Editor's Note: You've seen Steven Colbert's "Better Know a Lobbyist," but our version is so much gayer! Each weekend, we spotlight a different TBP contributor. In case you've missed any of our previous interviews, I've got links at the end of the post.
This week we're chatting with author Eric Marcus. In addition to writing weekly columns for TBP, Marcus has written several books, including Making Gay History and What if Someone I Know is Gay?, and Breaking the Surface, the bestselling biography of Olympic diver Greg Louganis. A native New Yorker, Eric is a former associate producer for ABC's "Good Morning America" and CBS Morning News. He lives with his partner in New York City.
1. How did you get involved with TBP?
Alex e-mailed me in May 2007 to ask if I would join TBP as a regular contributor. I hate deadlines and had a hard time imagining having to meet weekly writing deadlines so I declined. As an author, I'm accustomed to deadlines, but the deadlines come once a year or once in two years. Then Alex (or Bil) asked again a few months later and by then I'd been writing occasional blog posts for a friend's web site and decided that I could handle the pressure of being a regular Bilerico contributor. This has taken some getting used to, but I'm surprised by how much I enjoy having the opportunity to post every week, especially since I mostly post questions I get from people who read my books (and from people who find my web site) and the answers are often applicable to the experiences of lots of people. So posting with TBP give me the opportunity to help more people than just the one person who has written the letter.
2. What was your coming out experience like?
Such a big question! And which coming out do you want me to talk about? To myself? That was torture and it was a multi-year process that began when I was around 15 and ended when I was 21 (that's the last time I shed tears about the fact I was gay and that nothing I could do would change that fact). My sexual coming out, in stark contrast to the emotional turmoil I experienced, was an incredibly thrilling and revelatory experience. I got lucky. Coming out to my family? Oy. Not so easy. I came out to my mother when I was 18 and she knew almost nothing about homosexuality. It was 1977, so that wasn't such a big surprise. I didn't know much myself. I asked my mother to go to a PFLAG meeting and she asked me to go to a psychiatrist. We both said no. Thirteen years later my mother was co-chair of the NYC PFLAG annual dinner. And I've now been seeing a therapist for years and regret not having gone when my mother first suggested it. My grandmother was the last adult in my family I came out to and I wrote about that experience in an essay for Newsweek, which I've got on my website. I also have an essay on my website about what happened when I discovered that my nephew didn't know his uncles were gay.
3. When did you first know that you wanted to be a writer?
I'm not one of those writers who ever wanted to be a writer. I was an urban studies major in college and figured that I'd grow up to be an urban planner or architect. But I discovered that I had things I wanted to say and much to my surprise (and much to the surprise of my freshman year English teacher) I turned out to be pretty good at it (after four years of writing papers at college for professors who were very, very tough and then a year of very intense training at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University). I much prefer having written than actually writing. But now that I've been writing for so many years, there's great pleasure in being good at expressing myself in print. I still torture myself over writing, but not nearly as much as when I started out. Just for the record, the first thing I had published was the chapter of a book for an editor at what was then Harper & Row (where I was working as a clerical temp). The book was called The Hip Pocket Guide to New York City and I wrote the chapter on Queens, which is where I grew up. The book was published in 1982.
4. How long did it take you to research and write Making Gay History? And what was it like interviewing all of those people?
I loved the interviews! Meeting all of those pioneers, many of whom were elderly or very ill (with AIDS) was incredibly inspiring. For example, I can vividly recall how thrilling it was to sit across from Dr. Evelyn Hooker in her living room as she told me about her landmark research on homosexuality, which she began in the 1940s. It was a privilege.
Making Gay History was originally published as Making History back in 1992. The original book took two and a half years to research and write (that included conducting virtually all the interviews in person and doing the transcriptions myself). The updated book, which was a total re-write, took a year and a half. So that's four years of work that went into creating Making Gay History! If I'd had any idea how much work it would all take I never would have started. But I'm very glad to have written the book, so it's a good thing I didn't know.
5. Why did you decide to write What if Someone I Know is Gay?
I was approached by a children's book editor who wanted me to write the book. She had read Is It A Choice?, my adult Q&A book on gay issues, and thought there was a need for (and a market for) a book like that for a younger audience. I would never have thought to write for a younger audience. Given the era in which I grew up I was always terrified of dealing with gay people who were underage (the common myth back in those days was that gay people were inherently child molesters and I didn't want anyone to think I was out to get their kids). Now, most of the emails I receive are from people ages 11-18 and I don't hesitate to respond (although I'm still cautious about what I say because you never know if the kid you're responding to is really a kid or someone working for the FBI).
I'm so glad I wrote What If Someone I Know is Gay? because there is enormous need out there for straightforward, honest information about what it means to be gay. My original publisher did a poor job of promoting and distributing the first edition of the book and put it out of print a year or two after publication. I then spent the next several years trying to find another publisher and now Simon Pulse publishes the updated and expanded edition (which includes a special chapter for parents of gay people).
6. What do you feel is the most rewarding thing about being a writer?
What I love about the work I do is that I've gotten to write about and speak publicly about an issue I feel passionately about (such a tortured sentence!). Early in my writing career I wrote about architecture. Interesting topic, but I didn't feel passion about architecture, at least not the same passion I've felt writing about gay issues. I was lucky enough to start my writing career more than twenty years ago when there was still so much fresh ground to be covered. These days what I find most rewarding is having the opportunity to respond to the emails I receive from kids and teens. Now that I'm an adult well into middle age, I get to write to kids and teens in a parental and sympathetic voice--one that's often lacking in their lives. I can always easily put myself in the shoes of the people who write to me and I respond in the way that I know I would have liked when I was so in need of an adult's advice.
7. If you could be anywhere in the world in any time period, where would it be and why?
I'm very happy being in this place and time! These are the best of times for gay people (at least they are for gay people who live in the west). And I love living in NYC. But I often think about what it would be like to stand on my block around the time our house was constructed (1858) and then walk the streets of 19th century New York. I guess you wouldn't be surprised to know that one of my favorite books (although now a little dated) is Time and Again by Jack Finney, which is about time travel and is set primarily in NYC in the late 1800s. I would also love to walk through Penn Station in 1920 and experience first-hand the great glass and steel train shed (and the rest of the station), now long gone. In addition to my passion for gay issues, I still love great architecture.
Check out previous interviews with TBP Contributors
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore