Fort Lauderdale resident Charles L. Ross (known locally for the gallery he endowed at the National Stonewall Museum and Archives) has written a steamy novel about power, arrogance, vanity and sex behind the pages of a glamorous shelter magazine. Inside is the title of his novel and the name of the magazine. If you liked The Devil Wears Prada, you'll love Ross's novel as it cat-claws its way through the refined fabric of a business upholstered with treacherous and wealthy publishers, paranoid and lonely editors, and drug- and sex-obsessed gay designers and photographers (and their cute assistants).
Does this sound like Barbie's Dreamhouse? Not really; Ross's novel is less a fairy tale and more a "fairy tell," because as art director of Architectural Digest from 1978-1985 (the time setting of the novel), his personal experience tracks that of Anthony Dimora, the character at the center of Inside's action.
Ross, who was profiled in the May 30, 2010 issue of South Florida Gay News, won't say how much of Inside is real and how much is imaginary. When pressed, he says, "It's a novel. Many people want to know what's real, but not knowing makes it fun. There are things in the novel that likely no one will notice but they amused me when writing it; for example, Anthony Dimora's initials. And dimora means home in Italian."
When I questioned Ross about Inside, he was candid in his responses.
FT: I'm guessing you wrote Inside because you felt you had a story to tell; an insider's view of an industry that you knew well. Right?
CLR: When people find out I worked at Architectural Digest, they express interest in going behind the scenes, so that was part of the motivation to write Inside.
FT: In a story like this, the reader can enjoy the goings on when there is at least one likable character. In Inside, there is exactly one likable character: Anthony. Was the industry really that nasty?
CLR: I think there's more than one likable character. Leaf is not one-dimensional; she's sad, and I think some readers will feel sympathetic toward her at least some of the time. Isn't Raymond likable? What about Cole and Mark, the photographer?
FT: Leaf [the editor] is perhaps the most colorful character, but there are also Timmy [the assistant], Cole [the wealthy boy-toy] and Anthony himself who vie for the reader's attention. It's hard to think of Raymond as likable just because he has an enormous penis, although I admire his generosity with it. By the end, I wondered what the book was really about. The vendetta of Leaf? The romantic life of Anthony? The way Anthony threads his way carefully through the treacherous minefield of his chosen profession? The way that profession is governed by "The Gay" except at the very top where straight people control the real direction of the magazine and the real flow of money?
CLR: Andrew Holleran, who graciously read an early draft, said Anthony's inner thoughts weren't on the page, so I worked on that aspect--and it changed the book; it became equally about Leaf and Anthony, whereas before it was mainly about her. But I think Andrew saying it's "a biography of a magazine" is accurate.
FT: The designers come off as a nasty brood of gossipy silly queens who can tell you where to put a vase or how to photograph it, but not much more. Is this an intentional condemnation of the class?
CLR: In 1980 I was interviewed in The Advocate. Some people thought I was hard on gay designers, but that's the way I saw the ones I knew. I think you're wrong to say they knew how to photograph a vase. Most of them just got in the way during a photo shoot. They really were interested in "disco and dish." Sadly, many of those men died because of AIDS.
FT: How would you feel if a reviewer said "The book vacillates between an account of Anthony's career and his sex/romantic life, with the career ultimately taking first place."
CLR: I agree the career came first. I had two lovers during my ten years at the magazine--but neither one of them are in this book.
FT: You wrote some good sex scenes...drawing on personal experience?
CLR: I repeat: It's a novel. But I'm not ashamed to admit I did go to the baths and Griffith Park.
FT: How do you feel about your time at Architectural Digest? Are you proud of your professional demeanor? Are there things you would change about how you behaved in the workplace?
CLR: I am proud of what I accomplished at AD. Until I got involved, it seldom went to the press on time, so I'm proud of not only the way the magazine looked but also how I reorganized it to run smoothly. As for wished-for changes in my behavior, I was rather naive and foolishly believed what people told me. I've since learned that most people lie.
FT: This book will make a terrific movie. Let's cast it! Cole? Anthony? Leaf? Timmy? Raymond?
CLR: I envision a miniseries. When I first started writing the book--30 years ago!--I envisioned Shirley MacLaine as Leaf. Now I see Julianne Moore. Can Ryan Kwanten pass for a 17-year-old Cole? For Anthony, I have my heart set on Zachary Quinto.
I agree with Ross's casting choices (adding Jesse Tyler Ferguson as Timmy) but I suggest you not wait for the possibility of a mini-series. Inside is a delicious book. It's available on Amazon.com, in print or for Kindle.
On November 21st 7-8:30PM, Charles L. Ross will be reading from and signing copies of his novel at a free event at Stonewall National Museum and Archives, 1300 East Sunrise Blvd, Fort Lauderdale, FL.
A version of this review appears in the current issue of South Florida Gay News.