Amish, Hippies, and Queers, Oh My

Gay authors Stephen Beachy and Alvin Orloff sit down to chat about their recent novels, which tackle life with the Amish and among the counter-culture of the '70s.

BY Diane Anderson-Minshall

June 21 2012 3:26 PM ET

Boneyard Whay Arent You Smiling? x400 | advocate.comOrloff: I found the fairy-tale, outside-of-time aspects of boneyard appealing. Is that a literary device, or do the Amish, unsullied by television, computers, and i-everythings, actually perceive the world more in that mythic fashion?

Beachy: The Amish actually disapprove of stories involving magic, talking animals, and erotico-apocalyptic fantasy unless it’s, you know, the Bible. Part of the project, with all the educational, bickering footnotes from me and Judith Owsley Brown, is about demystifying the Amish. Mostly, they’re about work and theology, but they’re consistently used by the culture to represent the supposedly simpler, more innocent past that somebody imagines we should be nostalgic for — a white, agrarian, pre-feminist, and heterosexual past. They’re also used to represent an extreme that reassures us about our own supposedly more reasonable embrace of technology. Did you struggle with the question of how to represent your marginalized groups — hippies, cultists, adolescents?

Orloff: I try to portray all social groups accurately and sympathetically, whether they’re marginal or not — a task I make easy on myself by never writing about people I hate. Stories have to contain conflict, though, so rather than creating a showdown between good and bad guys, I pit the misguided against the clueless.

Writing about hippies terrified me at first because every aspect of that subculture has been reduced to a media cliché. “Har de har har, look at the people in bell-bottoms!” The focus on the countercultural style obscures the real difference between the hippie, or New Age, era and our own: They sought transcendence and community while we’re obsessed with technological geegaws and gourmet foodstuffs. The book that inspired me to tackle the era was Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? by Lorrie Moore. She is amazingly deft at describing in a fresh manner situations that have become hackneyed media tropes. My other literary model was Herman Hesse, the German author who wrote all sorts of spiritual bildungsromans in the early part of the last century. They were wildly popular in the ’70s and I ate them up as a teen. Though Hesse was deeply serious and I’m a satirist, I definitely had him in mind while writing Why Aren’t You Smiling?

Beachy: Herman Hesse is so gay. Narcissus and Goldmund is like the original homoerotic bromance, isn’t it? Actually, I suppose that’s the epic of Gilgamesh.

Orloff: Are there any queer, GLBTQQIA (or otherwise) writers who influenced or inspired boneyard?

Beachy: I’ve been describing it as a cross between Kathy Acker and the Hungarian writer Agota Kristof; I think Kathy could safely be described as queer. Kristof for her fairy-tale style that creates a sense of layers of stories overlapping each other, and Kathy for her sentences, which could really just go anywhere at any time. I definitely learned things from Rebecca Brown, especially The Terrible Girls, and from Stacey Levine that I fed into boneyard. And then Burroughs, who was such a huge influence that I can usually see the tangled threads of his influence peeking out. The novel I’m working on now is more social satire — more influenced by Roberto Bolaño, Han Ong, and Gary Indiana. What are you working on now?

Orloff: I’m writing a memoir focusing on my experiences with queer oppositional subcultures during the AIDS years, i.e., my misspent youth. Expect hilarity, terror, heartbreak, and perhaps footnotes.

About the Authors
Stephen Beachy is the author of the novel boneyard, in collaboration with a very disturbed Amish boy, Jake Yoder, whose existence is unverified. Beachy is the author of two previous novels, The Whistling Song and Distortion, and the twin novellas Some Phantom/No Time Flat. His writing has appeared in New York magazine, The New York Times Magazine, Chicago Review, Best Gay American Fiction, BOMB, and elsewhere. He teaches in the MFA in Writing program at the University of San Francisco. He can be reached through his website, www.livingjelly.com.

Alvin Orloff, a California native, began writing as a teenager in the 1970s, a decade from which he has never fully recovered. He is the author of I Married an Earthling (Manic D), a genre- and gender-bending sci-fi sendup, and Gutter Boys (Manic D), a novel of decadent romance with ghosts. Orloff is also the coauthor of The Unsinkable Bambi Lake, a transsexual showbiz memoir, and his short work has appeared in Pills, Chills, Thrills, and Heartache (Alyson) among other publications. He holds an MFA in creative writing from San Francisco State University.

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