Remembering Michael Denneny, an editor who championed LGBTQ voices
One of the first openly gay editors working at a major publishing house, Denneny launched the Stonewall Inn Editions imprint. He died April 12. Originally broadcast in 1987 and 1994.
Other segments from the episode on April 21, 2023
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross. Today we're going to remember Anne Perry, a popular mystery writer who for decades kept secret her participation in a murder as a teenager. Perry died last week at the age of 84. She was the author of several historical mystery series featuring central characters Thomas Pitt and William Monk. In 1998, the Times of London included her on the list of 100 masters of crime of the past century, placing her alongside Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler and Arthur Conan Doyle.
When Anne Perry was 15 years old, she helped her best friend murder that friend's mother. Perry's involvement with the murder would have remained a secret if not for the 1994 Peter Jackson film "Heavenly Creatures," starring a young Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey, which dramatized the incident. Journalists tracked Perry down. She had changed her name and moved across the ocean after spending 5 1/2 years in a New Zealand prison. Perry was English but was sent to New Zealand as a girl to recover from tuberculosis.
Terry spoke to Anne Perry in 1994, just months after her story had come out. Terry began with her latest book, her 20th, called "The Sins Of The Wolf." It was the fifth in her series featuring Detective William Monk. When Monk was introduced in the novel "The Face Of A Stranger," he was just regaining consciousness from an accident to find he had totally lost his memory. The most important mystery that faced him was the mystery of his own identity.
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TERRY GROSS: He's in the position of having to learn who he is by seeing what other people think of him. So he has to see...
ANNE PERRY: Yes.
GROSS: ...Himself through the eyes of others, and that could be a very unnerving experience.
PERRY: Very unnerving indeed because he learns what he has done but not why he has done it. And so often, as one of my mother's favorite sayings, if you just knew the one thing more, you know why somebody does what they do, it all falls into place and becomes not necessarily acceptable but at least understandable because almost everybody who does something - it seemed to them at the time to be the best course for them. And looking back on it, of course, it may be all sorts of other things, but he has to discover himself without knowing why he has done what he has done.
GROSS: What did you imagine it would be like for this detective to learn that he was hated for certain actions that he had taken earlier in life, actions he no longer remembered?
PERRY: I think it'd be very frightening, a sense of being disoriented and thinking, well, how can I be to blame for something that in a sense was not me and yet was me? And you have to come to terms with it. And I think that's something that many people feel when they have grown away from the person that they used to be and yet still have to live with whatever that person has done because we all change as time goes by. And since I now know how old you are, I know that you've had time to understand that that's true.
GROSS: (Laughter) I want to ask you about something that happened in your own life that really not only was quite a revelation about your life but also gives a whole new meaning, in a way, to the fact that you're writing mystery novels. And, you know, I'm thinking obviously about the murder that you were involved with when you were 15 years old.
GROSS: Before we talk about the murder, tell us something about who you were then. I know you were very sick. You were in a sanitarium.
PERRY: I was for a while. Who I was could be summed up, I suppose, fairly briefly. I was born in London a few months before the war. I spent some time there. We were there through the blitz. We moved around a little bit. I wasn't evacuated. When I was about 6, I became very, very ill indeed, so ill that the doctor told my mother he'd come back and sign the death certificate in the morning because there was nothing else that anybody could do. Obviously, my mother pulled me through the night. But by the time I was about 8, I was ill again, and they said that I wouldn't survive another British winter. So my mother had friends who had friends who lived in the Bahamas, and I was shipped out there. And I stayed with them for a little over a year - six months in the Bahamas, another eight months in New Zealand because that was where they went, which is how I got to New Zealand in the first place.
And I did recover quite a lot. I went back to my own family - no school during this time. I went back to my own family when I was 10, and I went to boarding school, which I hated because I was the different one. And kids torment a different child for whatever reason. And then when I was 13, I became ill again and had to be removed from school, and I never went back. And I spent about three months in a sanitarium, and then I spent the rest of the time recovering at home. But I was still not yet well enough to go back to school. And I seemed to respond to the medication so well that instead of taking me off it after three months, as was usual, they kept me on it for nine months. And that seemed at the time not to have done or had any effect.
And I suppose I was somebody very much out of touch with other people because I had not had very much schooling or much time to spend with other teenagers. I mean, I'd been out of circulation pretty well for two years because at the sanitarium where I was for three months, I wasn't even allowed any visitors, wasn't allowed to read. And that was when Pauline became such a close friend because she was the only person who kept really touch with me apart from my parents, and she wrote to me every day.
GROSS: So Pauline was your best friend. It was her mother...
GROSS: ...Who was murdered. She wanted to kill her mother.
PERRY: Well, when I was 15, my parents separated and were going to divorce. My father lost his job, and we were about to leave the country. And Pauline was very ill also. I don't know what it was that she suffered from, but she used to throw up regularly, sometimes two or three times a day, and she was losing weight quite dramatically. She was very unhappy. I don't know the reason why, or if I knew at the time, I don't remember now. But she wanted to come with us. And my parents said, of course you may if your parents agree. Well, I suppose pretty naturally her parents did not agree, and she felt that really coming with us was her only way of survival. I mean, I know that sounds melodramatic, but teenagers can be very melodramatic. That was how it seemed to us at the time.
GROSS: So what did she propose to you?
PERRY: Well, I'm not prepared to put words into her mouth. I think that would be most unfair. But let me say that I believed that if I did not join her in this, it would be the end of her life. I don't mean in a sense of happiness. I mean quite literally, physically, that she would die.
GROSS: Do you remember any of the planning of the murder?
PERRY: I really don't. It all happened within a space of either hours or one day or more.
GROSS: What happened?
PERRY: Well, we had intended to make it look like an accident, which was pretty ridiculous. But I don't remember very clearly, I mean, partly because it was 40 years ago and I was in a state of shock and pretty upset and I suppose partly because I have chosen not to remember it.
GROSS: What do you know now about the murder from what you've since read and been told?
PERRY: Well, it really is what I've been told. I haven't read. It was quick. I know that. It was fairly violent. But beyond that, I don't remember very much. I really, truly don't remember.
GROSS: I've read that your friend bludgeoned her mother 45 times with a half-brick that you gave her and that you had admitted to striking at least one blow yourself. Is that - does that seem at all accurate?
PERRY: Forty-five seems a little bit excessive. I don't know. I would have thought half a dozen was more like it, but we were both questioned without any adult present - either a lawyer, a parent or anybody else.
GROSS: Questioned by authorities.
PERRY: By the police. And if 45 was said, I have no idea. I don't think it was said by me.
GROSS: Did you know her mother at all?
PERRY: I'd met her. I mean, I couldn't say I knew her well. I'd met her.
GROSS: Do you remember what you felt either during or after the murder?
PERRY: I don't, no. I was pretty shocked. And don't forget; I'd just discovered that my parents were separating. My father had lost his job. And it seemed to me that my best friend was on the brink of death as well.
GROSS: And you mentioned the medicine you were taking. I think you - you think in retrospect that that medicine might have impaired your judgment.
PERRY: Well, it has been withdrawn because it tends to have that effect. I really can't say how much it affected me. I mean, I'm not competent to say. And there's no good asking me what it is because it's 45, 40 years ago, and, you know, the thing had a name a yard long.
GROSS: How did you explain what happened to yourself and to other people?
PERRY: I don't explain it. I just say I was wrong. I mean, my motivation was that I thought it was one life or another, which may sound daft now, but that's how I felt at the time. I truly believed that - I believed that she would take her own life if I didn't do this. And I just couldn't face the thought that she would take her life, and I would be to blame for that, which - it would have been far better, of course, if I could have found somebody who would have listened, who would have believed and who could have prevented it. But in 24, 48 hours or whatever and my parents distressed with their own situation, I didn't look for anybody. I didn't know where to turn. I didn't have other friends and contacts that I could go to, which doesn't make it right, but that was how it seemed to me at the time.
GROSS: Did your family stick with you during the trial?
PERRY: Oh, yes. But don't forget; at 15, you're not allowed to plead anyway. So none of this came out then because you don't get to say anything at all.
GROSS: So you didn't have to talk at the trial at all.
PERRY: You're not allowed to.
GROSS: Was that a relief that you didn't have to speak, or did you want to get...
GROSS: ...Up there and try to explain yourself?
PERRY: I would love to have been able to explain, no, it was not the way that they said 'cause they said all sorts of crazy things.
GROSS: Like what?
PERRY: Well, Pauline kept a diary. And as you do in America, refer to the toilet as the John, in her family, it was referred to as George. You know, you'd say, excuse me; I've just got to go and see George if you wanted to go to the toilet. And she would make notes at - if she'd had to get up during the night and say, I had to go and see George. And they made an affair out of that - I mean, a love affair.
PERRY: And I wanted to say, look just a minute. She means she went to the toilet. But, you know, you can't say anything. And the whole thing became absurd, as if we were out with strings of men. We did once get up in the night and go out on a bike ride to the beach and have a swim, just the two of us. But when you can't say anything, they can say anything they wish about you, and you have no opportunity to rebut it or to give the very obvious and very simple explanation.
GROSS: Well, could you have told your lawyer?
PERRY: I don't remember having much access to him, honestly. And anyway, they were trying to make the defense of insanity. So I presume they wanted to make us seem as crazy as possible.
GROSS: Your lawyer wanted to present you insane.
PERRY: That was the defense, insanity, which didn't work. I mean, we were totally sane, and we were found to be so.
GROSS: You know, how did you feel about somebody pleading that you were insane?
PERRY: Horrible, absolutely terrible. But that was considered to be the best legal advice at the time, added to which, of course, now the trial names would be suppressed. And it would be held - we use the term in camera. I'm not sure what term you use. But at least, you know, as a juvenile, it would not be given full rein in the press. But then it was absolutely full rein. It was a full adult trial.
BIANCULLI: Anne Perry speaking to Terry Gross in 1994 - more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 1994 interview with author Anne Perry. The writer of popular historical mystery novels died last week at age 84. For decades, she kept secret that she was one of the teenage girls involved in the murder depicted in the 1994 film "Heavenly Creatures."
GROSS: I know you spent about - I think it was 5 1/2 years in prison.
GROSS: You were 15. What was the prison like, and what - it was a prison for adult women; wasn't it?
PERRY: Yes, it was. I believe it was the toughest adult facility in the southern hemisphere.
GROSS: So what kind of crimes were the other women who you came in contact with found guilty of?
PERRY: Pretty well everything - a lot of prostitution, some of abortion, some of theft, embezzlement, crimes of violence, all sorts of things. It was the maximum-security prison.
GROSS: So what was - what kind of cell were you in? What kind of living conditions were you living in?
PERRY: One great benefit - I had a cell to myself. But other than that, it is - well, it's a stone cell, about five paces by five. The greatest difficulty was not being able to be clean because there was only - what? - two toilets between 35 of us. And they didn't have doors, so there was no privacy. And showers - two showers a week, timed, and no sanitary protection other than what you wash out by hand.
GROSS: Were you afraid of the other women?
PERRY: Oh, yes, at times - very, very frightened.
GROSS: Did they give you good reason to be afraid?
PERRY: I was never beaten up, but I was pretty scared that I might be at some time. I was the only person underage there, and I suppose I learned that if you curl up like a hedgehog or whatever, somebody else will usually come to your defense. But oh, yeah, I had times when I was pretty scared. Yes.
GROSS: So after your 5 1/2 years in prison, you were released, and the authorities gave you a new identity. Why did they give you a new identity?
PERRY: Because of the sort of hullabaloo that was surrounding the old one. If 40 years afterwards, you can get the kind of noise that you've got now about it, imagine what it would have been at the time.
GROSS: So when you got a new identity, what did they give you - a new name, a change of venue? What did they help you with?
PERRY: Well, both. They gave me a new name and a passport in that name. And I returned to Britain, where my family was. I went - I came straight home.
GROSS: And did the people there know about the trial?
PERRY: Well, my parents' closest friends knew, yes. But the people in general, no, of course not.
GROSS: So it hadn't gotten publicity in England.
PERRY: That I was released? Oh, the original, yes. It got publicity everywhere. But when I was released, no, that was done very quietly, and I just went back to my family...
GROSS: And so they...
PERRY: ...To my mother and stepfather.
GROSS: So the people you knew there didn't make the connection. They either hadn't seen your picture, or they didn't know you before.
PERRY: Well, it was - from 15 to 21, you do change quite a bit in appearance. And no, nobody made the connection. There has never been any problem whatever until about six weeks ago.
GROSS: What happened six weeks ago that made this story a public story?
PERRY: Some journalist in New Zealand managed to trace me and make the connection and then made it public.
GROSS: How did you feel about that?
PERRY: Absolutely terrible. For the first two or three nights, I would almost like to have died. I thought it would kill my mother. I thought it would probably devastate the complete life that I had built up for myself and not only ruin me, but ruin all those that I care about, my family and those who depend upon me one way or another. But thank heaven, for so many incredibly fine people, it hasn't at all. My mother is a very brave woman indeed, and she's fine. The village where I live, every single person that's had anything to say at all, it's been with complete kindness and horror that this should have happened.
GROSS: Have you felt at all a sense of relief that something that you've had to keep secret for so long you don't have to keep secret any longer?
PERRY: Well, just occasionally there's a little spark of relief. Yes. When I begin to realize that that anybody who accepts me now accepts me for what I am and without reservation, But I wouldn't have chosen for this to happen. I mean, it has been a very, very painful experience. It's very encouraging that there are so many extraordinarily good people. And I would say to anybody that there's far more goodwill out there than there is malice.
GROSS: I wonder if you feel like you still have to cope with feelings of guilt from...
PERRY: No, I don't.
GROSS: ...Forty years ago. How did you...
GROSS: ...Resolve that for yourself? I think sometimes the hardest person to forgive is yourself.
PERRY: Yes, that's true. By within the first two or three months, getting down on my knees and saying, I am sorry. I was at fault. I truly am sorry. And from now on, I will do everything I can to be the best person I know how. I think a lot of guilt stems from somehow or another still trying to defend yourself. You see; I never felt wicked. I never thought I would get anything out of it for myself. And it's getting over the trying to make excuses, trying to think, well, it wasn't really me, and saying, yes, I was at fault. Yes, I am sorry. And then from there on, you go on. You can't beat yourself with the past forever. It doesn't help anybody. And being sorry isn't a matter of thinking that you personally ought to suffer some more somehow or another. It's doing the best you can to live the very best life that you know how and to make darn sure you forgive others as you would wish to be forgiven.
GROSS: So do you feel there's any connection at all in your life between writing mysteries and being involved with the murder?
PERRY: Only in that I now care a great deal more than I used to about right and wrong. And I have a - more of a sympathy and an understanding how you can do something wrong because you're jammed into a corner, and you're scared, and you haven't time to think, and that issues are not as black and white as they might sometimes appear to be. I think I've got a less judgmental attitude than I would have had if I'd - you know, if my life had gone differently. I think I might have been a good deal more cocky, more assured of myself, more assured of the world had I had an easier path, had I never done anything which I regret.
GROSS: How did you start to write? How old were you when you realized you wanted to do that, and how did you make a living before that?
PERRY: Oh, I always either told stories or wrote them down as far back as I can remember. My mother used to tell me stories when I was, you know, 2 or 3 years old. I actually started trying to write for publication in my mid-20s. It took me about 12 years at least to get anything accepted. And I worked at general secretarial work and various other things. I was an air stewardess and a ship and shore stewardess at sea and limousine dispatcher and worked in insurance and worked in a shop, all sorts of different things. But the only thing I ever wanted to do was write.
BIANCULLI: Anne Perry speaking to Terry Gross in 1994. The author of a series of historical crime novels died last week. She was 84 years old. After a break, we remember book and magazine editor Michael Denneny, a longtime champion of gay rights and gay writers. Also, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews the new album from tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III, and film critic Justin Chang reviews the new movie "Beau Is Afraid." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
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DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, professor of television studies at Rowan University, in for Terry Gross. Tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III comes from Houston. He traveled north to get his schooling and settled in New York, where he was soon recording under his own name, starting in 2005, and with such contemporaries as drummer Eric Harland and trumpeters Christian Scott and Ambrose Akinmusire. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says Smith's new album is bringing him well-deserved attention.
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KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Walter Smith III on "River Styx" from his album "Return To Casual," his first for the Blue Note label. Smith sets a standard for modern saxophone-playing in a direct way, influencing young players as chair of the woodwind department at Boston's Berklee School of Music. He's a good role model. With Smith, everything's in balance. His pliable, expressive tone is not too heavy or too light. Rhythmically, he can ride a beat or resist it. Smith exploits tension between simple and complex phrases, smooth and rough textures and the composed and the improvised.
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WHITEHEAD: Walter Smith also writes some slinky tunes. That one's called "Quiet Song." Smith's tune "Contra" shows how the rhythms of contemporary technology seep into the music. The hectic melody mimics the front-and-back and side-to-side moves of a video gamer's hands at the controller. Smith replays rhythms he played as a gamer growing up in the '80s and '90s. Now he's looking back.
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WHITEHEAD: Walter Smith may also balance energetic tunes with a laid-back mode common to a few recent Blue Note records. In that vein, there's a pop cover, singer Kate Bush's 1985 deep track "Mother Stands For Comfort." Smith's version dwells on the melody's prayer-like repetitions. His frequent collaborator Matt Stevens is on guitar.
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WHITEHEAD: To stoke the fire a bit and add another color, Walter Smith's friend sometime boss and Blue Note labelmate Ambrose Akinmusire plays trumpet on a couple of tracks. Their trades enliven the jam "Amelia Earhart Ghosted Me," but the suspenseful piano chords in the background really sell it.
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WHITEHEAD: Throughout the album "Return To Casual," Matt Stevens' guitar and Taylor Eigsti's piano deftly reinforce each other and never collide. All the players go back a ways with the leader. The bassist is Harish Raghavan. The drummer is Kendrick Scott, who has his own new trio album on Blue Note with Walter Smith III on tenor. The label is making the saxophonist feel right at home.
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BIANCULLI: Kevin Whitehead is the author of the book "Play The Way You Feel: The Essential Guide To Jazz Stories On Film." He reviewed "Return To Casual," the new album by tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III. Coming up, we remember influential book and magazine editor Michael Denneny, who died last week at age 80. This is FRESH AIR.
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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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DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Having made a name for himself with the A24-released horror pictures "Hereditary" and "Midsommar," the writer-director Ari Aster has a new movie in theaters. It's called "Beau Is Afraid." And it tells the darkly comic story of a man named Beau, played by Joaquin Phoenix, who's just trying to get home to visit his mother. The movie also features performances by Nathan Lane, Amy Ryan and Patti LuPone. Our film critic Justin Chang has this review.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: The 36-year-old writer-director Ari Aster makes deliberately paced, exquisitely crafted chillers about guilt, repression and super-messed-up family dynamics. I've been an admirer of his ever since getting scared out of my wits five years ago by "Hereditary," with its mashup of demonic possession and domestic turmoil. Less scary but no less gripping was his nightmarish travelogue "Midsommar," about a relationship that rots under the Scandinavian sun. Now, after sitting through Aster's latest, the three-hour horror-comedy fantasia "Beau Is Afraid," my admiration hasn't dimmed, exactly. It's the kind of freakish jumble only a gifted filmmaker could make. And I'm grateful that a company as adventurous as A24 is willing to give an ambitious director carte blanche to make the unhinged passion project of his dreams. But "Beau Is Afraid" still strikes me as an audacious misfire. Aster is still flicking at his character's raw nerves, to say nothing of ours. But for the first time, he seems to be doing it more for effect than anything else.
Beau Wassermann, played by Joaquin Phoenix, is a middle-aged sad sack who, true to the title, is afraid of a lot of things. He's afraid of getting sick and dying. He's afraid of the side effects of the medication prescribed by his therapist. He's afraid to have sex, convinced that it'll kill him. He's afraid to set foot outside his shabby apartment, which is understandable since he lives in an anonymous urban hellscape full of zombie movie vibes. Most of all, though, Beau is afraid of his mother, whom he's planning to visit for the first time in ages. But on the day of his intended departure, a bizarre sequence of events causes him to miss his flight. And he calls his mom to explain the situation.
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PATTI LUPONE: (As Mona Wassermann) Beau?
JOAQUIN PHOENIX: (As Beau Wassermann) Hi, Mom.
LUPONE: (As Mona Wassermann) Hi, Carrot. Are you at the airport?
PHOENIX: (As Beau Wassermann) No, not yet.
LUPONE: (As Mona Wassermann) Are you on your way? Are you in the cab?
PHOENIX: (As Beau Wasserman) No, Mom.
LUPONE: (As Mona Wassermann) How long is the cab ride?
PHOENIX: (As Beau Wassermann) Mom, I don't want to worry you. I'm still on my way, but something - I don't know. I was up all night because my neighbor kept leaving notes underneath my door about noise even though I didn't make any noise. And I overslept. And when I went to leave, I forgot something and went back in. And then I came back out, and my key was stolen out of my door.
LUPONE: (As Mona Wassermann) Oh, my God. So where are you calling me from now?
PHOENIX: (As Beau Wassermann) My apartment.
LUPONE: (As Mona Wassermann) Wait. What time is it? Isn't it 4:30?
PHOENIX: (As Beau Wassermann) Yeah, I know.
LUPONE: (As Mona Wassermann) Baby, your flight is in an hour.
PHOENIX: (As Beau Wassermann) I know, but, Mom, my key got stolen out of my door. Mom? Mom?
CHANG: That's the great Patti LuPone as Beau's mom, which lets you know that when we finally meet her in the flesh, she's going to be a force to be reckoned with. But first, Beau must embark on a long, protracted odyssey that falls into four distinct chapters, each one weirder than the last. In the first and most suspenseful chapter, Beau tries to leave his apartment, is attacked by a naked serial killer, and ultimately gets hit by a car. The second chapter finds him recuperating in the home of a suburban couple - they're played by Nathan Lane and Amy Ryan - who are friendly enough at first, though they seem determined to keep him from leaving. The third and most beguiling chapter finds Beau lost in a mysterious forest where he stumbles on a wandering theater troupe.
The show they put on for him - Aster makes use of some strikingly beautiful animation here - offers a poignant glimpse of an alternate life path for Beau, one where he's able to find true love and raise a family. But in some ways, this is the cruellest episode of all, since Aster dangles the possibility of happiness mainly so that he can yank it away. The fourth chapter finds Beau returning to his childhood home, where all manner of terrible memories and ugly secrets are waiting for him. Aster gives all this surreal mayhem a fever-dream intensity. And as always, he leaves us uncertain about whether we should laugh or recoil.
There are countless references to earlier movies, including Hitchcock's monstrous-mother classic, "Psycho," and Charlie Kaufman's depressive meta comedy "Synecdoche, New York." Aster also brings in terrific actors like Parker Posey and Richard Kind in crucial supporting roles. But what it all adds up to in the end is not a whole lot. A bludgeoning Freudian nightmare in which a gibbering manchild does battle with his domineering mom and his feelings of shame, anxiety and self-loathing. It's not clear whether Aster is parodying or just regurgitating these overworked tropes or maybe a little of both. It doesn't really matter. After a while, "Beau Is Afraid" becomes so thuddingly repetitive that it doesn't feel scary or revelatory. It feels like drudgery.
Joaquin Phoenix is so good at playing damaged souls that he almost feels like too obvious a casting choice. There isn't much to Beau as a character, beneath all his panicky shrieks and strained grimaces. It's easy to feel for him the way you would feel for anyone you've seen get attacked, tortured, threatened, knocked unconscious and terrorized for three hours. But he's a blank - one that Aster, for all his formidable skill, hasn't been able to fill in.
BIANCULLI: Justin Chang is the film critic for the LA Times. He reviewed the new movie "Beau Is Afraid."
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BIANCULLI: On Monday's show, writer Judy Blume. In the 1970s, her novels for young people were best sellers - books like "Forever..." and "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret." But they soon were banned because of their depictions of puberty and sexuality. Blume is the subject of a new documentary, and her novel "Are You There God?" has been adapted into a new film. I hope you can join us.
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BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman, Julian Herzfeld and Charlie Kaier. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
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