Romance and Religion: Anne Brooke and Dennis Paul Stradford
Author: Dick Smart
March 28, 2013
Since the major religious festivals of the Spring Equinox cycle are underway I thought I’d take a look at two romance writers whose Christian faith informs their writing. G. K. Chesterton wrote, “The very word ‘romance’ has in it the mystery and ancient meaning of Rome.” But this mystery can have a sinister aspect as well as a revelatory one and for the writers I spoke with, Anne Brooke and Dennis Paul Stradford, both meanings are present.
I “discovered” British Male/Male romance writer Anne Brooke when she was featured in Geoffrey Knight’s Why Straight Women Love Gay Romance (MLR Books, 2012). She intrigued me because she described writing gay erotic romance as a way of “coming out” to fellow Christians. Two of her books were already on my way too long Amazon wish list—Where You Hurt the Most (Riptide Publishing, 2012) and A Stranger’s Touch (Amber Allure Press, 2010). Since then I’ve bought those and several others by Brooke.
When I asked her how her faith influenced her as an M/M romance writer, Brooke replied, “I think my faith is always there—it’s a part of who I am and how I see myself so it can’t help but appear in what I write as well. That said, I don’t class myself as a writer of Christian fiction, as I believe life is actually a lot more complicated than that.”
As far as her books are concerned, she said, “I think a lot [of them] focus on a spiritual or personal journey for the main character or characters—like them, I’d probably see myself as a loner seeking something. For me, I find a hint of that something in Christ, but I don’t want all my characters to have the same experience. I hate pushing my faith on other people so why should I do it with the people I’m writing about?”
In The Bones of Summer (Dreamspinner Press, 2009) struggling London model Craig Robertson, who is haunted by his first lover’s mysterious disappearance seven years prior, returns to his rural Devon roots to confront the ghosts of his fundamentalist past. He is assisted in this journey of self-discovery by his new love, private eye Paul Maloney. Maloney also appeared in Brooke’s bestseller, Maloney’s Law, which is being reissued by Amber Allure in April 2013.
“At heart, I think both Maloney’s Law and The Bones of Summer are very positive about faith and spiritual pathways,” Brooke explained. “Both Paul and Craig have their own beliefs which they express in ways that are important to them, though they may not fit in with the church structures they have experience of. Love is a key issue in their lives, and also loyalty, trust and friendship—all of which are gifts from God, in my view.”
By writing about Craig’s fundamentalist youth, “I was exorcising my own demons,” Brooke said. “In my mid-twenties, I went through a very bad time in the evangelical church I worshipped at, and felt as if my beliefs were being impossibly squeezed into a shape they just wouldn’t go in. At one point, I even told God that enough was enough, and I wasn’t a Christian anymore, as I simply couldn’t be one. Today I believe God took me through that time, which was incredibly tough, so I could walk away from that particular church tradition and find Him afresh in another and in a more fulfilling way. Of course, God might now be saying the same thing to me when it comes to the Church of England, but that’s an issue I still need to give some serious thought to.”
Brooke is referring to her own activism for gay and women’s rights in the Anglican Church. “I wouldn’t describe myself as an activist,” she said. “Certainly, I make my views known online, and have been in correspondence with both the local Bishop and my MP about women in the church and gay marriage rights.” Brooke has found that, “the misogyny and homophobia within the Church of England increasingly galls me. It’s not showing me the Christian God I want to follow, and that’s deeply upsetting.”
Nonetheless, Brooke keeps searching. “I find church extremely difficult and God a mystery. Then again, maybe I’m living proof that you don’t have to be a team player or understand one iota of what God is about to be a Christian. I definitely don’t know the answers, and I’m not even sure what some of the questions mean!”
Though Brooke mentioned that, “I don’t believe I’m the sort of Christian who’s any kind of an example to anyone,” for me she’s been an important witness that I do not have to divide my life between my gayness and my faith. I confess that as a gay romance reviewer I sometimes wonder if some of the steamier sex scenes I am reading are subject matter for an examination of conscience.
On the topic of sex, Brooke said, “Let’s be honest. Sex is fun—who wouldn’t want to write about it? Beyond that, writing about sex makes me feel fully human and alive, as sex is part of who we all are.” She added that as a writer, “What matters more is that the sexual content is right for the work in question and I’m doing the best job of describing it that I can, because those are the abilities I believe God has given me. God doesn’t have an issue with sex or writing it.”
Part of Brooke’s self-discovery as a writer of gay erotic romance was her acceptance of her “male voice.” “I felt very guilty about how much I thought about sex, and how male the voice in my head always was, and still is.” She explained that as an evangelical, “I thought that was wrong and tried to deny or ignore it. When I began writing gay fiction, that voice in my head became ever stronger and I’ve grown to understand that it’s part of who I am and part of the way God made me, and I’ve come to rejoice in it. It’s interesting that becoming a writer in this way helped me free up how I express and live out my faith, and vice versa. I do also think that the more I write in that gay male voice, the more important equality, women’s rights and GLBTQ rights become to me. So it’s a ‘coming out’ both as a writer and a person, for me.”
Brooke is a busy writer. Along with the reissue of Maloney’s Law from Amber Allure in April, Pink Champagne and Apple Juice, a romantic straight comedy set in a gay nightclub, will be out from Musa Publishing later in 2013; the bisexual thriller, Thorn in the Flesh, will be published later this year by Untreed Reads, and the second in her Gathandrian fantasy trilogy (featuring gay scribe Simon Hartstongue), Hallsfoot’s Battle, is due out shortly from Bluewood Publishing. All six of her popular Delaney gay erotic ménage stories will be published as a paperback collection in May from Amber Allure .
She claims that much of her writing life has been spent “working distinctly below the radar” since she feels that readers don’t quite know how to take her eclectic mix of erotic romance and literary fiction. “My husband reads a lot of my other work, but promises to read the gay erotic books as soon as he’s old enough to do so…” she joked.
For Lent, she said, “I was planning on giving up chocolate, but thought it would be too difficult. Instead, I have given up thinking bitchy thoughts about people and am trying to be nice instead.” For her chocolate plum cake recipe, go to http://www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/3393/prune-and-chocolate-torte, and for more Anne Brooke go to www.annebrooke.com.
San Francisco poet and performance artist, Lloyd Stensrud, recommended Dennis Paul Stradford to me and I quickly read his gay Catholic “romance” novels Blessed and Betrayed and the sequel, Betrayed and Redeemed (Wasteland Press, 2011 and 2013). When I asked for an interview, Stradford introduced himself as “a Christian who happens to be gay, Catholic, American, male, white and tall—all of which are God’s gifts and at the same time limitations by which I must work out a way to love myself, other people and life.” (Is tall and handsome a limitation?) Stradford “officially” left seminary one week before his ordination to the priesthood, although, he said, “I spent a year in a parish as a deacon.” This experience provided the background for his two novels about priestly gay love and betrayal that span the history of the modern church from the heady decade after Vatican II to the contemporary church of the 21st century. When I asked Stradford if the sexual encounters he writes about were based on real-life incidents in seminary, he replied, “Let’s just say that the most bizarre events were all true and only the mundane was made up.”
In his first novel, Blessed and Betrayed, Stradford’s protagonist and alter ego, Jim Steiner, is an earnest young seminarian and anti-war activist who falls in love with his fellow-seminarian, the ambitious and charming, Al Pevehaus. Al is a rising clerical star who betrays his love for Jim in his climb up the hierarchy of priestly power. Fast forward from the late 60s to the mid-2000s, and Father Jim is now a modest parish priest in a largely Hispanic parish in the South Bay and he’s in an long term relationship with a Catholic school teacher named David. Father Al is a San Francisco political power player with a nineteen-year-old lover, Billy Fernandez. Billy is an illegal immigrant who Father Al has been boinking since he was sixteen. Father Al wants to toss Billy aside in his quest to erect a new multi-million dollar cathedral in San Francisco and he puts Father Jim’s relationship with David at risk when he enlists him as the go-between when Billy threatens blackmail. It’s not exactly a spoiler alert to say that things don’t turn out well for Billy.
We continue to follow Billy’s story in the sequel, Betrayed and Redeemed, and Stradford said that Billy’s redemptive experiences of authentic love and faith “inspire him to be a priest,” that Billy’s story expresses “my hope for the Church. In each of my novels there are several characters who I hope make you want to be a Christian, who one feels loved by and who inspire one to live a real and authentic life. This is the real gift of Catholicism, that somehow within its very human and screwed up system, real sanctity can be found. These people are the only reason to hang around, and in my experience they are worth it.”
On the topic of writing and religion, he said, “I find it impossible to write characters and plots that don’t have the basic faith component embedded within. It always ends up being religious in one way or another because it is human, and I think every human is religious, even atheists. We all have our gods and our demons. Life is the drama of the battle between them that forms our character, our heartaches and our loves. That is what I find myself writing about.”
Like Anne Brooke, Stradford said that in his books, “I think the sexual content is not only justified but necessary. I would have put more sex scenes into the books, but I thought they might be redundant. Sex is one of our basic drives and creates a huge desire for connection with another human being. Some of us find the desires focused on people of our same sex, others not. This is how God works: through our desires.” He added, “I just hope that I wrote the sex scenes well enough to capture the desire, fear, courage and joy of experiencing sex, especially when one is young. It’s all part of the spiritual drama of our lives and God is constantly intervening to spur our growth toward love.”
Al’s seduction and betrayal of both Jim and the minor Billy in “Blessed and Betrayed” is about power more than sex, Stradford explained. “Some in the Church have tried to scapegoat homosexuals and the acceptance of the ‘homosexual lifestyle’ as the cause [for priestly sexual abuse]. My experience in the seminary and afterwards was that those who were gay dealt with it (whether they were celibate or freely had relationships and sex) and tried to continue with their ministry, like Jim does, and never preyed on children or teenagers. It was those who were in complete denial of their sexuality, who suppressed their every desire and convoluted their spiritual life to ‘pray away’ their sexual nature that wound up attacking children. For them it became a ‘power play,’ using their ‘holy priesthood’ as the tool.” Stradford also feels that the Church’s cover-up of the abuse “wasn’t just the institution trying to protect itself from bad publicity, but the heresy that the cult of the priestly class must be protected.”
He explained that, “For those on the inside of the priestly caste, the rules are different. So much bad behavior by priests—alcoholism, drug use, gambling, stealing, sexual impropriety and laziness—has always been excused by religious superiors. All these issues are expected to be dealt with in the confessional. As far as I know, there is no annual review of any priest’s performance or fitness for office such as you would find in any business or professional organization. Since there are no criteria for excellence or poor performance, and no review process, the only time issues rise to the attention of a bishop is when there is about to be a scandal. As there is a severe shortage of priests, problems just get moved around. Partly because of celibacy, the Church is obsessed with sex. Many of its teachings are all biologically sex based, which is so backward and anatomical that the hierarchy have become caught in a web of causation that makes them believe simple things are catastrophic, e.g. condoms might lead to gay marriage, which will lead to the end of procreation, the family, and ultimately the human race. Of course, if everyone was a celibate priest, we wouldn’t have these problems!”
The first step for reforming the Church is to end the cult of the priestly caste, Stradford believes. “I hope that the whole structure comes crashing down on itself. It could be a process, but steps in the right direction are first ordaining married men (whether gay or straight), ordaining women and then ordaining priests for only a set period of time, some five or ten years. I think requiring celibacy is a large part of keeping the priest ‘sacred.’ The hands that are consecrated with the sacred oil should touch the host and the crotch. All is sacred and God-made, each with a purpose.”
“I’ve started another book,” Stradford revealed, “about a gay twenty-something who gets out of drug rehab and winds up working as a gardener at a Trappist monastery. Things happen and he winds up falling in love with a monk and trying his hand at the monastic life. He soon finds out that leaving ‘the world’ does not mean leaving behind intrigue, crazy thinking, addictions, passions or one’s demons. If anything, it’s out of the frying pan, into the fire.” He is also planning a third book in the “Betrayed” series.
Stradford is a member of Guy Writers, a group of about ten gay men who meet once a month in San Francisco to workshop each other’s writing. “I love Christopher Isherwood and I think his writings have influenced my view of faith, sex and love.” He also admires the writing of Michael Cunningham and Edmund White; “I just hope I can learn to write as well as them.”
What did he give up for Lent? “Internalized homophobia! Actually not a joke. I am working with another gay man in my parish to do a short series on healing internalized homophobia, particularly that caused by the Church and Catholicism. I am hoping that through prayer, honest confession and forgiveness, I can heal some of the wounds that have kept me from loving others as much as my heart desires.”