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INTERVIEW with Richard Alther

by Wendy Knight, Knight and Day Communications (

Q: What prompted your interest in a gay hate crime? Were you a victim yourself?

A: No, I was not, fortunately. I’ve never once suffered a hurled slur. But current statistics acknowledge a huge slice of gays and lesbians have been physically assaulted, not to mention the bullying in grade school. But it was the Matthew Shepard murder that got me to review the litany of contemporary violent crimes. I’m privileged to have spent much of my life in Vermont, where the state motto should be “live and let live.”

Q: I know Vermont was the first state to sanction same-sex civil unions. But in the course of that effort wasn’t there some pretty ugly reaction in the campaign to “Take Back Vermont?”

A: I couldn’t believe some of the letters to the editor in Burlington. It’s there, it’s everywhere, not just in stereotyped “red states.” We’re all brainwashed as kids, really drenched in the prejudices of our families, and it’s not their fault. Look how many years after legal equality for blacks, women, minorities remains a long road ahead? Thank goodness old people die and our youngest are growing up with more diversity in entertainment, political office, in the workplace.

Q: So your novel goes beyond hatred of gays?

A: I think when we’re moved by a book or movie it’s because we can relate to the pain or dream of somebody although they’re unlike ourselves outwardly. I used to freeze up on a city street approaching a cluster of black kids. Sometimes I’d dart across the street. It’s a universal survival mechanism to flinch at “the other,” useful millennia ago but now obsolete. The gay message is sinking in. Folks of the same sex can love each other, love being the operable, identifiable common ground. People are heartbroken hearing of a lesbian who dies but happened to own the assets, leaving her partner of a lifetime penniless and homeless.

Q: Well, there’s another novel for you.

A: I’m not a lesbian. Well, almost, in that situation.

Q: Back to the book. So you personally weren’t a victim but your protagonist Rudy is convincingly real. Did you interview actual gay men who were beaten up?

A: No, my story is invented. It was easy fabricating a gay victim. The challenge, the point of my novel, was to burrow into the souls of the attackers and learn what I could. Norman Mailer is purported to have once said, the purpose of a novelist is to save the world from itself. I’m indebted to everybody who volunteers tons of time to charity, to AIDS work. I’ve never done that. I often feel selfish squirreled away writing, but I’m grateful this book is getting published to add my iron to the fire.

Q: What impact can a single novel have, especially THE SCAR LETTERS which is almost quarantined in the tough market today as a “gay” novel let alone “literary fiction” compared to Chick Lit, Young Adult, vampires, thrillers, sexy memoirs, etcetera?

A: For me as a writer, although with two previously published novels, the process is the payoff. I’m satisfying my own curiosity to delve into a subject like this. More work and time and commitment, at least in my case--researching, reading, cogitating, than my four years of college. If my book strikes a chord in a few dozen, hundreds, thousands, well, that can percolate and seep out into wider circles. Not the actual novel but the sentiment. Millions more people are talking about gay issues right now than reading books.

Q: If you’re so passionate about this particular gay issue, why a novel instead of a non-fiction book or essay or magazine article? Something condensed and more accessible?

A: Storytelling I think gets more under the skin than being preached at, or a point of view you can simply agree with or dispute. Since earliest recorded history stories are the vehicles for how we learn basic values, morals, right-from-wrong, empathy for fellow humans. In every culture. Certainly literary fiction is how I got to discover the world and my place in it, from fairytales onward. By college the classics challenged me to think from all points of view in order to glean where I myself stood. I wrote THE SCAR LETTERS with an open mind. Is blood-curdling hatred of homosexuality a black-and-white thing? Well, for starters, in the tenth century, then the Middle Ages, it wasn’t so much the sex-between-men as it was religious heresy, disobeying Church strictures that were necessary for civilization, to keep the lawless hordes at bay. Of course the Vatican lived off the fat of the land in collusion with the royalty, so there was enormous pressure to keep real estate patriarchal, father-to-son. A homosexual screwed that up. So much of homophobia is now misplaced by Bible literalists, for example, not evolving with the times.

Q: I like some facts of Medieval torture of gays as chapter headings…more gentle reminders than a sledge hammer of the depths of prejudice gay people have been, and are, up against. Was it difficult to cut much from earlier drafts? I loved you telling me of the Jack character, an underground gay preacher with his sermons like “Jesus in a G-String.”

A: All that’s out. It was too easy taking potshots at the Bible quoters denying Jesus’ physicality or clinging to gays as abominators a la Leviticus.

Q: But there’s still humor, like Rudy at the Kiss-In protest, the shenanigans at the ex-gay softball game, the abortive dates as Rudy is reaching out from his cocoon. Don’t those deflect from the gruesomeness of Rudy’s assault and the seriousness of his search to meet the attackers years later, what they themselves make of their teenage crime?

A: Rudy has a light-hearted streak. He’s chosen as his sidekick Tex, an irreverent rascal who is his total opposite, so there’s hope he can dig himself out of his hole.

Q: The other important characters, his close pals--the psychologist Jack and the AIDS activist Tex, have emotional problems worse than does Rudy at 40. Don’t they dilute Rudy’s mission?

A: They fortify Rudy, help him to see that everyone has a battle of some sort, so he has no excuse to whine, not to get a life.

Q: Your second novel SIEGFRIED FOLLIES addresses anti-Semitism but you are not Jewish. Is this another example of what makes you tick as a novelist, to look from all angles?

A: Perhaps. But in that case it’s autobiographical inspiration. I grew up in a small New York suburban community of loving people almost entirely German-American who I saw once I left home as extremely bigoted anti-Semites. At Cornell, fraternities and sororities were “Christian” and “Jewish” which we almost thought of as a joke. I brought a co-ed with an emphatically Jewish name to my first Christmas formal probably to piss off my mother. When I learned The Holocaust happened mere decades before, I was flabbergasted such savagery occurred in the world a thousand years after the slaughtering Crusaders, two thousand years after throwing Christians to lions for sport. I needed to look under my own roof for just how ingrained prejudice can be.

Q: Finally, Richard, do you think violence against gays will fall sharply now that the parade is led by President Obama no less?

A: I do. I’m a Pollyanna, the container half-full. Why I’m willing to spend years writing a story that in the scope of things will reach a smattering of readers. I’m optimistic because of the Internet. The gay Rutgers freshman jumping off the George Washington Bridge—his roommate’s video to humiliate him part and parcel of the whole affair instantly broadcast as international news. The disgust at religious fanatics who behead homosexuals or stone a young woman to death. In this day and age. It’s unthinkable. We’re one world, with lesbians and gays and bisexuals and transsexuals just another slice of motley, lovable, forgivable humanity.


(John Brooks, contact for permission to re-print this interview in whole or part… )



Kilian Melloy, The EDGE Media Network

Let me begin by asking a few questions, which we can then follow up on…

You've written two novels before this, “The Decade of Blind Dates” and “Siegfried Follies.” Do you see (or intend) an arc being described by all of these books if taken as a whole?

A: Looking back on three novels I can see each is concerned with a plea for tolerance, for honoring diversity. “The Decade of Blind Dates” is tongue-in-cheek and very entertaining: a man comes out supported by his straight ex-wife and teenage kids to “go for it.” Lots of sex and shenanigans, but underneath is a picture of normalcy: half of us, straight or gay, have second chapters in midlife with all the wackiness of dating again.

“Siegfried Follies,” not a gay story, poses a blond, blue-eyed German orphan who rescues a “dark child” hurled from a train at the end of the war; together they make a home in the bombed ruins of Munich, each without any memory of past family/religion/culture, and follows them for 30 years. As a (former) Christian it was my way of dealing with my extremely anti-Semitic background.

“The Scar Letters” is the result of years of research into pre-Biblical, pre-Koran roots of homophobia, the deep-seated disgust of gays that to this day result in the Matthew Shepard murder to the Rev. Fred “God Hates Fags” Phelps. I wanted to sink into the subject much as I could to get a handle on it.

Each chapter of “The Scar Letters” cites a historical episode of anti-gay violence, much of it institutional and carried out by governments over the centuries. Obviously, we have been getting bashed for centuries. But why? Do you have a way of understanding, in brief, the causes of this long-standing societally ingrained hatred?

A: This is why I wrote my story: to grapple with what turned out to be many reasons behind gay bashing. I decided it is not a black-and-white issue, that you're for us or against...or that it's just our offensive sex lives. For example, simple economics has a lot to do with hate crime. In the Middle Ages a man was burned at the village stake primarily because he wasn't married, sired no offspring, and was considered a heretic for not adhering to the strict patrilineal rules of the day. The Church and State had to enforce such law and order in a near-savage era. Men having sex with men wasn't necessarily the problem. Religious prohibitions came much later, but again mostly as a vehicle to enhance church doctrine and its proponents. (Of course, this was totally hypocritical, given the unraveling of “chaste” priests in dresses who rape boys.)

Today, the men who commit hate crimes against gays are not our best educated folks, but living on the margins. Anger erupts onto scapegoats, a quick shot of power for those otherwise disenfranchised. Queers are a ready target. And even when it's the sex as trigger, it's more about violating of the fragile hold a down-and-out man can have on his sense of power and place. He can still wield that penis.

“The Scar Letters” describes a horrifying episode of anti-gay violence, which leaves its victim in a strange state of mind -- he even goes so far as to make excuses for his youthful attackers. Have we, as gays, also been the victims of a “Stockholm syndrome” in which we're so inculcated into anti-gay philosophies that we accept in some way as justified the brutality to which people like us have been subjected for so long?

A: Yes, I was trying to include that factor in the awful residue a gay attack can impose on the victim. Despite gay affinity clubs in high school and college, Will and Grace and Anderson and Ellen, I'm afraid internalized homophobia is alive and well in youth let alone huge stretches of closeted gay adults in our country. The poor Rutgers freshman jumping off the George Washington Bridge rather than live with the stigma of his sexual orientation. We still have preachers and politicians espousing the bitter wrongness of homosexuality. Justice Scalia, no less, likening this aberation to evil. So a teenager attempting to act tough and struggling with his own sexual identity and false swagger can feel perfectly justified to “kill a queer for Christ.” So I had Rudy, my protagonist, for a long while blame himself, simply for leaving a gay bar near midnight on a dark city street, and empathizing with the plight of his teen attackers likely brutalized themselves in dysfunctional homes, saturated with homophobia.

The writing of this novel is so colorful and multi-leveled that I get a sense you must write poetry. Was there a lyrical intent when it came to composing this novel's prose?

A: Thank you, Kilian, but no; this is just the way I write. I write in the first place because I love language, love literature, studied it not mechanical engineering in college. Also, although I created Rudy to be an underdog, a man living with psychic as well as physical scars from his trauma, he is a smart person, complicated and thoughtful, and so my prose style I hoped would bolster respect for him as a deep thinking and feeling individual.

The two main characters in this novel are Rudy, the narrator and victim of the anti-gay attack that takes place nearly 20 years earlier, and his best friend -- his soul mate, really -- Tex. It's interesting that Rudy and Tex are not a couple in the usual sense… why not?

A: Good question. Likely Tex is everything that Rudy isn't; he's buff, confident, sexy, outspoken, promiscuous. And so that difference presents Rudy's self-effacing, pessimistic, introverted self in higher definition. As best friends, without sexual connection, they engage in deep conversation and, as friends can so wonderfully do, criticize and support each other lovingly, with no strings. Of course Rudy is still shell-shocked about sex and his physical attractiveness when the story starts, so he is no way ready for the real thing. The dating he begins is tentative, disastrous at first, and allows him to gradually build self-esteem as he summons the balls to track down his assailants, now grown men, for understanding if not closure.

I have a sense that readers who have suffered violence, assault, bullying, and other forms of homophobic harassment are going to find this book deeply cathartic. Was it cathartic for you to write this?

A: Yes, but to fulfill my curiosity, not as a former victim of a hate crime. My story is totally invented. There is so much journalism and entertainment and “noise” about gays right now: should we be allowed to marry, adopt children, enjoy legal rights with our spouses, etc. I wanted to burrow deeper into the tide of resistance which persists (hello, President Putin with his draconian anti-gay edicts on the verge of Russia's hosting the Winter Olympics). Right now, today in Virginia, here's what the Republican guy running for governor in this November's election and with his running mate are quoted as saying about gays: “Their minds are perverted, they're frankly very sick people psychologically, mentally, and emotionally.” Not in the Deep South but Virginia, a border state won by Obama both times. Golly. We are winning civil rights but hearts and minds? After millennia as pariahs? A long road ahead, and I hope The Scar Letters will have a place in the battle.


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