Allison Burnett Interview
by Josh Aterovis
Aterovis: A bit of background first, tell us where you live, where you grew up, what you do for a living, and any other background that might help readers know you a little better.
Burnett: I live in Los Angeles, near UCLA. I moved here in 1990. I had been writing plays and fiction for ten years in NYC, while working 35 hours a week as a night proofreader and a tutor. I was exhausted to the core and desperate to make a living as a writer. I wrote a couple of screenplays with a partner who had spent time in prison. I moved here when one of the scripts sold to, of all people, Roger Corman. We were paid six thousand dollars each for the privilege of watching our lovely, serious, moral script about race relations in prison turned into a C-Grade kickboxing movie - Bloodfist III: Forced to Fight. I am not making this up. Within a year of our arrival, my partner and I were making a humble living as studio screenwriters. Three years later, I began writing solo and everything has been incredible since.
Aterovis: How did you get started writing?
Burnett: I wrote all throughout high school and college—comedy sketches, poetry, plays, short stories. I also acted, but I gave it up after my first professional job—a dismal showcase in NYC of a GB Shaw one-act. I knew that acting was a dog's life. I also knew that writing simply came to me more easily. At 21, I devoted myself entirely to writing and never looked back.I started as a playwright, as a fellow of The Juilliard School in 1981.
Aterovis: Like many in the gay community, as I read Christopher, I just assumed that you were a gay man, so I was quite surprised to read on Advocate.com that, in fact, you are straight. Where did the idea for Christopher come from? What made you decide to write a book with a gay protagonist?
Burnett: Christopher was based on a vast wealth of experience. In the 1980's I wrote a thousand raw, unpublished pages about NYC life. When I sat down years later to make something coherent out of it, BK Troop appeared in my imagination. I didn't question or analyze it. I just began typing.
Aterovis: Do you have many gay friends?
Burnett: I have three very close gay male friends, but, as one who studied theatre in college and worked and lived in NYC, I have been close to dozens of gay men. At the law firm where I proofread, about 50% of the men were gay. When AIDS hit, I watched it exact a dreadful toll from my fellow workers. Strangely, I have only known well a few lesbian women. I have always been comfortable in gay circles and have never really thought of a person's sexual preference as being a big deal.
Aterovis: How did they react when you told them you were writing a gay-themed book?
Burnett: I don't remember how my three close friends reacted. What I do remember is how they felt after they read it in manuscript. One was generally supportive. After it came out, he ordered ten copies for me to sign for his friends. One told me that he thought Christopher had a chance of developing a long-term gay cult following, which blew my mind. And the third friend (who was visiting me at the time) emerged from my guest room weeping. We had known each other well in the 80's and the book made him, he said, not only proud of me but deeply nostalgic.
Aterovis: How did your straight friends react?
Burnett: Almost all the straight women reacted with effusive praise, and some of the men, too, but many of the men were unmistakably uncomfortable. Their response was essentially, “Hey, I enjoyed it, but next time, write a book with a straight narrator. “ Some of them, who are writers, worried that the book would always be marginalized and that I was severely limiting my audience. In a way, of course, they are right. But my feeling is, how many times in a writer's lifetime does he conjure a character whom he loves with all his heart? For me to turn my back on the creative impulse that underlies BK Troop, just because he is gay, would be the height of folly, I think, if not ingratitude.
Aterovis: In your commentary on the Advocate website, you talk about the fact that, while she didn't outright lie, your agent let your publisher believe their assumption that you were gay. She essentially set up your “straight closet”. What made you decide to go along and what happened when you did?
Burnett: I went along with it, because I was desperate for Broadway Books to publish the sequel, The House Beautiful. I had no idea how my editor would react if he knew I was straight. But I told myself I would never lie about it and I didn't. I finally told him because he made a comment to which offering silence as a reply would have been tantamount to lying. He was wonderful about it and did everything he could to get his bosses to publish the second book. Unfortunately, in this day and age, publishing has become as ruthlessly money-driven as Hollywood. Christopher sold almost 9,000 copies the first year, which by almost any standard is great. But Broadway demanded more of a return and so will not be publishing the sequel. I'm not sure if anyone will.
Aterovis: Your experience gives you unique insight into what it's like to be a closeted gay person. What did it feel like to be a closeted straight man?
Burnett: Uncomfortable as hell. Whenever I appeared on a writers panels or on the radio, I was dreading the moment when someone would say, “As a gay man, do you think that...” I hated the idea of saying, “Actually, I'm not gay...” I hated it, because I love gay culture, love my narrator, and despise labels. But the moment never came.
Aterovis: How did the gay community react when Christopher was released?
Burnett: With incredible critical support. Great reviews across the board. I couldn't have asked for more. I was also invited to speak at the West Hollywood Book Festival and appear on various gay sites. I am wildly grateful to my gay readership.
Aterovis: What made you decide to come out as straight?
Burnett: I was exhausted by the lie of omission. Plus, I discovered that I had been interviewed on a site that was specifically for gay writers. I hadn't realized it at the time. I felt as though I'd deceived then. Jesse Oxfeld at mediabistro.com gave me a place to tell the story. After it came out, advocate.com picked it up. Then the Cleveland Plain Dealer bought it and put it on their wire service.
Aterovis: What has been the reaction of the gay community to that news?
Burnett: In general, I don't know, but I got six really nice letters from gay readers and authors. There was one angry letter on the Advocate site, but I think the writer didn't realize I was being facetious when I joked about the oppression of straight writers.
Aterovis: What have you learned through all this?
Burnett: That the gay literary community is made up of some of the most openhearted, wonderful people in the world .There is an incredible inclusiveness and a stunning lack of judgment.
Aterovis: As a straight man who wrote a gay-themed novel, what are you feelings on LGBT rights? Did you support gay rights before this experience, and has your experience changed the way you feel at all?
Burnett: I am an unrepentant lefty and support equal rights for everyone.
Aterovis: You're in a unique position now to be a sort of liaison between the gay community, with whom you've created a bond through Christopher, and the straight community. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Burnett: As a sensitive man with a girl's name, who wore an earring back in 1976, who loves antiques and who recently wrote a Lifetime Original movie, I have always felt like a liaison between categories. I have been mistaken for a woman countless times (by those who have never met me, of course), and for gay by those who have. As a screenwriter, every script I have ever sold to the studios was bought by female producers for female executives. I wrote the original version of Autumn in New York, which as everyone knows put the “ick!” in chick flick. On the other hand, I love boxing and football, and, as a younger man, was as much of a pig with women as many straight guys. I also wrote and directed a testosterone cocktail of a movie called Red Meat. In short, I am sort of a freak.
Aterovis: I loved Christopher. B.K., the main character, was completely believable—as were all the characters. He could have been very unlikable, yet I found myself pulling for him. It was obvious you held a lot of affection for him. Where did he come from? Have you known people like him?
Burnett: He was highly autobiographical in many ways. Not in every way. But many ways.
Aterovis: Were you ever someone's Christopher?
Burnett: Never to that extent, but, as a literature and theatre student and as a young writer in NYC, I often developed warm relationships with older gay men, some of them mentors. I remember spending a weekend in Provincetown alone, when I was 26, researching the pages that eventually became the Ted and Julie chapter of Christopher. I knew no one. I was very lonely. Saturday night, I ran into two family friends from my boyhood in Evanston, Illinois—a gay male couple who summered there every year. They took me out to dinner and were so kind. I remember thinking how much I loved the nurturing side of gay men. Such generosity of spirit is rare, I find, between straight men. I certainly never saw it in my father.
Aterovis: What made you decide to set the book in the 1980's?
Burnett: It was the richest time of my life. I also loved the idea of setting a novel in Orwell's year—only my Big Brother is not an authoritarian figure, but a nosy neighbor who is always watching our hero, and believes he can actually narrate his inner life.
Aterovis: Can you give us any hints about upcoming projects you have in the works?
Burnett: I just sold a script to Beacon Pictures and Disney called Bundle of Joy. I am rewriting it for them to shoot, ideally, in the not-too-distant future. I am also a third of the way through the third BK Troop novel, Bowels of Mercies, which tells the story of BK in Hollywood, during the Christmas holidays of 2003. He gets involved in a murder mystery. It will be the last BK Troop novel, because poor BK is almost seventy and his heart is weak.
Aterovis: What would you like to say to all your fans out there?
Burnett: Thank you so much for supporting Christopher. Your support means everything to me. I hope one day The House Beautiful will come out. Not for my sake, but for BK Troop's. He craves an audience.