Show: FRESH AIR
Date: JUNE 25, 1998
Head: Strachey's Follies
Sect: News; Domestic
TERRY GROSS, HOST: Our book critic Maureen Corrigan regularly recommends good books to read. Occasionally, she likes to introduce us to the actual authors of good books, and that's the case today.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, FRESH AIR COMMENTATOR: My guest Richard Lipez began writing mysteries under the pseudonym Richard Stevenson in 1981. That's when his first novel, "Death Trick," was published. Death Trick introduced Albany private eye Donald Strachey to readers. Like a lot of other detectives who've made their way down the mean streets of American fiction, Strachey is smart and witty and resourceful.
But unlike most other hard-boiled gumshoes, who pride themselves on their prowess with shapely femme fatales, Strachey is gay. In seven novels over the past 17 years, Strachey has been hard at work, solving crime as well as probing the larger mystery of American attitudes towards homosexuality.
The latest Donald Strachey mystery, entitled "Strachey's Folly," is now in bookstores. I'm really happy to welcome you, Richard Stevenson, as my guest today on FRESH AIR.
RICHARD LIPEZ, WASHINGTON POST COLUMNIST, AUTHOR, AS RICHARD STEVENSON, OF "STRACHEY'S FOLLIES": Thank you, Maureen. I'm happy to be here.
CORRIGAN: Your new novel, Strachey's Folly, takes place mostly in Washington, DC at the AIDS quilt gathering, which was about two and a half years ago. I think the premise is inspired, for a mystery novel. Donald Strachey and his lover Timmy Callahan (ph) and another friend of theirs spot a panel which memorializes a man who they all know to be still living, and the mystery takes off from there.
What inspired that idea?
STEVENSON: A friend gave me that idea. Mike Learned (ph) in San Francisco -- I was chatting with him on the phone one day, and he said: "oh, there's this mystery I've always wanted to write, and I have this opening scene, but I'm never going to get around to it, and you can have it if you want." And usually when people say that to you, you are a little wary. So I said...
CORRIGAN: Usually they're not using it because it's not good enough to use in the first place.
STEVENSON: That is sometimes the case. So I said: "well, what is it?" And he told me that it's about two people or three people who go to a display of the AIDS quilt and discover a panel there of someone who was seen alive a few weeks ago -- alive and well and obviously not ill. I said: "that's terrific! That's a great opening scene." And I said I'd really like to use it. And he said "fine."
And then I sat down and I had no book. I had an opening scene. I had page one and I didn't have pages two through 218. So it really took me a long time to figure out what this book is -- was going to be about.
CORRIGAN: Yeah. You know, it's an interesting opening scene. It's a great premise for a mystery, but I'm also wondering if you were at all concerned that gay and lesbian readers might object to you using the AIDS quilt as the premise for something so "frivolous" as a mystery?
STEVENSON: Well, first of all, I don't think any of my books are frivolous. They're always about serious matters -- sometimes serious moral matters. And they have humor in them and I hope that they are entertaining, but there's always a gravity that I intend, whether or not it's there as well as I want it to be, readers can judge. But I -- I intend that.
Also, the -- it is -- the characters in this book talk about how awful it is that somebody has taken this great and moving memorial to loss that is so important to so many people, and used it in this cynical way. So that's a part of the story, too. And I hope because of that, I'll be forgiven by anybody who might object to my exploiting it, if that's how they see it.
CORRIGAN: Well, I'd like to talk about the beginning of the Strachey mysteries and how you started to write mysteries. One of the scenes that I remember best from Death Trick is an early chapter in which Donald and his lover Timmy are moving books out of the house that Donald once shared with his wife, who's now his ex-wife. And when you began writing your first mystery, you were still married. Did writing Death Trick help you envision the changes that you wanted to make in your own life?
STEVENSON: Yes, it really was an important part of my coming to terms with my own sexual nature and of coming out with other people and of beginning to make changes in my life that other people made in other ways. But I was lucky in a way to have this device of thinking about other people's lives in fiction that enabled me to give some thought to my own in a solitary way, and have a good time and, you know, get paid a little bit for doing it.
CORRIGAN: Well, when you wrote Death Trick and published it in 1981, I -- correct me if I'm wrong -- but I don't think there were a lot of positive images of gay men in literature or in popular culture overall. And I would think that writing a character like Donald Strachey and his lover Timmy, who are both smart and funny and they're in love with each other, would have almost been courage-building because you were creating, in a sense, your own ideals here, of gay men.
STEVENSON: It was not only an ideal, it was a representation of what I saw around me. And the more I saw of post-Stonewall, particularly, gay life in the late '70s and early '80s, the more angry I became, really, at the depictions of gays and lesbians in popular culture generally and crime fiction particularly, until that time -- except for Joe Hanson (ph) -- Joseph Hanson, who started writing his series in the early '70s with a gay detective protagonist -- an insurance investigator, Dave Branstatter (ph).
The earlier depictions of gays and lesbians had been of pathetic wretches, ice-pick lesbians who were either the masochistic killers or the pathetic victims or the blackmail victims. And this is how gay people appeared in crime -- in detective fiction up 'til that time. Even in the classic Chandler and Hammett, it's pretty awful. And I realized at that time that this was a lie. And I wanted to help correct that lie.
CORRIGAN: What about the critical reception? Was 1981 a good time to be -- to be writing a book that featured a gay character as the lead?
STEVENSON: Yes, the market was there. That's one of the things that Stonewall riots and modern gay liberation did. From 1969 on, it freed up gay and lesbian editors and mainstream publishing houses to first of all come out themselves; and second of all, to point out to their editors-in-chief that there was a real market here; that there were gays and lesbians who wanted to read honest and entertaining depictions of themselves in popular fiction. And they -- they succeeded. They convinced their editors. And they were right. There was a huge market there.
CORRIGAN: So you see a market in which gays and lesbians wanted to read honest depictions of themselves. Does that mean that -- that the Strachey series is in a sense ghettoized even still? That it doesn't really make that crossover to a heterosexual reading audience?
STEVENSON: When I set out to write one of these books, I just want to tell a good story. And my hope always is that all kinds of readers of all sexual persuasions will buy and enjoy these books. That hasn't happened to the extent that I would have hoped and the editors have hoped. There hasn't been as much crossover as some of us would have liked. And I'm not sure why that's the case.
Some gay and lesbian writers have had some cross -- so-called crossover success. Michael Nava (ph) has done reasonably well; Sandra Scapitone (ph) and a few others. But for most of us, we don't choose to be ghettoized, but to an unfortunate extent, some of us still are.
CORRIGAN: Have you noticed, maybe just in informal tours of bookstores that you visited, that your novels are put in gay and lesbian sections rather than in, I don't know, the mystery section?
STEVENSON: That's one of the problems. Some of the chain bookstores in particular, tend to put us over in the what they call "gay studies"...
CORRIGAN: Right. Right.
STEVENSON: ... whatever that means.
STEVENSON: Others are more willing and able to get us over there in the mystery section where we belong. I don't see any problem with putting us in both places.
CORRIGAN: It's kind of like putting Miss Marple mysteries in "geriatric studies." Right? I mean, you wonder why they do that.
STEVENSON: Yeah, yeah -- or in, you know, putting Dashiell Hammett in the icon repair shop section.
CORRIGAN: Right, right.
STEVENSON: I once saw a little booth in a market in Mexico called "the icon repair shop."
CORRIGAN: Right -- the icon of the straight white male who has no doubts about himself -- that icon, I guess, is where Sam Spade belongs in.
GROSS: FRESH AIR book critic Maureen Corrigan is interviewing Richard Lipez, who writes under the pen name Richard Stevenson. They'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
Let's get back to our book critic Maureen Corrigan and her guest Richard Lipez, who writes a series of gay detective novels under the pen name Richard Stevenson.
CORRIGAN: One criticism actually I know that your novels have gotten occasionally comes from heterosexual readers or critics who have said that, especially in your early novels, that the heterosexual characters were always the heavy.
It's like you kind of did a switch on the usual situation where the gay and lesbian characters in earlier mysteries were always insane, psychotic, the murderers; that instead you had characters like Ned Bowman (ph) who was a police detective who Donald Strachey had to work with in Albany, who was always calling Donald a "fairy;" always accusing him of committing the crimes that he was trying to solve. And that you kind of played in -- fell into that trap.
STEVENSON: In a mystery novel, there have to be a lot of characters who are unlikable, to the extent that they might be considered suspects or involved in the crime in some way. And since I got all these good gay people in there, well, there's this other job and it's a dirty job, but somebody has to do it. But it -- and it is a fair criticism and I'm trying not to do that as much.
And my straight friends who read the books and generally like them, do shyly mention this from time to time, and when I have a straight character that is especially likable, this is always pointed out to me with pleasure as "well, I really like so and so. You ought to do that more often." And I will.
CORRIGAN: I guess the only way to get out of this trap is to have, I don't know, an animal commit the crime like Poe did in "Murders of the Rue Morgue." The orangutan did it, you know. Someone has to commit the crime, right? So...
The thing I think I love the most about the Donald Strachey mysteries is that they're really funny. NPR listeners will be tickled to know that in Strachey's Folly, you have a character who's a drag queen who performs in Washington, DC clubs. And instead of doing the usual Barbra Streisand or Judy Garland act, he specializes in what he called "DC power queens." One of his routines apparently involves doing Cokie Roberts, then Nina Totenberg, and Linda Wertheimer. I don't even know if I want to visualize that one.
But Strachey's humor is also pointed. He makes these quick witty social observations and he really has an eye for the absurdities of the American scene. In Strachey's Folly, he travels to a town called Log Heaven, Pennsylvania. And I'd like to ask you to read a couple of paragraphs from your description of Log Heaven.
I cruised down Log Heaven's main street, with its three-block-long business district that looked half dead and hanging on by a fraying economic thread. Most of the storefronts were vacant, and the few that weren't were occupied by social service agencies and businesses with names like "Natalie's Nail Heaven," "Fenstermacher's Tanning Parlor: Tan Your Fanny By The Susquehanny" (ph) and the "Mattress Madness Outlet Store."
Three big furniture factories I passed on the edge of town were dark and boarded up. And the only sizable employer I spotted was a mobile home assembly plant. I doubled back up River Street. The Susquehanna, one of the loveliest streams in America, was no longer visible from the town that the river had apparently once made prosperous.
Somebody -- the Army Corps of Engineers I suspected -- had put up a 30-foot high earth and stone dike levee system -- a flood control solution common across floodplain America now -- and in its unimaginativeness and in-elegance, worthy of the mind of Benito Mussollini, it looked as if in Log Heaven, the walled-off Susquehanna survived largely for the aesthetic pleasure of an occasional small plane pilot and in the minds of the old people.
CORRIGAN: You pack so much into that description there. Again, that's one of the advantages of mystery fiction, isn't it? The detective has to be a good observer, as Donald Strachey is.
STEVENSON: I think that that's one of the continuing pleasures of detective fiction. And it's one of the things that the best writers do so well, and that people who are literary snobs often forget, or don't know about, because they -- they don't read detective fiction.
Some of the best descriptive writing about America has been done by Raymond Chandler and the masters of detective fiction, and these are the writers that are -- inspire me and try to get me to do it better.
CORRIGAN: Richard Stevenson, I want to thank you very much for being my guest today on FRESH AIR.
STEVENSON: This was fun.
GROSS: FRESH AIR book critic Maureen Corrigan spoke with Richard Lipez. He writes a gay detective series under the pen name Richard Stevenson.
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.
Dateline: Maureen Corrigan; Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Richard Stevenson
High: Maureen Corrigan interviews writer Richard Stevenson. That's a pseudonym for Richard Lipez. He works in the genre of gay detective mysteries. Since 1981, he's written a series of books about detective Donald Strachey. He is also a Washington Post columnist under his real name. Stevenson's latest book is called "Strachey's Follies: A Donald Strachey Mystery."
Spec: Books; Authors; Homosexuality; Detective Novels; Media; Richard Lipez
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Strachey's Follies
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.