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SubtleTea Novel Interview - Collin Kelley, author of Conquering Venus 

This is a first for SubtleTea: me smothering a writer with questions that make James Lipton seem terse - and all about a single work.  My first victim is Collin Kelley: poet, new novelist, winner of the Georgia Author of the Year Award and a Pushcart Prize nominee.  In this interview, we focus on his debut novel, Conquering Venus (published by Vanilla Heart Publishing 2009).

Synopsis (by Vanilla Heart Publishing): In the summer of 1995, young American writer Martin Paige agrees to chaperone a group of high school seniors on their graduation trip to Paris as a favor to his best friend, teacher Diane Jacobs. Diane hopes Europe will act as a catalyst to lift Martin from his grief following the suicide of his lover, Peter. But the trip proves to be more than either of them bargained for. Martin finds himself falling in love with one of her students, David McLaren, who is unprepared to cope with his burgeoning sexuality. He also meets a mysterious Parisian woman, Irène Laureaux, who is debilitated by agoraphobia and spends her days spying on the hotel guests across from her apartment. Martin and Irène discover they have a logic-defying connection: a small tribal tattoo on their left hands that means “equal but opposite.” This is same tattoo that Martin’s lover and Irène’s husband had inked into their skin.

All the characters lives are irrevocably changed in a horrifying terrorist attack on a Paris metro station. Liberated by the blast, forced from her own self-imprisonment, Irène learns her husband’s death was not an accident, and dares Martin to acknowledge the role he played in Peter’s suicide. Diane, harboring her own secrets and a hidden agenda, takes a drastic step to force David out of the closet and admit his feelings for Martin.

From America to England to France, the globe-hopping story places fictional characters amidst historical events such as the Nazi occupation of Paris, the student/worker riots of 1968 and the terrorist bombings of Paris in 1995. Grounded in reality, Conquering Venus is a mystery, a love story and a journey of self-realization.


 SubtleTea Novel Interview with Collin Kelley: Conquering Venus




D: How long have you been sitting on the idea for Conquering Venus?  When and why did you decided to expand it into a trilogy?



C: Conquering Venus began as a screenplay in 1995. I had an agent who tried to sell it to Hollywood and while the story was well-received by producers, it was considered an overpriced art house movie. My agent at the time suggested I turn it into a novel. I worked on the novel - on and off –for four or five years and found a literary agent in New York in early 2001. She started sending out the manuscript to publishing houses on the morning of Sept.11, 2001. She called it the worst timing ever. The inappropriate relationship between the student and his chaperone on a trip to Europe, coupled with the terrorism subplot went over like lead balloon. The novel has an unresolved ending, which could have stood on its own, but my agent at the time said it was ripe for a sequel. I thought a sequel would be great, but the idea of turning it into a trilogy only came around a couple of years ago when I saw that the second book was going to open up a whole new set of mysteries to solve.




D: The protag of the book, Martin Paige, is a pale-skinned, fair-haired, blue-eyed, all-black-wearing, gay man of twenty-two.  Though he can be acerbic and serious, he's sensitive, sappy, and writes poetry.  And he adores Paris.  Come on, Collin.  Is Martin based on a guy named Collin Kelley, circa mid-1990s?


C: Well, sure, there's a little Collin Kelley in Martin Paige, but there's an equal amount in Irène Laureux. While I had a physical model for Irene in the actress Jeanne Moreau, her emotions, actions and motivations strictly had to come from my imagination. I would hope to have the grace, wisdom and patience of Irène when I'm her age. She is truly a great lady. The only things I share in common with Martin are the things you described in your question (minus the "sappy" part -- I don't think either of us are). I did help a friend of mine who was a teacher at the time chaperone a group of students to Paris in 1995, but beyond that the story is fiction. 




D:  I hate, hate, hate the term "Dickensian," but the book's plot is just that.  Martin, Peter, Irène and Jean-Louis share matching tattoos, Martin and Irène share intersecting dreams (and Diane seems to unwittingly quote from one), and Irène and Diane share similar heartbreaking secrets that I'll leave as secrets for those who haven't read the book yet.  Though it's quite easy to slip into ridiculousness when juggling coincidences, you added a synchronicity motif seems to pardon them.  Were these unhappy accidents in the original conception of the book, or did you add and articulate them during the writing?


C: Synchronicity has always been a central element in Conquering Venus, even when it was a screenplay. The relationship Martin and Irène share is a physical manifestation of Carl Jung's theory. There is no real rhyme or reason to the experiences that Martin and Irène have shared, but they are not casual occurrences. There is a larger framework to how these complete strangers have lived similar lives, shared similar experiences and emotions, and have now come together at this moment in time. Some readers will call it fate, some will call it paranormal, but I call it synchronicity. That theme will continue throughout the trilogy. There are more parallels to come, ones even Martin and Irène could have not expected. Jung's favorite instance of synchronicity was in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass when the White Queen says to Alice, "It's a poor sort of memory that only works backwards." Martin and Irène first see each other through a mirror, so there's a little homage in that.




D: What is the allure of the May-December romance, whether it's hetero or homo?  There's an uncomfortable, oddly curious feeling that goes along with watching a Valmont seduce a Volanges or a Mrs. Robinson seduce a Benjamin.  Not that Martin is that much older than David, but the situation is still treated as inappropriate - and, perhaps more accurately, David seems to be the seducer.  Also, Diane's and Martin's relationship can be called a romance of friendship, and she's considerably older than he is.  Is Diane right to discourage Martin's attraction to David at first, or is all fair in love and statutes?  Who is the seducer?  (By the way, as an incurable gerontophile, I would have gone for Irène at the drop of a beret.)


C: The real romance - at least for me - is the platonic one between Martin and Irène. They are simpatico in almost every way, and while everyone else might leave or dump on them, Martin and Irène are soulmates. A fortuneteller suggests late in the novel that Martin and Irène have been together in past lives and that is why their bond is so great in the present. I love that idea. As for David and Martin, the relationship is inappropriate from the standpoint of Martin being a position of authority as a chaperone. Diane is culpable as the teacher since she allows the romance, such as it is, to grow and then has a direct hand in forcing it into being. David is seducing Martin in a very teenage, uncertain way since he is so unsure of his sexuality. It's passive-aggressive to the extreme. Martin has no business in seducing or allowing himself to be seduced since he is still so fragile after his lover Peter's suicide. Diane is fragile too, and her wavering between lustful and maternal feelings for Martin is a little crazy, although I think it's realistic. If you ask me, all the character's are seducing each other because they will be entwined in each other's lives for the long haul.




D: Let's talk monogamy, mon ami CV reveals a couple extramarital affairs involving straight spouses cheating with gay lovers.  Many folks seem to be more outraged when an exposed affair turns out to be homosexual, as if it'd be less offensive with a lover of the opposite sex.  Folks gladly boo and hiss at spotlighted scum like Eliot Spitzer, Mark Sanford , and Jimmy Swaggart, but there seem to be louder boos and hisses at "bathhouse" bums like  Mark Foley, Jim McGreevey, Ted Haggard and Larry Craig.  Why?  Cheating is cheating, as far as I'm concerned, and the spiritual crime of infidelity is genderless.  Men or women who cheat are disgusting and selfish despite the object of their sin.  As one of your characters puts it: "It would have been the same thing if it had been a girl."  Many heterosexual cheaters make a mockery of the "sanctity" of marriage while decrying same-sex unions.  Your thoughts?


C: There's no way to talk about this without a spoiler, so readers might want to stop reading and skip to the next question. It is revealed halfway through the story that Diane's husband had an affair with one of Diane's young, male students. It is Diane who says the line that she would have been just as outraged if she'd found her husband in bed with another woman. When supposedly straight spouses are found in bed with someone of the same sex it's a double-betrayal. Not only are they cheating, but the entire marriage and relationship has been a lie. As for the politicians and religious figures who work to strip the LGBT community of their civil and human rights while secretly indulging in their own homosexuality, I think they should be exposed and forced into exile from any type of leadership position. I've caught flack for that stance, but I believe it. The Christian right wing in this country  and the fringe bigots like Maggie Gallagher and the National Organization for Marriage are spreading lies and fear-mongering to deny LGBT people their rights, while the heterosexual divorce rate continues to skyrocket. The hypocrisy is unbelievable.




D: Martin has genuine affection for David.  I can see him settling down and staying true to the relationship.  However, though seediness lurks in the darker side of any sexual camp, I've heard many queer folks admit a frustrating popular culture of wantonness.   In one of many exchanges about sexuality, Martin tells David that he tries "not to be a whore."  David replies that he "thought gay guys fucked everything that moved."  Martin tells him that this is "a myth."   A line in "The List", a poem by your fellow Atlantan, Dustin Brookshire, cries out for romantic exclusivity: "I want a man/who'll know that monogamy isn't a type of wood."  Is it difficult for a guy to find a "decent guy" these days?  In your experience, do many gays aspire to the everything-that-moves myth, which fulfills it and fans the flames of self-righteous bashers?


Oddly, eight chapters prior to the discourse mentioned above, Martin has a weird, rather sleazy encounter with a filthy, drunken pervert in a dark park off the rue Reaumur.  As with hetero-oriented folks, this shows the powerful lure of being "a whore" despite the loftiest moral codes, the "beauty of Sodom" (no connotation intended) that seems to haunt the "beauty of the Madonna," as Dostoyevsky's Dmitri Karamazov would put it.  Is this a commentary on the tricky sexual arena, or does it just show that Martin's - to quote the closing line of a following chapter -"internal compass was broken"?


C: I do believe gay men are more promiscuous, but painting the gay community with a big whore brush is stereotyping. Trust me, I know straight guys who have been with hundreds of women: banging them in nightclubs, back seats or wherever else they could find a dark corner. I think it's a man thing more than a gay thing. I went through my own whore phase in my late 20s and early 30s, hooking up with two or three different guys a week when I wasn't in a relationship. I don't feel ashamed or have any regrets. Sex is fun and sex with strangers (with protection) can be very exciting. I haven't been in a relationship in about eight years. I date, but finding a guy to settle down with is difficult. The older you get, the tougher it is to find someone you can share your life with - and I think that goes for hetero couples, too. Back in the day, you found someone, married them and had kids. It was expected by society. Today, people aren't willing to settle just to say they've settled. I wasted a lot of time on guys who I was madly in love who just weren't that into me (to coin a phrase), and I'm at a point in my life where I get more happiness out of my art and friends than making compromises for a relationship. 


As for Martin, I don't think he's the poster boy for monogamy. I think he's looking for his true love, but I don't think he's going to be a monk. Remember, this book is set before the rise of the Internet. In the next book, Martin will have discovered the thrill of chatrooms. I think readers will be surprised at where Martin is with his life in the second book. As for the encounter with the "pervert," I think it's a very erotic, sexy encounter. It shows Martin still has some life in him, but it's also that grey area you fall into when you're in love with someone and they aren't returning the favor. Is it cheating? Is it whoring? I think it's just human nature and sexual impulse. You're also assuming that the encounter was real. It may have been a dream.




D: Soul-killing restraint is a big theme in CV: self-imprisonment, social and traditional fetters, co-dependency and addiction.  The characters' struggle with futility is analogous to the mechanical birds that fascinate David.  The birds can fly only so far as they're programmed: "[These birds always returned to the hand of their owners.  Could not fly free."  David is closed in by his sexual denial and alcoholism; Diane suppresses deep resentment and a secret love; Irène sees the world through binoculars (similarly to Rear Window's Jeff), lives only in regretful memories and blames agoraphobia for her reclusiveness; one of the adulterers laments that he is filled "with so much shame" at betraying his wife, but he's "compelled to be" with his gay lover;  marriage vows forbid impulsive desires; Martin can't let go of self-hating Peter's demise and marches to the funeral beat of an infinitely pulled trigger.  All of these "indesirables" cry out for help and liberation, but they rage at invisible bars: "I am unable.  I cannot.  Those words are prisons."  Even Martin's tears are shut in: "[H]e knew they would not come.  They so rarely did."  And the accumulation of David's booze bottles on the roof of the hotel strike me as empty, static messages from a desert island.


In flashbacks, Peter accuses Martin of turning him gay, and he can't escape the fear of his parents: "I can't be what you want me to be.  You want too much."  Diane tries to discourage Martin's desire.  Martin rages against David's reluctance.  David pushes Martin away: "But Martin's effort to seek more comfort than was being offered made David recoil."  David's voice echoes Peter in a dream: "You want to much."  Diane sees that Martin's courting may be tantamount to striking a stone for water.  However, when sick love is conquered by healthy love, the birds fly free.  Martin helps Irène overcome her agoraphobia, and later, emboldened by her concern for Martin after the Notre Dame bombing, she dashes bravely from the hotel: "She flew down the stairs, felt superhuman."


What do you want readers to learn from this theme?  Share some of your own struggles with imprisonment.


C: I think the human race lives in a suppressed state. We have been told for millennia that we must restrain our  desires, wants and needs to function as a "moral" society. Now more than ever, we are told to be afraid, especially of each other. David trying to come out of the closet is suppressed by his right-wing Christian parents who will disown him if he's gay. It takes a strong individual to take that step anyway, knowing the consequences. It's no wonder he turns to alcohol. One of the themes in Conquering Venus is that we imprison ourselves with guilt, fear and the expectations of others. Not to get all Oprah on you, but I'm trying to get these characters to a state where they are living their authentic lives. By the end of the book, I think Irène and Diane are there, but Martin and David are still in flux. 


Coming out at an early age to understanding parents who did not judge me or try and cram organized religion down my throat has been a rare gift. It allowed me circumvent some of the big imprisonment issues, yet I've found myself in others. I've had relationships with guys who have made me feel shitty about myself, and I wanted to knock myself in the head for allowing it to happen when I knew it's not in my nature. I've got issues about my weight that are a constant struggle, but I've been learning to accept that as well. It's taken me ages to realize that I'm never going to fit in a size 28 pair of jeans, no matter how much I diet. 




D: As you've probably been told already, the book is quite cinematic and primed for screenplay adaptation.  Some passages read like a script: "Clouds were moving rapidly outside the time-lapse photography.  Both the boy and Martin took a step backwards, and it was like a strobe effect, slow motion."  The story tends toward the surreal and supernatural, which excuses the hard-hitting synchronicity we discussed earlier.  A particularly recognizable, but effective scene involves a ghostly boy who forces both Martin and Irène to look into their own abysses.  "Who are you?" Irène asks.  "The all seeing I," the boy puns.  (Likewise, Dostoyevsky's Ivan Karamazov says to the Devil who confronts him: "It's I, I myself speaking, not you...You are my hallucination.") 


Another filmic favorite is flashback/dream imagery, and CV delivers a lot of that.  Like Sergio Leone, you reveal little pieces at a time until the full revelation crashes forth.  A lot is told in the dreams, and I'm reminded of Jung (speaking of synchronicity): "[Dreams] do not deceive, they do not lie, they do not distort or disguise, but naively announce what they are and what they mean.  They are irritating and misleading only because we do not understand them.”


Did your love of films direct how you presented this drama?  Why did you choose to go beyond strict realism?  What are your own thoughts on the significance of dreams?


C: I am a fan of directors like Wim Wenders, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Sally Potter, David Lynch, Stanley Kubrick and Alfred Hitchcock - all of whom make these beautiful puzzle box-style films. There are no easy answers, no prosaic narratives, no neat endings. I hate films like that. I like ambiguity, unresolved mysteries and the hint (or sometimes full-blown) of the surreal and supernatural. I wanted Conquering Venus to have that style and quality, and since it began as a screenplay it was easy to incorporate some of those cinematic elements into the narrative. I also hate novels that spell out every detail of a character in the first 20 pages. Some people who read the first couple of chapters of Conquering Venus were put off that I hadn't revealed the motivations and backstories of each character. I wanted to build each character over the course of the narrative, so that the reader learns about Martin, Irène, Diane and David in an incremental, realistic way. When you meet someone, you don't immediately get their life story. It takes time to fill in the gaps, and, luckily, I have two more books to complete the big picture. 


The general, accepted thought is that dreams are simply manifestations of the chaotic mind trying to resolve worries and pressures of day to day living. Personally, I think dreaming taps into higher brain function that we have yet to comprehend. Jung is right about that. I have very lucid, Technicolor dreams that often feel like out of body experiences. That I am literally in the body of someone else, somewhere else. These experiences have been the basis for many poems and a number of scenes in Conquering Venus, such as the one where Martin and Irène confront the "ghosts" in the hospital that may or may not be people from their pasts. Maybe dreaming serves a different function for different people, but for me, it's one of the keys to my art. The Aboriginal people in Australia believe in Dreamtime, where we exist on two parallel streams: one is the everyday life we lead and the other is a state called The Dreaming that is more real than reality itself. The chapter where Martin and Irène see each other in the mirror is called The Dreaming, so I will leave it up to the reader to decide if Conquering Venus is set in the "real world" or in a parallel stream.



 Visit Collin's site.  Read an excerpt from Conquering Venus Buy the book.









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