My guest in the Comfy Chair today is Elliott Mackle, author of “Captain Harding’s Six-Day War” [Speak Its Name's 2011 Best Book of the Year and voted Best Romance in TLA’s Gaybies competition], the sequel “Captain Harding and His Men,” “It Takes Two” and “Only Make Believe.” Thank you so much, Elliott, for agreeing to answer my questions.
Elin: All your available stories are set in the past. What is the big draw that has led you to write historical rather than contemporary novels?
Elliott: For people like me, descendants of the American Southern gentry class, the past is always with us. My maternal great grandmother was born in slavery times. Her father served in the Army of Tennessee and she remembered and wrote about our Civil War. When she died in Nashville in 1950, I was in the house, the ten-year-old doorkeeper. I was told later that in her dying hours she mourned not two dead husbands (one by his own hand), not friends and family but the five Confederate generals killed in the Battle of Franklin in 1864. Her mother’s oil portrait hangs over the fireplace in my living room; I inherited and use some of their furniture and china; they’re with me a dozen times a day.
I was given fairly classy children’s lit––A. A. Milne, Doctor Doolittle, the Oz books, Walter Farley’s Black Stallion series plus non-fiction like V. M. Hillyer’s “A Child’s History of the World” and a very sexy illustrated classics coverall from National Geographic entitled “Everyday Life in Ancient Times.” My mother and grandmother also fed me innocently racist, song-of-the-South children’s books set during the “Reconstruction” years that followed the Civil War. I soon moved up to bigger game, “Gone with the Wind” in particular. By the time I was thirteen I’d read “GWTW,” “The Egyptian” and “Desirée” – all sprawling historical novels – twice each. Since then I’ve read “Moby-Dick” five or six times, “Brideshead Revisited” at least three times. Same for Isherwood’s “Berlin Stories” (which were historical by the time I found them) and Ensan Case’s World War II m/m classic “Wingmen,” published in 1979 and reissued this year (see my appreciation-review here on SIN). I’ve just finished “Bring Up the Bodies,” Hilary Mantel’s follow-on to the Man Booker prize winner, “Wolf Hall.” Both are stunning historical novels set at the court of Henry VIII. Mantel takes enormous risks in these books and is teaching me quite a bit about narrative voice and POV.
I’ve also read and lined my bookshelves with wartime histories, biographies and serious studies of naval intelligence, starting with the romantic propaganda memoir “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo” by Ted W. Lawson when I was still in short pants and continuing to the present. William Manchester’s “Goodbye, Darkness,” an account of fighting and almost dying as an enlisted Marine in the Pacific, was enormously helpful in envisioning the backstories of several characters in the Dan-and-Bud books, “It Takes Two” and “Only Make Believe.”
That said, it was my good luck to have become a heavy reader before television came to Miami, in 1949 or 1950. I watched it, of course, but was seldom as moved by any of it as I was by books or film. The huge exceptions would be the much later Australian and British series productions of “A Town Like Alice” and “The Jewel in the Crown.”
Elin: Have films influenced you as a writer? Any favourites?
Elliott: Yes, it seems so. I actually tried to write a screenplay of Mary Renault’s “The Charioteer.” That went nowhere. I’ve written a bunch of television scripts, nothing to brag about. Still, several critics have noted that my novels have a cinematic feel to them. One said that “It Takes Two” and “Only Make Believe” are so noir it’s almost like seeing the action in black and white.
Favourites? Historicals, mostly, and many with a big backstory: “Sunset Boulevard,” “GWTW,” “Dances with Wolves,” “Brokeback Mountain,” “Casablanca,” “Chinatown,” “The Leopard,” “From Here to Eternity” and “L.A. Confidential” (book and movie for the last three).
There’s a lot of physical action in my narratives, more pushing and shoving than making love, I’d say. That could be the influence of the many very violent films that attracted me: “Raging Bull,” “Bonnie and Clyde,” “M*A*S*H,” “The Silence of the Lambs,” “Platoon” and “Battle Cry,” to name a few.
Elin: So what would your desert island film and novel be?
Elliott: I was afraid you’d ask that and, like potato chips, I can’t stop at just one. Films: “Some Like it Hot,” “Dances with Wolves” and “Rebel without a Cause.” Books: “Wingmen,” “From Here to Eternity” and “The Boy Who Picked the Bullets Up,” a comic novel chronicling the Vietnam war by Charles Nelson.
Elin: To return to the subject of history, I’ve always felt that stories set in the recent past can be more difficult to write about than something from 300 years ago. Memory plays tricks, dammit, and modern records can be very difficult to access. But your stories convince so absolutely that you must have done a metric tonne of research. Do you enjoy research? Are there any fascinating snippets that didn’t make it into the books?
Elliott: Although my career as a writer has mostly been in journalism, I’m a trained cultural historian with a PhD in American Studies from Emory University. I love research, both academic and boots on the ground, and I feel I owe my readers solid information, not guesswork. “It Takes Two” and “Only Make Believe” are set in post-World War II Fort Myers because I knew the streets, the water, the air and attitudes of the town, I had contacts there and had researched some of its political history for my master’s thesis. Had I chosen someplace I didn’t know as well, the atmospherics might have been less convincing. My family owned a Florida hotel that inspired several of the Caloosa Club’s hush-hush features, and I grew up in Miami Beach, a resort city where everything was for sale with no questions asked. Somewhat the same for the Captain Harding books, set in and around Wheelus Air Base, Libya. The US Air Force sent me there and within a day or two of arriving I knew I’d write about it someday. Libya has been in the news pretty consistently since the overthrow of the monarchy and I’ve kept up with it. Before I began writing I did a lot of reading and Googling.
Snippets? Of course. Stay tuned. I throw nothing away. To paraphrase mystery author Katherine V. Forrest, unsold manuscripts and cut material are inventory.
Elin: Research and personal history?
Elliott: Absolutely. One of the reasons I think Dan Ewing and Bud Wright work as characters is because I’ve not only done a lot of research on their war, I’ve explored battle sites such as Peliliu, Guadalcanal, Truk Lagoon and Iron Bottom Sound. I’ve ridden a battleship for a story (the USS Iowa) plus a couple of merchant marine ships from that era, and I served in uniform for four years, a period in which I was forced to grow up fast. I’d read plenty on the USS Indianapolis disaster before starting to put together Dan Ewing’s backstory, but I made myself go back and seek out details that would give his nightmares a voice––that all of the actual supply officer’s men died in the sinking, the colour of the water at the instant just before a shark takes a man’s leg off, the various islands where Dan’s shipboard lover, Ensign Rizzo, might have ended up, had he survived. My father, a contractor, rebuilt much of the Key West Navy Base during the war. My earliest memories are there: blackouts, uniforms, Allied ships sunk by German submarines within sight of shore. When I’m writing about the war, I’m in it, I know how it feels and smells, the shouts and whistles, the cries and curses and prayer, the sound of a 16-inch gun fired using World War II powder bags.
Doubling back, I was a staff reporter and critic on a major daily, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. I’ve taught journalism at the graduate level. I know how to properly report and write a story. In twenty years of reporting, and literally thousands of stories, I racked up a grand total of five corrections, mostly misspelled names. I’m a pretty good observer and I almost always take notes.
Elin: Often in gay historical fiction female characters only exist in the context of how they impact on or are affected by the protagonists. But I was very pleased and amused to see that “It Takes Two” passes the Bechdel Test with flying colours. Were you aware of the test or did you put the ladies in because you felt they needed to be there?
Elliott: The latter. My lead characters, Bud Wright, Dan Ewing and Joe Harding, are homosexual or bisexual men who live and work in a heterosexual world. I have very little patience for m/m or gay romances and mysteries in which the only variations in the all-male casts are butch vs. femme or clean-cut lawyer/sleuth, scruffy bear and geeky, blue-collar “boy.” The vast majority of the members and staff of the Caloosa Club are heterosexual men and woman. While men outnumbered women in US military forces when I served during the Vietnam era, again most were heterosexual. Creating a variety of heterosexual women for “It Takes Two,” for instance, was great fun. Without sassy waitress Slim Nichols, foul-mouthed boat driver Emma Mae Bellweather, betrayed wife Mary Davis and the beautiful, thrill-seeking hotel guest Barbara Mayson there would be no book. My aim is to write realistic literary fiction, not jock-ripper fantasy.
Elin: I adore Emma Mae! John Barrowman made a point recently in an interview that while it is good to see more LGBT characters in mainstream films and TV, it is a pity that they mostly conform to quite a narrow range of stereotypes. How long do you think it will be before we get a more accurate representation of diversity in visual media and how valuable do you think it is to start with mainstream literature?
Elliott: I haven’t been to a movie theatre since “Brokeback Mountain” was denied the Oscar for best picture. I’ll keep my money, thank you very much. Film and television producers clearly believe that stereotypes sell tickets and draw lucrative advertisers. Brokeback seems to have had zero influence on mainstream anything, at least in commercial terms. As I said, I watch very little television. I wouldn’t know “Glee,” “Will & Grace” or “Downton Abbey” if they slapped me in the face. Though Broadway and the West End are certainly better, there hasn’t been an “Angels in America” or “Love! Valour! Compassion!” for quite a while. Mainstream lit? Alan Hollinghurst, for instance, has grown less “gay,” at least in subject matter, as he has become more mainstream. His wonderful second novel, “The Folding Star,” charts a man-boy love affair. His latest novel does … not. “The Art of Fielding,” by Chad Harbach, a heavily promoted mainstream novel published here last year, concerns a college baseball player who (among other matters) is lusted after by the school’s unmarried male president. This first novel drew a $650,000 advance, the unwavering support of the New York Literary Mafia and a lot of one- and two-star reviews from disappointed readers on amazon.com. I didn’t bother. In short, it seems to be very slow going.
And then there’s the whole question of mainstreaming and assimilationist politics vs. gay spirit and separatist identity. In the United States, at least, the gays-in-the-military question is more or less settled but the battle for marriage equality is joined. The right wing uses it as a scare tactic to froth up conservative and evangelical voters; many liberals see it as an inalienable part of the right to life liberty and the pursuit of happiness that this country is supposed to represent. Marriage equality would have, for instance, the effect of equalizing laws such as taxation, adoption, inheritance and hospital visitation. Although heterosexual marriage in the U.S. is in decline, and in general hardly an institutional model to emulate, the “haves” want to keep the benefits for themselves.
Elin: You write an incredible range of characters. Who is your favourite and why? Ditto least favourite?
Elliott: A wise parent tells each of his or her children that she or his is the favourite. No one’s ever asked me that before. In the Dan-and-Bud books, Carmen Veranda, the transvestite bartender, is one of my favourites but so is Mr. Patt, a hairdresser with a tragic past, who figures in the sequel. Colonel Bruce Opstein, Captain Joe Harding’s fatherly commander, is the kind of dad I wish I’d had. Major Hal Denman, Joe’s prize-fighter playmate, is brave, heroic, sexy and vulnerable, all qualities that I value in a man. Least favourite? Probably the gun-toting Ford dealer’s wife in “It Takes Two.” She’s pretty hard to take, and intentionally so.
Elin: Are you writing something new? If so could you tell me a bit about it?
Elliott: Yes and yes. I have a running start on Harding 3, set in California after Joe returns from Vietnam. Once that’s out of the way, which should be next summer, I plan to dust off what I have of a third Dan-and-Bud. I scanned bits of it before sitting down to talk to you. The plot is all over the map. (I’ll need a spread sheet to sort it all out.) But the opening and closing chapters are promising, the characters and action much stronger than I remembered. Yee-ha.
Elin: You write the first and last chapters last?
Elliott: The two most important paragraphs in a novel are the first and the last. Having them at least drafted makes filling in the middle so much easier.
Elin: Do you have something new for us to read?
Elliott: Sure do. This is a chapter from “Only Make Believe” in which a pair of married army buddies face the emotional cost of buying into post-war, small-town conformity. Dan and Bud, more or less a committed couple, try to help them cope.
SINK OR SWIM
Spud Hansen and Gregg Brasseux, the former army buddies, had accepted my fishing-trip invitation and extended their stay. We set out early the next morning. Rather than assign my regular charter boat captain, Emma Mae Bellweather, as guide, I led the trip myself. Bud looked like he needed a day off so I drafted him as first mate. I instructed Carmen to stock the hotel’s boat with cold fried chicken, potato salad, chips, sandwiches, coffee, rolls, two kinds of pie and plenty of beer.
The boat was a pre-war, 38-footer built by Wheeler Brothers, in Brooklyn, New York, for well-to-do German owners who had wintered in Palm Beach. Commandeered by the Coast Guard for patrol duty in the Florida Keys, she’d been declared surplus in 1946 and snapped up by one of Admiral Asdeck’s associates. From the flying bridge to a broad afterdeck equipped with fighting chairs and outriggers, she was a classic American beauty. Twice-yearly trips to the boatyard for scraping and caulking kept her occasional leaks under control.
We cast off just after dawn, cruised downriver to Punta Rassa, rounded Pine Island and entered the Gulf through Redfish Pass. Wind and chop were light so, about two miles out, I turned north, left Bud on the fly-bridge to steer a course up to Boca Grande Pass and climbed down to the afterdeck. Spud and Gregg had chartered the boat a couple of times the previous winter and were already busy with hooks, lines, leaders and bait.
Although both men knew I was aware of their relationship, they had no reason to know how close I was to Bud. They must have assumed I’d passed their mutual alibi on to him as part of the investigation. Privately, they may have speculated about my own status as a seemingly confirmed bachelor. But to my face there’d been not so much as a hint of any such assumptions and suspicions. Rather the reverse. Detective Wright was the very picture of a virile ex-Marine-turned-cop. With Bud a member of the party, their behavior became exaggeratedly circumspect.
They kept their distance, going out of their way to stay at least two feet apart.
“How do you take your coffee?” Spud had asked Gregg before we cast off, though he surely must have known.
One reason I’d brought Bud along was to let these obviously isolated men know that relationships need not be limited to shared business trips and furtive meetings. When we set out that morning, I had no particular plan in mind, no desire to break up what may well have been two happy marriages. But, in those days, the venomous moral code preached by worthies such as Senator Joe McCarthy, Cardinal Joseph Spellman and J. Edgar Hoover ruled most aspects of life. For lesser citizens in conformist, 1950s America, caution and invisibility were bywords for people who preferred the company of their own sex. A fishing boat was thus an almost perfect setting for a private, all-male party. Bud and I had come to terms, sexually at least, when we got naked on the same boat two years earlier. I definitely wasn’t planning an orgy. But I figured a demonstration of buddies sharing work and play might open a window to future possibilities. Especially if the more experienced buddies stripped down and started horsing around.
Yeah, I have to admit, I copied a page from Admiral Asdeck’s exhibitionist book. But hell, I thought at the time. My intentions are good.
Spud hooked and landed a ten-pound scamp grouper within fifteen minutes of wetting his line. Gregg followed a few minutes later, reeling in a red drum that put up a pretty good fight. It turned out to be that kind of morning. We filled all three fish boxes well before noon and headed for a lunch-time anchorage in San Carlos Bay, a mile or so leeward of Sanibel Island.
While I set out food and beer, Bud, Spud and Gregg removed their shirts to compare battle damage. Spud had entry and exit scars from a German bullet that had passed through his right shoulder and similar scars in his biceps. “Good thing I’m left handed,” he joked. “Right side’s weak. I couldn’t do a real pull-up for a million bucks.”
Gregg had lost the hearing in one ear and had a six-inch scar just to the right of his right nipple. “Body armor, but not quite my size,” he explained. “Got it off a dead soldier on the beach, just after we landed in France. Hated to do it but Spud urged me. Without that vest, I might be pushing poppies.”
Spud started to say something but closed his eyes and shook his head.
Bud raised his arm to show off his jagged, jaw-to-beltline scar. “This here cost the Emperor a sergeant and half a dozen slant-eyed sake-suckers,” Bud boasted, exaggerating a bit.
“And won you a medal, a Purple Heart and a promotion,” I said. “Anybody hungry? Or would you rather stay with beer for a while?”
All three answered “Beer.” I was on my a third Regal. Gregg and Spud each had finished at least three bottles during the morning, Bud two.
Hell, I thought, what’s a vacation for? Married men probably never get to drink before lunch, especially not married salesmen with families.
Spud picked up where Bud left off. “You men, what, you served together? Got to be buddies in the Pacific?”
That sounded like an opening question, if not an assumption.
“Bud got drafted right out of high school,” I said. “Made his living killing Japs from Tarawa to Iwo Jima.”
Bud sported a Marine Corps tattoo. I wore no such identifying markings so I let him handle it. Indicating me with his left thumb, he said, “The lieutenant here, he couldn’t have made it through Parris Island on a crutch. The Navy made an exception and gave him a commission. He had to get down on his hands and knees and beg and kiss ass. They gave him a job waiting tables and buying coconuts and fish from the natives.”
It occurred to me that Bud might be just as willing to show off our partnership as I was.
“Good thing, too,” I replied. “If I’d been in the Corps I’d have assigned this worthless sergeant to permanent duty digging slit-trench latrines.”
Bud punched my arm, hard. “Watch your mouth, Lieutenant. Or somebody might have to wash it out for you.”
I punched him back. “Somebody bigger than you, gyrene.”
He grabbed my arm and pulled me upright. “Listen, squid, I’ll show you bigger.” And then he pulled me into a bear hug, released me and turned me around.
“Rub my shoulders for me,” he said, his voice a mocking growl, “and maybe I won’t have to toss you in the drink again.”
Maybe the admiral’s kink is rubbing off on him, too.
“You remember what happened the last time you tried that?” I slapped his butt.
“Shut up, Dan. That’s private. Didn’t nothing happen. You got a dirty mind. Gonna embarrass these men.”
Spud’s and Gregg’s mouths hung open like two baby birds.
Gregg spoke first. “I thought he works for you, Dan. How does it—?”
“We’re off duty,” Bud answered.
“We’re careful,” I added. “In public. And Bud knows your story.”
Spud blushed. “I knew we should have headed home, Gregg. People don’t talk about things like this.”
“No, they don’t,” I answered. “Not much. But we trust you. And I figured, four men, four veterans, buddies, we can drink some beer and be honest about who we are for a change. We don’t get many chances like this, either.”
It was Gregg’s turn to blush. Maybe he thought I was going to suggest swapping partners. “You work together every day?”
“Most days,” Bud answered.
“And some nights,” I said, making clear what we were talking about.
Gregg sucked down half a beer, tossed the bottle over the side and got up to fetch replacements from the ice chest. “How do you get away with it?”
“Don’t people talk?” his buddy echoed. “Thank you,” he said, accepting another uncapped Regal. Gregg tousled his hair before sitting down.
“This is Florida,” I said. “You guys had good enough connections to qualify for out-of-town memberships. There must be a dozen hotels in this state offering the kind of privacy and special services we do. My boss, Admiral Asdeck, oversees the Caloosa and two more.”
“We don’t even know what kinds of services you mean,” Spud said. “Connecting rooms, the private club and no questions asked are good enough for us.”
“Girls, card tables, drinks around the clock, Cuban movies, bookie service,
golf at a private club. Most of it costs extra.”
“Your rooms were more expensive than the Bradford, and they offered us a group rate.”
“We have higher overhead. There are people who have to be taken care of. So other people won’t talk.”
Bud put his arm around my neck and tried to cover my mouth. “Why don’t you shut up, Lieutenant?”
I reached behind me and squeezed his crotch. “Why don’t we get in the water, Sarge, and see if your water wings still work?”
Gregg said, “And you’re a cop? And when you’re on duty—?”
“This is Florida,” I said again. “The rules are different here.”
“It gets complicated,” Bud admitted genially. “But we get by.”
Spud spoke through clenched teeth. “What you’ve got is what we wanted
except, goddamn it, what we’ve got back home is what we have. I can’t just leave and I’m fucked, I’m goddamned fucked. I’m never gonna get it right.”
Gregg moved closer to his buddy, patting his back, ruffling his hair again.
“Why can’t we have this all our lives and not just one week a year? What’s happened to us, the plans we made back in Germany?”
Spud’s voice broke. “When the children are out of school, then maybe—”
Neither one of us wanted to see grown men cry. Bud and I pulled down our bathing trunks, dove into the chilly water naked and swam away.
When we returned to the boat twenty minutes later we found Gregg and
Spud sitting close together, also naked and visibly aroused. They quickly covered themselves with towels. Bud and I didn’t bother to dress.
When we’d finished lunch I said, “We trust you guys like you trust each other. We all got through the war. We all do what we can when and where we can. See?”
Reaching over, I pulled Bud toward me and rubbed his neck the way I knew he liked.
Gregg kissed Spud chastely on the cheek. “It’s just hard,” he said, “the way things are.”
“We didn’t think,” Spud said. “When all our friends back home started getting married—”
I pointed over my shoulder. “The forward cabin,” I said. “There’s a bunk. You can close the door. Bud and I figured out a lot on that bunk. We didn’t think it could work out either. So far, it has.” I squeezed Bud’s ear. “Is that right, Sarge?”
“Right. Yes. It is. So far.”
While I packed up the leftovers and opened two more beers, Bud hauled the anchor, climbed up to the fly-bridge and started the engine.
“We might ought to have left all that alone,” Bud observed when I joined him topside. “Butting in. None of our business. And ours none of theirs.”
We’d put on shorts and shirts for the ride up the river. I squeezed his bare, hairy thigh. “Sarge, when we got together for that first meeting at the Legion hall, were you even hoping something like this would happen?”
He looked surprised. “Course not. I was happy enough dating Slim. Had me a new job. Thought it was all I could handle.”
“You’re a handful yourself. You know that.”
“Don’t get all lovey-dovey, Lieutenant. Probably just the beer talking.”
I squeezed his thigh again. “We can talk some more after a shower. Back at the hotel.”
“You sure got a dirty mind, Lieutenant.”
“Dirty for you.”
Many thanks for agreeing to the interview, Elliott.
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