Remembering Michael Denneny, an editor who championed LGBTQ voices
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Now we're going to remember Michael Denneny, one of the first openly gay editors working at a major publishing house. He championed LGBTQ writers and died suddenly last week at the age of 80. At St. Martin's Press, where he worked for 17 years, he launched the gay imprint Stonewall Inn Editions. Denneny also was a founder of the influential gay literary magazine Christopher Street. Over the years, he worked with a wide range of writers, including Ntozake Shange, Buckminster Fuller, G. Gordon Liddy, Edmund White and Randy Shilts. Denneny himself was the author of three books. His final book, "On Christopher Street: Life, Sex And Death After Stonewall," was published just last month. Terry Gross spoke to Michael Denneny twice. When she spoke to him in 1987, she asked him about launching Stonewall Inn Editions.
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MICHAEL DENNENY: Well, it seemed to me there was a second generation of gay writers coming along who were very excited, and I wanted to find some way to get to a wider audience than the people who had been reading and buying the cloth books. So I thought I would try a trade paper line.
TERRY GROSS: When you say a second generation of gay writers, how was this generation different from the first generation of gay writers?
DENNENY: Well, I think the first generation of really openly gay writers in the '70s - people like Ed White, Andrew Holleran, Larry Kramer, Felice Picano - they were the first people to come out publicly and to risk their careers doing it. And when the second generation of writers came along, it was a much more accepted thing. I mean, the novels didn't have to be as political. They were about - rather than being about gay life, they were about life as it was experienced by a gay man.
GROSS: You came of age before the gay liberation movement. Were there many books that you could read that were about being gay?
DENNENY: No - very, very few. And I was always excited the minute I found any one of them.
GROSS: How would you find them - word of mouth?
DENNENY: Word of mouth, by sheer accident, you know, just suddenly reading something and - or reading an author and suddenly realizing this was a gay book. But in fact, there was very little available.
GROSS: Does it make you feel more marginalized when you can't find characters like yourself in the books that you read?
DENNENY: Oh, for sure, for sure. That's why I got into this originally in the - by around '74 or '75, I was basically known in publishing as a woman's editor 'cause I was doing a lot of women's books, books by and about women. And it suddenly hit me that I was never doing any books that were about my own life, you know, about the experiences my friends and I had. It took me a couple years to wake up to that, but then I said, this is silly. So I made a political decision to try to see if I could start publishing gay books and whether or not there was a future in that. And for a while, in the late - until the late '70s, it looked a little wobbly. I wasn't sure. But then, as I say, the second generation of writers came along and continues to come along. I mean, I'm introducing a new gay author almost every season now, which is quite remarkable.
GROSS: Were you openly gay when you started in the industry?
DENNENY: No. When I started at Macmillan - that was 1971 - I wasn't openly gay at all. By the end of my tenure there, I was because I'd been involved in the founding of Christopher Street. And much to my surprise, Christopher Street was sort of widely read in the publishing industry. I've never quite understood that. So whether I liked it or not, I was fairly out after that.
GROSS: Did it change your status at all, or did it change the kinds of books that you were given to edit?
DENNENY: No, I don't think so. And I haven't come across a problem with anybody. I mean, the first time I met with G. Gordon Liddy, I figured I ought to put it on the table. And I said, you know, Gordon, this is a very expensive restaurant, and we're going to have a very nice meal. So we might as well find out if this would be a problem, working together. And if so, we can just forget about it and have a good meal. He had no problem whatsoever. And in fact, when he went on tour, he went out of his way to talk about having a gay editor.
GROSS: So do you work exclusively now with gay writers?
DENNENY: Oh, no. It's about a quarter of the authors that I have. I do all sorts of things - murder mysteries, poetry, Ntozake Shange's novels and plays. No, it's about, I would say, 20, maybe 25% of what I do.
GROSS: Well, I'm sure that there are many, many gay writers knocking at your door now (laughter) wanting...
GROSS: ...In on this new line. Does that put you in a funny situation?
DENNENY: It puts me in a situation where I'm having to read an incredible amount.
GROSS: It also puts you in the position of having to say no to a lot of people.
DENNENY: Right. Right. And that gets awkward. And especially - the hardest part is I'm seeing a very large number of novels written about AIDS, most of them written, you know, out of feelings of great grief and anger. And this is very hard to read. It's hard to read three or four of those a week. But out of that are going to come some incredible books.
BIANCULLI: It was this experience of publishing literature about AIDS that brought Michael Denneny back to the studio to talk with Terry in 1994. He had recently left St. Martin's Press and moved to Crown Publishing. She asked him about the pressure of working with writers who were sick or close to death.
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DENNENY: When Randy Shilts was finishing "Conduct Unbecoming," he collapsed. Basically, he had almost finished the book but was immobilized in a hospital for weeks. And I essentially had to fly out there and, with the assistance he'd set up and with his approval, sort of finish the book to get it out in time so that it was relevant to the fairly asinine debate that we had on gays in the military.
GROSS: Well, it must put you in a funny position because on the one hand, I know you're probably really close to some of the writers you work with. And as a person close to a writer, you want to urge them to take it easy if they're sick and to not work. And as their editor and as somebody who really cares about the body of work they're leaving behind, you want to urge them, finish the book. Leave it behind complete if you possibly can.
DENNENY: Well, with the case of Randy, he had basically taken great risks with his health in order to finish this book. He was so committed to finishing the book, it had taken precedence in his thinking over his own health. Or with John Preston, John actually was in a coma for two weeks, and I thought that was the end. And suddenly, he came out of it and gave me a call, which startled the hell out of me. And I said, John, I never thought I was going to speak to you again. And he said, I can't die in peace until we get the contract done for "Franny," which I thought was a perfect John Preston. I said, John, you're really pushing it this time. But we had three days, and we managed to get all the legal niceties handled. He managed to revise "Franny." He signed the contracts and, I believe, died within eight hours.
DENNENY: It was just a stunning event. But clearly, he was totally committed to getting this, his favorite book, out in a new edition and in cloth.
GROSS: Well, I guess there couldn't be a better illustration of how important a writer's work is to them. Did you ever say to one of your writers, look; don't worry about the book; take care of your health first? I mean, which do you feel more loyal to, their health or to their work?
DENNENY: I think, basically, being loyal to the writers, you have to allow them to make the decision, you know? It's generally the case. Various people respond in various ways, even if they're not writers. I mean, you know, some go into a totally health mode. Some would prefer to live their life the way they're living now, even if it would shorten their life. And I think you just have to respect the autonomy of those decisions if these are your friends, I mean, whether you agree with them or not. Who knows what - you know, what one would do in those circumstances oneself? So you sort of - I think the duty of a friend is simply to - or an editor, for that matter - is to support the person in whatever decision they make.
GROSS: Well, you know how people say doctors shouldn't get too close to their patients, in part because patients sometimes die and you can't - you know, you can't go through that with everyone. You're in that position as an editor now. I mean, you have writers who are dying. And you must ask yourself how close you can allow yourself to get so that you can keep on with your work.
DENNENY: Yeah, but I don't think you can withdraw, especially, you know, if these are people who have been friends of yours for years. It's just like as if they were friends to begin with. I mean, you can't distance or withdraw from that. You just go through it. I mean, it's part of the bad times we're living in, I guess. It does get wearing. It does get wearing. I actually edited Randy Shilts' second book, "Band Played On," which was all about AIDS, almost entirely in a hospital room. One of my ex-lovers was dying. And I made a deal with the nurses at Roosevelt. I guess visiting hours were over at 8:30. And he didn't like to be alone. So I made a deal with the nurses that if I got in before 8:30, I could stay until 1 or 2. And since he was comatose most of the time, I figured, you know, I could edit there as well as I could edit at home. And then I would be there if he woke up. But I must admit, after about seven weeks, it was really getting me down (laughter).
GROSS: Well, I'm sure that's a remarkable understatement, that it was getting you down.
DENNENY: Yeah. It was, like, everywhere you turned.
GROSS: Your lover, the book you were editing all about AIDS.
DENNENY: It was a grim time.
GROSS: What do you think the place of AIDS literature will be after the epidemic?
DENNENY: I think it'll probably be the founding literature of gay culture and the gay community in a very odd way. I mean, in the '70s, there were - when I first got involved in publishing, you know, gay books, gay magazines, etc., there were many heated discussions about whether there was such a thing as gay culture or not, I mean, even by people who today would be considered representatives of gay culture, like Edmund White or Ethan Mordden. There were many late-night discussions where even those guys sometimes took the position that there was no such thing as a specifically gay culture or gay literature. I don't think that will be a position many people will take 10 years from now. And to some extent, I think because this historical event, or the - you know, this historical threat to the whole community so mobilized the resources of the writers and they did create this literature, which I think is quite remarkable, I think they sort of put that - made that a moot question.
BIANCULLI: Longtime editor and champion of LGBTQ writers, Michael Denneny. He died suddenly April 12 at the age of 80. His final book, "On Christopher Street," was published last month. Coming up, Justin Chang reviews "Beau Is Afraid," the new film starring Joaquin Phoenix. This is FRESH AIR.
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