Thursday, July 28, 2005

Surviving an "on-the-air" attack

Last night was a very special evening because I was invited to discuss my novel with a book club who'd selected it as their July choice. The club comprised eight women--all of them teachers, educators and mothers--and one man who loves being the thorn among roses. How refreshing it was to spend nearly two hours answering questions about the writing process and 'Gabriel'. Over glasses of wine and snacks and with great enthusiasm, they discussed issues raised by the novel, namely family life and relationships, bullying, homosexuality, the Irish political situation, class prejudice and bigotry and intolerance. Their stimulating conversation made me think at one point, "This is why I wrote this novel and had it published in the United States. This is why I write."


Not so the interview I had this morning with a Rehoboth Beach shock jock, which I thought I'd share with you. First though, it requires me to fill you in on some pertinent background information.

When the hardcover of 'Gabriel' released last June, my publicist--a woman called Joan Schweighardt who first discovered my book and whom I now consider a great friend--was appointed by my publisher, and she did a stellar job finding me radio and telly spots to talk about my work. As I was to do a book tour of DC and Virginia last July, I decided to spend the weekend at our friends flat at Rehoboth Beach and do a reading at a bookstore which happened to be Lambda Rising, the gay one. Joan organized for me to do a 'phoner' with a radio station the day before my arrival in town and the talk show's producer asked her to send info about me and the book, which she duly did.

It will be clear to many of you by now that my novel deals with, among other important issues, Gabriel's sexual confusion as he enters puberty. To his horror, the protagonist finds himself attracted to other boys and, being a good Catholic child, he makes a valiant attempt to counter and expunge these feelings by dating a succession of girls, including the very wealthy, upper-middle class and Protestant, Fiona. It is also clear that my novel examines Gabriel's terror of becoming gay and his inability to tell his parents of his terror because of their rigid Catholicism and the pitiful, conservative environment in which he is growing up.

Unbeknownst to me, the host of this radio show had made a decision to skewer me. His second question was quite aggressive, but I put it down to the fact some radio personalities try to blindside a guest in order to get the listeners interested, if not highly excited. But this chap was relentless. He ignored an entire raft of issues, and kept asking inflammatory and silly questions--think Howard Stern here. For example, "Why did you make Gabriel gay?" and "I don't understand why Gabriel likes adult men." The questions and comments flummoxed me because I didn't know Gabriel liked adult men, either. You can guess the agenda; basically the questions bore no relevance to the novel's content and I was, in effect, being hi-jacked on the air. What was most despicable was that the questions had a marked anti-gay bias and seemed aimed only at expressing the host's abject bigotry and intolerance of gays, in addition to inciting the intolerance and even hatred of sections of his listenership. He was not in the least interested to examine the fear, pain and isolation the young protagonist felt, but rather wanted to extract lurid details as to why Gabriel would want to sleep with men, etc and whether I was Gabriel, etc. (I have never hidden that the book has a semi-autobiographical element--is in fact fiction rooted in experience.) As I saw immediately what was happening, I tried to steer the conversation back toward the literary, to discuss other important issues, but was consistently thwarted. Admittedly, I was a novice on the radio then, so I did my best and soldiered on without losing my temper or hanging up the phone.

A year later, the paperback's out, and I'm going to Rehoboth this weekend and Joan booked me on a radio show to coincide with my signing at Browseaboutbooks on Sunday. I could not remember the name of the host who'd tried to make a fool out of me and, after researching it, Joan was pretty sure the host wanting me on this time was not the same chappie. Early this morning I did the 'phoner', and guess what? Yes, you're absolutely right.

The first clue was his boyish voice. The next was his allusion to the fact he'd interviewed me before. My heart sank. I became instantly more alert. My first inclination was to slam down the receiver and go back to bed. And then I thought, it's people like me who, given an opportunity to do interviews such as these, can help diminish, if not actually extinguish, mindless bigotry. Of course, by now I've become a pretty seasoned veteran of radio and telly, so that aided my resolution...gave me the courage to continue with the interview, if you will.

And sure enough, the chap's segue was very sugary:he raved about the glowing reviews of my novel and the fact it was a finalist in a number of awards. In hindsight, this was aimed at buttering and softening me up for quick consumption. The first missile launched came in the form of a statement. He couldn't understand Gabriel wanting to be gay. I said, he was sexually confused and trying to fight being gay. He ignored the response and said again that he couldn't understand Gabriel wanting to be gay.

Immediately, I knew the barren path we were headed down, so I asked him a question.
I said, "What do you not understand?" Out came the flood of bile, his allusions to homosexuality and how he didn't understand it and then he dredged up pieces of our last interview. So I nipped it in the bud and addressed his audience directly, informing them how the host had shown disdain for my book and misrepresented it during the previous interview, how it had sold well in hardcover throughout the US to merit a paperback edition coming out now, that I wanted only to discuss the full content of the book and not discuss aspects of homosexuality that were not included within its covers, and last but not least, how I wrote the book to overcome bigotry, intolerance and downright animosity of children growing up different.

For a few delicious seconds, there was only dead air and I could hear the wheels in my host's brain make the connection. Next he asked, "Exactly what do you think the book will teach adolescents?"--and he referred to the review from a columnist for a parenting magazine and tried to quote her out of context. Again, I would not allow it. I said simply that it would teach kids to take action against bullies, because they are the first to see it happen in the playground, and it would teach them tolerance and compassion for any of their peers who're growing up different and struggling with it.

A little upset, he accused me of trying to manipulate the interview, and I expected him to terminate the conversation. But, clearly mindful of my allusion to bigoted and intolerant people, he switched tack and began to discuss the novel's other pertinent issues, such as the conservative community Gabriel lived in and the state of Irish politics. So all in all, I believe the interview was effective because some people called in to ask questions, and the host's closing questions were about my new novel
and touring in general.

Something very important was reinforced within my core today. We must all take a stand against bigotry, hatred and intolerance, no matter how inconsequential that stand may seem. We must avail of every opportunity to state clearly what we believe to be right and just, to speak out against what we know in our hearts is wrong, to educate people living in ignorance or hatred. We may not succeed at first. We may not succeed ever with those determined to hate or show intolerance. Even in those cases, we can take satisfaction in knowing we did the right thing. It is always easier to poke fun and ridicule minorities and those who are different. It is harder to love than hate, yet love we must.

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46 comments:

Martha O'Connor said...

Congratulations for surviving the tough interview, Damian. Sounds like you were very composed and professional, unlike the host. Damn these people and their bigotry. :o( Xx Martha

perfectlyfrank said...

Bully for you Damian, I'm glad you put the shock right back on the shock jock!

Can you reveal any details about the new book? I've given 6 paperback versions of Gabriel as gifts -- kept the HB for myself!-- and am dying to read more from you!

Damian McNicholl said...

Thanks Martha and perfectlyfrankt...and yes, damn all bigots.

With regards to my next novel, UNUSUAL STEPS, (set in London and already written), I'm considering how to talk about it on my blog...and might even post excerpts on my blog. It's curently with an agent for consideration at the moment and I'm waiting to hear back from her and then, at some point, it'll start doing the rounds at houses. Interesting point here:even though an author is already published is not a guarantee that his or her next book will automatically (or easily find) a publisher. Check my friend Gayle Brandais's blog to see the history of her second novel's progress, which I'm very happy to say has now found a great publisher.

Damian McNicholl said...

PS, perfectlyfrank, thanks for being so supportive of my novel and writing. I truly appreciate that.

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