[ Editor's note: Authors Kergan Edwards-Stout ( Songs for the New Depression ) and Gregory G. Allen ( Well With My Soul ) both had their debut novels short-listed for the 2011 Independent Literary Awards. Recently, the writers met in person at the Rainbow Book Fair in New York City, where they greeted fans, performed readings, and signed copies of their novels. Though their books tell very different stories, both are set in the past, use musical cues to help tell their tales, and touch on many common themes: gay identity, HIV/AIDS, and how poor self-esteem can lead to unforeseen consequences. What follows is a conversation between the authors. ]
Gregory G. Allen: It was wonderful to see all the different LGBT authors at the Book Fair, as well as all the avid readers.
Kergan Edwards-Stout: To me, it showed that people are still hungry for stories that reflect their individual experiences.
Allen: I loved reading and recommending your book. The title alone was so clever, how you tied it in to the Divine Miss M.
Edwards-Stout: The lead character in my book, Gabriel, is a Bette Midler fanatic, and I use her 1976 album, Songs for the New Depression, to help chart his journey. Plus, as part of his story is his battle with AIDS, I loved how the title echoes that element. And music plays a role in your book, Well With My Soul, also. How did that come about?
Allen: Music has always been a huge part of my lifethe book title is based on a Christian hymn. To help set the 15-year span of the book, songs show up to take the reader to a particular moment in time or to aid in what is happening in that chapter. I set it in the 'not-so-distant past', to show what our country was going through in the late '70s through the '90s in New York City. What was your inspiration?
Edwards-Stout: Writing it was a way to honor my partner, Shane Sawick, who died in 1995, as well as other friends I lost. I tried to capture that moment in time as I remember it with a bit of their humanity, humor, sexuality, and longings on the page.
Allen: It wouldn't be honest to write about that time period without discussing AIDS. What I liked about your story is that it does not turn your protagonist into a martyr.
Edwards-Stout: Too often, the temptation is to write about those we've lost in sepia tones, but I think we both found interesting ways to create characters that are likable, yet still flawedwhich makes them all the more interesting.
Allen: How do the locations dictate how you told your story?
Edwards-Stout: Coming of age in West Hollywood definitely informed my character's experience, but that experience is just as relevant in other large cities, such as Chicago or New York. I think, for almost any gay person, you deal with the question of "How do I fit in? Where is my tribe?" It can be disorienting to live in such a big city and yet feel utterly alone.
Allen: My book starts in Tennessee, which captured a certain tone for the book, and then it shifted by taking the lead characters to a big city. I chose New York as I'd lived there since the late '80s and wanted to share parts of the city that I knew.
Edwards-Stout: That New York experience seemed very real and vivid on the page, which is very hard to do …
Allen: Thank you! In your book, you use a really great technique, telling it out of sequence. Was there a reason for that?
Edwards-Stout: Well, in my book, it's no secret that the lead character of Gabriel dies. So the question became, how do you best tell a story where everyone knows how it ends? If you tell it chronologically, it becomes a TV movie of the week, with a sad ending. I wanted to peel back the layers, like an onion, to discover what was at his core, which leads to some dramatic choices. What led you to choose your structure?
Allen: I chose first person narrative, split between two characters, two brothers, so I could show different sides to the same issue.
Edwards-Stout: Your book was so interesting, tackling the lives of two very different brothers. It was hard, reading it, and hoping that they'd make different choices than they did. Especially with one character who believed being gay isn't the best path forward.
Allen: I was swept into your book and, while I wasn't Gabe, I could not help but see myself in him. He makes a devastating choice
Edwards-Stout: Which comes down to how he feels about himself, just like your character.
Allen: It just goes to show how deeply homophobia and self-hatred can inform our decisions …
Edwards-Stout: Making it all the more important that we help readers find some path forward.
Allen: Exactly. And that is the thing about art and literature
Edwards-Stout: The stories we write can help others.
Allen: Opening hearts and changing minds. Makes you feel good about the possibilities, right?
Edwards-Stout: It certainly does.
Both Gregory G. Allen's Well With My Soul and Kergan Edwards-Stout's Songs for the New Depression are available at Amazon.com .