Doug Henderson is a tremendously funny writer. Utilizing the authorial voice, he writes with subtle humor. His book, The Cleveland Heights LGBT Sci-Fi and Fantasy Role Playing Club is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. His characters are likeable and they make you reflect on yourself and other people. Full disclosure—Doug is a good friend who inspired me to start writing again and was the catalyst for this blog. I’ve read his novel multiple times in various forms. And each time I’m eager to reread it—I never tire of his world and only want more.
What is The Cleveland Heights LGBT Sci-Fi and Fantasy Role Playing Club about?
A group of gay friends that play Dungeons & Dragons every Thursday and everything is fine until a new guy joins the group and Ben, the protagonist, gets a crush on him. Things start into motion that take the group into all different directions. There’s gay D&D, there’s heavy metal, a competing vampire role playing club, a kiss-in.
How would you describe your book?
It’s a romantic comedy or a comic novel. My hope of course is that the comicness of it transcends the gayness. The goal also is to have an audience larger than gay readers. Because I hope that the story is something that anyone can relate to. It’s ultimately a story about how do you find love when you’re so marginalized? These characters, particularly Ben, are marginalized people in a marginalized group. How do you find someone else when you’re that marginalized?
What made you write this book?
Part of the motivation is that I’ve always thought of myself as a contrary kind of person. And I really was sick of the typical gay books that I was seeing everywhere. I couldn’t find a book with gay characters that I could get into. I wanted to sort of write against that. I sort of define myself in opposition to things and I wanted to write in opposition to a lot of things, which is how I think that people function as artists a lot of times. It started as a reaction to the gay books that I was seeing at the bookstore. I wanted to sort of write against the kind of A-list-fashion-gay-queer-eye-queer-as folk-always-clubbing-always-fabulous-kind of gay type. And so to think about the D-list gays and could I make them interesting or appealing? What about the gay nerds? What about the D-list gays? I want to read and write about those people.
Did you intentionally leave out the coming out stories?
Yes. In deciding that I wanted to write against gay characters and gay tropes I avoided gay tropes. If write against is the correct phrasal verb. I didn’t want to write a coming out story, I didn’t want to write any kind of HIV story, not because I don’t think those stories don’t have value but we have a lot of them and I wanted to do something different. And I didn’t want another trope, another struggling under the weight of their homosexuality kind of character. I didn’t want that character either. Pretty much all the characters are kind of comfortable with who they are as far as their gayness. They have other issues with who they are but they are pretty comfortable with being gay people.
Your book avoids trying to teach or educate people about being gay.
We know that, we had that lesson already. I wanted them to be comfortable being gay. I also don’t want gay people reduced to the same old story over and over again; we have a wide variety of stories and characters. There’s plenty of room for more (gay nerds).
How long has it taken you?
I started the book in 2008 in Sweden. I left my job. I was traveling in Sweden with my now fiance. And while he went to work everyday in Sweden, I went to a cafe and started writing what would essentially become this book. I thought it was a short story at first but as it began to evolve and the world got bigger, I realized it would take a novel to tell the story that I wanted to tell.
What is your writing technique? Do you write out your story in advance or do your characters ever surprise you?
Yeah, sure they surprise me, but I also think that basically you have to rein them in. There’s two schools of thought on it. There’s some writers that follow their characters and there are other writers that force them to follow the plot. And I think I’m much more keep them under control and make them follow the plot. But they do often surprise me and they do often allow me to come to solutions that I wouldn’t have come to if I was just thinking plot, plot, plot all the time. Sometimes I kind of need a way to make a scene work or come together and the only way to do that is through the characters.
Do your characters live on in your mind after the book ends?
Yeah, totally, and there are of course other scenes that they live in that don’t make it into the book.
Will you write a sequel? Inquiring minds want to know!
If I write a sequel it’s going be about the vampire role players because I think there’s a lot more to tell. I think with Ben and Albert and those guys their story has been told. But I think Varnec and the vampires have a lot more going on.
Your book is poetic and precise. There doesn’t seem to be any excess to it. Do you write a lot and chop it down? Or do you write close to what is the finished product?
I write in both ways. Yes, I write a lot and chop it down. And I also write too little and then have to expand from within. Somebody said there are two types of writers, the putter inners and taker outters. So Steinbeck and Hemingway are taker outers and the putter inners are like Faulkner. I definitely try to be a taker outer but I think both ways are good.
Are those official literary terms?
I think Steinbeck was quoting Faulkner when he said it.
Who are your main influences?
John Steinbeck, Kurt Vonnegut, James Thurber, those are kind of the big ones that I go back to a lot. I also really like Katherine Mansfield, she said she is a “partisan of objectivity.” I always liked that sense and I try to not judge my characters as I’m writing about them.
There’s a lot of subtle humor in your book. Do you cultivate and exaggerate the details for comedy?
The book is a comedy and a lot of it is in the details. I try to use a lot of details that to me would be the worst possible choice. For example, I had to give Ben a car. So I had to think what kind of car would be the absolute worst possible choice because that’s probably the kind of car that Ben is going to have. So he ends up with a 97 Ford probe which is such a weird car to have but I feel like it’s totally right. You had said you think Ben is so weird because he sleeps in a waterbed. And the waterbed was a similar detail. I thought what is his bed like? A waterbed is the weirdest thing he could possibly have.
How much of you are in the characters?
More than initially. Initially they were not so much like me. But of course every character is a sort of fragment of myself, but over the years I’ve put more of myself into them, particularly into Ben, sort of half-jokingly because people expect Ben to be me in some way, even though our life stories are totally different. I’m much more brave I think. A lot of times when you are writing, when you are trying to get into a character, it is a lot like method acting. So by giving him bits of myself I could sort of get into the character more.
What is more important, the style or the story?
That’s a terrible question. I think that it’s hard to separate them but I think I would say story. Having just gone through this masters program, having met so many writers who think that style is more important, I think they would agree that I’m more on the story end of it. Storyteller. I spend a lot more time on where the story is going than I do sort of how to make this paragraph pretty or this sentence pretty.
We’re at the crossroads for the term gay vs queer. I don’t know what term I should use when writing about your characters. Ordinarily, I would use the term queer, but they are book characters and you as the author use the term gay.
Call them homosexuals. (Doug laughs.) I got feedback in a class from another student. An older guy who was retired and over 65. He wrote me this really nice letter, and the very first line was, Dear Doug, and they always start, Dear Doug.
I had no idea that homosexuals played Dungeons & Dragons.*
And it was the funniest line to me.
So you use the term gay for your characters.
I think that they aren’t very politicized. They are so disconnected from a much larger gay world simply by the very nature of Cleveland. They’re not very fabulous. They don’t socialize or network in a particularly gay group or in a bigger gay scene. And I think that to me queer seems to imply an edgieness that they don’t have. I feel that they are too tame to be queer.
You wrote an extremely complex scene—the kiss-in scene.
It was the hardest thing I’ve ever written in my life.
You start with the straight objective narrator, Rich. . . I love Rich, he’s really sweet but he’s kind of stupid.
I love Rich too. He is stupid; he’s kind of a dingbat. [It is] one continuous scene, with five different point-of-view characters. Every plot thread from the book comes together in that kiss-in scene. So the first ten minutes of the scene is one character, Rich’s point of view. Then you shift to someone else, then the third person and it comes back around to some of them more than once. Then at midnight when everyone kisses, of course, you’re in Ben’s point of view because that’s where you want to be. But organizing it and orchestrating it was really, really difficult. At least the first time around. There were a couple of really ugly drafts of it.
But having written it felt great. It was kind of like in The Lord of the Rings movie when Gandalf fights the Balrog and they fly through the center of the earth and Gandalf dies on the mountainside and then comes back to life and he’s like “Now I’m Gandalf the White.” And I totally felt writing this kiss-in scene that I went through the center of the earth and died on the mountainside and came back. Now I can say “Now I’m Douglas the White” because I went through some sort of crazy ordeal in writing that scene.
Hopefully finding an agent—getting this book sold and published would be amazing. Luckily one of my professors has offered to help me, as far as finding an agent and publisher. So that’s really nice to have that support. My Professor asked me what I wanted out of my writing, did I want fame, or money, or awards? I told him I wanted groupies.
Doug Henderson went to Kent State and majored in creative writing. He then received his MFA in creative writing at USF. He has done workshops at the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto. He has read at LitQuake’s emerging writers, he has also read at the MFA mixer, and the MFA mixer 2.0. He has read multiple times at USF’s word night. And he would really like to read at Radar.
Doug lives in San Francisco with his fiance, Chuck, a scientist, where they recently hosted a Dungeons & Dragons game.
Watch Doug Henderson reading “Advice for Children of Non-Human Parents” at Litquake, 2011.
* (At USF in the Masters class, where he was workshopping his novel).