by Tim Miller
The Paternity Test by Michael Lowenthal; Terrace Books/University of Wisconsin Press, $26.95
Gaybies are popping up all over! Not only do we have our own TV show, but this fall we are lucky to have a new novel from Michael Lowenthal exploring gay male parenting and surrogacy, The Paternity Test . Amid the familiar stereotypes and slapstick comedy of NBC's hit series The New Normal, Lowenthal's new novel is a thrilling, funny, sexy and psychologically complex look at a gay male couple and their efforts to have a baby to meet their deep yearning for a child, and perhaps, as a way to recommit to their relationship. One of the men, Pat, is a wavering romantic, and 10 years into his relationship with Stu, he fears they are losing one another in their open relationship. They find a surrogate: Debora, a charismatic Brazilian immigrant, married to Danny, an American carpenter, and sparks begin to fly in the most surprising ways. The Paternity Test explores how our drive to create new families can complicate the ones we already have.
The novel achieves a generous and capacious take on human hearts, hopes and the many ways we can give birth. I caught up with Michael Lowenthal to talk about my favorite subjects: semen, gay love, and What Comes Next!
Tim Miller: Michael, you are truly hooked up to the Fall 2012 Zeitgeist of the Gayby Boom and surrogacy on primetime TV! What led you to this subject matter?
Michael Lowenthal: I have to say, it feels so odd to be in synch with the zeitgeist. All my life till now, I've had my finger right on the pulse of "unpop culture." I've consoled myself with the idea that my work was not really unpopular, it was just let's say unconventional. But how much more conventional can you get than having an NBC primetime sitcom with the same basic set-up as your novel? Of course, I started working on my novel way back in 2006. If I weren't such a ridiculously slow writer, I would have been more ahead of the curve.
I was drawn to the subject of surrogacy partly from personal experience – seeing friends of mine go through the process, and watching the intense, tricky relationships involved – and partly from a desire to tackle some larger questions about the shifts in gay culture. The gay culture into which I came out was rooted in radical politics; it was about rethinking societal norms, questioning the status quo. So I've been astonished to see how quickly the gay world has shifted its focus to the most quintessentially mainstream issues, like fighting in the military and getting married, having kids. Of course I support people's right to do those things, and it enrages me that our government still so flagrantly discriminates against gay people. But I'm interested in how gay men, especially, make the transition. If you've been socialized into a gay world that's about open relationships and no-strings-attached sex, about being defiant outsiders, how does that affect you when you suddenly feel pressure to settle down and conform to some version of "family values?"
One of the strongest things in the novel is how deeply you explore the varied calls to parenting the characters feel. How has parenting moved through your own life and relationship?
I come from a small family. I have one sister (who doesn't have kids) and only two first cousins (one of whom has kids, but I'm not in touch with them); my boyfriend is also from a small family where nobody's been procreating. So till quite recently I was never around children, and it didn't occur to me to think about being a parent. It just wasn't on my radar screen, not even when I started writing the novel, to be honest. The first draft of the book was somewhat shallow and bitter, I think, because I didn't take the desire to be a parent seriously enough. Then I started spending more time with my peers' kids, and I also suddenly started getting parental pangs myself. Call it a midlife crisis? So when I rewrote the novel, I think I was able to imbue it with much more genuine emotion about the desire to be a parent. I've still been feeling the pangs pretty strongly, but I have the feeling I'm better at birthing books than birthing babies, so that's probably what my future will hold.
I was struck how every single character gets their day in court. Each of them is so distinct, flawed, recognizable, human.
One of my biggest goals as a writer is to make readers root for characters whom they dislike or disagree with, and to pull that off, I have to try to make all of them compelling, even in their flaws. So I guess I always try to love and respect every character, even when he or she is in some ways unpleasant or irresponsible. If I find myself being too dismissive of or condescending toward a character, I realize there's a problem and I try to think: What's the best part of this character? What's the part of this character that his mother still loves? I was really influenced by Quaker values when I was growing up, and I try to follow their ethos of always seeking "the inner light" within every person.
There are so many surprises in The Paternity Test. This is especially true in the novel's really charged exploration of sex. There have been very few novels exploring this. Did you feel pressure to be a LGBT parenting advocate?
No, I most definitely did not feel pressure to be an advocate for LGBT parents, or for anyone. If folks are looking for advocacy or affirmation, they can go to support groups, but I don't see that as the role of novels. "Poster boys" are called that for a reason, right? They belong on posters, not in novels. My whole reason for writing fiction is to get past black-and-white distinctions and to make gray areas as vivid as possible. As a political activist, I'm more than happy to march in the streets shouting, "Gay is good!" But as a novelist, I'm more inclined to say, "Yeah, this gay character is good, but he can also be selfish and lonely and oversexed and whatever, just like every other human being." In my view, that kind of honesty is actually the greater political act, because true social justice will come when the world is ready to acknowledge and defend the rights of the least appealing LGBT folks, not the most appealing.
What do you hope a reader takes away from The Paternity Test?
Wherever on the spectrum a reader is with regard to questions of gay parenting, I hope to prod that reader into testing his or her position. If you're a defiantly childless gay liberationist who is annoyed by all the conservative-seeming recent emphasis on gay marriage and gay families, I hope you might be led to empathize more with people who've made the choice to start families. If you're a parent who thinks that we'd all be better off if everyone in the gay movement "grew up" and settled down and showed that we're "just like straight folks," I hope you might think more deeply about the genuine differences among people and about what may be lost in this cultural shift. To be honest, what I hope for most is that a reader be left at the end of the novel asking his or her own questions, not mine.