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The Paternity Test (The University of Wisconsin Press) follows a contemporary gay couple as they attempt fatherhood. Author Michael Lowenthal poses a bevy of provocative questions: Can a child bandage a broken relationship? What ingredients make a suitable parent? Are we ever truly grown up enough to be authority figures? Lambda Literary sat down with Mr. Lowenthal and discussed what to expect when you long to be expecting.
Congratulations on your newest novel, The Paternity Test. It’s a quite a terrific read. Please tell us a bit about it.
Thanks! It’s always great to talk with you.
I distrust a novel that can be summarized in a sound bite, but my jokey, ten-second elevator pitch is that The Paternity Test is a 21st-century queer twist on the “having a baby to save the marriage” cliché.
The main characters are a gay couple who’ve lived the somewhat typical urban gay life in New York City: in the rebound from the worst of the AIDS years, they go clubbing and sleep around and have a gay old time. But it starts to get a little old, especially for Pat, the narrator. After ten years together, he starts to feel like he’s losing a grip on his boyfriend, Stu, who’s hooking up with guys online, etc. — but he’s not sure he can really complain, because their version of being gay has been predicated on being non-monogamous, nonconventional. This all coincides with some stuff going on in Stu’s family: his sister, whom the family has been counting on to make some babies, finds out she’s infertile. Stu’s father is a Holocaust survivor, and there’s a lot of pressure to keep the lineage alive, to raise a Jewish family, and all that. Put all this together, and what happens is that Pat and Stu decide to have a kid together. They leave the city, hoping to put all of their messy conflicts behind them, and move up to a quiet part of Cape Cod, where Pat’s family has a house. They basically try to hit the reset button on their lives together — in a similar way, maybe, that gay culture at large has been experimenting lately with redefining itself.
That’s mostly all just the background for the story, though. The plot really kicks into gear when they find a surrogate mother to carry their baby. Her name is Debora, and she’s a Brazilian immigrant, with a husband and a daughter of her own. The novel is about all of the tricky emotions and relationships among this unlikely grouping of people, as they face the challenges of trying to get pregnant. Because the gay couple needs an “outside party,” as it were, to carry their baby, and because she has a family of her own, you get an emotional triangle, then an emotional quadrangle. There’s a lot of built-in potential for drama. Pat starts to get especially close to Debora, and that’s when things start to get really complicated. Some early readers have told me that by the end it’s a bit of a page-turner. I hope so!
This book is extremely character driven. Your main players, Pat and Stu, lingered with me long after I closed the book. Certainly, they are flawed, fractured and questionable as caregivers? Do you think that any parent can be considered perfect, or even…satisfactory?
Well, I’m a typical gay momma’s boy, so I can say unequivocally that there is such a thing as the perfect parent: my mom! And my father and I, though we’ve had friction at times, actually have a solid relationship now. So I guess I’m lucky in that way — or maybe I’m really unlucky, since it often seems that to be a great novelist you have to have had a fucked-up childhood.
But of course there are disappointments and betrayals built in to any parent-child relationship, just because of the power dynamics involved, the necessary move from dependency to independence. In the novel, Pat talks about the “primal promise” that every parent inherently makes his child: “I’ll always be here for you.” And that’s a promise that pretty much inevitably has to be broken.
Your players catch “the baby bug.” It’s as if their male biological clocks begin to ring and scream and whine. Have you ever endured this in your personal life? Do you think this is common?
Remember those classic Penthouse Forum letters? “Dear Penthouse, I never thought it would happen to me, but . . .” Well, I never though it would happen to me! And then suddenly, a few years ago, I started getting all blubbery and googly-eyed whenever I was with kids. And I started thinking a lot more about what I will miss out on by not having them. The weird thing was, this really started to happen after I had written the first draft of The Paternity Test. I think in the initial draft, I had to fake the characters’ desire for kids, but by the final version I was able to draw more directly on personal emotions, and I hope that makes the story more authentic
Now that so many more gay men are having kids, I do think a lot of guys are feeling an urge that in earlier years they wouldn’t have let themselves feel — or that it wouldn’t have occurred to them to feel. But does feeling the urge to have kids, or feeling sad about not having them, mean you should have kids? Does it mean you’re emotionally equipped to? In the novel, I wanted to get past the baseline political arguments — anyone who wants the right to get married, to have kids, etc., obviously should have that right — and look at the more complicated emotional and cultural ramifications. Gay male culture has been so shaped for so long by a kind of unencumberedness. Liberation has often been equated with libertinism. And so I’m interested in how guys who’ve grown up in that culture, with that understanding of what it means to be gay, make the adjustment to this new emphasis on “gay family values.” If you’re going to be gay dads, do you have to repudiate the more carefree gay life, or can the two things coexist? Does having a sexually open relationship affect your ability to be a good gay “family man”? Once you’ve become used to separating sex from emotion — and from procreative consequences — as many gay men have, is it challenging to connect those things again?
When the Family Values Coalition asks these sorts of questions they are offensive, because they’re part of a homophobic crusade to deny us civil rights. But I think gay folks have been so scared of feeding in to the right-wing’s anti-gay arguments, so scared of giving them ammunition, that they have totally buried these questions and refused to consider them. And my dirty little secret is that I actually think the questions are compelling.
The Paternity Test exposes the logistics of conceiving a child via surrogate mother. I was floored by the emotional and financial strain involved. Did you embark on a great deal of research?
I did do a fair amount of research, mostly online. There’s a formalized surrogacy scene, with agencies and doctors and all that, and then there’s a much more DIY, democratized scene where people make direct connections — almost more like online dating — and I was especially compelled by the latter: it’s amazing to see how a relationship as significant and life-changing as carrying someone’s baby could be transacted in such a freelance sort of way. So I spent a lot of time on the surro message boards, getting a feel for that whole subculture and its lingo. And I also had some great phone conversations and e-mail exchanges with surrogates. I find that people are almost universally eager to talk to a stranger about their lives.
I do have friends who’ve had kids via surrogates, and I had planned to talk to them about their experiences, but somehow I never got around to it. I think I was worried about my writing life intruding on my friendship, and friendships are always more important to me.
The world of products required by modern children seems quite daunting. There is a do-hickey for everything! Do you know what a baby bouncer is?
A baby bouncer? Is that , like, some weird NAMBLA terminology? Sort of like “twink chaser”?
Halloween is on the horizon. When passing out candy to trick-or-treaters, do you dress up? If so, are you costumed in something silly or frightening?
The last time I dressed up for Halloween, I went as a U.S. postage stamp. To give you some idea of how long ago this was, I went as a first-class stamp, and it was a thirteen-cent Liberty Bell stamp. But I completely adore it when kids come trick-or-treating at my house. I always get all teary-eyed, especially because the kids in my neighborhood are gorgeously, gorgeously diverse.
I not only describe you as a wonderful writer, but also, a wonderful teacher. You were my mentor during my time at Lesley University’s Creative Writing MFA program. Do you enjoy being a creative and academic guide? Does this role feel paternal to you? And, was I your best student ever? Answer carefully, Michael.
Thank you for the sweet words. It was my privilege to work with you, because I knew right away that you would be . . . let me just check my files here . . . oh yes: The Best Student Ever. But seriously, I loved working with you, and in many ways I like teaching better than writing. For one thing, the rewards are so much more concrete and immediate. When I manage to help another writer make progress toward accomplishing his or her vision, I can see that progress — sometimes I can actually see it in a facial expression — in a way that I can never recognize my own. So I’m much more confident of my abilities as a teacher than as a writer — which, perversely, makes me much less comfortable describing or defining myself as a teacher, because I tend to distrust things that come naturally to me, or for which I’ve received positive feedback.
I never really planned on becoming a writing teacher or becoming part of the MFA system; I didn’t get an MFA myself. But when I was younger I was a summer camp counselor, and, at the risk of making what might seem like an absurd comparison, I think of that experience as my best training. There is something parental — or at least big-brotherly — about both camp counseling and teaching (even though some of my MFA students are older than I am), and that’s a big part of what I find so satisfying. Maybe it fills part of the gap in my life from not having children.
Our parents named both of us Michael. I was always bored by my name. I wanted to be a Damon, a Noah, even a Trent. Did you ever yearn for a different name?
Yeah, I’ve always been bored by Michael and Mike. I was named after my great-grandfather Max, and Max would have been much cooler, not to mention way ahead of the curve, since it got super-trendy about thirty years after I was born. For a while, my summer camp friends called me Butch. (Stop giggling.) I sometimes wish I had a really funky name. A few years ago I met a guy in Brazil whose name I still can’t stop saying to myself, because it just feels so good in my mouth: Ubirailton.
Can we hear you read from The Paternity Test anytime soon?
You can if you show up at one of my readings! (There’s a schedule of events posted on my Web site) Most of the readings are in the northeast, but I’m also really excited to be going to Wisconsin in November: to a book festival in Madison and to Daniel Goldin’s amazing bookstore, Boswell Book Company, in Milwaukee. Those events are four days after Election Day, so I hope we’ll be celebrating Paul Ryan’s tail-between-legs return to the Badger State.