Last Sunday was International Coming Out Day (October 11th), and that turned my mind to coming out novels, or first-time stories as they are sometimes called. I’ve been talking about some of my coming out icons and scenes on my Facebook page all week, but to round it off, here’s a little more.
I didn’t come out until I was 25, probably because for the first 21 years of my life, I was illegal, the age of consent then being 21 in the UK. I didn’t start reading overtly gay literature until I was in my twenties. Where I grew up and when, there was no such thing as popping to your local bookshop to order the latest Gay Men’s Press publication, even if I knew of its existence. There was no Amazon to buy from because there was no internet, and it wasn’t until I moved to London in the early 1980s that I even knew gay literature existed. (Not counting Wilde, Forster et al. who were spoken about in hushed whispers at school.)
Once I found an outlet for gay novels through Gay’s The Word bookshop and others in the capital, I was off and reading. As I was writing this post, two novels came back to me, and I looked them up to see if they are still available. I particularly remember ‘In The Tent’ and ‘The Milkman’s On His Way’, both by David Rees, both of which were about young men (late teens, at school) struggling with their sexuality and coming out. Both, I found uplifting, reassuring and helpful.
They, for me, were the front runners of what I do now – write gay literature. Oh, and there’s another recommendation for you, ‘The Front Runner‘ by Patricia Nell Warren.
I had a look at my catalogue of books and wondered, ‘Have I written a coming out story?’ That might sound like an odd thing for an author to ask, but I decided I’d never sat down to write a coming out story. At the heart of most of my novels, I decided, was friendship, and when a character summons the courage to tell a friend he is gay, I see it more of a test of friendship than a coming out novel. I think, because, I have read so many coming out novels that seem to be the author coming out rather than a character, I subconsciously shied away from it. Or did I?
The Stoker Connection
In this novel, the premise is ‘What if Stoker didn’t write ‘Dracula’ but merely put together actual diaries and evidence supplied to him by the characters in his story?’ Not what you’d immediately think was a coming out novel, would you? Yet, when I got to the end of it, I realised that what I had written was indeed a novel about coming out wrapped up in an engaging YA mystery.
I even wrote the blurb: Dexter and Morgan meet on their eighteenth birthday. The attraction is instant but confusing. As they deal with coming out, they are bound together by more than first love. They’re bound by coincidence and destiny as it happens, but along the way, Dexter’s coming out is pre-empted and complicated by his well-meaning but slightly dim best friend, whereas Morgan’s took place under the knowing eye of his sex therapist mother. Each boy had a completely different coming out experience with friends and family, but both had a third when they come out to each other. Still, I maintain that the story isn’t your classic ‘coming out’ story because that’s not the main thrust of the plot.
I’d be interested to hear your thoughts if you’ve read, ‘The Stoker Connection’. You can comment on my Facebook page and let me know what you think.
The Mentor Collection
I call it a collection rather than a series because the stories are not linked. They all concern a younger man and a relationship with an older man, so they are what some people call; ‘May to December’ or older/younger romance novels. Except, the first one, ‘The Mentor of Wildhill Farm’ is more erotica than it is romance, but it was my first, and I was finding my feet.
The Mentor of Lonemarsh House
I’m sometimes asked, what is my favourite of the four Mentor books, and although I like all of them, I would have to say ‘The Mentor of Lonemarsh House’ because it’s closer to a classic coming out novel. In this story, 35-year-old Matt Barrow takes on Lonemarsh House, an isolated manor in the Kent marshes. When he meets 23-year-old Jason Hodge, a brilliant violinist, Matt knows this is the young man he wants to share his new life with, but Jason is closeted and at the mercy of his treacherous friends.
There’s your classic coming out trope – treacherous friends – which equates to peer pressure, and in the story, also the non-understanding parents and remote-village locals with backwards attitudes. Jason knows he is gay but can’t tell anyone (his female best friend already suspects/knows, of course), not until he meets and falls for the older man, Matt. ‘The Mentor of Lonemarsh House’ is definitely MM Romance, but it is older/younger romance with an element of coming out, and yet, still not a coming out story. Again, you may disagree, and I’m happy to have a discussion on my Facebook page, or even personally via email.
Another reason I am fond of ‘Lonemarsh’ is because it is set where I grew up, on a lonely marsh. The house that John buys and is moving into when he meets Jason is based on the house I grew up in, and, I guess, I based Jason on myself – a young man closeted because of where he lived, though he’s a far better violinist than I am a pianist.
The Students of Barrenmoor Ridge
Outside of The Clearwater series, my top-selling title is ‘The Mentor of Barrenmoor Ridge‘, another older/younger, kind-of-coming out story set in the world of mountaineering and mountain rescue. This one, I felt, needed a sequel, but not one specifically about the older/younger couple of the story, so I came up with ‘The Students of Barrenmoor Ridge.’
Now then, this story probably comes closest to your typical coming out novel. Liam has set himself a goal. To come out to his best friend, Casper, before his 18th birthday while hiking at Fellborough in the Yorkshire Dales. You don’t get much clearer than that! In Liam’s case, though, it’s not the pressure of friends and family that’s kept him from coming out to his bestie, it’s the fear that Casper won’t want to know him any longer if he does. That’s another pressure on young guys wanting to come out that is often explored in coming out novels. Set at Barrenmoor again, bad weather and mountain rescue are involved, but it soon becomes apparent that the rescue is more than physical. Liam and Casper both have secrets that when known, have the potential break or mend their hearts.
In ‘The Students’ you can see the influence that David Rees had on me when I was a young reader, and not only because some of the story takes place in a tent between guys who are 18 and holding secrets. Also, in all the mentor books, you can feel an influence of ‘The Front Runner’ which, it could be argued, is a story about mentoring and love with an age gap.
Why do coming out stories matter?
Coming out a favourite theme for many writers of gay literature, particularly new writers, because it is something every gay person either suffers or just gets on with. It’s something every out gay person has done, and something every closeted gay person wrestles with or in some way has to deal with. Coming out is a rite of passage that only gay people go through, no matter their sex or age. I think it’s the duty of authors of gay lit when writing about coming out, to give the younger or closeted reader not only characters they can identify with but hope that their personal story will come right in the end. You might even offer advice, as in ‘The Students’ which is basically saying, ‘If he’s your best friend, he’ll understand; if he doesn’t, he wasn’t…’
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