Life’s Many Moments: How Our World Shapes Our Art
Author Gregory G. Allen and I, up until now, had yet to meet. Still, we’d found ourselves bumping into each other virtually on any number of occasions. Both of our debut novels had been short-listed for the 2011 Independent Literary Awards, we’d continually run into each other on twitter, and Advocate.com asked us for a joint interview, which we were happy to do. As we gathered together for the Rainbow Book Fair in New York City, however, where we’d both be reading and signing our books, I found myself wondering, “Who is this person?” In a way, I felt as if I knew him quite well, but our conversations thus far had all been about our work, and I was very curious as to whom he was as a person, and how his life’s moments had influenced his writing. Today, at last, my questions were happily answered.
Kergan Edwards-Stout: Finally!
Gregory G. Allen: I know, right? It seems as if we have been connected for so long–
Edwards-Stout: And yet never met! I’m so curious, having read your novel, Well With My Soul, as to who you are, and what part of you is in the characters you created. You write so specifically about two brothers. What was your situation like, growing up?
Allen: Well, for the longest time, I was the baby of the family–the youngest of five kids in our blended family.
Edwards-Stout: Five? Wow, that must have been challenging.
Allen: I was the peacemaker. I was the sole offspring of both my mother and father, so my role was to try to pull the other siblings together.
Edwards-Stout: That must have really had an impact on who you’d become.
Allen: You have no idea. I was the performer. I was always on stage, singing or acting–I played Elvis when I was in the 4th grade.
Edwards-Stout: Is that a good thing, or a bad thing?
Allen: You kidding? It was great! It started an entire career of seeking that limelight on stage. By the time I was 12, my folks adopted my little brother, and I went from being the baby of the family, to an older sibling. But I was so thrilled to be a big brother, I was more than happy to give up that title…
Edwards-Stout: Given all of these siblings and your family dynamic, what was coming out like for you?
Allen: The first time I said the words was to a good friend my senior year of high school. I remember shaking as I lay on the floor in his bedroom, terrified of what he was going to say. Just a few months later, I came out to my then-girlfriend, right before taking her to the prom. Happily, we’re still the best of friends, all these years later. What about you?
Edwards-Stout: At 17, I remember my parents calling me into their bedroom: “Is your friend James gay?” “Yes,” I stammered. “And Gary, too?” they asked. “Yes,” I answered. “And you–um– are you–uh?” “Surprise!” I squealed. And my mom immediately wanted to put me in therapy.
Allen: Did she?
Edwards-Stout: We went once, to a Christian therapist, but even 30 years ago, he said, “Your son seems happy and well-adjusted. There’s nothing here to fix.”
Allen: Exactly. Still, just knowing you are different has an impact on your life. I mean, I was an outsider–a gay boy growing up in Texas. I wrote my first musical when I was 14, for a local children’s theatre company. It was a Halloween show about a group of monsters that lived in the basement of a hotel, hiding because they were all ‘different’. From that moment on, much of my writing has been about an outsider trying to come to terms with something in their life.
Edwards-Stout: What are your other pivotal “life moments”?
Allen: Maybe moving to New York City, when I was just 18 years old. I mean, that was a huge, scary move, and totally set me on a course of survival and personal growth, learning very quickly about being a gay man in a big city.
Edwards-Stout: I had a similar moment, after college. I was living in West Hollywood, and entered this kind of Alice in Wonderland world, where nothing was quite what it seemed. Beautiful men everywhere, and me wanting so much to belong, but always feeling as if I were on the outside, looking in.
Allen: I know what you mean. But you eventually did find your place…
Edwards-Stout: Ironically, what helped me was, at the direction of a therapist, taking the Meyers-Briggs personality test. I found that my personality type, INFJ, is very rare–shared by something like 2% of the population–and it’s even more rare among men. So my difference, which I’d always assumed was a character flaw–something wrong with me–turned out to be totally normally. I’d felt like an alien being because, in fact, I am! (laughing)
Allen: I thought those were antennae, poking out!
Edwards-Stout: What was your happiest moment–ever?
Allen: That’s easy: when my husband proposed to me. At the time, we were both in our 30’s and had been together for 8 years, and I never really thought I’d see that day. I mean, he had spent a long time in the closet and the thought of a civil union, which is all New Jersey offers, hadn’t even occurred to me. So when he proposed, it was so moving. Knowing you are loved changes your entire outlook. Are you and Russ married?
Edwards-Stout: Not yet. We’ve been together over 9 years, and have kids, but when we had that brief window in California, when folks were rushing to get married before Prop 8, everyone was urging us to do it. More than anything, I would’ve liked the protections for our kids. But everything about that rush felt wrong to me. Marriage needs to come at the right time, and being pressured to do it quickly just rubbed me the wrong way.
Allen: I understand that. Having read your book, Songs for the New Depression, which was inspired by your deceased partner, Shane, I’m guessing that your other biggest life moment was losing him?
Edwards-Stout: Undoubtedly. But aside from all of the grief and anguish that comes with losing someone, that experience also turned out to be the most empowering of my life. Later, I realized that I had gone to a darker place emotionally, something I’d always been afraid to do, and had come out the other side. Just knowing you’ve faced your fears can give you a sense of empowerment. And that same kind of thing happened again, with my partner after Shane. We were together for six years, had a ceremony, and adopted my eldest boy together. Then I found out that almost every single thing I’d been lead to believe about both him and our relationship was not true. That kind of emotional distress can be devastating. And yet I managed through it, survived, and went on to have a great life, ultimately growing stronger as a result.
Allen: Sounds like there is a great story in there…
Edwards-Stout: (laughing) Well, my next book is a memoir, so I’ll leave it at that! Let me ask you, as a writer, what are you most afraid of?
Allen: That what I write doesn’t connect with people. I spend so much time crafting my work, I hope it finds its way into the hands of people who ‘get’ what I’m trying to say.
Edwards-Stout: And for those people who do “get” it, what kind of impact do you want it to have?
Allen: I hope my books cause people to think. About their own lives, the choices they’ve made, and about the relationships they’ve built around them.
Edwards-Stout: I think we both want to help others get in touch with themselves more fully. And to remind them of the larger view of humanity as well.
Edwards-Stout: Okay, we’ve talked so much about our life moments today, but what about death?
Allen: You can’t have survived the AIDS epidemic without thinking about it, and having lost so many, I definitely think about my life and the legacy I want to leave. Being remembered matters.
Edwards-Stout: Okay. So, what would you want your epitaph to be?
Allen: “Here lies Greg…he paid it forward.”
Edwards-Stout: I like that.
Allen: How about you?
Edwards-Stout: Hmm… How about “Wake Me When It’s Over”?