By the Editors of Wilde Oats
Victor Banis has long been associated with Wilde Oats and its predecessor e-zine. Here the editors of Wilde Oats interview this prolific and gifted writer about his long career.
WO: Victor, you’re the doyen of gay publishing, with, what is it now? over 160 books published. You started back in the sixties when gay publishing was practically done by samizdat. How do you feel about your career as a writer over the last 40 years?
Victor: Wow, that’s a big question. First off, I first published in 1963, so it’s just 3 years shy of 50 years — a lot of water under numerous bridges, and several of them pretty shaky. Plus I should probably say I started out with no real training, other than the basic grammar and literature stuff from high school. I also think I started out with no great talent, just a lot of determination. So, whatever I am, for better or for worse, it’s all self made. I take some pride in having opened doors for writers, particularly glbt writers. It’s gratifying at my stage in life to look back and see that you did make a difference. But I don’t want to make that sound too heroic. I have said often, Victor J. Banis was only one little man in a very big cause. I’m glad to have been a part of it, but I was only a part, a small part, as it happens.
I’ve done, as you noted, a lot of writing. Some of it was frankly awful, but I think some of it is very good. I think by now everyone knows I took a long break, 20 years — not from writing, per se, but from publishing. I had reached a certain level of success with the big New York publishing industry, and I wasn’t happy there, it began to seem to me that the publishers I was working with weren’t just buying my manuscripts, they were buying me. I went from loving what I was doing to actually hating it, so it seemed a good thing to turn away. And when I came back to the arena, as I inevitably did, I made myself a promise that I would write only what I wanted to write, when and how I wanted to write it, and happily I’ve pretty much been able to do that.
There are exceptions, of course, but I think my writing the last 6 or 7 years is the best I’ve done. I couldn’t have done justice to Angel Land, or Lola Dances when I was younger, for instance. I think I understand people (which is to say, myself) better, and this has allowed me to write better characters. Now, it’s interesting to note that in all those years and with all that writing, I’ve never gotten any kind of award, and I rarely even make it on anyone’s top ten list. But, I continue to win fans, and some of them, my fans, are people who have followed me since the early days, so I take that as my prize. I am all too aware that there are other writers who are better at it than I, and that’s as it should be. It would be ghastly to think that Victor J. Banis is where the whole gay publishing revolution stops. I love our genre, and I want to see it continue to grow. I’ve said elsewhere, I hope a hundred, a thousand, writers come along and leave me in the dust. Rest assured, I will be cheering them on. Not only do I not envy the successes of others in our field, I take personal pride and pleasure in them.
WO: What made you start writing? Are you driven to write?
Victor: I come from a family of story tellers and readers, so it just came naturally to me. If you’d asked me the second part of that some while back, I’d have said, yes, I am driven, but not so much any more. I’m finding myself content just to relax and wait for the stories to come to me. I gave serious thought over the last year or so to whether or not I should simply just quit, and I suppose it must look right now as if I have. I’m not doing much. But I honestly don’t feel like I’ve stopped, except temporarily. I’m just letting the batteries recharge. When I do write, I tend to be relentless at it, and that can be exhausting. And I’ve said elsewhere, my health at present can best be described as precarious. So, it’s important to be kind to myself. I’m very fortunate that much of my work is with MLR Press, and I can’t emphasize enough how very kind Laura Baumbach, MLR publisher, and Kris Jacen, my editor, have been. And recently I’ve signed on to do a few things with Jay Hartman at Untreed Reads, and he and his CEO, K.D. Sullivan, have likewise treated me with great respect, and I am humbly grateful.
WO: How did you find out about gay publishers back in the sixties and seventies? What were the equivalent of the on-line groups which are so ubiquitous today?
Victor: Gay publishers? Back in those early days we didn’t so much find out about them as create them. To be sure, when I came along, there was already a tradition of gay fiction — I think anyone interested in that history should read The Golden Age of Gay Fiction (MLR Press, edited by Drewey Wayne Gunn) — but the fact that a publisher did a gay novel did not mean they were looking for more. It was Earl Kemp at Greenleaf Classics who really opened the floodgates, with The Why Not and The Man From C.A.M.P. My friend and associate, Gil Porter, was an editor at Sherbourne and he published not only some of my early work, but also Joe Hansen, writing as James Colton. And I was able to convince Milt Luros, of Brandon House, to publish gay novels as well. And all of these publishers found they could make money by catering to what was quickly a mushrooming crowd of gay book buyers. But we shared all this mostly by word of mouth — much of it right around my kitchen table. It was a fun time, very exciting, tracking the changes that were occurring almost weekly. We did know we were changing the world; and of course, we were always aware of the danger, the risk of arrest and imprisonment.
WO: Your books are very readable and deservedly successful. What do you think has been a key reason for your success?
Victor: Well, I wasn’t the first to bring happy endings to gay fiction, but I made more of a splash with them, and gays loved reading something positive about themselves. I’ve always considered myself more of a story teller than a literary author. My books are entertaining, and I think most readers can identify with the characters — and this is probably as good a reason as any why the gay publishing establishment prefers to ignore me. They don’t trust entertainment (I think some of them will never forgive me for The Man From C.A.M.P.) and I think for the most part, those publishers are still stuck in the old guilt days — gloom and doom. I’m sorry to say that I think the AIDS tragedy was a boon to many of them, they could publish stories about gay love and still see everybody punished by the final chapter, just like in the past. And many of them hardly vary from that formula, so it’s easy to see that I don’t fit in there.
WO: You’re on record as saying that a writer should write what he or she needs to write, not necessarily what’s trendy or sellable. Have you ever written a pot-boiler?
Victor: Oh, my, yes. Back in what I sometimes think of as my first writing career, I was too easily convinced to write what editors and publishers believed I should write. Interestingly, the books that have endured are the ones that I wrote from my own dictates, and most of the rest has fallen (deservedly) by the wayside. And, again, I am fortunate in being with MLR. They pretty much give me a free hand to do what I wish. When I wrote Lola Dances, for instance, I was convinced the whole time that no one would want to publish it, and Laura snatched it up immediately, I don’t think she even gave any thought to whether it would sell well or not, she just liked the story. And the same is true of The Golden Age of Gay Fiction, I’m sure she will never make a penny from it, but it was a book that deserved to be published, and happily she did what was right. Oh, but back to Lola — it isn’t exactly setting the world on fire, but it does sell steadily, and I hear all the time from readers telling me how much they love it, which is very rewarding.
WO: What tips and advice would you give to somebody starting their career now as a writer of gay-shaded fiction?
Victor: Gosh, it’s such a different world today. I had the good fortune to be in the right place at the right time. But there are so many more options for writers today. When I started, publishers didn’t want to touch gay fiction — now there’s hardly a door that’s closed to us. But my advice would of course be to learn the basics, grammar, plot skeleton, all of those things, so that you are free to use your imagination when you write. And most important of all, enjoy yourself, have fun. Otherwise what’s the point?
WO: Which of your books are your favourites? Those which you loved writing, or the characters of which entered your imagination and are still with you now? The books which made you enough money to have a holiday in Paris and a bottle of champagne in a pavement café on the Champs-Elysées? The first one which just flowed?
Victor: I have too many favourites, I suppose. My most successful book was a piece of heterosexual historical fiction, This Splendid Earth, and that made me lots of money — and yes, I did go to Paris — and it was probably the first where the muse took over and much of the book just wrote itself. I have a soft spot in my heart for Buck and Les, from Longhorns, and they really did take me over while I was writing that. And Lola, who broke my heart, I still cry when I read certain scenes from that book. Let it be said, however, I am the world’s biggest cry-baby. Always have been. As a child I used to sing a sad cowboy song and cry myself silly.
WO: What do you like to read? And which gay-shaded books and sub-genres do you read for pleasure and relaxation?
Victor: I like a good mystery, and I am a romantic. I don’t limit myself to gay fiction. There’s an awful lot of it that just doesn’t interest me, frankly. But there are some very good writers. I would grab up anything from Alan Chin or Ruth Sims, certainly. Bryl Tyne is entirely different, but she always intrigues me, and I think Anne Brooks is particularly gifted. Oh, someone is going to be offended that I didn’t mention him/her. Here is where getting older is convenient, you can just plead bad memory. I apologize and while I am at it, drool on myself a bit, and what can anyone say?
WO: Donna Leon, the author of the Guido Brunetti mystery novels set in Venice refuses to publicise her books. One admires her principles, but on the other hand, the bills have to be paid. Do you go to conventions to promote your books? Man tables outside gay bookshops? Have a Victor Banis branded condom?
Victor: I’m not the best at promoting. For a while gay groups and organizations “discovered” me and invited me to events around the country, and that of course sold books. I do blogs and I have appeared at big events — I helped man the MLR table a couple of years ago at the Book Expo in NYC, and I’m hoping to save up enough pennies to make it to the RT convention in Los Angeles in March. Happily there are a number of reviewers who are supportive — Bobbie at Book Wenches comes to mind, and Jessewave always treats me like a star on her review blog.
WO: How do you manage to be so prolific? Are you like Somerset Maugham who wrote exactly from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. before having cocktails (sounds like fun)?
Victor: I’m not that organized. I do write early each morning — coffee, newspaper, crossword puzzle, then the keyboard, but rarely for more than a couple of hours a day. And I fear I am no longer so prolific. Of course, I have less motivation. It’s not like I have anything left to prove. I think there are few in the world of gay writing publishing who don’t know my name (though they may not always say it with pleasure).
WO: The gay world has changed enormously over your lifetime. What’s the biggest thing for you in the shifts which have taken place? Is there anything you regret about the new more open and more accepting situation for gays and gay-shaded men?
Victor: I’m glad for the progress we’ve made, but one doesn’t have to look around much to see that we still have a long way to go. Gay marriage comes to mind. And by now everyone knows I disapprove of the stand taken by the Lambda folks in barring heterosexuals from their awards. I grew up in a world in which gays and lesbians had to hide their sexual orientation and pretend to be what they weren’t. It wasn’t so very long ago that to be acknowledged as gay was the kiss of death for a movie actor. And I thought that was reprehensible, and fought against it in every way I could. So I think it no less reprehensible that the gay community should now turn around and do the same thing in reverse, rationalize it how they will.
WO: What do you think about women writing gay erotica and romances?
Victor: I stand and applaud at every opportunity. They came to a genre that was all but dead, and kicked some life into it. Are some of them bad writers? Of course, but they don’t have an exclusive franchise on that either, being a gay male does not automatically make anyone a great writer either. In the end, for me, it’s all about the quality of the writing. And as I’ve said, I am devoted to this genre, and I think the fact that it is now thriving in a way that it hasn’t for 30 or 40 years is largely due to the influx of women writers and readers.
WO: Where do you live?
Victor: I was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in Ohio farm country, and lived most of my adult life in California — twenty or so years in Southern California and the next 20 in the San Francisco area. So I mostly think of myself as a Californian, but right now I live in a small town in West Virginia, in the beautiful Blue Ridge. A very quiet life, I might add.
WO: Have you ever written about your first time with a man? Or have you consigned the memory to the mists of time?
Victor: My first time is not a happy memory, I was molested as a small child, and that was painful. But I do fondly remember the later (and far more romantic) experiences — but I don’t suppose they were very much different from anyone else’s.
WO: Do you have a husband? Does he read your books?
Victor: I am the most single person I know. I am something of a recluse.
WO: Tell us about your recently published and upcoming novels and short-stories.
Victor: I’ve been doing a series for some time, the Deadly Mysteries, and the most recent two were Deadly Slumber (last year) and Deadly Silence (just out recently); I did a quasi-vampire novel, The Blood of Love, which just released. Those are all MLR. I have 3 stories with Untreed Reads: Neighbors, Tell Them Katy Did, and The Princess of the Andes; and upcoming from Untreed, Changing Views. Back to MLR — there’s a hetero romance coming up for their new PIP line, Mother of the Moon; a gay ghost story, Dead of the Night (which I think is plenty scary); and some short stories on tap there as well. I presume all of those will be out this year. After that? Tom and Stanley of the Deadly series are starting to whisper in my ear…
WO: Any final thoughts?
Victor: Always have thoughts, hope they’re really not final. It’s been a wonderful life, I have to say. I grew up in the kind of poverty unimaginable to most people today, and somehow I’ve had this splendid journey, sometimes I can’t quite believe it myself. I am the proverbial “fall into a bucket of you-know-what and come out smelling like a rose.” I like to think that is in part because I have managed to stick to my principles throughout. Which is not to say I’ve never made mistakes or done anything stupid, I surely have, but having fallen on my face so often, I have learned to be very tolerant and forgiving of the stumbles of others. I’ve never been a bandwagon person, and I’ve always tried to shy away from labels, and that has cost me friends (well, I thought they were, anyway) over the years, but I think I am still true to myself, and I believe that is the important thing. It’s funny that people should sometimes describe me as a hero, because I am a devout coward. I can only say in my own defense that I never let my considerable fears hold me back from marching into the fire if I thought I must. I sleep at night with a clear conscience and wake with a smile. If I must say so myself, I don’t think I’ve done a bad job of it, all in all. I’m sure not everybody agrees, but that is not my problem, is it?