Greg Herren: The Art of Doing It All
I always wonder how long I can keep up the pace I’m on—but the irony is the pace never slows; it actually picks up. Sometimes just thinking about it makes me tired, so I tend to not think about my pace. I just make a to-do list and plow through…
Greg Herren is busier than you are. Just reading his list of publishing credits requires endurance. The New Orleans author has written five novels in the Scotty Bradley series, the latest of which, Who Dat Whodunnit (Bold Strokes Bo0ks), is released this month. He is also working on the sixth installment of his Chanse MacLeod mystery series, Murder in the Irish Channel. His Chanse novel Murder in the Rue Chartres (Alyson Books) is a Lambda Literary Award winner, and Herren also won a Lambda award for Love, Bourbon Street: Reflections on New Orleans (Alyson Books) , which he co-edited. He’s also written two young adult novels and more than fifty short stories, is an editor for Bold Strokes Books, and somehow had the time to co-found the Saints & Sinners Literary Festival. He is also an HIV educator and counselor for the NO/AIDS Task Force.
If you feel don’t like a slacker by now, you’re not trying hard enough.
Sleeping Angel was a compelling read, and I was a little surprised that it was categorized as a young adult novel. Did you treat the subject matter or handle the style of writing differently than you would have if it were geared toward adults?
Well, Sleeping Angel was my second “YA,” and I realized when I was doing the first one and having serious problems with it that I was actually doing what I didn’t want to do—trying to write down to a teenage level; which was precisely why I hated YA books when I was a teenager. So, what I finally decided was to simply write a book about teenagers and let the chips fall wherever they might land. I hope teenagers find and enjoy it—but I think adults can as well. I know I loved the Harry Potter books, and they weren’t written for adults.
Your first YA novel was Sorceress, right? Or was it Sara, which is coming out next year?
The first YA I wrote chronologically was Sara, followed by Sorceress and Sleeping Angel.
Both Sorceress and Sleeping Angel were set in the same California town. Will Sara be, as well?
When I conceived these books, I originally intended to do a whole series of books set both in Woodbridge (California) as well as Kahola County, Kansas—which is where Laura, the heroine of Sorceress, was from, and where Sara is set. There were at least three or four more of these books I had taken notes on… the idea was to take a minor character from one and make that character the main character in the next one. Initially, Eric from Sleeping Angel encountered Laura at the party in Sorceress—and he had a vision, warning her about what’s going on at the house. But when I was rewriting Sorceress I already knew a lot of the supernatural elements in Sleeping Angel were going to be edited out, so I used a different character to connect the two books.
Back in 2005 you were uninvited from speaking to a gay-straight alliance at a Virginia high school and the ACLU became involved. How did you handle that sort of discrimination at the time, and how do you think you would handle it now, especially considering that you are publishing more in the YA market?
I laugh now at how naïve I was, but it was really a shock when it all happened. Seriously, my initial reaction was “Huh?” The point that got lost in the shuffle—the one I kept trying to steer everything back to, but no one would allow it—was that if the issue was truly my erotica writing, why was it necessary to constantly label me a “GAY porn writer”? That was the discussion I wanted to have—is it the gay or the porn that’s the real problem? It was infuriating, frankly. The notion that I was going to show up at a high school and talk to teenagers about erotica and sexuality, that my being gay made me somehow incapable of knowing or comprehending what was and wasn’t appropriate discussion for teens, was incredibly insulting and demeaning.
The death threats were uncalled for, I think.
It wasn’t about me, really—I was simply the tool the right-wingers were using to get at these brave teenagers who’d formed a GSA at this school—and not one single queer publication was interested, nor were any of the queer rights organizations. No one gave two shits about these kids, besides their faculty adviser and me. It was astonishing to me, and still is.
I keep waiting for all of the nonsense to resurface now that I’m publishing YA fiction. I’d even considered using a pseudonym to distance the YA stuff from “gay porn writer” Greg Herren—but finally decided to just say ‘fuck it.’ If the right-wingers want to get up in arms about me writing YA, be my guest—they have that right, after all. But I really don’t care what they do or say about my work—especially when they haven’t read any of it. I. Don’t. Care. If they want to think I’m a bad influence on teenagers, that’s fine. But I also have the right to think they’re imbeciles, and ignore them. The opinions of idiots have never really mattered to me.
The protagonists of your two murder mystery series, Chanse and Scotty, couldn’t be more different. Was that intentional on your part? How do you treat writing the Chanse novels differently from the Scotty series? Or do you?
Yes, it was very intentional. There was so much about them that was already similar—New Orleans, gay, 29 years old, etc.—that I wanted them to be completely different people, as much as humanly possible. Why write the same series twice? When I signed with Kensington to do the Scotty series, Alyson dropped the Chanse series, saying the two series were too similar. I saw that as a challenge—“Oh, yeah? I’ll show YOU different.” Alyson did change their minds and eventually continued the Chanse series, and I take a lot of satisfaction from the fact the two series are so vastly different.
One of my favorite things about the Chanse and Scotty series is Venus Casanova. Any chance she (or any of your other secondary characters) could become a main character in their own right?
In the pre-Katrina world, I’d intended to not only give Venus her own series, but Paige from the Chanse series as well. I really like Venus. When I wrote Bourbon Street Blues I was under the impression the Chanse series wasn’t going to continue, so I wrote Venus and Blaine into the Scotty series, and was going to write Paige into the second book. I’ve also thought about giving Colin his own series—a gay superspy would be fun to write about, I think. And of course the Ninja Lesbians are enormously popular. Occasionally, I think about the Venus novel I wanted to write, and I may still go back to it at some point. One of my publishers was interested in it…of course that was years ago. I never rule anything out.
The Scotty series took a decidedly dark turn with Mardi Gras Mambo. Scotty is a very different person at the end than he was at the beginning. It was interesting to me that this took place before your writing started addressing Hurricane Katrina. Was it ever an option for you to continue writing without incorporating the aftermath of Katrina?
I decided to take the Scotty series in a darker direction, and that decision was made long before Katrina. I wanted to use Scotty to show that no matter how awful things might get, no matter what kind of blows you take in life, if you stay positive and keep your head up you will get through it—and you don’t have to sacrifice who you are to survive, either. Scotty’s changed and grown up because of things that have happened—he might see himself as damaged now, but I don’t. His core of ethics, the integrity of who he is—his innate inner kindness—is still there.
As for Katrina, in the months after I wondered if I could keep writing about New Orleans and pretend it never happened. But if I pretended that my New Orleans was a fictional fantasy-land where Katrina never happened, I would lose the basic kernel of truth the books spring from. And in that same period, I came to realize that the pre-Katrina books I’d written had preserved for all time a way of life that no longer existed—gay life in New Orleans from 1998–2005. And I realized that writing about post-Katrina New Orleans was a way of using fiction to preserve what we went through.
One thing that never changed was how much I love New Orleans, and that will never change. And that’s where I’m coming from when I write about this city; I love it here. I can’t—and won’t—live anywhere else. And in the wake of the levee failure, there were obviously things that broke my heart—but I wanted to make it clear that I still loved the city—all of us still did. Love can hurt, too.
You’ve mentioned worrying about each series becoming stale and tired. How do you think you’ll know when enough’s enough?
I’ve noticed with other series that there seems to be a point where the author loses interest but keeps the series going for one reason or the other. (I could be wrong, but that’s my opinion.) I’m deathly afraid of that happening to me. I also was afraid for a long period of time that I would never get the opportunity to write things besides Chanse and Scotty; I’ve seen that happen with authors, too. I not only didn’t want to get locked into the two series, but I didn’t want to get pigeon-holed as a mystery writer. I have a million ideas, and any number of novels in various stages of completion stored away—horror, fantasy, science fiction, young adult, mystery, etc. I’ve been incredibly fortunate in always having several publishers interested in my work, and they’ve given me some amazing opportunities. And I think writing different things helps me with the two series.
But if I ever get bored, I’m pulling the plug. I don’t see how you can interest a reader in something you’re bored with.
You wear a lot of hats: novelist, short story writer, and editor. How did you come to be an editor for Bold Strokes Books?
Lord. I never intended to be an editor, but I’ve been one for going on twelve years now. My first editing gig was with a small local publication here in New Orleans that no longer exists, then I went to work as editor of Lambda Book Report, and I started editing anthologies while I was there. I edited for Bella Books for a year or so before getting a gig at the Haworth Press, which was sold in 2008 and the gay/lesbian fiction lines were excluded from the sale, and eventually closed down. At Saints and Sinners the next spring, I spoke to Radclyffe—Bold Strokes was starting to dip their toes in the water of gay fiction—and I pitched an anthology I’d done for Haworth that had never been published to her. She took it, and asked me if I’d be interested in being an editor for her. I’d pretty much decided I was done with editing after Haworth, but I never say no to an opportunity. I eventually took the Scotty series there, and now the Chanse series as well. I’m very happy there, frankly. It’s the best editing gig I’ve ever had. We’re doing some amazing work there—and I love discovering new authors.
What was it about working for Radclyffe and Bold Strokes Books that made you decide to edit for them, and bring your two mystery series there (apart from just not being able to say no)?
I met Radclyffe for the first time in 2005, I believe, and was very impressed with her, as a person and as a businesswoman. Seriously, it seemed like one day Bold Strokes sprang into existence and was everywhere in a split second. That’s pretty amazing—especially in a time when publishers are going bankrupt and shutting down left and right.
When I took the Rough Trade anthology there, I was pretty pleased with the entire process. It was incredibly smooth, and easy, and thoroughly professional. I’d always wanted to write at least one more Scotty novel—I really wanted to wrap up what I’d started in Mardi Gras Mambo—so I asked Radclyffe if she’d be interested in publishing it. She was, and there you have it. I was also incredibly pleased with how that all went as well… so when Alyson decided they no longer needed to honor my contracts, pay me my royalties, or any of the monies they owe me for the last two years, I decided to move the Chanse series there as well. The next Chanse comes out in December, and over the rest of this year or so the backlist will be brought back into print.
In the past you’ve said never again to editing anthologies, and yet you’ve helmed quite a few in the past year: Blood Sacraments, Men of the Mean Streets, and Wings, to name a few. So why again?
A very dear writer friend, Timothy J. Lambert, always makes fun of me because I will make a definite pronouncement about something and then a few days later will contradict myself completely. I guess the truth of the matter is I get annoyed with the anthologies because I always have to stop writing a book on a tight deadline to finish one—and when I finish I swear I won’t ever do it again. But it’s hard for me to say no to an anthology if the concept is one that interests me—and unfortunately I have a lot of interests. After I finished Wings I made that pronouncement yet again—and I have since agreed to do at least two more for sure, with a third possibility out there.
I do enjoy the anthologies, though. It’s always fun to work with other writers—the ones who aren’t fun I weed out—and I also like discovering new writers through anthologies.
You’ve found considerable success without an agent. Do you think that’s a reflection of the changing nature of the publishing industry, or is it simply easier for genre writers to find success without an agent?
When I was looking for an agent for my first book, I had just sold my first short story to an erotica anthology. I was corresponding with the editor, and one day I got my novel back in the mail with probably the most condescending and insulting rejection note anyone could get from an agent. I was literally shaking, I was so angry. When I checked my email a little later, I had one from the editor and I realized he was actually the editor-in-chief at the publisher—so I asked him if he’d be interested in Murder in the Rue Dauphine. He said yes, and six weeks later they bought it. And since then, I’ve published sixteen novels and ten anthologies, and over fifty short stories—all without an agent.
While I’ve managed to be quite successful and built a career without an agent, I will also say that it’s incredibly difficult to break into the Big Six in New York without an agent—well, I’d say impossible. My career is the exception that proves the rule, I think—and despite my own horrible experiences with agents, I wouldn’t advise NOT having one. If you are going to try, join writers organizations like the Authors Guild or Mystery Writers of America, where you can get contract advice and so forth from professionals.
I’m not going to ask you whether you worry about burnout, because I and anyone who reads your blog knows you do. My question: how do you avoid it, if at all? Failing that, how do you recover?
I always wonder how long I can keep up the pace I’m on—but the irony is the pace never slows; it actually picks up. Sometimes just thinking about it makes me tired, so I tend to not think about my pace. I just make a to-do list and plow through it every week.
I’m very lucky in having a wonderful, loving, supportive partner who not only understands my quirks and insanities, but also makes me laugh till I cry pretty much every night. My co-workers are also pretty amazing people, so they make going to the day job a joy. And I have the most amazing, awesome, wonderful friends. I am so lucky, really, and I also appreciate how lucky I am every day.
I am currently finishing a Todd Gregory novel, A Vampire’s Heart, and then I am doing the next Chanse novel, Murder in the Irish Channel. I am putting together a Todd Gregory anthology called Sweat, and this fall I am writing a mainstream novel a major agent is interested in representing. I am also collaborating on a romance novel AND an anthology with my friend Julie Smith, and I am contracted to write another YA, called Sara, and a romantic suspense novel, Timothy, for next year. My publisher for Todd Gregory wants me to submit proposals for two novels when I turn in this current manuscript, which is exciting. I also have another YA in mind for next year, and possibly another Scotty. Then there’s this horror anthology I want to do, a horror novel, and I might give the Venus novel a shot. And I really want to do a Colin novel…