Two Natures Blog Book Tour and E-book Sale

The Novel will be making the rounds of two dozen book review and M/M fan blogs this spring, thanks to Embrace the Rainbow, a blog book tour site specializing in LGBTQ authors. Hat tip to A.M. Leibowitz for the recommendation. To coincide with the tour, the Amazon Kindle and iBooks editions of Two Natures will be on sale for $0.99 from February 20-March 17.

TOUR DATES

My guest posts will cover topics such as fashion inspirations for Two Natures and how to avoid distractions from writing. Hope you’ll join us!

 

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Reiter’s Block Year in Review: 2016

They said it couldn’t be done. They said it shouldn’t be done. They said “hold on, I got my Kindle all sticky…”

The no-longer-endless novel was published this year by Saddle Road Press and won Best Gay Contemporary General Fiction in the 2016 Rainbow Awards. If you bought it, thank you! Please write an Amazon review. If you haven’t yet, what are you waiting for? The nights are getting colder…


(Book launch party at Bistro Les Gras, Northampton, with the family of choice: Adam, Roberta, Sovereign, & Ellen. I drank a Cosmo on Julian’s behalf.)

In other news, the Young Master is proud to announce that he is nearly 5 and not a baby anymore. He is an expert at identifying construction trucks and different species of trees. In fashion, he enjoys combining homemade paper earrings and Mardi Gras beads with his large collection of robot, truck, and dinosaur shirts. His favorite songs are Major Lazer’s “Bubble Butt” and Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling”. He now has the attention span for full-length movies, and likes to role-play scenes from Charlotte’s Web, Finding Nemo and Finding Dory. (I wonder when he will realize how Wilbur the Pig is connected to the pound of salami he eats every week. Ah, lost innocence.) Because of these films, his imaginative play lately includes a lot of baby animals who are sad because they lost their mommies. Is he trying to express something about being adopted? I wish Disney/Pixar didn’t rely on this trope so much. I welcome suggestions of good cartoon films without dead or absent mothers.

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After a long and difficult passage, I feel I’m finally settling into a place of peace with my nonbinary spirituality. It’s time to start trusting that Jesus is who I want him to be. Faith means choosing to imagine a divine Friend who lets my attachment and independence ebb and flow, contrary to the template from my childhood and the jealous God that other wounded souls have created in their parents’ image. In my pagan practice, I’ve noticed myself shifting away from “magick” in the sense of trying to make things happen through ritual, and towards using ritual to create a space where I can commune with benevolent spirits. This is not to say that I disbelieve in magick, only that I’m not ready for it. I need a clearer adult perspective to ensure that I’m not returning to childhood strategies of escaping abuse through supernatural fantasy. Or, to put it another way, I need to sit longer with the fear of not getting what I want (hint: book sales) and examine whether I am using this goal to fulfill the wrong needs, before I light candles and bury pins in the ground to feel like I’m achieving something. The Tarot is great for this discernment exercise.

Without further ado, here are the high-and-low-lights of 2016:

Best Poetry Books:

Some amazing books by queer poets of color have been published this year. Joshua Jennifer Espinoza’s i’m alive / it hurts / i love it (Boost House Press) writes with honesty and wit about her life as a transgender woman who manages anxiety and depression. She makes the daily choice to feel everything, though pain coexists with joy. Taxidermy is the organizing metaphor for Rajiv Mohabir’s The Taxidermist’s Cut (Four Way Books): a stripped and reconstituted skin as shapeshifting for survival, as forbidden gay intimacy that always carries the hint of violence, and as inescapable and often misread ethnic identities in a dominant white Christian culture. Mohabir descends from Indian indentured laborers who were transported to British Guyana’s sugar plantations, and grew up in Florida. Another standout debut collection, Donika Kelly’s Bestiary (Graywolf Press), depicts healing from incest as a series of metamorphoses into real and mythical creatures. I’ve currently just started Phillip B. Williams’ Thief in the Interior (Alice James Books), a formally innovative, visceral and intense collection of poems through which the American tradition of violence against black male bodies runs like a blood-red thread.

Best Fiction Books:

Through brilliant use of flashbacks and alternating perspectives, Robert Olen Butler’s A Small Hotel (Grove Press) tells the story of Michael and Kelly Hays, a Southern professional couple who are divorcing after two decades of marriage, though it becomes apparent that they are both still painfully in love with each other. As soon as the reader starts to side with one character, a new twist reveals the other character’s vulnerability and the dysfunctional family pattern that he or she is struggling to break. The novel winds toward a suspenseful climax as we wait to discover whether they will tell each other the truth before it’s too late.

It wouldn’t be a Reiter’s Block Year in Review without Cthulhu! Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country (Harper) is a suspenseful and satirical novel-in-stories about an African-American family in 1950s Chicago who tangle with a cabal of upper-class white occultists. Each chapter cleverly inverts the xenophobic tropes of one of H.P. Lovecraft’s classic horror stories, with the implication that the heartless and greedy cosmic forces of the Cthulhu Mythos are more a self-portrait of Jim Crow’s America than an enemy from beyond the stars.

Best Nonfiction Books:

New York Times op-ed columnist Charles M. Blow’s gorgeously written and introspective memoir, Fire Shut Up in My Bones (Mariner Books), is a case study in overcoming patriarchy and healing from abuse. Brought up in rural Louisiana by a devoted but stern and overworked single mother and their extended family, young Charles yearned for more tenderness and attention than a boy was supposed to need. An older male cousin preyed on his isolation, giving him a new secret to add to his fears of being not-quite-straight in a culture where this was taboo. Channeling his need for connection into school achievement and community leadership, Blow found himself on both the giving and the receiving end of violent hyper-masculinity as a fraternity brother. In the end, he recognized that self-acceptance, not repression, was the best way to become an honorable man. Blow writes like a poet, in witty, image-rich, sensitive lines that flow like a mighty river.

Rev. Elizabeth M. Edman’s Queer Virtue: What LGBTQ People Know About Life and Love and How It Can Revitalize Christianity (Beacon Press) proposes that Christianity and queerness have a common interest in rupturing false binaries that create injustice and estrangement. Read my review on this blog.

Queering Sexual Violence (Riverdale Avenue Books), edited by Jennifer Patterson, is a must-read for social service providers, activists, policymakers, and anyone who studies child abuse and intimate partner violence. The book fills a gap in the common understanding of abuse as something that men do to women and children, and as a social problem best solved through legislation and policing. This familiar picture excludes survivors for whom the carceral state does not routinely offer justice: people of color, the disabled and neurodiverse, and of course the many LGBTQ people who hesitate to out themselves to the police and the courts, fearing that their victimization will only be compounded. Read my review on this blog.

Favorite Posts on the Block:

Trusting Tootle

Tootle and his classmates at the Lower Trainswitch School for Locomotives are cuddly, expressive precursors of the colder computer-generated animation of Thomas the Tank Engine. Scuffy conveys a world of emotion with just eyes, eyebrows, and the tilt of his smokestack. These books are selling nostalgia for an era when America was an industrial powerhouse and no one had heard of global warming or acid rain. However, both tales hammer home a repressive message about staying in your assigned social role and doing what you’re told.

Nonbinary Femme Thoughts

I like the word “bigender” even though my eyes keep reading it as “big gender”. Or maybe that’s why. I have BIG gender. Too much to pick only one.

Today My Dreams Come True

Who has watched over me during this arduous journey of self-discovery and activism? Where did I get my faith to persevere in the face of spiritual abuse and mental health struggles? I know that I have been protected, by someone I still call “the Holy Spirit” even though most Christian language doesn’t fit me anymore. Someone up there implanted compassion, hope, truth-seeking, and determination in my heart. Someone strengthened me to be true to myself when people I loved couldn’t accept who I’d become. So… thank you, Holy Spirit.

What Country Is This?

This morning in the bluest of blue states, I took courage from the survival of queer, Jewish, and African-American people through hundreds of years of oppression. I remembered growing up in the 1980s with the constant fear that President Reagan would push the red button and destroy the planet in a nuclear war. I was inspired by the memoirs I am reading this winter for the Winning Writers self-published book contest, about Jews who escaped Nazi Germany and African-Americans who migrated north in the Jim Crow era to seek equal opportunity. And I re-committed myself to upholding the humanity of all people through my work as a writer and publisher.

Book Notes: Gay Theology Without Apology

Comstock argues that any theology based on appeals to authority–even the authority of Jesus–still has more of Caesar in it than Christ. As Audre Lorde said, the master’s tools cannot dismantle the master’s house. The Jesus way is more radical. He called his disciples friends, not servants who obey without knowing why (John 15:15).

Rest in peace, Prince. May we all purify ourselves in the waters of Lake Minnetonka.

 

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What Country Is This?

This morning, in the bluest of blue states, I woke up to the news that a racist, sexist demagogue would be the next president of the United States. My world quaked and settled off-kilter. It reminded me of the day after 9/11, when realities I’d taken for granted literally crumbled, and I no longer felt I could predict what it meant to live in America. This time, though, the threat comes from within. I am frightened to realize that a large percentage of my fellow citizens are either prejudiced against minorities and women, or indifferent to our survival.

This morning, in the bluest of blue states, this Episco-pagan has never felt more Jewish. Growing up on New York’s Lower East Side in a non-religious but culturally Jewish family, I can’t remember a time I didn’t know about the Holocaust and the pogroms. We watched “The Sound of Music” and “Fiddler on the Roof” as history, not just entertainment. My mother got me a passport when I was born “in case we have to emigrate to Israel” and always reminded me that our host country could become hostile overnight. Now, going to Israel is not a win, either in terms of safety or social justice (I don’t have the right to displace the Palestinians!), but the mindset endures. I’ve read too many books about assimilated, well-off European Jews who refused to believe that their neighbors would turn on them. This racial memory needles me when I read Christian thinkpieces (usually by straight white men) about how we need to rise above our political differences and come to the communion table with our enemies.

This morning, in the bluest of blue states, when I opened the door to my 4-year-old son’s room, he greeted me with his thousand-watt smile. “I’m a butterfly!” he exclaimed, jumping on the bed and waving his arms to demonstrate the yoga pose he learned at his Montessori school. I want to live in an America where my son will always be safe to be a butterfly. His best friends are the children of single moms, lesbian couples, and a Muslim-American family. His birthfather is a Central American immigrant. He’s never had to worry about the people he loves, or even notice that they’re different from the “norm” that many voters yesterday were determined to enforce. I struggled with whether to leave him in this state of innocence, or to inoculate him with a little of the rational paranoia that is my birthright. Jewish again, I went with the latter.

“Mommy and Daddy and Grandma are sad today because we don’t like who is going to be in charge of our country.”

“Why?” asked the Young Master, echoing the morning-after cry of Democrats everywhere.

“Some people are very angry because they don’t have enough money for food or going to the doctor. And it’s okay to feel that way. But sometimes when people are angry, they blame the wrong person, just like when you’re upset and you throw a toy even though the toy didn’t do anything wrong. But don’t worry, we will always keep you safe.”

The Young Master, absorbing perhaps 10% of this, drummed his feet against the bathtub and growled to show me what “angry” looks like. We had breakfast and walked to school. I looked at the graveyard across the street, where I had planned to be buried after living the rest of my life in this house, and tried to practice non-attachment.

This morning in the bluest of blue states, I took courage from the survival of queer, Jewish, and African-American people through hundreds of years of oppression. I remembered growing up in the 1980s with the constant fear that President Reagan would push the red button and destroy the planet in a nuclear war. I was inspired by the memoirs I am reading this winter for the Winning Writers self-published book contest, about Jews who escaped Nazi Germany and African-Americans who migrated north in the Jim Crow era to seek equal opportunity. And I re-committed myself to upholding the humanity of all people through my work as a writer and publisher.

I’m still here.

Interview About My Poetry at the Book Lover’s Haven

Denise Turney, author of the popular novel Love Pour Over Me, runs Chistell Publishing, an independent press with a special interest in African-American and inspirational books. Her free monthly e-newsletter, the Book Lover’s Haven, features freelance writing jobs, literary conferences and events, and author interviews. Subscribe here. We’ve been connected online for several years because Chistell has periodically offered a free writing contest that we profile at Winning Writers. (The most recent submission period was October 1, 2015-February 28, 2016.)

I was honored to be the featured author for her September newsletter, which was headlined: “Bold Writers! Are Writers Too Scared to Write Authentically?” The newsletters are not archived online but she’s kindly permitted me to reprint my interview below. It’s humbling to be mentioned in the same breath as the prophetic truth-tellers she lists in the intro. I’ll try to live up to it!

Book Lover’s Haven Interviews Jendi Reiter

Novels, short stories and poetry demand authenticity. Although writers deal with fictional characters, imaginary settings and hard-to-believe plots, to connect with readers, writings need an element of real life. It’s easy when those real life elements are accepted by the majority of society. It’s harder when most people abhor the ways that a story resembles worldly events or experiences that many wish would just disappear. That’s when writing gets hard.
Yet, talent speaks for itself as it happens with James Baldwin, Jodi Picoult, John Irving, Amy Tan, Richard Wright, Leo Tolstoy, Marilou Awiakta and Alice Walker, writers who tackled issues and experiences like racism, mental illness and family dysfunction that most readers may prefer to turn away from. Our feature writer’s talent has opened doors for her. She covers heady topics that, although mirroring what’s going on in the world, make storytelling a challenge.

Keep reading this Book Lover’s Haven issue to learn more about Jendi Reiter, her poetry, short stories and novels. Her writing talent is undeniable.

BLH:  What inspired you to write?
JR:   Books have been fundamental to my experience of the world since I was a small child. “What inspired you to write?” feels almost like asking “What inspired you to talk or walk?” Composing poems and stories is just how I make sense of being alive.
Each of my poetry collections reflects the spiritual, emotional, or political dilemmas I was wrestling with at the time. I don’t want to find “answers” as much as to create a space where all possibilities have room to breathe.
For instance, my latest full-length collection, Bullies in Love (Little Red Tree Publishing, 2015), takes aim at myths that confuse us about the difference between passionate love and abusive control. These myths may come from society’s gender roles, religious dogma, or our own wishful thinking about relationships.
My chapbook Swallow (Amsterdam Press, 2009) is the most experimental of my books. Swallow uses fractured language, absurd humor, and collages of found texts to resist the oppressive narrative of psychiatric labels. It was inspired by unethical practices I encountered during my (ultimately successful) seven-year quest to adopt a baby.
BLH:  Tell us about the process that you follow to create poems that pull up a lot of emotion in readers, especially since poetry leaves writers with so little room to connect with readers?
JR:   The scarcity of space is an advantage, I think–the energy bounces faster and harder off the walls as they close in! I mostly write in free verse now, so I take extra care to listen for the difference between poetry and prose in the cadences of my lines. It is an auditory process. Poetry, to me, should sound tighter than prose, with fewer pauses or explanatory transitions between one thought and the next.
Intentionality about line breaks is a big part of that. It’s a pet peeve of mine when breaks in free verse seem random or end on a weak word. The reader is going to hear the “beat” created by that visual break, so it had better come in a spot that makes sense in the musical line.
BLH:  Your poems are powerful. Did you train with a professional poet or take an advanced creative writing course?  Do you recommend that writers receive professional/college writing or communications training? Why?
JR:   Thanks for the compliment! I didn’t, and I neither recommend nor discourage such training. It is a very personal choice. Some writers, like me, are unable to filter out the distraction of other people’s energy when working on first drafts. (I ask for feedback from a trusted writer friend on some of my revisions, but not all.) Others are more extroverted, or not as psychically porous, and thrive on the collective creative ferment of writing in a workshop.
I do recommend that everyone take classes in critical reading of contemporary and classic poetry. The English department at my arts high school (shout out to St. Ann’s in Brooklyn Heights!) taught me everything I know about good technique, other than what I learned through trial and error by actually writing.
BLH:  How did you arrive at the title “Bullies in Love”?
JR:   The title poem was inspired by an episode of the TV show “Glee” where the homophobic high school football player reveals that he’s been bullying the flamboyant young man from the choir because he’s secretly attracted to him. The secretly gay bigot is a common and, in my opinion, problematic twist in many stories about tolerance. It can preserve the dangerous fantasy that we should give our abuser a pass because he really loves us and just doesn’t know how to show it.
BLH:  Please give us a brief synopsis of Bullies in Love.
JR:  This blurb from the back cover says it best:
“Jendi Reiter’s astute observations of the complex nature of love reveal not only its beauty but also its damning consequences. From the child to the adult, the home to the wider world, this collection of affirming yet disturbing tight-knit poetry in various forms kaleidoscopes vivid images, framing the struggle to free oneself from parental and societal expectations from start to finish. These poems span the coming-of-age search for self-respect and love; the ideologies of marketing and religion; teachers’ censorship of children’s literature; and political crimes against sexual minorities.”
-Suzanne Covich, child rights activist and educator, author of When We Remember They Call Us Liars (Fremantle Press, 2012)
BLH:  Where did the idea to include photographs in Bullies in Love come from?
JR:     This was my publisher’s request. His background is in graphic design so he likes to combine art and writing in his titles. I had recently won a Massachusetts Cultural Council fellowship for poetry, so I asked the MCC staff to recommend some visual arts fellows whose work would suit my style and themes. I couldn’t be happier with Toni Pepe, the fine art photographer who agreed to collaborate with me. We share a preoccupation with dark fairy tales and historical representations of womanhood and motherhood. Check out her website at www.tonipepe.com
BLH:  Why you think that poems don’t sell more? They are so powerful.
JR:   Most poetry is published by small presses that have no marketing budget. The average person may feel that poetry is intimidating or old-fashioned, because their education has not included contemporary poetry that feels relevant to their lives. Perhaps the standardized-test-driven modern school is partly to blame for that: poems are ambiguous and complex, harder to summarize (if they’re good!) in a multiple-choice question.
This slippery quality of poetry is also a marketing problem, because how do you give an elevator pitch for what your book is “about”?
BLH:  I recently interviewed another writer who said that, today, there’s more pressure on women to be perfect while juggling more and more. Do you tackle that perception in Barbie at 50? If not, what topics do you tackle in Barbie at 50?
JR:  Barbie at 50 (Cervena Barva Press, 2010) is my most light-hearted book, but with an edge. The through-line is how girls use make-believe games and fairy tales to imagine what it’s like to grow up-and then the reality that is more complex and bittersweet, yet liberating, as truth always is. I am a Barbie collector and a feminist, two interests that some would say are incompatible, but I believe that instead of scapegoating feminine fantasy, we should create a world where people of all genders can try on roles without being confined to any of them.
BLH:  Please share two to three marketing strategies that work for you in spreading the word about your books and reaching your target audience.
JR:  Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are free, low-tech ways to break your poems out of the obscure printed book or journal and spread them in quick, shareable formats. Does this translate into sales? Not always, but it creates satisfying interpersonal connections and a sense of being heard. Think of the poems that have gone viral on social media in recent years, because they voiced people’s hopes for peace after tragedies and injustices in the news. As poets, we may need to measure our success in terms of impact rather than dollars.
Other than readings at local bookstores and libraries, I haven’t done as much as I should to publicize my poetry books. My first novel, Two Natures, is forthcoming in September from Saddle Road Press (http://www.saddleroadpress.com/two-natures.html), so I’ve been giving myself a crash course in marketing this year, guided by Carolyn Howard-Johnson at HowToDoItFrugally.com. I recommend her highly!
BLH:  What advice do you have for a writer who is publishing her/his first non-fiction book, specifically as it regards finding a publisher or printer (if they are self-publishing) and marketing their first book?
JR:  Nonfiction isn’t my specialty, but my advice would be similar: for marketing, check out Carolyn Howard-Johnson, The Frugal Book Promoter, and Fauzia Burke, Online Marketing for Busy Authors. I am the editor of WinningWriters.com, an online resource site for creative writers. Our Useful Resources pages include a page of self-publishing vendors and advice sites that we have vetted for their honesty, expertise, and cost-effectiveness. (https://winningwriters.com/resources)
If you are going to submit your manuscript to a small press publisher, do your research and trust your instincts: Does their website look modern, and is it easy to find information about their books? Do they have any online marketing presence, such as an e-newsletter, active Facebook feed, or Twitter feed? Are they prompt and clear in responding to emails (or phone calls, if that’s your preferred method)?
I love my novel publishers, Don Mitchell and Ruth Thompson of Saddle Road Press, because of their stellar transparency, friendliness, and ability to hit deadlines. They’re also great writers–check out their books on their website! Interestingly, I found them because Ruth and I admire each other’s poetry and wrote blurbs for one another’s latest books. This just proves Carolyn’s advice that marketing today is about building your personal brand as an author, not just promoting one book at a time.
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Release Week Reviews for “Two Natures”

More great reviews have come in since Two Natures debuted last week. I’m honored when readers say that I did justice to the real-life experience of gay men and their loved ones during the AIDS crisis. When other people make an emotional connection with characters who previously existed only in my mind, something magical happens, like the scene in the play Peter Pan when the collective strength of the audience’s chant “I do believe in fairies!” brings Tinkerbell to life.

On Goodreads, reviewer Nocturnalux gave thoughtful attention to the book’s literary devices and philosophical dichotomies:

The story of Julian, a young fashion photographer trying to make it in the fast and furious 90’s New York environment, is not simply the vehicle through which gay rights, religious issues, the AIDS epidemic, family breakdown and queer identity are addressed: by immersing the reader fully into its well developed world, the novel conveys all this and so much in an organic manner.

This immersive quality is achieved in part thanks to a very apt usage of the first person narrative. As a photographer Julian employs highly image saturated language to frame his experiences, in a most literal sense. Visual intense descriptions punctuate the story and is the lenses through which the storytelling process happens. But these also serve to show a sense of alienation from the actual world, a pressing anxiety that haunts Julian.

The narrator’s repressive, traditional Christian upbringing also factors in his means of expression, with many biblical references strewed very liberally throughout the entire novel, to the point of the title, as it has already been mentioned. The biblical imagery covers a gamut of tones, from lyrical, pensive and musing to snarky and highly cynical…

Two Natures is in all respects very honest. It does not shy from being graphic, painful, at times horrifying, often moving, all without caring for niceties. The comprehensive scope of the endeavor has its own artistic vision, both in-universe- Julian strives to capture some form of beauty- and at a structural level as the novel is almost flawless in how it harnesses highly personal moments to turn into literature.

Ultimately, Two Natures questions the very notion of ‘either/or’ system: perhaps there is a way of sublimating truth into beauty, or vice-verse, and reach an integrated way of feeling in which one can be true to oneself and still find actual love. There are no guarantees but the mere possibility is enough.

Meredith King at the M/M review blog Diverse Reader provided an enthusiastic release day review and promo post. Leave a blog comment or tweet about the giveaway for a chance to win a free e-book review copy.

Talk about a debut novel that grabs you, bleeds you, and makes you cry until you’re raw. It’s one of those books that when it ends you realize you stopped breathing. This is not an easy read. The subject matter is very heavy and the author really thrusts you into the gritty.

Many of us remember the early 90’s and how AIDS was actually vocal. Yes, it had been around for years before but it wasn’t really until the 90’s that people talked about it. Many people suffered and died because of this virus.  This book not only addresses AIDS and that time period but you are gutted at the loss of one character because of the virus. That is the only warning you’re getting about the seriousness and emotional upheaval in this book.

This tale is close to 400 pages long but it flowed. Pacing was terrific and the characters were fleshed out nicely.

Gay novelist Hans M. Hirschi belongs to the same generation as Julian and me. His positive response to the book was very meaningful. Hirschi is a literary writer with crossover appeal to the M/M romance market, as I hope to be. His books have romantic subplots where love generally prevails, but also tackle serious issues such as bereavement, child abuse and trafficking, spirituality, and the obstacles faced by nontraditional families. I recommend his novel The Opera House, which is so far the only book I’ve read that reflects my experience with mental health stigma as a prospective adoptive parent. Some highlights from his review:

First things first: the writing is astonishing. Not really a surprise from an award winning writer, but still. It deserves to be said, as poetry and prose are two kinds of animals. Ms Reiter does an amazing job at describing the era, the early 1990s, the locales, mainly Manhattan, the politics of the Clinton and Giuliani era (seems history has a way of repeating itself…), and the fashion and publishing industry of the time. The characters become alive almost instantly, and I got to follow along the path of Julian Selkirk, the ‘hero’ of the story, as he tries to build a career for himself as a fashion photographer in New York. Work, life, sex, love, death. It’s all there, deliciously described…

…Without going into details about the plot, the two main romantic or love interests of Julian, Peter and Phil are painted in equally realistic colors. Both men flawed, but lovable. No, this is no romance novel, despite the romantic thread that permeates the pages. In fact, the mere mention of “open relationship” might send some readers of such novels screaming for the nearest therapy couch. Yet it is exactly the honesty, the unbridled truth told in Two Natures that makes this book so amazing. In fact, for all I know, Julian Selkirk is just a pseudonym for a real gay man living in New York in his mid-forties, married, no kids. I am deeply indebted to Ms Reiter for writing “our” story, the story of gay men growing of age in the nineties so honestly, so candidly.

As painful as it may be to remember some aspects of it, as hopeful is the picture she skillfully paints, and as we leave Julian on the floor of GalaxyCon, there is hope for the future. And as we all know, that hope has largely been fulfilled in the twenty years since, albeit loads of work still remains. Two Natures is an exquisite work of art, beautiful literary writing that enriches the LGBT section of any book store and Kindle, and it adds a beautiful facet to the mosaic of LGBT life past.

Who knows, perhaps writing can change reality, after all? Readers, if you see Julian walking around New York sometime, give him a big kiss from me. He saved my life.

“Taking Down the Pear Tree” Wins New Letters Prize for Fiction

It’s been a great week for my fiction career! I’m honored to report that the prestigious literary journal New Letters, a publication of the University of Missouri-Kansas City, awarded me their 2016 Fiction Prize for my short story “Taking Down the Pear Tree”. See the winners’ list here. Thank you to final judge Hilma Wolitzer and the editors for making a home for this story and providing my novel marketing budget for the rest of the year!

In this story, a suburban executive’s efforts to adopt a child bring her up against her ambivalence about female social roles and the limited scripts for intimacy with other women. At a moment of crisis, she finds unexpected consolation in the breakdown of all the narratives she’s used to avoid grief and fear.

At least, that’s what I think it’s about. Buy the Winter 2017 issue and let me know what you think! Here’s the beginning of the story.

 

          Taking Down the Pear Tree

 

You agree to her naming the baby Maurice. It’s after a character in a novel you’ve never read, a book that (Wikipedia tells you) has a tragic but miraculous ending. You found such stories embarrassing in high school, twenty years ago, probably the last time you tried to read a novel by someone dead. The guilty rash on the minister’s chest, the Christmas ghosts. Your imitations got the B-minuses they deserved. But you can’t bite your lips through another winter of songs about angels bringing babies to pure girls. Your arms ache. This is a real thing. You try to work your mouth around the name — soft, loud, in your childhood’s Brooklyn accent, in your Connecticut suburb’s lack of one — till it sounds like something a boy would be willing to answer to, when you called him home.

Your husband goes through nicknames to reassure himself. Not Maury, an old uncle who tells bad jokes. Not Moe, cartoon bartender, stooge. But Reese is a fine name for a first-round draft pick or patent attorney. He could co-sign a mortgage, tie his own shoes.

Your husband’s name is Thomas. Everyone calls him Thomas.

****

It is January. The specialist’s rubber finger widens your crack, probes the hollow she sees between stirrups. She has short pale hair and rimless glasses and a Polish name that your husband jokes sounds like “paycheck”. He is not in the room. The numbers on her screen look good to her. On the walls are the usual red cross-sections of female muscle and Impressionist sailboats. The paper sheet crackles like a fire under you, heat sweeping over your skin, crushing you breathless. She doesn’t understand why you’re not pregnant. Your heart rate is high. Does anything hurt? You feel the walls of your womb contracting, shrinking from the speculum, gathering the wishful strength to expel it so they can join forever like scar tissue, a marriage that excludes a third. Nothing hurts, you say.

After you’re dressed, the specialist brings Thomas back and shows the two of you her hopeful charts. Your age plus number of embryos implanted equals probability. And what of the others? You use the A-word to show how tough-minded you are. No euphemistic reductions for you. Thomas half-closes his eyes wisely, the face that looks like listening but only you know means patient disagreement. Eye contact would throw off his game, so you devote your attention to his lion-fur eyebrows, the wide furrows of his forehead, which you truly cherish, though there are limits on what you will do to make a next-generation copy. The fresh panties you brought for after the procedure feel damp and used. You’re afraid you smell. Thomas stands so you stand. He shakes her hand and tucks the handout under his arm. Your husband was raised Catholic. You hope he remembers that.

You drive too fast to the Cracker Barrel. Both of you order chicken pot pie and syrupy iced tea. Thomas sits with his back to the fireplace because you’re still sweaty, despite the whip of snow in the air outdoors. He says this might be the year he runs for City Council. Someone has to take a strong stand on stormwater management. He’s a financial planner, but the market is slow. You relax into the familiar topics. The year stretches ahead like the interstate, straight and bare under white winter sun.

All the next week you dream thick, dark dreams, itching under a knit blanket you almost recognize — an aunt’s house, a friend’s? Washing breakfast dishes, you say aloud the name of a discontinued lipstick: Berry Chic, a Kool-Aid color in a mashed tube you shared with your ninth-grade best friend Mira, swapping tastes of wax and spit. You say her name, relieved to be certain of something. You’re glad the house is empty.

****

There is a room that is blue and green.

There is a room whose door is always closed.

****

You and your friend Pauline and the new guy, Glenn, run an executive staffing firm downtown. You match resumes to positions at insurance agencies, law offices, nursing homes, and the occasional quirky client like the holistic spa or the boarding school for deaf kids. It’s the same pleasure as filling in a crossword puzzle. Pauline’s mother never worked and yours, of course, had to stop early. You’re satisfied by the sight of yourself in the washroom mirror, pearl studs or gold knots in your ears, champagne-beige dress or black pants suit, some blouse that doesn’t show sweat. Though it’s been awhile since you talked about it, you know Pauline, adjusting her headband beside you, feels the same.

****

It is March. The social worker asks why you want to have a baby. Thomas is sitting in the chair next to yours, but she is only looking at you. You think, not for the first time, that no one asks men this question. The mere willingness to become a father on purpose, and to expend some effort to do so, automatically puts Thomas on the good-conduct list. He is responsible, respectable, unselfish. Unfortunately, this is all true, so you can’t take out your frustrations on him. Besides, from now on, you’ll have to present a united front.

You could tell her that Thomas talked you into reactivating your adoption application when he caught you crying in front of the Easter egg dye kits at the supermarket. The problem with our life, he’d said, is that we have no liturgical calendar. You don’t talk this way, and you can’t take the chance that this new social worker will think you’re being pretentious or flippant. But you’d instantly understood what he meant: the feeling that none of it applies to you, as your neighbors and the people on TV cycle through back-to-school sales, letters to Santa, Mother’s Day bouquets.

You could tell her you want someone to love. You could tell her you want immortality. Someone who needs you. Not only do these sound like the terrible song lyrics you and Mira wrote when you were both crushing on that sophomore with the electric guitar, they are unbelievably self-centered, as is anything you might say about someone who doesn’t exist yet.

You tell her the truth you have both rehearsed: that your marriage produces a creative energy that you want to share. That it’s not in the cards for you to create with your bodies, but a family is really made by love. The social worker gives you a binder of printouts from other couples’ websites. She instructs you to start collecting photos of your life. Pictures for a story that a birthmother would want her child to be part of, other than her own.

****

 

Today My Dreams Come True

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(source)

 

Two Natures release date today from Saddle Road Press!

All my life, I dreamed of being a storyteller. Fictional characters were my closest companions in my solitary and sensitive childhood. Their worlds seemed almost tangible, coexisting in another dimension alongside my random meatspace life, separated from me by an imperceptible barrier I yearned to break. To create such a world, and make it real enough to invite others in, would be as close as I could come to working magic. In a way, that was my first religion.

Ten years ago I felt gifted by the Holy Spirit to start writing fiction. At a Christian writing conference at Calvin College, my literary hero Walter Wangerin Jr. spoke the prophetic words that your book doesn’t have to be perfect. He said that an inspired book simply speaks from the heart about authentic experience, and through that recognition of one’s self in another, brings order out of the chaos of the reader’s emotions, refreshing the reader like the bread that the ravens brought to the exhausted Elijah in the wilderness. These words of grace set me free to attempt something beyond my skill level or maturity at that moment, a vocation that I would grow into, with the Spirit’s help.

Thus was Julian born.

Eight years ago I lay on my writing couch, sobbing my heart out. I thought the God of the Bible was requiring me to give Julian up, and with him, the part of myself I loved most. My Christian support system had fallen apart because the book I was writing had turned out to be incorrigibly gay. The mentor who’d brought me to that conference warned me that “writing about sodomy doesn’t honor God.” I had repeatedly tried and failed to force my shapeless manuscript’s story arc into the narrative of sexual sin and redemption that I believed necessary to make it a “Christian” book.  Meanwhile, unethical psychologists in our adoption process had half-convinced me that my imagination itself was broken and corrupt, and that my subconscious, as exposed in my writing, could only betray how unfit I was for human relationships. “Julian,” I said to him, because I had always felt his presence like an invisible friend, “whatever happens, no moment I spent with you has ever been wasted.”

Like Huck Finn declaring “All right then, I’ll go to hell”, I scrapped that draft, let Julian be the narrator he’d always wanted to be, and wrote a story called “Two Natures”. In this prequel to the eventual novel by the same name, 12-year-old Julian identifies with his beloved uncle who is dying of AIDS, although he believes he’ll be punished for his sexuality in the afterlife, if not sooner. The story was published in American Fiction, a journal from New Rivers Press. I’ll be making it available in a newsletter giveaway soon.

Over the next three insane years, I wrote two prizewinning poetry chapbooks and some short stories, failed to adopt twin boys, came out to myself as a child abuse survivor, went no-contact with my bio mother, celebrated when my mom-of-choice escaped domestic violence, and through it all, kept plugging away at Two Natures. I wrote the ending in 2010, didn’t realize it, and spun out another 100 pages of demoralizing crap. Something I’ve just learned about being a survivor is that we may internalize a self-image of being fated to fail. When I hit setbacks in my writing, I panicked that I was too PTSD-damaged to complete a project, or that God had withdrawn the mandate of heaven because of my disobedience, like King Saul.

Four years ago I adopted the Young Master, who is beautiful, joyful, and filled with the life force. As an un-traumatized human being in his natural state, he is free of the baggage of shame and spirit-flesh division I acquired from my family and religion. I couldn’t see him as broken by “original sin” or imagine loving him less if he turned out gay, bi, or transgender. To be a better parent, I got serious about recovery and found a trauma specialist who’s helping me root out false beliefs about my unworthiness and God’s wrath. Those toxic religious doctrines only got under my skin in the first place because they mapped to the twisted idea of love that was familiar from my upbringing.

Parenting a “real-life” child taught me to let Julian be Julian, not force him into my increasingly incoherent religious agenda. I would follow where he led. If I couldn’t make a worldview plausible in the novel, I probably didn’t really believe it, no matter how many theological arguments I could win. And that naughty fellow led me right out of traditional Christianity, with its central image of suffering transferred from the guilty to the innocent.

Eighteen months ago I finished The Endless Novel, with tremendous help and encouragement from my friends who were beta readers, and my husband who has never been fazed by my many strange identities. Since literary contests are my area of expertise, I started submitting there. That direction wasn’t fruitful, but my online friend Ruth Thompson (a wonderful poet) mentioned that her press was looking for literary fiction manuscripts.

On the Friday of Thanksgiving weekend, 2015, Ruth gave me the wonderful news that Saddle Road Press had accepted Two Natures. She and Don Mitchell at SRP have been the best publishers anyone could ask for. They’re responsive and financially transparent, design gorgeous books, and can always make me laugh. Thanks, you two. Now everyone please go buy their books and support the press!

Who has watched over me during this arduous journey of self-discovery and activism? Where did I get my faith to persevere in the face of spiritual abuse and mental health struggles? I know that I have been protected, by someone I still call “the Holy Spirit” even though most Christian language doesn’t fit me anymore. Someone up there implanted compassion, hope, truth-seeking, and determination in my heart. Someone strengthened me to be true to myself when people I loved couldn’t accept who I’d become. So… thank you, Holy Spirit.

Today my dreams come true.

Perseverance is more than endurance. It is endurance combined with absolute assurance and certainty that what we are looking for is going to happen. Perseverance means more than just hanging on, which may be only exposing our fear of letting go and falling. Perseverance is our supreme effort of refusing to believe that our hero is going to be conquered. Our greatest fear is not that we will be damned, but that somehow Jesus Christ will be defeated. Also, our fear is that the very things our Lord stood for— love, justice, forgiveness, and kindness among men— will not win out in the end and will represent an unattainable goal for us. Then there is the call to spiritual perseverance. A call not to hang on and do nothing, but to work deliberately, knowing with certainty that God will never be defeated. (Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest)

“Two Natures” Book Trailer, E-book Sale, New Reviews

Romantic suspense author Zara West (Beneath the Skin) created this stylish book trailer for Two Natures using my storyboard, stock photos, and public domain archival photos from the New York Public Library.

Now through September 28, the e-book of Two Natures is on sale on Amazon Kindle and Apple iBooks for 99 cents! Julian may never be this cheap again…unless you’re a cute boy and buy him another rum and Coke…

I appreciated this insightful review from Kittredge Cherry at Jesus in Love Blog, “Two Natures explores sexuality and spirituality during AIDS crisis” Art That Dares, Cherry’s book of feminist and LGBT-themed religious art, helped me envision a God who could accept Julian and me. She writes:

The dense and varied literary coming-of-age novel ranges from comic scenes that could easily become a hit movie to the explicitly sexual and the touchingly tragic. Reiter brings alive LGBTQ touchstones of the era: the visit from out-of-town and out-of-it parents to their closeted son, the AIDS death and awkward funeral, and so on…

…As art historian, I especially enjoyed the way that some of Julian’s spiritual reflections were provoked by art. For instance, Julian’s inner spiritual conflict is portrayed at first through his responses to “Piss Christ,” a controversial photograph by Andres Serrano.

The novel is also significant as an example of how a new generation tries to make sense of an AIDS crisis that they were too young to experience firsthand. I happened to read “Two Natures” at the same time that I was rereading my own journals for an oral history interview about doing AIDS ministry at Metropolitan Community Church of San Francisco in the late 1980s. Perhaps no novel can capture the agony, ecstasy and desperate intensity of those times.

Julian never found the kind of LGBTQ-affirming church home that we provided at MCC-SF. Sadly that may be true for many young gay men in the early 1990s, and even now. But there’s good news: Reiter is already working on a sequel. Julian will have another chance to find long-term love and a gay-positive spiritual community, with readers invited along for the ride.

And here’s my latest Goodreads review from T Christopher:

A marvelous book. I enjoyed Julian’s story so much and found it very relatable. There were so many beautiful, little surprises (“Spring Chicken Perfume”) and a great many laugh out loud moments. It brought up a lot of memories for me—young men who had to shoulder more responsibility and grief than was reasonable for their years, and too many who never got to grow up and old. Too many losses. I really appreciate the characterization of Julian—so on the ball in so many ways, and yet so readily apt to drop it. Very realistic.

Reiter is a marvelous writer and this is a rich, wonderful, and heartbreaking, story. I enjoyed reading it very much.

Book Reader Magazine, an e-book promotion site in the Awesomegang affiliate network, ran a brief interview with me this month.

Save the date: My book launch reading will take place on Thursday, Sept. 29, at 7:30 PM, at the Bureau of General Services – Queer Division bookstore in the LGBT Center, 208 W. 13th Street, New York City. I’m honored to share the stage with Charlie Bondhus, winner of the Publishing Triangle’s Thom Gunn Award for Gay Poetry. See the event listing in Gay City News. RSVP on Facebook.

Julian Gets Around: New “Two Natures” Reviews and Author Interviews

The countdown continues to the launch of Two Natures on September 15! Readings are scheduled for New York City, Northampton, and Greenfield, MA this fall. Watch this space or visit our Facebook page for exact times and directions. With guidance from The Frugal Book Promoter, I’ve garnered some encouraging pre-publication reviews and author interviews online. Here are the latest stops on Julian’s PR tour.

Our Queer Art, a project of Canada’s QueerDeer Media, profiled me on July 27. An excerpt from the interview:

What do you define yourself as? Or do you not? Why/Why not?
I define myself as a creative artist whose medium is writing. A revelatory and sometimes painful aspect of writing Two Natures was facing the truth that this identity is more fundamental than other labels that I thought would fit me forever, including “Christian” and “female”.

How long have you been practicing?
I’ve been a writer since before I could write! I dictated my first poems to my parents when I was about 4. They were about fairy princesses, of course.

What interests you about your medium or why do you use this medium?
I grew up in a family that loved books. The magic of communing with characters from an intangible world was my first, and (I’m finally realizing) my most formative, spiritual experience. It’s a great honor to be able to practice that magic myself.

What kind of work do you want to create, or what work are you inspired by that you would like to strive for/emulate?
I am inspired by artists who challenge binary thinking, whose work offers both sensual pleasure and an intelligent perspective on the human condition. Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and The Goldfinch are ambitious in this way: action melodramas that are also philosophical treatises on the troubled relationship between art and morality. So are some of my favorite works of fiction that blend horror and political critique, such as George Saunders’ Pastoralia, Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country (a Cthulhu Mythos pastiche set in the Jim Crow South), and Jenna Leigh Evans’ Prosperity (an American dystopia set in debtor’s prison, winner of our 2015 Winning Writers North Street Book Prize for genre fiction). The poetry collections that are touchstones for me include Atlantis by Mark Doty, The Cow by Ariana Reines, Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot, and Live or Die by Anne Sexton.

Trudie Barreras, a popular Amazon Vine reviewer, gave Two Natures a 5-star review on Goodreads:

…[T]his book offers an amazing level of honesty and insight. Like the earlier work of Patricia Nell Warren, Reiter’s representation of gay male psychology and eroticism is clear-eyed and unabashed. Although her descriptions of male-male sexual encounters are no more explicit than the similar descriptions of heterosexual lovemaking in many modern-day romances, some readers may find this unpalatable. To them, I can only say, “Get over it, people!”

Although Reiter is investigating the link between sexuality and spirituality in this narrative, as well as presenting a deeply incisive exploration of the social and cultural aspects of the urban LGBTQ community during the AIDS crisis, she is not heavy-handed or in any way “preachy”. Her main characters and many of the peripheral cast members are sympathetically and vividly described. Julian himself is voiced with wry and biting humor.

A trigger warning: for those who, like me, have “been there and done that” with respect to losing dear ones to AIDS, and who have experienced the anger, disgust and grief resulting from the vicious and callous rejection of gays – especially those stricken with HIV – by the so-called Christian establishment, the honesty of this book is stark…

Book blogger Amos Lassen wrote in this July 13 review:

It is a pleasure to read a novel that is literary in all of its aspects. I also found that the issue of faith that is so important to me is beautifully handled here… We all know someone like Julian and many of us see ourselves in him. The highest praise that I can give this book is to say that ‘I love it’ and I do. Julian is an everyman and in that he is a composite of so many gay personalities. You owe to yourselves to read this wonderful novel.

A.M. Leibowitz, author of the excellent gay Christian novel Passing on Faith and many others, scored Two Natures 10 out of 10 fountain pens in this Aug. 1 review and author interview. She doesn’t let Julian off the hook for his moral failings, though!

This is a difficult book for me to review. On the one hand, despite its length, it’s surprisingly fast-paced. There isn’t a lot of wasted space; everything has a purpose, so it doesn’t feel as though it’s lagging anywhere in terms of moving forward. The writing style is superior, in the style of the best literary fiction. At the same time, my reaction to it is very much along those lines—I’m not here to be entertained by this book. It’s not a feel-good love story or a tale of tragedy-to-triumph. It’s meant to be appreciated mainly for its historical value and technically skilled craftsmanship. For a number of reasons (the heavy topics, the highly literary style, the depth of the psychology), this is one to read with a group for the purpose of discussion.

There’s a lot covered in this novel, and the title says it best. Everything in Julian’s life is split, and he spends most of the story trying to make whole the things he sees as fractured. Despite the fact that there’s a sub-thread about the religion of his youth, it actually doesn’t factor in much beyond his musings until near the end. However, his broken trust in his faith and family of origin drive nearly every other relationship he has. It’s vital for people of faith to read this with the understanding of how religious institutions create and contribute to the oppression specifically of the LGBT community…

…Ultimately, I could probably talk for days about this book because it’s impossible to capture everything about such a dense read in a short review. My own personal grievances with the characters aside, I do think this is a phenomenal work, and I highly recommend it. It should be required reading if for no other reason than that we’ve already forgotten what life was like in those days.

Love Julian or hate him? Pick up a free copy and find out. Join the Goodreads M/M Romance Group and sign up for the “Don’t Buy My Love” giveaway starting August 25! Fifteen e-book copies of Two Natures are on offer in exchange for an honest review.

Advance Praise for “Two Natures” from California Bookwatch

Diane Donovan, editor of Midwest Book Review’s California Bookwatch and proprietor of Donovan’s Literary Services, sent me this great review of my forthcoming novel, Two Natures (Saddle Road Press, September 2016). It’ll go up on their websites in July.

***

Julian is a Southern boy and transplanted aspiring fashion photographer in New York City in the 1990s;  a gay man facing the height of the AIDS epidemic and professional, social, and spiritual struggles alike as he questions himself, God’s will, and Christian values in the advent of a specific kind of apocalypse.

It’s rare to discover within a gay love story an equally-powerful undercurrent of political and spiritual examination. Too many gay novels focus on evolving sexuality or love and skim over underlying religious values systems; but one of the special attributes of Two Natures isn’t just its focus on duality, but its intense revelations about what it means to be both Christian and gay.

In many ways, Julian is the epitome of a powerful, conflicting blend of emotions. Take the story’s opening line, for one example. Readers might not anticipate a photographer’s nightmare which bleeds heavily into evolving social realization and philosophy: “I woke from another nightmare about photographing a wedding. The bride was very loud and everyone’s red lipstick was smeared across their teeth like vampires, except vampires would never wear lavender taffeta prom dresses. It’s always the wrong people who can’t see themselves in mirrors.

Even the language exquisitely portrays this dichotomy: Julian’s parents are still “Mama” and “Daddy”, his language and many of his attitudes remain delightfully Southern (“You know, back where I come from, that was the first thing you asked a new fellow: what does your Daddy do, and where do you go to church?“), and his experiences with men, female friends, his evolving photography career, and life in general are wonderfully depicted, drawing readers into not just the trappings and essence of his life, but the course of his psychological, philosophical and spiritual examinations.

As Julian explores this world, readers should expect sexually graphic (but well-done) scenes designed to enhance the storyline (not shock it with departures or dominant heaviness), an attention to the social and political environment of the 90s that swirls around Julian and changes his perspectives and decisions, and a gritty set of candid descriptions that probe real-world experience.

Readers of gay fiction seeking more than a casual series of insights into the world of New York City’s culture, enhanced by the deeper perspectives of a young man who spiritually struggles to find his place even as he fine-tunes his career and life, will welcome the close inspection of truth, love, and life provided in Jendi Reiter’s Two Natures, powerful saga of Southern etiquette and perspectives turned upside down and the risks involved in moving beyond one’s safe zone.