'Conversations with S. Teri O'Type' made me laugh. Lots. But Christopher Allen's attention to detail and acerbic wit didn't just make me laugh. The author also uses his unique sense of perspective to expose his characters’ vulnerabilities and, as the novel progresses, I found myself looking back on my own life, specifically to a period around twenty years ago. I'm not sure whether you'd call this nostalgia or hindsight. It has partly to do with sharing a house at that time with, among others, a young gay man who was seriously obsessed with the 'trappings' of what it meant to be gay, but it also relates more generally to the insecurity and the worries everyone has at that age about being judged. On the surface, 'Conversations with S. Teri O'Type' is a satire that takes place over a short period of time, when the central character is in his forties, but it felt to me as if, under that surface layer, it was dealing with a longer period of time.
Kate: Is 'Conversations with S. Teri O'Type' about growing up? About how we react to how others perceive us at different stages in our lives?
Christopher: Hi, Kate! First, thank you for laughing! And thank you for reading the Conversations so closely. The story is definitely about growing up, from Curt Child to Curt Adult. Thank you for picking up on the “stages of life” theme, each represented by a particular sitcom (Friends, The Golden Girls, etc.) Curt, in his forties and gay, is still trying to figure out how to be an adult gay man, which I think is not so uncommon—especially with the current stereotype of “the gay man” bombarding his thoughts from every side.
Kate: When I'd finished 'Conversations with S. Teri O'Type' I felt that this was a story that could have been told in many ways. Can you say something about why you chose to tell this story as a satire?
Christopher: Well, I didn’t set out to write a satire. In the beginning, I just started writing the two characters who appeared. Their dialogue was like a train wreck off sorts. I spent a long time rewriting in the beginning, trying to figure out exactly what I was doing, and I’m not sure exactly when the story became a satire. Maybe after the first three Conversations? It was at this point I knew I needed Teri, the all-knowing gayru, to teach Curt, a clueless good-old boy, how to be gay so that society would know it before he opened his mouth.
Kate: Are there other satires that inspired you? If so, why?
Christopher: I’m going to say that the works of Twain, Dickens, Huxley and Palahniuk have informed my writing but I don’t think in ways that I would have been conscious of if you hadn’t asked the question. I’m much more conscious of satire, parody and social commentary in the situation comedies that I poke “fun” at in the Conversations, especially in adult cartoons like The Simpsons. I’m a big fan of The Simpsons because I see something more than comedy there; I see a purpose: to hold a mirror up to the American family.
Kate: Towards the end of the novel your central character says: The whole purpose of these lessons in Greater Gayness was to make me gay enough so that people would know it without my having to say it.
I'm fascinated by this line. I think it's very poignant and says so much, not just about gayness, but about our fear of having to explain who we are and how much more accepted we feel when we don't have to explain ourselves. In this particular case, it also relates to the central character's fear about coming out as gay to his parents. Can you say something about the feelings behind this line and why you chose it?
Christopher: I’m so glad you’ve grabbed this line. It is the central theme. Teri is trying to make Curt’s life easier, trying to teach him the trappings of gayness so that the world can “place” him, so that Curt will know his place in the world—in essence so that Curt will assume the role expected of him by society and stop being so confusing. In Curt’s mixed-up head, he thinks his identity is his gayness. Being “Curt” isn’t enough.
Kate: Any thoughts on the fear of being 'normal'? Fear of mediocrity is a strong theme in 'Conversations with S. Teri O'Type', while, of course, the central character's alter ego is actually setting up an alternative 'normal' with every gesture he makes.
Christopher: I think Curt’s is the fear of being invisible, of being overlooked or misunderstood. His desires in life are quite normal. He just wants a person who’ll rub his feet and grow old and fat with him. He wants family and intimacy—the two things Teri doesn’t want for Curt. Teri wants Curt’s new normal to be the suicidally depressed life of the party, the comic relief for the ever-present audience.
Kate: Last but not least, an expat question: Did you find it easier to write the book living at a distance from the country it depicts?
Christopher: Great question. Of course I have no way of knowing how the book would have turned out if I’d stayed in the US, but I’m going to say yes. Living abroad gives one a new—possibly more skeptical?—point of view of one’s own country. It is an American story. This has often occurred to me. It takes place in NYC and parodies/satirizes our sitcom culture. There are fleeting references to Great Britain, but the satire is 99% Gay in the USA.
Kate: Thanks for the interview, Christopher. It's been lovely to find out a little bit more about your novel and how it came about.
You can buy 'Conversations with S. Teri O'Type' here.