Peter Cameron is without question one of the finest contemporary American gay writers — yet his name is hardly a gay household world. If there is justice in this world, that will change with his enthralling new novel, "Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You," just published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
It is the story, told in the first person, of James Sveck, a precociously cynical gay kid from Manhattan who has just turned 18. The novel — which got rave reviews in The New York Times and The New York Review of Books — has been compared by critics to the J.D. Salinger classic, "Catcher in the Rye" –indeed, Cameron’s James is the most unforgettable adolescent in American fiction since Holden Caulfield.
The 47-year-old novelist has a superb ear for dialogue, and James’ voice, as he recounts his groping attempts to come to terms with a world around him he doesn’t like very much, is unique and irresistible — witty and wise, even in his confusion. As James comes of age in the low, dishonest decade that has been the beginning of the 21st century, he skewers with bravado our cultural foibles and our emotional avoidances as he searches for love and meaning.
Cameron — who was born in Pompton Plains, New Jersey, and grew up there and in London — has lived on West Tenth Street in Greenwich Village for the past 25 years. "Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You" is his eighth book. It was preceded by two collections of short stories, many of which first appeared in The New Yorker — "One Way or Another" (1986) and "Far-flung" (1991). His first novel, "Leap Year," first appeared in 1988 as a serial in the just-launched magazine 7 Days, edited by Adam Moss.
From there, Cameron produced a string of extraordinary novels that had critics placing him in the company of Henry James, Virginia Woolf, Jorge Luis Borges, and Vladimir Nabokov — "The Weekend" (1994), which was made into a movie in 2000 starring Gena Rowlands and Brooke Shields; "Andorra" (1997); and "The City of Your Final Destination" (2002), currently being completed by James Ivory from a screenplay by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and starring Anthony Hopkins, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Laura Linney.
Now, with "Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You," Cameron has created an insightful, captivating, and frequently surprising novel whose youthful gay hero employs sparkling intelligence to grapple with life and love.
Peter Cameron talked to Gay City News this week about his novel, his work, and his life.
DOUG IRELAND: Critics have variously described "Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You" as a coming-of-age novel, a novel about alienation, and one even saw it as a very subtle 9/11 novel — even though James doesn’t mention he saw the Twin Towers collapse until three-quarters of the way through the book. How would you describe it?
PETER CAMERON: I think there’s something inherently reductive about the way books are talked about by critics, who want to make the strongest case possible for their response to the book. I hope "Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You" is all the things you mention and more, depending on the reader. It’s very difficult for me to describe or categorize my books, partly because I don’t think about them in that way and partly because I feel that reading is a collaborative process between a writer and a reader, and so only a reader can describe a book.
DI: How did you come up with the book’s marvelously apt — and optimistic — title?
PC: This book had several titles. Originally it was called "But I Won’t," which came from a passage in the book where James is forced to attend a sailing camp the summer he is 12, and the motto of the camp, which is emblazoned on the campers’ T-shirts, is "I Can Do It." James takes an indelible marker and appends "But I Won’t" beneath the motto, but because of Judy Blume’s well-known young adult novel "But Then Again Maybe I Won’t," the publisher wanted me to change the title. After experimenting with several titles suggested by other parts of the book, I decided the best solution would be to change the motto of the sailing camp, and somehow I found out that the motto of the Swedish Navy is Ovid’s "Be patient and tough; someday this pain will be useful to you," and that seemed perfect for a book about adolescence.
DI: You grew up in London — how did that come about, and what was it like for a gay kid?
PC: I actually only lived in London for two years as a kid, but they were very formative and wonderful years. My father was a banker and transferred there. This was in the late ’60s when London was a very hip, exciting place and a very safe city so I had a lot of freedom and independence. I think one of the reasons I was so happy there was because for a gay kid a city is a much more accepting and heterogeneous environment — you realize there are lots of different kinds of people in the world, which isn’t very evident in American suburbia, where I spent the remainder of my youth.
DI: Following Flaubert’s famous dictum "Madame Bovary, c’est moi!", how much of you is there in James?
PC: In the same way that Flaubert is Emma Bovary, I suppose that I am James — he is an imagined projection of myself, a psychological manifestation, but in simple biographic terms he is an invented character, and not myself.
DI: James at one point describes himself as "an atheist and an anarchist." Are you?
PC: I’m the former but not the latter. Although it’s difficult these days, I think you have to believe in government, because I think some form of government is necessary and can be civilizing, in every sense of that word. The reality is that the effect that government, like religion, has on the majority of people is crippling, especially when the two intersect.
DI: How did you come to the realization you were gay, and when, and what happened when you told your entourage? What was more difficult for you — the process of coming out as gay, or of coming out as a writer?
PC: I think homosexuality is as deeply and thoroughly imbedded in a person’s psyche as heterosexuality, so it was not something I realized I was, it was something I was. The problem was not knowing it but accepting it, because the world I grew up in did its very best to discourage one from embracing an alternative sexuality. It also discouraged artists, but not so overtly or vehemently, so that was an easier identity to assume.
While I appreciate the political ramifications of sexual identity, the notion of coming out has always seemed oddly oppressive to me — the idea that one’s sexuality should be announced or explained rather than evidenced. I’ve simply let my life sexual life speak for itself both privately and publicly. I’m aware that the hard brave work of gay activists who came before me made this attitude possible, and I’m indebted to them.
DI: Your literary career may be said to have debuted when you published a short story in The New Yorker when you were only 23 — and they went on to publish a goodly number of your other short fictions. That magazine was considered a tough nut to crack — more so then than now — so how did you manage to do so at such a young age?
PC: I was very fortunate at the beginning of my career in several ways. One was that I was writing short stories during a time when there was a renascence of interest in that form, and many major magazines still published stories, and many publishers were publishing collections of stories. In fact, until Tina Brown began editing The New Yorker in 1992, that magazine published two stories in every issue, and there were several fiction editors working at the magazine, who read the work of, and corresponded with, many writers.
I begin submitting stories while I was in college. My editor, Linda Asher, responded to them, always rejecting, but always encouraging. Her letters very effectively let me know why the stories were not succeeding; it was a wonderful education. I sold them the first story shortly after I graduated from college, and was very happy to publish so many other stories there over the next eight years.
DI: You’ve said that you revere the gay British writer Denton Welch, who died in 1948 at the age of 33. And in "Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You," James says several times he’s a Welch fan — indeed, I found certain Welchian tonalities in the novel, which has this marvelous quote from him on its frontispiece: "When you long with all your heart for someone to love you," wrote Welch, "a madness grows there that shakes all sense from the trees and the water and the earth. And nothing lives for you, except the long deep bitter want. And this is what everyone feels from birth to death." Yet not many Americans have heard of Welch. Tell us why is he so important to you, and what of his would you recommend to read to someone who isn’t familiar with his work?
PC: I think Denton Welch is an absolutely brilliant writer in so many ways. Because he was gay, and died at such a tragically young age, and suffered so miserably during his final years, his life and work resonate so forcefully to me, especially in the late 20th century, when so many gay men where suffering and dying so young. There seemed to be something eerily prescient about his work.
He’s an incredibly brave and honest and sensual writer; the physical world is uniquely vivid in his work, and he understands and can articulate the vicissitudes of depression and aloneness better than any writer I know.
Welch was born in Shanghai in 1915; his distant father was British and his beloved mother was an American Quaker. She died when he was a young boy, and he spent the rest of his miserable youth in boarding schools, which he often ran away from. He was finally allowed to attend art school in London and studied painting, but was struck by a car while riding a bicycle and was severely injured and remained an invalid for the rest of his short life.
Because the physical strain of painting exhausted him, he turned to writing and published two highly autobiographical novels — "Maiden Voyage" and "In Youth is Pleasure." His final novel, and masterpiece, "A Voice Through a Cloud," was published posthumously, as were his journals and stories.
Welch wrote with startling frankness about homosexual desire; in fact he wrote with startling frankness — and heart-breaking sensitivity — about just about everything. The brilliance of his fiction is evidenced by the fact he was championed by writers as diverse as Edith Sitwell, who wrote the foreword to his first novel, and William Burroughs, who wrote an introduction to an edition of "In Youth is Pleasure" that was published in the 1980s.
DI: You count as other major influences four British female writers — Rose Macaulay, Barbara Pym, Penelope Mortimer, and Elizabeth Taylor. Why? And what are your favorite books of theirs?
PC: I think I enjoy and revere these writers because they all combine two qualities I admire very much as a writer and enjoy as a reader — the ability to examine domestic — personal — life with a keen sensitivity and intelligence and to so gracefully and elegantly use the English language to record their observations.
I think my favorite books of theirs are the books that are most widely-regarded as being their best — "The Towers of Trebizond" by Rose Macaulay, "Quartet in Autumn" by Barbara Pym, "The Pumpkin Eater" by Penelope Mortimer, and "Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont" by Elizabeth Taylor.
DI: I was shocked to discover that Farrar, Straus is marketing "Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You" as "young adult" fiction — even though the New York Review of Books, in its rave review, quite rightly said that "Someday…" is "a sophisticated and adult book" and definitely not young adult literature. In fact, I’d say it takes a bit of maturity and worldliness to appreciate all the novel’s many qualities and wisdom. Why did the publisher do such a silly thing, and how do you feel about it?
PC: As you may have intuited by my first answer, I didn’t consider what kind of book I was writing while I was working on this book. I assumed I was writing a book about a young person for adults. I assumed that adults are interested in books about young people. I realized that this book was very different from my previous books, but I liked that — I find it necessary to, and pride myself on the fact of, writing books that are unlike one another. But the first few editors who read the finished manuscript were all disappointed by it — I think because they were expecting a book that bore more resemblance to my previous ones.
There is a real pressure in publishing to do the same thing over and over again, only bigger. And this book was something different, and smaller. Farrar Straus Giroux, my publisher, finally agreed to publish it as a young adult novel and cross-market it as an adult book, an arrangement I have to come to find is just about impossible. Barnes & Noble and other major bookstore chains will only shelve a book in one place.
Because I know from experience the remarkable lasting impression books can have on young readers, I’m pleased that the book is a YA, the downside of that is that adult readers are much less likely to read it, and that’s terrifically frustrating, since that was the audience I thought I was writing for.
DI: You spent a decade working at Lambda Legal — and your boyfriend, the restaurateur Florent Morellet, a beloved figure in the LGBT community, was honored for his gay and AIDS activism by being made grand marshal of last year’s New York Pride parade. Do you consider yourself in any sense a gay activist?
PC: No, I don’t. I admire too much the people I know who are — or were — activists to consider myself one. I felt very fortunate and honored to have worked for Lambda Legal Defense & Education Fund, but my work there was purely administrative. I also admire writers who successfully combined their politics with their art, but I’ve come to realize, and accept, that I’m not an overtly political writer.
DI: Florent tells me that you met each other through the Internet. What was your Internet courtship like?
PC: No comment…
DI: I find that the gay press doesn’t ask our best writers to reflect on political issues of the day often enough. So, what political issues get your juices flowing?
PC: The usual things, I’m sure — the generally idiocy of the Bush presidency, the war in Iraq, the continuing legalized discrimination against the LBGT community, the failure to support the arts, and the government-sanctioned desecration of the environment.
DI: I know you were out of the country during part of the LGBT community’s intense debate about the exclusion of protection of the transgendered and gender identity from ENDA, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, and about the role of the Human Rights Campaign in that evisceration of ENDA. How do you feel about all that?
PC: I believe that inclusivity is an important and strengthening part of any civil-rights movement. I also find the way that politics actually works very depressing, and because I’m not a politician I don’t pretend to understand the best way to get something like ENDA passed.
DI: Do you have any particular enthusiasm for one of the current crop of Democratic presidential candidates? Or any particular dislike?
PC: My enthusiasm would gladly be pledged to any viable Democratic presidential candidate. I’ve particularly admired Dennis Kucinich (right) ever since he advocated for a Department of Peace and Non-Violence.
DI: What gay organizations do you support or especially approve of, and why? Also, does the institutional LGBT community do enough to reach out to young people or try to respond to their needs? Younger gay kids say no — and put it down to adult fears of being tarred with the pedophilia brush in the current climate of anti-pedophile hysteria. Your view?
PC: I’m aware of two organizations that do very good work for gay youth — Lambda Legal Defense & Education Fund, where David Buckel is doing excellent and important work on behalf of young people, and the Hetrick-Martin Institute.
DI: You recently returned from a trip to Italy to promote your book there. How were it, and you, received by the Italians?
PC: For some reasons I don’t understand, my books are very popular in Italy at the moment. My last two books — "The City of Your Final Destination" and "Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You" — have both been on the bestseller lists there. It is, of course, extremely gratifying when so many people respond to and value one’s work. It’s a new experience for me.
DI: What are you currently reading — both books and magazines?
PC: I’m currently reading Andrew O’Hagan’s novel "Be Near Me." I don’t really like reading magazines; I’d much rather read a book. The only magazines I regularly read are The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books.
DI: Do you have any favorites among contemporary gay writers?
PC: I admire the work of David Plante, James Lord, Stephen McCauley, Vestal McIntyre, Carole Maso, John Ashbery, Colm Toibin, Edmund White, Stacey D’Erasmo, to name just a few.
DI: Do you listen to music while you write? Who are your favorite composers?
PC: I can’t listen to music and write; it just doesn’t work for me. I pay attention to the music and that’s distracting. Some of my favorite composers are Gustav Mahler, Stephen Sondheim, Joni Mitchell, Noel Coward, and Benjamin Britten.
DI: For most of your literary career, you’ve also held down a day job in the non-profit sector — yet you’ve simultaneously produced an impressively large body of literary work. How do you manage doing both? Are you simply a fast writer? One wouldn’t say so from the intensely thoughtful nature of the observations in your fictions. And where are you currently working these days?
PC: I’m not a fast writer; on the contrary, I’m rather slow — there’s about a five-year gap between all my books. It takes me a very long time to write a novel, and not because I’m working a day job. It’s just because I have to live with a novel for several years to completely understand it. I have a short attention span when it comes to writing — and most things — and can’t write for more than a few hours a day. So having a day job is necessary for both economic and psychological reasons.
For the past two years, I’ve been working for The Trust for Public Land, a land-conservation organization. I worked there for about five years in the 1980s. Like Lambda Legal Defense, it’s an organization that I think strives to change the world in very good and important ways, so working there is a pleasure.
DI: If you have any free time left over after your day job and your writing, what do you do for pleasure?
PC: I see a lot of theater, which I love, and ballet. I don’t like to go to movies but I like watching them at home. I like to spend time with friends, and I like to spend time at home, alone.
DI: The problem of concentration in media ownership is posing a threat to both serious fiction and to gay books — the latest sorry chapter in this saga is the decision by a multinational owner to shut down Caroll & Graf, eliminate the fine collection of gay books which Don Weise edited there, and fold the imprint into Perseus Books. Don’t money-grubbing decisions like this mean shrinking the pool of potential readers for quality literature and for gay fiction? At the same time, the rise in postal rates for magazines is inevitably causing some of the quality journals that pay attention to literature to cut back or fold because it will be so costly. Will the publishing of quality books survive assaults like these? And will the kids who grew up on the Internet — like the ones you’ve taught at Yale and Sarah Lawrence — revere books in the way older, pre-Internet farts like me do? If publishing quality fiction is getting harder and harder, and its audience is shrinking, what is the future of literature?
PC: This is a very depressing topic. The shutting down of Caroll & Graf was particularly upsetting, because Don Weise was publishing so many terrific writers. I think the Internet has — or is having — a profound effect on how and what people read, and it will take a few more years to see to see if there is still a large enough readership to make publishing books economically feasible. I attempt to remain optimistic about all of this, but that is difficult, because I love books in the traditional sense, and it would make me very sad if they ceased to be the objects they are now.
DI: Two more of your novels may soon have a life on the big screen — Merchant Ivory is completing work on your "The City of Your Final Destination," while Ovie, with a less artistic track record, has optioned "Andorra." Will you maintain a polite distance from these film projects to protect yourself so that you have credible deniability in the event that they’re botched, and you can thus disown them? — as my friend John Berendt luckily did when Clint Eastwood made a heavy-handed mess of "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," in which John’s journalist character was turned into a hetero and given a girlfriend. Or are you going to fully implicate yourself in helping to shape these films in ways that won’t betray the integrity of the books — a difficult tightrope to walk? How are you dealing with this problematic?
PC: I think the smartest and safest thing a writer can do when it comes to adapting books for movies is to completely disassociate himself from the movie, because novels and movies are such different mediums, and becoming involved is often only a recipe for heartache and disaster. So it’s best to take the money and run, I think.
But of course I haven’t taken my own advice: I’ve written the screenplays for "Andorra" and "Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You," and although Ruth Prawer Jhabvala wrote the screenplay for "City of Your Final Destination," I’ve been involved with every aspect of the film — casting, filming, and editing. James Ivory is one of the few filmmakers who actually likes and respects novelists, and he’s been extremely gracious in involving me with the film.
DI: Edmund White told me that his recent, witty autobiography, "My Lives," was roundly criticized by most of his friends for having too much sex in it. I, on the other hand, thought his self-critical, graphic transparency about his late-in-life adventures in masochism at the hands of a rented hustler a very brave thing to publish. Could you ever see yourself at some point writing such a tell-all account of your sexual exploits? If not, why not?
PC: I also admire Ed’s work, and think he is a very brave and brilliant writer. But we’re very different as writers — Ed has always written about himself; most of his novels are somewhat autobiographical — whereas I have never been inclined to write directly about myself. The pleasure of writing, for me, is to get away from myself, both biographically and geographically. Of course I allow things that happen to me to inform my characters’ lives, but I’ve never felt that my life itself would make for good fiction — or nonfiction, for that matter.
DI: What is your next book project? What are you working on?
PC: I’m working on a new novel that I’m still in the process of figuring out. I wish I could tell you the title, but it doesn’t have one yet.
DI: Last question. I found "Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You" so absorbing, and James so endearing, that I didn’t want the book to end. Have you at all considered doing a sequel that takes James into the next stage of his life — or are you going to leave us all hanging with our tongues out panting frustratedly for more time we could spend with him?
PC: That’s nice to hear, and I’ve heard the same from other readers. I don’t plan to write a sequel to "Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You," but I haven’t planned to write any of my books — they always arise mysteriously from my subconscious, and so it’s impossible for me to anticipate or predict future books. I’m never even sure that I’ll write another book.
For more information on Peter Cameron, his work, and his literary likes, visit his extensive and entertaining website by clicking here.
Doug Ireland, a longtime radical journalist and media critic, runs the blog DIRELAND, where this article appeared Nov. 21, 2007. He wrote the article for Gay City News, New York’s largest gay and lesbian weekly.