Men in Romance is a series of posts focusing on the various experiences and perspectives of men who write romance. Read more from this series here.
I’m both flattered and bemused by the opportunity to write a post for Men in Romance. When I try to imagine a typical romance writer, I envision the hysterically funny Matt Lucas on Little Britain portraying Dame Sally Markham, a character based on Dame Barbara Cartland. Dame Sally—an obese elderly woman with a silvery hairdo, dressed in pearls and an elegant pink gown—sprawls on a couch eating chocolates and dictating novels to her secretary.
Dame Sally and I have some silver in common—the dark brown beard of my younger days is about entirely ashed over—but otherwise I couldn’t present more of a contrast. I’m a stocky guy from the Appalachian Mountains of America. I wear baseball caps and denim jackets, camo pants and cowboy boots. I drive a pickup truck and savor country music. I was a liberal redneck before Trae Crowder was born (and if you don’t know Crowder’s “Liberal Redneck” Internet videos, you have to check them out, because they’re priceless.)
So I’m not a typical romance writer? Well, no. But that’s because there’s no such thing as a typical romance writer, as anyone with any sense already knows. I don’t really think of myself as a romance writer, though I don’t care all that much how other folks classify me. I started out as a poet, but almost all of my poems were about love and erotic desire, simply because writing is a way for writers to deal with the problematic areas of their lives. (Virginia Woolf, in “A Sketch of the Past,” talks about “the shock-receiving capacity” of a writer and suggests that we authors use our writing to deal with and make sense of shocks.) I assure you that growing up gay in a small, isolated town in West Virginia, a place full of devout Christian homophobes, was problematic and full of shocks, including at least one punch to the face. Writing love poems about handsome boys I desired provided a much-needed outlet.
In the first few years of the 21st century, I expanded into writing prose, and almost all my fiction focuses on the same problematic elements my poetry does: same-sex relationships and same-sex desire. Because of this penchant, and because publishers need to categorize books in order to market them, I’ve become a writer not only of poetry and essays but erotica and romance. All three of my short-fiction collections are classified as “Erotica,” as is my first novel, Fog, and my other four novels—Purgatory, Cub, Salvation, and Country—are labeled “Romance.”
In one respect this is inconvenient, because I’m a professor in the English Department at Virginia Tech, and I assure you that snooty academics do not take erotica or romance novels seriously. They dismiss both as “mere genre writing” which, in their eyes, precludes any possibility that such work might contain sufficient skill, thought, style or emotion to be “literary.” In that world, I feel dismissed, and that profoundly pisses me off. But other than that, if labeling my books as romance and erotica gets them a simpatico audience and makes money for Lethe Press, the folks kind enough to publish me, then label away.
My novels are, I think, pretty different from a lot of gay romance that’s written, and why they’re different is related to that self-description of mine included in the second paragraph of this post. Because almost all of what I read is research for what I write (in the last decade, I gobbled up Civil War history, and now I’m researching the Vikings), I don’t read a lot of gay romance, but I gather that much of it is about young, fit, smooth-shaven men who live in urban areas. I’ve never been one of those men, I’m not attracted to those men, and I know so little about them that depicting them in fiction would require a lot of research. Besides, I’d rather write about what I am, what I love, and what I know.
This means that nearly all the settings I use are small towns or rural areas. I’ve spent my life in the mountains of Virginia and West Virginia, and I’m thankful for that. Cities are fun to visit for a few days, but they get on my nerves, and I would never live in one. I don’t like crowds, traffic, and noise, and I don’t care about the cultural opportunities cities offer. The places I like to write about are small towns in West Virginia like Hinton (my hometown), a prime setting in Cub, or Helvetia, which appears in Country; or the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia and the Allegheny mountains in Salvation and Purgatory. I want to live in places with trees, meadows, hills, and streams, and I want to write about them too.
All my protagonists are Southerners and Appalachians, like me and like the men I’ve always found desirable. They’re masculine, hairy guys with beards (“bears,” to use common gay parlance), guys with strongly built, occasionally plump bodies. Their values are like mine: laid-back and rural. They drink a lot; they cuss a lot; they love downhome cooking; they love the countryside, and, yes, their pickup trucks. Outsiders might call them (and me) rednecks and hillbillies, but my characters are more complex that the stereotypes those words evoke. They’re also gay. They’re intelligent, thoughtful, and loyal. They feel deeply. They detest the nasty intolerance of fundamentalist Christianity. They’re fond of and respect women (especially butt-kicking lesbians). Despite not living in an area that’s all that racially diverse, they’re just fine with black folks and other ethnic minorities. In fact, as gay guys and mountain men, they feel a kinship with other marginalized groups.
I’m glad to be a spokesperson for mountaineer queers in the world of gay romance. Not enough of us Appalachians have been depicted positively or accurately in fiction, and I’m happy to be writing us into the narrative. After all, we hairy hillbillies and Appalachian bears need love, sex, and romance too. We also need literature in which we can see ourselves.
Please note: all opinions and statements expressed are those of the author and not of Open Ink Press LLC or its affiliates.