Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Author Interview: VICTOR J. BANIS

Victor J. Banis is a Writer: Author Interview By AJ Llewellyn
Part 1

Hi Victor…I so badly want to say Mr. Banis…ahem…anyway, it is such an honor to have you here and you are such an icon to gay writers everywhere that I almost don’t know where to begin with you. You are a living legend and a pioneer of the gay rights movement. I know this embarrasses you, but all writers drool and snivel in your presence so maybe you’re used to an interviewer just gushing over you? Do you need a towel, by the way? You look a little damp already…I’ll try to keep the gushing to a slow drip…
I am so thrilled you were willing to come by and chat with the Divas. Or, me being a man, does that make me a Divo??? But I digress. Thank you again…er…did I say that already?

Thank you, actually, and may I say, I have all my life been the ultimate groupie when it comes to writers. In the course of my life I've mingled with many of the rich and famous, actors, rock stars, athletes, all kinds, and with the rarest exception, none of them greatly excited me – but, put me in a room with a writer and I'm like a kid at Christmas. It's such a magic thing we do, isn't it, even more so than any of the other arts.

Oh, yes, by the way, Divo, though that isn't much used except, I guess, in opera. And thanks for the towel.
1. (Laughing) You were a very controversial figure at the beginning of the ‘gay’ movement if I may call it that in the early 1960s. After Sanford Aday and Wallace de Ortega Maxey were sentenced to 25 years in prison for publishing a series of gay themed paperbacks, in 1964, you were indicted on Federal charges of conspiracy to distribute obscene material. This material was in fact your novel The Affairs of Gloria (Brandon House). There are a couple of mild lesbian sex scenes and one fairly tame word, damn in this book. What exactly led to such extreme charges?

In retrospect, the silly thing (okay, it was not at all amusing at the time) is I was mostly there to drive up the tab for the publisher. Milt Luros, the publisher of The Affairs of Gloria, was one of those publishers of sexy magazines and paperback books that the Federal authorities had decided they wanted to put out of business. To do this, they brought endless indictments against him, all around the country, mostly places like Sioux City where our trial was held and where they thought, reasonably enough, their chances of a conviction were greater. (Poor Gloria had never been seen there up till the day of our trial. Neither she nor I would have willingly set foot in the town).
Of course, the Federales always hoped they could get Milt sent off to prison, which never happened, but failing that, they thought they could run him out of business just by making it too expensive to defend all these actions; and, toward this latter end, they dragged in as many defendants as possible. In our case, there were eleven of us, far from California homes for months, and Milt had no choice but to pick up the tab for everyone, and the expensive attorneys. It cost him a pretty penny, and this was only one of three trials simmering at about the same time.
I don't recall, however, that Milt, who was a true gentleman, ever complained.
There wasn't much to choose from in Sioux City at the time, but we all stayed at the same Holiday Inn, ate and drank what we chose, flew back and forth when he did, all on his tab. If it hadn't been for the ten years in prison hanging over my head, and the dreary location, it might almost have been a swell vacation. But, let me say, if I became a hero as a result of this, it was quite accidentally; I'm a devout coward. At our first court appearance, we were each of us asked by the judge how we pled (not guilty, of course). Afterward, one of my codefendants said, "Gosh, you acted really scared in there, Victor." News flash, Richard, that was no act.
2. I believe you were acquitted of the charges, but is it true the government continued to harass you? Weren’t they opening your mail? Did you feel like you were being followed? Did you continue at this time to write your gay themed novels in spite of the pressure?

Yes, to all. Big Brother was not the least bit subtle in letting me know he was peeking over my shoulder at all times. Golly, if I had only once met a man as hot after me as those guys. Anyway, I traveled to Europe for several months, to investigate the possibility of moving there if need be. I was offered sanctuary in Portugal, but that was a dictatorship at the time and I didn't think I'd feel comfortable living with that; however, I was offered sanctuary in Switzerland as well, and that suited me better.
I rather supposed that at some time, having let me once slip off the hook, the Feds would try again, and I had no interest in spending a decade in prison for exercising what I thought were my freedom of speech rights. There's a reason why the founding fathers put that freedom right up at the top, and that's because without that, without the right to hold and express a contradictory opinion, the rest is meaningless. So, when I returned to the states, I lived for years with a shoebox full of money, in case I had to skip out in a hurry, and a false passport.

3. Did you really?

Yes, absolutely, as Beven Cleo Glover, doesn't that sound glamorous? And, in answer to the last part, yes, again, all this only made me more committed to writing gay fiction. What is it about me, about us, I asked myself, that scares them so? Whatever it was, I definitely wanted to cultivate it.

4. Please tell me about your first gay novel, The Why Not? Weren’t you nervous sending this out after what happened to Aday and Maxey? Did your friends and family support this…subversive behavior?

No, frankly, by this time I was too pissed to be scared, but I have often lacked good sense. Besides, I had that false passport at hand, and Beven Cleo Glover was ready to fly away at any moment. As for my friends, yes, they were supportive. I wasn't really out to my family. Everyone clearly knew about me, but it was never discussed. Later in my life, I felt sad that so much of my life was unknown to my family and unshared with them. I doubt if any of them have ever read The Why Not. My older brother (who has read Longhorns, and Spine Intact, at least) and I have talked about this great gap in our relationship, something he too regrets. But, things were different then.

5. I read an interview with you once where you described your editor Earl Kemp of Greenleaf Books as ‘resolutely heterosexual’ so he must not only have seen your enormous talent, but so obviously not the type to fear intimidation. What was your relationship like with him?

Earl was a dream to work with and still is, occasionally today I write for his online zine, el. To be honest, anytime he emails and asks can I do a piece for him, I drop everything else. I figure I owe the man big time; and, frankly, in my opinion, so does every writer of gay fiction. But, I was lucky to fall into his lap when I did, so to speak.
He tells of the first visit my then partner and I made to his offices in San Diego, and he had arranged all kinds of signals to give the staff in the office if he needed rescuing. But, we hit it off beautifully, and immediately became great friends, and remain so still. He also tells of receiving the manuscript for The Why Not.
They had a fabulous first reader on whom they depended without question; and the reader hadn't gotten halfway through my manuscript before he violated all protocol and took it directly to Earl, who was the chief editor, and said, "You need to read this." Earl did not even finish reading, but sent a contract immediately. We've shared a lot of laughs over the forty years since. But to answer more directly, yes, he was/is heterosexual, and he was not in the least intimidated because he was doing what he believed was right. And, by the way, Earl was one of those who paid his dues, too: he went to prison for doing what he believed in. He has always been one of my heroes.

6. Despite the success of The Why Not, you’ve dismissed it as ‘the sad young men of gay writing’ that it was somehow dishonest because being gay back in the 60s was difficult. And yet, it was an important book. It DID break down barriers. All these years later, how do you really feel about the book?

I do think it adhered too closely to the style of gay fiction that had gone before (I had no other models to go by at the time), insofar as there was way too much doom and gloom, and by the time the book was published, I was a gay activist, ranting and raving in the streets and wherever else I could get away with it. My objection to this school of writing was that, while, yes, it could be difficult, often tragic, to live gay in the era before gay liberation, it wasn't all that bleak. We had fun, we partied and fell in love and did the deed (some of with shocking frequency, but I of course remained chaste), all kinds of great things.
I have friends still from that era, I'm happy to say, and until you experience, it is impossible to imagine what that kind of longevity, 50 years or so, adds to a friendship; it's like aging a great bottle of Bordeaux, what starts out a bit rough mellows into something of incredible nuance and complexity. But life in those early years was a make or break kind of thing for many people.
It either made you stronger, or it crushed you. When people think of strong men, they like to picture the Rambo type, but believe me, those guys are wienies compared to the gay men who grew up in the fifties. That was tough. Oh, and drag queens, those girls have always had to kick ass.

7. Your next book was the polar opposite, the gay spy spoof The Man From C.A.M.P. What was the public reaction to the book and your hero, Jackie Holmes, who of course is truly a part of gay literary history. Please tell me about the genesis of Jackie and would James Bond ever…you know…have a little fling with him, do you think?

It will probably surprise you, but I really don't remember how I happened to come up with that idea (unlike with The Why Not, which was really a bar, The Castaways, that a bunch of us hung out at, and most of the vignettes in that book are only loosely fictionalized from actual events of the time) But, Jackie Holmes? I only recall that I wanted to write something different, with an out and proud gay man, something fun and happy.
I think poor Earl must have swooned when he read it, it was so different from anything that had been done. What's really funny, by the way, is if you look at the original cover (it's in Wikipedia), that's pretty much what I looked like, white poodle and all .

8. I have seen it. Sort of fuels some fantasies of mine. Geez…did I say that? Ahem. Please. Don’t mind me. I’ll try and keep the groveling to a minimum.

Although the artist, the great illustrator Robert Bonfils, hadn't met me at the time. He did confess, though, that he got descriptions from others. Earl played cagey when I asked him about that. And, the book sold like the proverbial hotcakes, gay men took to it with gusto. Of the nine books I wrote in the series, all of them sold in the six figures. Imagine that for a gay paperback novel today, when 5,000 copies is a best seller. So, I am indebted big time to Jackie as well. I have always seen these as his stories, and I was honored that he shared them with me. James Bond? Well, Jackie always got his man in the end, or vice versa.

9. Why hasn’t anyone made a movie about Jackie and who could you see playing him?

Actually, I was approached in the late 60s by someone who wanted to produce a movie, starring yours truly.

10. Did you say that just to make me happy?

No, gospel truth, and he was as cute as a bug's ear, too, but he was never able to come up with the funding. And – here's a big scoop for you, luv, because until now I have shared this with no one – I recently signed an option with a Hollywood producer for a movie. Not to get too excited, at this point, it's all just exploratory, but maybe…Who to play Jackie? To be honest, I don't have a single notion, I'm not really up on the young generation of actors, but I have insisted on a cameo. I'll have that movie career yet, wait and see. The point is, we didn't need voices then, we had faces…oh, wait, that's a different part.

11. How hard do you think it will be to cast Sophie, his killer poodle?

Now that would be the tricky part. Of course, with today's technology, they can do all kinds of things. Any well trained poodle could do it, I suppose, and the techs could slip in the killer teeth. Or, they could hire Britney.

12. I read on Rick R. Reed’s blog recently that a publisher approached you (in fact you verified this atrocity on the blog) and asked you to submit a story to an anthology and demanded that you write it using a woman’s name! WTF? I mean, not meaning to gush again here Victor, but this is I guess, a two-pronged question. Why ask the literary icon Victor J. Banis to submit a story under anybody else’s name? Second question of course is, in your long history, has this happened to you before? Is it common? Er…maybe there’s a third question here. Did you do it?

Well, first, that was a fairly common thing in the past – I mean, I wrote under dozens of different pen names. Men wrote as women and women as men (early gay writer Vin Packer was Marijane Meaker) For years, I wrote women's romance/mysteries as Jan Alexander, and I can say, Jan was very popular, and no one ever suspected she was a he. Why now? This editor had just launched a new line of M/M fiction, and I think he's worked hard at convincing book stores to stock it with romance, which of course means increased sales, and I think he thought the books would do better with female bylines. So, he did not in fact demand that I do that, he just invited me to submit a novel to the line, but with the proviso that I would have to use a female name. And, no, I didn't.
I've worked hard the last few years to get those old works reissued with my own name on them, and if my name is a poor thing, it is at least my own. I really just have no desire to go back to hiding behind a nom de plume – though I don't fault anyone else for doing so. Writers do what they have to do. Here's the ridiculous thing about this, though – the same publisher had done very well with a gay novel published by Victor J. Banis. You'd think they would want to follow up on that, wouldn't you? There's not a lot of good sense in the publishing world today.
Stay Tuned For PART TWO tomorrow!
In the meantime, to learn more about Victor J. Banis, please check out these links:


Wendi said...

Love the interview! What an intriguing history with these books. I'm looking forward to tomorrow. :)

AJ, I'll bring an extra towel, or maybe a mop. ;)

Wendi Darlin

Elisa said...

Wonderful interview.

Victor, you know that I'm a fan of your recent works but maybe I must browse the net for the older ones...

I will not miss to pass tomorrow!


lisabea said...

What a fabulous interview. I can't wait to read more.

And I just adore Victor. Thanks so much for this.

AJ Llewellyn said...

Wendi thank you...I will need a mop. I love you for that, darlin' girl!

AJ Llewellyn said...

Elisa, thanks for stopping by. It is thanks to you that I started reading Victor J. and I can never thank you enough!

AJ Llewellyn said...

Lisabea! Thank you for coming by and for bringing a kissing Batman and Robin!

Jambrea said...

What a wonderful interview! I can't wait for part two!

It is so interesting to see how time can change somethings.

Eliza Knight said...

Great interview!!! Fabulous to "meet" you Mr. Banis!!

Can't wait for part II!

P. Robinson said...

Great interview! I so have to agree with loving whatever genre I'm working on at the moment. It takes your mind, your heart, and is all consuming with your time- I love it!


Desirée Lee said...

I'm a few days behind in blog reading!

Great interview. I thought it was very insightful.

Carpe Noctem,

Desirée Lee
Putting the Romance Back in Necromancy