I met Dan Lopez long ago, as an undergrad at the University of Central Florida. It was clear by the way he wrote and thought, in those early fiction workshops we shared, that Dan was the real deal. Which is why I was thrilled to hear about his second book, The Show House, which is doubly close to my heart because it’s set in Orlando. The following conversation covers all kinds of ground: from the challenges of dealing with genre and identity labels in literature, how one comes to call themselves a writer, Florida as inspiration for setting, and, of course, Dan’s excellent new book, which he will be reading from (alongside Kelly Luce) at Functionally Literate in Orlando this Saturday.
Ryan Rivas: I wanted to start with something easy, you know, like identity politics in relation to the undergrad fiction workshops we took ten years ago. I remember way back in workshop you wrote a story the professor lauded for being good (it was) without being a primarily “gay story.” That comment stuck with me. It seems like a double-edged compliment. It praises the work while implying that focusing too much on the gayness of the characters (whatever that means) would have somehow reduced its literary merit. Did you feel that, back then?
Dan Lopez: I don’t remember the specific event you’re referring to, but I’ve definitely heard some version of that my entire career. Honestly, I’m not really sure how I feel about it. I want my work to be considered Literature with a capital “L” regardless of subject matter, yet I often delay outing my gay characters. I think, in part, to avoid pigeonholing myself. In that sense, I’m actively avoiding writing a “gay story.” I think writers resist labels of any kind. Nobody wants to be known primarily as a gay writer or a woman writer or a black writer, etc. And a lot of writers I know don’t want to be classified by genre either. All these labels are helpful for marketing a book and maybe for contextualizing a writer within a particular cultural moment, but they run the risk of stripping away a lot of a work’s complexity and its universality. With this book, it’s been interesting to see where some of the reviews choose to focus. Some are really concerned with the explicit sex scenes (not that there are even that many), and as a writer a part of me definitely wonders if those same scenes would’ve been called out had they involved straight sex.
RR: I know the scene you’re talking about. My literary brain placed it in context with Dennis Cooper.
DL: I recently read The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante. I’d argue that her descriptions of sex are just as explicit as mine. Hers just happen to be straight. As a reader or a writer, the best thing to do if these labels bother you is to be well read. Be able to respond to those micro-aggressions with examples from other works and make the case why the person delivering the double-edged compliment is bringing some kind of bias to the table. It doesn’t have to be a confrontational thing. Reframe it as literary criticism. And, frankly, nothing legitimizes a work more quickly than putting it in conversation with a canonical text.
RR: I found that there was something subversive about the sex scenes between the serial killer and his victims. And I was kind of delighted that the scene appears later, once the reader is lured deeper into the book. What was your thought process behind how you crafted those?
DL: My first priority with all the serial killer scenes was: How can I make this guy likeable for as long as possible? And, if not likeable, at least sympathetic. The sex scenes grew out of that. He’s obviously a very bad person, but he’s also struggling to define his relationship to the same questions of fidelity, social convention, and filial demands that everybody else in the book is. His sex scenes presented a perfect opportunity to showcase all of these tensions. He could indulge his worst inclinations but because he’s got this running monologue about the purpose of his “work”—that’s the euphemism he employs for murdering young guys—and how it fits into a larger political and personal agenda, my hope is that the reader can sympathize and, maybe, to a certain degree, also enjoy what’s happening. The draw of a villain, especially this kind of villain, is tied to fantasy fulfillment. You can be a respectful and productive member of society, but you probably also have some secret, dark desire that you feel puts you at odds with the world and could potentially mark you as a pariah if it were to become known. Somebody like my serial killer provides a safe space in which to indulge that side. I also liked having two simultaneous dramatic registers.
RR: Those scenes work really well interspersed with the family drama plot lines.
DL: The main story has it’s own stakes, but the irony is that the real situation is so much worse than anybody could have imagined. So, I think, for the reader that additional perspective provides a pleasing note of schadenfreude.
RR: I wonder if, after leaving Orlando, you sought out grad school, or intentionally tried to avoid academia… or if you had a different path in mind.
DL: Oof, yeah, I took a couple of half-ass swings at grad school, but it never panned out for me. I should start by saying that I wish I had an MFA. I think they can be incredibly valuable and that many excellent writers I know have them. My stumbling block was always the application process, in general, and letters of recommendation, in specific. I never felt comfortable reaching out to professors and asking them to write me a letter. It’s an awkward ask and I wasn’t even sure if they remembered me! The irony is that I actually have pretty good relationships with some of my old professors now, but that’s largely because of social media and because I’ve been back to UCF several times since the publication of my first book. Really, I guess you could say, that my heart wasn’t in it with the MFA. I didn’t like the idea of tying the value of my writing to whether or not I got one of the highly competitive spots available in any given program. Also, I didn’t want to incur the debt. I spent some time in the tech world and I think of the MFA kind of how I think about computer science degrees. I worked with a lot of people who had their masters in computer science, but I also worked with a lot of people who were self-taught or who learned to code in coding boot camps. At the end of the day, the MFA is a piece of paper. What matters is learning how to write and being passionate about it. You don’t need the paper to be successful, just like you don’t need the master’s degree from Stanford to be a good developer. But either of those degrees sure are going to open a lot of doors for you that you would otherwise have to hustle hard to pry open. So, you know, pick your poison.
DL: Well, if I wasn’t going to have the imprimatur of an MFA to brand me as a writer, I was going to have to do something else to justify calling myself that. It’s always been desperately important for me to think of myself as a writer, by the way. I think, ultimately, my decision to go ahead with the book of short stories, Part the Hawser, Limn the Sea, was related to that desire. A poet friend of mine once told me that he decided to self-publish his first collection because it was important for him to have something tangible that he could hold. I always remembered that. I’d been working on the stories in my collection at the same time that I was working on the novel. I’d write one then read it at a literary event in New York. The idea with the stories was to use them as an introduction to the literary scene. I followed that same logic when it came time to publish them. I was kind of at a dead end with my writing. I was doing book reviews here and there but my career wasn’t going anywhere. I decided that it was either give up writing or put something out myself. The stories all happened to be on a single theme and work together as a collection, so I figured I’d self-publish them and use them as a jumping off point to getting the novel published. As luck would have it, a small press picked up the collection at the eleventh hour. They helped me publicize it and distribute it. That collection also went on to be nominated for a Lambda Literary Award. Publishing the collection also gave me the boost I needed to continue pushing on the novel. Shortly after, Unnamed Press agreed to publish it. I’d been calling myself a writer for a while, but it was that first book that allowed me to back up the claim.
RR: The Show House, you’ve said, dates back about ten years, back to Orlando and undergrad. In what way did your evolution as a writer change the way in which you approached this book?
DL: So much! The first inklings of the work that would become The Show House were solipsistic musings of grave importance to no one save the author. I had to get that stuff out of my system. At some point, I realized I wasn’t going to be an enfant terrible. Nobody cared what I had to say at 24. I didn’t really have anything to say yet and, what’s worse, I didn’t know how to say the little that I did have to say in a compelling way. So my task for the next decade was to struggle and inch my way towards a finished product. I learned to look at other people, to try to understand their perspectives, and to try to develop a broader sense of the world. I also focused on craft. I’ve always been more or less good at dialogue, but writing good description is hard for me. I have to work very hard to find the right rhythm and the right details, to vary my sentence structures and to find ways to incorporate larger themes without being too blunt.
RR: The novel features a serial killer, which seems to be the character most interviewers focus on. But after stewing on the book for a while I’ve become really fascinated with the family dynamics between Cheryl and Thaddeus, a dysfunctional married couple whose gay son Steven is married to Peter. Both marriages are flawed in the same banal ways. Neither relationship is free of petty insults and resentments. How do you see “gay” marriage operating differently from traditional marriage, if at all?
DL: Short answer: it’s the same. At least as far as I can tell. I’ve never been in a traditional marriage. No matter the gender of the parties involved, marriage requires a lot of compromise. Best-case scenario, you have equal voting parties, so you’re going to have to come up with a way to overcome gridlock. Everybody in this story is working out their own calculations as to whether or not it’s preferable to do what’s expected or to be more selfish. Marriage is a convenient iteration of that tension for the married couples. My husband and I often discuss how being gay forced us to see beyond the choices that society readily presents. We grew up never expecting to be able to get married or have kids. Queerness, for better or worse, puts you at odds with mainstream society, and that position, while painful, is also beneficial. It allows you to conceive of your life in a radical way. So, if anything, I would say that’s the main difference between gay and straight marriage. Queer people are coming to marriage fully aware of all their possibilities, so when they choose to legally bind their lives together, to be monogamous (or not), to reproduce (or not), they’re doing it fully aware of their options. I think a lot of straight people don’t ever consider the radical choices they can make with their lives because they get swallowed up by society’s expectations long before they’ve thought to question them.
RR: You’ve mentioned in other interviews that you began the book before gay marriage was legal in Florida, let alone the law of the land. Does any of the family stuff have to do with when the book was written?
DL: A little bit. For instance, the way I originally conceived of Peter and Steven’s relationship in regards to their daughter was very much influenced by the political realities at the time. Legally, it would’ve been very difficult for them to have their family given the very restrictive laws Florida had on the books regarding adoption. The potentially tenuous nature of their situation also informed a lot of Cheryl’s anxiety regarding access to her granddaughter. Again, it wasn’t something I wanted to explicitly spell out. I was always more interested in how these characters responded to the scenario than I was in the machinations that brought about that scenario in the first place.
RR: Speaking of cultural context. You had to get a Trump reference in there, didn’t you? I’m referring to Thaddeus mispronouncing “Mar-A-Lago.”
DL: Ha! You caught that. It is indeed a Trump reference, but if anything, it’s prophetic. I had that detail in there long before this past election cycle even began. As you know, I grew up in West Palm Beach. The former Post family mansion that Trump now owns was just another local landmark, something that you’d point out to visiting family when you took them for a drive over to the island. When I was conceiving of the kind of gaudy, prototypically Floridian development that would appeal to somebody like Thaddeus, I naturally thought of Trump.RR: In the opening scenes, these two families reunite after a falling out between Thaddeus and Steven. I thought it was an interesting choice to leave out exactly what happened between the father and son. The more I learned about these characters the more this gap took on significance for me. It makes me think of the “mystery” part from the Flannery O’Connor craft playbook of “mystery and manners.” Was it an intentional choice to leave out this father/son history?
DL: Yeah, it was intentional. Though the specifics of the rift do eventually surface in the course of the novel, I wanted the estrangement to just be this fact that the reader was presented with. As a writer, I say to myself: Steven and Thaddeus have a bad relationship. Okay. Is it going to be more interesting finding out why they have a bad relationship, or is it going to be more interesting seeing what comes out of that? For me, it’s the latter. I will say, that one thing you learn early on in any writing workshop is that the longer you dangle a mystery over the reader the bigger the payoff better be. I tried to make the specifics a non-issue by stating pretty early on that they had a fight three years earlier. Given what you learn about these people, it shouldn’t come as too big of a surprise that they came to loggerheads. When the time came to share the specifics, I was careful to coordinate it with a big reveal, thus rewarding the reader’s patience.
RR: And of course there’s the serial killer, a man who picks up gay men from nightclubs in Orlando and murders them. It’s inevitable that interviewers would also bring up the mass shooting at Pulse. But that, to me, is only a tenuous, surface-level connection. Your serial killer character claims to kill gay men in order to make their plight more visible, similar to the way racist atrocities in the south were televised and ended up ramping up support for civil rights. Despite the fact that you arrived at the character / premise long before Pulse, the result of the shooting certainly brought national attention to the persecution of the LGBTQ+ community. This is the uncanny aspect that connects the book and the tragedy for me. What was it like having to watch coverage of Pulse while also having this novel in the works?
DL: It was surreal. The particulars of Pulse are very different from my fictional scenario, but there is an underlying commonality in that both highlight the horrifying power of a rogue actor to pervert a safe space. Anybody who has gone through the trauma of growing up queer and discovering gay clubs—and I will add that Orlando gay clubs are some of the most diverse and inclusive that I’ve ever experienced—has also had a nagging anxiety that they are such fragile places. Underage drinking or illicit drug use in the bathrooms is enough to shut them down and sever that connection for the community. Let alone an armed gunman with a perverted agenda. I was deeply affected by Pulse even as I was unsurprised that it had finally happened. I still know a lot of people in Orlando and any one of them could’ve been at Pulse that night. Had I still lived in Orlando, I could’ve been there. This is why fiction endures. The kind of things me and every other writer out there are writing about—the Utopian aspirations and the horrific possibilities—are firmly rooted in our lived experiences. After Pulse happened, my editor reached out to me to make sure I was okay. That was one of the kindest things anybody has ever done for me. It was so simple and yet so meaningful. And that, right there, perfectly illustrates why literature still matters. In a strange way, this book, which was written long before Pulse, was a connection to the tragedy and a way to bring people together in response to it.
RR: What made you choose Orlando as the setting? From the traditional family unit living out in Apopka to the nightclubs in downtown… to almost-Disney-World.
DL: They say to write what you know. I felt like I knew Florida well and as I was working on the book I kept coming back to this idea that Florida is a pretty good microcosm of the nation. It’s a great place to live if you’re rich but maybe not so great a place if you’re not. The economy is largely tied to fickle industries such as tourism and construction, so you have to pretend everything is okay and keep building even if it’s not. 2008 illustrated that fairly well. Florida was among the hardest hit parts of the country in the housing market crash. I was writing a book that was greatly influenced by the Southern Gothic tradition of depicting moral or social decay through physical houses, so in light of all that it felt like a natural fit to place the book in Florida. I chose Orlando because it made logistical sense for the plot and because I was familiar with its geography and landmarks, but I always thought about the setting as a way to talk about America in general.
RR: How much of the setting was drawn from your time in Orlando? Has your experience and perception of the place changed in the last ten years? How so?
DL: A lot of the setting came directly from my personal experience in the city. Independent Bar, for instance, is a real place (at least it was then) and I spent many a night drinking and dancing there. There are also a few scenes that make reference to the Executive Airport and the little park that sits across from it on the other side of the 408. I used to drive by that park all the time on my way back home from Southern Nights, the gay club that was my inspiration for the final club scene in the book. Like all cities, Orlando has changed a great deal in the decade or more that has passed since I last lived there. It’s grown by leaps and bounds and is much more of a destination in it’s own right, not just because of its proximity to Disney, than it used to be. My perception hasn’t changed all that much, though. Whenever I’m back, I feel the same tension. It’s a great place in a lot of ways, but it’s also a frustrating place.Florida, in general, is like that. A friend recently told me that if you look at Presidential elections over the past thirty years and count up all the votes, the difference between parties comes down to something like 10,000 votes. Again, we see Florida as a pretty good microcosm of the nation. Maybe it says something bad about me, but I just don’t have the stamina to live in such a contentious place. It’s exhausting having to fight every day over whether or not we should extend basic civil rights to everyone.
Since leaving Florida, I’ve lived in New York and California. Politics is contentious in both places and, contrary to popular opinion, both major parties are well represented in all levels of government and society, but at least on the social issues that matter to me we have broad consensus. I hope that one day the same is true across the nation. Until then, give me my liberal bastions!