"I can always be distracted by love, but eventually I get horny for my creativity."
~ Gilda Radner (1989)
Mind Caviar, Vol. 4 Annual Issue, 2003
An Interview with Greg Wharton and Ian Philips
by Anne Foley
SAN FRANCISCO-- When Suspect Thoughts Press publisher Greg Wharton and Lambda Literary Award-winner Ian Philips read on stage together as “husband and husbear,” to borrow a line from Philips, they bill themselves as the Terrible Infant Tour. Now with a new book each, they plan to up the number of terrible infants on stage November 14, 2003 at a reading in San Francisco’s Charles M. Holmes Campus at The Center to benefit the Harvey Milk Institute, a non-profit celebrating ten years of classes and events to entertain and educate the LGBTIQ community. Fellow movers-and-shakers in both the Bay Area and national queer literary scene like Patrick Califia, Kirk Read, Simon Sheppard, Charlie Anders, and Thea Hillman will join the couple to read from Wharton’s Johnny Was & Other Tall Tales and Philips’ Satyriasis: Literotica 2. “It’ll be like the Vagina Monologues but with a wider array of genitalia,” says Philips.
a recent Saturday during a long and hot October weekend, I sat down with
Wharton and Philips at their kitchen table in their sunny Mission apartment
that doubles as Philips’ half of the Suspect Thoughts Press offices. I
asked them about their new books, their new press, and their new relationship.
(Total disclosure: I worked with Philips while interning as publicity director
for AttaGirl Press.)
Anne Foley: First off, let me congratulate you both. Two new books.
Greg Wharton: Thank you.
Ian Philips: Thanks.
AF: Greg, Johnny Was is your first book?
GW: Yes, I’ve…
IP: It’s his first book that he’s written. It’s about his seventh book as Suspect Thoughts Press’ publisher…
GW: [laughing] Sixth. Yours is our seventh.
IP: Okay, sixth. And then there’s his umpteen books as an editor.
AF: Already to umpteen, Greg?
GW: It’s six, too.
IP: He’s got lots more coming. Including one we edited together Law of Desire: Tales of Gay Male Lust and Obsession, Alyson Books, Spring 2004. Only by the grace of Greg did we sail through that because I was still writing stories for my book Satyriasis and a real joy to live with.
AF: Ian, how many cups of coffee have you had today?
GW: This would be his sixth. [laughter]
AF: Okay. Okay. Ian.
IP: Yes, Anne.
AF: I know Satyriasis is your second book because I lived through the publishing of your first See Dick Deconstruct: Literotica for the Satirically Bent at AttaGirl.
IP: You’re right. On both counts.
AF: What’s it like to have your second book out?
IP: A miracle.
AF: A miracle…?
IP: Really. It is. And I’m not just talking about getting a book made and sold and read in our post-ADD age. Where even a sound bite, say like “Mission Accomplished,” is on the long side since it has to be big enough to fit above a televised talking head. Where there are as many independent bookstores left as there were Democrats in Congress voting against Bush’s “Cakewalk in Mesopotamia.” Bless them all!
AF: The bookstores or those who voted no.
IP: Both. A blessing on any receptacle of independent thinking! Love ‘em while they last people. [laughter]
AF: So what was the real miracle then?
IP: The real miracle is that I was writing and editing stories up to three weeks ago and now the book is back. And you can imagine what that must have been like on my publisher’s nerves when’s he’s sitting at the computer next to me while I spend a few more hours have a perfectionist tizzy over describing an orgasm without using the words “quiver,” “spasm,” or “explode.” [Wharton laughs.] But Greg was a saint through the whole process and [the book] looks so beautiful. Especially with the cover image using the Pan-tastic Devil card from Steve Postman’s Cosmic Tribe Tarot deck. Greg, the miracle worker, went and asked him if we could use it. What can I say, it really pays to sleep with your publisher.
AF: Hold that thought, Ian…
IP: Just the thought…? [laughter]
AF: Ian, have another cup of coffee, and I’ll come back to you later. Now, Greg, to let you get a word in: Why did you wait till your sixth book to publish your own?
IP: All hail the all-powerful market forces…
AF: Ian, coffee!
GW: Even though two of the first five books published by Suspect Thoughts Press were anthologies edited by me, I wanted to wait until further into the timeline to do my own writing. I was very sensitive earlier on about Suspect Thoughts being considered a vanity press-- not that I think that’s necessarily wrong-- but we’re not and I didn’t want to jeopardize what respect I could garner for the press.
AF: You seem to be doing a great job there. There was a time this summer when I couldn’t pick up a gay glossy without seeing someone interviewing and then praising Matt Bernstein Sycamore for his novel Pulling Taffy. Out, Genre, Instinct. Even Inches had a photo spread and an interview!
IP: Who knew that kitchen aprons were the crotchless panties of the 21st century?
GW: And… [Philips continues to laugh] And no matter how hard Ian and I have worked on the press we both agree it was Mattilda [Matt Bernstein Sycamore] that put Suspect Thoughts on the map.
IP: Can I get an amen?!
AF: Girls, let’s focus just a little longer. So Greg, with all this recent attention, how has it been trying to promote and sell Johnny Was? I mean, Ian already has his first book to give readers an idea of what he means by “literotica”. And you’ve published several erotica collections. But what I was struck by as I read your collection was how it was both erotica and it wasn’t. Some stories are very comic. Not that erotica can’t be comic-- as your partner so often proves.
IP: Why, Anne, you sweet-talker you.
AF: And a few of your stories like “Blue” or “Johnny Was” strike me as more traditional erotica. But most of Johnny Was are these little heartbreaking queer erotic vignettes in the style of, say, Barry Gifford.
IP: If Barry Gifford wrote little queer erotic vignettes.
AF: Well, Gifford leapt to mind because you’ve mentioned before that Greg is a fan of Gifford’s writing. And I didn’t want to list all the same authors you did, Ian, for the back-cover blurb. Like Dennis Cooper or JT Leroy.
GW: I get so nervous with comparisons. But thank you. I’m a huge fan of Gifford’s work especially the Sailor and Lula novels. But…what was the question? Oh, promotion. Well, we have it classified as both gay fiction and erotica so we’ll go for both angles. Mostly erotica since most of the content is sexual, though a bulk of the stories-- like Ian’s collection-- don’t fit the mold of most erotic writing.
AF: So in many ways your book is emblematic of Suspect Thoughts Press.
GW: Well, I don’t know about that.
AF: What I mean is that I read Michelle Tea’s column in the San Francisco Guardian’s monthly Lit magazine [August 2003]. You talked about how your press, because of some of its earliest titles, has been pegged as an erotica press, but it isn’t.
GW: We definitely publish erotica. And we always will. Hell, we write it ourselves. But you’re right. We publish fiction, poetry, and in the future we plan to publish non-fiction. And a lot of it’s very transgressive because of its erotic or even explicitly sexual content. We’re also not a gay press. We’re a queer press. And we use queer in the widest possible sense. Not just those who are Other because of their sexuality or gender but because of their outsider, their bent worldviews.
IP: Like Jennifer Fink’s Burn. Or next year’s Pink Steam from one of our San Francisco hometown heroes, Dodie Bellamy.
AF: But you’re not an erotica press.
IP: Not even a queer erotica press. We’re that and a whole lot more. [laughter]
AF: And that’s how I felt about your book, Greg. It’s erotica and a whole lot more. Like the story you close out your collection with, “Coyotes”. It’s really haunting. And so many of the elements, like the protagonist’s underage boyfriend on the run with his family in hot pursuit, could have made it so easily cliché. But, like M. Christian said in his foreword, you don’t treat your characters like puppets or playthings. You treat them like real people. You don’t go for the obvious once. Instead you went for the surreal by contrasting the boys’ relationship with the doomed relationship between the lesbian park ranger and her lover who’s being slowly taken over by some angry entity. Maybe even a goddess.
GW: Maybe. Maybe not. [laughing] I don’t want to spoil the story.
IP: I love Doreen [the park ranger] and Rita Mae. I’m waiting for the movie. Something like Bagdad Café meets Mala Noche. With Cherry Jones and Kathy Bates as the lesbian lovers.
GW: Who’d play Greg [the protagonist] and Tommy?
IP: Hillary Swank and Chloe Sevigny. [laughter]
AF: Okay, Ian, before you cast the rest of the film, I want to talk to you about the big change I see in your second collection.
IP: Big change?
AF: Yes. Don’t get me wrong. I felt that for most of the stories in Satyriasis you expanded, even improved, on the varying themes and styles of See Dick Deconstruct that won you critical praise and the Lammy.
IP: Wow. Thank you.
AF: But then there’s “What the Market Will Bear.”
IP: My love letter to George Bush & Co.
AF: Oh, man, I never want to get on your bad side.
IP: Don’t sleep with Greg and we’re good.
AF: Deal. My girlfriend will be happy to hear about this too.
IP: Hi, Beth.
AF: So, “What the Market Will Bear.” Despite what Patrick Califia said in his foreword about the “essential good-heartedness” underlying your satires, there is none of that when the dominatrix, Mistress Lysistrata, goes after her little black book of the Powers That Be.
IP: It’s balls-to-the-wall bleak.
AF: As only you could put it, yes. Why?
IP: I got the idea when Bush’s call to war was just one drumstick on a child’s snare drum. But as he kept on beating, like that godawful Energizer bunny, I kept on writing the story. Stopping for months to be depressed over all that was happening in the world. Letting the story ferment. Reading dystopias. Learning how hard, especially emotionally, it is to write one that isn’t really humorous. A 1984 rather than a Brave New World. Going to readings like the one Stephen Elliott held in honor of Lydia Lunch at the Adobe Bookstore here in the Mission. He was just becoming the evangelist of politically inspired fiction. Works like he’s collected in his recent anthology Politically Inspired. Bless him. Of course, I knew my story would be different from anything I heard that night because I can’t escape the satiric impulse. It’s just I turned the sharp point I usually reserve for popping the biggest gas-filled balloons on the protagonist too when she commits ritual suicide.
AF: For me, as a reader, that story and “Shrimpboat Willie” were the standout pieces of your collection. Not that they don’t show glimmers of your trademark sardonic humor and your addiction to the surreal.
IP: Addiction to the surreal. I love that. And it’s true. I’m hooked.
AF: I don’t know exactly why I liked them more than the other stories. But you just seemed to be writing from a different place and it shows. Actually, to be honest, because they were so heartbreakingly sad, I wondered, after reading both your books back to back, how much did Greg’s work influence you?
IP: I don’t know. It definitely seeps in because I read all the stories in Johnny Was several times each. But, usually, when I deal with the sadness around me or within me, I work through it more operatically. I think “What the Market Will Bear” is definitely operatic. Medea with a Madame Butterfly ending. While Greg’s works remind me more of classic country torch songs. The best of Patsy Cline or Dolly Parton or Tammy Wynette. And I think the closest I have to a torch song is “Steamboat Willie.” I know I tried to siphon some of the atmosphere from “Coyotes” into that story.
AF: And Greg, what about you?
GW: I influence myself all the time. [laughing] No, seriously, Ian is a huge inspiration. He’s my muse.
IP: See what I have to live with! [Both Philips and Wharton laughing.]
AF: So what’s next for you two? Touring? Any new books underway?
GW: We’ve got several readings in November including the reading at the LGBT Center. And we’re going to do some selective touring after that. Readings on the West Coast for the next few months and then the East Coast in March. New York, Boston, Amherst. Maybe more.
IP: And any college campus that’ll have us.
GW: Then wrap it up by going to the Saints & Sinners conference in New Orleans next May.
IP: Even though I sweat like a busted pipe through the whole thing, I love that conference. Paul Willis knows how to throw a great literary festival for queer writers and their friends.
GW: Yeah. And we’ve got five new Suspect Thoughts Press titles planned for next year. Including a kick-ass vampire novel from Patrick Califia.
IP: And we’re writing our own novels in our free seconds.
AF: About what?
IP: Well, all I’ll say about mine is that I’ve been thinking about what would happen if Christian fundamentalists were close to success with an anti-gay marriage amendment long before this year.
AF: And you, Greg?
GW: Not surprisingly, there’s more honky-tonk and achy-break, motels and road trips and love gone wrong, but Pooh and his fellow characters are leading me in some interesting directions that I hadn’t expected. It seems they’ve gotten themselves involved with extraterrestrial travelers.
AF: Wow, extraterrestrials. Ian really is rubbing off on you.
GW: I told you.
AF: So you’re both working on novels now and working together as publishers.
IP: Not to nitpick but my title is Editor at Extra Large.
AF: And you wear it well. [Philips laughs.]
IP: Just promise if you’re forced to do that casual touch describing what we’re wearing or how we look you don’t call me something like a portly pixie.
AF: It’s a deal. Even though it sounds to this daughter of Sappho like someone’s doing a classic case of the lesbian merge. But I can vouch for our readers that you two have yet to start dressing alike. [laughter]
GW: We both have beards. But that’s as far as it goes. Ian’s got his Hawaiian shirts and I’ve got my “dueling plaids” as Ian calls them.
IP: Especially when he’s wearing his yellow plaid shorts with his yellow paisley shirt. It’s like a Garanimals’ tribute to former punks. The Clash covering a Sex Pistol. [Wharton laughs.]
AF: Ian, do you have an off button?
IP: Yes, but you have to turn off the tape recorder to see it.
AF: Which I guess is a fitting way to end an interview with two wild and crazy boys who write about everything from transsexual butterfly researchers and lesbian potlucks and coaches with a dirty-trailer fetish to Pan getting it on with a bunch of Faeries in the woods.
IP: Who’d like another cup of coffee?
© 2003 Anne Foley. All Rights Reserved. Do not copy or post in whole
or in part.
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