Q&A with Marten Weber, Author of “Benedetto Casanova” and “Bodensee”
While readers of gay fiction may be familiar with author Marten Weber due to his best-selling novel Benedetto Casanova: The Memoirs, over the years he has crafted many a tale, with each set in unique and varied places and times. He graciously took the time to answer some questions as to his work, writing process, and issues with which the LGBT community grapples.
With tales as disparate as Benedetto Casanova (a fictionalized memoir set in Italy), The Almost Unbelievably Curious Case of Jeremiah Hudgejaw: America’s First Gay Wedding (set at the beginning of the last century), Shayno (a tale of mid-life crisis set in Silicon Valley), as well as your new title, Bodensee (sci-fi), it seems you’re intent on covering every place and genre under the sun! What guides your decision of what to write next?
I think most genres in modern literature have become very stale and narrow. Every new best-selling thriller out there seems follows the same formula. Writers spend too much time copying television shows and learning from bad teachers in overpriced writing courses. I want to bring a new approach to each genre. I’d like to show that it can be done differently, outside the established boundaries. Not every crime novel has to read like CSI in book form. Luckily, I don’t have the pressures of a publisher’s money-making machine behind me, so I can write what and how I want, and experiment.
What commonalities does your work share?
Most of my writing starts with specific aspects of relationships between men, but I then put them in whatever setting I want. Bodensee may be science fiction, but it’s also an attempt to merge sci-fi into the context of a 19th century literary tradition.
What’s more, I’m not very comfortable with the idea of genres at all. These categories were invented by book-sellers so they knew which shelf to put a book on. Authors shouldn’t care about them. You’ll find that most of my books cross boundaries. I’m working on a crime novel now which will have neither murderers nor police inspectors as major characters, nor a traditional investigation. So most publishers would say that doesn’t quality as a ‘whodunnit.’
You’ve lived all over the world, which I would imagine has helped inform the varied locations and times of your novels.
Traveling is an enormous inspiration for me. I soak up new ideas and inspiration like a big brain-sponge. Everywhere I go I observe people: on planes, trains, and beaches, as well as in bars, restaurants and, of course, hotel beds. People are so different from place to place—and yet the motivations, joys and sorrows are all the same worldwide. It’s fun to discover how people from various cultures deal with essentially the same problems in different ways.
What made you decide to delve into sci-fi with Bodensee?
It was very much an organic process. Bodensee was originally a short story with a rather different plot. The premise was this: if one day technology solves most of our problems, and computer games merge with virtual reality, what will we do then? Spend most of our time hooked up to the Matrix and fight each other in a fantasy world? Many young people are already doing just that! Once VR is widely available, I imagine some people will choose to live through the best moments of their lives over and over again. The original short story was about a man so bored with life he hooks himself up to a virtual reality device which lets him re-live his first sexual encounter at university ad infinitum.
And how did that original concept transform into the novel itself?
That year my husband and I went to Europe on vacation and had a very romantic few weeks in the company of a charming friend. I combined the two ideas – virtual worlds and the emotional landscape of a triangle relationship. Because the vacation setting in Switzerland was so unusually beautiful, almost dream-like, I started playing with the idea of not being able to tell what is real and what not. And presto – I had a sci-fi novel on my hands. The story went through some major transformations before becoming the final book, but essentially you can read it as a romantic gay love-triangle, as a sort of “literary VR world”, as homage to the great gay writers of the last century, or as a mystery novel.
You’ve subtitled Bodensee, “a nightmare.” Expand on what you mean by that.
As soon as I talk about the plot of the book, I will reveal too much. It’s full of strange twists. But I really can’t reveal more than we say on the jacket or the description on the website. Be prepared: nothing is what it seems. It starts out like a perfect dream, but it quickly turns ugly.
Tell me about your journey to authorhood. Prior to writing, what kind of life experiences did you have? How did those shape your stories, as well as the writer you would become?
I think that every writer’s work is shaped by his experiences. We can only truthfully write about things we know. Even imagination is based on our own capacity for empathy. Without that it’s not literature, it’s just writing. One of the demands literary books make on the writer is to reveal part of him/herself. It’s a form of prostitution. You buy my book, and I’ll show you a little of my soul. Or my sex life as it were.
My traveling and my consulting work have shaped my books, absolutely. Working for an international consultancy, I was lucky enough to meet so many people in so many countries. In particular, my two short-story collections Hoppa and A Stranger in Triva both contain stories based on events in my life. Every story in these two books was inspired by someone I met, something I saw, or a conversation I overheard. I wrote Hoppa while I was still working—that’s why airplanes, airports and handsome captains feature prominently.
What did you first realized, “Ah, I’m a writer!”?
There were plenty of moments when I thought, I want to be a writer. But ultimately I was always just writing, without thinking too much about what it means to be a writer. Before my first contract, I thought getting published would be a major event and change me, but it didn’t. I just kept on writing as before. For a while, I looked at sales numbers and joined promotion events, but I don’t want to sell stuff, I want to write stuff.
Writing is my way of dealing with life from day to day, my way of making sense of my and other people’s humanity, and that’s all it is. I don’t write for my readers, or for the fame, or to fill my publisher’s pockets; I just write. With my gay subjects, I don’t have to worry about striking it rich anyway. I will always be a niche author, but that suits me perfectly. I certainly won’t compromise just to sell more books.
How do you know when you’re ready to begin a new work? Do you start with a character, a title, a story, a moment…?
I am always working on many ideas simultaneously. The spark is different for every book. Shayno, for example, began with a true event. (That specific event was repeatedly singled out by the critics. They said it made the book “unbelievable”. Oddly enough, that freak encounter in a Las Vegas hotel is the only thing autobiographical in the whole book, everything else is fiction.)
Benedetto Casanova, on the other hand, was born out of annoyance. I had started using an e-reader and found that on gutenberg.org I could get old books for free. I found Casanova’s Memoirs—the real Casanova—and thought, I’ll give it a try. I thought I was in for some erotic prattle and a lot of cool frocks, but the more I read the angrier I got. The historical Casanova was a real prat. The whole image of this handsome adventurer is completely fake. He was stupid, untalented, often mean, selfish, and always manipulative. He took advantage of women wherever he could; he lied and he stole. And he was ugly to boot—he even said of himself that he was stupid and ugly, and only bought expensive clothes to hide his figure! He knew his French was awful and that he had no particular talents other than seducing women. He bought and sold virgin girls as young as nine to other men, and he swindled his way into a fortune. I spent months reading his memoirs, and I honestly say he doesn’t have a single redeeming feature. There is nothing remotely moral or in any way positive about his character. How could such a man become a cultural icon, a role model for men? He wasn’t the dashing handsome adventurer you know from the movies.
That was the first ingredient. The second was this: At the beginning of his memoirs he mentions that one year his mother was pregnant and that he didn’t know what happened to the baby, that it either died or his mother might have given it away. That sort of planted the seed for the idea of a brother in my mind. I started thinking… What if such a brother existed, and were the complete opposite of Giacomo. What if he were terribly handsome, and smart, totally unlike his brother? What if such a brother could speak many languages, and had a talent for music, and loved philosophy? What if instead of just running after every skirt, he had a permanent relationship with a hot guy. The real Casanova was never married or in a relationship for more than months. And so I started writing… and as I fleshed out the character, Benedetto became the exact opposite of his brother.
Mostly though, actual events in my life inspire me. I told you about Bodensee already. I have a book coming out next year which is based on a single fantasy: I was at this finance conference and one of the speakers was amazingly charming. I was in the audience and started flirting with him. Of course, nothing happened, he may not have been gay, and in any case he was too professional to interrupt his presentation to flirt with me. But I thought… what would happen if he really got all distracted and flustered, and we had this gay flirt in front of everyone. I came home from the conference and started writing … and four months later I had a new book.
How does your sexuality inform what you write?
As I mentioned, literary writers must be honest, they must be whores. They must give away part of their body soul to make their work worthwhile and interesting. Now although I’ve dated women in the past, I wouldn’t be honest if I wrote books about hetero love. But I don’t think my books are ‘gay writing’. That’s another genre I find hard to work with. I try to identify interesting themes, and let my books revolve around ideas or concepts which are universally human. Benedetto may have a few gay sex scenes, but it is essentially a book about how we choose between commitment and excitement, between love and lust. The main characters in Shayno and Gabriel are gay men, but Shayno is about alienation, expat life, and Gabriel about culture shock and racism. Neither should be in the “gay romance” or the “gay erotica” section of a bookstore, but because of the way the industry works, anything queer ends up on the same shelf, so that the shallow and pious don’t get offended.
Tell me more about your road to publishing. Did you go the traditional route, with agent and publisher, or did you create your own publishing company?
I was immensely lucky. It’s extremely difficult to get published by the big houses these days, and it is actually less and less desirable to get published by them. They are money making machines with no regard for artistic aspirations. They just want stuff that sells, and unfortunately that means simplistic style, repetitive recipes taken from TV shows, clichés heaped on clichés, vampires, wizards and plenty of gore. The age of good prose is definitely in the past, as Gore Vidal said.
I was never willing to compromise. I’ve been asked by publishers to make the books “easier to read” and by two publishers to “tone down the gay.” One suggested that Shayno would work better if the main character were straight. I thought that was rather insulting and daft.
I am not interested in pleasing the CFO of some big publisher. Art demands honesty, and as a writer, you have to be truthful to yourself first. Simplifying my style and de-gaying my storylines… okay, but then it wouldn’t be my book anymore, would it? I can’t do that.
I was lucky to find two small publishers, one in the US and one in England, who both give me a say in how we market the books. Their editors check for spelling mistakes and inconsistencies only—they don’t use computers to calculate the readability index and then tell me to make my sentences shorter, or add a werewolf with hard abs to push up sales.
What’s the most difficult element of being an author today?
Dealing with readers, and therein striking a balance between honesty and politeness. This is the age of Facebook. I get lots of messages from readers. Some want to date me, others want someone to talk to… They say everybody watches the same movie, but everybody reads a different book: people read a lot of their own experiences into books. It’s difficult to respond to some of the feedback, because I don’t know on what experience my readers base their reading of my stories. When Benedetto came out, several people said it was about the search for god. I don’t remember putting that into the book, but I have to admit there are some aspects which appeal to searching, open-minded, religious individuals. So I had to re-read my own book to be able to respond to those queries. It takes a lot of time and dedication to engage truthfully with readers.
What advice would you give an author, just starting out, who wants to write gay fiction?
Never attend writing courses, and never listen to publishers! Every artist must find his niche and go her own way. Do what you feel you have to do. Don’t attempt to sell, just concentrate on writing. Some people are successful with bland male romance stories, others are good at horror and suspense. Ultimately you will only be good at what you love doing, so stick to that. If you write the way you want to, and about the themes which interest you, there’ll be people who’ll want to read you.
In addition to your novels, you write on a variety of topics for the Huffington Post. What do you see as the most pressing issues facing the LGBT community?
There are many. But there’s an overarching concern which is most obvious in the US, but will hit every other country sooner or later, and that’s the conflict between liberal and conservative. Both conservatives and liberals, or in American speak, Republicans and Democrats, respect traditions. But whereas conservatives want the traditions to carry on unchanged, liberals accept that tradition belongs to the past and had better stay there. We can learn from it, examine it, but we need to adapt it for our use, not follow it blindly. If we as LGBT people want respect, we can’t afford to be conservative, and we have to stand up against right-wing attitudes. LGBT issues go hand in hand with women’s issues (equal pay, control over your own body, etc.) respect for minorities, and acceptance of transgender people. Because religion is inherently conservative (based on doctrine and scripture, thus static), the conflict can be framed as a fight between liberalism and religion. That creates a lot of bad blood and very emotional, uninformed debate.
Several of your Huffington Post pieces focus on sexuality. What’s your current take on HIV/AIDS in the community?
HIV seems like yesterday’s scare, doesn’t it? The generation coming of age seem almost impervious to the threat. Barebacking is in again, and modern drugs have taken ‘the edge’ off the HIV threat. But that’s very much an illusion. The porn industry has a lot to answer for here. Bareback sells, but it also creates the impression that there’s nothing wrong with it. That’s a terrible trap for impressionable young guys.
I write about sexuality, because I think it is woefully underrepresented in the modern public discourse. The conservative mindset relegates everything smacking of sex to the taboo zone. As human beings, all our actions, the paths we take in life, the decisions we make, are influenced by the way we look and love. If humanity wants to evolve, we have to treat our own sexuality more openly and honestly—not stifling the discussion with religious dogma, and not banning it as pornography. We need to talk openly about everything, from domestic violence to the pleasure of anal sex. It’s even more important in an age where children can get access to sexual content anywhere on the net. No family filter will ever keep the porn away from children. But early, informed discussion of sex will help them deal with the realities. Sexuality is a defining property of our human experience. It is neither bad, nor shameful, and it never should be a source of guilt. Yet for too many people it is the cause of grief and desperation, leading to bullying, rape, and suicide. Only a discussion free from dogma and taboo can help us become a better, fairer, more tolerant society.
If your career path were totally under your control, where would you like to see yourself in 10 years?
Doing exactly what I do now. Writing what I want to write.
Lastly, if a reader hasn’t yet read your work, which of your books would you recommend they read first?
I’ve always found this question hard to answer. Most people start with Benedetto, because it’s the most popular of my books. But historical adventure is not for everyone. If you want to discover me in chronological order, start with Hoppa, then Shayno, Triva, and then Gabriel and Bodensee. If you like sci-fi and literature, start with Bodensee. If you like contemporary stuff, Shayno and Gabriel are the best bets. Gabriel deals more with women’s relationship to gay men, and also with culture shock and racist attitudes amongst expats in China. Well, and if you want to start with comedy, you can try Jeremiah Hudgejaw.