John Weir's 'Your Nostalgia is Killing Me'

  • by Gregg Shapiro
  • Tuesday April 5, 2022
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author John Weir
author John Weir

If patience is a virtue, then fans of award-winning gay writer John Weir are among the most virtuous people you will ever find. Weir won a Lambda Literary Award for his remarkable 1989 debut novel The Irreversible Decline of Eddie Socket and then had his readers wait 17 years for his second novel, 2006's devastating What I Did Wrong.

Winner of the 2020 AWP Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction, Weir's debut short story collection Your Nostalgia is Killing Me (Red Hen Press, 2022) is certainly worth the wait. The linked stories span a 40-year period, illustrating the power of nostalgia to alternately bring us to tears and make us laugh with a familiarity that is sure to resonate with readers from all walks of life.

Gregg Shapiro: One of the things that struck me about Your Nostalgia is Killing Me is the poetry in it. There are references to poets W.H. Auden, Frank O'Hara, and Robert Frost, and the narrator of the story "Kid A" talks about the "embarrassing poems" he's written about Andy, described as "Straight guy half my age. Lives with his mom." Please say a few words about the presence of poetry in your life.

John Weir: I teach in the MFA Creative Writing and Literary Translation program at Queens College CUNY, and one of the best features of our program is the requirement that students take a workshop outside their genre. So, I often have poets in my Fiction Writing Workshop. So much fun to see how poets read, to notice what they notice in a piece of fiction.

It's hard to generalize about poetry — there are so many poetries — but I think of poetry as being generally more condensed and image-driven than most prose. I love how poetry can compress a range of feelings into a coppery-tasting, odd, unexpected image.

My father read Robert Frost to my brother and me when we were kids, so Frost was my first poet. And then Langston Hughes! Because of a public TV show where Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis read and recited Hughes' poetry.

And there was a paperback volume of T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets lying around the high school choir room. Maybe somebody thought it was a chamber music score? I had no idea what was going on in Four Quartets, but I liked Eliot's turn of phrase. I probably said that out loud and embarrassingly at the dinner table. "Mom, Dad, T.S. Eliot has a fun turn of phrase!"

As an adult, I'm an obsessive buyer of poetry volumes, and the front room of my two-room apartment is jammed floor-to-ceiling with poetry. Lately, I'm reading Frank Bidart and Louise Glück, because they have new books, and because they're basically a gay-guy-&-his-best-straight-girlfriend-couple out of a Stephen McCauley novel.

And there are so many LGTBQ poets publishing wonderful books lately: Danez Smith, Tommy Pico, Natalie Diaz, Jos Charles, Phillip B. Williams, Donika Kelly, Franny Choi, and Eileen Myles now and forever!

author John Weir in his Brooklyn apartment  

In addition to poetry, modern music also features prominently in the book, aside from the Radiohead nod of "Kid A," the story "Katherine Mansfield," which perfectly blends comedy and tragedy, is packed with music references. What kind of role does music play for you?
Thanks for using the word "perfect" in relation to my writing. Do you have music playing in the background when you're working or writing or whatever?

My mother's father was assistant manager of a radio station in Denver during World War II, and she grew up with the radio on, 24/7, and so did I, thanks to her. There was music in the house when I woke in the morning, and music until bedtime. Not live music, though my mother would sometimes bang out "Musetta's Waltz" on the piano. And my parents had a huge collection of LPs — obsolete technology! — ranging from Bach to the Beatles, and I listened to Ella Fitzgerald's Cole Porter Songbook over and over during high school.

And Sondheim! I guess I'm gay. I need music in the background in order to concentrate, and I also sometimes need to play a song or album over and over in order to write a story.

That's actually what I was doing when I wrote "Kid A," about a guy wandering into a porno movie theater in Queens. It's the only story in Your Nostalgia Is Killing Me that I wrote in one sitting. Maybe it took six hours? And I was plugged into headphones and listening to — no lie — Radiohead's Kid A, over and over. "How to Disappear Completely!"

Speaking of music, the third section of the book, "Imitation of Life," opens with a Lance Loud epigraph. I recently interviewed Kristian Hoffman who was in the queer punk band The Mumps with Lance. Are you aware of The Mumps' music, and if so, are you a fan?
Lance Loud! Surely you watched An American Family on TV in the early 1970s?

I did!
I saw every episode: the Loud family as reality TV before reality TV happened. And Lance Loud was my first homosexual. Other than Paul Lynde, but Lynde wasn't out. Lance Loud was completely out — unlike anybody else on TV or in movies or anywhere in popular culture in 1973. It wasn't a pose, it wasn't a fashion statement, it wasn't a flirtation with queerness or a temporary thing: he was gay. He went on Dick Cavett and was gay! So, he was one of my idols.

And my biggest reward for publishing my first novel was getting to meet him, in Los Angeles, in 1992. I was in L.A. for the summer, staying with Randy Dunbar, then Art Director of The Advocate. Randy took me to a party in Silverlake, and Lance Loud showed up on his motorcycle. It was like Bowie or Grace Jones had walked in the room.

He wasn't the skinny guy from the TV show, he'd gotten pumped up and he was sort of a studly motorcycle guy, but with irony. I hope I told him how much he had mattered to me when I was a fourteen-year-old queer kid stuck in rural New Jersey. I think I did. In any case, I picked him up once in a borrowed car and we went to the preview of Tim Burton's Mars Attacks! I would've married him, or anything else, if he asked me, but I don't think I was his type.

I wanted his voice in my book, and so: the epigraph. Kind of a memorial to him, and to all the complicated theatrical courageously queer gay guys I've known. But you asked about The Mumps. I'm listening to them right now. Speaking of having music in the background. "I Like to Be Clean!"

Movies also appear throughout the book, particularly in the story "Humoresque." If you could pick one of the stories in the book to be made into a movie, which one would it be, and why?
I wish the whole book were a movie, with Jodie Foster as me! Was Jodie Foster my first lesbian? But she was not out until I was, like, 50. Still, though: when I was 17, I wanted to be Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver. Well, not that I wanted to have sex with Harvey Keitel!

I guess I'm more influenced by movies than any other "entertainment genre." Particularly in terms of transitions: is this a jump cut? Is it a fade-out? Is it a smash cut? I've learned a lot from movies about how to manage time and space. How to move people around in a room. How to show that time has passed. Which story as a movie?

"Katherine Mansfield," with the narrator and his gay pop star ex-boyfriend, and his "straight" acting class maybe-ex-boyfriend, and his dead gay best friend in the background — varieties of queer! — would be a fun movie musical. Is Lin Manuel-Miranda reading this? Andrew Garfield can play all the parts! Or wait: Ben Platt in an age-appropriate role as the pop star boyfriend!

I guess "Humoresque," the story with the guy and his aging mom and his ambivalent possible-boyfriend would work as a movie. Not that the mom is my actual mother, who died in 2018, but: my actual mother always said she wanted Lee Remick — who's also dead! — to play her in the movie. If "Humoresque" were a movie, it would have to be a French film, where people talk a lot.

In more than half of the stories, including "It Must Be Swell to Be Laying Out Dead" and "Neorealism at the Infiniplex," Dave (who represents gay writer David Feinberg) is a character, and in many ways, he haunts some of the other stories, particularly the ones in the "Long-Term Survivors" section. Do you think Dave will always have a place in your work as he does in What I Did Wrong and Your Nostalgia is Killing Me?
Gosh, I don't want to write about David Feinberg for the rest of my life, but. . . I mean, you'd think I'd have exhausted that topic by now. Not to cast shade on Dave! He was quite the character in real life, and so of course he's a fun character on the page. I have two voices playing constantly in my head, one is my mother's, and the other is Dave's. Are they the same voice? The older I get, the more they merge.

When I'm writing about a character who's inspired by David or my mother, I don't have to work hard to come up with dialogue. It's like taking dictation: I just write down what I hear them saying. Which is not to say that I'm remembering what either of them said, in real time in the actual world.

I can hear them talking about stuff they would never have known about — Covid or Marjorie Taylor Greene or Spielberg's and Kushner's West Side Story. It's hard not to write about characters who make writing so easy for you. And I'm not good at inventing things. I couldn't invent a character as vivid as either of them.

But the question of writing about David Feinberg and his writing, his fiction, and nonfiction, is also a question of writing about the first fifteen years of the global AIDS crisis. And I don't know how I'll ever be able to write about anything that doesn't take that crisis into account.

That is, if I'm writing realist fiction, and not fantasy or science fiction. I would not be able to pretend AIDS was not there — is not still here. Well, and reality is lately so much like science fiction, that all you have to do is write down what happened this afternoon, and you've got a dystopian novel.

Other writers make appearances in the book, including Tennessee Williams and Roland Barthes, as well as Joan Didion, who died in December 2021. Is Didion someone you would consider to be an influence on your writing, and if so, in what ways?
I hope I can stop writing like Joan Didion! I fell in love with her ironic tone when I was 17. A cute boy in my freshman year of college sat me down and read me Didion's essay "On Self-Respect," and I fell in love with him and her at the same time. Didion reminds me of my WASPy mother if my mother had migraines and read Henry James.

Then when I was twenty, in 1979, I had a summer job as the parking lot attendant at the Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope, PA. It mostly meant sitting outdoors under a flood light and reading Didion's The White Album, while a touring company inside the Playhouse did Oklahoma! "I'm Just a Girl Who Can't Say No" drifting out into the night air as a background to Didion on the Manson family's Linda Kasabian.

The first section of The White Album's title essay ends with a sentence I can quote from memory:
"By way of comment I offer only that an attack of vertigo and nausea does not now seem to me an inappropriate response to the summer of 1968." And in 1979, I was all, "Oh, wow." The ironic understatement, I guess? "Does not now seem an inappropriate response."

The way she delays the full emotional impact of a sentence until its very end. How careful she is about where she places each word in a sentence. Her ability to withhold commas! Also, this rhetorical strategy: slyly undermining an official assertion. "Yes, yes, all of that is true, but let me just say. . . "

And then, in pursuing that "let me just say," she gives so perceptive and incisive a reading of a situation or event, that you forget the official assertion. I imitated that strategy constantly when I was writing nonfiction pieces for Details magazine in the early 1990s. Of course, I did it obviously and badly, and I can hardly stand to read some of those Details pieces now.

AIDS activism and ACT UP figure prominently in the book, especially in the stories "Political Funerals" + "The Origin of the Milky Way," which made me wonder if you'd read Sarah Schulman's book Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York, 1987—1993 and, if so, what you thought of it.
I bought Sarah Schulman's book as soon as it showed up on the bookstore shelves. Frustratingly, it was not immediately in my nearest Brooklyn Barnes & Noble, so I went into Manhattan and got it at the Strand. I picked it up off the table of new releases, and because I'm a relentless narcissist, I turned at once to the back of the book and looked to see if my name was in the Index. Which it was! Argh, me.

I'm reading the book in bits and pieces and learning stuff about ACT UP New York that I didn't know. But some of it is like home movies, and that's an odd experience, to feel like you're somehow historical. (I say something like this in "Long-Term Survivors.")

By the way, Sarah, in real life, was at the party I write about in "Scenes from a Marriage" — Dave's "I'm Still Standing" party, thrown a week or so before he died. Obviously, I have fictionalized aspects of that party, but Sarah writes about the real party in The Gentrification of the Mind. So, Sarah Schulman and I are intertextual!

Astrological signs such as Gemini, Leo and Cancer are referred to in some of the stories. What's your sign and are you a follower of the zodiac?
I'm an Aquarius with Cancer rising and my moon in Pisces: a balloon tethered to a dinghy floating in the sea. It's perilously easy for me to avoid things. I became aware of astrology because of the 5th Dimension's recording of "Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In," which was the #1 pop song on the AM radio for six weeks in the spring of 1969, when I was ten. "The age of Aquarius." My age!

So, I got into astrology, because it seemed like it was all about me. And it bugged my mother (a Taurus), which was a plus. Way later, I wrote a horoscope column for Details magazine, because I was on their payroll as a Contributing Editor, and the articles I wrote kept getting killed, and they had to run out my contract somehow. So, I did horoscopes for them under the nom de stars, "Clinton Point."

Clinton Point did horoscopes for a German magazine too! For about a year. I forget the magazine's name. I speak six words of German, all of which mean "angst," but they translated my columns, and so I was briefly telling German people not to drunk dial your ex during Mercury retrograde.

Do you think catharsis occurs when addressing the hell of middle school and high school for LGBTQ people, especially those of a certain age?
Oh, gosh, such a good question. I have been writing for decades about my experience of being harassed in grade school and high school. It's in all three of my books. Maybe it won't make sense to younger LGBTQ people to hear me say that the audience I have been trying to reach is not harassed queer kids, but their abusers.

Kids who get harassed in grade school and high school because of their difference — if it's body shaming, racist abuse, misogynist attacks, or homophobic attacks: they know what happened. I don't need to tell them. The people who don't know what happened are the people who inflicted the abuse. Or the "straight" kids who stood around and watched it happen and said nothing.

Anybody who went to high school in America participated in or witnessed some form of bullying. I'm guilty of having not intervened in high school when kids who were designated "uncool" got shunned or harassed. And I was a vicious mocker, so I'm sure I inflicted pain.

What I want to do in my writing about being the target of harassment is to ask — maybe force — the reader to recognize, confront, their complicity in that harassment. I have wanted my writing to make that particular reader uncomfortable. Because: gosh, denial. People refuse to see their role in inflicting and perpetuating various kinds of abuse.

And, so, I want to break through that denial. One of my strategies is to write about a scene of harassment as plainly and directly as possible, without ever asking the reader for sympathy. Because the minute a person thinks you're asking for pity, they stop listening to you. Stop hearing the truth of what you're saying.

Anyway, that's been my experience. I try to say, simply, "This happened. And then this. And then this. In this order, on such and such a day, when the sun was shining." And I leave my feelings out of it. That strategy never works, though! My other strategy is humor, which I wield with a degree of hostility, as a smart reader once pointed out to me.

Getting someone to laugh is a way of throwing them off-center for a second, and sometimes, in that moment, new information can get in. That strategy doesn't work either. I have not yet had the sense that straight people are aware of their childhood complicity in generating and enforcing a homophobic regime in grade school and high school. Sure, they were kids at the time. But who's meaner than kids, and more skillful at inflicting harm?

I saw your Facebook post about the forthcoming paperback editions of The Irreversible Decline of Eddie Socket, a reissue, and What I Did Wrong which is finally making its paperback debut. What does it mean to you to have these books back in print?
First off, it means that a guy named Richard Morrison at Fordham University Press was incredibly patient in asking me like once a year for the longest time if I'd be interested in having my novels re-issued. Like I said earlier, it's easy for me to avoid things, and I just pretended I'd never heard him ask. I don't know why. I'm perverse.

After a while, though, I figured, "Why not?" Was I waiting for Sofia Coppola to offer me a movie deal? Puzzling. But now both books will be out in May 2022, in Fordham's New York ReLit series in the Empire State Editions, and, yay. University presses are good at keeping books in print for a long time, regardless of sales, so that's reassuring.

Eddie Socket would make a fun musical, and I think Taylor Swift should write it. With Taylor's sometime-collaborator and popstar guy Jack Antonoff as Eddie, and Kara Young — a brilliant actor who was just in Lynn Nottage's Clyde's, which I managed to see in New York in the ten minutes before Omicron hit — as Polly. Maybe I'll send copies to Swift and Sobule! Or, you know, have my people contact their people.

Have you started thinking about or writing your next book, so we don't have to wait 16 years in between?
Oh, stab me! Okay, I admit there are three manuscripts I've been writing and rewriting since the last century. One's a novel about my favorite dead ex-boyfriend, and I keep trying to make it a Raymond Chandler mystery and failing.

One's a bunch of essays I've written over 30 years and say the words "essay collection" to an agent and watch what happens. (In other words, I don't have an agent at the moment.)

The third manuscript is about my mother, and I can't decide if it's fiction or nonfiction or, I don't know, an opera. My mother was Auntie Mame crossed with Henry Fonda in My Darling Clementine, and I want to make sure I get her right, or she will smite me from the beyond.

John Weir's previous books

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