Gay Love in A Magical Land :: Andrew Grossman on ’Lost Sky’
Fantasy novels often transport readers to mythic, magical realms where the laws of nature seem to be different: Dragons fly and breathe fire, wizards and warlocks cast spells in eldritch tongues, creatures both human-like and horrifically nonhuman build cities and castles and, when clarion calls for war echo across the hills and shires, the various denizens of fantastical lands strap on their swords and pluck up their shields, ready to do battle.
But who are the people in these novels, and where, precisely, do they live? Tolkien had his vague "Middle Earth," a place that seemed to be in-between in just about every sense; not quite real, but not quite imaginary; not quite historic, and yet certainly not contemporary. The HBO television series "A Game of Thrones" unfolds across a vast continent that spans snowy Northern climes, seaside kingdoms, and desert wastes.
For some fantasy buffs, the exact time and place might not matter. For others, however, the setting, and the question of how it relates to the world we know, is a useful part of the tale. Are we setting out to a realm of pure imagination? Are we headed for a lost island, or a mist-shrouded crater in a jungle, or an alien planet?
Andrew Grossman provides an answer in his fantasy novel "Lost Sky," as well as hinting at the origins of the unusual creatures that dwell in the realm he’s invented. Grossman’s novel follows a young gay man, Matthew, as he unwittingly sets out on a journey that will empower him. At first, Matthew is something of a pawn in the hands of a lawyer serving as executor of a gay great-uncle Matthew’s family has edited out of the official record. As the story unfolds, though, Matthew comes into his own.
After inheriting a parcel of Vermont woods and a house from his great-uncle, a wealthy world traveler named Alexander, Matthew reluctantly finds himself leaving New York City and his handsome, albeit straight, roommate Jason (who is getting married and striking off on his own anyway). Country life turns out to be a mixed blessing: Mathew finds his garden is supernaturally productive, and, being a green thumb, he’s thrilled. But the locals look at him with open hostility and suspicion, except for Diana, the owner of the local store, who takes the newcomer under her wing--but even then, something seems a little odd about the way she interacts with him.
Moreover, strange occurrences at his new home disturb Matthew, including extreme weather and the appearance of what seems to be a spectral entity. Is the house Alexander bequeathed him haunted?
In due course, Matthew stumbles (or is guided) to a hidden world that seems far removed from the world of human beings and ordinary concerns. It’s there that he discovers the most remarkable--and the most universal--miracle of all, when he falls in love with the not-quite-human being who has threatened and terrified him, a creature named Salal. As he learns about his great-uncle Alexander’s life and the role Salal played in it, Matthew draws closer to his extraordinary new companion. But is Salal the complex, even tragic, figure he’s made himself out to be? Or is he manipulating Matthew for his own mysterious reasons?
Grossman has constructed a fantasy novel that’s both tender gay romance and compelling otherworldly drama. "Lost Sky" combines ingenious inventiveness with heartfelt storytelling, resulting in a fantasy novel that blends same-sex romance with elements of magic and an exotic land hidden from ordinary mortals. But Grossman also strikes a tone that feels realistic.
"When I began writing ’Lost Sky,’ I focused mainly on the internal lives of the two main characters,
"Grossman told EDGE in a recent interview. "They aren’t knights or trolls, but two rather tormented individuals. Matthew, in particular, is a very realistic protagonist. I think that the fantasy elements are engaging because the characters are compelling in their own right. I hoped that the reader would empathize with their conflicts and struggles. In a way, the fantasy elements are simply the icing on the cake."
To be sure, fantasy (or any fantastical genre, such as sci-fi or horror) amplifies human impulses and primal concerns through the use of certain narrative devices that define the genre, such as spells, potions, or exotic creatures. So, too, with this book, much of which takes place in what is literally a garden of unspoiled delights. There is something captivating in forms of literature that talk about things lost to us, or things we once dreamed about and then realized we might never have; setting a same-sex love story at the heart of a fantasy novel could be, for gay readers, the best of two rarefied worlds.
"One of my most poignant early childhood memories involved watching a flock of birds and suddenly realizing that I would never be able to fly," Grossman recounted. "I can still remember how devastated I felt at that moment.
"Then in the eighties, while I was a modern dancer living in New York, I choreographed a piece entitled ’Lost Sky,’ which was about an angel who had lost the ability to fly. Somehow, I always new that I would use the title again. When I think of the sky, I think of something so vast as to be almost incomprehensible.
"With regard to the novel, the title has an obvious interpretation, which I won’t explain for fear of giving too much away," Grossman added, "but it’s also a metaphor for something precious and irretrievable."
Thinking of recent inclusions of gay characters and storylines in fantasy-based video games such as "The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim" and "Final Fantasy VII," EDGE asked Grossman whether the genre in general might be starting to welcome the GLBT community.
"If by open you mean welcoming, I’m not sure." Grossman replied. "I’m not a gamer, but I’ve heard that there is bigotry and prejudice in the gaming community."
That said, however, "I think the world in general is becoming more inclusive and so GLBT characters are more apt to appear in mainstream culture including literature, movies and television," the novelist added. "I think the realm of fantasy is especially appealing to oppressed people, and the LGBT community certainly falls into that category."
Grossman went on to explain his own interest in the fantasy genre. "I read to escape," the author told EDGE. "I love being transported to different worlds or different times. I’m a huge fan of historical fiction for that reason. If I were to delve into another genre it would probably be along those lines, though I’m not sure I have the patience for the tremendous amount of research a historical novel would require."
One of the novel’s most refreshing aspects is the way that Matthew and Salal deal with the darker aspects of any relationship: Jealousy, lost love, aging, possessiveness, even deception all factor into their life together, which continues for years. And yet the couple works their way through it all, sometimes by hashing things out and sometimes through sheer generosity of spirit.
"The relationship between Matthew and Salal is what makes the book believable," Grossman noted. "It’s actually far more important than any of the fantasy elements. Recently I re-watched the original ’Star Wars.’ Although by today’s standards the special effects are outmoded, the movie remains a classic because of the character development. Generating empathy is key to making a work of fiction compelling."
But this isn’t a book that simply transfers human traits onto nonhuman characters. In one of the book’s most interesting and provocative twists, Salal, though having been a lover of Matthew’s great uncle Alexander and now is deeply in love with Matthew, isn’t gay in the usual sense of the word. Indeed, he couldn’t be; for his species, sexual activity is a novelty, engaged in only on a couple of occasions in the course of an ordinary lifetime. Salal’s life is hardly typical for his people (for reasons that won’t be spoiled here), and his sexuality has little to do with his love for either Alexander or Matthew. As for sexual activity, when it happens, it’s satisfying--but it takes more preparation for Salal than pillow talk and hot foreplay.
"That’s true," Grossman said when asked about Salal’s sexual nature, "he isn’t gay, and his sexuality is very different from that of humans. Salal isn’t motivated by desire and primarily engages Matthew sexually to keep him happy."
It’s in the book’s subtext, though, that this aspect of their relationship is truly, and cleverly, significant for gays. This isn’t merely another book about gay men finding one another and seeking to turn their sometimes-fractious relationship into one of enduring love; this is a story in which sexuality serves a need for companionship. The media (in any form) loves to views gays as being all about sex, but "Lost Sky’s" depiction is closer to reality: Sex is part of the story, but a far less important part than the essential connection between two sympathetic, if very different, souls.
"I agree," Grossman said upon hearing EDGE’s take on the novel’s core relationship. "In fact, a few readers have asked why I didn’t make the sex scenes more explicit. While I realize that doing so might have been titillating, I felt it was more compelling to focus on what happens before and after lovemaking rather than the act itself."
The world that Grossman constructs, along with the history of that realm and its people, is rich with detail and specifics. Grossman has clearly put some time into working out a plausible way for Salal’s world to have come into existence and to function.
The individuals he’s populated his novel with have some connection with the real world, as well, Grossman indicated. "The characters are an amalgamation of different people who have crossed my path," the writer said. "Jason’s character is loosely based on a roommate of mine, though I wasn’t in love with him. One reader, who knows me quite well, commented that Salal and Matthew represent two sides of my own personality. I’m not sure if that’s true, but it’s been said that all first novels are autobiographical."
EDGE, feeling mischievous, asked which character more reflected the author--and which might be the more ideal life partner for him.
"That’s a pretty close call," Grossman allowed, "but if I had to choose I’d probably pick Matthew’s character" as the one that is closer to himself in real life. However, "I don’t think either of them would be my ideal partner. Certainly Salal would be much too complicated for me to handle. I tend to be attracted to people who are not tormented. My ideal partner would be calm and stable."
EDGE couldn’t help asking about the connection between the book’s environmental consciousness, Matthew’s love of growing things, and Grossman’s current career as a landscape designer based in Seekonk, Massachusetts.
"Definitely!" Grossman said when asked whether his own green thumb left fingerprints on the story. "In fact, the idea for ’Lost Sky’ came to me one day while I was working in my own garden. My home office, where I do most of my writing, looks out onto a large garden that borders a river and a small woodland. The view from my window was undoubtedly a source of inspiration."
A deep-rooted source, it would seem. "I had a garden when I was a kid and have always been interested in design," Grossman added. "When I stopped dancing, I decided to start a landscape design business."
Another inspiration that has found its way into the novel is travel. Grossman’s Facebook page contains a picture of the author at Machu Picchu (the ancient city is "amazing! Definitely worth the trip," Grossman enthused. "It is truly a spectacular spot"), and the story involves quite a bit of globetrotting, with a focus on unspoiled South American jungles. Indeed, environmentalism and travel dovetail in this element of the novel.
"Yes, I love to travel, which is odd because I’m also a home body," Grossman reflected. "I try to take a trip every winter during my downtime. Unfortunately, there are many places on my bucket list that aren’t great winter destinations."
In this age, in which commercial publishing is tough on authors that don’t write easily pigeonholed books, one might have expected that Grossman would have had to turn to some form of self-publishing. ("I received positive feedback from a number of agents and other publishing houses, but they didn’t know how to market ’Lost Sky,’ " Grossman told EDGE). As it happens, however, there’s a publishing house that takes in interest in stories like "Lost Sky."
"It was published by Queered Fiction, a boutique publisher that focuses on gay-themed sci-fi and fantasy," Grossman noted. "My relationship with them is the same as with any publisher. The staff edited the book, put together the cover art, etc. I am paid royalties, but was not given an advance.
"I probably could have self-published, but I guess I needed the validation of being chosen by a publishing house," the author added.
For the moment, Grossman is focused on putting out the word about his debut novel. But that doesn’t mean he has forsaken the writing life. "This winter, I’ll probably doff my writer’s cap," the author reassured EDGE.