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In his debut novel The Butterfly Lady (Flaming Giblet Press, March 2013), author Danny M. Hoey Jr. illustrates the history and daily life of Gabriel Smith, a black cross-dresser living in Cleveland, Ohio. Gabriel’s daily attire—dress, makeup, a butterfly clip—elicits reactions from a community that at once reviles and accepts his eccentricity, a community circumscribed by the unique racial politics of the late 60s and early 70s, that therefore must make room for Gabriel, but only begrudgingly. The novel details Gabriel’s exchanges with the fixtures in his community, people who receive his love, and in some cases reject it violently.
Below, the author explains his connections to these often unexplored sites: to the Midwest, to a black community in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement. Hoey also explains the origins of the novel’s intricate structure—the voice of one character picking up where another leaves off—and the intersections between his professional academic life and his artistic ambitions.
The book offers a unique look at a trans lifestyle away from the usual metropolitan centers. Was that a deliberate decision on your part–to dramatize life away from NYC, L.A., or San Francisco? What particular challenges did choosing Cleveland as a setting present to you?
When I initially thought about the setting of the novel, my mind went straight to Ohio. I never saw this story as a story for New York, L.A., or San Francisco—it didn’t have that feel. In my mind I believed that I could tell this narrative in a fictionalized Ohio city—I thought that I could be like Sherwood Anderson and create a black populated Winesburg, Ohio. What I found difficult about this was that it didn’t feel authentic and the characters didn’t feel at home in this fictionalized place. I also wanted to do a made up place because the thought of setting it in Cleveland scared me. Cleveland was a place where there was real danger, real angst about black gay boys who grew up to be black gay men. Where there were men who stood on corners and solicited boys and then a minute later called them derogatory names in front of their friends on those same corners… Now, I realize that my trepidation was due to the honesty that I would have to write with to really capture what I witnessed in Cleveland when I was young. And when I first started the novel, I wasn’t ready. But, I had to get ready because this story needed to be in a place where I could be really honest and make sure that my characters were real.
The book does not necessarily lionize Gabriel for offering his support to heterosexual characters in his community. In fact, he’s punished for doing so. What compels Gabriel to continually invest himself in Virginia and LeRoi’s dramas? Did you want your audience to receive a kind of moral lesson through showing this as a threat to Gabriel? Did you work deliberately to avoid deifying Gabriel?
As I thought about Gabriel and his relationship with Virginia, I wanted him to be both mother/father. I wanted him to show her that even though she distanced herself from her family that she still had him—even though she didn’t want him to occupy any of those spaces. But, then, as the novel progressed, I realized that Gabriel was not so much invested in Virginia as he was in Chance—he knew what Chance felt, he knew the feeling that being ignored brought about. So, he wanted Virginia to be better than she was for the sake of Chance, and the only way that she could do that was to leave LeRoi alone. I am not sure that I set out provide a moral lesson; however, I knew that Gabriel had to die to make the other characters see themselves for who they really were—to acknowledge the hurt that was there and how that hurt, fear, and anger made them treat him and others the way that they did.
Though the characters in your novel populate a largely black community, the have very complicated feelings about race. What was different about exploring the racial climate at this particular moment in history? Were you aiming at exploring a moment in black cultural history that isn’t explored as frequently as say the Civil Rights era? It seems in choosing to set the book in the 70s, you were able to focus the attention of the book on issues inside the black community, rather than having to look outward.
I think that my characters complicated feelings about race mirror my early feelings about race. I grew up in a neighborhood where being smart and black was frowned upon. I went to a school where our majority black teachers afforded the white kids in our majority black high school more privilege. And I didn’t understand any of this as a kid but I did know that I didn’t fit in anywhere and for a moment, a very brief moment, I thought, what would it be like to be white and not have to worry about the stress of being black? I quickly got over that and realized that I hadn’t read anything about black life that wasn’t told from a white, male voice. No wonder I felt the way that I did—my story was being told by someone who didn’t understand it. Then I went to college and read books by black authors that were complicated and that complicated black life, that complicated, at last, gay black life—and I didn’t feel bad about being who I was. So, when I started this novel, I knew that I wanted to write a novel that didn’t focus on white folks—one where the black community had to reconcile itself with itself—if at all possible…. One where these characters had to see how they treated each other and come to some understanding of why? I have to also say, that not writing about white folks doesn’t mean that my characters didn’t feel the pressures associated with racism. I was more concerned with how those pressures manifested in the black community and how they handled them. Plus, I love the 70s/80s and what I think that time period represented for black folks, particularly in Ohio—the 1966 Hough race riots shaped my family and other black families in the area where the story takes place. For me, the characters are symbolic of the protesters—their fight and struggle against forces that want to stifle and kill them and they also embody the aftermath of the riot—the distrust of people in power, the fierce desire to find out who they really are, and the disillusionment that comes with that quasi understanding, and the devastating economic effects that have lasted till this day. Unfortunately, the Hough Riots destroyed a vital black community and it hasn’t really recovered.
You employ a complicated strategy of focusing on the perspectives of various characters in your story. At what point in the process did you decide to employ this polyvocal strategy, and what led you to choosing it for this novel? Were there any attempts at carrying one perspective throughout the story, or did the project begin in your head as it appears in print? Why do you think it was necessary to tell the story in such a way?
I love music—I love the way that melodies are constructed. I will listen to the beats before I even pay attention to the words— the words compliment the music, helps piece together what is being said. But the heartbeat, the real truth, I believe, is in the music, in the complications that the music offers. That is what I think about when I sit down to write—what is the music, the beat, the melody, trying to tell me? What does it want me to convey to people? And then I think: what words will I use to fill in the spaces, enlarge the gaps, give us room to breathe and interpret. Sometimes I am scared by the anger, love, lust, angst, fear, pain, feeling of loneliness, that music holds and shares.
The novel started as a short story and even in the short story the narrative was “polyvocal.” I felt like even though Gabriel was the “main” character that each of the characters had responsibility in the narrative. I also felt that each of them knew each other’s stories, had lived some parts of each other’s lives. I wanted to complicate the narrative by complicating the voices telling the narrative…. Also, I thought a lot about my house and how my family would gather and talk and finish each other’s sentences—and continue the story. And even though they didn’t always get the story just right, it was compelling and it enlarged the other person’s story; it gave it depth and texture. It was revealing while being entertaining at the same time. I wanted the narrative to be structured as if they were all sitting in the kitchen sharing their lives over a Sunday dinner.
How did your background in academia affect your work in this novel? Did it aid your efforts to research this particular era?
Even though I had these grand ideas for the novel, its structure and the narrative voice, I didn’t really understand what it—the novel—was doing until I read Henry Louis Gates, Jr., “The Trope of the Talking Book” from his book The Signifying Monkey. Gates’ argues that texts, particularly those by black authors, were written to talk to each other as well as insert themselves into the western literary tradition—through black vernacular language. What is also important is the use of the “oral” tradition in the written text and how this allows black writers to talk to each other, create new texts that pass along information, while still using western literary traditions. It was when I read that for my comprehensive exams that I realized that the book was bigger than me, that it was talking back to and forward to those who would write books like mine. It also cemented, for me, the brilliance of black folks and black artists to create work that was subversive and life changing at the same time. It changed the entire way that I read books by black writers….
I didn’t do a lot of research for this book—I had to look up small historical stuff and street names in other cities but other than that I relied on what I remembered from my life in Cleveland and went from there. And, it’s fiction, so some stuff I made up (laughs).
Which writers would you say most strongly influence your style and ambitions as a writer?
Over the six years that I wrote, I constantly went back to Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and John Edgar Wideman’s Sent for You Yesterday. Both of these novels floor me every time that I read them for their sheer brilliance and their use of language. I also love that these novels deal with black life in a way that critiques it as well as try to understand why the people in the books behave the way that they do… I also love Baldwin, particularly his essays, Carolivia Herron’s Thereafter Johnnie takes my breath away, Thomas Glave make me hate being a writer sometimes (laughs), and Terrance Hayes’ Wind in a Box is wonderful… I could go on forever but these are the folks that I go back to when I get stuck and can’t figure something out.
What are your habits as a working writer? How many hours per day? Days per week? How do these habits influence your work, if they do so at all?
I have awful habits as a writer… I don’t have a set schedule even though I am putting myself on one this summer. I still write longhand so I have a lot of tablets with thoughts, scenes, dialogue, and entire chapters on them. When I feel like it is time for the story to be on the actual page I then sit at the computer and transfer. That process works for me because it’s like my first set of revisions—because some of the stuff from the tablet doesn’t make it to the page and I play with structure and language. I would love to write everyday—but I do think about what ever project I am working on at that time every day. But, once I have a draft that I think is an okay enough draft, I do discipline myself to revise at least two hours a day. Once Butterfly was an okay draft, I spent an entire year revising it—that is when I am the most consistent, in the revision stage.
For the benefit of other gay writers hoping to publish, describe the process of finding representation as an author. What were your steps toward publication? What advice would you offer to aspiring writers?
Honestly, I was so scared that someone else was going to tell this story that I submitted my query with synopsis to about 10 small presses—I don’t have an agent and wasn’t sure if I wanted one—I was afraid that they would want to change me as an artist (of course this is unfounded but a fear nonetheless). But, I knew that I wanted to go with a small press and that I would have preferred to go with one that published LGBT literary fiction. I scoured the net, found publishers and sent them my query. I was turned down instantly—but I got good rejections—and that gave me hope. I knew that whoever published the novel would have to outright love it. If not, then I couldn’t let them publish it. So, I re-tooled my query letter sent it to Flaming Giblet and she got back with me and asked to the manuscript and she took on the project.
I know that this is cliché but I would tell aspiring writers that the first step is to read. And read and read and write and write. Read stuff that moves you to experience intense emotions; also, read stuff that you don’t like—you learn from every reading experience. Also, don’t be afraid to cut things in revision—even if it is the best piece of prose that you have written, if it doesn’t work with the narrative or what you are trying to do at that place in the work, get rid of it (save it for later use) I would also suggest that they work hard to develop their voice, their own aesthetic—which is difficult but necessary. It was a hard process for me but when I found my voice it was very rewarding. The last thing that I will say is write your truth however painful it is or may be. You have to do that in order to create a narrative that is honest and true to your art or your idea of art. Let the pain guide you.