Interview with James Magruder: On Coming of Age, on Coming Out and on Coming to Jesus

Although James Magruder didn’t come to fiction until 2002, his stories have already appeared in literary magazines such as The Gettysburg Review, The Harrington Gay Men’s Fiction Quarterly, Bloom, Subtropics, among others, and in an anthology titled BOY CRAZY. That said, Magruder has been long acquainted with the art of story and the world of letters, having forged a stellar reputation as a translator, playwright, and dramaturg.

During his 15 years in theater, he received several prizes, grants, fellowships, and writer residencies for his translations, adaptations, reviews, and theater criticism. His versions of Molière, Marivaux, Lesage, Labiche, Gozzi, and Dickens have been produced on and off Broadway, and across the country. Magruder, who teaches translation and adaptation to graduate students at the Yale School of Drama and dramaturgy to undergraduates at Swarthmore College, also wrote Three French Comedies (Yale University Press), hailed as an Outstanding Literary Translation of the Year by the American Literary Translators Association.

And now, Magruder has applied his keen knowledge of storytelling to prose and the result is an astonishing debut novel titled SUGARLESS (University of Wisconsin Press), chronicling a short but pivotal time in the life of a 16-year old Rick Lahrem. Things look bad for Rick, a high school sophomore in a second-tier Chicago suburb in 1976. His stepfather is a licensed psychologist who eats like an ape, his stepsister is a stoner slut, and his father is engaged to a Southern belle. Rick’s only solace is his growing collection of original Broadway-cast LPs. After he brings two girls in speech class to tears by reading a story aloud, Rick is coaxed onto the interscholastic forensics team to perform an eight-minute interpretation of The Boys in the Band, the controversial sixties play about homosexuality. Unexpectedly successful at this oddball event, Rick begins winning tournaments and making friends. Rick also discovers the joys of sex—with a speech coach from another school—just as his mother, reacting to a deteriorating home environment, makes an unnerving commitment to Christ. Sugarless offers a ruefully entertaining take on the simultaneous struggles of coming-out, coming-of-age, and coming-to-Jesus.

Readers can check out the book trailer, available at http://www.jamesmagruder.com/about.html, and read more about Magruder, as well as the first chapter of SUGARLESS

Rosalia Scalia: Was it a difficult transition from playwriting to prose? Plays being dialogue heavy, what were some of the biggest challenges?

James Magruder: Functional sentences. I still hate to write them. Those sentences that move characters across the room. In plays, that’s all blocking, the director’s job. The major difference between playwriting and fiction is that playwriting and theatre is more collaborative. There is a glorious collaboration among all parties involved in a play. A good actor asks questions about characters, offers suggestions, and the character becomes richer from the collective wisdom of others’ expertise. Everyone’s vision of a piece adds something to a play, and it takes a lot of people to produce one. In fiction, it’s just you and your own vision in a chair in a room, and tasks that others do in theater are the fiction writer’s job in a story or novel. I can write dialogue falling off a log, so I’m always amazed when I hear writers saying they have difficulty with dialogue. But it’s the other stuff, the moving the character, the transitions from one scene to another, that challenge me in fiction. Conversely, what other fiction writers find easy—the passage of time, levels of omniscience, internal psychologizing, physical description—well, I break my head against those rocks every single day.

RS: Aside from dialogue, what elements felt more natural to write?

JM: Scenes and scene building. I’d learned, through long, hard experience in the theater, how necessary it was to keep Rick’s story in Sugarless moving forward, how to build and motivate one scene and allow it to lead into others. That said, I don’t want it sound as if I didn’t struggle with what to do next. At one point, I had a double homicide and a suicide at the end, and I eventually learned (both from astute reader-friends and a plethora of rejections from publishers) that that ending didn’t serve the novel well and was at odds with its overall tone and shape. That over-the-top conclusion was a case of me punishing myself and just didn’t belong.

RS: Speaking about the ending, I felt so torn at the end. Rick has to make a terrible choice, that leads to a betrayal. As a parent, I was outraged by the Ned’s audacity in exploiting Rick growing sexual awareness…yet at the same time, what happens to him felt so wrong!

JM: Other people have told me they felt the same duality about the ending. Young people mature at different ages. And on one level, Ned was really good for Rick at a time when he needed someone to be good to him. The story is set in the 70s, which was a strange decade, oversexed and wildly permissive yet oddly innocent. This story is set a year before Anita Bryant’s crusade and it’s pre-AIDS. Representations of gay people, positive or negative, weren’t everywhere you looked. It was still possible then to feel that you were the only gay person in the world.That Rick finds Ned is a miracle as far as Rick is concerned. Yet Ned is, objectively speaking, a sexual predator. And a teacher. The power imbalance is unsettling. My sister-in-law, who is an educator, was as torn about the ending as you were. I think the fact that neither Rick, looking back on the experience, nor I, judge Ned lends the book an interesting tension

RS: Tell me about the other betrayal: Marie, Rick’s mother.

JM: Marie betrays Rick—and the wound is deep–by making Jesus more important in her life than he is. She essentially abandons him for Jesus. Gay men and their moms, no one comes in between.

RS: How did you come to this story?

JM: It’s highly autobiographical. It’s set at the same ratty subdivision and the same high school where I grew up, and my mother did marry a man who was a terrible stepfather and she did accept Christ as her personal savior when I was a sophomore, and I did perform eight minutes of The Boys in the Band in speech tournaments. But unlike Rick, who is a loner and a C-student, I was smart and active. I had friends, and I went onto college. So in that sense, it’s different. Steve Hendrie is based on an actual neighbor boy, but in real life, he didn’t date my stepsister or some of the other things the fictional character does.

RS: Your theater background shines through in this piece, all those scenes in the interpretive reading competitions. The choices of interpretations, The Boys in the Band and other scenes, and all the details related to show tunes.

JM: I’m thrilled that dramatic interp and speech team have been outed as an after school activity, different from debate. Rick’s discovery of show tunes mirrors my own. I loved show tunes, and they still represent about sixty percent of what’s on my iPod. When Mart Crowley who wrote The Boys in the Band wrote me to say he loved the way I used the play in the book, it felt so gratifying. It was a wonderful surprise.

RS: I loved the humor in the book. The Christian element of the book lends itself to humor, such as when Carla reveals that her father is only becoming a Christian to get Marie to do things to him sexually. It exposes the hypocrisy behind some people’s choices. But other things are hysterical—like the Peruvian giant cockroach pin!

JM: The story explores how everyone wants or need to belong, either to some kind of group, family, belief system. It’s painful when one feels one doesn’t belong or fit in. And Christian hypocrisy isn’t something that’s going away. And things aren’t always what they seem.

RS: Carla’s embracing of Christianity seems sincere, in comparison to Carl’s. The mother’s choice seems driven by marital discord. Readers believe the cockroach is real for a long while.

JM: Some folks—and some of the many editors who turned Sugarless down–have said that they didn’t believe that someone could embrace Christianity overnight the way Carla does, but they obviously didn’t go to my high school. Wheaton, Illinois has been a hotbed of Christian fundamentalism for almost a century. Pauline conversions happened every other week in the halls of Wheaton-Warrenville. Marie is driven to Jesus to escape problems with her marriage and the additional stress that having Carla move in presents.

RS: Although this book is categorized as a gay coming-of-age book, I felt that it transcended that pigeonhole and could appeal to anyone who has a family, which is everybody. Most of the characters in the book are straight, except for Rick, who isn’t even sure he’s gay at the beginning. It’s a story about survival, everyone is striving to survive, regardless of their circumstances.

JM: Isn’t that true of all of us?

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