By Ross Forman
After Gerard Wozek wrote a couple of short pieces for an anthology published a few years ago, a New York-based editor, Michael Luongo, read his work and was impressed.
Luongo contacted Wozek, a Chicago native and local literature professor, to see if Wozek ever considered doing a book of short travel stories. No, Wozek said, 'but what a great idea.'
And so was born Wozek's toughest literary adventure. Wozek's Postcards From Heartthrob Town: A Gay Man's Travel Tales was released earlier this year by Haworth Press, Southern Tier Editions.
Wozek examines the link between geographical locale and the compass of his own heart. A mix of personal memoirs and fiction, the book contains 19 compelling, poignant short stories that serve as both a travelogue of various locations and a guide to the interior life of a man searching for meaning in the world, redefining travel as both an inner pilgrimage and as a sensuous trek across the globe.
'The best part of the book … well, I tend to like the pieces that were written last the best,' said Wozek, 47, who teaches at Robert Morris College in Chicago and lives in suburban Naperville. 'A lot of the stories were published elsewhere. The editor collected [ the stories ] and put them together. I have a fondness for all of the stories, but, for some reason, the stories that are new, I tend to like them better.'
About 50 percent of Postcards consists of Wozek's memoirs, while the other half is fiction. All destinations are places he's been to; some situations are not his personal experiences.
Wozek, author of the poetry collection Dervish ( Gival Press, 2001 ) , has compiled these emotional short stories that are sojourns to emotional and geographical destinations. He meanders through the desolate plains of his hometown in the Midwest or treks through the lurid trappings of underground Paris, all with a poet's eye for detail. Wozek's stories illustrate the dislocation of the heart and the hunger of the erotic body as it transits through varied frontiers. He tells of a cryptic encounter with a healer in Oaxaca, Mexico; a series of sensual exchanges with a provocative stranger in Vienna, Austria; and a spiritual pilgrimage to the top of Mount Brandon in Ireland.
'I wanted to write a book that looked at travel from a gay perspective, and tried to look at what are the unique characteristics to gay men in particular who travel and what are they looking for,' Wozek said. 'One theme that seemed to emerge is, home. Are we always fleeing home? Are we escaping from home? And I wanted to look at how home that impacts gay men.
'Traveling is really important because it's not just about seeing other places; it's really about encountering yourself in different situations.'
Despite the title, and the author himself being gay, Wozek is convinced the book will expand beyond the LGBT community. 'I've had straight people read the book, and they tell me that there are universal themes in the book that they can relate to as well,' he said.
Wozek, who attended West Aurora High School and then Loyola University and eventually received his Master's degree from DePaul University, said his favorite travel destination is Paris, where he lived and taught English for just over a year. 'I have a lot of fond memories of Paris,' he said. 'There's something about Paris that really resonates with me, that really captures something in me.'
Some of the book's characters are traveling with companions, much the way Wozek has, at times, traveled with companions.
'Hopefully, through this book, you can get a better idea of home—why we leave home and what we're looking for when we cross borders. What is it we're really seeking when we get on a plane and go to a different country?' Wozek said.
So why is the collection called 'Postcards from Heartthrob Town?'
'The title of the collection is derived from the second story in the collection,' he said. 'That story revolves around a young boy who is just becoming aware of his queerness. Within the plot of that particular story, the boy, growing up in the late 1960s, creates actual 'postcards' for himself, fashioned from cut-outs from magazines. He pretends that the postcards have been sent to him from 'Heartthrob Town,' or from the men in popular culture with whom he wishes he could have an encounter with: Elton John, Simon and Garfunkel, Marlon Brando, Bobby Sherman [ and ] Davy Jones as well as 'beefcake' muscle posers such as Armando Vega, Steve Reeves and Jack LaLanne.'