Alvin Orloff, the gay author of Why Aren’t You Smiling? began writing as a teenager in the 1970s, a decade from which he says he has never fully recovered. He chats about fashion, LSD, Kathy Acker, and literature’s first bromance with Stephen Beachy, the gay man who authored the novel boneyard in collaboration with a very disturbed Amish boy, Jake Yoder, whose existence is unverified.
Orloff: One of the many things I loved about boneyard was the way it describes the Amish, a group I’ve never encountered in fiction before. Your narrator describes them as “a religious cult that believes war and electricity are evil” and mentions taboos against “permed hair, patterned cloth, and overly decorative linoleum.” Fascinating! Are there novels about the Amish that influenced you or is this familiarity from personal experience?
Beachy: Most novels about the Amish belong to one of two genres, Amish romances and mysteries set in Amish country. The only good novel about the Amish I know of is Michael Lowenthal’s Avoidance, so my familiarity comes from personal experience: My dad grew up Amish; my grandparents, many uncles, aunts, and cousins were Amish, so I spent many hours of my early childhood rolling marbles down convoluted ramps to hear their frenzied clickety-clacking sound — a major form of entertainment for Amish children.
I’m wondering what your own experiences are with groovy ’70s cults. I loved how unterrifying the cultists are in Why Aren’t You Smiling? and their odd hodgepodge of vocabulary from varied spiritual sources. Pleroma is my favorite word ever; I think Philip K. Dick used it a lot. Did you ever join a cult?
Orloff: I never joined any cults due to a combination of good sense, misanthropy, and shyness, but growing up in New Age 1970s California, I was surrounded by them. Rajneeshis, Moonies, we had ’em all. The fashion of the day was to be an earnest seeker of spiritual wisdom. This led to many people becoming rather gullible and mystically inclined, which in turn led to their joining cults. Fortunately, the era was also one of rampant flakiness and self-indulgence, which led to many people dropping out of cults.
Part of the inspiration for Why Aren’t You Smiling? came from some itinerant Jesus freaks who called a kid I knew “Little Lamb of God.” Seriously, can you think of a more off-putting thing to call a teenage boy? There is a misconception that all cults are good at recruiting and brainwashing, but actually that stuff is difficult. The Jesus freaks in my novel might aspire to culthood, but like so many hippies, they were too unfocused — i.e., stoned — to make their dreams come true.
Which brings us to the inevitable comparison: Amish versus hippies. They both hate war and modern technology (though the Amish much more so). While the Amish are Plain Folk, the hippies were Un-Plain Folk. Their households were wildly cluttered and decorated with psychedelic posters and ornate Indian fabrics. Conveying unusual physical environments in a novel is difficult. I hate spending time describing physical environments while the plot just sits there waiting to resume. Yet it must be done because so much of individual perceived reality rests on fashion and interior decorating.
Beachy: While Amish individual decorating does celebrate an aesthetic of “plainness,” there’s some overlap there too — the quilts can be quite psychedelic. When I was an undergrad in the ’80s, I had a quilt my grandmother made hanging in my dorm room so that me and all of my stoner and LSD-taking friends could hallucinate to its soothing Escheresque symmetries. Fashion and decor are certainly essential aspects of how people define themselves and others — and music, especially for the young, is a kind of fashion accessory that enters our brains. But I find the many nuances of what fashion means a difficult maze to represent, since its context is always shifting.
Why Aren’t You Smiling? is so rooted in its era that it seems like you really had to deal with it in a big way. So many of our ideas of the past are based on usually simplistic ideas about how people dressed and what that means. You do a great job of complicating the interplay of fashion with various characters developing their sense of self. Because much of boneyard represents a kind of fairy-tale reality, it skirts some of the requirements of realistic setting. Except for the Amish, whose fashion evolves at such a snail’s pace it’s a bit like they’ve stepped outside of time.