Curledup.com contributor Michael Leonard interviewed Jay
Quinn, author of The Beloved Son,
who talked about the disconnect between many adult children and their aging parents, senile dementia as a peeling away of layers that leaves those things immutable to one's sense of self, and how crisis has the potential to bring a family together.
Interviewer Michael Leonard: The Beloved Son speaks for many of the families with elderly parents who are forced to deal with the issues of aged care. What gave you the idea for the novel, and how much research did you have to do on the effects of dementia?
Jay Quinn: The idea for the novel came as a result of several factors. Of course, I am much of the same age as Karl, the book’s protagonist and, like Karl, I live several hundred miles from my own parents. I usually get to see them only twice a year. Once a year I fly up to visit, and they come down to Florida each year to spend Christmas with my partner and I. Needless to say, I find myself in that same physical and emotional disconnect that Karl experiences between where I live and where my parents do.
Another contributing factor in coming up with the concept for the novel is the result of my five years working with J. Walter Thompson’s Mature Market Group, which is a specialty branch of the international advertising agency’s creative and marketing services. As part of my job at the Mature Market Group, I did a great deal of research on ageing, and as part of that, the onset of senile dementia and its effects not only on the individual but their families as well.
Also, I experienced working with continuing care retirement communities like the fictional Palladian Gardens in the novel. Then too, I have many friends and acquaintances who have related their own stories of dealing with ageing parents. And, to give credit where it’s due, I recall a conversation I had with David Rosen who was, at the time, Editor in Chief at InsightOut Book Club who encouraged me to develop the rather inchoate concepts I was sharing with him about the book’s focus.
The Preston family is very upper-middle class and well educated. Karl is a successful civil engineer, his wife Caro is a teacher, and his daughter Melanie's background is in art history. Why did you decide to focus the story on such an accomplished family?
I don’t think I see the Preston family as being particularly accomplished as much as they are fairly representative of middle-class America. Perhaps I have portrayed them as having particularly creative interests or talents, but as a family, I find them to being interesting people I wouldn’t mind spending time with… a good thing since I lived in their world while I wrote the book.
My work typically deals with stories set in an upper-middle class milieu. I write about what I know and from my observations of the world I find myself within. I know very well the generational cycle of the white middle class and its hopes and dreams. My grandparents on both sides were sharecroppers. My parents dreamed of a higher standard of living and worked very hard to make their dreams into reality.
From them, I developed my own dreams and aspirations that took me further educationally than it did either of them and as a result of that hand up on the middle-class striver’s ladder, I live a life that is all of a piece with those aspirations. With white, middle-class experience variously accepted and then dismissed by literary fashions, I rebel against the notion that my world is devoid of anything meaningful to write about or is exhausted in terms of literary inspiration.
The story takes place through the point of view of the middle-aged and married Karl. How difficult was it to inhabit all of his emotions, insecurities, and belief systems?
Surprisingly, not that difficult at all. I like to think I’m gifted enough as a writer to create characters that are fully formed and fleshed out who are intrinsically different from me in some important ways. Like Karl, I am Catholic, college-educated, in a relationship of many years duration, and live in circumstances that are necessarily different from those of my own ageing parents. I think the real thrust of your question has to do with my being known as a gay author and choosing to write from the point of view of a straight man. I don’t think the leap is that fantastic.
Creatively, by this fourth novel, I found being known as a “gay author” to be a bit of a straightjacket. My readership is not exclusively gay. I frankly would prefer to make it out of the gay ghetto in terms of where I fit in both the shelves of Barnes and Noble and the expectations of my readers. While I believe my work will always reflect a certain gay perspective, I intend to make that apparent in the form of certain characters, not as a raison d’etre.
I certainly don’t see my being gay as defining the scope of my talents as a writer. If I’m at bat, with the metaphoric bases loaded, and I knock one out of the park, I don’t particularly want to hear, “not bad for a gay guy,” I’d prefer the achievement to be judged against all batters. I hope that Karl could stand alongside any character created by Ian McEwan or Ann Patchett for example.
At the beginning of the novel, Karl spies a mother arguing with her son outside his bedroom window. He's amused and then wearied by the exchange, referring to them as "white trash" when Caro asks about them. It's an early indicator of where Karl is coming from, what do you think this actually tells us about him - and by association Caro?
Karl has a real problem with what I like to call “unseemliness.” He is constantly on-guard against any unseemly difference in himself, his emotions or actions. I made Karl a civil engineer because there is the mathematical rigor of linear thinking in his personality. He likes things to be a bit predictable and easily handled with a minimum of fuss. He is not a communicative man, but rather he is of the mindset that his actions speak louder than words.
When he finds himself an unwitting witness to the little drama between the mother and son outside his window in the pre-dawn hours, he feels confronted by the messiness of family interactions with all the unpredictable and non-linear results those circumstances can have. Yet, there is a streak of the unpredictable and non-linear thinking in Karl’s life as well. The whole reason he’s up so early in the first place is to capture on paper a flash of inspiration he has had on a work project. While he is tightly wound, Karl has the capacity to feel deeply and deal empathetically with those he loves.
By association, Caro shares his disapproval of the unseemly as well. Like many couples who have lived together for many years, there is much about them that is alike. Caro comes from a large emotive family Karl describes as “wooly.” Part of Caro’s continuing love for Karl is in her understanding of both his emotional reticence contrasting his great capacity to love.
This speaks directly to Caro’s role in the division of labor that comes with marriage. It is she who handles the emotional heavy lifting in their relationships, protecting and shielding Karl from having to deal with family and friends. Karl is so used to this accommodation, he finds himself emotionally bereft when he is separated from Caro for only a couple of days once he gets “home” to his family in South Florida.
These are two people who love each other deeply. I really wanted to communicate their closeness as part of novel’s framework. In creating his own family, Karl has brought to bear his experience as being part of a family and by extension, how to be a husband and father, but it is Caro who completes him as a man.
Throughout The Beloved Son, you refer to Karl's emotional restraint, but when he arrives in Florida, what is it about his brother Sven that allows Karl to open up and ultimately reconnect and confide?
That has everything to do with Karl’s genuine love for his younger brother. Though they are separated by a twelve-year age difference and the fact of Sven being gay, Karl is perhaps closer to Sven than he is to any of his family members. The ties are complex though they stem from Karl’s sense of responsibility for Sven, knowing him, as he has, since his brother was in diapers.
Yet, Sven never calls on Karl to meet any emotional demands. In a sense, they are estranged, yet there is an unspoken bond between them. Sven loves Karl unconditionally and Karl knows this. That knowledge is what encourages Karl to make himself emotionally available to his entire family. Sven is Karl’s proof that the burden of his relationship with his family is essentially easy and light.
Sven is self-effacing and talented - he even owns his own boutique store - and he's also incredibly giving, not just to his parents but also to his lover, Rob. What do you think drives Sven?
Sven is the type of person one rarely meets. He is mostly at peace with himself and knows himself lovingly and well. Sven can be so altruistic because he has no axes to grind. He sees things and the people in his life for exactly what and who they are and accepts them ungrudgingly. For all his life, he has been loved by his mother, resented and disapproved of by his father and essentially abandoned by his brother from an early age.
Rather than let any of these wildly divergent relationships with his family scar him, he holds himself above all of them, knowingly letting his father, brother, mother and lover all be themselves without affecting him adversely. People who are so secure in and of themselves are few and far between, but they do exist. I can’t say I know what drives Sven, but I can say I created him as being the most emotionally mature of his entire family.
I believe that being gay gives one a set of skills that allow you to nurture yourself in what can often be a very hostile environment. I made Sven gay in order to give that dimension to the book. When you write about families as I do, there always has to be one family member who is, in a sense, aloof from the internecine squabbles and daily wear and tear inherent to being in a group of people who are so close in emotional (if not always physical) proximity to one another.
In this novel, Sven is that person. Despite the fact that he is so “available” to each family member to be whatever they want or need him to be, Sven is always self-contained as an individual unit in the volatile mix.
What do you think lies at the core of Frank's resentment of Sven? Is it his homosexuality? Or is it his close attachment and loving bond with Annike?
Without a doubt, it is Sven’s closeness to his mother. Frank is a very selfish and possessive husband. He loves Annike deeply and wholeheartedly. For Frank, Sven represents a willful rebellion on Annike’s part against his total possession of her. She admits to Karl that she had Sven for herself, though Frank believes his youngest son was an “accident.” That she adores her youngest son and has drawn lines of language and love around the two of them that exclude Frank drives Frank crazy. The fact of Sven’s gayness is just a convenient way for Frank to exercise his active dislike for his son.
In the convoluted world of the family, nothing is ever what it seems. There are always other reasons for everything that occurs emotionally between family members. Resentments, slights, motives and maneuvers have other manifestations than what are generally considered to be acceptable. It is not really acceptable for Frank to dislike his son because he’s close to his mother, but, in Frank’s way of thinking, it is perfectly acceptable or “rational” for him to vent so much irritation on Sven for being gay.
Of all the characters, Annike seems the one that has tried to come to terms with her illness, partly because she finds comfort in her Catholic faith and also her Swedish language and heritage. In actual fact, how important are these things to her?
They are very important. If you think of the effects of Annike’s dementia as a peeling away the layers of an onion, what is left are those things that are immutable in her sense of self. Both her religious and Swedish identities are at the core of how she defines herself. People who practice a faith on a daily basis identify themselves readily as being a Roman Catholic or Baptist or Muslim. If you ask them to describe themselves, it is one of the first things they will tell you about themselves. Similarly, being Swedish would constantly be on her mind as an immigrant to the United States as the wife of an American citizen.
The dissonance between her primary cultural heritage and the culture she has embraced as an adult would necessarily be at the forefront of her consciousness. And sadly, one of the effects of senile dementia is the fading of the most recent memories and experiences while the recall of the distant past becomes sharper in one’s consciousness. As both spiritual and cultural identities are inculcated in us from earliest childhood onward, these things become anchors of individuality as one’s self diminishes.
Catholicism is actually a powerful force that reverberates throughout. Frank rediscovers it, Annike seeks solace in it, and Karl and Caro have raised Melanie as a Catholic. Sven, although gay, remains committed to his religion, while Caro confesses faith isn't that important to her. It is only Karl who has spurned it. Why is faith an issue for these people?
As I am a practicing Roman Catholic myself, there is a dimension of my work, which always addresses the comforts and conflicts inherent in being a modern American Catholic through my characters. It’s an important part of my dialogue with my readers. As my faith is part of my life, I choose to create characters that have varying stances in their approach to the practice of religion.
I cannot recall the most recent poll numbers, but a surprising number of Americans claim a belief in God whether or not they are allied to a specific religion. In most contemporary fiction, authors avoid directly addressing religious faith, or lack of it, as a part of their characters’ lives. It is a facet of those characters’ lives that is rarely addressed or is immediately dismissed as being irrelevant.
I don’t feel that a consideration of faith a taboo topic, nor one which is irrelevant. Given the current zeitgeist, matters of faith are in the forefront of world affairs. The American public is constantly in a dialog with itself about the effects of religious belief, especially now that religious fundamentalism is shaping both national and world events.
While I am always careful not to proselytize, I do think it’s important to give my characters a spiritual dimension to their personalities. In their various identities, I’m able to make some larger statements about how I perceive the world and the people in it. The short answer is obvious. Faith is an issue for the Prestons because it’s an issue that’s important to me. I think it adds to their three-dimensionality.
Frank almost seems to represent an aged world, perhaps even an example of the old Republican guard. What were you trying to say here in showing Frank as so frustrated and embittered?
Frank is probably the most detestable character – albeit the most fascinating - with his attitudes towards gays and Democrats, and all of the other hot button issues of the day. He's finding it difficult to cope as Annike steadily deteriorates, and he's taken to emotionally abusing Sven and also to drinking heavily.
Some people mellow as they age. They become more tolerant and broad-minded. Frank represents the other end of that spectrum. I wanted to express in Frank, those opinions held by some older people who have found themselves made vulnerable by ageing, less relevant, less vital. For those people, their reaction is to become more rigid in their thinking. They become intolerant of the world’s changes as the result of being marginalized by their age. The resulting resentment from this marginalization becomes their identity. They wear their religion and politics on their sleeve and are very vocally judgmental as a matter of course.
Do you think readers would readily sympathize with Frank even though you paint him in a mostly unflattering light?
I don’t find Frank to be particularly sympathetic, but neither do I find him to be a cartoon of elderly conservatism. I don’t know if my readers will readily sympathize with Frank, but I do believe many of them will recognize him. Everyone knows a Frank, how else do you accommodate a world of Rush Limbaugh listeners? I hope that in recognizing Frank’s similarities to people my readers know, perhaps even love, they will extend to him the same forbearance they do the Franks in their own lives. Such polarizing personalities are part of the world we live in these days.
Caro and Melanie seem to be calming forces on the events of the weekend. They're liberal and warm-hearted, and also very modern in their outlook. And they're not afraid to show emotion. In what respect do you think they bridge the divide between Karl and Sven on the one hand and Annike and Frank on the other?
Caro and Melanie are the soft human bumpers that come between Karl and the sharp edges of the people who can hurt him most, his family. By their very presence, they do act as calming agents on the Preston family because they are Karl’s family. Caro is Karl’s translator and comforter as she urges him to open up more fully to his family. Melanie is Karl’s ambassador. She represents Karl’s success as a father and man in his own right. It is in these roles that they bridge the divide between Karl and his father, mother and brother. By deflecting attention away from Karl himself, they give him the breathing room to find his bearings in the much-changed landscape of his family.
Karl is furious at the way Frank treats Sven; and Annike is furious at the way Frank has been acting. What do Karl and his parents have in common? Are they in fact that much alike?
I think I most wanted to show Karl as possessing the best traits of both his mother and his father. While Karl recognizes in himself the possibility of ending up as isolated, contentious and irascible as his father, he knows his mother has tempered his personality. In this aspect, I think Karl is like many of us. None of us is exactly like one parent or the other, though we may share the propensity toward certain traits. How much are they alike? Only time will tell.
The success of any character is the length of their longevity in the reader’s imagination. For example, Take Francie in Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows In Brooklyn. I read that book as a nine-year-old boy, yet she remains in my consciousness forty years later. As I have grown, I can extrapolate who she might have become as she grew into adulthood. I work to make my characters that enduring.
As the weekend starts, the family is almost like a thorn in Karl's side, a funhouse of mirrors that Karl can't wait to get away from, perhaps even a reminder of his shame at failing to stay connected to his family. When and why does Karl start to see his role as the beloved son from a different perspective?
That’s the journey of the book isn’t it? I am reluctant to point out a specific instance where Karl has this coup de foudre and realizes his role has shifted in the family dynamic. I think of certain events: Sven’s gift of the candle, Karl’s taking his fathers hand as they sit in the backyard his first day home, and his mother patiently pointing out an old photograph and telling him he was beloved too, and I wish I could say it was that moment. But it isn’t. It is a slow accretion of events and feelings that nudge Karl toward the weekend’s shift in perspective. I tried to be very deliberate in that effect. I’d prefer to leave the answer to that question up to the individual reader.
What I most wanted to convey in the book was that sense of a weekend’s visit “home.” Time and experiences are so compressed in those occasions that you don’t have time to think, you simply do the best you can knowing your plane ticket is waiting in your suitcase and all too soon you will be back in your own life. I wanted to create that same sense of claustrophobia, of a lot going on in a very limited amount of time that one has to adjust and respond to immediately, when in fact, it will take months or years to resolve once you return to your own world and life.
There's a political dynamic that echoes throughout, particularly with regard to gay rights. Why do you think Karl is disgusted on the church's stance on gay marriage and civil unions when he reads the damning letter from the Virginia bishops at the Sunday church service?
Again, this is a case of me taking authorial liberties to insert comment on current events. The letter regarding the Roman Catholic bishops of Virginia’s stance on civil unions is an actual document. It appeared in my church bulletin several months ago, confronting me as it did Karl, completely by surprise. My point here was to bring the national discourse into high relief and sit this story in a time and place. Most moderate Catholics of my acquaintance are confounded by the Church’s position on gay marriage.
It is not very Christian, but that is part of the moral contortions one goes through trying to reconcile one’s personal practice of a faith to official church doctrine. The book’s political dynamic is very much a part of my intent to accurately reflect the zeitgeist. Karl has all the conflicts of any reasonably intelligent American. The war in Iraq, the church’s stance on civil unions for gay people, the reality of ageing parents and of ageing oneself, these are the conundrums of contemporary life today.
On the plane to Florida Karl sees a jet passing in the opposite direction and thinks about how life sometimes moves unimaginably fast. The cross hanging by the Preston’s front door is an insistent bequest from Frank and Annike to Karl. Sven's scented candle is a heartfelt gift to his older brother. And Frank's orange trees no longer produce fruit, but he keeps them anyway. In what ways do these symbols reflect the characters hopes, dreams and aspirations?
As for the passing jet trope that reappears throughout the novel, it is my way of making Karl feel thrillingly alive in the midst of his current experiences. All of us live our lives pretty much on autopilot. There is little to make us feel electrically aware of our lives in our day-to-day existence. When Karl is startled by the speed and proximity of the passing jet, the inherent speed and danger of flight shockingly makes him aware of himself.
As the entire weekend over which the novel is set is a time out of Karl’s routine, he is constantly made aware of how things exist for a chillingly short moment in time not only for himself, but for all of his family. Great change is inexorably coming to his perceived notions of how things are. His awareness of how fleeting time and life is central to the story itself.
As for both Frank’s crucifix and Svens’s candle, these are devices I used to knit Karl’s past back into his present and future. Karl lives without looking in his rearview mirror. He has created a life for himself away from the influence of his immediate family and as a result, he lives very much in the now. Unlike Karl, both Sven and Frank are constantly aware of the past, partly because their lives are so intertwined, but also by their individual inclinations.
Frank is at a stage in life where the heritage of the past is rapidly all he has left. Sven, being an antiquarian and designer spends his whole life seamlessly integrating the past into the present. These specific gifts are Karl’s link to a past he has discounted in his headlong rush to create a world of his own.
As for Frank’s orange trees, in a real way, his refusal to have them removed says much about how he wishes to be treated after he is no longer productive or fruitful. He doesn’t ask for much attention from Karl as his aged orange trees need little more than sunshine and water to continue living. Like them, Frank wants to be allowed a place in his family’s lives with respect for his fruitfulness and productivity in the past.
Annike's final talk with Karl is crucial to their relationship and also to Karl's growth as a son. How does Annike's understanding and acceptance of her dementia allow Karl a place in this changing family dynamic?
Earlier you asked me how much Karl was like his parents. This is a very good example of their similarities. None of the Prestons like the unseemly. Frank has provided for both Annike and his own custodial care to spare their children of the messiness of their growing old and incontinent and a drain on their children’s emotional, physical and fiscal resources.
Annike, in her final farewell to Karl, neatly ties up all the messy loose ends her mental departure ahead of her physical death will leave behind. She frees Karl from any sense of guilt or further obligation to her. In doing this she shows how well she knows her son and simultaneously shows how well she knows herself. She frees Karl to become the nominative head of the family, a position that will fall to him by the fact of Frank actually giving him the powers of attorney and the place he naturally will inherit as the oldest son.
There are a lot of families who drift apart only to come together when there is an unavoidable crisis that needs to be addressed, whether it is divorce or illness or some other issue. Do think the Prestons are that typical of the modern family?
In my own experience, this coming together is typical for the modern American family. At the time of my middle brother’s death from cancer when I was twenty-five, I was estranged from my own parents. We were at loggerheads after I came out. I was living apart from them by choice. After my brother died, I noticed my mother became much more accepting of my sexuality. I asked her about it, and she replied that she had lost one child by way of something she couldn’t control. She did not want to lose me over something she could, that being her degree of acceptance of my own life choices.
Of course, there are families who become even more contentious and rip apart during a time of great crisis. Not every family has the emotional wherewithal to set aside past slights and hurts in order to bond around an occasion of despair. But, it has been my experience in my own life as well as the lives of others I know and am a part of those families who tend to come together at such times.
I made a conscious decision to show how some rifts never heal in The Beloved Son; for instance, Frank will never be close to Sven, ever. It was not my intent to write an episode of The Waltons here, that would be stretching things too far. But, I think such circumstances do present an opportunity for self-examination and bridge building when you are forced to decide how to continue beyond a defining moment of crisis.
Are you currently working on a new novel, and if so, would you like to share a something about it with us?
My next novel is tentatively titled The Boomerang Kid and is due out from Alyson Books in the early summer of 2008. I am lucky to have such a fantastic publisher. They are allowing me to create novels that stretch the boundaries of what is considered to be “gay” fiction in order to reach the broadest possible audience.
The Boomerang Kid deals with a mother’s relationship with her gifted, Bi-polar, bisexual son, who has the amazing ability to never get grown despite her best efforts on his behalf. The book is written from the mother’s point of view; so again, I am reaching beyond myself in terms of voice and character.
I have a large number of straight women readers, so I wanted to write a book for them. I don’t think my gay following will be displeased with the book, but I have to stretch myself creatively if I’m going to mature as an author.
What would you like your readers to in due course take away from The Beloved Son?
If my readers find themselves a bit more aware of their own relationships with their families, then the book will be well served. If they hold on to the characters of Karl and his family for years to come and use them as touchstones for their own experience, then I will have been incredibly successful in what I was trying to do.
And finally, how has being a well-known American novelist changed your life, if at all?
I don’t delude myself that I have anything other than a very low-wattage celebrity, if any at all. But, having hopefully earned a spot in contemporary literature’s marketplace, I feel at once very lucky and incredibly responsible for what I write. In eight years I’ve produced seven books and am now working on my eighth. With each novel, I really want to deliver something meaningful to my readers.
I read reviews on Amazon.com that describe my work as “a great beach read,” and I feel saddened to have created something as unnourishing as a hot dog and a bottle of soda gulped down on a hot day in the sun. But, there remains a great sense of satisfaction in having captivated someone’s attention for even that blousy amount of time. I think if my life has changed at all it is in the realization that one’s best efforts are just a moment’s distraction, yet still represent a real connection with the broader world. I take that connection very seriously. It is a gift that inspires me to create better and better books.
Jay Quinn is the author of Back Where He Started,
Metes and Bounds and The Mentor, and the editor of Rebel Yell: Stories of Contemporary Southern Gay Men. He lives in South Florida.
Contributing reviewer Michael Leonard interviewed Jay Quinn (see accompanying review), about
his book for curledup.com. Michael Leonard/2007.