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SA Collins | Akwekon Media

Author: SA Collins (An Interview)
Akwekon Media is proud to be working with author S.A. Collins on his latest work - Angels of Mercy.

We sat down with this new creative force in storytelling to get the 4-1-1 on the impetus for the series, why the genre of Gay Literature Fiction is front and center, and what is it with jocks and football.

AM: It's great to have you here so we can chat about your new work.

SAC: Thanks. It's great to talk about the work.

AM: Really? Tell us why.

SAC: Well, for starters, I would have to say that as a gay male author it is astounding to me how much about us is being written by those who aren't, in fact, self-identifying queer authors. Take for example, the recent surge in M/M Romance genre which is growing quite quickly in the mainstream - mainly because it is written by straight women for straight women (I guess it's the opposing end of the spectrum like straight men like their lesbian action).

AM: If you had to guess, why do you think that's so?

SAC: Well, the genre as it stands now seems to be an off-shoot of the slash fan fic that was out there during the 80s and 90s. In those cases it was predominantly women writing about supposedly straight men who suddenly find one man in particular who turns his world upside down - and he finds he suddenly can't live without him. Mind you this is usually, but not always, paired with a backstory of said straight guy being confused for part of the novel/novella because up until this particular point in time, he was always straight. And we all know how often that happens in this world.

AM: But it's fantasy, right? I mean, isn't that what romance is all about? Fantasy? Isn't it just an escapism form of entertainment?

SAC: I could take that as it stands, but let's not forget what community they are writing about. In the case of M/M romance it is gay men. As a gay man, I have read hundreds of these books and have yet to find but a handful that speak to me as a gay man. Nearly all of them are fantastical - shifters, vamps, witches, etcetera - along with the hetero man thug themes of fireman, policeman, athlete and let's not forget, soldier.

AM: But you can't mean to say that you're against these types of portrayals in storytelling. I mean, isn't it good to get gay characters out there no matter the way of telling it?

SAC: Sure, but let's not forget that if you write about gay characters, have a modicum of respect for the community you write about. They (these non-gay authors) are guests in the Gay Literary House, so to speak. It is no more than the care and attentiveness I would pay if my main character was a strong black woman. I might be able to imagine it, but I would be a guest in that genre or form of storytelling because when I saved my Scrivener file, quit the application and shut off the computer, I get to put down the strong black woman mantle, because at the root of it all, I am not a woman, nor am I black. Now, mind you, I grew up within a strong black community because my parents sang in a nearly all black gospel choir when I was growing up. Being exposed to years of being amongst the black community, it would make me far more sensitive to their concerns than if I just dreamt up a story with a strong black female and had very little exposure to their world. The same holds true for the M/M genre and those women who write about us. Yes, I get that it's light fiction (it isn't meant to change the world). I get that they're fanciful little literary morsels to be consumed and set aside and move onto the next. I get that. But for me, as a gay man, those stories have very little to do with my world. That fantasy is, at its root, straight female to its core.

AM: Those are some fairly strong feelings about it.

SAC: I don't see how I can be any other way. It is akin to my coming up to someone and telling them what their life is like without ever having any real sense of it myself. Now, I am sure many of these women have gay male friends. They seem, by and large, to be allies to our community. That's great. I thank them for that. The more the merrier in that regard. But it isn't the same - again, because they get to put that writing baton down. They get to get on with their personal (generally hetero-normative) lives. We gay men have no off switch. We don't get to be "something else."

That's why I wrote Angels of Mercy like I did. It was important for me to get a story out there that was truly reflective of how I grew up as a gay male in a world that constantly said, "You aren't one of us." And it's pervasive.

Also, I recently was cruising around in a gay erotic writers' circle on Google+ and saw a short Vine-like video of one of the "Rainbow" writers' conferences. The video was of a roomful of these women writers and the entertainment was male strippers - I watched it as these "firemen" were lap dancing on these female writers and I kept thinking "How is this remotely GAY?" It seemed very, VERY heteronormative to me and not a great way to show support of our community. Now, if it had been their gay pals or other gay writers up there and that lap dancing was going on and you, as a straight female writer, were whooping and hollering, cheering those boys on ... now THAT would be supportive and a festive way to celebrate what they write about. And therein lies the critical but important difference, at least to my way of thinking.

I know my views won't win me many friends in the post slash fanfic authorship that prevails in the genre; that's not my interest. My interest lies in connecting with any gay kid out there who feels utterly alone (like I did at that age), who might feel he doesn't have anyone to talk to about it or any confirmation that his thoughts and feelings are true and right for him. That's the kid I am writing for, because that kid was me. Thankfully, I had the works of John Rechy and Gordon Merrick to keep me sane and safe.

AM: So that's why you wrote Angels?

SAC: Well, not just because of that, but yeah, it definitely set the tone of how the story plays out. Unlike the "raunchy" sex these women dream up - and I've yet to read one that is actually, ya know, raunchy. I don't think many of them know what real raunch is when it comes to gay men having sex. Because even the BDSM fair seems very vanilla and never really gets into the actual power play between two men - because that's mental, that's strictly internal monologue as much as it is a dialog between Master and Servant. Again, they can imagine it and write to it as they see it, but it isn't the same as a man who lives it. I've yet to find a female writer who can do that successfully. She might be out there, but yeah, given the way the genre is formulaic on how the sex and what qualifies as "raunchy" is portrayed, it really doesn't reflect gay men's lives. It is gay in name and situation only - the emotive core is a bit on the thin side (as far as I've read). Just look at the submission criteria from these publishers - there are so many restrictions on what they deem as appropriate - only a woman would come up with that structure and set of limitations. Generally, men don't limit themselves. We are built to push envelopes and make our mark. We're driven to do this from the times we are boys. Aim high, make your mark and if you fail, learn and move on and get better at it. And for god sake, don't belabor the failures. That's something that women obsess about and to a great degree it is reflected in their writing about the men in those books.

AM: Hmmm, so we've got your take on why the novel is the way it is - can you tell us what you mean by that?

SAC: Well you see, for me, there was the whole mentally shifting from foot to foot, like a boxer, you know? Well, that's how it always felt to me: constantly keeping your guard up, which is why I thought the pairing of Marco (the quarterback) and Elliot (the geeky gay kid) was an interesting pair. Not because it can't be argued that it's formulaic, because there are ample examples of those pairings out there. But it was how I dealt with it that I think separates me from the rest. Mine was born of actual experiences in my life, situations and things that happened to me and how I dealt with them. Now, Angels is no auto-biography. Not by a long shot. But I took some situations I had, especially with the run-ins with other jocks and the other social elite cliques that I wanted reflected in the book. Those threats are real and they are pervasive. In the case of Elliot's story, because the first book is told from his perspective in the first person, I wanted the reader to know just how much rambling goes on in there in just trying to navigate those treacherous high school waters for a gay kid really is. And Elliot has no off switch - he is on - one hundred and ten percent on. I also wanted him to be aware of you, the reader, because I thought for you to connect with him he had to relate to you conversationally. It comes as a series of well placed asides, but you are definitely along for the ride, and he knows you're there.

AM: But the work is deceptive, isn't it?

SAC: Yes, it is. At first blush, the first novel seems like any other heady, coming of age teenage romance - albeit of the gayboy variety. But that's where I diverge from the standard M/M fare. As I shopped this novel around it became quite apparent to me that the genre publishers (small independents who seem to have no desire to expand their small scope of voices because what they've been offering is selling like mad so they don't think they should plan for a shift in voice when this current form begins to sour) had no interest in hearing or promoting something different than what was selling. I get that it's a business, but good businesses also keep an ear to the ground for something not prevalent - something that will turn the whole thing on its ear.

Angels is intentionally dark. Really dark. And it gets darker in books 2 and 3 before we come out the other side. Marco and Elliot do get their Ever After Happily - just maybe not the way it's ever been told before. It's funny actually, because it was the ending that came to me first when the idea of the story started to form. So in a very real way, I wrote it backwards in my head. And I don't pull any punches. These boys are hormonally charged sexually active boys - emphasis on boys. We're talking at an age where bathroom tiling makes us hard and want to have sex. I don't pull away from that. But what I do do in the book is that I let you hear Elliot's thoughts about what it feels like to make love to the man he can't believe is his. Men are often criticized by women that we don't feel things deeply. I'll definitely say we do. We just often don't give them voice like women do. We don't feel the need to talk them out. We process internally. It is a very long inner monologue that goes on. Each man has his own way of doing it, but we all do it. I've been with my husband for over 20 years (a good part of it legally, thank you very much). In all those years, we've talked about our feelings on a few occasions. But he knows how much I love him. I tell him so every chance I get. But I don't feel the desire to blab about it or examine it from every angle every moment of my life. I may be gay, I may be able to speak with my lady friends in a manner that they get, but believe me, I am translating in my head. I am speaking femme. Gay men can do that because we remove the fear in speaking with women intimately when we choose because we don't have any sexual tension between us. There is no game going on, on that level. Elliot deals with that. He deals with it with his mother, and with the sultry cousin of his boyfriend. That's another element I wanted to play with - how gay boys relate to the world around them. Their inner thoughts and musings, even while having a great conversation.

(sighs)

It's funny, because I had a response from a gay male author who writes in the standard m/m romance fare. He said that he thought my work broke momentum. Yet, another gay man read the work (not knowing what I was handing him) and started reading it and struggled with it for about three paragraphs before the light went on and he suddenly realized (which he confided to me later) that it was speaking to him in his own voice. He just needed to let go and let Elliot talk to him. He got it. The gay author who is selling his wares in the standard fare (and yes, I've read the work), I can see why he thinks that the inner monologue breaks momentum - because yeah, it does. BUT THAT'S THE POINT. It's how we, as gay men, process our world. We have to constantly translate, constantly step and reevaluate our situations, even if we're the big butch guy on the scene, you can bet there is still some hefty inner monologue going on in there. He may never cop to it openly, but he's doing it nonetheless. I may be gay, but I know my gender.

Also, there's the element that Elliot struggles with in his relationship with his mother. This one is of particular importance to me because I gave the work to a mother of a gay son (the son has since grown up and their relationship is stronger now) and she connected with Elliot (and by extension his mother, Kayla) because of their awkward conversations where Kayla is trying really hard to stay rooted in her boy's life. This mother came back to me with a note that for her, Elliot answered questions she had about her own relationship with her son. It gave her a perspective she didn't expect. It may not be one hundred percent related to her own past with her son, but yeah, they had their fair share of awkward moments to deal with. So yeah, it has the potential to reach out to parents and friends of gays. The whole PFLAG connection. (Laughs) Actually I have a PFLAG couple in there that I absolutely adore. So yeah, even that part of the equation is represented. Perhaps I should push it along those lines too. If it helped one of my beta readers connect with it because of her own son, maybe there will be others.

AM: You mentioned the works of Merrick and Rechy - any reason you brought them up specifically?

SAC: Oooh, good question! I am so glad you remembered to ask that one. Yes, because they're the reason I am writing in the voice I am. Rechy and Merrick were my go-tos back in the light on gay fiction days of the 70s and 80s. There were others, Monette, Kramer, Holleran. But Rechy and Merrick were my golden boys. They were my literary gods. Rechy because of the grit and absolute MALENESS of his work. And he deserves every capital letter in maleness in that last sentence. For a gay fiction work, his character is undeniably male - right down to his core. No chick with dick there. Bona fide man. As for Merrick, well where Rechy satiated my lust and gritty erotica, Merrick warmed my heart. Merrick's work is largely forgotten now. It only recently was transferred into digital format, which I am thoroughly ecstatic about. I loved both these men for their courage to put out their work even when they probably knew it wouldn't ever find its way to take up space on a coffee table out in the open. Indeed, my copies in high school had brown paper-bag book covers I'd created to conceal what they really were.

AM: Wow, that certainly was a lot to process. Anything else?

SAC: Well, Well, I guess I would just add that I wrote Angels of Mercy to accomplish two things. One, get it out there because these boys, Marco and Elliot, just won't shut the hell up until they've had their say. And two, I wanted something out there that reflected my experiences, my world. The world I don't get to put down, because at its core, it's me. Lastly, I hope that it can find its way to some boy out there who will think that maybe what he's feeling isn't so unusual at all. Maybe he'll see my boys and think that what he wants for himself is attainable. That maybe there's a Marco out there for him (or an Elliot if he finds he identifies with Marco). What I want most of all is for a gay boy to read my work and feel that finally, for once, he doesn't have to translate the work he's reading. He can just sit back and absorb what my boys in Mercy have to tell him. That would be the greatest success of all in my book.
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