Patricia Nell Warren: The pioneer
Late last year, while doing a book signing at the Palm Springs Pride celebration, a woman ambled up to me and asked how my signing was going. She was utterly charming, and during our conversation about signings, glbt-themed fiction, and the pride celebration, I realized I was talking to Patricia Nell Warren, author of The Front Runner and several other fantastic gay-themed books.
Like most gay men of my generation, I have been a fan of her writing since the early eighties when I first read The Front Runner. In fact, that book changed the way I viewed myself as a gay man, and it inspired me to want to write gay-themed fiction. I’ve come across several life-changing books in my travels, but TFR was the first, and perhaps the most inspirational.
During her visit, I somehow found the nerve to ask if she would do an interview with me. She graciously agreed and asked me to contact her after the New Year. Well I did, and the following interview is the result. And yes, she’s as captivating in person as her answers to my questions suggests.
AC: When did you start writing and how many novels have you published?
PNW: I started writing when I was 10 years old, and first published professionally when I was 18 (meaning I got paid). This was when I won the Atlantic Monthly’s 1954 College Fiction Contest and they published the story in a special supplement. Since then, I’ve done seven novels and one nonfiction book.
AC: Was there someone in your family, a teacher, or perhaps a favorite book, that inspired you to begin writing?
PNW: My whole family loved books, and collected an impressive library at the Montana ranch where I grew up – from weighty tomes in German that my greatgrandmother brought from the old country, to all the English-language classics and bestsellers of the World War II era. I grew up reading stuff like Winston Churchill’s Blood, Sweat and Tears, and anything that Eleanor Roosevelt wrote (I adored her). When I read Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom, I didn’t miss the fact that they adored men.
AC: What was the first story you ever wrote about?
PNW: The short story at age 10 was about a wild horse who jumped off a cliff rather than be roped and corralled by horse-hunters. Definitely my first statement about freedom.
AC: Who are the authors who most influence you today?
PNW: I do a lot of history writing these days, so I really admire writers who dig into an already-chewed-over subject to find fresh material. For instance, I loved Calamity Jane: The Woman and the Legend, by James D. McLaird, which I read while researching Calamity for my “women in rodeo” piece for OutSports. McLaird did a masterful job of showing us the real human face of a woman who has had a lot of myth-making makeup jobs done on her.
AC: Do you need to be in a specific place or atmosphere before the words flow?
PNW: Naturally it’s nice to get up at 6 a.m. (my brain is still on ranch time), brew coffee, make the rounds in my garden, then go to my laptop and put in 3 solid hours before the phone starts ringing. But I can work pretty much anywhere if I have to – a skill that I learned by working in a busy New York media office for 20 years.
AC: What’s the strangest source of inspiration you’ve found for a story?
PNW: Sometimes the strangest thing is that you didn’t know it was an inspiration till many years later. For instance, when I was writing the original “Lavender Locker Room” series for Outsports.com, I was wishing I knew a boxer. Suddenly I realized that I had known a boxer – German contender Wilhelm von Homburg, whom I had met in L.A. after he retired from the ring — and hadn’t heard from him for many years. On googling him, I learned that Wilhelm had died a few months previously. But it was possible to dig out the story through German online sources, interviews of a film producer who worked with him, and my personal memories of things he shared about himself. I think it’s one of the best pieces in the book.
AC: Was The Front Runner your first novel with gay characters, and what was the inspiration behind Billy and Harlan’s story?
PNW: Actually my first such novel was the original version of The Wild Man, which I started writing in the late 1960s, when I was still in and out of Spain. I gave it my best shot, but wasn’t writer enough or out enough to pull it off. So the project got put aside for what turned out to be 30 years.
The Front Runner story started to gel for me after I spent several years in long-distance running, then the first “extreme sport” to become popular with Americans. This was in the late 60s and early 70s. I was one of the women activists who got the AAU to change the women’s rules, so we could run any distance over 2 ½ miles. I wasn’t out then, but I did start bump into other closeted people in the sport. The moment came when I realized it could make a novel. My original idea was a lesbian coach and her lesbian runner trying to get to the Olympics – but after a few chapters I realized this would not seem very real to readers, since there were NO women track coaches at the time. So I changed the main characters to men.
AC: Were the sequels, Harlan’s Race and Billy’s Boy, as popular with gay and lesbian readers as The Front Runner?
PNW: Both were on the LGBT bestseller list for a long time in the 1990s, and they still sell well today. But neither have racked up the record that TFR has. Harlan’s Race was a hard story for some people to choke – they thought it was too dark, and they didn’t get it about gay Vietnam veterans. It’s amazing how biased some of our own people are, against LGBT people who serve our country.
AC: Many critics have proclaimed your novel, The Wild Man, as your finest literary effort to date. Would you agree with that?
PNW: Yes. Writing the historical novel One Is the Sun in the 1980s was a big creative watershed for me – it radically changed the way I approach material, and taught me how to texture more deeply. Without OITS, I couldn’t have written Wild Man. But TWM is a better piece of writing.
AC: You’re latest book, The Lavender Locker Room, has garnered several excellent reviews. Can you tell us about it?
PNW: I started by writing the articles as a series for Outsports.com, where they were posted on an ongoing basis. By the time I had 17 or 18 pieces, I realized they could be an anthology. I do have my favorite sports (equestrian, soccer, track & field, endurance events). But I also challenge myself to cover sports that never appealed to me personally – like football. After I wrote about Dave Kopay and Bayard Rustin’s history-making stint in high-school football (he did his first civil-rights activism there), I found I could really get into football.
Volume 2 of TLL is in progress – some of the pieces are posted at Outsports.com under “gay sports history.”
AC: Do you prefer writing non-fiction over fiction, or does it make any difference at all?
PNW: Great question. Having spent my whole life in the media, I’ve learned that the idea of a line between fiction and nonfiction is – well, fiction. Trying to separate them is a little like trying to separate two twins who are conjoined at the brain. They’re two sides of the same coin.
Every novel has its genesis in the writer’s real-life experience in some way. Likewise, there is very little nonfiction that hasn’t been fictionalized to at least a small degree – if only to shape and organize the material. In One Is the Sun, I fictionalized a complex real-life oral-tradition story that I was told by Indian relatives of mine – and was confronted with the need to fill in some blanks. So fiction was the best way to tell the story and get the point across.
I enjoy doing both genres because I can use all my life experience for both of them.
AC: So, if you don’t mind sharing, would you tell us about your latest work in progress?
PNW: I’m doing another anthology called My West – a collection of short pieces about the American West that I’ve written over the course of 50 years. It covers quite a number of subjects, from rural to urban to religion to politics to ethnicity, and of course sexual orientation. In fact, I was inspired to leap into this project by The Autry National Center of the American West when they accepted the two Brokeback Mountain cowboy shirts into their collection of clothes worn in great Western films. Our stubborn survival in a “red state” region is a subject whose time has come. The book will be out from Wildcat Press later this year.
AC: Out of all the stories you’ve written, which is your favorite and why?
PNW: That’s hard to say – each of my writings is important to me in some way. I do have a special thing for The Wild Man because it was such a battle to write.
AC: Name a book or movie written by someone else that you wish you had written, and why that one?
PNW: I don’t look at writing that way. There’s no way I could own somebody else’s experience, which is the wellspring out of which we all write. For example, I admire Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain” but I don’t wish I had written it – because I write about gay cowboys my own way.
AC: If you could offer one tidbit of advice for new writers, what would it be?
PNW: This is a tough time to be a writer. The book business is in major trouble, because it is based on retail sales, and retail sales are being slammed by the recession. Also, the world is crossing a technological horizon in publishing, with e-books. Because of television and movies and the Web, people reading habits are changing. It isn’t just that they’re reading less – their attention span and the way they mentally process stuff that they read – is also changing.
So the new writers are going to run into all kinds of obstacles and discouragements – not only to find a publisher, but find their readership, and keep it. I would tell them to never give up.
AC: What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
PNW: I love to read and study what I’m working on. I also love to garden, cook, and hang out with my friends and my cat. My entertainment tastes run to documentary films, though I do admit that I cried all the way through Avatar.
AC: Had you not become an accomplished writer, what other occupation would you have most liked to tackle?
PNW: Probably ranching or farming, though these are daunting and heartbreaking occupations today. It’s tough to make a living there. Or I might have been involved in horse sports on a full-time basis.
AC: Do you enjoy writing, I mean, do you find it fun?
PNW: To me, writing is the greatest fun.
AC: What, more than anything else, fills you with rage?
PNW: As a non-Christian, I am outraged that the religious right would like to wipe out everybody on the planet who doesn’t believe as they do. I am very concerned at what the New Apostolic Reformation is doing in Africa, because this part of the world is where they’re perfecting their MO, which is the creation of governments that are “purpose-driven” (Rick Warren’s phrase). Wait till they introduce something like the Uganda anti-gay bill in our own Congress. And they will if they take back control of Congress and the White House.
AC: Can you tell us something about the place you call home?
PNW: At home here, I like to keep things simple. After years of moving many times, I don’t own a lot of “stuff.” My enjoyment of the place is more in the trees and flowers I planted around it, the people that come and go – and of course the daily dance with words.
AC: Anything else you’d like to share?
PNW: Your support of other LGBT writers and writing is much appreciated. The more we all stick together, the better chance we have of coming out of the recession with “LGBT culture” intact.
Thank you, Patricia, both for taking the time to answer my questions and for contributing so much of yourself to the LGBT community.
Photo: John Selig