Q&A with JEFFREY SHARLACH
Author of RUNNING IN BED
(Two Harbors Press, May, 2012)
Q: How much of the book is autobiographical?
A: Probably about 25% or so. Certainly the protagonist bears a lot of similarity to the author but most of the other characters are composites of people I’ve known. I’ve tried to be as historically accurate as possible with the venues and locales where the scenes take place but most of the actual situations are fictional.
Q: Did you actually leave New York and move to Florida?
A: As with Josh, the main character in the book, New York had become a city of ghosts for me and nearly every block I walked down reminded me of someone I knew who was sick or dying. The city itself was in rough shape since AIDS was impacting all aspects of New York then, the place I was working was in a lot of turmoil, and it just seemed like it was a good time for a change.
Q: Your own partner Ken died of AIDS; was he the model for the Tommy character?
A: No actually Ken plays himself, as the social worker he was in the final chapters of the novel. Tommy, like most of the others, is a composite character based on different people I’ve known – or wished I’d known!
Q: Why did you wait so long to come out?
A: I think that’s a question most people who were closeted at the time would understand that perhaps is difficult to fathom for someone today, especially in a large city or urban area. At that time, living a open homosexual lifestyle was just out of my realm of possibilities for my future; there were no role models of successful homosexuals—the only ones anyone ever read about in the newspapers or saw on TV had been either beaten, killed or arrested.
Q: Was your family supportive of you after you came out as a gay man?
A: It took time. Just like me, they had been brainwashed by the way homosexuals were portrayed in the media, basically as sick deviants who would pretty much end up dead or in jail. Gay doctors, lawyers, congressmen were invisible then and even the psychiatric profession officially classified homosexuality a disease. They were tolerant at first and then, especially after they realized nothing much had changed in my life, and how much happier I was after I met Ken, they became very welcoming and accepting. My father later went on to become very active in the PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) Organization – marching in the New York City Pride Parade each year—something he continues to do now in his 80s.
Q: There have been a lot of coming out stories, what makes this one different?
A: I don’t view it as a coming out story; that’s a very small part of the book and by page 12 of the 300+ page book, the main character Josh is out. It’s a story of self-discovery, of learning to love yourself and finding someone else to love.
Q: Looking back now, are you regretful that you didn’t come out earlier than 24?
A: Certainly it would have been a lot easier for me when I was in high school, college and grad school and all that time when I kept those feelings buried. But maybe I wouldn’t have learned to be so independent and self-sufficient which have helped shape me as much—or more—as being gay. Everything is a piece of the puzzle of who we are—I don’t think you can isolate part of it and say if only I had done this or that things would have been different.
Q: What was the main motivation for writing Running in Bed?
A: I write constantly for my job but that’s all business. I think a lot of people who write for work have this fantasy of writing fiction, just to tell story and not trying to persuade people to do something or buy something. So I had always wanted to write fiction and I had taken some classes and written short stories, but had always wanted to do a full-length novel, following characters over a period of years.
Q: How did you decide on this particular story to tell?
A: After Ken died, I’ve been in several shorter relationships and also dated a lot of people—many of them a lot younger. And I’ve also been an advisor to the gay student groups at NYU so I’ve a lot of opportunities speaking with young gay people and it’s amazing how this entire part of our history seems to just be disappearing. Yes, some have heard of Stonewall and of course they know they should use condoms to avoid all sorts of disease transmission but the story of what it was like for the gay community during that time is being lost as my own generation ages.
Q: But that history has been told many times before hasn’t it?
A: It’s not intended to tell the history;
Q: What is it that you want people to take away from reading Running in Bed?
A: I think it’s a story of finding yourself and finding love but more than that, it’s a story about dealing with fear and loss and learning more about yourself in that process that ultimately makes you a stronger, wiser person. I hope people, who were not there to experience that time in history, take away an understanding of what it was like to live through those times: the exhilaration of being a gay man in New York City in the late 1970’s, that decade after Stonewall when so many doors were suddenly open to us after decades of being hidden and the relaxed sexual attitudes of that time. And then how quickly it all changed, and the absolute terror of all your young, beautiful friends suddenly dying, with no test, no treatment, no idea of what to do, and always wondering if next week it might be you.
Q: What books influenced you?
A: I read The Best Little Boy in the World by Andy Tobias (then writing under a pseudonym as John Reed) in the 1970’s and that helped push me out of the closet. And I guess my favorite was Dancer from the Dance by Andrew Holleran which the main character references in Running in Bed. That also told the story of a similar time and place as Running in Bed in a very atmospheric, lyrical way. I hope my book helps tell more of the story of that era—after AIDS became a part of the story.
Q: This is your first book; what was the hardest part of the writing process?
A: I had been writing in bits and pieces, sort of whenever I had time and that was very frustrating since it was difficult to pick up the train of thought where I left off. So I arranged to take the entire summer of 2007 off from work, all of July and August, went to a town in Spain where I knew absolutely no one, and rented an apartment with no television, telephone or Internet connection. And that was when the bulk of the manuscript was completed. I went back for part of the following summer and did some major rewriting. With the time and isolation the writing flowed easily—I had the toughest time with the editing and rewriting. It’s very hard to cut your own material and the original manuscript was considerably longer than the published version. My editor, David Groff, helped a lot with that.
Q: You mentioned a major rewriting that second summer; were there significant plot changes?
A: The plot still follows the basic outline I started with but the big change was that the original novel was written in third person. It sounded flat in parts so I rewrote a couple of chapters in first person and that seemed to make the scenes more vivid and impactful. So, that initial rewrite was making that major adjustment.
Q: Do you expect younger people to be interested in experiences that are at least a generation or more removed from their current experiences?
A: I don’t think age is going to be the defining issue—there are people who are interested in reading all sorts of period novels whether they’re set in the antebellum south or the jazz age. I’ve found a lot of young people fascinated with what gay life was like in those days after Stonewall. We were more isolated from mainstream society, less accepted, and in that isolation we had special bond among one another that young gay people don’t have today. Yes it’s wonderful that gay people today can go to any bar or restaurant in most major cities and feel comfortable, and most of them socialize in mixed groups with their gay and straight friends together but something has been lost.
Q: Have you had relationships in the 18 years since Ken passed away?
A: Yes, I’ve met some wonderful guys and have been fortunate to have developed some longer term relationships since 1994. For the past two years, I’ve been living with a wonderful man, a doctor, who is going to be thrilled when this book I’ve been talking about since our first date is actually published. Still, there’s something about that first relationship when you’re both young—Ken and I were both in our 20s when we met—and you have all these dreams and plans for your life together that I think is difficult, not impossible but difficult, later in life when reality has begun to intrude more on your fantasies.
Q: Is there a sequel in the works?
A: I’m actually working now on a business book—about the art of persuasion—but I hope to do more fiction. My partner just dragged me back to Fire Island last summer—the first summer I’ve spent there in 30 years—so that actually gave me quite a bit of material for an updated sequel. And I’m planning to return this summer for additional research!