by Ken Schneck, Editor
“Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.”
— Louis L’Amour
It is the dream of any writer to pen that first book: to compile all your thoughts and ideas, have them be bound together, and hold the culmination of all that hard work in your hands.
But not every writer is able to—as L’Amour says above—turn on the faucet to start the writing process. Fewer still complete that first book. And only a small handful have more than one title to their credit.
And then there’s Patricia Grossman.
With 8(!) books to her name, Grossman has crafted some truly moving works, from the haunting family narrative of Radiant Daughter to the stunning character portrait in Brian in Three Seasons that earned her a coveted Ferro-Grumley Award for LGBT Fiction.
The Buckeye Flame spoke to Grossman about her Cleveland background, her path to the pen, and the importance of LGBTQ+ characters on her pages.
Give us your Ohio background: where’d you grow up/spend your time?
I had a totally suburban upbringing, specifically the Northeastern suburbs of Cleveland. I’m afraid I’ve been afflicted by a lifelong allergy to suburbs.
When little Patty was running around Ohio, was writing always your dream?
Funny you should say “running” because in my memory of my young childhood I am strangely sluggish. I have a class nursery school picture in which I’m so slumped I appear to have a dowager’s hump and you can pick me out from my classmates by my world-weary expression.
Back to your question: Though I became interested in writing in high school, the greater share of my free time was spent drawing. I found drawing magical, and I loved the interiority of it. I’m grateful that I was given plenty of opportunity to commune with myself, that my mother valued introspection.
Were you out when you were in high school?
No one was out when I was in high school. And transgendered people for all intents and purposes didn’t exist. When I look back, the level of homogeneity was striking. My high school was 99% white, mostly Jewish. It was simply understood that gay people were to be feared and loathed.
My parents subscribed to Life Magazine in the 1960’s. In the summer of 1964, the cover issue was “Homosexuality in America.” I will never forget leafing through it, alone in our den. In my memory of the black-and-white pictures, all taken in cities, smoke is rising up from gutters everywhere. Men in tight pants are giving each other wounded, furtive looks. All the women were at the extreme ends of butch/femme.
I recently looked the article up. I could only find a few quotations, but they convey the thrust:
This social disorder, which society tries to suppress, has forced itself into the public eye because it does present a problem—and parents are concerned.
And here’s the part that seems to fancy itself enlightened:
The myth and misconception with which homosexuality has so long been clothed must be cleared away, not to condone it but to cope with it.
For a sheltered Ohio girl starting to be attracted to other girls, Life Magazine’s exposé was devastating to encounter. It bore an ill wind. I came out when I was 19 and living in a far more diverse place, but the societal sensibility that gave rise to that article was still in the air. And in some places in America, it still is today.
Given the dearth of LGBTQ+ characters in the world of literature, how important is it to include them in your writing?
It’s pretty important. My last novel, Radiant Daughter, had none because the story didn’t beckon any, but across the spectrum I can’t imagine writing fiction that didn’t include main or subordinate LGBTQ characters. Not because I have a responsibility to portray them in any particular way, or even because they’ve been underrepresented in literature, but because being LGBTQ+ in a majority straight society still creates uniquely textured experiences that are satisfying to portray. I’m confident that readers of serious fiction are driven, at least in part, by an eagerness to experience the world views and motivations of characters unlike themselves.
And, finally, what advice do you have for budding LGBTQ+ Ohioan writers?
I’ll confine my answer to fiction writers. What the right disparagingly calls “identity politics”—that is, the insistence of marginalized groups to be taken seriously—has forced change and historic levels of acceptance of LGBTQ+ people by the mainstream. By identifying strongly with a group, individual voices have been amplified. Political alliances have been successfully formed. Various underappreciated groups are starting to be heard and understood by increasingly receptive audiences. There is much to celebrate in this. Progress continues to be made because of the courage and organizing strength of groups within the LGBTQ+ community speaking up.
But when it comes to fiction, I understand how what has been dubbed identity politics can be intrusive and can wring the depth out of a good story. Just as LGBTQ stereotypes have harmed otherwise strong pieces of fiction in the past, characters who serve as embodiments of the “correct thinking” about LGBTQ+ people can, ironically, limit our ability to be moved and transformed by them.
In keeping with this view, I believe that, with reasonable exceptions, writers can and should be able to write about any character that inspires them. In my novel Brian in Three Seasons, for example, I wrote from the point of view of a gay man. And just as LGBTQ+ writers have always written about straight characters, so should straight writers have the freedom to feature LGBTQ+ protagonists.
In discussing her writing, Carson McCullers often quoted the early Latin playwright Terence: “nothing human is alien to me.” Making the alien familiar is such a worthy goal for fiction writers, regardless of who they are and whom they’re writing about.
Ken Schneck is the Editor of The Buckeye Flame. He is the author of Seriously, What Am I Doing Here? The Adventures of a Wondering and Wandering Gay Jew (2017), LGBTQ Cleveland (2018), LGBTQ Columbus (2019), and LGBTQ Cincinnati (2020). In his spare time, he is a professor of education at Baldwin Wallace University. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.