I recall it as if it were yesterday: stepping inside the sprawling bookstore, which smelled faintly of dust; walking past the periodicals, where gay porn titles peeked at me ever-so-discretely from the uppermost row; crossing to the back of the store, reaching “my” row, and nervously looking about before finally stepping up to the shelves, above which hung a large sign, “Gay Studies.” I felt uncomfortable standing beneath it, as it labeled not just the shelves, but my own burgeoning identity, and committing to this unfamiliar label so publicly felt entirely premature. While the “Gay” part I understood, it was only years later that I realized the second part of the sign was equally true, as I was studying the world I would soon fully inhabit.
Coming out has changed greatly in the years since, but what I found through the books on that shelf provided for me the same reassurance as those emerging today seek; through the stories, I learned I was not alone. Novels by such authors as Larry Kramer, Armistead Maupin, Andrew Holleran, and Felice Picano filled me in on this mysterious world, where other men openly searched for love, but one book from that time stands out to me as unique, and resonated with me deeply. Patricia Nell Warren’s groundbreaking novel The Front Runner follows coach Harlan Brown and his protégé Billy Sive as they discover love against the backdrop of the Olympics and a changing world. As a young man myself, I had yet to find a book which spoke to my generation, and identified both with Brown, as he emerged from his more rigid, conservative environment, as well as Sive, who embodied the new, free spirited era, exploding on the horizon in front of me.
Prior to The Front Runner’s publication in 1974, Warren authored her first novel, The Last Centennial, published in 1971. She had also published three volumes of Ukrainian poetry independently, as well as amassing a large body of unpublished work. While the debut of The Front Runner introduced Warren to a new legion of fans, she was surprised to find that the book rankled some in the literary establishment, who were uncomfortable that such a seminal gay male romance had been written by a woman. It didn’t seem to matter to them that she had come out in 1974 as a lesbian. In the years following, however, Warren solidified her reputation in both the gay and literary worlds with continuations of The Front Runner saga (Harlan’s Race and Billy’s Boy), as well as novels The Fancy Dancer, The Wild Man, and The Beauty Queen, and non-fiction (including Lavender Locker Room and My West.)
Whether as an American writing Ukrainian poetry, a runner helping to usher women into the sport, a woman writing gay male fiction, or as a writer, taking control over her own work as publisher with Wildcat Press, Warren has long been a game changer, moving into uncharted waters and navigating them for others. She graciously agreed to take time out from her busy schedule to talk with me about her body of work, issues facing the LGBT community, and the rewards and challenges of having written a literary classic. As a bonus, she also reveals more about the prospects for the long-awaited The Front Runner movie, as well as the continuation of that tale in a fourth book.
Kergan Edwards-Stout: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me. In reviewing your work, I became very curious as to the key, pivotal moments in your life. What most shaped you and your journey?
Patricia Nell Warren: It wasn’t so much a moment, but an experience, of being raised on a ranch in the West, at a very particular time. So much of what we think of as LGBT literature is based on an urban worldview, but growing up in a rural setting, as I did, is very much a part of who I am today. Looking back, now that I’m 76, that life gave me a very different viewpoint, as you’re living in a situation where, any day, there could be a storm that wipes out the wheat crop. That kind of day-to-day existence is challenging, and in many ways, at heart, I’m still a ranch kid. In fact, I’m co-writing a book on that with my brother, called Kids on a Ranch.
Edwards-Stout: Did you find it difficult, making connections with people in that kind of environment?
Warren: Our ranch wasn’t that far from town. We were close enough that we could walk, bicycle, or ride our horses into town, so we had lots of friends. It wasn’t an isolating kind of life, but it was definitely a different life, with different jobs at home than the town kids, who may not have known one end of a horse from the other!
You had to take a very practical approach on how to handle things, which today has led me to have political impatience. My dad used to say, “When your horse is caught in barbed wire, you don’t sit around making speeches. You grab the wire cutters and get to work!”
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