A Conversation with Kevin Scott, author of THE BOYS IN THE BROWNSTONE
January 1, 1970Why did you decide to go from screenwriting to writing plays to writing fiction?
Somebody broke my neck. I was leaving a gay bar here in Manhattan when a guy who was leaving Scores, this straight strip club a few doors down, hauled off and hit me. With my neck in a cast, I couldn’t go to my playwriting group for several months. I started to write fiction. Maybe it was Demerol that gave me the courage. I’d always wanted to write sentences that people could get a kick out of. Nobody cares how witty your sentences are in a screenplay or a play—they’re just instructions for the actors and the director.
What are the pros and cons of working in each medium?
With screenplays and plays, you don’t control the final outcome. In my screenplay for the film Key Exchange, I included a character with AIDS – I think he would have been the first movie character with AIDS – but he never made it to the final cut. In my play Hide Your Love Away, the director and I agreed on four of the five actors. But the actress he cast, Cilla Black—the pop star who was a friend of Brian Epstein and the Beatles—seemed all wrong to me. Cilla was – is – she’s still a big star in Britain – essentially a comedian like Goldie Hawn or Carol Burnett. The actress he cast was determined to turn Cilla into some kind of Ingmar Bergman character – all angst and tortured past. Eventually, he had to fire her and hire the actress I wanted in the first place. But it was a nightmare for all concerned. With fiction, you get to tell things your way.
Why did you choose a bar for the setting of the book?
Why did Willy Sutton rob banks? ‘Cause that’s where the money is. Why write about a bar? ‘Cause that’s where the boys are. I mean, I could’ve written about Barney’s department store or a restaurant like the Chelsea Bistro or a dance-club like Roxy, but a bar is the one place where gay guys meet and talk to each other. A friend of mine told me The Boys in the Brownstone is sort-of a gay Cheers. I said, okay, yeah, but written and directed by Robert Altman.
Is this bar typical of gay bars or somehow different?
The Brownstone – which is sort-of based on a bar on the Upper East Side of Manhattan – is bit more pretentious maybe than some other bars. I mean, it’s decorated like a men’s club in Belgravia . But you see all kinds of people: lawyers, nurses, hustlers, computer geeks, guys who work at Bloomingdales and Home Depot. And Manhattan’s the U.N. – so you get guys from every nation in the world dropping in for a drink.
What role do bars serve in gay lives and communities?
A bar like the Brownstone is a place where you can be gay and be yourself. I mean, obviously the world has improved for gay people in the last decade or two. But it’s still hard to be yourself the way straight people are at work or when you’re visiting your family. I mean, if you kiss your boyfriend when he drops by at work, it’s like much too interesting to people, even if they are, you know, “tolerant.” You go home for Christmas, and even if your parents are pretty cool, they don’t want you coming out to Uncle John or Father McCarthy – who’s probably gay himself. I teach at NYU, which is about as tolerant a place as you could hope for. But the freshmen – the gay freshman – I teach screenwriting to are still reluctant to put gay characters in their scripts. They’re embarrassed. They’re scared. You don’t have to be scared in a bar.
What makes the characters in this book distinctive to our current times?
Gaywise, I guess they’re both in – and out of – the closet. They’re not totally tortured about being gay, the way lots of people were until pretty recently. But in New York even, guys are still figuring out just how gay they can be without freaking out their families, their neighbors, the people at work. The other thing that, I guess, is contemporary about these guys has nothing to do with being gay. It’s the economy, stupid. I mean, some of my characters have plenty of money; others are just barely scraping by. But even the guys who are making money are meeting guys who’ve got like four roommates in a two-bedroom apartment or can’t afford health insurance. I mean, Manhattan is becoming like Honduras or something – the doormen don’t have guns, but if the minimum wage isn’t raised pretty soon, the doormen are gonna have to start packing Ouzis.
The characters in the book are extremely different. Do they have a common trait or face a common essential challenge?
I wrote the book to counter the picture of a single “gay lifestyle” that you get in the mainstream media and in many gay movies and novels too. Not that there aren’t plenty of gay men who are white, funny, fashionable, muscle-bound and oversexed. But even they have jobs and families and fears you’d never suspect from watching Will & Grace or Queer as Folk. How do you counter a cliché like this? Not with a “better cliché.” But with as many specific portraits of gay men as you can muster. I’ve got a college professor, a gay father from Brazil, a male nurse from Astoria, a black guy whose father ran the National Institute of Health, an art dealer, a soap opera writer, a bartender from Cuba. There’s no typical straight person. There’s no typical gay person.
Is The Boys in the Brownstone a gay book? Is there such a thing as a gay sensibility?
I don’t know. It’s weird. The show Frasier, it seems to me, was the gayest show ever. I mean, it’s a sitcom version of The Importance of Being Earnest. Niles and Frasier – who are straight -- can distinguish between beige-, cream-, wheat-, and putty-colored carpeting. They sing Gilbert and Sullivan together; they go to health spas; they fight over cashmere scarves. And this was one of the most popular shows on TV for a decade. Does America have a gay sensibility? And think of Von Sternberg. He made the gayest, campiest movies ever -- Shanghai Express, The Scarlet Empress, The Devil Is A Woman. And he was straight – and sleeping with Dietrich. I guess you don’t have to be gay to have a gay sensibility. The Boys in the Brownstone is obviously a gay book because the leadings characters are gay and the author is too. But I don’t know if it’s got a “gay sensibility.”
What were the sources of inspiration for the book? Is it autobiographical?
A lot of it is autobiographical – I mean, one character gets his neck broken like me but I never had the pleasure of exacting revenge on the guy who did it. My boyfriend who died last year was an art dealer like one of the characters in the story – but he didn’t go off his rocker and buy a bar like the Brownstone. I’ve had quite a few Scotches over the years at a bar very much like the Brownstone. And the people I’ve met there – and in other places in Manhattan – certainly inspired me to write the book.
Does the title have any special significance?
I was hoping it would sort-of echo The Boys in the Band – the play about gays in New York in the late 60s. People put it down – forty years later -- because some of the characters are bitchy and self-hating – as if they had much of an option about hating themselves at a time when gay people were treated like criminals and perverts. The Boys in the Brownstone is a picture of gay life in New York today. There’s a lot less bitchiness and self-hatred, for sure, but the world can still be pretty hostile and we still form “families of choice” the way the boys in the band did, way back when.
What were your reasons for writing this book?
You write fiction because you’re dissatisfied with the last novel you’ve read. It’s missing something that you see – that you think – that you can put into words. What’s missing from fiction these days? The pace of the storytelling – it seems to me -- is either so slow or so melodramatic, you’d think America was populated primarily by English professors and criminals. And gay people in fiction often seem to exist in a gay ghetto where everybody wears tank-tops and falls in love twice a day. (I wish.) The whole point of trying to write well is to show us how deceitful crap is – even when it’s delightful – like those legal thrillers on the bestseller list or Spielberg movies or even those “serious” books that are sort-of lifeless because the author’s been neutered by too many postgraduate seminars. I’m obsessed with details. I trust details. Like if you’ve got a few bone fragments, you can reconstruct an entire dinosaur. My hope is that all the little details of thought and behavior that I collect in my book will let the reader reconstruct life in New York, 2004.
You include a gay marriage in the book. What does this marriage tell us about our current cultural predicament around gay marriage? What are your own views?
The longest chapter in the book is about all the craziness that erupts when a pastor at a fancy Manhattan church insists on officiating at his son’s wedding -- to another man. The son isn’t even sure he wants to get married. But once his father sticks his neck out for him, he has no choice. The point is, gay men are a hell of a lot like straight men – we want to get married and yet we’re afraid of the commitment too. The important thing, though, is to have the option – the right – the human right.
My boyfriend and I were planning to go to Vermont and tie the knot in a civil union – this was before the breakthrough in Massachusetts – when he got liver cancer. We were domestic partners – but that didn’t provide much legal protection for me when he died. There was a fight with the family over the will and I had no legal standing in court – I wasn’t a spouse or a relative. And then tax-wise, if I had been a spouse, the art gallery he owned would have been regarded as a “small family business” and there would have been no estate taxes to pay. Instead, I had to close the gallery to pay the estate taxes and six people lost their jobs. I’m not against estate taxes; they’re necessary. I just don’t want to pay them when straight couples don’t have to.
One of the characters has HIV. Is there something you were hoping to show about people living with HIV?
I just wanted to show that living with HIV – and all the drugs you have to take and all the side-effects and symptoms – is hard, and hard as hell if you’re poor like the bartender in my book. There’s a lot of hope on the horizon – great – but it doesn’t mean anything if you can’t afford health insurance.
Class conflict is rampant throughout the book. Is there something about class conflict in the gay community that needs to be recognized?
Sex is a great leveler of class divisions– certainly for the boys in the Brownstone. No matter how much they might want to be attracted to a guy with a big bank account, other assets matter more when they’ve had a drink or two.
What aspects of gay life are you most critical of?
Selfishness and narcissism are everywhere – there are too many guys who wouldn’t miss a circuit party in South Beach or a weekend in Palm Springs if a Tsunami hit San Francisco. And I wonder if all the hooking-up that goes on online isn’t hurting our sense of community. That’s what I like about the Brownstone, and bars in general – at Happy Hour, right after work, it’s like Sunday morning in the church basement: everybody feels connected.
Are there any writers you admire in particular?
I guess the living writer I admire the most is Pedro Almodovar – I mean, he writes all of his movies. I thought he’d reached his peak with Talk to Her but boy, Bad Education is one brilliant movie. What I like most about him is the storytelling – the plots. Almodovar plots better than anyone since Dickens. I suppose my other favorite gay writers are Tennessee Williams and Joe Orton. Fiction? I liked Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty and I still re-read John Cheever. Oddly enough, lots of straight people write fiction too. Jhumpa Lahiri is incredibly good and Philip Roth is as funny as ever. Still, I do think the great artists of the last century are filmmakers: Almodovar, Bunuel, Visconti, Renoir, Scorsese, Altman. I like to think that The Boys in the Brownstone is sort-of an Altman movie.