Friday, January 01, 2010
WALTER G. MEYER:
Author of Intensely Emotional Queer Book “Rounding Third”
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
Photos: Courtesy Walter G. Meyer
“Progress always involves risks. You can’t steal second base and keep your foot on first.”
— Frederick B. Wilcox, quoted in Rounding Third
One of the real surprises in Queer-themed publishing this year has been a powerful novel about Queer adolescents called Rounding Third. Written by Walter G. Meyer, a Pennsylvania native who now lives in San Diego, and published by a small house called MaxM Limited, it’s an intense and emotionally wrenching tale of two high-school boys coming to grips with being Gay and falling for each other. As the title and the epigram, quoted above, suggest, it’s also centered around baseball; the protagonists, wiry benchwarmer Rob Wardell and the new boy in school, Josh Schlegel, meet on the baseball team and Rob admires Josh for his grace and power on the diamond and his seeming control of his life outside the ballpark.
For its first half, Rounding Third reads like a pastoral idyll. Set in Ohio — in the fictitious but reality-inspired town of Harrisonburg, supposedly a suburb of Cleveland — the book gently depicts Rob’s growing affection and love for Josh and how he begins to see Josh as a potential refuge from the beatings, the harassment, the fear of his family’s reaction and all the other traumas he’s being subjected to by his burgeoning sexuality. Then, midway through the book, Meyer pitches us a curveball: a wrenching revelation about Josh that not only reshapes the rest of the book but casts what we’ve already read in a quite different light.
As the story continues, Meyer expertly draws the shifts in the power dynamics of Rob’s and Josh’s relationship and the uncertainty with which Rob faces the task of coming out to his family. Though written in the third person, Rounding Third keeps Rob’s emotions and his dilemmas front and center, as he becomes more sure of himself as a person and is surprised not only by who comes down on him but by who supports him as well. Unlike such cold, detached works of Queer fiction as the recent movie Brokeback Mountain, Rounding Third makes us not only feel but ache for the characters.
Meyer’s achievement in Rounding Third is all the more remarkable because, though he’s written professionally since high school and has co-authored two published books — a salesmanship manual called Going for the Green and Day Is Ending, a memoir of a person with Alzheimer’s disease — this is his first work of fiction. A short, wiry man who looks like we’d imagine a grown-up version of his character, Rob, Meyer has also written extensively not only for Queer publications like Out, The Advocate, Hero and Xodus but on Queer and environmental topics for mainstream papers including the Los Angeles Times, Orange County Register, Orange Coast magazine and papers in his native Pittsburgh. He’s currently working on a film script based on his Alzheimer’s book, another business manual and Unassisted Triple Play, a sequel to Rounding Third.
Zenger’s: Why don’t you just tell me a little about yourself and your background?
Walter G. Meyer: I’m originally from Pennsylvania, from the suburbs of Pittsburgh. I was on my high school’s baseball team, and that was at some point the genesis for this story. I went to Penn State, where I worked on the student newspaper, and then started free-lancing. Actually I started free-lancing for the local newspaper while I was still in high school, but then went on to free-lance for various newspapers and magazines in Pennsylvania: the Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburger magazine and things like that.
Then I moved to California and started free-lancing for some of the local press out here — Los Angeles Times, Orange County Register, Orange Coast, San Diego magazine. I write regularly for Out and Advocate, although I guess I won’t be writing for Advocate much longer because they’re going out of business. Another one bites the dust. It’s sad to be in print media these days. This novel has been floating around in my head for about 10 years, and it all finally came together a few years ago and distilled into what I wanted it to be.
Zenger’s: How much of this is autobiographical?
Meyer: The genesis of it is autobiographical. I did try to run my problems away, did push-ups all night long to try to get to sleep, those kinds of crazy things. Those elements of Rob’s character are kind of me. I did have crushes on various other players on the high-school baseball team, and in some cases I sort of thought it was reciprocated, but nobody ever made the first move. So I wrote the book in part to answer the question of what would have happened if somebody had. That was kind of the beginning, and then all the other really bad stuff that happens is based on what happened to friends of mine, people I know, stories I heard over the years. The most remarkable thing since the book was printed is how many people have told me that some parts of it were parts of their lives. I’ve had people actually ask me, “Did you follow me through high school? This is so much me!”
Zenger’s: So you’ve hit on something a lot of people can identify with? “O.K., I was there.”
Meyer: Yes. Exactly. I expected a lot more people to identify with Rob, which is who I identified with, but I’ve been sort of shocked and dismayed by how many people identified with Josh, and all the really bad things that happen in Josh’s family and things like that. There are too many people for whom that was their upbringing: having a father like Josh’s and a family like that that they were so afraid of. It’s really kind of sad.
Zenger’s: I must say the aspect of the book that really impressed me the most was the way you were able to get us into this very intense emotional identification with the characters. You created people we really care about.
Meyer: I think that’s because part of it is real. If you write a fictional character that’s really fictional, it stays in two dimensions and it never really gets to that deeper emotional level. Thank you for the compliment, but that’s just what I was hoping: that you would really feel for these people. As a friend who read an early draft of it for me said, “If you don’t cry at least once reading this, you’re heartless.” I want you to really feel for these kids and what they’re going through.
As far as I know, it’s the only book that I’ve ever seen that was written in third person, but only from one point of view. You only ever see the world from Rob’s point of view. It’s not first person because I didn’t want to take you so deeply inside his head that the surprises — what happened with Josh and things like that, the feelings that he’s having — wouldn’t be surprises. I didn’t want to lie to my reader about what he’s feeling, but everything is through Rob’s eyes. I think that’s what really helps make it seem so emotional and personal: this is Rob’s world, and I want the reader to live in Rob’s world.
I find it interesting that when straight people have read it, they are shocked around page 75 or 80, when they realize that Rob and Josh are hooking up; whereas Gay people who have read it have said, “How is that possible? I figured that out by the third paragraph!” For straight people, it’s just two shy kids trying to become friends. For Gay people, they see the little subtle steps that you were afraid to take big steps in high school. You were afraid to take big steps towards your first boy, and so that kind of emotion is there for people who can read it. A lot of straight people aren’t seeing it that way, because it’s not their world. But all the hints are there.
Zenger’s: I’m somewhat surprised by that, because it’s being presented as a Gay book, and one would think that, if anything, readers might be a bit impatient: “Get on with it! Get on with it!”
Meyer: It’s funny, because Gay people think they’re getting on with it. Straight people don’t know. Yes, it’s been written up in the Gay press, and it’s being sold in Gay bookstores, but I’m not pitching it as a Gay book. Admittedly, the cover is a little homoerotic, but if you read the blurb on the back cover there’s nothing that says it’s Gay. I did that deliberately. I wanted to sort of sucker in the straight audience.
I write editorials for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about Gay marriage and things because, frankly, I’m tired of preaching to the choir. We can write for Gay magazines about Gay issues, but the people who need to keep hearing about this are the straight people of Pittsburgh. So any chance I get that I can get this to a wider audience, I would love for this book to be read by more straight people. I would love for more straight people to understand what Gay high-school kids go through every day. So that’s the audience I’m going for.
Yes, it’s being marketed through the Gay media, because that’s where my contacts are. I write for Gay magazines and I know lots of Gay people. But I want it to go out to the wider world, and I am getting write-ups in some straight press, for lack of a better word — or mainstream press — and I think that’s great. It has been nominated for a Lambda Literary Award, and it would be awesome if it were to win, and I’m sure I’ll put that on the cover if that happens. We’ll do a new cover which will say, “The Literary Award winner.” But most straight people wouldn’t know what that means anyway.
A friend of mine accused me of wanting to live in both worlds and have the best of both worlds. And that’s true. I’m marketing to the Gay audience, but there’s nothing Gay about the cover, and there’s nothing Gay about the title, and a lot of people will read this — I hope — as just a high-school baseball book, to a certain point. Actually, a couple of the friends that I asked to read it, people I worked on the college newspaper with and are still friends, and we still run things by each other, said, “Oh, my God. I get to page 80 and find out it’s a freaking Gay love story!”
But by then they care so much about the characters — they’re so emotionally involved in the characters — that they don’t want to give up, and they have to find out what happens to these kids. Another friend from college read it recently and wrote me a really nasty e-mail of how upset she was because she had to stay up all night reading it, because once it gets into that really gritty part, she said, “I couldn’t put it down, and I screwed up my whole next day, and I had to stay up all night reading your book.” But I’ll take that as a compliment, that you lost a night’s sleep over it.
Zenger’s: One of the things that amazed me about it was in a way our whole point of view about the characters and the story flips around about midway through. There’s some information that you don’t reveal until the book is about half over, and everything that’s happened before suddenly gets cast in a very different light. Alfred Hitchcock did that in a couple of his movies.
Meyer: I’m a huge Hitchcock fan. I love the way that everything you thought was black is white, and everything you thought was white is black, and you’re going, “Wait. How did that happen?” There are very few characters in the book who turn out to be the same people you thought they were. Meg, Rob’s sister, stays pretty consistent throughout. But a lot of people see Coach Hudson as this kind of asshole at the beginning, but I actually — believe it or not — based Coach Hudson on Rudy Giuliani.
I heard an interview with one of Giuliani’s aides right after September 11, and he said he thought it was funny that all of a sudden people thought Giuliani was a hero. He said, “Two weeks ago, they thought he was an asshole.” But an asshole who’s doing things you want him to do is a hero. An asshole who’s doing things you don’t want him to do is just an asshole. And so when Hudson is being stubborn and rigid and dogmatic early in the book, you think he’s just being a jerk. But when he’s being stubborn and dogmatic on the side of good and right, then he’s a hero.
Zenger’s: It seemed like one of the points you were trying to make is you never really know who your friends are, and who your enemies are, and who’s going to turn out to be supportive. It has this kind of open-ended view of human nature that you should be ready for anything, and the support you’re going to get in dealing with issues like this is going to come from some pretty unlikely places.
Meyer: Right. And you’re absolutely right about not really knowing who your friends are. Part of it is autobiographical. The character of Buff Beechler is minimally based on a guy I knew in high school, who was kind of this huge, buff star of the football team. I always assumed that he was a jerk, like all the other jerks on the football team who beat me up on a regular basis. One day when somebody was beating me up, he came over and beat the living crap out of them.
He had never been there to intervene before, and I’d just assumed that, because he was with the football team, he ate with the football team, he did stuff with the football team, that he was one of those jerks. But no. He was very opposed to their bullying, and he ended up getting hauled off to the principal’s office and getting in trouble. And I was trying to tell the principal, “No! He was riding to my rescue!” This wasn’t unwarranted that he beat the crap out of this kid.
Zenger’s: Have you thought of recasting the story from the point of view of one of the other characters, the way Stephenie Meyer is supposedly doing with the original Twilight?
Meyer: No, I had never thought of that, actually. It’s an interesting thought. Josh’s world-view would be so different than the view we have of Josh, certainly in the beginning of the book. The Josh we see in the first 100 pages is a completely different Josh from the one we see in the last 100 pages.
I don’t want this to sound like it’s a serious treatise on world affairs or anything like that, but I did sort of want it to be a microcosm of our society, and the way we treat people, and our world views and things like that. We talk about all these wonderful things like freedom and things like that; but how free are kids in Ohio to walk the halls of their school unmolested? Rob actually says that to his father at one point: “This is about freedom, my freedom.” I hope some of that comes through.
There are lots of little patriotic references in there, and a couple of people — mainly literature majors — picked up on this. There’s the Pledge of Allegiance, and there’s people putting flags at the cemetery, and there’s the flags of his grandfathers’ coffins on display in their living room. There are a lot of these patriotic references that say the United States really wants to be this champion of freedom and democracy around the world, but how many kids in Ohio — and the rest of America — really don’t feel free? Josh certainly doesn’t. By the end of the book Rob has achieved a certain degree of freedom, but at a pretty high cost.
One of the people who read this said that he was glad that I had used the word “iPod” on page one or two, when Rob’s iPod gets knocked off into the weeds, because he said otherwise he would have liked to believe this took place in 1950 or something, when kids got beat up and bullied for being Gay and stuff like that. But this stuff still goes on all the time. If you read the Gay press, certainly, and even the mainstream press, kids still get attacked on a regular basis, and in Pennsylvania, an hour and a half north of Pittsburgh, there was just a deal where this family was suing the school district for not protecting their Gay son from all the kids bullying him at school.
So that’s still very much the same world. If you take Interstate 80 straight across from where Rob lives, it would take you right past the town where this happened, 2 1/2 hours down the road. So it’s very much still an ongoing problem. I don’t want anyone to think this is ancient history, and I think that’s why I did make sure I included terms like “iPod” and communicating on their computers and texting and stuff, because I don’t want anybody to pick this up and think, “Oh, this is 1970. Stuff happened like that back then.”
Zenger’s: Yes, at the beginning of the book Josh seems to have it all; and then you peel it, like an onion.
Meyer: Yes. When I got to know some people in college that I thought I knew in high school, and saw them as just completely different people, it’s like they were putting on this front to the world. They were every bit as insecure and scared as I was. They were just better actors than I was in high school! Josh has certainly learned to cover his insecurities and project this heroic image, that it’s a surprise when we soon find out he’s not that much of a hero.
Zenger’s: One of the questions I asked myself reading that, is how would I have coped with it if I’d had to go through what he went through, probably because it was so far from my experience. I mean, I always knew I was quote-“different”-unquote, but it wasn’t until my early 20’s that I realized that it had something to do with my sexual orientation. Until then I was always intellectually for Gay people and Gay rights, but I didn’t think it applied to me, and it wasn’t until I was 30 that I definitively came out.
Meyer: I think it’s interesting that I already knew that. I wasn’t out to myself and I wasn’t out to anyone else, but when people in grade school or high school would call each other “faggot” or “fairy” or whatever, I took that personally, because deep down, secretly, I knew I was. So many other people who weren’t never heard that as anything more than “jerk” or “asshole” or whatever other generic comment kids call each other. But I thought they were singling me out. And when I finally did come out, and I talked to friends that I’ve had since grade school or high school, they were all completely clueless. I thought that people were calling me “faggot” because they really knew I was, and nobody suspected. I had learned to cover so well that nobody knew, and I thought that was ironic that all this time I was living in fear of something that nobody knew.
The stuff that happens to Josh is an amalgam of five or six different people’s stories, which were all fairly similar. But apparently for a lot of people, that is not an uncommon experience: they are blackmailed at school and then set upon at home. Josh is sort of caught between a rock and a hard place, and that’s part of why he is so eager to latch on to Rob and his family. He has finally found security.
I did an interview recently in which the person knew nothing about baseball, and asked me about the title, Rounding Third. I told him it’s a baseball term; if you’re rounding third, you’re trying to make your way home. And so that’s what Josh is trying to do. Josh is trying to find a home, and Rob finally finds a home in his own family. He wasn’t “home” at home, even, until he came out and grew into a man, really. It is a coming-of-age story, too, and he never feels at home in his own house and with his own family until he can be honest with himself and with them.
So many different people have e-mailed me and told me in person such different comments about it that I actually referred to it recently as a literary Rorschach test, in which whatever character you latch on to and whichever scenes really stand out to you says something about you and your upbringing and your life up to that point. Somebody just mentioned to me recently a scene that in the overall scheme of the book isn’t all that important, but they really related to, was when Rob’s father’s friend and his wife come to visit, and she goes off on this anti-Gay tirade.
This person was saying that they had had several experiences like that in their life, where somebody that they thought thought a certain way about Gays didn’t, and this couple has this argument over, “Well, I always thought you thought the same thing I thought about this.” They clearly have very different points of view, but they never talked about it because they just assumed that they were on the same page. This couple that’s obviously been married 20 years have never talked about Gay rights until they’re confronted with a Gay couple, and then they have to think this out and talk this out.
Zenger’s: Why on earth would they? I mean, we’re not really an issue. I don’t think anybody really feels they have to grapple with the Gay issue unless they are confronted with it personally, unless it does come from someone they know. Their son, their relative, their friend suddenly says, “I’m Gay,” or gets “outed” in some other way, and then all of a sudden this isn’t just an abstract thing anymore, It isn’t just guys in dresses or Speedos on the six o’clock news.
Meyer: Right, right. And this is obviously a kid these people have known his whole life, and suddenly they’re confronted with this whole different world. I included that scene to demonstrate that. We’re often confronted with things that we don’t have any frame of reference to; and when we do, how do we react?
When I first wrote the book, it was a lot longer than it is and my agent said it had to be a whole lot shorter. I carefully pared it down to keep the scenes that to me were not only really dramatic and interesting, but also depicted our culture as a whole. Again, I don’t want to make it sound like this serious tome. It’s not. I hope it’s a fast-paced story that you can just read for the fun of the story. But there’s clearly this underpinning that this is a microcosm of our society and how we look at people — I almost said “Gay people,” but really people in general — and sometimes unfairly.
I mean, Rob judges a lot of people unfairly, but based on his frame of reference that everyone’s out to get him, he’s having a hard time distinguishing between his own paranoia and who’s really out to get him. You know the old saying, “It isn’t paranoia if they really are out to get you.”= By the end of the book he has learned very much to differentiate who is on his side and who is not, and where to find friends.
Zenger’s: Why did you set it in Ohio?
Meyer: Their license plates used to say, “The Heart of It All.” In many ways, to me Ohio symbolized the heart of it all. I knew Ohio fairly well; my sister lived in a suburb of Cleveland for years. It’s very similar to Pittsburgh, where I grew up; 2 1/2 hours away from another industrial-type town, and although Pittsburgh isn’t technically in the Midwest it’s on the fringe of the Midwest. Ohio is the beginning of the Midwest, and it seemed like really Middle America to me. There are very few wasted words in here, like when Josh hits a batting-practice home run it’s over the Harrisonburg Chevrolet banner, because I wanted this to epitomize Chevrolet and baseball and America. And to me Ohio did that.
The encapsulation I do of Rob’s term paper that gets him a “D” on Ohio’s presidents was partially wanting to express how much Ohio is the bedrock of America. But also sort of this twisted version of America. As he says in his term paper, Virginia brags about all its great presidents — Washington and Jefferson and Woodrow Wilson — and Ohio gets Garfield and McKinley, guys who were only known for being shot. As Rob says, the loser side of America is based in Ohio. It was to symbolize the flip side of the all-American coin.
I haven’t got any nasty letters from anybody in Ohio taking me to task for that. I actually sort of thought I might get hate mail from Ohio saying, “How dare you!” But when I was asked to speak as the keynote speaker of Cleveland’s coming-out day by the Cleveland Center, I actually read the chapter about “Ohio, Land of Losers,” and most of these Gay kids at this coming-out day very much shared my opinion of Ohio as not being the best place to be, and most expressed their desire to get out of Ohio as soon as possible. As the old saying people often use about Michigan or Pittsburg goes, “It’s a nice place to be from.”
Zenger’s: You mentioned writing commentaries on Gay issues for non-Gay papers. You mentioned an article you did on same-sex marriage. When you have a chance to address a non-Gay audience, what do you tell them? Why should they care about same-sex marriage?
Meyer: The piece I did for the Post-Gazette basically said it doesn’t impact your life one way or the other. It does a heck of a lot for the people who want to get married, but it really doesn’t impact your life at all. I wrote the piece for the Post-Gazette very tongue-in-cheek, that since Massachusetts legalized Gay marriage the entire state has gone to hell: people can’t be bothered staying married when there’s Gay sex to be had. Doctors no longer are treating their patients because they’re too busy having Gay sex. Teachers are no longer teaching because they’re too busy having Gay sex, and pretty much the whole state is crumbling before our eyes.
In reality, of course, none of that has happened. Nothing has changed except a lot of people are a lot happier in Massachusetts. In fact, they have the lowest divorce rate in the United States. Why is this a threat to traditional marriage? It doesn’t threaten your marriage at all — unless you’re secretly Gay — and that’s another point I make in Rounding Third when Rob says to Josh, “Don’t you understand why Danny is so mean to us? Because he’s Gay, and he can’t beat himself up, so he beats us up.” He cites Roy Cohn and J. Edgar Hoover and Ted Haggard and all of these people who lash out at other Gay people because they can’t admit they’re Gay.
The only people whose marriages are threatened by Gay people are people who are closeted Gays and are afraid, if it’s a little too easy to be with Gay people, I’ll leave my wife and go sleep with them. Otherwise, you don’t care! There aren’t that many straight people who are really concerned about Gay guys hooking up, because they don’t plan to hook up with Gay guys. And the term “homophobia” is really accurate, because before I came out I was afraid to be around Gay people, because they presented a threat to me. If you’re completely straight, you’re not threatened by some Gay guy sitting next to you, because you know nothing’s ever going to happen. In my case, I wasn’t afraid of what he wanted to do to me; I was afraid of what I wanted to do with him!
When I get the chance to preach to someone other than the choir, I tell them you’re just giving equal rights to people who deserve it, and it takes nothing away from you. It threatens you in no way whatsoever, and if you really analyze why you feel threatened, you need to see a psychiatrist because you’ve got issues within yourself.
Zenger’s: Do you think there’s going to be a movie?
Meyer: I would certainly hope so. I would love for there to be a movie of it, and in my mind I at times cast it, who I would like to play Rob and Josh. In fact, a friend of mine said last night that she had just seen Taylor Lautner from Twilight on Saturday Night Live, and she said, “He’d make a good Danny.” He’s that good looking, but also has this edge about him that he could easily play that role. And I was thinking, “Yes, he really could. That would be a good choice.”
If it gets made I would want a little tiny part in it, not a big enough part to screw up the movie or anything. I would actually want to play his father’s friend, the lawyer whose wife freaks out. His sort of smart-ass casualness about the whole thing I think I could play very well.