Please introduce yourself and your books.
My published works include six novels, a short story collection, and a stage play.
PINS, about a high school wrestler in ‘90s suburban New Jersey, also tells a Catholic saint’s story.
Monkey Suits blends the colliding stories of five cater-waiters in late 1980s Manhattan.
Cyclizen, told by a former bike messenger and AIDS activist, is set in New York City, and goes a bit noir in an intimate way.
My fourth and fifth novels, Every Time I Think of You and its sequel Message of Love, involve Reid, a botany student, and Everett, who becomes a paraplegic. Set in various Pennsylvania cities, the books were a Lambda Literary Award winner and finalist.
Now I’m Here, my sixth novel, shares the combined stories of Joshua a Queen-inspired piano prodigy, and his eventual boyfriend David, a pumpkin Farmer, in 1980s rural Ohio.
What are the real-life stories behind your books?
That’s a frequent question at readings. Reality and creativity are so blended that a pat answer could be ‘everything and nothing is a real-life story.’
That said, I have a few examples.
In Now I’m Here, my latest published novel, Joshua plays piano and gets a little bit of fame for playing a piano solo version of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” I actually did play the song for a piano recital in high school, but Joshua’s later larger TV show fame is made up.
David was raised on a pumpkin farm, and I actually worked on an Ohio pumpkin farm, but only for one season. This shows how I take a small bit of my own life, and years later, grow those experiences into fiction.
What inspires your creativity?
A scene or story that simply will not go away often serves as a spark to writing. I’ve been writing since I was a child. I even made little hand-drawn comic books on colored paper as gifts for my family, which provided a very nurturing environment.
How do you deal with creative block?
I do something else. I don’t consider non-writing periods as a ‘block,’ as much as times when I write elsewhere; at work, on my blog (www.jimprovenzano.blogspot.com), or when I assign myself an interview at work.
I love my job, which sometimes includes interviewing performers and celebrities. Being forced to condense an interview and briefly yet accurately tell their story, on deadline, aids my other writing.
In the ‘90s, I spent my early years growing the early drafts of several novels. By 2011, I’d planned to get back to Now I’m Here, but the first spark of inspiration for Every Time I Think of You came to me in a dream. At first, I cranked out what I thought might be a nice short story, then by dawn, went back to sleep, knowing it would become much more.
I kept imagining more scenes, and since I’d struggled for years with previous works, I gave myself a deadline; 500 words a day, and nine months to finish.
It became a very exciting year. With three published novels, I had more confidence, but also imagined a singular audience. It was like riding a bicycle, knowing it could work, that the two main characters, even secondary ones, fascinated me, especially when my brain decided they would do things I hadn’t expected.
What are the biggest mistakes you can make in a book?
Typos. When it’s nearly finished, proof it. Print it out. Read it aloud.
Use Grammarly or whatever editing software works for you.
Ask your friends to read it. If they won’t read it, get new friends.
When it’s really finished, hire an editor before you submit it to a publisher.
The biggest mistake is thinking that writing is a solitary venture.
It is, but it being read is not.
Do you have tips on choosing titles and covers?
Titles are a fun challenge. I’ve changed several of my titles for completely different reasons.
PINS is a very Catholic book with tragic elements. I’d originally called it The Hour of Our Death (from the Hail Mary prayer), but midway through the writing, another book was published with that title. Then, while doing research on the New Jersey juvenile court system, a term popped up: Person In Need of Supervision, or PINS. That word already had numerous references in the novel, not just the finishing move in wrestling. It was perfect, a quadruple meaning, which you can discover when you read it.
As for covers, I’ve had an up and down success. In gay fiction, one is expected to show possibly two male characters or something that reads ‘gay.’
I love the cover of Cyclizen, as it was done with a bit of Photoshop magic. My terrific model, Fabrizio, looks like my narrator, and is also gorgeous. I Photoshopped his own tattoo to become a symbolic centaur tattoo. He’s on a street in San Francisco, but the novel is set in New York, so I inserted my own photo of Fifth Avenue during an ACT UP protest as the background. It’s supposed to look a bit artificial, like a movie poster, and for me, it works.
For my Forty Wild Crushes, my short story collection, I chose a painting by a favorite Bay Area artist, Kenney Mencher. I wanted a sexy cover by another artist, and it was perfect. I also bought the original painting, which hangs in my apartment.
Ironically, for my two most gay and most romantic novels, I chose pristine images of an evergreen branch and a leaf. Both are real elements and symbols in the books. They’re both acclaimed and awarded Romance genre novels, but do not feature two guys embracing, which is a more common image, so go figure.
For the cover of Now I’m Here, I collaborated with a photographer, who found two adorable guys who look exactly like I envisioned my characters. We visited a friend’s farm in Petaluma, used their beat-up truck, and their dog jumped into the shot to nibble on the pumpkins I’d saved for months (we shot the cover in May).
Since there is a dog in the book, which wasn’t yet complete, I simply changed the breed of the fictional dog, and the color of the truck, which is also an important part of the story. I also shot video of the models and the dog, and put together footage for the music video book trailer.
That was a rare creative process that few authors get to enjoy or consider doing. Having done similar promotional work as a self-published author, it was fun to collaborate with the support of a new small press, Beautiful Dreamer Press (www.beautifuldreamerpress.com).
Further, I commissioned a piano solo of the Queen song and book’s title, “Now I’m Here,” the fourth book trailer I’ve created (on my YouTube channel, along with book trailers and song playlists for several of my novels: (https://www.youtube.com/user/Cyclizen)
In sum, a book cover can be close to literal, but should also reference symbols or settings in the book. I don’t like books that use stock images of some generic model. They tend to resemble cereal boxes. If you are lucky to get a book deal, consider the other books by the same publisher. Do they look like books you want to read?
How has your creation process improved over time? And what about literary agents? Are there barriers to writing gay fiction?
The process has improved so much! PINS, my first novel, took ten years to finish. Even after I submitted it as my thesis novel for my M.A. at San Francisco State University, it wasn’t complete. A year later, I had some time with a big literary agency, who failed to sell my book. I then spent another year polishing it, and a few news events and personal events helped me capture some more intense and better written aspects of the story. Self-publishing it in 1999 proved to be a better option, as I made more money and was able to market it properly, from independent bookstores to libraries and the LGBT athletics communities I was already covering through my syndicated sports column.
I still occasionally pitch to agents and publishers, but most mainstream publishers refuse to publish gay fiction that includes sexuality. I don’t mean erotica, which is fine and has a market, just not mine. The sexuality in my novels furthers the story. It’s not the main focus. Still, my work will always feature gay male main characters. Mainstream publishers seem to prefer more neutral gay characters, balanced with plenty of straight ones.
What was most surprising thing you encountered during the entire process of completing your books?
For my two romance novels, Every Time I Think of You and Message of Love, I found thousands of women readers, which I hadn’t thought would be interested in gay fiction. I’m always happy to find new readers.
Do you tend towards personal satisfaction or aim to serve your readers? Do you balance the two and how?
My imaginary reader is always one person, or one person at a time. I don’t think about large numbers. Many fans asked for a sequel to PINS, but I knew what could have happened to my main characters, and also, as it was based on a religious story, it was essentially over. Besides, I had four other novels in-progress, and have done both stage adaptations and the audiobook of PINS.
For Every Time I Think of You, I had already started the sequel as soon as it was finished. In fact, the week before it won a Lammy in New York in 2012, I’d spent a week in Philadelphia researching the history and settings, which led to inspiring entire chapters. It wasn’t a plan to please readers. Reid and Everett were simply continuing in my imagination.
What role do emotions play in creativity?
I’m captivated by the idea that ink on paper (or ebook) can induce a physical reaction. When friends and readers say my books made them cry, I ask, ‘On which page?’
Do you have any creativity tricks?
Music, drawing, making collages, and lots of research. As stated above, research has led to so many ideas for my fiction. Also, experience life. If I hadn’t been a wrestler, studied piano, worked on a pumpkin farm, been a bike messenger and activist or a cater-waiter, I don’t know what I could have turned into novels.
What are your plans for future books?
My seventh novel is complete and it’s epic! I’m in the process of finding a proper publisher.
I have a few more novels that are almost done, plus a memoir, and a few photobook ideas I’d like to publish for fun, with the profits going to charities. And who knows? I may awaken from a dream and start another novel.
Also, the audiobook adaptations for Every Time I Think of You and Message of Love are in production, and the narrator is terrific. Those will hopefully be out by December 2019. The audiobook of PINS is also available.
Updates and links to all my social media are on www.jimprovenzano.com.