Thursday, March 13, 2008

Loaded Questions: Interview with Robert Leleux author of The Memoir of Beautiful Boy

The Memoirs of a Beautiful Boy
St. Martin's Press, $23.95

Robert Leleux is a fun guy to email back and forth with. He is entirely nice, polite to a fault, and happy to tell a story. I have been interested in The Memoirs of a Beautiful Boy for several months now because of the uniqueness of his story and the positive way Robert tells it. If reading the book is as much fun as interviewing Robert, then you and I both are in for a good deal of laughter.

Kelly Hewitt
: I have read some of the short pieces that you've written over at Amazon
.com, they're hilarious. Do you have a blog or a site where readers can go to read about your daily escapades?

Robert Leleux: Well, it's so funny you should ask, Kelly, because I do happen to have a website: It's a charming little spot, with oodles of lovely pictures of moi, and my mother, and all my family. And all my blogs are posted there. Or at least, all the blogs my partner Michael will let me post. I'm a highly censored author, you see. I keep firing off these fiery political pieces--and Michael keeps preventing them from ever seeing the light of day. Which, since he's the computer saavy half, isn't difficult. I'm telling you, he should have worked for Nixon! But he's probably right--the thing to do is to caste a wide net. And besides, it isn't the Christian thing to keep telling public figures how much you hate them. At least in print. But at this rate, I'll never be Molly Ivins.

Kelly: So when introducing you one should say that you are a best selling author and muted political activist? That's kind of catchy. I take it that you don't subscribe to politics as usual in Texas. Speaking of growing up in Texas (see how smooth that was?) was it all bad? Is there
any part of your writing that you attribute to a life growing up in the Lone Star State?

Robert: Oh, that's adorable of you--but I'm not sure I count as an activist, I'm just a loudmouth. The Mouth Of The South, my grandmother used to call me. And as for Texas, I dearly love it. Houston is home for me in a way that no other place ever will be. I might be alone in this, but I actually think it's a beautiful city, and every time I go back, something in me just sings. And I believe that East Texas is just about THE best place in America for a writer to come from--because it hasn't yet succumbed to that horrible homogenization of language that's stripped so much of America of its regional sounds. It seems to me that there's only a handful of places left that sound like themselves, and I think that maintaining that is so precious. Grace Paley said something like, "a writer has to listen to the world with two ears: one turned to the language of literature, and the other turned to the language of the street you grew up on." And it's so terrific to have been born to a place where the language is so charged and funny and off-kilter gorgeous.

the magical, miraculous thing about books is that you write them alone, in an empty room--a really private experience-- and then, they venture out alone in the world. They enter rooms you'll never see, they meet people who'll forever be strangers to you." -- Robert Leleux

Kelly: How do you feel about the fact that, while all of the reviews of your book have been pretty stellar, a few reviewers have warned readers that the book is "not for the faint of heart"? Do you think that's a fair label?

Robert: What's the expression? "Faint heart never won fair maiden." Something like that. Well, I don't know--practically everyone in Michael's family has a heart condition, and they all loved my book. And there have been a couple of completely lovely ladies who've written to say that they read my book in the hospital, and that they laughed so hard, their nurses thought they were having some sort of attack, and what do you know, laughter really is the best medicine. Which absolutely makes my life worthwhile--the opportunity to actually cheer up a person who really needs of a good laugh. Who could ask for anything more? I mean, the magical, miraculous thing about books is that you write them alone, in an empty room--a really private experience-- and then, they venture out alone in the world. They enter rooms you'll never see, they meet people who'll forever be strangers to you. It's very moving to me--especially since my book's a memoir, and there are people out there I'll never know, with whom I'm having this very sort of intimate experience. VERY strange, and wonderful. But to answer your question--if you want Barbara Pym (AND I love Barbara Pym), I'm not Barbara Pym. Or as Joan Crawford said, "If you want the girl next door, go next door."

Kelly: The stress of going on a book tour is enough to make any sane person go a little crazy. You go one step further though. I read that you're actually do the book tour for Memoir of a Beautiful Boy with your mother. Whose idea was that? How is it working out?

Robert: Well, I maintain that it's a real marker of virile masculinity, travelling with your mother. How many brawny He-Men would even attempt it? And it's been a total blast. If anyone out there ever contemplates a tour of any sort, I recommend taking someone with you. Because your job, out on the road, is to meet lovely strangers who've been kind enough to care enough to come out and say hello to you, and to be very, very present--and it's enormously helpful to have a person, like your mother, guiding your arm, and keeping an eye on the task at hand. ALSO, I would recommend taking MY mother with you. Because she's very funny, and it never hurts to have a gorgeous, glamorous woman with you, even if she does happen to be your mother. The whole thing started off as a joke--in a marketing meeting with my publisher, I said, "Maybe I should bring my mother with me!" And no one laughed. Which taught me a real lesson. Namely, don't make jokes in marketing meetings, because they have a tendency to become PR strategies. So then, I called Mother, and said, "What do you think of the notion of heading off on the road with me?" And she said, "I'll call you later, I'm going shopping." Which is my mother's means of preparation. So she got some gorgeous new suits, and adventure ensued. It was very much like that Eric Preminger book about being on the road with his mother, Gypsy Rose Lee. I kept looking around, and there Mother was, sitting cross-legged on the Vuitton suitcases, smoking, and looking very glamorous and world-weary.

Kelly: You've convinced me, I'll take a trip with your mother. I am going to Maui soon -- can she swim?

Robert: She's an ace. And when she was a little girl, she used to fake swim with plastic flowers in her hair, like Esther Williams.

Kelly: On a more serious note, when do you think you mother will write a book about you?

Robert: I only wish my mother would write a book about ANYTHING! I'd be first in line to buy it--I feel like my job in life is just to follow the genius, brassy women in my family around with a pen, and write down everything they say. My grandfather and I look at each other all the time, and say, "How lucky are we to be in the same room with these ladies!"

This might be a really dumb question but I'm willing to stick my neck out. Is the picture on the front of the book really you and your mother?

Robert: That's not stupid at all--you never know about these things. But YES, that's US! My mother was so adorable. She told me, "I really feel strongly that you and I should be on the cover." And I said, "Well, yes, I appreciate that, but it's not really my decision, Mother." And she said, "Then whose decision is it?" And I said, "I guess it's my editor's." And she said, "Well, I think you should call him up, and you should tell him that your mother feels very strongly that you and I should be on the cover." And I just sort of nodded, and said uh-huh. But it actually worked out! And I love the fact that when I look at my book on the shelf, I see my mama's face!

Kelly: I know you're a fan of public radio, as am I. I, too, have spent a good hour in my car after getting home listing to All Things Considered or This American Life. I am always amazed by the inane little facts that I learn from listening to NPR and often times don't realize that I knew them until I find myself telling someone about the migrating patterns of the yellow breasted pygmy sparrow. What's the favorite story or random fact you've learned from public radio?

Robert: That's very funny about the pygmy sparrow. Well, I don't know, I just love how smart it makes me feel to listen to NPR. It's like being invited to MENSA, you know? I love being able to say--"Today on NPR, I heard blah blah blah." Or, "Isn't that a coincidence, why just this afternoon, they were saying on NPR, blah blah blah...." On the other hand, I don't get to say this a great deal, because Michael is so INSUFFERABLY bored by talk radio. Or, as he refers to it, "A bunch of old people sitting around a table, talking." Michael's father, God love him, was a Rush Limbaugh listener, and I'm afraid it was a searing experience that forever spoiled his love of the format. But one of my fondest memories--one of those instances when you really feel like you've found yourself as an adult--was one bright sunny summer aftenoon in 2004, just after I'd sent off my five dollars to the Howard Dean campaign, when I was tootling around in my friend's Volvo, listening to NPR, and some political strategist said, "Howard Dean's constituency is solely comprised of people who drive around in Volvos listening to NPR." I almost spun into a ditch! It was thrilling! I thought to myself, "Robert Leleux, you have arrived!

The book is doing really well! So here's the question that you as a best-selling author will be asked repeatedly for the rest of your life. When will your next book come out and what is it about?

That's enormously sweet. Well, I've got several pots on the stove. It looks like a little picture book I did might be coming to fruition--so keep your fingers crossed. And then, I'm working on a sequel to my book. And I have what I think is the most adorable idea for a young adult series. But you know, there's that great great line about somebody saying to Baudelaire, "Mr. Baudelaire, I have the most TERRIFIC idea for a sonnet," and Baudelaire says, "Sonnets, sir, are not made of ideas." And brother, you can say that again. Sonnets, and anything like them, are made of hard, slaving work. And as you know, hard work never gets any easier. It's that awful, awful Zen thing about writing--how every time you sit down with blank paper, you're beginning again. VERY humbling. Because blank paper is no respecter of wordly success. And you just have to keep returning to that desk every day, and sometimes it's like going in for A Day of Beauty at Elizabeth Arden, and sometimes, it's like going to the salt mines.

Kelly: You and your partner meet while working on a stage production of West Side Story. What parts did the two of your play or was it a star/stage hand sort of thing? And, tell the truth, do you find yourself tearing up whenever your hear "There's A Place for Us?" And lastly, did I just out myself as a recovering theatre geek?

Well, I played Tony (THE worst Tony in the history of the American theatre), and Michael was my choreographer. So we were practically Cybill Shepherd and Peter Bogdonavich, Michael and me. It was love at first sight. Maria was devastated. But it was really thematically perfect, you know? This great romance set to music about a great romance set to music. It suited my sense of drama. Fortunately, I fell in love with a person with no sense of drama. Michael is extraordinarily level-headed, and he remains, eleven years later, the single greatest thing that could ever have happened to me. My mother feels the same way--she also thinks Michael is the greatest thing that's ever happened to her. Somebody asked me, "What's the secret to a happy marriage?" And I said, "Marry Michael." I feel entirely incidental to my own domestic happiness. Anyone who married Michael would be entirely thrilled with life. He's a person with no dark side. Only dark chocolate. Terrific. And as for "West Side Story," I do find it ENDLESSLY moving, so don't be embarrassed with me, Kelly. You know, my mother always had those showtune albums playing in our house growing up, and she was wonderful enough to treat them with real importance--like real art. And so I sort of grew up with idea that musicals were a real part of a classical education. So when I went to college, I remember flipping through the course bulletin, and thinking, "Dickinson, Tolstoy, Turgenev....Where's Molly Brown?" TRAGICALLY disappointing. But you know, I think musicals have had an enormous impact on me as a writer--I persist in believing Cole Porter to be one of the only truly great American writers. And I think that in order to be even a decent writer you have to have a sense of musical rhythm. And also, I remember PG Wodehouse writing something like, "There are two ways to write a novel. To soar gloriously above the dim reality of life--to write musicals without the music. Or to burrow deep within it." Wodehouse obviously identified with the first method, and so do I.

How tired are you of being compared to Augusten Burroughs or David Sedaris?

Well, how lovely to be compared to anybody as devastatingly funny as either of those two gentlemen! On the other hand, I've never read them. And not because I haven't heard wonderful things--it's just, given that people tend to make that comparison, I don't think it's the best possible thing to risk absorbing contemporaries working in a similar vein. I would never want to risk anything spilling over--it's the one sense in which I'm concerned about maintaining my purity! It's so interesting that because I'm gay, and some people, at least, think I'm funny, that the sort of knee-jerk response is to compare me to those two great writers. But personally, I've always wanted to be PG Wodehouse or Nora Ephron or Wendy Wasserstein or Molly Ivins. Those are the people who've kept me rolling in the aisles--the writers I go back to again and again whenever I'm stuck, which tends to happen about once every twelve-and-a-half minutes. But it is so fascinating that your very private, personal work ends up getting you publicly grouped with people you don't know, and don't really know much about. But again, who's complaining?

Robert, I would like to thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me. I have heavily recommended this book to Loaded Questions readers and now that they've had a chance to see how much funnier you are than myself I am sure they'll be rushing out to get it.

Robert: Yes, but you're SO much prettier than I am. So, together, we're an unbeatable team!
THANK YOU so much, Kelly. This really has been fun! And my whole life I've been trying to tell people about my favorite books, and they've always ducked behind corners, so it would be a thrill for somebody to actually ask for my opinion! And thanks for doing this great blog--I'm sure it's so much work, but it's also VERY special. XX,R


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