I had the chance to talk to him. We talked about his personal life as a gay man when he was younger comparing it to the youth of today. His writing career is quite interesting from free writing twenty poems a day, to the editor of the highs school paper, to writing a best seller. Our interview was long, and if we had more time, we could have talked all day.
I learned that he was born in Berlin, Germany after the war. He spent years in Berlin, Amsterdam, Netherlands, and now lives in a small community between Cannes and St. Raphael on the French Riviera with his husband. Talking about the places he has lived you can hear a mixture of happiness and melancholy in his voice.
During the interview, we touched on the following questions in depth. However, there was one question that was impromptu. I wanted to know how he wrote a contemporary novel from the point of view of a young man, especially his use of Rent Boys and other clichés and fetishes. I learned something about the LGBTQIA+ community.
Rent Boys is not a new term. It has been used for decades. It means the same now as it did back then: young, male prostitutes. Except for that back then they had a look that was based on the bleached blond hair. That in itself would let others know what they were. Today you have no idea who is a rent boy. There’s no code, no distinct way of knowing. I was schooled.
How long have you been writing?
My standard answers are that I was pushed into writing by Joe Phillip’s picture “Latino Boy,”—the picture now on the cover of the GREEN EYES—but that’s not quite true. Yes, the GREEN EYES is my first finished novel, but I wrote other stuff before. As a teenager, I wrote 20 poems per day—that was in the tradition of automatic writing, the idea was not to think at all while typing [side remark: Truman Capote about Jack Kérouac: “He doesn’t write, he types.”]. I wrote scientific books during my academic career, and I started the non-academic writing with a feature script, Freedom Fries, which tells the alternative history of George W. Bush’s retirement (Bush, the 43rd president, has a change of heart). I couldn’t get it produced, of course, and then tried to turn the script into a novel, getting about half-way…I lost faith in the project because of libel-concerns—Cheney, Bush’s vice-president, orders the murder of Bush at one point in the story.
I then started a blog and wrote a lot of blog posts, rashly, quickly, which gave me some confidence. The GREEN EYES evolved from an unprintable piece of porn I wrote around the “Latino Boy” picture but said piece of porn ended on a cliff-hanger, so I had to write another piece (which also ended on a cliff-hanger, and so on), and after four pieces I knew I had the material for a book. So, in some sense, the GREEN EYES was written by accident. I’m 2/3 into the sequel and have plans for a third part. The sequel is called THIS IS HEAVEN and will relate the story of the festival week that follows directly upon the finale of the GREEN EYES. The festival is vampire-themed—a satirical take on today’s young-adult literature, and in particular on the Twilight Saga. The third part will be set in the art world of New York City and is titled THE YELLOW PARROT. The plot centers upon a loquacious parrot that is owned by a famous art critic and is rumored to have a sixth sense for the art market. The parrot gets stolen by vicious hedge fund managers—managers of investment funds that deal in contemporary art. Alex, the title character of the GREEN EYES, has evolved into a non-standard Sherlock Holmes and is called in for help, lots of vicious hedge fund managers will get themselves killed, sex and justice will finally prevail. One of the vicious hedge fund managers will resemble Donald Trump; it will be fun.
One last remark: I think that my academic writing experience somehow carries over into fiction writing. Academic writing forces you to do a lot of editing, and in the process, you learn how sensitive and malleable the English language is—how rich, complicated, and entertaining. English is not for nothing the leading language of the planet. I enjoy editing my stuff; it keeps me going. If I don’t know how to continue, I re-edit an earlier chapter. I even enjoy editing the stuff of other writers, provided there’s some substance to edit.
What prompted you to write?
I was always convinced I could do a lot of things, but I was equally convinced that I could never write a novel, in particular not one outside of my mother tongue (German). So, I’m proud having done something I was convinced I would never be able to do. The GREEN EYES got nominated for a Lambda Literary Award, so it’s official: I can write English fiction.
Is erotica the only type of writing you do?
The Freedom Fries, though unfinished, is not erotic at all, and now I’m writing a few short stories without explicit sex.
I’ve just arrived at the chalet of a friend here in Switzerland [who’s modeled as Jack Horn in the GREEN EYES]—we rent our house in the summer and have to stay somewhere else—and my latest short is set in this chalet. It’s about the ghost of a famous German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, who terrorizes the narrator (that usually me and myself and his unhappy partner). So I seek the help of an exorcist, a half-defrocked priest, also gay, and here’s a fragment, just in case (we are talking on the phone; Rilke’s remains are buried nearby):
“The Father—slow, raspy, guttural voice—listens painstakingly to my explanations. Exorcism, he says. Yes, it would be a case of exorcism, except that there ought to be an evil spirit that has possessed the victim and needs to be dispossessed, or driven out, or defenestrated like they say in Prague, Rilke’s birthplace (he chuckles). Exorcised. A maleficent personality of some standing, Beelzebub, perhaps, or Asmodeus. Or Samael, if we are allowed to think ecumenically. A mere ghost doesn’t qualify. And Rilke’s ghost—not that he’s a Rilkekenner—but a great poet like him who has done so much for local tourism, you can’t call such a ghost an evil, or—dropping the particle—evil tout court, or can you?”
The shorts read like autobiographical sketches, although they are pure fiction (let’s hope).
Old-age horniness, I guess, at least to some extent. In fact, even though the cum drips off the page sometimes, the main thing of my writing is not sex. I’m just trying to be funny—I’m trying so hard it’s not funny at times. Sometimes I have an insight. Here, that’s the most important insight of the GREEN EYES, in case you should be interested (John, the narrator, has bedded a certain Ben, a seemingly straight guy, and now he drives him home because Ben missed the bus:)
“I’m trying to flirt; that’s obvious, but is he [Ben] flirting back? Reader, do you realize—perhaps not a big insight, but anyhow—do you realize that our situation a flirt means more than a fuck? Much more?”
There’s also a political angle, a certain liberal bias. In the GREEN EYES, for example, John’s redneck father is a member of the Tea Party, and we have a cameo appearance of Paul Krugman, the New York Times columnist, and Nobel Prize winner, and Chapter 38 asks the important, yet quaint question: “What’s Paul Krugman’s penis size.” Okay, here, another fragment, while we are at it (John and Krugman meet in a chance encounter in a restaurant, John has already been drinking too much:)
In the distant past, when penises had an average size, there was talk in some quarters that IQs would be sexy, but we have proof now (sample-of-one!) that Krugman either does not look the part or that IQs are out. What’s Krugman’s penis size? Krugman, I realize, is drinking sparkling water, which is penis-enhancing, at least in the sense that alcohol induces impotence. That’s what I should do, drink sparkling water, do they award Nobel prizes for French?
Was there a real man that inspired you to write Green Eyes?
No. I distributed my personality over the three main characters of the GREEN EYES, with various embellishments added—all three of them (Alex, John, Maurice) being extremely handsome for example, Alex being extremely smart, Maurice being extremely nice, and so on. Ben, however—we’ve just talked about him—is modeled on a black lover I had. Ben is also in THIS IS HEAVEN, where he’s one of the main characters, having been tricked by Alex into working as an escort for John’s new A-level escort service. (Here, while we are at it, Ben returning from “work” the next morning, John just waking up, Alex and John talking:)
“What happened,” I ask.
“Not much. Ben rang the bell and went straight to your bed.”
“He went to my bed?”
“He went straight to your bed, where he is presently dwelling.” Alex points at Ben lying next to me.
I withdraw from under Ben’s limbs. “Sleeping?”
“Unless he’s dead.” Alex circumnavigates the bed, feels for Ben’s pulse, tests an eyelid with the professional touch of a paramedic: “He’s still alive. Adrenal fatigue, I guess. He’ll recover.”
“Yes,” he answers, “that’s the medical name for his condition.”
“The whole night,” I say, then bite my lips. He laughs.
“You weren’t asleep. Your phone rings, but the A-level management is AWOL.”
There is a silence.
“You’re lazy, John,” he adds.
“Did they pay?”
“Dunno, ask him. Or frisk him.”
“You frisk him,” I say, “You set him up.”
“It’s your outfit, John. Be a man, and play the madam.” He grins.
Do you have a favorite author? Your writing is unique.
Mark Twain would be the most important author. I really aim to poke fun at the world the way he does (I must have read Tom Sawyer 20 times). My writing style reflects in some sense my difficulties with the English language; it’s not wholly intended, and it’s not Twain’s style, of course. I can construct long sentences since I’m German, but often do I stumble, and the process of getting back on my feet, that’s also reflected in my style.
On style: I am extremely impressed by David Foster Wallace, whose magnum opus, Infinite Jest, I read while writing the GREEN EYES. Recently I read another book by Wallace, Everything, and More, a pop-sci book about the mathematical concept of infinity, and discovered how much I took to imitating him at one point. When reading Infinite Jest, I developed the impression that Wallace is so good that he is somehow beyond style, or above style, but’s that’s not quite true, it transpires, if you then read Everything and More, and quite a few Wallace-tricks have slipped into my style. There’s this silly app out there: I-write-like. You give it a sample of your writing, and it returns the name of an author, the author you resemble most. So I did this, with fragments of the GREEN EYES, and it came back with names like Rudyard Kipling (Chapter 2), Chuck Palahniuk (Chapter 3; I had never heard of the guy), and Chapter 4: David Foster Wallace. Chapter 4 was written before I had read a word of Foster Wallace. But the overall scan of the GREEN EYES yields H.P. Lovecraft. It’s a silly application; it never comes back with “bad,” or “you’re a bad writer.”
I like good writing—even worse; I need it. I’m very impatient, and page-turning tension isn’t quite enough to keep me going. Every second sentence I need some kick—a good simile, a striking insight, an unexpected turn of phrase—and only the best authors can provide the fix in sufficient quantities. I’m very impressed by, say, John Updike, or Alice Munro, or Annie Proulx (how do you pronounce her name, by the way?) or Donna Tartt. I’m a great fan of Tartt’s first book, “The Secret History,” and I’m re-reading her third, “The Goldfinch,” at the moment, which is less well-constructed plot-wise (it’s also too long), but it’s superbly written.
What advice would you give aspiring authors like me?
It depends on what your ambitions are. If writing is your destiny, choose your profession carefully. Writers need to know a lot, and they don’t learn this in creative writing classes. Really good professions are medicine, soldering, spying, law, biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, art history, archaeology—serious, difficult fields that harbor a lot of knowledge. Also important—Stephen King stressed this again and again—you need to read a lot. It should be no secret: good writers learn from each other.