I first met fellow writer Trebor Healey at Palm Springs Pride, where we were both signing copies of our novels at the Authors’ Village. Given that the title of my first novel includes the word “depression” and his recent title contains the word “sorrow,” we quickly bonded over a shared lament of others trying to convince us to change our titles into something “more happy.”
Feeling that our work embodies both joy and heartache, we each chose to stick with our original vision, and I’m happy to say that Healey’s new work, A Horse Named Sorrow, is as wonderful and nuanced as its title.
Healey’s debut novel, Through It Came Bright Colors, was awarded both the Violet Quill Award and the Publishing Triangle’s Ferro-Grumley Award for Fiction, making his new work highly anticipated. Entirely by happenstance, Healey found himself with his next two works both released on the same day.
Having just named A Horse Named Sorrow as my favorite LGBT read of 2012, I was pleased that Healey was able to take some time with me to discuss his work and inspirations.
Trebor, when we first met, we talked about the use of “sad” words in our novel titles. Why did you feel so strongly about your title for A Horse Named Sorrow?
Well, first of all, it’s a line from a Nick Cave song, and it’s a song I really love — the Carny Song — and it’s very much evocative of what San Francisco was to me at that time…a carnival, a circus, but a macabre one haunted by an enormous overarching sorrow. And when you think of how a horse plods along when it’s tired, it’s just such a perfect metaphor for the weight we feel when we carry sorrow. And we carry it.
Grief is a profound experience, it’s one of the cardinal experiences if you will. But my book is not really a sad book; in many ways, it’s very comic and full of youthful enthusiasm, but it’s about something real, and one of the things the characters have to do—that we all have to do—is carry the sorrow of life with us until we are able to set it down or transform it into something else. I also think sorrow is a beautiful word—the symmetry of it, with the two r’s and two o’s, and the sound of it is wonderful. There is a lot to every word and we can experience it fully, and I think words in titles of artworks are important that way. They have a lot of work to do and they need to be good, full words.
In A Horse Named Sorrow, you vividly recreate San Francisco in the late 80’s and early 90’s. What is your impression/recollection of that period?
It was a very intense time — terrifying and urgent and enormously alive as only a place under siege can be. I came out into the AIDS crisis and the city was on fire in a million ways.
There was anger and activism, art, conflict, love and sex, and the feeling that you were at the center of history on some level. Maybe we all feel that way when we are 21, but there was a vitality during that time that I’ve never experienced anywhere or anytime since. It was a time that demanded things of people. My brother was fighting cancer, I was working at an AIDS hospice and active in ACT UP and Queer Nation, I was meeting my first boyfriends, reading my first poems out loud to strangers in smoky cafes.
It was a time of birth for me, I suppose, in all the pain and blood and wonder that birth entails. It was exciting, and yet that overarching sorrow was there, like the fog rolling in every night.
How did that then lead to this novel?
Well, the things that make you feel, in all the rawness of feeling, are what you write about, I suppose. I worked on this book for 15 years. I knew it was a book I had to write. And I had to get it right. And oddly, or maybe not, it wasn’t until I was in a place where I felt that intensely again—in Argentina where I lived for a year—that I was able to finally get it right.
One of the key images in the book is a bicycle, wrapped in different strings. How did that come to you?
I actually rode a bicycle across the country in the summer of 1986. It was an amazing way to travel, and felt to me like traveling by horse, which is how the whole horse/bike/sorrow metaphor first came together. The speed, the human scale, the way you had to maintain your vehicle and plot your trip. It’s very meditative and seemed a perfect style of journey for a person in need of retreat and reflection.
As for the strings, I think that came from how kids used to tie strings around each other’s ankles and wrists, and the idea was that you’d make a wish, and when the string came off, the wish you’d made would come true. There is a lot about wishing in the book, both the good and the bad of it.
You have a very diverse body of work, having written everything from poetry, to erotica, to fantasy, to both non-fiction and fiction… As a writer, do you follow your muse, or do certain influences impact your decision of what to write next?
I definitely follow my muse. But I’m always open to suggestion, and sometimes a call for submissions strikes my fancy and off I go. I’ve always loved poetry, but erotica was something I sort of fell into and found to be challenging and liberating and just plain fun. Mostly I think about things that offer me a sense of wonder.
For me, it’s important to access that expansive part of my mind where I can take off and get out of myself and the world I’m in or have become used to or numbed by. I’m not a very practical writer; it all starts with and is fed by my imagination.
I’ve seen you described as a writer and a poet, and you’ve written both poem collections and novels. And yet I’m wondering if, with you, there is any distinction between the two. Your work often seems to blur the lines…
Yeah, I don’t think there is a difference for me. I started out writing poetry, and my poems were mostly narrative and I always wanted to eventually write novels. I felt like poetry was the best school for prose, and I still feel that way. Novels are about beautiful, well-crafted sentences, which is a poetic undertaking.
Having won major awards for your first novel, did you experience any hesitation when it next came time to write?
Though I was grateful for the recognition and support, it was sort of a weird experience; I was never totally convinced I deserved such accolades. I felt like I had to keep working on my writing and to make it better. So, no, it didn’t lead to hesitation. If anything, I’d say it encouraged and challenged me and made me write more. In those dark moments, when you’re questioning and doubting your work, you can remember that a group of people liked something you wrote, and you have to accept and appreciate that and use it as motivation to move forward. So you get back to work.
There’s very little financial reward in writing as we all know, so any award is really the way we get paid. And when we get paid, it motivates us to show up for work the next day.
I’ve yet to read your other new release, Faun, but the idea of a teenage boy suddenly turning into a mythological deity sounds very intriguing…
Well, after 12 years in Los Angeles, it’s my first L.A. book, which is fun and sort of shocking in that it takes that long to digest a city! I wanted to not only set the story in the Latino part of L.A .— which is where I’ve spent most of my time here, and what I find most attractive and interesting about Los Angeles — but also to expand the idea of queer lit to encompass more than just gay sexuality.
Gilberto is turning into a faun, and a faun, or satyr, is a mythological being of sexual power. Call him trans if you must label him. He’s so overwhelmed by his transformation, he’s not sure where it’s going — nor is his poor devoutly Catholic mother. But it’s a meditation on the idea of monstrosity. We all felt that as queer kids, and kids — and adults — feel like monsters for all number of reasons.
The story becomes a bit of a madcap adventure as all hell breaks loose at Gil’s high school when his faunic powers emerge and turn everyone around him amorous, while the religious people grab the pitchforks. He runs away in order to find out who and what he is, and what he finds eventually is a larger understanding about himself and the world, and that yes, there is a place for him too—a very special place.
You’ve experienced what, for many writers, would seem quite a challenge, having two titles released on the same day. Given that each are so unique, what has that experience been like of trying to promote them both?
Well, if the crowd doesn’t get one of them, they always get the other. It’s kind of perfect. But it is like I have two separate marketing efforts going on. I think it’s an interesting experience of watching how it plays out with a perceived ‘entertaining’ book (Faun) and a perceived ‘literary’ book (A Horse Named Sorrow) both in the ring together. Lately, I’ve focused on their similarities. They’re both funny and plot-driven, and both deal with serious themes. They just have two very different surfaces.
Do you have a favorite? Is one more “Trebor Healey” than the other?
I’d say they’re the two parts of me. I’m a ham and wacked-out oddball on the one hand, and then on the other, a very serious reflective loner of a person. Basically, like many of us, I’m my mother and my father. You figure out how my mother can be a faun and my father a horse.
Even your name, Trebor Healey, is a lyrical gift. Did that destine you to become a poet?
I always wanted my own name, which is why I turned Robert backwards to Trebor. So I guess the poet came before the egg, or something like that.
What have been your favorite reads of 2012?
I mentioned I’d been living in Argentina, so I’ve been reading a lot of South American literature of late. Have loved anything by Roberto Bolano, Cesar Aira, Thomas Eloy Martinez, and Mario Vargas Llosa, and a great gay novel by a Chilean — Pedro Lemebel’s My Tender Matador. Since I’ve been back, I’ve been reading George Orwell and Angela Carter, Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, and a few gay books — Alvin Orloff’s Why Aren’t You Smiling, Michael Montlack’s Divining Divas, The Heart’s History by Lewis DeSimone and Jim Provenzano’s Every Time I think of You. Now I need to read your book!
Well, I’m a big fan of yours, so I’d love to hear what you think… What’s up next for you?
I’m working on both a prequel and a sequel to Faun, as well as a novel set in Buenos Aires. I’m really very into Spanish these days and will be teaching in South Texas next summer. I have a feeling I’m going to end up in Mexico City when that’s done. I like it there, and I can do the two things I love doing—perfecting and practicing my Spanish, and perfecting and practicing my prose.