Today we are happy to welcome Larry Benjamin to our blog and we hope you will enjoy his interview with Marc and perhaps find a new author to check out. 😉
Larry, thank you so much for taking the time to answer all my questions. Our readers love to discover new authors and we really appreciate your time and support!
How did you become a writer in the LGBT genre?
Years ago when the movie Philadelphia, which starred Tom Hanks and Antonio Banderas, came out, everyone was falling all over themselves praising it. I thought it was poor movie delivering a one dimensional, flat version of the gay experience. When the Tom Hanks character was dying his last words to Antonio’s character were, “I’m ready.” I’m ready? Really? Why not “I love you,” or “take care of yourself.” Anyway, I wrote several irate letters to the editor of the Citypaper—Philly’s local free paper. Finally someone wrote back and said if I thought I could do better, I should. So I sat down and wrote What Binds Us.
That’s when it hit me that there really weren’t many good gay books that portrayed the richness, the facets, the differences in the LGBT experience. And I think that has actually gotten worse. With the proliferation of m/m romance written by women for women, gay men are one dimensional “chicks with dicks”; they think like women. These stories are usually so tightly focused on love and sex that the gay experience gets cropped. Frankly I’m sick of books that feature only fit twinky white boys. I’m sick stories about “alpha” males falling in love with each other—we don’t all fit those categories and we shouldn’t have to. So I write to give voice to that experience, to those characters who exist outside the white homomormative narrative. It’s bad enough we aren’t well represented in larger fiction or mainstream movies, now the black, the Hispanic, the effeminate are marginalized in the LGBT genre as well. I write in that genre to make sure our youth know that we exist that we have a voice, that we are a part of the LGBT fabric, that we have stories worth telling and reading.
Do you draw on your own life and/or on real people you met in your life, when you create new characters and stories?
I definitely draw on my own life when I create stories. Unbroken is probably the story that is closest to truth. I am very much Lincoln and his experiences were very similar to mine.. Characters can also come from real life. My mother and I have a rocky relationship so she appears quite often as the mother figure. Portia in What Binds Us was based on a waitress at Woody’s—the gay bar in Philly. I ordered a Campari and orange juice and she brought me a Bacardi and orange juice. I was appalled. I mean who drinks rum with orange juice? Still she was so striking, I drew a character sketch, and when I was writing What Binds Us I pulled it out and she became Portia.
And of course there really was a Jose. When he read Unbroken, he commented on my description of his Adam’s apple which I thought was the sexiest thing ever, telling me he’d always hated his Adam’s apple because it was so pronounced the other kids used to tease him about it.
How important are secondary characters to your stories?
I think they are very important. In What Binds Us, Mrs. Whyte doesn’t play a large role but hers is pivotal and even her names tells us a lot about her. And sometimes while I may intend them to be minor, they have other ideas. In Unbroken, Jose’s sister Maritza, originally had a cameo; she was supposed to showed up at their dorm one day, confess her crush on Lincoln and then she was supposed to go away, but she kept nagging me, insisting she had a story to tell. And what a story it was. So while she remained a secondary character, she was a major character in the story.
Tell us a bit about the story you would recommend most to a reader who has not read a book by you, yet.
That’s tough because each of my books is so different. But I’d probably say Unbroken. It is, as I have said, my most personal book to date but it tells a story I think is universal to anyone who has struggled to be himself or herself—or who has watched someone else, a child, a sibling, a friend struggle—in a world that so often tries to make us feel we are wrong, or somehow broken. It’s a story of triumph, of joy. I wanted to write a story that showed it really does get better but only if we make it better by standing up, by fighting back, by coming out.
But I also wanted to tell a story for our straight allies and parents of gay children: This is what it’s like to be me in a world full of yous.
Do you plan out the whole story, before you start to write it or do you fill in the blanks while you write?
I’m what is apparently known as a “pantser,” meaning I don’t plot anything out in advance. I pick a starting point which isn’t necessarily the beginning and I write back and forth developing the story line and adding characters as I go. So I write scenes then at some point I go back and fill in the gaps to tie all the scenes together―hopefully into a coherent whole. My books are not so much stories as patchwork quilts.
Which other author has influenced you most?
Well there are two: F. Scott Fitzgerald and James Baldwin. They both wrote beautifully. They first made me realize one could paint a picture with words, that words had a life beyond the imperative to convey an idea or tell a story; words could be art.
Just the other day, I came across a review of What Binds Us on Goodreads. The reviewer did not finish it though she said, “The writing is good…” In short, she hated it. She said it reminded her of The Great Gatsby which she apparently also hated (and presumably did not finish). Given that What Binds Us was in a very real sense my homage to The Great Gatsby I have to admit I was, well…thrilled. Most readers miss the allusion to The Great Gatsby. And if my book is going to be damned, I’m only too happy to be consigned to the same hell as F. Scott Fitzgerald, one of my literary heroes.
Do you create detailed character and plot bibles for your books?
No. My “process” is pretty informal and chaotic. I create character outlines—though quite often, a character arises spontaneously as I write. I like to give them room to react to situations, to grow. Unbroken spans 40 years. I knew who the two main characters were but they also were introduced as children, Lincoln at six, Jose at 12. I knew how the story ended but they both had to grow into men. For me it was more authentic to go on their journey and watch them grow instead of creating their character at each age at the start.
Is there any advice you can give new authors in this genre and what was the hardest lesson for you to learn when you started your own writing career?
Advice? I’d say, know what rights you’re selling. A lot of publishers buy—and tie up all your rights, including those they will never use. Also, understand marketing—what your publisher will do and what you must/can/should do for yourself and your book. Being a writer doesn’t mean just writing. You have to market yourself and your writing. And finally, learn to value yourself: don’t feel compelled to give away your writing for free just to be read or reviewed. Certainly, giving free copies to reviewers makes sense but giving away your books for free to everyone simply devalues your writing and that of every other writer.
I think the hardest lesson I learned was going with digital-first imprints on the first two books was not the right path for me. My goal was never to sell a lot of books, although Lord knows that would be nice, but it was to write books that would last. I wanted to create stories and characters that stayed with readers long after they closed the book. I wanted to write award winning books. The problem with digital-first only imprints is a lot of award programs won’t consider those books—that’s slowly changing but for me it meant the first two books were ineligible.
Where do you begin, when you write a story? With a scene, a character, a sentence, …?
It varies. I begin wherever there is a hook so sometimes it’s a character, sometimes it’s a scene or a snatch of dialogue. Sometimes it’s just a memory, as was the case with Unbroken. I came across a question on Twitter which asked when was the first time you knew you were gay. For me it was when I was 12, in the 4th grade. A new kid, Jose, walked into music class and one look at him changed everything for me. I started the book with a description of that moment and wrote around that moment of discovery.
Which new book releases or projects do you have lined up?
Well, there’s a new book in the works—isn’t there always? But so far I only have a title which I don’r0t want to share and the opening lines, which I will: “I packed everything I had—which, fortunately, wasn’t much—into my Achieva and took off in the rain, without a destination, without a plan, knowing only that I had to get away.”
And I have a Christmas story, “The Christmas Present,” coming out in Boughs of Evergreen, a holiday anthology from Beaten Track that will be released November 21. I’m excited about this project because it brings together a group of 24 diverse writers, some of whom are publishing for the first time.
The Christmas Present: Excerpt
He erupted out of this seething, boiling cauldron of salt and water, cloaked in moonlight and sea foam like an ermine cape. He stepped out of the rioting sea with the easy sinuous grace of an eel. About Aidan’s age, he was handsome, with broad shoulders and a narrow waist. His body, well-muscled and solid, seemed to vibrate with suppressed energy, seemed to contain all the fury of the sea, tightly reined. His beryl eyes, which seemed to hold all the colors of dawn, searched the beach, found Aidan standing stock still, his long flaxen hair plastered to his skull and shoulders by the sea spray.
“Hi, I’m Dylan,” he called out casually, as if his sudden appearance had not been a cataclysm.
As they stood facing each other on that white sand beach, rimmed by trees, Aidan, who should have been frightened and was not, saw only a boy like himself. Yet he was different, too: as Aidan was light, he was dark; as Aidan was flame, he was water. Overcome with shyness, Aidan stared at his bare feet, which looked very dark against the white-white sand. When he gathered the courage to look at Dylan, he was overwhelmed by a desire impossible in its consummation. Dylan stared back at him and told him, with a look, that everything was possible.
A story from Boughs of Evergreen: A Holiday Anthology
THE CHRISTMAS PRESENT
by LARRY BENJAMIN
At Christmastime, a mother, unhappy her son is gay, turns to an Obeah practitioner to change him with surprising results.
* * * * *
ABOUT BOUGHS OF EVERGREEN
Boughs of Evergreen is a two-volume collection of short stories celebrating the holiday season in all its diversity. Penned by authors from the UK, the USA, Scandinavia and Eastern Europe, these are tales of the young and the not-so-young from many different walks of life.
Themes of family, friendship and romance take readers on a journey through some of the major holidays, both past and present, including Thanksgiving, Advent, St. Lucia Day, Hanukkah, Eid, Saturnalia, Winter Solstice, Yule, Christmas and New Year. In each we find at the very least hope, and often love, peace and happiness.
Proceeds from sales of this anthology will be donated to The Trevor Project. The Trevor Project is the leading national organization [USA] providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) young people ages 13-24.
For more information, visit: www.thetrevorproject.org.
***** BUY AT *****
Volume 2: http://amzn.com/1909192910
Volume 2: http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1909192910
My parents, unable to change me, had instead, silenced me. When they’d stilled my hands, they’d taken my words, made me lower my voice to a whisper. Later, I remained silent in defense, refusing to acknowledge the hateful words: Brainiac. Sissy. Antiman. Faggot.
Lincoln de Chabert’s life is pretty unremarkable until he comes home from kindergarten and announces he will marry his best friend, Orlando, when he grows up.
His parents spring into immediate action, determined to fix him, igniting an epic battle of wills as Lincoln is determined to remain himself, and marry whom he chooses, at all costs.
Bronx-born wordsmith and award-winning author, Larry Benjamin considers himself less a writer than an artist whose chosen medium is the written word rather than clay or paint or bronze.
His debut novel, the gay romance What Binds Us was released by Carina Press in March 2012. His second book, Damaged Angels, a collection of short stories, is a 2013 Rainbow Award Runner-Up in the Gay Contemporary General Fiction category. His gay romance, Unbroken, is a 2014 Lambda Literary finalist, a 2014 IPPY (Independent Publishers Book Award) Gold medalist, and a 2014 Rainbow Award finalist in the gay contemporary fiction category.
He lives in Philadelphia with his husband and their two dogs.
2 thoughts on “Interview with Larry Benjamin #LGBT #Spotlight”
I loved Unbroken and thought it was one of the most romantic books I’d ever read.
Thanks, Elin. So much of that story was based on my own experience and I remember how much I had wanted that life I’d envisioned with Jose.