One of LGBT fiction's brightest new stars, novelist Jeffrey Luscombe has received much acclaim for his debut novel, Shirts and Skins, recently released by Chelsea Station Editions. Edge on the Net says that Shirts and Skins is nothing but authentic in its pathos, eloquent in its delivery, and well worth the read," and, having recently read the book, I can agree.
While newly published in the states, in his native Canada, Jeffrey first gained fame as the Gay Groom, due to his blog, which chronicled his trip down the aisle with his partner, Sean, and continues to chart his experience as a writer. Now, he and Sean are legally and happily snuggled into their charming Toronto abode, but Jeffrey graciously agreed to chat with me about his journey to author-hood, his thoughts on the gay community, and what wedded bliss means to him.
Jeffrey, congratulations on the debut of "Shirts and Skins." What inspired you to write the novel?
I had the first line of this book in mind head for years. It just took some time to actually get down to work and write it. After I earned my masters in English a few years ago, I was accepted into a PhD program at McGill in Montreal but, to be honest, there was nothing I was interested in enough to spend four years writing a dissertation on. And since I had always written fiction, I decided to finally get serious about it. So I applied to the Humber School for Writers program and four months later I had finished half a manuscript.
Wow, my novel took over 12 years to write -- I'm envious! Yours takes place in Hamilton, Ontario, which is also where you grew up. For those not familiar with the city, aside from being a port, what can you tell us about Hamilton?
Hamilton is between Toronto and Niagara Falls. For most of the twentieth century it was known for making steel. I guess Pittsburg would be a good U.S. equivalent. In the shadow of Toronto, it's always had a bit of inferiority complex; it was looked down on by most of the country as being working-class, dangerous and dirty. Once a manufacturing hub, in the last few decades many of factories have closed down. I attempt to show that urban decay in the book. But there is more to Hamilton than that. In the book characters discuss Evelyn Dick, Hamilton's infamous female killer. I think of Hamilton as a lot like Evelyn Dick: Hamilton is beautiful, notorious, likely has seen better days, and knows where all the bodies are buried.
While we meet your lead character, Josh Moore, as a child, his tale is one of tremendous pressure to repress his sexuality, due to his family, religion, and community. Given that your first name also starts with a "J" and you set the novel in your home town, is any of the novel autobiographical?
All the events in Shirts and Skins are fictional. Though there are similarities in a larger sense: Josh, like me, grew up in the east end of Hamilton, has two older brothers, is part Native Canadian, is on the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum etc. But even though the particular events in the novel are fictitious, the feelings of alienation, pain, and anger came from a place I understand. I may not have been the victim of a homophobic attack when I was in junior high school, but I was abused emotionally; it's a metaphor for my own life. Giving Josh a biblical name was also meant to be ironic and part of the humor in the book. I was not sure that people would get the dark humor in the story but I recently had my first reading in Toronto and was thrilled when people laughed. It taught me not to underestimate readers.
What was your own experience like, growing up in the same environment like as Josh?
Thankfully my childhood was better than Josh's. But being different is never easy. I'm not sure if it's any easier in the most affluent neighborhoods or not, but I do know being different can be downright dangerous in rough neighborhoods. I was picked on, pushed around, called names. I stayed closeted for years, coming out in my mid-twenties. That was when I stood at a fork in the road like Josh. He went one way and I another.
Religion plays a role in Josh's family life, particularly as it relates to his father, with whom he doesn't connect. What is your own connection to religion?
I am an atheist. Like Josh, I also was sent off to Sunday school, but to be honest I never bought what they were selling -- though I did try. It just didn't make sense to me from the beginning so I asked far too many questions about what they taught. And I quickly discovered that they really didn't appreciate questions. So religion and I parted ways early. I don't miss it.
That's an interesting take on it...
Religion doesn't have the same importance in Canada as it does in the States. Not that we don't have our religious nuts -- we do -- just a lot less of them.
One of the elements I really appreciated about "Shirts and Skins" was the exploration of how class can affect a person, which isn't often covered in gay fiction. For Josh, he felt compelled, due to his working class status, to behave a certain way.
Let's do a Marxist reading of Shirts and Skins, Kergan! Seriously though, it does seems many of the coming-out books or stories of gay sexual discovery I read were set in a private boy's school in England or the like. They may be out there but I haven't found many books about gay working-class boys that mirrored my own experience. I think Josh's decision to mimic others around him was for survival. And although Josh's social class may have limited his choices, the choices he made -- good and bad -- were all Josh's.
So, how has class affected you personally?
It was feast or famine when I was growing. My father was a crane operator at one of the steel mills in Hamilton, and after being hurt on the job ended up in a body cast for months. After that he hustled for money: he managed a number of convenience stores, fixed CB radios and electronics, took the odd factory jobs, but we were on assistance a few times. Like Josh, it limited my choices and I had to find ways around roadblocks -- say to university or making my way to Toronto. And though I think I've left Hamilton behind, Sean likes to say that my "Hamilton comes out" or I "go Hamilton" on someone when I get angry. I suppose I still have some rough edges, but I've come to appreciate them now.
And that social or class structure exists in the gay community as well...
I'm not sure what community doesn't. Though, as we tend to go to the same meeting places like bars, dance clubs and village cafes, we tend to mingle more between classes than other communities. Over the years I've rubbed elbows (and other things) with the rich gays, the arty gays, the working-class gays, smarty-pants academic gays, gays of color, Stonewall Democrats, Log Cabin Republicans, gays from every stratum. I'm not sure straight folks mingle that much between classes. Though I wonder if once we finish rubbing elbows (and other things) if our natural tendency isn't to head back to our own social class. What do you think?
I agree. We tend to gravitate towards that which we're most comfortable, which is usually folks from our own tribe, so to speak. And now you are part of the tribe of out gay authors! So, what have you learned from writing and publishing your first novel?
I learned -- with help from my mentors Nino Ricci and Lauren B Davis at the Humber School for Writers -- how to develop my own voice as a writer. And I think it's a unique and interesting voice. I've been told that you can read any page of Shirts and Skins and know it's me. I'm not sure if other writers would like that critique but to me it was a great compliment. It means I'm on the right track. I want to continue developing this voice.
Prior to the novel, you wrote quite prolifically about your nuptials with Sean. Here in the U.S., marriage equality is still but a dream for most gay folks, and some people still don't see what all the marriage "fuss" is about. What impact did getting legally wed have on you?
If you ask any couple -- gay or straight -- if something changed when you married I believe most will say yes. There is a difference. Maybe it is the legal document of a license or maybe it was standing up and actually saying those words out loud, but there is a gravitas in our relationship that wasn't there before. I'm not saying it is more 'real' or 'better' -- and I don't want people living in places where they are not able to marry legally or have no desire to marry to think I'm belittling their relationships. I love being married. And it turns out I'm a damned good husband.
Has being married changed your relationship with Sean?
It has only made it better. I dedicated Shirts and Skins to Sean. Without him there would be no book. He has supported me in every way. I'm sure he would have done that if we were married or not, but now I'll get his federal pension, too.
You've described Sean as a "Felix" to your "Oscar." Are you really an "Odd Couple"?
I think we complement each other. I'm not sure if opposites attract but I did learn over the years that if you really want a long-lasting relationship you should choose someone who is your match playing Jeopardy. Sean and I are a perfect match. Truth is my inner Felix comes out from time to time -- usually when my writing is going well. If the house is spotless you know I'm having trouble writing.
How do you see yourself, your writing, and your sexuality intersecting? Are you a writer? A gay writer? A writer who is gay? How would you define yourself?
I just call myself a writer. But I don't have a problem being called a gay writer or queer writer. I probably wouldn't dig "that cocksucker writer" though. I think people would be disappointed if they think my book is full of hot gay sex because it isn't. Shirts and Skins really doesn't have a lot of sex in it -- only a couple of paragraphs. I find it more interesting to use subtext, intimation and metaphor. Besides, I'm not a good enough writer to come up with fifty different words for 'penis.' And with gay sex I guess I would have to come up with a hundred different words.
You've lived all over the world, from Canada, to the U.S., to London. Are there certain issues you see that the gay community in Canada has that may be different than, say, the United States?
Remember we in Canada have marriage equality, hate speech laws, and a Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Homosexuality was decriminalized in 1969. When I was working in Texas and Georgia back in the '90s and early 2000s, I was breaking the law when I would have sex -- actually I broke it as often as I could. Yet I don't find the gay community all that different between Canada and the State. Except you folks have -- at no fault of your own -- a lot more work to do to achieve equality at the moment. Perhaps gay Canadians are becoming complacent. By the way, I loved the gay people I met working in Atlanta, Dallas and Miami.
What is next for you? Any forthcoming projects you can share?
I am working on a novel now. A can't say much except to that this also is set in Hamilton. I think Hamilton will be to me for the next book or two what Yoknapatawpha County was for Faulkner or Manawaka was for Margaret Laurence. I didn't get to touch much on being part Native Indian and I want to explore that in this next book. I have a lot more to say. Hopefully people will want to listen.
Thanks, Jeffrey, for taking the time to chat. I can't wait to see what good things happen to you as a result of "Shirts and Skins"!