Kirk Read teaches queer youth to "snap" with new book

By Jeff Walsh

In "How I Learned to Snap," Kirk Read paints a richly detailed picture of growing up as a gay teenager in Virginia in the 80s. With his military father and adorable, supportive mother, Read takes an unflinching look at his adolescence, and how it shaped him. Many of the stories jump off the page with an energy that immediately pulls you into the scene, seeing it vividly through Read's eyes. Personally, my favorite sections all involved Jesse Fowler, the older openly gay boy at school, the one who taught him to believe in himself, as well as to snap. Of course, that may just be projection, since I never had a Jesse to show me the way.

But this is not one of those golden reflections of an idealized youth, or one clouded through so many years of retelling that it has strayed from reality. In many parts of the book, Read doesn't have the answers, and at other times, you even empathize with his parents to some degree and wonder what this precocious little kid must have been like for them, trotting around the house in his neon-yellow sweater because the Color Me Beautiful lady said he was an autumn. Or doing an ABBA dance number in front of a houseful of his father's military buddies. Or arguing with his Bible Belt dad that the Holy Trinity was clearly "bullshit." You get the idea.

Read seems to have taken great pains to be as honest to his experience as possible in this book. And, unlike many books for youth, Read doesn't shy away from talking about drugs, buying his first porno magazine, or having sex with older men. The book is broken down into vignettes that take you from fourth grade through high school graduation, and it is just about his life, rather than it being about the boy who took a boy to the prom, or who started a GSA, or the boy who tried to kick ROTC off campus. Read is just a boy dancing in front of his mirror, wanting to be Michael Stipe, and reacting to all the cards life deals him, and it's refreshing because it has no agenda beyond showing him getting through everything.

If his name is familiar to Oasis readers, he has been published here for more than a year, letting us reprint his syndicated column. And for the sake of full disclosure, he has been a personal friend even longer. In fact, he submitted the essay "How I Learned to Snap" to Oasis back in 1998, which serves as a crucial vignette in the book. After he moved to San Francisco, we met when he was doing spoken word at a cabaret, and he made the Oasis connection immediately. We've been close friends ever since. So, it's been inspiring to see him go from someone who packed everything up in San Francisco a while back and moved way up north to write a book in solitude, to someone who is now back in town and ready to start a book tour in January. He's also good about kicking my ass to keep writing my novel, so that's a good thing for me, personally.

Read and I recently sat down in my living room and talked about the book for the first time with the tape recorder rolling. I had heard some of it while it was being written, and followed a lot of the interesting journey from it going from being a draft to a published book. But, this is the first time after reading the finished book that he and I specifically talked about what he had written.

The thing I really noticed about the book where it's almost kind of a "Toy Story" thing, where there is a lot for youth, but then there's stuff for the adults. It doesn't strive for the P-FLAG stamp of approval.

I was very aware that I was writing a difficult book, because the recipe for a young adult book is generally to tell the story and to take out all the sex. Or if you want to sell a young adult story to an adult audience, you add more sex. And I just didn't want to be dishonest about what my life as a teenager was like, which included sex and drugs.

Which is not to say it's filled with sex or drugs... there's nothing gratuitous or over the top. Everything is told with the same even keel, whether it's talking to your mom or going to buy a porno. Since it is such a good book for youth, was addressing that type of content a concern at all?

I knew keeping the sex in would alienate some people, and would keep it out of some school libraries. But, I didn't want to see another coming-of-age story that soft-pedaled sexuality and hid it and closeted it. That's really a disservice to queer teenagers, to give them all these rainbow messages and 'be yourself' messages, and then lie. And in our coming-of-age films and books, sexuality is either left out or framed in a way that is created by and for middle-aged men. You see all these French coming of age movies with lurid portrayals of gay youth that are nostalgic recollections of what they wish their sexuality had been like as a teenager.

Everyone has that, though. You had this best friend, and you were supposed tell them you were gay, they were supposed to tell you they were gay, and then you're supposed to just jump in bed together and you're okay because you have each other. It's become this archetype that so rarely, if ever, exists in reality.

For me, I had sex with older men, and it wasn't a horror movie. They were good experiences. And I think a lot of young gay men, especially, have experiences with older men that aren't abusive, and that needs to be discussed.

For most people, it's just a hot button issue whereby if the guy is older, it's immediately wrong.

People freak out, but we have to discuss that with complexity. If you can only discuss it where the older guy is an abuser, the only role you're leaving for young gay men is victim. And that's such a tired cliché. We're a lot more resilient than that.

When I read the book, or even when I read the "How I Learned To Snap" essay, which was the first thing Oasis ever ran of yours a long time ago, I first thought, 'Oh, this is cool, he's going to hook up with Jesse.' That's how my mind worked, that he would be this gay big brother and mentor...

That never developed. We're still friends. He's in New York doing hair and is still an amazing, bright guy who cracks me up.

Has he read the book?

He loved it. He was so flattered.

And Jesse is his real name?

No. All the names in the book were changed. These people in my life deserve their privacy. I made a decision to tell my story, and they should be able to control how much of theirs gets told, and on their terms. And with regard to the homophobic kids, or the kids who mistreated me, I didn't want to use their real names because just in the few years after high school, they had already come around. They had gone to college, grew up, had gay friends in college, and they came up to me and apologized.

Well, I do think there is a myopic view of gay youth, and all youth, in that they think they are tormented and confused as gay youth, but everyone is going through it. We think we're going through this drama and they have their shit together, but nobody has their shit together.

High school is a nightmare for everybody.

The other thing I liked in the book a lot was the tone. It was very present tense, as far as telling us things as you were living them then, but at the same time, it would kick in that you were writing it later in life. And the balance worked really well...

What I did was, I moved from San Francisco to the middle of nowhere. I had nothing to do all day except write and think about what I was going to write the next day. And I spent a lot of time looking at old yearbooks, and I kept journals all through high school, and I had photos from all through high school. I had notes that I had passed in class. I had so much stuff, and I thought I would quote from the notes and stuff, but I didn't end up doing that. But reading through all of that stuff was similar to the way an actor prepares for a role. I immersed myself in all of these memories, and I was able to write from inside the experience, or as close to that as I could get. One of the things I hate about a lot of memoirs is that they pretend to be much wiser. Usually you have a 50-year-old writer approaching their teenaged years with this kind of offensive wisdom, and I didn't want to do that. I really wanted to capture that awkwardness and embarrassment and giddiness, all of the things I felt as a teenager. I didn't want to get the book bogged down in so much reflection that I lost the immediacy.

But there were just certain perfect passages like when you were being picked on at camp and you just write, "Had we been twenty years older, this type of talk might have turned me on." That to me was just such an amazing example of balancing both voices, in that you are never pulled out of the moment, but it's clearly reflection from the present day. It was telling both vantage points, but it was very subtle. I loved that part of it.

To tell you the truth, I've never even thought about it that way. I never thought about how I was telling the story. When I was writing the book, I was reading it over the phone to my friends. I read you a bunch of things. So, as I was writing it, everything I wrote had to make sense as a piece of storytelling. That was the main thing, that it made sense. I wasn't thinking, 'Oh, I'm 15 here. I'm 27 here.' It just had to flow and be natural. Writing my columns totally helped and influenced the way the book came out. A lot of the chapters are the length of columns, because I was so used to writing that length.

I know you also like performing and doing the spoken word stuff. And they all seem to be very self-contained, where there's no set-up required. A lot of times you go to readings, and they go into these elaborate 'At this point in the book, he found out his mother is a transvestite, the aunt is locked in the closet, and the kid is downstairs eating peanut butter.' And then they start reading. Whereas all of yours just start, and you're right in the scene. Do you think that is because of the journalism or the performing?

When I sat down to outline the book, I made a list of different episodes. Prom. Getting thrown out of gym. Meeting my first boyfriend. And, that was part of getting inside the 15-year-old, the 16-year-old, the 17-year-old, and telling the stories as they happened. Breaking them down into vignettes really let me stay within each story. If I had done huge chapters or made it four sections, one for each year of high school, then it would have been a lot more of a 'looking back on high school' book, which isn't what I wanted to do.

And I love, love, love doing readings more than anything in the world. I can't stand going to a reading where it takes an author five minutes to set up what they're going to read. Or if it's a poet and then have to tell you what the ten footnotes are. I just can't stand that. Do a show. Give us a performance. Give us something. When I go to a reading, I do want them to be a little bit of a rock star. I want there to be some mystique. I want them to try to have an interesting outfit on. I want them to have flown in from some exotic city, having a torrid romance in that city, and then rush off right after the reading to go to some crazy sex party or something.

I'm guessing this isn't the type of book where you get to perform the unabridged audio book version?

I have no idea, but I'm dying to do an audio book! I'll have one if I have to make it myself. I don't care how it happens, I'm going to do one. And I would have to do it, it couldn't be some pretty air-brushed L.A. actor doing a Southern accent, that would be horrendous.

What is it like being on this side of the process now, the book is finally out, people are buying it online who you don't even know...and your life is out there for everyone?

There's a whole range of feelings. I saw my book in a store today for the first time, and I'm in the window. My face is on this spinning wheel in the middle of the Castro. It was very moving and gratifying, and I love doing readings. On the other hand, everyone I see on the street that I know even vaguely come up to me and ask me how the book's doing, what about my tour, and the same questions over and over. It's sort of like a mother with a newborn child, people ignore that mother. It's all about the baby. So, I'm feeling a little of that. I was having dinner last night with a bunch of friends, and one of them was eating salmon and he looked up at me and said, 'Oh, you hate fish.' And this was someone I barely knew, so I said, 'Well, how did you know that?' And he was like, 'Oh, it's in your book. You said during the fish dissection chapter...' And I thought, oh my God, all these intimate details about me are floating around.

It's traumatic sometimes and little things like that can trigger big panic attacks from me, where I just feel like, 'Oh God, I have no privacy.' You're kind of on a roller coaster all the time. But, the other day I got my first fan letter from a teenager, an e-mail from a 15-year-old who said everything I ever could have imagined wanting to hear. The book had helped him, he thought it was wonderful, blah blah blah. That makes it worth it. So, it's a terrifying notion for me that a lot of people are going to read it, but on the other hand, if I had a book like this when I was a teenager, it would have made my life easier. It's a trade-off.

Well, no matter how much the Gay PR machine is saying 'GSAs are everywhere' and 'gay youth are better off than ever before,' and I'm not dismissing that an untruth, but there is still a transitionary period where people are not comfortable with themselves and more apt to be online or reading books. There's a period before the rainbow flags take over, and then until you get that whole thing out of your system...

There's this notion that a high school with a GSA has no prejudice, and a lot of adults think that because there are a lot of GSAs around the country, teenagers are not having a hard time. The reality is that a lot of these GSAs have six members, and a lot of them are supportive straight girls. A lot of these high schools are still butcher shops for gay youth.

And there's also a huge number of people who, even if the school has a GSA, they wouldn't go anywhere near it. I love this pure intellectual level that if we put this thing there, everything is solved. Of course, that's how we do everything.

A GSA is a support system for gay youth. It's not a solution to homophobia. A meeting with dozen students once a week or once in a month that makes them feel better about themselves is not the same as a full school assembly on deprogramming homophobia.

And I'm sure there are gay kids who have gone to GSAs and it's been a total Frank Capra movie where they went in, and everything was solved, and they came out and everything went well, everyone accepted them.

But it was never their problem to begin with. The problem is with the 400 people who bullied them. The teachers who look the other way, who don't send students to the office when they say faggot. That's the problem.

Whose reaction were you most curious about when you wrote the book? Were you wondering what your mother would think? Or what any of the people you wrote about would think?

I am most interested in how teenagers react, and that's always been the approach I took to this book. I knew it would piss off some of my family members, and it has. I'm intrigued as to how my high school friends and teachers react, but that was never my primary focus. My mom loves it. She's read it like six times. She has a box of 100 books and is selling them to all her friends and my family members. I'm doing a reading on December 22 in Lexington, Virginia, my hometown, and there's going to be a big reception with wine and cheese and stuff. It's going to be hilarious.

Since the book is about your life, was there anything that you resolved through writing the book? Any closure? Or was most of this stuff over and done with and you just wrote about it?

I don't want to get too New Agey about this. But, I really did, as cheesy as this sounds, I really did get to a very healing place. I was able to forgive my classmates who were less than kind at certain moments. But especially with my family, I was able to be very forgiving. I just realized that people who didn't immediately accept me, they were never taught how to accept gay people in the same way I wasn't taught how to be a gay person. They did the best they could, and a lot of them came around. A lot of my family members struggled with it and came around, some faster than others, and some more gracefully than others. But, in their time, they came around. Writing this book allowed me to get an overview of the whole process they went through. It's so complicated. The whole thing about calling people bigots or homophobes, it doesn't leave them any room to grow, or change. It's so imprecise.

Do you know what the next book is going to be?

It's going to be a novel.

You're done with the reality for now?

I am done with memoir for a while. I will probably compile a book of columns and essays, but I want to write a novel first.

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For more information on Kirk and his book, visit his Web site at http://www.kirkread.com/ The site contains an excerpt, ways to order signed copies, and audio clips of Kirk performing, which are definitely worth the trip.