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Before delving into any of Tom Spanbauer’s books, it is best to take note of the two central principles of his school of Dangerous Writing:
1) What makes writing dangerous is something personal, very small, and quiet… to go to parts of ourselves where there is an old silence, where it is secret, where it is dark and sore… to go to where we’ve never gone before, writing down what scares the hell out of us. Eventually to the very foundation and structure of how we perceive, and in this investigation, we can challenge old notions of who we are.
2) When you meet someone for the first time, be kind, and look them in the eye. Everyone has a battle raging inside of them.
—Spanbauer, quoted at a Dangerous Writing Workshop, Esalen Institute, June 2007
In I Loved You More, Spanbauer deftly executes these two Dangerous Writing principles. Compared to his previous novels, one senses that I Loved You More was the most difficult and painful for him to write. For the first time, Spanbauer expresses his personal struggle coping with HIV/AIDS through narrator and main character Ben Grunewald. It is also the first book where Spanbauer addresses bisexuality. Unlike Spanbauer’s traditional naïve, sweetly bashful protagonists, Ben is an unapologetic sixty-year-old who admits that sometimes he hates people who don’t have to worry about dying. While Ben is no angel, Spanbauer gives him grace and soft eloquence, with a touch of burnt tongue, that will make the reader want to be kind and look him in the eye while he reminisces.
Spanbauer’s main characters typically fall in love with people who are often seen as culturally “taboo” in some way—an African American drag queen in The City of Shy Hunters, a Native American man accused of pedophilia in Now is the Hour. While out and proud Ben Grunewald cannot resist telling the story of his first love and blood brother in Idaho, Native American Ephraim Owlfeather, Ephraim remains in Idaho while Ben moves to New York City. It is there, while working odd jobs and taking writing classes, that Ben encounters striking—but straight—author and writing teacher Hank Christian. Spanbauer’s writing advice, inherited from his mentor Gordon Lish, now is channeled through the macho, working class Italian Christian, who shouts “Latinate!” when Ben tries to hide behind fancy words when describing the complexities of love, sex, and relationships. No good old Anglo-Saxon word will do for Ben when he wants to talk about attraction; only “propinquity” will do. Propinquity delights and challenges; it can lead to pleasure or trouble. Ben spends most of his life negotiating his propinquity for men as well as women.
Ben has three “men” inside of him who guide his behavior—the macho Big Ben, the anxious Little Ben, and the Running Boy when he is overwhelmed by fear. Hank, while he never says so outright, is guided by similar spirits. Both Ben and Hank must negotiate all the ins and outs of gay and straight male etiquette, from figuring out who holds the door open for whom to how to dress when you go to a gay bar. While Hank is willing to step over some heteronormative boundaries with Ben, he is still primarily attracted to women, and so Hank and Ben bounce in and out of their relationship. Hank marries, has a son, and gets divorced, while Ben meets different men, engages in casual sex and substance abuse with them, and gets sick. At the lowest point in his life, Ben meets Ruth, a beautiful woman who cares for him while he is sick. Ben falls in love with Ruth. Then Hank, dying from cancer, shows up again. How will it all end up? Totally gay Ben Grunewald opens and closes his looping narrative on love, relationships, and survival with this simple equation:
More than likely, you’re like me and think that something like this could never happen to you. That you could love a man, then love a woman—two extraordinary people, two unique ways of loving, from different decades, on different ends of the continent, and what happens is something you could never in a million years have planned. There you are the three of you, dancing the ancient dance whose only rule is with three add one, if not, subtract. If three doesn’t find four, three goes back to two.
—Tom Spanbauer, I Loved You More
Bisexuality is one of the last taboos in the LGBT and heterosexual worlds. Religion, the media, and the American legal structure only recognize committed relationships between two people, with the assumption that each person is only attracted to one sex or the other, but not both. Although Kinsey had established long ago that a significant percentage of Americans are bisexual, those who identify as bisexual are often condemned as “experimenters” who are incapable of commitment, or “not really queer” if they are engaged in monogamous heterosexual relationships. A clumsier writer would clutter up a story about a gay man simultaneously in love with a “straight” guy and a woman with denial and angst; Spanbauer simply unpacks imagery, events, and dialogue without judgment, allowing the reader to come to their own conclusions. If anything, I Loved You More provides an empathic view of bisexual relationships as the most natural in the world, perhaps the most generous expression of love and shared strength for the survival of humanity.
Tom Spanbauer. (2014).
Wexelbaum, R. (2008, Spring). Dangerous writing. Lambda Book Report, 16 (1/2), 44
Wexelbaum, R. (2009). “Tom Spanbauer.” Encyclopedia of Contemporary LGBTQ Literature of the United States, Volume 2, ed. Emmanuel S. Nelson.
I Loved You More
By Tom Spanbauer
Hardcover, 9780986000782, 468 pp.