November 21, 2010

STRANGER: Kyle Michel Sullivan
LOCATION: Heartland Brewery, 350 5th Avenue, New York City
THEME: Words with a writer

“This is going to sound somewhat psychotic.”

Probably not the best combination of words you want to hear roll off the tongue of a stranger. But somehow Kyle Michel Sullivan was able to say them without putting me at unease. And by way of full disclosure, he was prefacing his explanation of how he gets inspiration for the novels that he writes, some of them tending to be rather controversial. One of his fiction books has “gotten me into trouble a few times,” he said with a smirk. Here’s why: The title is “How To Rape A Straight Guy.”

Kyle contacted me through the site (you should too!) to arrange dinner. Only problem is he lives in Buffalo, New York, and I had no plans to be there anytime soon.

But as kismet would have it one of my good friends from England said he’d be in Manhattan for his birthday in late November. So it was that Kyle and I managed to arrange a dinner at the Heartland Brewery, a chain restaurant with a few locations dotted around the Big Apple.

Kyle chose the restaurant’s Empire State Building location, and it was a good idea. That monument of a building is always impressive no matter how many times I’ve passed by it or gone to the top. Plus, it was only a few blocks from where I was staying with my friend, so the location appealed to the cheapskate in me because I didn’t have to pay for a taxi.

After a few minutes of waiting for a table we were shown to one looking out onto the lobby of the Empire State Building. The tables were well spaced out and although the music in the restaurant was irritatingly distracting, conversation was still possible.

We scanned the menu — basic pub fare — and then ordered a couple of drinks, a beer for Kyle, a white wine for me, while we waited for our food. As I sipped on my Pinot Grigio, I asked Kyle for his life history before he launched into telling me about being a writer.

Kyle was an “Air Force brat” meaning his father’s work in the military led to a lot of moving from state to state during his formative years. He’s lived in London, Nevada, North Dakota, Hawaii, and Missouri but spent the most time being raised in Texas. That’s where most of his family is from and where many of them live to this day.

He went to college in San Antonio, Texas, and graduate school in Austin, studying communication and film, and started out writing screenplays. “Nobody wanted them,” he said. “I did well in script competitions and I would get this close to selling something but something would always come up.”

As would become clear during dinner, Kyle is no fan of Texas, largely because of its conservative politics. It’s also why he doesn’t live there. “I’ve always been a liberal, but being away from Texas made me even more of a liberal. Now when I go back to Texas they think I’m Joseph Stalin.”

Kyle, who is gay, also said it was tough growing up in the state because of his sexuality. “For a long time I was in the closet simply because it was illegal in Texas.” Until just a few years ago state laws prohibited gay sex, with the threat of jail time for violations. Kyle told me stories of Texas policemen failing to act on cases of gay bashing in the state, and what he saw as a general ill-treatment of homosexual people, something that would ultimately inform his writing.

After graduating he worked in Houston on industrial and training films, but “got sick of that and moved out to Los Angeles.” His first job in film was doing storyboards — a series of images that outline plans for how to shoot a movie — for a “really cheesy” film called “The Exterminator.” Unfortunately the experience soured Kyle on the moviemaking process. “The director thought he was doing ‘Citizen Kane’ but he was doing a straight-to-video type of movie,” and ended up redoing much of Kyle’s work on the movie. But he still ended up getting a credit for his efforts.

“Initially I thought I wanted to direct. I liked storyboards and using them for directing, because that’s what Alfred Hitchcock did. He worked out his films on storyboards first. He said he never looked through the eye of a camera because he’d already done all his creative work. I thought that was really cool,” but the actual experience of storyboarding in Hollywood turned him off the idea.

“Step-by-step, the writing started taking over,” Kyle said.

Kyle is critical of most modern films and their dependency on the three-act structure, in which characters face a series of neatly timed problems all ending in a happy conclusion. Kyle said that when he would write screenplays he’d let the story take charge, rather than try and shoehorn a story into a three-act format. He was once part of a writers’ group in Los Angeles, and they didn’t want a two-act script he’d written because it didn’t fit the traditional screenplay structure. “That was when I started moving away from screenplays and into books,” he said.

“Part of the reason my scripts don’t sell is that they don’t follow the format. I can’t diss my characters like that, I like to let the characters decide what the story’s going to be and where it’s going to go. When they do, it all fits together and I can’t change it. Sometimes it means that it just doesn’t work for somebody who wants something that’s easy to understand,” Kyle said.

Our rather brusque waiter took over the conversation at this point, seemingly springing up out of nowhere to set down the starter, a plate of mozzarella sticks.

Told you it was basic pub fare. But for $8.50 it was a pretty generous portion and the batter on the sticks was surprisingly tasty, with a bit of a kick to it. The marinara sauce was so-so, but I wasn’t expecting fine dining and it definitely hit the proverbial spot.

As I polished off the plate — Kyle only had one stick — he started to describe his creative writing process, and that’s where the “psychotic” quote came up.

Kyle said, “This is going to sound somewhat psychotic but characters started talking to me, and that basically is how I write. Characters come up and tap me on the side of the head and say they want me to write their story. People give me really strange looks when I tell them that.”

I’ll admit it seemed like a slightly odd description, but Kyle has a relaxed way of speaking and comes across as a mild-mannered fellow, so I asked him to continue.

“It works a number of different ways. If I come up with a story idea or I grab one out of the ether, then I have to find the character to tell me what it’s going to be about. Sometimes I think this one’s going to be the person leading it and I’m surprised that it’s someone else. I have to wait until they start talking to me,” Kyle said. “It’s not a case of when they talk to me, but when it starts to feel comfortable.”

Kyle said that the protagonist of his controversial book “How To Rape A Straight Guy” started talking to him and led him through the story.

Written in the first person from the perspective of an ex-con named Curt, the book is mercifully not a factual how-to guide but instead a tale of social injustice — albeit it with what Kyle described as “very graphic sexual content.”

“What surprises people is that the book is also very hopeful

“It’s a very political book,” Kyle said, adding that he was “very angry” when he wrote it. That anger stemmed from seeing photos of two young men in Iran who were hanged for being gay. Kyle’s outrage at that intolerance “radicalized me,” he said. So he set out to write a book covering a number of big issues: sexuality, the legal system, social justice (or injustice) and more.

Kyle described the book’s plot. Curt is a heterosexual who was jailed for drug offenses, and in jail learns to use the rape of a man as a form of revenge against the injustice he feels done to him. When he gets out of jail he fails to find decent work and starts hustling men to pay him for sex. He ends up bragging to two men that he can force a man to have sex, and they bet him a lot of money that he can’t. Things spiral out of control and there is a “very violent ending,” Kyle said.

“What surprises people is, it’s also hopeful” despite the ending, Kyle said. “Curt acknowledges that he screwed himself up. So the whole title is basically about he raped himself, screwed himself out of everything, the state screwed him out of things, society screwed him out of things, the justice system screwed him out of things. He thought the best way to get back at people was to do the same thing and he realizes that, no, it didn’t work. All it did was make things worst.”

How did he get a publisher for a book with the title “How To Rape A Straight Guy”?

Kyle sent the book out to various publishers and found an interested party, but they wanted a title change. He thought about it and tried some new titles but “it wasn’t working. Just to add to my psychosis, the lead character Curt wasn’t happy. He said, ‘Dude, it either is or it isn’t.’ And so I told the publisher, ‘I understand if you don’t want to publish it as is, but I can’t change the title.’”

The publisher eventually went ahead and released it with the original title intact, and Kyle said the novel is now the company’s number two bestseller.

“Immoral morality tales

Other entries in Kyle’s bibliography also have a political theme. He wrote “Porno Manifesto” about a man who is gay bashed but the police don’t do anything to help, and try to protect one of the assailants because his father is a judge. The victim “finds out and exacts his own revenge and finds out in doing so he’s hurting innocent people as well,” Kyle said.

Continuing with the themes of attack and revenge, Kyle also wrote “Bobby Carapisi,” which is told from the viewpoint of two men who are raped. One is straight and has a family and a high-profile job as a pitcher for a baseball team, the other has none of those things and is left to struggle alone. “All the books have very intense sexual content but the story in them is basically very political. One of the reviewers on Amazon called them ‘immoral morality tales.’ I like that,” Kyle said.

Kyle is taking a temporary break from serious writing to take part in National Novel Writing Month, which challenges authors to write a 50,000-word novel within 30 days, something that lets him a more relaxed approach to writing. He’s taken an old story about an author who goes up to a cabin to write and gets caught up in political intrigue, but adapted it to modern times, and made the character gay. “The whole thing is a combination of farce, drama and comedy” and a break from an upcoming Irish novel Kyle’s writing, he said.

Kyle’s demeanor seemed to change ever so slightly as he transitioned from telling me about his previous controversial books, with their themes of revenge and injustice, to the Irish novel, which he described as having broader themes. But before he could tell more me about that upcoming book, our waiter with the abrupt manners was back, as personable as a cranky robot. If robot had emotions.

By virtue of its location Heartland Brewery is very busy, but I think a little more attention to the customers would go a long way. The service wasn’t rude, it was just very cold and too quick, the main course coming out while the starter of mozzarella sticks was on the table.

Kyle went for the $15.95 fish and chips, served with fries and tartar sauce.

I thought about ordering the same dish, but demurred.

While I love a lot of things about living in America, good fish and chips isn’t one of those things. Despite sampling some allegedly stellar efforts at making the dish in Virginia, Los Angeles and Washington D.C., I’ve always been disappointed. Especially growing up devouring the best fish and chips in the world from the puntastically named Fryday’s in Anlaby, a small town back in north England. To misappropriate a lyric from that irritating bald Irish creature Sinead O’Connor, nothing compares to Frydays. But Kyle said he enjoyed his food, so that’s good.

I opted for a $24.50 Buffalo strip steak.

I had plans to get drinks for a friend’s birthday celebration later that night and thought steak would be a better stomach lining to soak up the inevitable alcoholic over-consumption to follow. The steak was tender, the Jack Daniels sauce was delicious, and the mashed potatoes were incredibly well done — light and creamy, and not microwave-zapped.

As I made my way through my main course, Kyle told me how his upcoming novel set in Ireland will see him “changing directions completely.”

It’s set in Londonderry and follows the life of a young, straight Irish Catholic called Brendan coming of age between the tumultuous years of 1966 and 1981, a “very intense time” in the nation’s history, Kyle said. Because a lot of the terrain is unfamiliar to him the project “requires a lot of research. It’s taken a year to get to the point where I felt comfortable enough to write.”

Again his character talked to him and helped shape the story. Initially Kyle was going to have Brendan be an architect and come up with a “big metaphor about him wanting to rebuild in the face of all this destruction” associated with the Irish republican movement. “But it would never work or come together, Brendan wouldn’t talk to me.”

So Kyle took a holiday to Ireland. One night walking back through the countryside to his hotel, Brendan “finally started talking and said, ‘You’ve got me all wrong. I’m not an architect, I’m a mechanic, all I want is a nice life, that’s it, I’m not out to go to college, I don’t need college, I work with my hands. I want to get married, I want to have kids, that’s all there is to me. Don’t give me more than that,’” Kyle said. From there the plot fell into place.

In his spare time Kyle also likes to update his two blogs, one focusing on his writing and other interests, the other (adults-only link) far more “angry” and political, he said. Repeatedly during dinner he’d bring up public events he sees as major social injustices, and it seems his liberal political convictions drive him not just in writing but his general approach to life.

For example, he told me that the publisher of his books apparently knows the Bush family and offered to introduce Kyle to former President George W. Bush. “I thought about it for five seconds and said ‘no.’ I’d want to spit on Bush, and then I’d be in jail for the rest of my life,” he said.

Republicans are one big target for Kyle, but a perceived lack of American culture also bothers him. “It seems most American culture these days is about the depth of this knife,” he said, holding up one of Heartland Brewery’s thin cutting devices. “People seem to think that nothing really matters as long as they have their car and their wide-screen television. All else is superfluous. There’s a lot of that going around. You don’t see as much of that in Europe.”

Kyle therefore uses his books as a way to express his outrage at a lack of culture, at injustice, and other things that he sees with failings in today’s world. And he’s committed to himself to at least put pen to paper, or finger to keyboard, once a day to try and express his thoughts through words.

No matter how busy his days get from work, travel or hobbies, there is one constant in Kyle’s life. Every day he makes sure he writes something. “I got in the habit years and years ago of writing every day. If I don’t, I feel like I haven’t done anything,” he said.

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