“A lot of personal history is part of that, but what I’m talking about now is adult love, passion, the need for another, a companion, not someone who’d fulfill my perverted desires, just someone there,” is something writer Michael Carroll believes about sex as creative fuel, late-in-life success, adapting your process to suit your circumstances, and what it means to write in public spaces.
Carroll, who is known to some primarily as the boyfriend of America’s great, gay novelist Edmund White, has a new collection of short stories Stella Maris and Other Key West Stories, just out.
His relationship to White is omnipresent in the novel and the cheeky way Carroll has promoted it on social media. Seeing the father of American gay literature bemused by his boyfriend in social media posts that are intentionally servile sounding, yet reveal a great love and humor between the two men are moments that engender great joy.
Towleroad spoke to Carroll on the eve of publication.
Why Stella Maris for the title and also why is Key West important as the setting?
There was nothing really conscious about any aspect of this book. It came together quickly. I had four old stories set in Key West and in January of 2018 began five more and was done by May and from there only had to revise and edit. I’ve written many manuscripts about Key West. I’m used to spending the month of January there. There was a time when I couldn’t imagine not returning every year. Thinking I might never go back actually hurt. I’ve gotten some of that out of my system.
Key West is still vitally gay, against the received wisdom. It’s no Fort Lauderdale, but I dare say it’s more magical. People come from all over the world to stay in the guest houses and have sex. Every year I meet these international fun seekers who vouchsafed my idea that it’s unique, given the subtropical setting, the old southern feel and the bohemian values. The cruise ships have eroded that some but not destroyed it.
Stella Maris is romantic to me, although I’m not catholic or religious. It means star of the sea. Many churches and other institutions are named Stella Maris (when they’re near the sea), yet another designation for the Virgin Mary. There’s a basilica there called Saint Mary, star of the sea. Guiding light for sailors all over the world.
It has good gay applications.
It makes you think of the romance of gay life, a sort of Stevensonian [Robert Louis Stevenson] adventure romance with sex and companionship; the ultimate classless treasure. Hence what I call fantasy house, the all male clothing optional resort. I’ve had lots of fun times in the pool, all over the facilities. Bar and restaurant, hot tubs, sex areas. You don’t need to leave to get laid. It itself is a beacon for men like me. And age isn’t so very important. You can ignore the apps. It’s very old fashioned.
Some writers who have or currently date famous authors try oh-so-hard to be independently known—yet you humorously drag Ed into funny social media posts—how does he feel about that?
There’s no competing with Edmund White, my first gay literary inspiration. Why wouldn’t I want to drag him into my publicity and social media high jinx? He calls himself a blurb slut. He smiles and laughs at the attention. So if I’m not competing with him (it would be like trying to best Henry James), I can build my own brand by being associated with him if slightly irreverently. He’s not the most famous of the best writers he could be classed. Anything for a mention because what can it hurt? Also, it’s very hard to cheese him off about anything.
He’s the most easygoing partner you could imagine. Even more than me. It’s why our open relationship works so well. Wide berths. I love his new boyfriend. He’s much smarter and more accomplished than I am, but he’s younger and I call him little brother. He’s Italian, so he likes the publicity rather less. Plus he doesn’t need it.
The casual mores around sex in your novel—again seem a throwback—is that intentional or based on your experiences?
More casual than in the hookup app culture? I mean, there’s that goes on in those venues in key west that doesn’t happen after meeting online. It simply cuts out the technology and the middleman. You have to fall back on your own personality. I’ve never hooked up online. I’ve always hated the idea. Profile pics do not do me the most justice. They do not show me to my optimal advantage. So I’d rather try to charm and enchant over drinks by the pool. And the place is open twenty four hours, so it still competes handily with the apps. Only you have less time to dick around and pull out. You have to be on your game in person, but it’s terribly exciting. Do you see, the setting and the subject chose me based on my personality and prejudices.
Once a man was shaving his balls on the balcony of what I call fantasy house. I asked him if he wanted to whip me and fuck me in his room with the door and sliding glass window open. He was older. I wouldn’t have picked him out of the crowd if we were clothed. It was thrilling and weird and we were both into it. I like to be watched getting humiliated and penetrated. Putting that together through the apps, you could do it. But it would take much longer, given the desire to have other men pass by and stop and watch. And it’s all legal and fun and encouraged down there. First it’s happy hour and everybody is naked then it’s grouping off and fooling around, all ages. Finger up your ass in the pool, topping at an orgy when you’re actually a bottom. Drinking and making out and ordering dinner and getting to know each other. No app.
Your stories in some ways can be seen as filling a generation gap for gay men—was that intentional?
So I came of age at the very advent of AIDS. We had very little access to ourselves as gay young men back then, few movie or TV roles; just books and clandestine sex. We weren’t choosy! Or we were and we didn’t get laid. Or we were very beautiful and had our choice, but that wasn’t me.
I’ve been living in an age of discordant relationships and that’s probably what happening. Guys of all ages crossing paths, getting together, finding things out about each other that are appealing.
I’m not going to be that sour old fart who condemns much younger gay men for so called knowing nothing. The times were different and we could have died and that fear made us less free, or else more reckless, neither enviable.
That said, I’m okay with not being anything but me. I’m a pretty good observer and that’s because I’ve seen a lot over time. And have had my heart open to older as well as younger men and guys my age. That’s not so much on purpose in my book as it is natural to approach when I write. I had a much younger friend who read my first book and complained that all my stories were all about the fear of being left. I just said well, you’re cute, and who’s want to leave you? Then I found out why.
I like having the ecstatic still point of my book being in this fearful but ultimately fulfilled or at least hopefully mixed mental state.
Classless and ageless, when the love is good, when the stars briefly align.
Michael Carroll won the 2015 Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters for his collection Little Reef and Other Stories. Little Reef was also nominated for a Lambda Literary award and a Publishing Triangle award. His work has been included in the Yale Review, Southwest Review, Open City, The Harvard Review and many other journals, as well as such anthologies as The New Penguin Book of Gay Short Stories. His second collection, Stella Maris and Other Key West Stories (Turtle Point Press) is a multi- character sequence set in Key West. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, he taught in Yemen and the Czech Republic. He’s taught in the summer writing program at John Cabot University in Rome. Married to author Edmund White, he lives in New York.
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