Latest On Outvoices
When I speak to die-hard New Yorker Fran Lebowitz, she is in San Francisco, having previously been in Berkeley, supposed to go to Palm Springs for its Book Festival, canceled due to Covid, moving on to Salt Lake City, and beyond...tour dates are here.
Lebowitz is a public intellectual, a cultural commentator, a pop culture pundit, and a very loquacious lesbian. I mean, people pay to watch her talk. What is that?
Well, what that is, is: A woman whose delivery is dryer than a dry martini in the Atacama Desert; a woman who, in a digital world populated by an infinite number of influencers, talking heads, and scripted video idiots reads books and has thoughts and opinions on everything; a woman who will always choose the analog over the digital (that iPhone software download you're about to accept is capitalism and it is nefarious). I was told to call Lebowitz in her hotel room on her landline. In a harbinger interview (and who can say she was wrong?), check out her early disgust for digital watches here. Here's our conversation.
You are a metropolitan sophisticate, and I see you gigging at all these "smaller cities," you're headed to Scottsdale, how does it feel to go to these places, none of which are New York City? What do they do for you?
Fran Lebowitz: I go to them because I have speaking dates. You know, I don't go to them because I'm an anthropologist. I just spoke to someone from Bellingham, Washington, and to her, San Francisco is a big city. I mean, it's a city, but it's not that big.
Do you ever find these places give you a new outlook. Or you look back on New York in a different way with fresh eyes?
Lebowitz: No, actually, no, I never feel like, Why don't I live in Bellingham, Washington? I never feel that. I'm always happy to get back to New York.
OK, so how about LGBTQ people? Do you feel the word queer encompasses all of us? Are you for it or against it? And where do you stand on dismantling the gender binary?
Lebowitz: I know that lots of people become incredibly incensed over these things one way or the other. But, you know, people should be called whatever they want to be called. It doesn't matter to me one way or the other. When someone tells you something like this about themselves, they're telling you how they feel. So if someone tells me how they feel, I believe them—how would I know how they feel? I mean, if someone tells me they have a headache, I don't say, No, you don't. The thing that does bother me, is using the words 'they' to refer to a single person. This bothers me because the word 'they,' it means something else. You know, in English, it means more than one person. Not that anyone's going to do what I would like, but I would like people to come up with a different word. You know, I'm old enough to remember when people wanted to use the word Ms. instead of Miss or Mrs., and people went insane over this, 'You can't pronounce it. It's impossible.' Of course, now everyone uses it. But it didn't mean something else. Well, it meant manuscript. But not many people knew that. ... So I wish they would find a new singular and that would convey the same thing they're trying to convey, but didn't also mean something else. I have no expectation people will do this.
The AIDS epidemic, which saw a loss of life and so many smart people, a whole generation of gay men, many of whom were artists—you called them the "knowing audience," which I think is such a great phrase. And I feel that this group of people is is getting smaller and smaller—sophisticated people. Are we becoming more stupid?
Lebowitz: One thing you can always do in this country is rely on the stupidity of the population.
But not all Americans.
Lebowitz: Not all. But we know for a fact, at least half. And that's a lot.
Martin Scorsese Presents | Pretend It’s A City | Official Trailer | Netflix youtu.be
OK, let's talk about lesbians. I know you identify as a lesbian. Why is it so hard to have a lesbian relationship?
Lebowitz: For me, it's not hard... I don't believe there's such a thing as a 'lesbian relationship' any more than there's such a thing as a straight relationship. It depends on the people. You know, I know that there are a lot of cliches about lesbians and in lots of ways they are true because that's where cliches come from. I have lived alone my entire life. And that is a tremendous accomplishment for a lesbian. So that, you know, I know this domestic life — I don't want to live with anyone and I never have. The 'no patience' I used to have I don't have anymore so, you know, if that's what you're looking for in life, I would be very bad at that, I've always said that I'm terrible girlfriend. I am a terrible girlfriend. You know, I never am faithful to people, I'm just not that kind of person. From the point of view of the majority of people, it's much easier now. I mean, first of all, when I was younger, it was against the law. You know, this is something people don't seem to know at all. It's not that they just don't remember it—they don't even know that was the case. And certainly it's a lot easier now. Out of the many problems that lesbians have, the problem is that they're women.
Do you believe in astrology?
Then you wouldn't agree that you're a Scorpio.
Lebowitz: Oh I am a Scorpio. I know that because you can look it up in any newspaper article. I mean, you know, my birthday's October 27th and whenever people ask me, what my astrology sign or whatever it's called is, I always say Scorpio, and they always say I knew it. So, you know, obviously, whatever that is supposed to mean, it conforms to what people think about it. But I myself don't believe in it.
Why do you think feminism keeps failing?
Lebowitz: Because of men, I mean, it's pretty simple. By the way, there's been lots of progress. And I mean the difference between being, say, a girl when I was a girl and then being a girl now is immense in that it is a billion times better and it's probably the most tremendous progress you could imagine. For it to succeed what people mean is, when will the inequality between men and women be over? Never. That will never happen, Covid will be over before that happens. So that will never happen. People waiting for that? Take up another occupation. That will actually never happen. You know, it's much better. But it's never going to be good.
I really admire your friendship with Martin Scorsese. And I would like to call him a lesbro, I think there are straight guys that make excellent friends for lesbians. Why do you get on with him so well?
Lebowitz: I don't know the nature of my friendship with Marty, you know, the two things we did together, Pretend It's a City and Public Speaking, people ask about it a lot. I really don't know. Additionally, neither Marty nor I remember where we met, and we both agree that it must have been a party because where else would I have met him? I certainly didn't know Marty in the '70s so it must have been in the early '80s. I did notice, at a certain point, that whenever I would see Marty at a party, we would spend the whole night talking together. Strong friendships in a way have some of the better qualities of romance, which is: you don't really know why you like that person that much. It's some kind of chemical thing. I mean, I guess we really enjoy each other's company. I can give you a lot of reasons why it's really great to be friends with Marty. I don't think that really describes it. There's something like, really not discoverable about it.
Fran Lebowitz has had writer's block since the '90s but she's talking up a storm all across the country
I believe you've had writer's block since the 1990s. What's the trouble?
Lebowitz: If I knew, the books would be finished. So I can't answer this question, which is asked very frequently. And like anything else that's broken, if you knew, you'd fix it. So I don't know.
But you're a prolific public intellectual, and you were inspired by James Baldwin and the way he brought critical thinking into the public space with eloquence and a sense of profound (in)justice. What are your thoughts on what's happened here the past few years?
Lebowitz: Well, I mean, it certainly is not the worst time of American racism. We did have slavery in this country. So I mean, it is not the worst time, it's just that because of the Internet that people paid attention this last time around. In other words, like the murder of George Floyd, the murder of Black people by cops is every second in this country, it's all the time. But we didn't have movies of it before. It's something that I believe escaped the attention of most white people. But Black people know about it. ... This has always been the case in this country. ... It is the responsibility of all people to make it better but unfortunately ... half the country voted for Donald Trump [and] the appeal of Donald Trump as a politician, in my opinion, was racism pure and simple. This is an ongoing thing in this country. I know it exists in other countries, but this country is built on the crime of slavery. We live in a country where it is better to be racist than to call someone a racist.
Public Speaking - Conversation w/ Fran Lebowitz (HBO) youtu.be
Do you think he's coming back, Donald Trump or are we done with him?
Lebowitz: I don't think he'll run again for office. I don't. But before the election of 2016, I spent the year prior to that election during the entire campaign going around the whole country, telling literally thousands of people 'He has zero chance of winning' because I believed that, so I was incredibly, horribly wrong. So, I don't think he's going to run again. And that is not my major concern. And by the way, if you hate Donald Trump and all that he stands for, he doesn't have to run again. He has invented this cult around him. Whoever runs as a Republican will be at least as bad as Donald Trump, even if it is not Donald Trump himself.
As we go through these events, as we get older, what can keep us positive and able to deal with life's losses?
Lebowitz: I'm not an expert on the subject. Of course, I have had many, many friends who died and my parents died and many other relatives died. But, you know, I've never missed anyone as much as I missed Toni Morrison. That is for sure. Not a day has gone by since Toni died that I don't think about her or she hasn't come up in some way.
What is one of the good things about being gay and getting older?
Lebowitz: Well, I actually think that not having children is great until you're old. I took care of both my parents and I always say to my friends, My problem is going to be that I do not have the wonderful, perfect daughter I was. So I think the time to have children is when you're older. Here's my dream: Someone knocks at my door. I open the door. There's a 30 year old standing there and I say, 'Who are you?' And they say, 'Hi, I'm your son. The lovely, winning cardiologist. I'm here to take care of you.' So this is the time have children, by the way, not when you're young and having fun and everything is at stake. I don't want to take care of them. I want them to take care of me.
Tickets to the Scottsdale event here.
The Prom had its world premiere at The Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia, in 2016, before its hit run on Broadway. The show centers on some big Broadway stars on a mission to change the world, as they work to make it possible for a girl to bring her girlfriend to … The Prom, of course. Critics and audiences alike have loved the show and its compassionate message of inclusion. Variety raved, “It’s so full of happiness that you think your heart is about to burst” while The Hollywood Reporter called it “comic gold!”
The joyous Broadway musical comedy, The Prom, will make its Tennessee Performing Arts Center (TPAC) debut in Jackson Hall, when the National Tour of the show visits Nashville on February 22 - 27, 2022.
In advance of the show’s Nashville run, one of the leads, Patrick Wetzel, who plays the role of “Barry” in the show, sat down with me to talk about his own history with The Prom and how it brought him back to the stage for the first time in eight years, and much more. We still live in a country where, for far too many LGBTQ+ youth, the idea of taking an authentic date to the prom is a dream deferred. This show thus has an important message that needs to be seen and heard—and internalized—by audiences across the country.
James Grady: If somebody asked you, as a cast member, to describe The Prom, how would you describe it?
Patrick Wetzel: You know, it's funny. I think if you asked every different principal in the show, you'd get different answers. But my character, Barry, has an objective in the show, and it changes about halfway through. He realizes he's there to learn something and not necessarily to teach, and so I think it's really about growing! It's also about friendship, it's about loyalty, and it's about teaching and learning. And, so importantly, it's about inclusivity and acceptance!
James Grady: When did you first become aware of, or involved in, The Prom?
Patrick Wetzel: That's very interesting! I was an actor for most of my adult career, and then about eight years ago, I needed to take a break. I shifted gears and moved into the management side of things. So I was a stage manager on a very early incarnation of The Prom, a workshop before it came to Broadway. We did that workshop for a month.
From there, my journey with The Prom has been sort of varied. When Ryan Murphy saw the Broadway musical, he decided to make the movie for Netflix. Casey Nicholaw, who was the original director and choreographer of the Broadway musical, went out to work on the choreography for the movie. I was a part of his choreography team working with him on the movie. I worked with James Corden and Meryl [Streep] and Nicole [Kidman] and the rest of the cast to assist Casey with the choreography.
Then I heard that the national tour of The Prom was going out. I had been thinking ... it had been eight years and in the middle of the pandemic Broadway theater was shut down for 18 months. During that time, I thought, "Well, gosh, I don't think I'm done performing yet." So I put the word out that I wanted to go back onto the stage! Then this opportunity presented itself!
Now I find myself, eight years later, back on the stage—and with a show that I initially had worked on as a stage manager when it was still being workshopped! So ... life is funny. You never really know where things are going to lead you, but my journey with The Prom, in particular, has been so strangely varied!
James Grady: Has performing in The Prom revitalized your love of acting? I know you said you felt the need to step back eight years ago.
Patrick Wetzel: It has completely revitalized my love of being on the stage, James. I love this role. I love this part. I love that this is where I have ended up working on the show. It's a beautiful part, and I love playing Barry. It's so incredibly satisfying to get to play him eight times a week, and I'm loving it!
I don't know why, but eight years ago, I began to feel anxious about auditioning. When I first moved to New York City, I was fearless in an audition setting. I was not scared of performing or auditioning in front of everyone, anyone. I loved getting in the room to audition. But as I got older, something started to shift, and my anxiety... I would get the phone call from my agent, I would see that they were calling, and that would send me into a tailspin. And I was scared to to get into the room and audition. I was turning down more auditions than I was going in for, and that's no way to be an actor!
So I knew that I needed to make some sort of shift eight years ago and at the very least take a break.
James Grady: Was it a difficult mental shift to come back to the stage?
Patrick Wetzel: A few years ago, though, I started thinking, "Gosh, I have this itch that I need to scratch to get back on the stage." But I didn't say anything for a couple years because my decision to stop performing had been so definitive! I felt surely this feeling of wanting to be back on the stage was just fleeting, that it would go away.
It was kind of like coming out. You think, "No, I'm not gay. I'm not gay. It'll go away. It'll pass." But that that voice insists. This was sort of similar to coming out. It got louder and louder, until I finally had to acknowledge, "I think I want to be on the stage again." So I finally "came out" and told the people that needed to know, and it felt like such a relief. I'm realizing the parallels now between that and coming out of the closet.
As soon as I said it, I felt free. I felt excited to audition again. And I'm so excited to be back on the stage. For whatever reason I needed to take that break and step away for a moment. And it gave me clarity on where my true passion is. And my original passion for theater and performing and musical comedy--I still just love it so much. It's in me, it's in the center of my being. I have to be a part of it. I love it. I love, love, love, love it!
James Grady: What are some roles you would love to play in the future?
Patrick Wetzel: Off the top of my head, Harold Hill in The Music Man! It's a part I've never played. I've seen the show many, many times, and I love it so much. I just love that part! Harold Hill and how he's this con man who finally comes clean. He gives himself permission to be his true authentic self, and in his own way, comes out of the closet to be honest with himself about his life. I love the music. I love the story. And that's a dream role for me!
James Grady: It occurred to me that, when the show was written, a lot of us thought we were getting near the end of this era, near the end of this fight. And now we find ourselves, years later, finding it so very timely, unfortunately.
Patrick Wetzel: There are places where the story needs to be told, as we journey around to different cities. This message does need to be heard by some parts of the country more than others. Living in New York City, being gay is very accepted, but a lot of the places we are traveling things aren't so clear. But I think the message will be heard loud and clear!
Things are evolving and changing all the time! I moved to New York City in 1989. And thinking about where things were there, then, and where we are now. I mean, we've come so far, and we're evolving. The trans community is, in the LGBTQ community, at the forefront, forging ahead and blazing the trails for our community as a whole. We're continuing to push forward and forge ahead and normalize our community.
Courtney Balan, Patrick Wetzel, Bud Weber and Emily Borromeo in The National Tour of THE PROM.Photo by Deen van Meer
Bringing it back to The Prom and speaking of normalizing things--there's nothing more normal than wanting to go to a high school dance and dance with the person that you love. And that's really all this story is, in the end. It's about a teenager, who wants to go to a dance with her girlfriend. There's nothing more normal than that. That's no different than any other person of any other gender or identity. They just want to dance with their loved one. It's fascinating telling the story.
James Grady: What's the reception been like from audiences around the country?
Patrick Wetzel: Well, it has been surprisingly good! There's a couple of politically charged moments in the show. It's not with a heavy hand, but they are there those moments! So we didn't know how this was going to be. The show played very well in New York. But we had wondered what it would be like when took the show to cities in the Midwest or the South.
What it has shown me is that The Prom is just a really well-constructed and well-written and very funny musical comedy. So it's played very well! It has surprised us all. We sort of walk into every new city that we play, holding our breath a little bit, thinking, "Well, how is it gonna play here?" But we have learned to trust that the material is really good. It's really funny. They did such a beautiful job writing the show. That wins audiences over.
The Prom will knock you over the head with the comedy because it's so funny, but then it will surprise you and catch you off guard with its emotional moments and messages. So I always tell people, come to our show ready to laugh but bring a tissue!
James Grady: What has been the response from the older crowd, people who didn’t grow up with a concern for things like this necessarily?
Patrick Wetzel: Well, it's interesting because I was just talking with a person who saw the show in St. Louis after the show. We were chatting, and she's an older person, late 60s, early 70s, and her response was, "I didn't realize how important this story was to tell people. It's a really good message."
Again, it is not with a heavy hand. They're just telling this story about a young girl who wants to go to a dance. And it's as simple as that. But surprisingly, people do need to see that it's important that we let our young people be who they are. They're going to shape our country and our world.
James Grady: What would you say to your LGBT audience who may be thinking of coming to see your show?
Patrick Wetzel: Yeah, well, you know what's interesting, James? We see so many young kids with their parents coming, and we get so many notes and letters from young LGBTQ community members who say, "I was scared to tell my parents that I was gay. I was scared to come out to my parents, and you have helped me. Now I have the courage!" I mean heartbreaking letters from kids all around. And we say, "Come and be accepted. Come and don't be scared. Come ready to laugh. But bravely enter our theater and be ready to let your freak flag fly.
For more information, please visit www.theprommusical.com or find the show on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. The Prom will run nightly at TPAC’s Jackson Hall from February 22-27, 2022. Tickets for the TPAC shows can be purchased at TPAC.org or by calling 615-782-4040.
- Faust Theatre presents 'Carrie The Musical' - OUTvoices Kansas City ›
- School Girls; or, The African Mean Girls Play - OutVoices ›
Kacey Edenfield was the quintessential all-American boy from Tennessee. The star pitcher of his high school’s varsity baseball team and the son of a former professional baseball player, Kacey had it all: the status of a sports star in a southern school, a strong team, a supportive family, and, of course, good looks. But he also in the closet. Once he came out, his life took a number of twists, one of which was a tangent almost no one probably imagined for him: his years as Helix Studios’ exclusive Troy Ryan.
Kacey Edenfield was gay and, like so many of us when we were in school, was hiding that fact about himself. He had a lot to lose, after all. The locker room can be a cruel place for gay teens. And his own father, Ken, had come from that very culture, playing for Western Kentucky before being drafted by the California Angels, where he worked his way up through the minors to play two years of major league ball.
What was life like for Kacey? He was proud of his dad and seemed to be following in his footsteps in baseball, and otherwise led a normal life. “I played high school baseball pretty much all the way up to my senior year. I did a lot of skiing, a lot of whitewater kayaking. just tried to stay active and outdoors as much as I could,” he said.
Ultimately, as is so often the case, it was a boy who drew Kacey out of the closet and led him to put it all on the line. “So, he was the first guy that I'd met my town that I thought was relationship material, I guess, and I tried to move in on it,” Kacey recalled. “And he was like, ‘I don't talk to closeted guys, I don't want the drama...’”
The boy must really have been something because, “I was like, ‘Well, okay...’ So, two weeks later, I was like, ‘Hey, you know what? Now's as good a time as any let's... Let's just do it!’"
The fallout was predictable, as his decision impacted his relationship with both his father and his team. Luckily, Ken Edenfield proved himself to be a true star of a dad. “It took a month or two. At first, it was really really hard,” Kacey said. “We went to counseling together, and everything kind of worked itself out after that. He started to understand. He actually ... now he's probably one of my biggest supporters.”
Kacey Edenfield / Troy Ryan - photo courtesy of Helix Studios
When asked what helped his dad get over his initial disapproval, Kacey laughed. “You know, for some people, it just takes a ‘click,’ and I think it was the same thing for him. In the counseling, you know, his biggest thing was, ‘If he's never done anything with a girl, how come he knows he doesn't like it?’” he said. “The counselor kind of countered that with, ‘Well, Ken, have you ever done anything with a guy? How come you know you don't like it?’ Ever since then, he's like, ‘Alright, we're done. I get it!’”
Things with his team didn’t go so well, however. “Actually, my best friend kind of alienated me,” he recalled. “And the rest of my teammates took a step back. It was pretty rough. But I don't regret it. I mean, everything happens for a reason.”
“My senior year, I ended up quitting [baseball],” he added. “I had gotten a lot of playing time sophomore and junior year, and my senior year I wasn't getting any... That was kind of my tell tale of, ‘Alright, there's something behind this.’ And then, of course, it got affirmed a couple days later, after a practice. One of my teammates came to me and told me what was said, and it kind of bothered me..."
Kacey Edenfield / Troy Ryan - photo courtesy of Helix Studios
When Kacey finished high school, he had decided to move to Colorado, when he had a life-changing interaction online. “I got recruited, supposedly, [by Helix Studios],” he said with a realist’s skepticism. “I don't know ... who knows if he was affiliated with the company or not? But long story short, I ended up putting in an application [with Helix]. Two weeks later, I got a call back, and they were like, ‘Yeah, let's fly you out!’”
“I told them to give me a couple weeks, because I was already planning on moving to Denver,” he added. “Then I could kind of hide it from everybody else. So as soon as I got [to Colorado], I said, ‘Yeah, I'm good.’ I flew out there a week after I moved in...”
Helix Studios [link features PG-13 edits]must have liked what they saw of Kacey, whose porn name was Troy Ryan. “I shot four scenes before I became exclusive my first time around. It was after my second trip out. My first trip out was in August, and my second trip wasn't until like November or December. So it was kind of spaced out a little bit…”
Being exclusive with a company like Helix restricts the options for working with other studios, but provides the benefit of a guaranteed income level. “You have a guarantee on how many scenes you're gonna get, and you have a guarantee on what rate you're gonna get per scene. For them, it was a six-month term. And then, afterwards, you had the option to renew or whatever. So I was guaranteed a certain rate, for a certain amount of scenes, through six months. They had to shoot me, and I had to be committed to just them. I couldn't go to another studio and shoot at the same time.”
While he was working in porn, Kacey’s relationship with his father would again be turned on its head. “I had an ex who was pretty vindictive. And, as soon as he found out, he told my family, but... Again, it kind of took my dad the same mindset of, ‘I just have to process this, realize that it's his thing, he's an adult now...’ And he got around to it. We just kind of all didn't talk about it as a family. It was just one of those understood things.” So it definitely seems like dad gets the MVP again.
In the end, Helix would produce all of his professional porn. “I didn't do anything with any other studio. That was the only professional studio that I worked with. The only things I ever did was homemade stuff like Chaturbate and OnlyFans.”
I asked Kacey if he had any people he particularly enjoyed working with, but he was very matter-of-fact about his career. “You know, there were never really any ‘favorites.’ I've really enjoyed working with Tyler Hill and Elliott Gray. Those are two fun scenes, but I never ... it was always a job, so I just kind of walked in and went to work.”
During his time with Helix, circumstances would necessitate Kacey moving back to Tennessee, but he kept shooting even after returning home—for a time. Just as it had been a boy who prompted his coming out, it was a boy who prompted his decision to leave porn behind.
“I got into a serious relationship with somebody who understood the business,” he said. “He understood that it was there before he was. He never really asked me to stop, but I could just kind of tell the look of dejection on his face whenever he had to drop me off to the airport to fly out and... I could tell it was taking a toll.”
“So after my last contract was up, I was like, ‘I'm gonna reevaluate.’ And I did. For a solid five or six months, things were going really good with me and him. Actually a lot better. We were getting very serious. So I decided that that was more important.”
Ultimately, the relationship didn’t last, but the decision to leave porn seems to have stuck. “I've had thoughts about it, but I kind of pushed them out of my head,” he admitted. “I've still got an OnlyFans. I haven't updated it in a minute. Sorry for that. But eventually, yeah, I'll put some more content up there.”
Kacey Edenfield / Troy Ryan - photo courtesy of Helix Studios
Life back in Tennessee took on a much more normal trajectory. “I did some college. I kind of realized school wasn't really for me. I hated high school. So I eventually got out and went into sales and kind of found a niche. I found out I was pretty decent at it, so I could make a good living, and kind of rolled with that.
Still an avid sports fan, Kacey has also found a new creative avenue in his podcast, Balls and Brews. “It's me my best friend Johnse. We drink a little bit, crack open a few beers... We sit here, we debate sports, talk about hot topics in sports, and just banter a little bit--you know, whatever comes to our mind. It's basically our daily conversations, we just started recording it.”
The program has been a little uneven, due to cancellations of seasons and disruptions of life due to COVID-19, but Kacey and Johnse are still putting out episodes. Their discussions range far beyond baseball. “Oh, it's everything. Football, baseball, basketball, golf. We get to NASCAR. I mean, there's a sport... MLS. I try to hit the Premier League when I can. We cover it all.”
For every sport, too, Kacey has his favorites: “I'm a diehard Braves fan, baseball wise... Diehard Tennessee fan, anything college. Diehard Steelers fan. And I'm a Cavs fan. I stayed loyal to Cleveland as a basketball fan before LeBron left, and after he left. And I'm a Manchester United fan soccer wise, that's probably my squad. That's probably kind of everything that I get alerts for on my phone, at least.”
What do they want to see come of the podcast? “If it expanded, that would be fantastic, but it's definitely just me and him having a good time and having our conversations out. We really appreciate the listens, but we don't kind of follow it. We don't do it for the listens, we kind of do it just to have a good time with each other. But if we grew, absolutely. Sports journalism was what I was going to school for before I stopped and that would be the ideal location to land in, for sure.”
So, really, what’s it like being back to the ‘normal life’ in Tennessee? Kacey, again, showed himself to be very down-to-earth. “You know, it's a good place to be,” he said. “Knoxville is the smallest big city in America, I like to call it, because everybody kind of knows everybody. But there's a ton of things to do. Obviously not right now with everything shut down. It can get kind of redundant at times, but it's never boring. It's a good place to raise a family.”
You can see a LOT more of Kacey as Troy Ryan at Helix Studios [link features PG-13 edits, but NSFW], or visit his Twitter @TroyRyanXXX—though these days you’ll see a lot more about sports than you’ll see nudes. And, for you sports fans, you can listen to Balls & Brews at anchor.fm/johnse-hatfield. And here's a piece we did a while back on homophobia in pro sports!
Nashville author Greg Howard, a writer of middle grade and young adult books, has turned out a number of acclaimed books over the last few years, such as Social Intercourse, The Whispers, and Middle School's A Drag, You Better Werk! Howard has a new book forthcoming February 1, 2022 called The Visitors.
Just last month, Middle School's A Drag, You Better Werk! caught the attention of Laura Ingraham, who featured the book and its cover on her show, The Ingraham Angle (that angle veers far right, even by Fox standards, in case you’re unaware), accusing Howard of pushing some insidious homosexual agenda.
In an article for Huffington Post, Howard shot back, "I’ve been accused of pushing my 'homosexual agenda' onto kids through my writing. So, I will confess: They got me. I’m guilty. I do have an agenda." That agenda? Giving LGBTQ+ kids representation in middle grade and young adult literature and shining lights on the social issues plaguing our kids into mental health crises.
Howard’s new book, The Visitors, which touches on the abuse many LGBTQ+ kids face, the prevalence of suicide among these youth, and racism and slavery, is sure to catch the ire of rightwing pundits like Ingraham. But it also provides much-needed representation for kids suffering every day in this country. And it provides a modicum of hope in a world increasingly bleak for our kids.
The week before his book release, Howard discussed the book and the social issues it delves into with me. We revisited some of the issues surrounding representation we had discussed when his books The Whispers and Middle School's A Drag, You Better Werk! were released, as well as how the political environment has shifted dramatically.
INTERVIEW WITH GREG HOWARD
Greg, can you tell us a little bit about it your new book, The Visitors?
Greg Howard: Well, The Visitors is set on a deserted rice plantation in the low country of South Carolina. It's the story of the spirit of a 12-year-old boy who is stuck there. He doesn't remember why he's stuck there, who he is, or even how long he's been there. And he doesn't know how to move on from this very sad and lonely place. Things change for him when a groups of modern-day, “living” kids show up. They're investigating a decades-old mystery for a school podcast and his memories get stirred up. He starts remembering things about his past that might help him move on.
So that's a pretty cool concept! True Crime podcasts are big right now. So having one in a school setting and having that be a story device seems really kind of contemporary and cool! The background of the rest of the story is more traditional—it's a ghost story, after all—with elements that some readers may potentially find problematic: LGBTQ+ issues, youth suicide, slavery in America, and more. Tell us a little bit about your decision to write about some very sensitive topics, especially now!
Greg Howard: The Visitors deals with some serious topics, yes. As in all my books, there are elements of humor and charm to couch or frame some of the more serious, and sometimes uncomfortable topics. The book touches on issues of physical abuse within a family, youth suicide, sexual orientation, gender identity, and slavery.
I have specific reasons why I wrote about those things. But overall, I feel they're issues that need to be addressed, like youth suicide. I was talking to some of my educator friends, and wondering, “why aren't we talking about this?” It’s not something you see discussed a lot in middle grade books, and I don't know why because it’s happening every day. I understand that some adults feel it's not age appropriate to address in middle-grade books, but if kids are living it, we need to talk about it. And I need to write about it.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people ages ten to twenty-four, and it's growing at an exponential rate. LGBTQ+ youth are five times more likely to have attempted suicide than their non-LGBTQ+ youth peers. So, not addressing the problems isn’t helping. Unfortunately, the age of the victims of suicide, is skewing younger and younger. We have kids who are fourteen, thirteen, twelve, sometimes even younger, who are bullied for being queer or being perceived to be queer, dying of suicide.
Beyond the prevalence of the issue, I know your personal experience growing up, both having considered suicide as an option and having experience abuse, really influenced the character's backstory. Could you say a bit more about that?
Greg Howard: I was twelve when I first started thinking that death was the solution to my problems. I was queer, and I lived in the Deep South. I wasn’t shown and alternative for a life being myself and happy. I had to hide who I was. I went to church, where I was told from the pulpit that I was going to hell for being who I was. Of course, I didn't feel like I could talk to anybody about how I felt. And then I also had an abusive stepmother. My mom died when I was very young, and my dad remarried someone much younger than him. She was abusive to me and my brother, both physically and emotionally. Every time I would try to talk to my dad about it, he didn’t believe me. So that was something else that was weighing on me as a kid.
I was probably suffering from depression, as a lot of kids are, but back then you just weren't diagnosed with depression. You certainly weren't treated for it.
Because of all of these factors, I thought about suicide quite a bit when I was that age. That was another reason why I wanted to talk about it in this book, because again, I lived it. And I know kids out there now are living it.
I've had kids come up to me at events after reading Social Intercourse, for instance, or The Whispers and tell me that the book helped them out of a very dark place, when they were thinking about ending their own lives. Again, if kids are living it, we need to write about it, and we need to talk about it.
If by addressing this topic in a middle grade book I get pushback or challenged, it will be worth it if even one kid finds hope from this book. Ultimately, the book is a story of hope and redemption. I don't want anybody to think that I have a queer character whose existence is all horrible and without hope. The characters in my books always find hope in the end, as all kids should.
Representation is not just seeing the LGBTQ+ character on the page, but it's also seeing an LGBTQ+ character struggling with those experiences and prevailing. If all you see is happy LGBTQ+ characters and you are a person who's struggling with it, you're gonna feel just as far outside because of that character as you would from seeing only straight characters, right?
Greg Howard: Yes, exactly. I have seen reader reviews on Amazon or Goodreads for The Whispers and received some emails from more progressive people saying, “this book is bad because this little boy is ashamed of liking other boys, and I had my son quit reading it because I don't want him to be ashamed of who he is.” And they’re missing the whole point. Real kids are having these emotions whether you acknowledge it or not. So, let them read something that's going to take them on a journey from feeling ashamed to loving themselves and feeling hopeful in the end.
Before we move on, let's not forget about the other sensitive issue this novel touches on—slavery.
Greg Howard: Yes. I felt it was important talk about slavery in the book, because first of all, the story is set on a rice plantation in the deep South. It would have been disrespectful, not to acknowledge and pay tribute to the black people who would have suffered and died there.
When I was growing up in South Carolina, in this area where the book is set, we weren't taught the real truth about slavery. We were given a whitewashed view of slavery—you know, how the enslaved people were “treated like family,” and, "Oh, look, this planter even built a chapel in the slave village!" It wasn't until I got older, and I started learning more about the world and having more experiences and broadening my friend base and reading, especially, that I learned that this is not really the way it was.
The other reason why I wanted to go there in this book and have characters who are the spirits of enslaved people, is to engage young, white readers with a part of our history that they don't have to talk or think about, if they don't want to. It doesn’t affect their lives. Slavery in our country is an ugly truth, but one that we need to keep telling. Hopefully, the book will encourage young white readers to reach out to people who are not like them and think critically about how slavery and racism have really shaped our country and our society.
So we have gender and sexuality, we have abuse and youth suicide, and we have a look into racial intolerance and oppression, all wrapped into one book! I think Laura Ingraham is going to think that you wrote this one just to spite her! But in all seriousness, it just seems so timely, especially in Tennessee right now! We've banned the teaching of so-called "critical race theory" in schools, we're discussing a ban on any LGBTQ+ content in schools, we're banning books like Maus because they don't want kids to know that kids were killed in the Holocaust. It's a rough time out there, and you've written a middle grade book that seems to touch on all of it.
Greg Howard: It's what's happening in the world. So, I feel like to ignore these topics or to take these books off the shelves doesn’t solve anything. It certainly doesn’t save kids.
Middle School's A Drag, You Better Werk! was recently panned on The Laura Ingraham Show on Fox News. The way it all came about was the book was on a teacher's class reading list for students at a middle school. Laura Ingraham got a hold of that list and was leading a discussion about what's being taught in schools. All of a sudden, there's the cover of my book up on Fox News, and she’s talking about how terrible it is that my book was included on this reading list. She and her panelists called it “sickening.”
If Laura Ingraham thinks I'm doing something wrong, then I am most definitely doing something right. Thanks for the free publicity, Laura! 😂😂😂 #diversereads #RepresentationMatters #mglit #bookssavelives pic.twitter.com/ELArbEBNtM
— Greg Howard (@greghowardbooks) November 15, 2021
Middle School's A Drag, You Better Werk! is also on a list of 850 titles that Texas state senator Matt Krause is "investigating" schools over, wanting to know if schools have them on their shelves. It's just so frightening because this kind of action is spreading like wildfire all over the country. When people who are trying to suppress find success of in their efforts, other people in other places feel emboldened and want to jump on the bandwagon.
When I was young, I didn't have access books like mine. That was quite a while ago, and while we've come a long way, especially in the young adult genre, there's still a lot of ground to be made up in books for younger readers. It's shocking to me that I still get emails in 2022 from kids who say, "I've never read a book that showed a kid like me!" By which they mean queer or othered—different. And I'm like, "Really?” Because I know the books are out there. They are many authors writing the kind of books I do, but access to those books is being limited.
I feel like, since the last time we talked about this lack of representation, we've seen a shift in the policy. Now it's not this quiet thing, it's like we literally want to erase your representation from our curriculum. It's actively anti-representation. So the more content that we put out there, the more likely it is to find its way into someone's hands. What are you working on now that the launch of The Visitors is getting underway?
Greg Howard: I’m working on a new middle grade book which involves time travel. All my books have bits and pieces of my life in them, and this new one does, too. The Visitors is set on the deserted rice plantation that I grew up just down the road from. My friends and I would ride our bikes there, and the place was supposedly haunted. The Whispers was about my family and my mom. Social Intercourse was inspired by my high school experience. Middle School's A Drag, You Better Werk! was about when I was trying to be a kid entrepreneur at twelve. People connect the most to books when the author leaves a bit of themselves on the page.
I also know that some of your projects are being developed for other media. What are the statuses of some of those projects?
Greg Howard: Middle School's A Drag, You Better Werk! is being developed for television by NBC Universal and Heyday Television. The producer is David Heyman, who produced the Harry Potter movies, the Paddington movies, Marriage Story and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. So, it has a really incredible team behind it. And The Whispers has been optioned for film by Peter Spears, the Oscar-winning producer of Nomadland, Call Me By Your Name, and others. These things take time, though. I'm really excited to see what happens.
Be sure to get your copy of The Visitors on February 1, 2022 or after, on Amazon or wherever books are sold.