Interview With Ronald L. Donaghe
edited: Monday, August 27, 2001
By Duane Simolke
Posted: Wednesday, August 22, 2001
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A modern storyteller tackles the gay book market. Interview conducted 8/22/01.
Simolke: First, can you tell us a little about yourself, aside from your writing?
Donaghe: I grew up on a farm in southwestern New Mexico. I’m the third oldest child of six children, the oldest son. I mention the fact of my formative years in the country because, at the time I was on the farm, all I wanted to do was get away to a big city, become a briefcase carrying professional, and live in an apartment. But once I did that, I began to realize what I had missed and spent many years of my adult working life trying to get back to simpler ways. I now live in a small city and work for one of the state’s universities as a technical editor/writer and office manager. I have an 8-5 non-stress job, which allows me some peace of mind, but is by no means my “life.” Most of my waking hours are spent in domestic-partnership bliss with my mate of almost ten years. Being in a monogamous gay relationship has been one of my life-long dreams, which I dreamed of even as a teen on the farm, once I realized I was gay.
Simolke: Why do you focus on gay topics so much in your writing, instead of reaching for a wider audience?
Donaghe: Part of my past experience has been that there wasn’t very much written about glbt people, and when I was coming out back in the 1960s, I was starved for information and stories about gay people. Back then, one found dark stories and smug, judgmental articles about us, and once I decided to become a writer, I saw no reason to write about heterosexual people (except as minor or supporting characters). But I still intend, in my writing, to reach a wider audience, and to some extent it does reach a few heterosexual readers. I include a true milieu in most of my writing, which includes the family life of gay people and do not set them in environments such as the gay ghettos of New York City. I put them in ordinary places doing ordinary things with other gay people as well as with a wide range of heterosexual people. But I realize that any story with a gay theme is likely to be read mainly by gay people. Still, I’m not heterosexual, so I see no reason to write about heterosexual love, for example, unless it fits with the needs of my stories.
Simolke: Did any particular writers inspire your entry into the gay fiction market?
Donaghe: A positive inspiration was Patricia Nell Warren with her initial set of books, which includes The Front Runner, Fancy Dancer, and The Beauty Queen. But I have to admit that I have also been negatively inspired to write for the gay fiction market because of all the crap that’s out there, mainly from mainline publishers who seem to focus on a very narrow kind of gay fiction and seem to have some sort of agenda in what they do publish. In 1985, for example, when I was working out of Washington, DC, as a technical writer, I had an opportunity to gorge myself on gay fiction at Lambda Rising Bookstore which, quite justifiably, claims to stock virtually ever gay title in print. In the year I was there, I made frequent visits to that bookstore, but scarcely found anything I really cared to read. The negative inspiration I mention has to do with the fact that I found too much of the gay fiction to be self-conscious attempts at being “literary,” or what I like to call “artsy fartsy,” and too little of it being just plain good story telling. I missed that, and decided I would write the kind of stories I wanted to read.
Simolke: You recently signed a contract for a series of fantasy novels. Could you tell me about the publisher and the books?
Donaghe: The publisher is Renaissance Alliance Publishing or RAP. They’re kind of a hybrid between the traditional publishers and print-on-demand. They work with companies like Lightning Source to print their books, rather than relying on traditional printers, yet they also work with Ingrams and other suppliers to stock their books in the regular way. They offer traditional discount schedules to brick and mortar stores, which sets them apart from companies like iUniverse, which doesn’t really do much to attract brick and mortar booksellers. Further, RAP is not a self-publishing outfit for writers; rather they are like traditional publishers who will only take on work if they think it is worthy, and each book is assigned to an editor who does the usual work with an author.
The fantasy series that RAP signed with me is a trilogy, which I’m calling “Twilight of the Gods.” There will be three total books, though the first book will be broken into two volumes due to its length. The first book will be entitled Cinátis, Volume I and Volume II. It’s high fantasy, with the typical elements involving a magical system, witches, a quest, and apprenticeship. But I feel it is also a departure, in that it will also have elements of technology in it that has nothing to do with magic. It’s really a clash of magic versus technology, or pagan versus an ordered religious power. The other two books in the series will be entitled Gwi’s War and War Among the Gods, respectively. In all I’m looking at close to a million words, which definitely puts it in the same category as the Robert Jordan “Wheel of Time” series, except that my trilogy will end, which I think readers will appreciate.
Simolke: Why the departure from gay novels to fantasy novels? Will you no longer write for the gay market?
Donaghe: Actually, it’s not really a departure, as my main characters are still “gay,” though in fantasy there’s really no breakdown of sexuality into “gay” and “straight.” To do that would be to sneak reality words, if you will, into fantasy stories. I don’t even like to refer to the beings in my stories as “humans,” but I do, because they have to be distinguished from other creatures, not just the animals. Still, readers might like to call my characters “gay” and that’s all right. I hope they do, because I would like to become known as contributing to a sub-genre under gay literature, that of fantasy. Thus far, much of what has been identified in fantasy as containing alternative sexuality has been well received by readers—even heterosexual fans can suspend their judgments when it comes to alternative sexuality. They might even enjoy it on some level they don’t permit themselves when reading more conventional fiction.
But as to the second part of your question, I don’t think I will ever give up on the gay market, per se. I’ve got five more novels to write; but if you’d asked me that last year, I would have said I only had two more left to write before I turned my full attention to fantasy. I just find it extremely satisfying to create worlds, complete with their races, creatures, land masses, legends, and wars. But here’s a hint: my fantasy is allegory.
Simolke: What do you think of the state of gay literature?
Donaghe: The whole industry as concerns gay literature is in flux. GLBT bookstores are going out of business at an alarming rate for what I see as two main reasons: 1. Bookstore chains are muscling their way into the glbt market using cutthroat practices such as bringing their greater buying power at reduced rates to outprice the same books being offered in glbt, independently owned stores; 2. gay people who have traditionally been readers seem to be dumbing down and prefer more glitzy entertainment over sitting down with a good book. GLBT store owners tell me that they’ve had to supplement their books with video and adult toys in many cases to stay in business. In another area, the publishing industry itself is in a state of flux. Small, independently owned publishing houses are being bought up by corporate empires, so that 90 percent of the books are published by only a handful of publishing conglomerates. And guess what happens to the glbt imprints? They become the voice of a limited number of writers, while most gay writers are frozen out. These big publishers take fewer chances on new writers and even less chance on experimental literature. But the worse thing is that twenty-something editors straight out of some college become the gate-keepers of gay literature; they have limited knowledge about the demographics of the potential market and tend to publish only those titles they can relate to. And that means relating to their experiences in big East/West coastal cities, period. As I have said in a piece entitled “Why Don’t Gay Books Sell?” the wrong books are being published and they’re being marketed to the wrong audience—other twenty-somethings. And guess what else? Twenty-somethings don’t read.
There is, however, the makings of a publishing revolution. In my estimation, the real future of gay writing is being done outside the mainstream of publishing, is being published by the POD industry by self-published writers who no longer feel they need to waste their time playing the submit-get-rejected game that traditional publishers like to play. The icon of gay literature in my estimation, Patricia Nell Warren, has herself become a self-published author with her own publishing company, and her latest work The Wild Man is her best. There’s also yourself, writers like Josh Thomas, Mark Roeder, Mark Kendrick and many others who are going ahead and publishing basic, good work, different from the darlings of gay literature, who continue to pump out gay ghetto, AIDS related, bitchy costume jewelry, parading as “great literature.” This revolution will die under its own weight, however, if the POD publishers don’t learn to increase their discount rates so that brick and mortar stores can afford to stock the books.
Simolke: Religion seems to occur as a frequent theme in gay novels, including the novels from your “Common Threads in the Life” series. Why?
Donaghe: Like family and school, religion is one of those all-pervasive substructures of our culture. This country was founded by religious groups intent on escaping the oppressive religions of Europe, so that they could establish their own brand of repression here in the New World. And most children enter the world and grow up in families that are faith-based in some important way. Religion, whatever it may really be, defines our moral code, a code of ethics, and a sense of right and wrong that most of us can never really outgrow. So, yes, I do write religious themes into my work, but I attempt to keep it in perspective, as a part of the problems (if you will) that we as gay people simply have to address. How we resolve the religious questions seems to me to be at the root of how we eventually come to live our lives.
Simolke: Common Sons, the first book in the “Common Threads” series, became a best seller several years ago. With its re-release by iUniverse, it has continued to sell, and to receive positive reviews at Amazon.com. Has that popularity translated into coverage by the gay press?
Donaghe: No. Unfortunately, the same dumbing down I find with the state of gay literature and who the readers are is even more rampant with the gay media. Very few periodicals even think to have a book review section, and “entertainment” sections usually do not include book reviews, only music CDs and movies. But even when you do run across a magazine or newspaper in the gay press that carries book reviews, you can just bet it will only carry reviews about what a handful of the biggie publishers are putting out. The one bright exception is that lesbian presses and media seem to be all-inclusive when it comes to reviewing and celebrating other women, and that’s great.
Simolke: Thanks to the Print-On-Demand technology used by both of your publishers, none of your books will go out of print. However, if you could only keep one of your books in print, which would you choose?
Donaghe: Common Sons.
Simolke: What advice would you give to new writers in the gay market, and new writers in general?
Donaghe: I’ll have to quote Stephen King here: “Be talented.” And then I’ll add, write what interests you, not what you think will interest someone else, because if you write your own interests, you imbue your work with passion and heart. But almost as important as this, remember that your underlying purpose of wanting to be a published writer is to communicate with your readers, so do it with respect. Part of that respect, of course, is to avoid beating the reader over the head with your vastly superior intelligence. Don’t “talk down” or preach to your reader. Know who your readers are. And most importantly about communicating with your reader and having respect for him/her, is to take the time to make your writing the best you can. Run a spell check, cross all your t’s and dot all your i’s, and revise until you drop. Send out your drafts to other readers who are gracious enough to give your rough stuff a read. Take criticism, no matter if it hurts. In fact, criticism that hurts is better for your writing than praise. So thank those who hurt you, and send them other things to read.
As for getting published, try to get published the traditional way first. If you succeed, great. But do not grow old playing submit-get-rejected. At some point, you’ve got to decide if your stuff is as good as you think it is. If it is, then go for self-publishing. But beware of vanity presses that will charge you an arm and a leg. They’re not in the business to sell books, they’re in the business to have writers pay to have their books published. But there are new alternatives out there. Check out print-on-demand. True, it can be a type of “vanity” press. But if you’ll take the time to edit and be edited by others, and if your work really is good, you’ll be in good company by self publishing—really. Until the middle of the 19th century, most writers were self published—Mark Twain among them. So don’t let the snob-appeal of the traditional publisher (with their minimum wage editors) dissuade you from getting published.
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