In today’s digital world, many book authors take pains to ensure that their work is perceived to be relevant for a generation raised on endlessly streaming, quickly digestible narrative content.
Jim Provenzano, whose latest novel, “Now I’m Here,” is drawn from his own experiences growing up as a gay teen in rural Ohio, is not one of those authors.
“I’m fine being an old fogey who’s still talking about the 1970s and ‘80s,” he says. “I’m not actively seeking out that audience. If they find me, that’s great, but I’m trying to tell a story that took place before all that.”
Provenzano, who will be reading from “Now I’m Here” on Oct. 12 at West Hollywood’s Book Soup, has built a following with his gay-centric novels, starting with “PINS,” his 1999 book about gay high school wrestlers which found its way onto college reading lists and held its place on the gay best-seller list well into the following year. His biggest success came with 2011’s “Every Time I Think of You,” which won the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Romance. Its 2014 sequel, “Message of Love,” was a finalist for the same prize.
With his new book, he has turned away – at least somewhat – from the genre that brought him those accolades.
“That’s a genre where there’s no reality,” he says. “There’s no reference to anything that puts it in real time and space, and I wanted to go back to that real-world context. So, this one looks and feels like a romance, but the real world enters into it and it becomes historical literature.”
Set in a fictional Ohio town like the one Provenzano grew up in himself, “Now I’m Here” is the story of Joshua and David, two teenagers who fall in love in 1978. Their passionate affair grows into a life together in the face of religious intolerance, “rehabilitation therapy,” and – perhaps most significantly – the heartbreak of AIDS.
Provenzano knows he may be alienating some of his fans, but he’s willing to take that chance.
“Some of the readers who liked my last two books – they’re probably going to be upset. I’m sorry, but this is the actual gay experience. This is not about happy gays, and romances. I fell into that category for a while, and I did well by it, but this time I’m writing for older gay men who survived the AIDS crisis.”
“I’m micro-marketing,” he admits. “It might be a downfall for me, but this one is all for the people who ‘get it.’”
He balks at the suggestion that another story about AIDS – whether by him or by anyone else – is unnecessary.
“I’m sorry, but it was a huge pandemic and it’s been shunted to the sidelines. It’s like saying, ‘We don’t need another Vietnam novel, or another Civil Rights Era novel.’ Well we do need those things, actually.”
“I’m never going to not write about it,” he adds.
“Now I’m Here” also deals with religious intolerance, another subject that remains a continuing source of struggle for the gay community – especially in the small towns of rural America.
“Where I was raised in Ashland, Ohio,” he says, “there were churches everywhere – but I never got into it.” He adds, only half-joking, “I would have crushes on boys, and if they asked me to church I would say, ‘Sure! But that was the extent of my involvement.”
Even so, religion was an inescapable influence. “They were all around us,” he says. “In the book there’s a lot of that – you can see Christian teenagers influencing things that go on in the story, there’s a strange and eccentric radio preacher who gets into the lives of the kids. It’s woven into the book because it was woven into the culture I grew up in then.”
He’s adamant, however, that no parallels should be inferred with the institutionalized religious bigotry being promoted today.
“Now, of course, they’re so disgustingly overbearing – I don’t want to compare it to now, because it’s so horrifying what they’re doing in the name of politics.”
There is one element of the book, however, that the author hopes will resonate with today’s culture – the subject of music, and that of one certain band, in particular.
The music of Queen plays a significant role for Provenzano, both in his life and in the book. The two young protagonists have their first date at a Queen concert, and the band’s music is a continual thread throughout their story. Even the title is taken directly from a Queen song.
“I’ve been thinking about this novel for 23 years, and it started and stopped, and started and stopped – but when the Queen movie was announced, I really got a kick in the butt,” he says.
He adds, with a laugh, “I have to make sure people know I didn’t just jump in on this, I’ve really been working on it for years!”
He’s quick to point out that capitalizing on a coincidence of timing with “Bohemian Rhapsody” (which releases early in November) is not the only reason he’s happy about the inclusion of Queen in his book.
“At the first reading we had, in San Francisco, the Q&A session turned into people communing about what it meant to have had a front man for one of the greatest rock bands on earth who flaunted his gayness, who joked about it,” he says.
“That’s what resonates, I think.”
It’s here that he concedes at least some desire to reach the younger crowd. “Even if you’re not going to read the novel,” he says, “at least listen to this music. Get an idea that things happened in a time before that were fabulous, and that were different. That’s what the book is for me, it’s sharing a lived experience, a different life that probably doesn’t exist for a lot of people anymore.”
Apart from that, is there anything else he hopes the modern generation of gay readers will get out of “Now I’m Here?”
“Yes,” he says. “A good story.”
Jim Provenzano will sign, discuss, and read from “Now I’m Here” at Book Soup (8818 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood) on Oct. 12 at 7 p.m. Also appearing will be singer-composer Dudley Saunders, who will perform acoustic versions of Queen songs.