Paul Burston is the author of several books, including the critically-acclaimed novels Shameless, Star People, and Lover & Losers, which was shortlisted or the Stonewall Award. His essay collection, What Are You looking At, explored gay cinephilia.
A journalist and broadcaster, his work has appeared in The Times, The Guardian, Time Out and on Channel 4. He is a frequent contributor to TV and radio.
Named one of the 1001 most influential gay people in Britain by The Independent in 2007, Paul’s new novel The Gay Divorcee will be published by LittleBown in May 2009.
His website is www.PaulBurston.com.
Paul was also on the judging panel of the 2008 Outrate Online Short Film Festival, and he spoke with me in October 2008.
MARK ADNUM: What do you think of contemporary gay-themed films?
PAUL BURSTON: Well I was and still am a huge fan of Brokeback Mountain, if only because it starred two Hollywood leading men you might actually want to fuck. Seriously though, it was a powerful film, and probably helped a lot of people.
I wish there’d been films like that when I was coming out. As for the state of gay film generally, I think gay culture as a whole is going through a period of complacency. There doesn’t appear to be anything that needs saying, especially in the UK where we’ve won so many legal battles. Of course the truth is very different. Gay people are still murdered on our streets. Gay men are killing themselves with drugs like G and crystal. Younger gay men are contracting HIV in massive numbers. And gay stories still aren’t being told, at least not often.
MA: Gay-themed films from South and South-East Asia are generally pretty good, and free of the need to, say, feature Paris Hilton singing a song to grab some box office cash. Do you appreciate gay-themed films from this region?
PB: I do. I suspect the reason for this is that there’s a greater sense of urgency there, less of a commercial imperative, and more sense of an emerging community that needs to see itself reflected on screen in order to feel validated. I’m not knocking this. It’s very important, the whole visibility issue. People have a genuine desire to see themselves on screen. The trouble is when film-makers take that desire for granted, and produce mindless drivel in the name of gay entertainment.
MA: Alan Sinfield has stated that though we have moved, via anti-retorviral drugs, beyond AIDS, we’ve been quite reluctant to move through it. I guess this explains the reluctance of gay-themed or gay-made films that really dive into the visceral horrors of the epidemic, and why we have to look to science fiction films such as Alien 3 for our films about AIDS, as you so memorably pointed out. What do you think explains this reluctance?
PB: I agree that we haven’t moved through AIDS. I don’t think we’ve moved beyond it either. I still know of people dying as a result of the medications they’re on - not from AIDS, but from cancers. Personally, I think a bit more visceral horror might not be such a bad idea. Those of us old enough to have seen the horrors of AIDS for real won’t ever forget them. But a lot of people could benefit from being reminded that HIV is no picnic.
The ubiquity of bareback porn presents unsafe sex as just another gay lifestyle choice, no different than choosing between Calvin Klein or Aussiebum underwear. Meanwhile, safer sex education has become pretty laughable, what little of it exists. Telling people to fuck like a porn star and pull out before they come isn’t going to prevent the spread of HIV. A stark reminder of the realities of living on combination therapy might.
MA: What are your expectations of Gus Van Sant’s biopic of Harvey Milk?
PB: I’m a huge fan of the original documentary. In fact I chose it as the film I’d like people to see in 75 years time as part of the BFI’s 75th anniversary celebrations. It’s a powerful story and I’m sure Gus Van Sant will do it justice
MA: We heard a lot about Brokeback Mountain at this year’s Oscars, but next to nothing about Philip Seymour Hoffman’s win as Truman Capote. As I asked Camille Paglia, why do you think gay commentators and gay film goers insist on their big-screen representation being Marlboro Man despite this archetype having very little to do with, say, Friday afternoon drinks at G.A.Y?
PB: I thought Phillip Seymour Hoffman was fantastic in that role, and thoroughly deserved the Oscar. I suspect the reason people long for the Marlboro Man fantasy is because it’s sexy and so rarely seen. For years, gay men have always been represented as flaming queens. I have nothing against flaming queens.
I’ve been known to flame myself on the odd occasion. But not everyone feels comfortable with that stereotype, and there are a lot of gay men out there who aren’t remotely like that. They’re just less visible. The best gay drama I saw recently was an episode of The Street by Jimmy McGovern and was all about a gay builder coming to terms with his sexuality. These men exist. My stepdad is a builder and I’ve met these people in real life. You just never see them on screen.
MA: What’s your new novel about? Why did you feel a need to write about friends and acquaintances in a less-than-flattering way?
PB: The new novel is called The Gay Divorcee and it’s about a gay man who’s getting married for the second time. He was married once before - to a woman. Now he’s about to get married again - to a man. What he doesn’t know is that his straight past is about to come back to haunt him. It’s a gay comedy of manners, very contemporary, and very much focussed on ordinary people instead of the celebrity types who’ve dominated my last two novels. There are some familiar characters in there too.
As for writing about friends in a less than flattering way, I’m not sure what you mean. Although I partly base characters on people I meet, all of my books are about myself. I take great pleasure in putting the worst bits of myself into some of my characters, and then punishing them for it. It’s better than therapy, and cheaper.
MA: Are you enjoying your fourties so far?
PB: I’m a whole lot happier at 43 than I was at 23. Age brings a lot of compensations. You know yourself better. Hopefully you’ve learned to curb your worst character traits, and you care less what other people think of you. A beer belly isn’t an inevitable part of growing older, and nor is a full wallet. I could go into a long Freudian analysis of the whole ‘daddy thing’, but really if that’s what floats people’s boat and they’re not hurting anyone, who am I to judge?
Personally I feel lucky to still be around. A lot of people I knew 20 years ago aren’t.