By David Nilsen
I recently had the privilege of interviewing Mason Stokes, author of the new novel Saving Julian (which I recently reviewed for this site). The book tells the story of an ex-gay minister, Paul Drucker, whose life falls apart when he is caught with a male escort. The book also shows us the lives of the men, women, and children who are hurt by his mistakes. The book is full of both humor and pain, and this interview gives us some wonderful insights into the book’s creation and themes.
David Nilsen: Saving Julian is your first novel. How long have you had the idea for this book, and how did the idea develop?
Mason Stokes: My novel is very loosely based on the story of George Rekers, a notoriously anti-gay psychologist/minister who was a proponent of so-called ex-gay conversion therapy, and who was caught in 2010 with an “escort” he hired off Rentboy.Com. There are so many of these cases—secretly gay homophobes like Larry Craig and Ted Haggard who believe that gay men can be made straight—and I’ve long been fascinated by them. Though abhorrent to me as a gay man, ex-gay therapy is really interesting for what it reveals about heterosexuality as a series of rules, behaviors, and gestures that can, and must, be learned. Rekers’ story seemed to me an ideal jumping-off point for a novel that would explore this shadow world of closeted homophobes who prey on gay men struggling to reconcile their desire with their faith.
David: The novel deals with an ex-gay pastor (Paul Drucker) and the various gay or lesbian characters who are impacted by his ex-gay ministry, and a good portion of the book takes place in meetings for that ministry. These portions of the book display a good familiarity with conservative Christianity. Do you have a background in religious settings, or did you have to do a lot of research into the language and culture of that world?
Mason: I grew up in the church, but I seem to lack the belief gene, and so got out as soon as I could. But growing up in the Bible Belt, I was surrounded by, and absorbed, the rhetoric of conservative Christianity, which I brought to the voice of Paul. Paul lives in the language and rhythms of the Old Testament, and I really enjoyed finding that voice for him. As a Southerner, though a non-believer, I was familiar with that language, those rhythms. But I also did a fair amount of research, reading endlessly fascinating, if despicable, books like Growing up Straight: What Families Should Know About Homosexuality and Coming Out Straight: Understanding and Healing Homosexuality.
David: Despite some fun you have in Saving Julian at the expense of Drucker you also have a lot of characters whom he has hurt show him a good deal of compassion and even forgiveness. You grant him his humanity even though he is guilty of some very despicable behavior. Can you talk about that decision a little bit, given how easy it would have been to choose not to show him empathy?
Mason: Drucker started out in my mind as a monster, and yes, it would have been easy to let that be the final word on him. But as I wrote him, I began to wonder how truly alien he was. Though I’ve never hurt people the way he has, I wasn’t born an out-and-proud gay man. As a young man I spent my time in the closet, and I hated myself for being gay. Luckily I made it through that period of self-loathing, but not everyone does. I guess I began to see something of myself in this terrible person, and though this was disconcerting, it was also a gift to me as a novelist. That said, I don’t quite agree that my characters forgive Drucker. One character says that he’s going to try to forgive him, but the work of forgiveness is hard, and would take much longer than my novel allows.
David: You use multiple narrators throughout your book to tell the story. Tell us a little about why you decided to go that route, and what challenges you faced in piecing the narrative together from those different viewpoints.
Mason: The first section I wrote was from Julian’s perspective (Julian is the gay prostitute Drucker hires), and although I was having fun with his voice, I recognized that he wasn’t equipped to really understand the other characters in the novel. So, I either needed an omniscient narrator or multiple first-person narratives, and the latter strategy seemed more interesting to me, but also more challenging. The chief challenge, of course, was making the voices sufficiently distinct from one another. Another challenge was the possibility that, in writing from, say, Drucker’s perspective, I would make him too sympathetic—that I would develop too much empathy for him. But that felt like a risk worth taking, and in trying to find each character’s voice, I was forced to know these characters intimately, from the inside. I was forced to become them, to think as they would.
David: Can you tell us a little about your writing process? What is a typical writing day like for you?
Mason: I like to write first thing in the morning, before I get distracted by other things. If I can get two pages written in the morning, that feels like a very good day. And then I’ll let those pages roll around in my head for the rest of the day, and, ideally, I’ll come back to them at night and revise. In the revision, I’m usually trying to turn the heat up on what I wrote earlier, which means I’m trying to boil it down to its essence, to crystalize whatever it is that wants to be at the forefront of the scene, or the moment, or the character. I’ll also flesh out those moments that were clearly placeholders for something yet to come—something I had a glimmer of in the morning, but didn’t really know yet.
David: What’s next? Do you have another book currently in the works?
Mason: I’m actually working on another novel, this one aimed at the Young Adult market. It’s a major revision of the novel I wrote before Saving Julian, which my agent wasn’t able to find a publisher for. On rereading that first novel, I began to hear a voice that I thought might work well for the LGBT Young Adult market. So I did a good deal of reading in contemporary YA literature, and I was really impressed by what I found there. When it’s good, it’s really good, so much so that the YA label begins to feel unnecessary. I’m hoping I can pull off something similar with my novel, which tells the story of a young gay nerd who becomes hopelessly infatuated with an equally nerdish guy who works at the public library. What’s not to like?!?! Love among the stacks!
David: After reading Saving Julian where else can our readers connect with your writing?
Mason: I’ve recently published a couple of personal essays that your readers might find interesting. In “Namesake,” I explore my relationship with my bachelor uncle, searching for clues that might connect us beyond the name we shared. It’s available here. I’ve also written an essay describing my mid-career turn toward fiction writing, despite my training as a scholar. It’s called “`Maybe There’s a Novel There’: On Stalking, Empathy, & Becoming a Scholar-Novelist.” Your readers can find it here. People should also check out my website, http://www.masonstokes.com, where they can also follow me on Facebook and Twitter.
David: Is there anything else you want to share with our readers about Saving Julian or its themes?
Mason: I’d like to add that, despite the heavy themes my novel deals with, it’s essentially a comic novel—or at least it was meant to be. I was trying to achieve that tricky balance between the silly and the serious, the laughable and the painful. I wanted these two modes to butt up against each other in productive ways, and I hope the reader feels that.
Let me also thank you and your readers for your interest in my work. This has been a pleasure!
David: Thanks, Mason!
You can check out Saving Julian today at Greenville Public Library!