How AIDS Changed the Landscape of Literary Gay Romance

By Sunnivie Brydum

Originally published on Advocate.com November 22 2012 4:00 AM ET

First-time novelist David De Bacco has the culinary credentials to back up his debut novel, The Sushi Chef (Kokoro Press). DeBacco has worked for some of the world’s most acclaimed chefs, including Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto, and he's the primary writer for the foodie blog Cookin' With Mama.

While De Bacco based his debut novel loosely on his own experiences coming of age in New York City in the 1990s — just as the gay populace struggled with the changing reality of the AIDS epidemic — the first-time author was also eager to snag some advice from prolific gay romance author Sedonia Guillone, author of the acclaimed White Tigers series (which is set around a hotel full of hot guys). Guillone's latest book, Fallon’s Jewel, is now available through the author's own startup Ai Press and tells the sensual story of Kenji, an amnesia-ridden bartender who falls for intergalactic police officer Jake Fallon. 

De Bacco and Guillone ruminate on the difficulty of getting gay novels published in the mainstream press, the importance of literary outlets for questioning readers, and the impact of AIDS on their works.

David De Bacco: I’m not the first writer to say it’s more difficult to get a book with gay characters published than it is to actually write one, but for me, the journey with The Sushi Chef and mainstream publishing was hair-pulling. Right when an editor was interested, the conversation would always end with, "It's a love story between two men — we just don't see a market for it." Is this the same for gay romance?

Sedonia Guillone: Well, I was fortunate because when I wrote my first gay romance in 2006, I was already published in the erotic romance genre. At that time, male-male romance was beginning to flourish with female readers, so once I wrote Danny’s Dragon, I had a ready-made audience. If you’d known about these smaller, mostly e-book publishers, you may have gotten an acceptance letter sooner. However, an erotic romance publisher would have asked you to make sure The Sushi Chef had a happy ever after. That’s what M/M romance readers want in addition to an engaging plot and lovable alpha-male characters. That would have really changed your story into something it’s not, and I really love it the way it is.

De Bacco: Thank you. I, too, didn’t want to change my book in order to fit it into a certain genre. I wanted to express my vision — my experience of life in gay New York in the early 1990s, when gay men stopped dying from AIDS and started to stay alive. I wanted to write a story about the real situations gay men encounter in a relationship. There isn’t always an HEA ending in real-life gay love affairs. Finally, the market is shifting and writers don’t have to do that, and readers who love romance specifically can get that need satisfied.

Guillone: I’m glad too because I love writing gay romance. It’s my personal vision. How I express myself in words always manifests itself in a romance between two men who are soulmates and are willing to do whatever it takes to be together because nothing else will do. Of course, add in a fair amount of hot erotic love scenes and voilà. That’s what I do.

De Bacco: [Laughs] I agree. We’re told to write from our heart and to write what we know. I must tell you, I’m impressed with Fallon’s Jewel, at how realistic the emotions and sexuality between the two men are. As you’re not a gay man, how are you able to achieve this level of empathy?

Guillone: To be honest, part of it is simply being a writer. Writers seem to have an openness that allows us to channel people of all kinds, no matter their race, gender, or sexual orientation. That said, there is also a deeply personal connection for me. My father is gay. He came out when I was 9 and moved in with the man who would be my stepfather for the next 33 years, until my stepfather’s death from AIDS. I was raised by and grew up around gay men. As an impressionable, sensitive child, I must have absorbed the concerns, experiences, and desires of the people who were most important to me.

De Bacco: Writers are like sponges. We watch, listen and observe all people and then we go home to our desk — all alone — and write about what we see, feel, and experience. My book follows the life of an aspiring writer, who makes his living as a waiter, and his relationship with a sushi chef. But this is a fictional tale that’s loosely based on my relationship in ’90s NYC — a time when the gay community was struggling with the AIDS epidemic and Madonna had just released Sex and Erotica. I’m just happy that I’m alive to write about it, because AIDS ravaged our community and in many ways we’re still recovering. I escaped the disease, but the purpose of writing the book is a result of the lessons I learned because of it.

Guillone: Well, David, you did a beautiful job. I really felt John Clute’s world. Even if I hadn’t gone through that same heart-wrenching time in my father and stepfather’s life — when people I had known as a child were simply gone — I would have experienced the poignancy and horror of it through your powerful writing. The sensitive and loving way you dealt with this period is just perfect and something so many readers will be able to relate to. You mentioned how writing the book taught you many lessons.

De Bacco: The lessons were rather simple but life-changing: how to be honest in a relationship; how to speak the truth, and to embrace the old adage — love yourself first in order to receive love from others. Having a relationship with people who live with HIV showed me how to lift myself up when life’s punches tried to knock me down. Compared to gay romance, I feel contemporary fiction allows a reader to relate more to the author because we’re pulling from real-life situations. Is it this way in gay romance, or is it as I imagine — writing from a fantasyland?

Guillone: You know, that’s actually a tough question to answer because it’s complex. There are ways in which the gay romance genre is fantasyland. I mean, in a romance-specific book, the reader knows he’s going to get an HEA, or at least a happy for now. Many of the characters in romance novels are larger than life while still being human. For example, in Fallon’s Jewel, Jake Fallon is a big, brawny, intergalactic cop, and his love interest, Kenji  — no spoilers here — has amnesia. But when we find out who he really is, wow! The beauty, however, is that these two men are in love with each other and that’s as much an important part of the story as the adventure itself.

De Bacco: You said it perfectly. One of the best parts of getting The Sushi Chef published has been getting to know you and to read your take on love. Hopefully younger readers will read our work and discover that it’s OK to be who they are and love whom they want, even if it’s an intergalactic space cop.

Guillone: Thank you so much for the kind words, David! I feel the same way. I’m so glad to know you and to have had the privilege of reading your beautiful story. What I respect about you is how strongly you live by your convictions and by the way you strive to learn and grow. I believe completely in the healing power of love and I want to share my conviction through my writing. In that regard, my stories aren’t merely escapist reading, although they can certainly serve that purpose.

De Bacco: I always enjoy chatting about love. This discussion reminds me of a favorite quote from Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited: "How good it is to sit in the shade and talk of love."

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About the Authors

David De Bacco has worked in New York, London, Tokyo, Moscow, Paris, and Milan for some of the world’s most acclaimed chefs, including "Nobu" Matsuhisa and Iron Chef Masaharu "Morimoto." David currently lives and celebrates life in Los Angeles, where he is a freelance writer for Edge Publications, a columnist on Fresh From the Farmers Market for AOL’s Patch.com, and the creator of Cookin’ With Mama, a foodie blog. The Sushi Chef is his first novel.

Sedonia Guillone is the author of more than 50 novels, novellas, and short stories, including her critically acclaimed White Tigers series about a gay men’s hotel full of hot guys set in Tokyo (Men of Tokyo: Sudden Bliss, Men of Tokyo: Sudden Surrender, et al. Total-E-Bound Publishing). In 2010 she founded Ai Press (“ai” means love in Japanese), an up-and-coming small press that publishes mostly gay romance titles. When she’s not writing, she spends her days writing deliciously naughty romances, watching kung fu and samurai films and eating chocolate. Sedonia loves to chat with readers. You can find her website and email address on her author bio page at www.sedoniaguillone.com.