In writing #gods, probably my most important research material (loosely defined), given that most of the book is set in Harlem and Washington Heights (in upper Manhattan), was the neighborhood where I’ve lived for the past twenty years. I specifically live east of Broadway in the lower 160s, just north and west of an area traditionally known as Sugar Hill, which is famous for its role in the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s as the home of African-American artists and writers including Paul Robeson, Langston Hughes, Duke Ellington, and many others. Today, the neighborhood remains (demographically speaking) nonwhite, which I mention because, as a white person, I think it’s important to have an understanding of what it means (to some small extent) to be a minority in our country, and living in a nonwhite neighborhood, along with being gay, has I hope given me some perspective—or at least sensitivity—that I tried to incorporate into the book.
The other “location research” on which I relied are the many offices in which I’ve worked over the years, each one of which has been to varying degrees surreal, nightmarish, and/or hilarious in ways I tried to capture into those portions of the book set in an office.
Other research, still loosely defined: while writing #gods, I watched a LOT of television, because I believe that television characters (and—important distinction—NOT the actors who portray them) function as the true “gods” of our society, meaning they are beings who are completely ignorant to—and ambivalent about—our existence, but who offer us insight into our moral condition and values (both good and bad), and for this reason should inspire us as we think about our individual belief systems.
In terms of more “traditional research,” I read many non-fiction books on a range of subjects including CIA intelligence operations to analyses of race, gender, and sexuality in our culture, and I would especially recommend Some of Us Did Not Die by June Jordan and The Motion of Light in Water by Samuel Delany as critical (and beautiful) books that I have returned to many times for inspiration and insight on the political and creative undercurrents of our (fucked up) country.
I also read many books about the ancient Greeks and their culture, mythology, and philosophy. Plato’s Dialogues, and particularly the Symposium (and particularly the edition with commentary by Allan Bloom) were no surprise enlightening, with the following two books being the most important for my purposes:
- The Greeks and the Irrational by E.R. Dodds – this book discusses the manner in which ancient Greek society went—or, really, “devolved”—from a classical period of enlightenment, scientific advancement, and democratic representation to one in which people increasingly turned to irrational forms of belief (and rule, and violence), including the punishment of children for the crimes of their parents, payment to “oracles” in order to be cleansed of sin (“catharsis”), and similar superstitions that slowly eroded democratic institutions and scientific progress and eventually led to the collapse of what had once been one of the most advanced civilizations in the world. The parallels to contemporary society are astonishing (and alarming) and should give pause to anyone who thinks that advancement—in pretty much any way you want to define it—is a given with the passage of time.
- The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Stephen Mitchell and with an introduction by Robert Hass. Like many writers, Rilke reinterpreted the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, and this edition of his poetry offers not only a beautiful translation from the German, but also an introduction to all of Rilke’s work—and his life—by Robert Hass. This introduction, which manages to be remarkably erudite but completely unpretentious, is like talking to an old friend (who happens to be an expert on Rilke) over a few beers at a local bar. As much as Rilke’s poetry, Hass’s introduction burrowed into my thoughts and made me want to revisit Orpheus and Eurydice in a way that I hope will offer a new twist on one of the oldest myths we have.
Finally, I found this blog post by Rich Juzwiak at Gawker (R.I.P.) to be influential on my thinking to the extent that—as sometimes happens while writing a novel—it summed up in a few words something that I was trying to convey through the actions of several characters in #gods, namely the idea that (in Juzwiak’s words) “[b]elief in the implicit supremacy of man-on-man sex is the closest thing I have to faith.” I strongly agree with this characterization of faith and its connection to (gay) sex, and my hope is that this idea is something that every person (gay or not) can relate to, meaning that all of us have the ability to define our own faith in very individualized terms rather than have it dictated to us by institutions that, more often than not, have ulterior motives in wanting us to act (or believe) in a manner that suits their purposes more than our own. In this way, faith—particularly when it draws on actions (such as gay sex) that are largely despised and restricted by those in power—can become an important component of collective strength and political resistance.
Matthew Gallaway is the author of The Metropolis Case, which was praised by the New York Times for being “driven by exuberance and morbidity, fatalism and erotic energy.” He lives in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City with his partner and four cats. Previously he worked as a record-store clerk while earning a law degree from NYU and was a member of the indie rock band Saturnine.