Interview: Patricia Nell Warren

By Mark McNease

I came out at 16 in a small Indiana city of 30,000 people. It was 1974, and I was deeply hungry for images of myself as a gay person. There wasn’t much available then, aside from books I ordered from the Psychology Today book club, some of which did more harm than good. Then came a novel called “The Front Runner” about the love story between a young college athlete and his coach. The book gave me hope and, along with the few others I could find, let me know I was not alone in the world.

Patricia Nell Warren has never stopped writing. At 75 she has a new non-fiction collection out, titled “My West,” that presents her personal impressions of the American West, a book she describes as, “a collection of blogs, commentaries, historical essays and other personal writings… past, present and future.” It was a privilege to interview her and very much a reminder that passion has no shelf life.

MM: Thank you very much for this interview. As I mentioned in our emails, your landmark 1974 novel “The Front Runner” played a pivotal role in my gay teenage life in Indiana back then. I’m a sucker for a love story and a tragedy. But most importantly it let me know I wasn’t alone in the world. Is there any downside to having written such an iconic novel? Do you ever tire of being identified with it?

PNW: No, I don’t ever tire of that. The Front Runner has kept groceries on the table for over 30 years, and I’m grateful to all the readers who continue to buy the book. Even today the fan letters still roll in every week. And… I have written 10 books by now, and am a better writer than I was in 1974. So it would be nice if some retrospective attention would be given to my entire body of work. Some of my best writing is in the recent books, like The Wild Man.

MM: The follow up to that novel was “Harlan’s Race”, which was also the first book published by Wildcat Press when it launched in 1994. What prompted you and your business partner, Tyler St. Mark, to start your own press?

PNW: In the past, I’ve had problems with a couple of trade publishers on royalty reporting and contract compliance. When I joined up with St. Mark in the early 1990s, we made the decision to go independent. I had the prior experience in the publishing business to do books on my own. Being an independent publisher is admittedly a lot of hard work. But I prefer it to having to get a lawyer to get my royalties paid.


MM: You’ve just published your tenth book, “My West”, a collection of 47 short pieces on everything from agriculture to cooking, politics, sexuality and more. Can you say a little about this collection – why you decided to put it out, and what makes it close to your heart?

PNW: Two years ago in L.A., at the urging of gay author/filmmaker Gregory Hinton, the Autry National Center decided to display the two iconic Brokeback Mountain cowboy shirts in their Western film gallery. It was a courageous step, that opened a mainstream door on growing interest in LGBT presence in the American West. At the Autry for the media event, the day the Brokeback shirts went on display, I met Gregory Hinton, and felt very inspired by the Autry’s move.

The fact is — I’m a Westerner born and bred, and grew up in a ranch that is now a national historic site. Over several decades, I’ve written one novel (The Fancy Dancer) and dozens of short pieces that explore my growing sense of myself as an LGBT Westerner. After talking with Hinton, I decided to do an anthology that celebrates this self-identity of mine. My West is a real departure for me. But what surprised me, when I got all the pieces together, was how consistent my voice was, through the many years.

It’s important for us to stake our claim out here, because some imagemakers for the West put forth the notion that the West is all bible-thumping and neo-con. Yet the real West has its liberal and progressive streak as well. LGBT people have always been here — we continue to have our roots here, and to contribute in many ways. Gregory has since launched a program series called “Out West” that he’s taking to other cities and states, with 12 successful events in 2011, and more planned for 2012. Subjects range from gay rodeo to notable LGBT Western artists and other cultural figures of the past and present.

This year I did “Out West” events for my book in California, Montana and Nevada. Next year I hope to tour with the book in other states as well. What’s striking is the numbers of non-gay people who show up for these events. “Out West” is proving to be a strong crossover draw in these communities. So I support this wonderful series as much as I can.

MM: You talk about the importance of oral tradition in the YouTube video from the Out West at the Autry reading. It made me wonder if oral tradition has a place within our own LGBT communities, and also if oral tradition can survive in our modern technological age when the very idea of tradition is being replaced with 140 character tweets.

PNW: This is a good question. Oral tradition starts in the family, and a sense of its importance spreads into the wider community, where events and personalities of the past get carried along on a widening unwritten record. But today, oral tradition – even in families – is definitely on the wane. That includes a sense of family genealogy. I meet growing numbers of Americans who have no idea what their family roots are, even those who descent from immigrants. In many cases, when LGBT people are rejected by their families and communities after they come out, they are cut off from the oral roots. So there goes the chance to find out if Great Aunt Jane was really a lesbian.

Today, in spite of all our official emphasis on LGBT history, I see a dangerous lack of personal interest in that history. Especially in the blogging and tweeting world, where posts on the latest red-hot issue always get tons more comments than the history stories do. Yet achievements of the past, and what we’ve learned collectively from decades of organizing and lobbying, are the foundation of our civil-rights gains today. When activist veteran Frank Kameny died recently, how many of our people – especially young people – had any idea who he was? Yet Kameny was a towering pioneer in the history of our battle to end DADT. Oral tradition is very important in the military world, as I know from my many relatives who served in uniform and cherished their personal archives of war stories. I hope Frank’s best war stories got recorded by somebody before he passed on.

So sorry, but the tweet of the day will never replace a good story with a beginning, middle and end. It’s up to us LGBT elders to kick some butt and make sure that the oral traditions in our keeping are cherished and recorded.

MM: You’ve written eight novels and many more short stories, poetry, essays and editorials. Do you have a favorite form (short stories, novels, essays)?

PNW: During the Fifties and Sixties, I went for poetry and short stories. But I haven’t written a poem since 1978. Today I focus on full-length fiction and short nonfiction – historical articles, commentaries, etc. And I continue to operate in both those genres. I do have a passion for nonfiction, to the point where my fiction writing has a tinge of nonfiction “reality feel.”

MM: Publishing has changed so dramatically the last few years, with eBooks now being a way for people to get their work out there – good, bad or otherwise. What do you make of these changes?

PNW: E-books were in the cards, for sure. Everything in publishing is now obsessively digital, even the printing process. And it’s easy to get hooked on the low price tag of e-books.

But there is a huge danger inherent in e-publishing. Digital information is so fragile and ephemeral. It’s not in the interest of LGBT culture, or American culture, or any culture, to have our precious information or creative expression disappearing into thin air when e-books go out of print. Digital archives large and small can be wiped out by crashes, or hacking, or breakdowns of the power grid. At least with hard-copy books, an out-of-print title is still available as a used or collectible item. It can still find its way into a public library, archive or private collection. Print books (including the laboriously hand-written ones dating before Gutenberg’s press) have been on shelves for thousands of years. Since those books were well-made, they survived many centuries of use, including accident and neglect. This is how we get to have the great thinking of 2000 years ago – because books containing that writing have survived.

So I see ebooks as an economically attractive option for publishers and bookbuyers, in a time of recession when costs are critical. But e-books should never be viewed as a substitute or replacement for print books. A community (or a country) that invests entirely into e-publishing will be in danger of someday having a vast void where a recognizable past could have been preserved in real books. Paper recycling makes it possible to create new books without killing trees.

MM: For writers (not necessarily young ones, either) who might look at the publishing landscape today and find it intimidating, a confusing sea of options, what would you say that could encourage them to do it anyway?

PNW: Yes, it’s hard to get published. Big corporate trade houses, even independents and small presses, are cutting back on their book lists. They’re getting ever more picky and cautious about what they choose. But even in the best of times, it was never easy to get published. It took me a few years of rejection letters before my first novel (The Last Centennial) finally got published in 1971.

So new writers always need a determination of steel as they look for their breakthrough. Today I always tell newbies (including the seniors among them) that they can help their chances a lot by doing two things. First of all, to educate themselves about what the options are. (There are many online resources with information on how different types of publishing.) And second, to simply fight off that feeling of discouragement and never give up in their efforts to break into print. If they want others to believe in their writing, they have to start by believing in their own work.

MM: You ran for city council in West Hollywood in 2007 but lost that election. Any interest in doing that again?

PNW: It was an illuminating experience for me. Unfortunately, even at the local level, running for office takes big money. I was unable to raise enough contributions to compete with the city-hall incumbents, and wound up with a campaign debt that took me a while to pay off. Nobody ever talks about the campaign debts, but election losers usually have them! Even Hillary Clinton had a campaign debt! Presently I look for other ways of being “political” besides running for office.