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First-time novelists Gregory G. Allen and Kergan Edwards-Stout have a lot in common. Both are openly gay, both published their books through small presses, and in their debut novels, both write movingly about AIDS, a topic which today seems to be shrouded in silence. Suddenly, they've found themselves to be competitors too, as Edwards-Stout's Songs for the New Depression and Allen's Well With My Soul battle it out in the LGBT short list for the 2011 Indie Lit Awards. The authors sat down recently to chat about their commonalities and differences as well as the hovering specter of AIDS in the gay community.
Kergan Edwards-Stout: Greg, thanks so much for taking the time to chat. I'm sure you've found the buzz about your novel Well With My Soul very gratifying.
Gregory G. Allen: It has been an amazing ride! I'm overwhelmed by the comments of readers, and then coming across you and your great reviews led me to purchase Songs for the New Depression, which completely blew me away.
Edwards-Stout: Thanks so much! Like you, while the reviews have been nice, more than anything, I appreciate the notes I've gotten from readers. When someone says something like "Your book touched my soul," that really resonates with me.
Allen: I couldn't agree more.
Edwards-Stout: Both of our novels touch on HIV/AIDS, while it isn't the central storyline in either. How did your story originate?
Allen: I wanted to deal with whether or not you could "pray the gay away," long before that phrase became so prevalent. Well With My Soul takes place in New York City in the late 1970s through the '90s, which meant dealing with the drugs, sex, and the reality of that time. I couldn't tell the story of an up-and-coming male model without discussing what HIV/AIDS was doing to our community. In the late '80s, I moved to New York and remember attending memorials every other week. It was an awful time, but one that shouldn't be forgotten. What made you write your book?
Edwards-Stout: I had a partner who died in 1995, and Songs for the New Depression was inspired by him and other friends I lost. It is set just before the introduction of the HIV cocktail and tells the story of a man -- a lost soul -- who is dying and trying to find redemption. The book goes back in time, peeling back the layers to reveal his former innocence.
Allen: Why do you think people are still reluctant to address HIV and AIDS?
Edwards-Stout: Maybe it's just me, but I've found many in the community to be ambivalent about almost everything. Even during our Prop. 8 rallies where I live, in Orange County, Calif., attendance was low. But with AIDS, I feel as if that silence around it, and our community's unwillingness to explore and acknowledge it, further perpetuates the lie that who we are and what we do are somehow shameful.
Edwards-Stout: A few months after my partner Shane died, the protease inhibitors hit the news, and this guy came up to me and said, "It's too bad Shane wasn't strong enough to hang on." As if surviving HIV has anything to do with willpower. Ironically, that same guy died a little over a year ago, as his body had become resistant to the drugs. People are still dying, just more quietly.
Allen: I know. A few years back I went to a friend's funeral and it just sort of hit me: It does still kill. Oddly enough, recently I've read three other books that deal with AIDS.
Edwards-Stout: But while both of our books incorporate HIV/AIDS, I think our novels are much more universal than that.
Allen: That's true. I was told by many publishers that in our current economic state, my "depressing story" wasn't a viable commodity. So I went with a smaller press, which was willing to take risk on work that isn't mainstream commercial. Unfortunately, the downside of going the indie route was learning the hard way that no magic bullet can get an indie book into The New York Times.
Edwards-Stout: What I liked about going the indie route was having greater control over the work. What ended up on the page was entirely my call. But promoting the book has been a challenge. Like you, unless it's mainstream and published by a bigger press, it's hard to get people interested.
Allen: But even with traditional publishers, authors must do their own marketing. Social media has been an amazing way to meet other authors, as well as bloggers willing to review and interview independent authors.
Edwards-Stout: One of the best parts of this experience has been in meeting you as well as other cool writers. I've been surprised at how supportive everyone is, especially as we are technically competitors.
Allen: You and I both come from entertainment, where competition is fierce. In this field, the pie is larger and we can all have a slice. Readers can read both our books --
Edwards-Stout: And perhaps discover another author because of a similar book they enjoyed.
Allen: Exactly. But if it comes down to an awards contest --
Edwards-Stout: [Laughing] You are going down!
Allen: We'll rumble like West Side Story.
Edwards-Stout: How about we just say loser picks up the bar tab?
Kergan Edwards-Stout and Gregory G. Allen will both be signing copies of their novels at the Rainbow Book Fair on March 24, from 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center in New York City.