Sunday, December 7, 2008

Guest Blogger - Victor J. Banis

Victor J. Banis has found a happy, new home with ManLoveRomance Press and currently has several wonderful books out with them, including Lola Dances, but his latest release, Angel Land, is so timely, that I asked him to share his writing process with us relating to this story. Angel Land will be published soon in e-book format by MLR Press.
Here is the blurb for Angel Land:
Late in the 21st Century: ravaged by the deadly Sept virus, the one time United States has disintegrated into The Fundamental Christian Territories, where Catholics, Baptists and Jews are registered as heretics, and gays are herded into walled ghettos: The Zones of Perversion.
Harvey Milk Walton, a runner, finds his way to the ghetto in Angel Land, oldest of the territories, where a legend says that his long ago martyred namesake will return one day to lead his people to freedom—but even to speak of freedom, of leaving the FTC, is punishable by death.
In a crumbling totalitarian society, where evil masquerades as piety, two men fall in love, and begin to dream of escape from
Angel Land

When I first committed to writing this blog, I intended to write about writing, a subject about which, after all these years and all these books, I might be expected to have learned at least a little something, and I thought it might be worthwhile to share some of what I have learned with others.

When the suggestion was made that I write instead about my latest novel, Angel Land, I was not only surprised, but, frankly, it gave me pause. First, because this was intended to be a blogging opportunity for MLR authors, and although I am a happy member of the MLR family, as I like to think of us, Angel Land was contracted for before I joined the family and so is published elsewhere (although happily the upcoming e-version will be released by MLR.)

Second, and this gave me the most pause, I am not very good nor very enthusiastic about tooting my own horn. I have always subscribed to the philosophy that it is better to tell people about your shanty in the country and let them discover for themselves that it is really a palace, than to describe your palace, and have them discover that it is only a shanty. I am always fearful that when I steer others to my writing, they may discover that it is only a shanty. So to devote this column to my own work seemed to me like dbsp—that is to say, disgustingly blatant self promotion.

On the other hand, not since The Man From C.A.M.P., published in 1966, have I had a novel that created so much buzz. Certainly the reviews have been raves; Robert Buck, on the GWR review site, says, "I recommend Angel Land as highly as I have ever recommended a book." AJ Llewelyn, at Dark Diva Reviews, calls it "the work of a master artist." And reviewing the book on Amazon, Bethann Korsmit says, "I give Angel Land my highest recommendation, and I think it should be read by everyone."

Nor is it only reviewers either who have expressed their enthusiasm. In the short time since its introduction, I have already received enthusiastic fan letters, and both readers and those simply contemplating reading the book have flooded me with questions about its creation, its plot, the characters, and the like.

Something about the book, then, has captured the attention of people. Of course, it is not difficult to see why this should be so. First, the movie, Milk, a biopic about the martyred Harvey Milk, has just opened to its own rave reviews, and Harvey Milk, or at least his name and his legend, play an integral part in Angel Land. Indeed, my protagonist's name is Harvey Milk Walton, a fact of considerable consequence in the story.

Moreover, the villains in the piece are religious fundamentalists—Fundies, in the book's parlance. In the wake of recent election results in which gay marriage was outlawed in California and gay adoption in Arkansas, both events largely backed by religious groups, the suggestion of religious persecution of gays and lesbians must certainly seem timely. It is hardly surprising that these unplanned coincidences have touched common chords through the glbt and the writing communities.

In the end, however, I decided to go with the suggestion of writing about Angel Land for the simplest and, yes, vainest of reasons: I like the book.

I like it, in fact, very much; but the truth is, I like most of what I write, or it does not see print. Angel Land, however, is, I think, somewhat unique. Certainly it is not like anything else I have written, but I cannot think of a book by anyone else which it altogether resembles either. Perhaps it is only vanity, but I think it is an important book—not, I hasten to add, a piece of great literature destined to become a classic as time goes along, nor better written than a dozen or so of MLR's writers could deliver, and almost certainly less entertaining than much of what you would find in that publisher's catalog.

It is, however, a thought provoking book. It has much to say that is cautionary, and it is ultimately a celebration of human spirit. It touches upon spiritual issues that I think are important to many homosexuals; and, almost from beginning to end, it is about love, in its many, often contradictory facets. It is, in fact, a book I should like everyone to read, and not simply because I want the sales or the money (though neither is to be scorned); and not just those in the glbt community, either. I think it is a timely book.

But, ever mindful of that shanty in the country, I did not set out to deliver a sales pitch. I will content myself instead with sharing some of the questions that I have been asked, and my answers. I will let them deliver the pitch for me, if one is needed.

Q: Was there any reason for your choice of including Baptists with Catholics and Jews in the ghettos?

A: Actually, none of the above live in the ghettos. The ghettos were created for the sexually deviant, as explained in these excerpts from different parts of the book (and, it should be explained, the POVs of several different characters):

The creation of the Zones:

Harvey Milk Walton: A Reverend Elihu Gaston founded The Fundamental Christian Church early in the century. Fueled to a great extent by the eruption of Sept, the FCC began to gobble up the other churches. Overnight, it seemed, the Church of God went, and the Church of Christ, the Methodists. One by one the lesser fishies succumbed to the great black shark in the sea of religion…
* * *
The Manager: Of course, originally the ghettos had not been intended solely for the gay population. Zones of Perversion they were called, and the statutes were written to include almost any non-marital, non-procreative activity. Some—the rapists, the child molesters, the incestuous—were sent straight off to the camps or, in the extreme cases, to their rewards, but the Zone was the prescribed punishment for any sex outside of marriage. In the early years a few young men had found themselves transported to the Zone for the sin of masturbation, but legend had it that one or two of them grew too fond of the punishment, and after a while, it was decided that a day or two in the public stocks was sufficient for all but the most incorrigible.
Like the heretically religious, the Tribes—the Afros, the Asiatics, the Latins and others—enjoyed what was termed “restricted freedom,” whatever that might mean. It was a crime, however, to “make a perversion of one’s racial or ethnic status.” “Too black,” as Chip put it, and sometimes one of them landed in the Zone as well, sexual orientation notwithstanding.
Not many years passed, however, before the Zones had become de facto ghettos for the territories’ gay populations. And not all of them complained.
From the Nineties of the Twentieth Century through the Teen years of the Twenty-first, the various mutations of the AIDS virus had ravaged the world. With the coming of Sept, however, gays suddenly had more to fear from their neighbors and fellow citizens than from the disease.
He’d heard the tales of mobs rampaging throughout the newly created territories, of sobbing gays dragged from their homes, chased screaming through the streets, beaten, lynched, sometimes burned alive mid-street.
For the gays, the ghetto walls had meant sanctuary from unrelenting terror, and the Fundies were true to their word on that score: the guards at the gates kept the gays in, but they kept violence out too. Perhaps not entirely: gay-bashings weren’t all that unusual, but at least there were no lynch mobs.

Catholics, and Jews are required to be registered as heretics.
Harvey: I said, quickly, firmly, “I’m not Catholic.” Ostensibly, the heretical religious—Catholics, Jews, Baptists et al—were free, but everyone knew that was a crock of butter. In actual practice, they too were registered, their religious services restricted, travel within the territories restricted, travel outside the territories forbidden under pain of death. And everyone knew that Catholic and Queer was a one-way ticket to slave labor. “No religion at all.”
That wasn’t exactly true: I was a devout believer in the religion of Look-Out-For-Number-One, but that wasn’t going to buy me a prayer of a chance.

Initially, Baptists were spared, but in time they too fell afoul of the FCC:
Aram: He was astonished by himself, by the things he had done then, things he had never in his wildest fantasies imagined himself doing—things that had given him pleasure he’d never dreamed existed, had never imagined could be found in the heretofore unexalted act of sex.
He wondered what that said about the state of his Christian soul? He and Elam had been raised in Christian homes. Their parents had been Baptists. Although the Baptist Church had remained independent when the FCC had gobbled up its sister religions, the two churches had remained closely allied for years.
Eventually, though, differences had sprung up. “Mostly,” his mother told him once, “if you can believe it, over music. Baptists love to sing. Fundie music is pious but there’s no passion.”
In time the Baptists had joined the list of heretics…

Q: What research, if any, did you do before and during the writing of the story?

A: Hmm. You know, most of the research I did was Biblical – I did a lot of scriptural reading, and I read a number of books on the question of homosexuality vis-à-vis Christianity; but, in fact, I did most of that research when I was writing my memoirs, Spine Intact, Some Creases, and I expand on the subject a bit more fully there. So, when I came to write Angel Land, it was more a matter of refreshing my memory. I lived in San Francisco (which becomes Angel Land) for many years, so I hardly needed to research the terrain; and most of the rest came from imagination.

Q: Besides the somewhat obvious name choice of Harvey Milk Walton for one of your characters, did you select names with relation to what feelings/reactions that name might evoke? Although I sometimes consciously select names for specific reasons involving my stories, I find that often a name will pop into my mind and I later discover my subconscious has been at work behind my back to pick the perfect name.

A: I think my choices were, like yours, more subconscious. The names just popped into my head, and then when I investigated, I found obvious connections that my writing mind had made. Aram, as an example, is one of Noah's offspring, the clan given charge of recreating the world after the flood; and, there's an obvious symbolism there in the book's end, but I wasn't conscious of it when I was writing.

Q: When you started this story, was the anniversary of Harvey Milk's murder in the back of your mind?

A: No, but like many gays, especially those of us who lived through that time, that is a name very prominent in our thinking; and, of course, the gay liberation movement, from the sixties through Harvey's assassination, was my era, that was my fight as well, so of course, his death had a great significance for me.

Q: How long did the writing of this story take?

A: Forever, it sometimes seemed. I often write very quickly. My novel, Longhorns, for instance, I did in two weeks, though I did spend subsequent time polishing it up. But Angel Land, gosh, I started it, I think, in 2003, so there were five years there before the book was finished. Now, I didn't work on it non stop over all that time, but I did come back to it repeatedly. It was a very complex story, with many characters and many themes running through it. The initial manuscript was something more than 300,000 words, so it required lots of pruning, editing, polishing up. And, I was very fortunate in having Lori Lake for my editor. She's a friend and a fine writer herself, and, let me say, a formidable taskmistress. She worked very hard at making me work very hard, but I am truly grateful to her. She deserves a lot of credit for the final product.

Q: Did you always have this ending in mind as you wrote?

A: Yes, absolutely. The first things I wrote were that travel brochure that opens the novel, and the final scene and epilogue—and, I confess, those last two never fail to bring tears to my eyes, and I hope my readers share that experience. I think that, really, there is the heart of the book, in those last few pages, what it's all about. Hope and Courage and Love.

Q: Obviously, you created a sort of alternative world for this novel. Were there other elements of this future world that do not appear in Angel Land?

A: Goodness, yes. There were those 200,000 some pages that I trimmed. I named and described all nine of the FCT, for example, and even wrote travel brochures for them: Beulah Land (formerly Old South); Eden; Canaan, Jubilee, Jordan, Gilead, The Apostles and Ararat. And not all of the USA became the FCT; there remained the free states—Seattle Free State, DC Free, the Conch Republic, et al. I could fill an entire book with the material I didn't use. But, having written it, it gave me a great sense of the time and place, made Angel Land really come to life for me. I always felt as if I were there.

Q: Various readers have described Angel Land in different terms. Robert Buck, in his review on the GWR blog site, calls it "a crackling good, edge-of-the-seat adventure;"
Rick R. Reed will shortly review it on, a site devoted primarily to horror. Elisa Rolle calls it "apocalyptic" and "a love story." AJ Llewelyn likens it to "Huxley’s Brave New World. There’s tinges of that. There’s Blade Runner and without giving away too much, shades of Planet of the Apes." These people might almost be describing different books. How do you personally define Angel Land?

A: Oh, you know, with all that it has to say and everything it contains, for me, this still boils down to a love story:

Aram: What he couldn't ignore were his feelings for Harvey, feelings that seemed to grow with each moment, feelings that were both a joy and a torment. He had always thought himself a good Christian, even, smugly, a model one. He tithed and prayed and obeyed the letter of the law. He’d had sexual orgasms before of course, mostly alone and once he had mounted a woman, entered and dutifully gave her his tribute, and he had taken a perverse sort of pride in the fact that it had left him so little moved. Surely, he had reasoned, that was proof of his purity, wasn’t it?
Or so he had thought, until that night with Harvey. There had been nothing pure about him then. He had been white hot, wanton, insatiable. His erection would not soften; he could not leave Harvey’s penis alone.
Not a “penis,” he told himself—a cock, a word that he had never spoken aloud, was sure that he had never even consciously thought. Even now, even alone, he blushed when it came into his mind, but once entered, it would not be evicted.
Simply remembering—the intensity, the fervor, that breathless desire that drove him, the pleasure so keen it was painful, the pain so sharp it was pleasurable—just remembering it, he felt a stirring in his trousers. That, too, was new to him. He had lived most of his life with his sexuality carefully tamped, held in rigid check, and now he had to fight to hold those memories at bay.
Despite his efforts, his memory of the passion Harvey had aroused in him would not be denied. And Harvey, too, had been insatiable. Was it always like this when two men made such a connection? Was this why the Church was so adamantly opposed to men with men? How could he know?
All he did know was that it consumed him. It was not so much that the passion was within him, it was more as if he was within it. His desire was like a hot summer haze that enveloped him.
All he really knew for certain was that he was in love.

I couldn't say it better myself.

I want to thank Victor so much for being with us today. I hope you'll visit him at his site where you can learn more about him and his work.


Jeanne said...

Just wanted to thank Victor again for his thought provoking post.
I think Harvey Milk would be proud...

Craig Burke said...

Jeanne love your blog! Thanks for having Victor Banis guest here - he is one of my absolute favorites and Angel Land is an incredible must read book.

Mykola Dementiuk said...

It's amazing that you've written so much, 300,000 word just for a 1st manuscript of 'Angel Land' wow! You're wonderful!

Adrianne Brennan said...

Fab blog post, Jeanne! :) WTG.

Jeanne said...

Don't thank me, thank Victor.
He must be one of the most gracious, humble folks I know!
BTW, that invite is still open!

Jeanne said...

Don't thank me, thank Victor.
He must be one of the most gracious, humble folks I know!
BTW, that invite is still open!

K. Z. Snow said...

Wow. For being an icon in the world of GLBT fiction, Victor is one of the most self-effacing authors I've come upon. A good example, I think.

Angel Land sounds like a fascinating and thought-provoking chunk of storytelling. Can't get much better than that combination, far as I'm concerned.

I published a somewhat similar dystopian novel, but it tanked and went largely unnoticed. Here's hoping Victor's message gets through. It's an important one.

Another great guest-blog, Jeanne!

Ken Summers said...

The amazing thing about writing stories is how these fanciful daydreams and what-ifs can impact readers. It makes the lackluster pay worthwhile!

It sounds like a book worthy of praise and I've added it to my to-read list already! Of course, it helps that Milk factors into my own book. But the simple reality that such a story is frighteningly plausible makes it an important read.