Your mother committed suicide in 1982. How did this affect the story? How did this affect you?
My mother’s suicide is the catalyst for the plot of the story. In 1982 my mother killed herself after learning that my brother & I were gay. She did this final act on a Friday after learning that we were gay on a Wednesday. She left a suicidal note in which she referred to my brother and I as “Gutter rats that could rot in hell.” This act developed into the obligatory scene and plot for the story line. I followed the mother’s character through the narrator’s voice, through the character’s pov, through her child’s pov and then through the child’s pov after growing into a young adult. I showed the mother’s tragic life because of her choices in life whereas the child, then adult, had no choice in the mother’s final act, had no choice in his sexual identity. But the mother had choices and she chose to betray her two sons in the end. The child had tried to protect his mother from herself his entire life and her final act was a form of the cruelest form of betrayal. Two major plots parallel and intertwine through the story: Social change on a national level vs. two rural boys who suffer the cruelty of the time due to their sexual identity. Can two rural characters who brought about national social change (Stonewall Gay Riots of 1969) save their sons’, their kin from the same place and people that had outcast them?
Your first book The Grass Sweeper God was inspired by your life & the real-life Stonewall Gay Riots of 1969. What attracted you to it as a story?
The story is about social change. That’s a big theme to take on. I spent years just trying to figure out the plot; how to intertwine a historical event such as the Stonewall riots around two rural boys who grow larger-than-life to take on societal prejudice, hatred, & bigotry. No story had been told about how rural gay life fit into the scheme of life & gay history…what it meant to grow up in a harsh environment both physically and emotionally…
Growing up gay in the coalfields of Southwest, VA, during the ‘60s & ‘70s, I felt unattached. When I say “unattached,” I mean that I didn’t feel like I was a part of the real life going on around me. It was like being a voyeur into others’ life. This is fodder for the gristmill for a writer. I was very introspective. Young people dated, fell in love, etc. & I knew I could not love because the love I felt was wrong. That is how I was made to feel by society & family at that time period. I perceived myself as “normal” but I knew I couldn’t walk the school halls holding a young boy’s hand. Society sends young people mixed messages to this day. Much has changed, but as the old adage goes; “The more things change the more they stay the same.” The Stonewall Riots created a sea change for that time period just as gay marriage is changing societal views.
A main character in your book, Smiley Hanlon is transgendered. While growing up you had a classmate that wore a woman’s blouse to school & was beat & bullied. How did this affect you? How did this inspire you to write this character’s story?
I was never mean to this person. But my silence made me complicit. I learned that lesson later in life & felt that I was a coward for not taking up for him. That really bothered me on into adulthood. I soon realized that there is power in words. Words are indeed mightier than the sword. So, I penned the story around those that are different, those that have no voice, those that are bullied and made to feel less than, to feel as though they have no identity; that their lives are not valid. I set out to write a story to bring peoples’ lives out of the margins & into the mainstream, out of the dark and into the light.
The descriptions of landscape in the book are striking as a dark and evocative poetry in prose form. How important was the initial setting of Solitude, VA to your book? Did you approach it as a character in itself?
Landscape, descriptions of animals, descriptions of a rural setting that most do not get to experience these days is an effective way to evoke psychology without having to get in the character’s head. For instance, when I describe the moon as, “The fragile pearl moon,” when I describe the moon as, “The dead herring moon,” I’m in that particular character’s head & the reader senses something provocative is about to happen. Makes for great suspense. Describing how a poor farmer toils to make his drinking water safe for his family puts the rural setting into perspective by showing the reader what it means to be poor, to work the land just to survive. And this is the same poor farmer who shows a gay boy how a real father can love his son. This is a type of “duplicity.” Just because one is poor doesn’t mean that one can’t be a responsible, loving and caring parent.
An Amazon author reviewer is quoted as comparing your prose to Steinbeck & describing the transgender character, Smiley: “Yet, this ‘excrement’ feels that there must be better in this world, it is something he feels against all the world is saying, something that comes from the soul, so, ‘For some reason, he imagined an angel’s harp singing in his ear, then remembered a drum roll like the devil talking.’ This duplicity, this contrast between what Smiley’s reality is and what it could be, runs through the whole book. The Grass Sweeper God reminds me of the best passages from Steinbeck, where the stark reality (here also taken up by the rural environment of the first chapters, the attention to animals, what they look, sound and smell like) in a place aptly called ‘Solitude’ (I think the reference to Soledad is clear), and the theme of ‘being different’ is brought into the contemporary world with the same mix of harsh realism on one side and touches of symbolism on the other…” What does it mean to you to be compared to a Pulitzer Prize author like Steinbeck?
Of course it is flattering to say the least. But more importantly, for a reader to understand the character’s motives and day-to-day reality gives me a sense of accomplishment. As an author, there is no better feeling than to accomplish character’ empathy and, or even sympathy. It is difficult for most of us to walk a mile in others’ shoes. To accomplish this feat through prose is great!
Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing
Date: October 23, 2014
Being different in America has never been easy; being born different and in the wrong body in Solitude, Virginia in the 1950’s, is brutal. Smiley Hanlon lives day to day trapped in a Coal Miners town, buffeted by the Appalachian’s and generations of hate and mistrust. Any hint of being different, or being a ‘Freak’ is enough to ostracize you, pigeon hole you and make you a target for bullying – or worse. Backed by his best friend and protector, Lee Moore, Smiley made it through the days…until the night everything shattered. Chosen as the lead in a new town production called Dorothy of Oz Coal Camp, it seemed to be the beginning to acceptance and maybe even happiness, but the world is cruel and mankind even crueler. The triumph of the play decayed into a Coal Miners version of “Carrie” culminating in a tragic and horrific moment that would change both Smiley and Lee, forever.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
DOUG HOWERY has been writing both fiction and essays since 1990. His essays and familial stories have appeared in The Blue Ridge Lambda Press.In many of his stories, as in “The Grass Sweeper God,” Mr. Howery’s true lode, his font of
inspiration is in the passion and suffering he has experienced.Suspense author, Maggie Grace, with the North Carolina Writers’ Network writes about her cohort Mr. Howery:
“What I like is the riskiness, the cutting edge of the narrative voice we hear. The moments when he lapses into descriptions of the moon, of the horse, etc. are true poetry that offers some relief from the coarseness of the story, and he places them well. He has an ear for the rhythm of the story, a natural sense of when to end–hangs fire with a new way of looking at someone or something, turning the entire chapter on its ear. I like the way he makes it impossible for the reader to stop reading at the end of the chapter.” Mr. Howery lives in Virginia with his partner of 31 years where he is at work on his next novel.
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Marie A Bailey
Writer, blogger, knitter, cat lover, and introvert.