thing even when they know what the right thing is. But they’re also susceptible to moments of real beauty and, for lack of a better word, magic.
While all three of your novels are unique, the tone, subject, and story from Porcupine and Cranberry to Homo Action is quite different. The first two have a similar feel, but Homo Action is pretty unique. Can you give us any insight from where you wrote the first two stories and where Homo Action came from? Dying to know how you plotted (or pantsed) Homo Action.
The Cranberry Hush and The Painting of Porcupine City were finished before I knew m/m romance was even a thing. Maybe that makes them seem fresh to the m/m crowd, because they weren’t influenced by it. They both ended up in the m/m category for marketing reasons, because, I don’t know, writing gay characters narrows your audience so you want to go right to the readers who are looking for that. Originally I was targeting my books at 20something gay male readers; I had no idea straight women would be so receptive to stories about gay dudes, but it’s been a nice surprise. And since that audience embraced my first two books so much, I kind of wanted to play in their sandbox. That’s where Homo Action Love Story came from. It was sort of on a dare. My friend Maggie supplied the name “Boots McHenry” and told me to write a bodice-ripper about him. I think of it as something very “other” from Cranberry Hush and Porcupine City. I couldn’t bring myself to call it a novel, so I call it a tall tale. But I think it’s fun and a nice change of pace.
Loved the detail in Cranberry about bisexual people not being limited to who they can fall in love with – such an intriguing idea, especially for a writer. You’ve mentioned you weren’t sure about that aspect of Cranberry, but it was such a great arc and detail. Thoughts, insights, comments?
In my head Vince was bi from the get-go, and in all my early drafts he was longing for something he knew wasn’t possible: for Griff to fall for him. It was a type of denial. But that just never rang true to me. It took me like five years of working on the book before I realized what Vince’s bi-ness would actually mean for him and the way he relates to other people. What he feels isn’t willful denial of Griff’s straightness, he just doesn’t understand straightness at all—or gayness, for that matter. A person who’s attracted to both genders would find it hard to understand how someone could be attracted to only one. So that’s where Vince is coming from: He loves Griff and he can tell Griff loves him too, so what’s the problem? What’s Griff’s hurdle? Can the hurdle be jumped? Vince doesn’t know. I think that’s a sweeter, sadder thing to deal with.
Cranberry Hush (and Homo Action, to an extent) is about something a bit different, not the “usual” story – the girl wishing her gbf could be straight, or even the gbf wishing he could be straight for his best girl friend, or gbf wishing sbf could be gay, like Cranberry appears to start, but this dealt with the straight male friend wanting to be gay for his best friend. And why does just knowing the fact Griff wished he could be gay for Vince give the happy sighs and make it easier to accept for Vince and (most of) the readers?
I think part of the pain of unrequited love is that it makes us feel a little silly, maybe a little invisible. We go around feeling like, “I love him and he has no idea and wouldn’t care even if he knew.” Unrequited love makes us feel small. So when Griff takes Vince to the lighthouse, it puts them on equal footing for the first time in their friendship. Griff recognizes everything Vince feels and welcomes it, and values it, and is envious of it. That helps Vince realize that what he feels isn’t even quite unrequited, it’s requited in its own way, it’s just something that’s not going to work out. And that’s sad, yeah, but it’s a lot easier to deal with. It’s a lot more affirming. One of the most important realizations of Vince’s life is that he hasn’t been being silly.
And, if you will, settle a personal debate between J and M. How much of Griff wishing he could fall in love with Vince was altruistic – he just truly wanted to be able to love Vince – versus being somewhat selfish and wanting to belong to someone, to go back to the salad days of college. He just broke up with what he thought was his One (and tried to get back with her – tried to sleep with her when they stayed), which he considers to be the end all, be all of life. Who is really the one fooling himself, so to speak – Griff or Vince? How much was all that Griff honestly trying to figure out if he was straight or gay, or how much was trying to get back to what he considers his comfort/goals? Maybe M read way too much into it (and maybe J let her own personal history blind her).
Griff is a guy who’s maybe too eager to be in love. This is part of what draws him to Vince, because he’s entranced by the idea that Vince as a bi guy can love anyone. Griff sees that as having endless possibilities.
Griff is very earnest, and as a result he gets his heart broken a lot. Every person he invests all his emotion into ends up breaking his heart. His breakup with Beth comes at a pretty fragile time in his young adulthood and he feels totally adrift afterward. So he reaches for the person he knows would never break his heart. And maybe that would be a little selfish if Vince didn’t need so badly to be reached-for by Griff, but he does. And it’s not altruism on Griff’s part—he’s not trying to do Vince a favor. He needs Vince and Vince needs him. That’s just love.
I never meant to suggest that Griff is questioning his straightness, though. What he’s trying to find out is whether his love for his male friend can override his straightness, if it can become everything he needs in his life if he’ll let it. He wants to test it.
The details of Mateo’s graffiti painting in Porcupine City were so vivid and detailed. What did your research for that aspect of the story and his character entail? You did such a great job of making the reader feel his compulsion, his need, how itchy and unsettled he was when we wasn’t painting, when he tried to stifle his need and attempt to prioritize his “hobby” versus his real life, his day job, his relationship with Fletcher. Another example here how you take something most people would disdain—graffiti and defacing public property—and make it sympathetic. Make readers root for Mateo (and Fletcher) to get away with an illegal activity, cheer for him, while still maintaining the balance of “he really is breaking the law,” not going too far in either direction. That’s an amazingly difficult balance to achieve. Did you set out to show that or did it just grow from the story?
Mateo and Fletcher basically have the same compulsion, which is to put words on things. For Fletcher it’s paper, and for Mateo it’s… anything. I did some research into graffiti but it was for the technical stuff. I felt pretty confident that I understood what would make someone do it. Who hasn’t wanted to do it?
As for making Mateo’s graffiti sympathetic, I think street art lends itself to that because it’s romantic. It’s one of those things that, OK, it’s technically a crime, but it’s morally ambiguous. Like, it’s more OK in certain places than in others. It’s more OK if it’s pretty and not just scribbles. It’s like jewel theft or some other glamorous crime. I tried to make a distinction between types of graffiti—sometimes angry people just want to make a mess, but other people are artists. One person’s “defacing public property” is another person’s “enhancing public property.” I don’t know. I can argue both ways, which I think comes across in the book. I’m not saying I’d want it on my car or my house, but I also can’t say I’d rather look at a blank concrete wall in a subway station.
I think we all know by now Jen is a huge Holden Caulfield fan, so we have to ask. Vince in Cranberry seems very Holden-esque. On purpose?
No, not on purpose. But I think Holden is like a god, the god of angst. He’s everywhere you look.
A reviewer of Homo Action mentioned what she referred to as the “non-monogamous” aspect, or more the issue of being faithful, that Boots didn’t wait very long to have sex with someone else after Ryan left. Do you think the different views on casual versus committed sex (for lack of a better term) is a difference between the sexes? Same sex versus opposite sex relationships? No relation at all, just personal reactions?
Boots definitely doesn’t wait very long to hook up with other guys after Ryan’s exile. Part of that was just practical from a storytelling standpoint. I wanted to write a sexy bodice-ripper, so the characters needed to be having sex. Monogamy would’ve been a narrative straitjacket, so for a book called Homo Action Love Story, I had no trouble throwing it overboard. This is not a serious book.
I’ve seen reviews like the one you mentioned. For some people non-monogamy will always be cheating. That’s fair, but I think life is more complicated than that. Boots sleeps with guys he thinks Ryan would approve of. So it’s safe to infer that they’re more monogamish than monogamous. On the other hand, he makes an effort to avoid guys Ryan wouldn’t approve of. There is a moral code he operates by. For some people it might be too loose, but I don’t feel there’s any cheating here.
I don’t think it’s a good idea to generalize about people’s sex lives, either, like by saying opposite-sex couples do this or same-sex couples do that. Sex is the most complicated subject in the world, and also the most secret. I don’t think most people, me included, have any idea what other people’s sex lives are really like. Some couples are monogamous, some are in open relationships, and there’s probably a lot of gray area in between. I think the gray area is where the best stories are.
Any unique, fun, exciting, or frustrating challenges as a gay fiction, self-pubbed, etc. writer you’d like to share?
Being a self-pubbed writer is awesome. People are reading my stuff, they send me nice letters, I get to do interviews like this. Being a self-pubbed bookseller, which is the flip-side of the coin—well, I don’t like that part. Back when I released The Cranberry Hush there wasn’t a whole lot of ebook competition. Word of mouth was enough to take it to #1. These days the ebook presses are rolling 24/7, which makes marketing way more important if you want to get attention. It’s not where my interests or strengths lie, though. I’d rather be writing than selling—which probably means I’m selling myself short. But hopefully if my books are good enough they’ll find an audience.
I’m working on a sequel to The Painting of Porcupine City, but it’s going to take a few years so it may not be the next thing I publish. Totally random—the other day I learned that the soldiers in the Spanish Legion have the sexiest uniforms in the world. Google them. I could imagine a sequel to Homo Action Love Story revolving around those uniforms. But who knows.
Feel free to add anything you’d like to mention, talk about, discuss, etc., and thanks so much for sharing with us!
Thank you! It’s been fun.