Jim Provenzano: Muscle Memory
The love between teen boyfriends Reid Conniff and Everett Forrester is threatened when Everett suffers a disabling sports injury in Every Time I Think of You, the 2012 Lambda Award winning romance novel by Jim Provenzano (www.Jim Provenzano .org). It is a theme that Provenzano explored in his first novel, PINS (Myrmidude Press, 1999). I wondered what meaning sports injuries have for him personally, and for his work.
Provenzano said, “I think that having been injured lots of times—dance, wrestling, getting doored by cabs—just makes it a body memory I like to use in my writing. I have some people in my life who are wheelchair users, so it’s a blend of personal and others’ experiences.” He says, “I wrestled for 14 years and was a professional dancer for ten.” He competed in track and field as a teen and has recently resumed the sport. His reference to being “doored by cabs,” refers to his experience as a bicycle messenger in New York, fictionalized in Cyclizen (Myrmidude Press, 2007).
“PINS,” Provenzano says, “was a very close retelling of the story of Saint Sebastian, set in suburban New Jersey.” PINS explores the difficult coming of age of high school wrestling star, Joey Nicci, and his love for fellow wrestler, Dink, and the tragic consequences of homophobia in sports. Provenzano says that Joey, who suffers a serious neck injury, “had to act like a martyr. With both actual Catholic scenes and characters, it was obvious. Joey’s early injuries were the version of the saint’s arrow wounds, and near-death resurrection. Joey’s big final injury was the last big title symbol, more metaphoric.”
“For Every Time I Think of You,” Provenzano says, “I just impulsively decided to return to injury and take it beyond that point, more fully, without a mythos to follow. I want the story to expand to where we no longer see Everett as injured.” That’s exactly how the novel worked for me. Provenzano uses nature as a symbol of the naturalness of gay love, but I realized later that I hadn’t seen any larger significance in Everett’s sports injury and becoming disabled. Provenzano makes Everett’s disability something natural to him as a character.
Provenzano says, “I’ve also become more aware of wheelchair users and people with varying disabilities, and how many there have been in my life. So I want to now represent someone in an increasingly visible community. That’s a challenge. But, of course, I set it in the 1980s, so I’m doing a lot of research to find the differences decades ago. The hunt for specific non-anachronistic details leads me to create more easily.”
Provenzano wrote an internationally syndicated weekly sports column, “Sports Complex” for the Bay Area Reporter in San Francisco from 1996 to 2006. He says, “It was great to meet, interview, and photograph such a wonderful community. What sports journalism meant to me was providing hundreds of living examples of out gay people living healthy lives. And they’re very fascinating and photogenic as well.” Provenzano says he coined the terms, ‘sporn’ and ‘sporno,’ in the column, “And Mark Simpson (famous for inventing the term, ‘metrosexual’) later stole them.”
In 2006, Provenzano curated the GLBT Historical Society exhibit, “Sporting Life.” He says, “Sporting Life was GLBT Historical Society’s then-board member Don Romeburg’s idea. I was pretty much qualified as guest curator. I had interviewed most of the living subjects, and had a broad objective purview of the Bay Area LGBT sports scene at the time. But also, my stage carpentry skills came in handy, too, with my design. That was fun!”
Provenzano says, “Learning the histories, from people, archives and films, was such a treat. We had nearly three thousand visitors. Nearly every local sports organization held receptions. The exhibit became a sort of kiva for the gathering of these various tribes. That’s why we had oars placed over the top awning.” Provenzano and Don Frazell directed a trailer for the exhibit that features amazing archival footage of LGBT sports figures. Provenzano is currently working on a photo book that he says, “will include a lot of my sports photography.”
The clarity of action in the high school wrestling sequences in PINS shows Provenzano’s writing muscularity. He says, “That was a lot of actual muscle memory. I also wrote some passages while standing up, to go over moves. It became a fun task, to describe the matches differently, almost like choreographing dances.” PINS was adapted for the stage and the stage version has been produced in San Francisco and Chicago.
Provenzano thinks that the homophobia that’s associated with sports is changing, but the reasons behind it have “filled entire books like Toby Miller’s,” he says, referring to Miller’s Sportsex (Temple University Press, 2001). “But,” Provenzano says, “since athletics are about bodies in motion, sometimes not altogether clothed, it’s a delicate environment, even the rougher sports. Being out and gay is perceived perhaps by homophobes as breaking that wall, the primal issues of masculinity and gender roles are being forced to change.”
The sex scenes in Every Time I Think of You were perhaps an even more difficult accomplishment than the sports writing in PINS. I appreciated that Provenzano didn’t make a fetish of the disabled character’s sexuality, while allowing Everett to have a sexuality. Provenzano says, “As with PINS, the reason Every Time’s not a Young Adult title is the inclusion of plumbing. I want to be honest about what happens with the body in sex and other functions. The first questions people want to ask about disability are explored, and then some. Reid and Everett’s desire to work around the changes are the intriguing part. It is natural.”
Though both PINS and Every Time I Think of You are about gay adolescents who are discovering their sexuality, neither of them deals with the familiar theme of familial homophobia. In both novels the boys’ families are loving and accepting of the boys’ sexuality, if difficult to live with for other reasons. Provenzano says that this was both his lived reality and part of his writing strategy. He said, “I want to expand young adult stories beyond just coming out. Plenty of other authors have horrid real and fictional childhoods.”
Accident and death are also a constant threat in Provenzano’s Cyclizen, pointing towards the demise of New York’s gay culture in the ashes of the Twin Towers, and possibly an even larger cosmic significance. Provenzano likewise invokes this cosmic sense with his use of Egyptian imagery in Monkey Suits (Myrmidude Press, 2003).
Monkey Suits follows the lives and loves of a group of ‘cater waiters’ in the midst of the early emergence of AIDS activism, whereas Cyclizen is something of a sequel that explores the petering out of the same movement in the growing assimilationism of the gay 90s among a group of bicycle messengers.
Provenzano discussed his use of mythology to tell these two stories set in recent history, “I think of those two novels as my ‘before’ and ‘after’ ACT-UP companions, which, of course, involve mortality, lots of it. Fictionalizing the ‘during’ wouldn’t work for me, because it was so amazing as reality. Realizing the right underlying stories aided plot development, but also a more select palate.”
“For example,” Provenzano says, “Monkey Suits starts and ends at the Temple of Dendur” in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. He says, “It just made sense to reference The Pyramid Lounge, and use limited colors; black, white, clay-brown. The sense of mortality in both ancient Egypt and Manhattan seemed similar. I’d also previously produced a dance-performance work with the same themes, and used a lot of 4AD music.”
“With Cyclizen,” Provenzano said, “the comparison between three tribes, bike messengers, activists and centaurs, fit as well. Technology made the first two almost obsolete, streetwise. As for the centaurs, if you look at the seemingly paper-thin plot, I weave in some of their mythological stories; crashing a wedding, fighting with Hercules, etcetera. I never started with the mythological themes. They just showed up later. For PINS, it was purely Catholic, which, of course, I consider another myth as well.”
Though set in the Reagan and ACT-Up eras, the economic messages of Monkey Suits and Cyclizen are as contemporary as the Occupy movement. There is a hopefulness in the ACT-Up demonstration in Monkey Suits and in the critical mass at the end of Cyclizen that is lacking in today’s gay culture, even as our political advances are possibly more significant.
Provenzano said, “There’s still lots of hopeful herding. I have to include a glimmer of light in my writing. People are making political advances that are noticeable, but not in real space. That doesn’t make for good fiction, however. How it changes peoples’ lives, will. I hope to see out gay Marine stories, and lesbian politician novels that are probable, because now they are.”
Sarah Schulman has recently said that the gay push towards assimilation to straight culture has made gay life boring. Who’d have guessed back in the day that our major political objective would be marriage! Yet, for example, in the relationship between Brian and Ed in Monkey Suits it seems that Brian uses the lack of legal recognition of their relationship as a justification for non-commitment, i.e. “It’s not like we’re married.”
Provenzano said, “Brian’s justification for non-commitment was that he was a slut. Brian was the fire sign character among the four elements. I had some critiques that the primary character, Lee Windham, was weak. But that was intentional. He’s the wind sign. Each of these characters was incomplete, until they interacted.” He says, “This is just another example of how symbolism sometimes plays into my novels.” Provenzano says, “As to commitment; with my published books, so far I haven’t written from a more mature perspective, with longer relationships. The characters in the published books are still learning how to love.”
Provenzano got sixty agent and publisher rejection letters for PINS, but he says, “It was good to get a lot of rejection letters, because it gave me time to improve the manuscripts.” Still he says the rejections gave “me the hint” to self-publish the book. He says, “I got tired of waiting for someone else’s approval.”
“With PINS,” Provenzano says, “I did it the old-fashioned way; started a DBA, hired a printer, a professional editor, arranged wholesale deals in advance. For a time I had cartons of books shaped like a sofa, and UPS at my door every day.” (Now who’d complain about that?) Provenzano says that he has almost sold out the entire original 6,000 print run of PINS and has made a living for the past three years based on the profits from the book. He says, “It was a great challenge, but also wonderful to see aspects of the book industry demystified.”
“With the subsequent books,” Provenzano says, “I chose Print On Demand, smaller budgets and less promotion. They each made three times the cost, so I was happy. I don’t have a large corporation buying group ad campaigns or going to book expos and making wholesale deals. But there are still opportunities to find an audience.”
Has being a self-published author affected the critical response to his work? “I’m not sure,” Provenzano said. “I rarely bother larger publications for reviews, and prefer to focus on regional LGBT media. I have no problem specializing in the gay market. But I think the Lambda Literary Award will be an intro for those in larger media to take notice.”
Provenzano enjoys the innovations of e-publishing, he says, “Part of the push to finish Every Time was also to force myself to continue adapting. I like doing all the online stuff, designing the covers, blogging, almost as much as writing the books themselves.” Plus, he says, “The Kindle and Nook editions of my books, new and old, are outselling print almost five to one. It’s great. Fewer trees get killed—pretty neat, considering Every Time’s themes!”
But Provenzano says, “I still want to support independent bookstores, and offer them better deals via consignment, because P.O.D. is not economical enough for them. They’re the ones that helped me out when I was starting off, so it’s just proper to give back, when they’re open to selling or hosting an event.” Provenzano celebrated his 20th anniversary living in San Francisco on June 18, with a shared reading at the GLBT History Museum with fellow gay authors, Lewis DeSimone (Chemistry, Lethe Press, 2006) and Michael Alenyikov (Ivan and Misha, Northwestern University Press, 2010), moderated by poet James J. Siegel, director of Guy Writers, an arts organization that celebrates the literary work of gay men in the San Francisco Bay Area. “How gay is that?” Provenzano says.
Currently, Provenzano says that he is working on a sequel to his Lambda Award winner, Every Time I Think of You. He said, “I never thought of doing one, but there’s already a lot more going on with these guys. I’d written an epilogue, but it turned into a summary of a sequel, I realized, so I cut it from the first book. I have more books on deck, but this is the most fun.”