Writing Satire in the Age of Trump

Back in 2010, I published The Perils of Praline, or the Amorous Adventures of a Southern Gentleman in Hollywood, which was basically the silliest, sexiest book I could think up. It also included a hefty dose of satire, both political and cultural. Over the years fans have asked if I was going to write a sequel. For a long time, I answered maybe. I had originally planned to write two more of the books, the second set in Las Vegas for which I had notes, and the third to be set in Washington. Other projects kept taking precedence and eventually I began answering the question of a sequel with no. Then last summer, I was asked the question again and I said, “No” but then reflected and added, “Unless, of course, Trump wins. Then I may have to.” Of course, I thought this was incredibly unlikely and forgot all about it.

Then, the election happened. Like a lot of the country I was truly shocked and in the subsequent weeks depressed. In fact, I had trouble writing anything since I was so focused on the disaster that had just happened. Until, I remembered that conversation and thought, “Why not? Why not write another Praline book?” and so I began working on Praline Goes to Washington, or the Erotic Misdeeds of a Newly Native Californian in our Nation’s Capitol.

Satire is the art of making comedy by heightening reality to the level of absurdity, in the process exposing the hypocrisy and imagined intentions of individuals or types of individuals. That’s my definition. Miriam Webster’s definition is simpler and, at the same time, less clear: “a literary work holding up human vices and follies to ridicule or scorn.” What I found interesting about writing a satire contemporaneously to the events I was satirizing is that, in this case, Trump and his new administration would either match or exceed the over-the-top heightened reality I was creating. A couple of times, after I’d written something I thought completely absurd it would appear on the news.

In the new book, instead of getting into the whole Russia thing I brought back the tiny (and fictional) principality of Malvania. Helmut Dump’s wife, Melanoma, is Malvanian and so Malvania spreads a lot of fake news to help his campaign. When I wrote that, I knew that Russia has likely involved in the hacking of the DNC and the subsequent distribution to Wikileaks. That they were also involved in spreading fake news stories did not come to light (or at least to my attention) until well after I had had Malvania do exactly that.

Another weird and incredibly disturbing coincidence is that in my book, Helmut Dump is quoted as saying, “Don’t listen to what I say, listen to what I mean.” Later, Dump’s assistant Keely Angst in an interview says, “You shouldn’t listen to what Mr. Dump says. You should listen to what I say he says. And I’m telling you the president-elect did not say any of the things you heard him say.” Both of these moments are eerily similar to something Kellyanne Conway said when she accused the media, “You always want to go by what’s come out of his mouth rather than look at what’s in his heart.”

Some of my friends have worried that I might face legal action over the book. Satire is protected speech under the first amendment. No president in our history has gone un-satirized. It comes with the territory. There is a libel case that the Trumps are pursuing, but it’s in England where the libel laws are looser (and more to Trump’s liking) and the case is about the reporting of events that may or may not have happened as true. Satire is not journalism. None of what I’ve written is true or presented as true. I don’t have any information that we’re not all reading in the news every day.

And speaking of the news, oh-my-God. Every day it becomes more and more bizarre. I have to say it’s a challenge to write satire when those you’re satirizing keep becoming increasingly over-the-top themselves. Suddenly, the most absurd things I could think of are part of the news cycle. And every day it becomes more and more apparent that the people leading our country are more dangerous than any caricature I, or anyone else, could write. I wish that none of this was true. I wish they we still lived in a time when Chevy Chase’s big joke about Gerald Ford was that he was clumsy, or when we joked about Jimmy Carter’s Southern accent and what he might be lusting about in his heart. Gradually, we’ve moved into a time when we have to joke about politicians who are mean, corrupt, ill-prepared, traitorous and dangerously erratic. That can be a hard thing to make jokes about. But I think we have to. No matter how bad things get, laughter will lighten our load.

And finally, I know that some people might say that satire doesn’t serve a purpose, that it’s nothing more than preaching to the choir. It’s true that I don’t expect a lot of people who voted for Donald Trump to pick up my book and miraculously change their minds. But the thing is, I think the choir does need to be preached to, at least occasionally, if only to remember why they’re singing.

Originally published at Lambda Literary

Boystown 9: Lucky Days is now available.

boystown-9-cover_edited-1

In the ninth book of the bestselling mystery series, a young man wakes up covered in blood and no memory of the previous night. When hypnotism doesn’t help, he turns to private investigator Nick Nowak. Meanwhile, the trial of Outfit kingpin Jimmy English begins. Quickly the case begins to unravel when an important witness goes missing and Nick must put his other cases, and his home life, on hold while he goes to Las Vegas to find him.

Available on Amazon and, shortly, on other outlets.

 

Boystown 7: Bloodlines wins Lambda!

Boystown 7 Cover 2nd Edition2Last night Boystown 7: Bloodlines won the Lambda Award for Best Gay Mystery. Thanks to the Lambda Foundation and thanks to my longtime editor Joan Martinelli and everyone else who’s been so supportive over the years. (I’ll be doing a longer thank you later) …

In the seventh book of the best-selling Boystown Mystery series, Private Investigator Nick Nowak finds himself simultaneously working two cases for his new client, law firm Cooke, Babcock and Lackerby. A suburban dentist has been convicted of murdering her adulterous husband. Nick is asked to interview witnesses for the penalty phase of the trial–and possibly find the dead man’s mistress. At the same time, he’s deeply involved in protecting Outfit underboss Jimmy English from a task force out to prosecute him for a crime he may not have committed. While juggling these cases Nick slowly begins to rebuild his personal life.

 

Label Me, Please

I first began to understand that I was gay and what that meant in the late sixties. I was around nine or ten. There was a Mike Wallace report called The Homosexuals in 1967. I can’t imagine that my parents would have let me see this at nine years old, but this is what was out there. This is how the world thought in 1967. I do remember reading at least one article in The Reader’s Digest and one or two others in Time Magazine. The image presented of homosexuals was one of a diseased deviate incapable of carrying on a relationship. Needless to say, as a teenager I had a bleak view of what was to become of me.

When I was nineteen, Anita Bryant was big news. Her fight against an anti-discrimination law in Dade County, Florida—a fight she won, keeping an anti-discrimination law off their books for twenty years—was in the newspapers, on the nightly news and on magazine covers. But she didn’t just garner a lot of attention for herself. She also brought to the forefront gay activists. Gay people who boycotted orange juice—for which Bryant was a spokesperson—and campaigned on the slogan “Anita Bryant Sucks Oranges.” They were the ones who caught my attention.

Of course, I was a kid so I don’t remember having the conscious thought, “We can fight back.” And, I certainly wouldn’t have known how to fight back in a small town in Upstate New York. But knowing that there were people out there, embracing the term gay, claiming it, fighting for it, defining it, made things just a little bit easier for me and I began slowly, friend by friend, to come out. To say, “I’m gay.”

In the late 70s, more than two thirds of Americans had a negative view of homosexuality. Today that number is down to around a third. Remarkable progress in less than forty years. So, how did it happen? Did straight people randomly wake up and think, “You know, gay is okay”? No, what happened was someone close to them, a family member, a friend, a parent, a child, a teacher, a co-worker, someone came out to them. Someone stood up and embraced the label “gay” and changed their minds. So, without those millions of people coming out we would not be where we are today. And believe me, coming out and claiming a label are the same thing. You can’t do one without the other.

This morning on Facebook there was a meme attributed to the actor Josh Hutcherson that said, “I’m so sick of saying the words gay and lesbian. Can we just—people. I’m so tired of that. One day I want my son to come home from school and be like, I found this guy and I love him. And I’m gonna be like yes, you do, and that’s okay.” I don’t dispute that Hutcherson is a wonderful ally to the gay community, and I can’t argue that it isn’t a lovely sentiment that we might live in a world were it wouldn’t matter. I do, however, find statements like this one, which happen all the time, problematic.

Rejecting labels, whether it’s done by a straight ally—who, granted may be weary of our constant struggle to find inclusive words or acronyms that actually make all people feel included**—or a young celebrity who doesn’t want to label themselves and so attacks the idea of labels—which is quite likely a marketing ploy meant to keep a gay audience without losing a straight one—these acts, these statements erase the millions of people who stood up and claimed their label. These statements erase the very people upon whose shoulders we stand on.

It is vitally important that we all remember our history. Today didn’t just happen; it’s result of all our yesterdays. So, if you’re a straight person who wants to be an ally, it’s okay to do that because people labeled themselves. If you’re a straight person who wants to write about gay people, it’s okay to do that because of the gay people who took that label. If you’re a gay person and struggling to come out, as hard as it can still be, it is easier because of the people who came out before you—we’re still out there, ask for help if you need it. If you’re a gay celebrity, don’t crap on labels to make a buck—be honest or don’t be honest, up to you, but stop dissing labels. And to gay celebrities who come out after twenty years in the business, don’t let people rush to label you a hero, the real heroes are the people who embraced their labels and by doing so gave up an acting career, a music career, a career in journalism, or sports, or whatever else they were denied because they were honest about who they are—you can become a hero, but you do not get to start there.

Labeling matters. It’s how we got to where we are. I’m gay. That’s my label.

 

**In the ’70s and ’80s the word gay was used inclusively. Given the historical nature of much of the blog, I decided to use the word gay in that inclusive way, rather than use the QUILTBAG or the word queer. Since each can be as divisive as they are inclusive.

How Far Will I Go?

One of the questions I get a lot about the Boystown series is, “How many books will there be?” Of course, since the question is about the future the most honest answer is, “I don’t know.” But at the same time, how many books to write and where to leave Nick Nowak is something I think about and obviously something that interests my readers so I thought I’d put down a few thoughts…

Typically, as I finish one book I get ideas about the next one. Boystown 8: The Lies That Bind came out a few days ago and I already have about fifteen percent of Boystown 9: Lucky Days written in the form of notes and first draft scenes. This is important as I have to keep track of the mystery arc in books 7-9 about Jimmy English, and of course the ongoing lives of the recurring characters. I imagine if I finish one of the books and have no ideas, or very few ideas, about the next book I’ll know that the end has arrived.

The first eight books cover the period from January 1981 through August 1984. I definitely want to do two more books set in 1984 and have one in mind for 1985. That would bring me up to eleven—Joseph Hansen, one of my idols, did twelve in his series. I hope that I’ll write more than eleven. I wouldn’t mind getting all the way to nineteen or twenty like Michael Connelly, another of my idols. It would be nice to take the books all the way to the first glimmers of hope in the AIDS epidemic, but that wasn’t until the mid-nineties, which right now is a long way off.

As a gay man who lived through the eighties there are so many stories from that period I feel I can tell. So many stories I think are still important. One of the most satisfying aspects of writing this series has been collecting the little bits of real life that I remember from that period and weaving them into the mysteries. Quite a few of the characters and situations I’ve touched on in the stories come from people I knew during the period, in many cases people who can no longer speak for themselves. Collecting those stories matters to me a great deal on a very personal level.

There are many ways to classify the Boystown series. I think it would be fair to include it as AIDS literature. Most of AIDS literature took place in the eighties and nineties, and most of it was a cry for help, a warning bell rung as loudly as possible. Writing about AIDS from this vantage point is a very different experience. I’m able to focus on the way very real people reacted to the crisis. Knowing that things improve, allows me to focus on the ways in which individuals reacted, sometimes heroically, sometimes not. Of course, AIDS is still an issue. It hasn’t gone away. Reminding people of how it began and how we got to where we are is something I find to be vital.

I think if the Boystown series were a romance series with mystery elements—as opposed to being the opposite of that—I would have would have stopped at two or three books as I find manufacturing “conflict” in a happy couple uninteresting. Some writers do it well; I don’t think I’m one of them. Several of the Boystown books have ended in a happy-for-now kind of way, but if Nick ever finds a truly happy ending it will likely mean the end of the series.

An important indicator of whether a writer should keep writing a series is sales. Not for financial reasons—certainly many writers do well writing multiple series of three or four books—but because each sale represents one or more readers. The last year has been very positive for the Boystown series. Boystown 7: Bloodlines opened better than any of the previous books, and even though it’s only been a few days it looks as though this year’s book is on tract to exceed that. Equally important is that last year the first book in the series actually sold more copies than it had since it was published five years before. The audience is finding the books and I’m so happy about that. With all of that said, I’d like to send out a big thank you to all who’ve bought and supported the series over the years. It means a lot.

Now available!

Boystown 8 Cover - grape

The eighth book of the bestselling Boystown Mystery Series begins with a phone call in the middle of the night. Private investigator Nick Nowak is pulled into the troubled world of freelance journalist, and all around pain in the ass, Christian Baylor. When Christian can’t stop lying about the corpse in his bathroom things slip slowly out of control. Meanwhile, Nick’s relationship with former priest Joseph Biernecki takes an unexpected turn and the Federal case against Jimmy English proceeds toward trial.

Available at Amazon. Also at Kobo and Barnes & Noble.

 

The first Boystown book is on sale this weekend at Amazon!

Boystown 1 Cover 2nd Edition2

Finalist for the Lambda Award in Gay Mystery, Boystown: Three Nick Nowak Mysteries takes place in Chicago during the early 1980s. Haunted by his abrupt departure from the Chicago Police Department and the end of his relationship with librarian Daniel Laverty, Nick Nowak is a beat cop-turned-dogged private investigator. In this first book of the series, Nick works through three cases: a seemingly simple missing persons search, an arson investigation, and a suicide that turns out to be anything but. While working the cases, Nick moves through a series of casual relationships until he meets homicide detective Bert Harker and begins a tentative relationship.

On sale at AMAZON.