In Brothers published by Bold Strokes Books, protagonist Jamus back-burners his gay life to raise his infant brother after their parents die in a car wreck. Intrigued by the concept and by the book as I read it, I wanted to ask author Ralph Josiah Bardsley more about the lives of the very real characters he created.
Question: Main protagonist Jamus puts his limited gay romantic life in the closet to raise his toddler brother after their parents are killed. I might say he made a good decision, a responsible one, regarding raising his brother, but a wasteful one when he put being gay in the closet to do it. To what extent is he responding to his church-going South Boston Irish Catholicism? Has he internalized anti-gay mores that prevent him from seeing playing “dad” to a young boy as inconsistent with bringing a man, or men, to bed in his house?
Answer: I love this question – it gets right to the heart of who Jamus is and why he makes the choices he does in his personal life.
When I set out to write Brothers, I wanted to create a story about family – the families we come from and the ones we build for ourselves. Jamus, as a character, is riddled with guilt about a lot of things – about his family’s death, about his work, but mostly about if he is doing a good enough job raising his younger brother. And this guilt manifests itself as he is taking care of his brother and as he is starting to get to know Sean. Jamus tries to balance filling the role of a parent with maintaining the memory of Nick’s / their real parents. What Jamus doesn’t seem to be able to balance well is his own needs. I don’t think Jamus’ reluctance to bring home men – or later in the book, to be up front and honest with Nick about his new relationship with Sean – is reflection of internalized anti-gay mores as much as it is about Jamus’ fear of losing focus on the most important thing in his life – his brother.
Throughout the book Jamus makes a point of being open with this brother about who he is. I think the guilt would be there regardless of Jamus’ sexuality.
Question: Jamus blames himself for his parents’ death because they were visiting from Boston for his college graduation at the time of the fatal car wreck on Long Island. This influenced the novels Jamus wrote, in which he made the protagonist criminally negligent in a similar car wreck. He also made his protagonist a serious player in the New York gay sex and drug culture in which Jamus was more of a dabbler. Yet the novels seemed to come from within Jamus, almost beyond his control. Is guilt about hidden homosexuality at work? If his parents had lived, when would Jamus have told them he was gay? If Jamus thinks his parents might have taken the news well, does he also think they would have been responding naively, abstractly, to something short of his actual active New York sex life?
Answer: You are right on the money with the guilt issue – it is central to Jamus’ character. It’s why he cannot move on for so long. I don’t know when Jamus would have told his parents he was gay – but I think he considers that a lot throughout his adult life. I think it prompts him to be open with Nick about his sexuality from an early age. This is speculation, but I think even if his parents had lived and he had come out to them, he probably wouldn’t have shared much about his nightlife with them.
Question: Nick blames his guardian brother for a few things, one being hiding the adult-content books he wrote. Two questions: First, did Jamus tell Nick as a boy about sex, about the role sex would play in Nick’s life? How old would you guess Nick was when Jamus had this talk with him, if Jamus had the talk? Second, when do you think Jamus would have shared one of his books with Nick if Nick hadn’t found his way to them on his own? In a related matter, I thought it unique that Jamus didn’t fight Nick about smoking cigarettes but otherwise parented him almost to excess. Is Jamus’ attitude re Nick’s smoking simply a function of how prevalent smoking was at the time (about ten years ago, I believe), perhaps especially among South Boston Irish Catholics?
Answer: One of my favorite things about writing this story was the smoking. I have to start with the caveat that I’m not a smoker and I can’t stand the habit. But I felt like it was a strong subconscious “f* you” to the world from Jamus. It’s a metaphor for his self-destructive streak – a streak that he struggles with on a deep level and manages to bury in almost every way… except the smoking. You’ll notice that at the end of the book he is quitting. This happens as he begins to find himself and a little personal happiness with Sean.
The smoking is also a way to shoot back at some broader social issues – specifically, in the scene in which the fat and out of shape cross-country coach admonishes Jamus for smoking (and letting Nick smoke). This gives Jamus a great moment where he tells off the coach – it’s a great “glass houses” moment and a small victory for an imperfect hero.
The last thing I’ll touch on with the smoking is this – it is also a bond between the brothers. Even though it is politically incorrect, it’s a way for them to be a little bit “badass” together and this highlights a certain rebel streak that runs through both Corks.
Now for your specific questions – First, did Jamus tell Nick as a boy about sex, about the role sex would play in Nick’s life? How old would you guess Nick was when Jamus had this talk with him, if Jamus had the talk?
While it’s not specifically articulated in the book, Jamus alludes to the fact that they’ve had the conversation about what being gay means. Also, in the winter chapter, after the boys go to build a snow fort, they have a discussion about moms and dads and traditional versus gay marriages. In that conversation he implies to Nick that it’s important to find someone you love – regardless of who they are. I imagine Jamus would have had that conversation with Nick when he was around 10 or 11 years old. But I think Jamus would have been pretty open and matter-of-fact about the birds and the bees.
Your second question – when would Jamus have shared one of his books with Nick if Nick hadn’t found his way to them on his own is a little more difficult. I don’t think Jamus had a problem with discussions about sex, but I think he was always going to have difficulty being so vulnerable as to let Nick see into his sexual past. The books reveal that Jamus was a human – that he had emotions and cravings, and that he was drawn to sex and love and lust and everything that comes with that. That was never going to be easy for Jamus to talk about – not because he was ashamed, but because he probably felt it was a very personal side of who he was. I imagine that left to his own devices he never would have shared those books with Nick if he didn’t have to.
Of course, this is all speculation based on who the character of Jamus is to me. Jamus may turn out to be a different person to different readers. I think it’s fun to speculate about things he may or may not do. If you’re ever in Boston, let’s have a pint and talk more about it.
Question: Sean, who develops as Jamus’ love-interest, is longtime friends with Grace. Grace wants to be more than friends with reluctantly gay Sean. Grace feels herself at a dead end, still living with her parents, and having a job with no future rather than a career, and feeling drawn to a man who gives her no reason to think he’s interested in her as more than a friend. I think that making the transition she wants, from child in a family to someone with a career, a home, a spouse and possibly children, is fret with worry and loneliness for many young people, male or female, gay or straight. What do you see happening to Grace next? Might her transition to independence be easier if she were gay? Might it be harder? Were Sean to decide he’s bisexual and wants a wife and children, what would Grace say?
Answer: Grace is one of my favorite characters in all of my books. I started mapping out a sequel to Brothers that is mostly focused on her and what she decides to do with her life. I think she is incredibly strong – and what she learns from her time with Sean is that she needs to make her own future. I won’t speculate any more on what happens to her – because I’m still working it out in my own mind.
But you raise an interesting question around would it be easier for her to find her independence if she were gay. Yes – I think it would be easier. While the LGBT world has changed tremendously in the 20 years since I came out, I think one thing remains the same. Coming to understand who you are as a gay person forces you to deeply understand who you are as a whole person. It requires a lot of introspection and self-assessment at a meta level. And while the coming out process is primarily about understanding your own sexuality, it helps you understand your whole self more clearly. That’s just my view of the world and I would completely expect others to see it differently.
Question: Do you have a novel in progress? What are among your favorite novels, and are you, or do you ever see yourself, writing a book somehow similar to or inspired by any of them?
Yes – I do have another novel in process. I’m excited about it – it’s different for me, but it’s very much about a gay story line. Stay tuned for more details on it.
My favorite books – Mary Renault’s The Charioteer; Anne Rice’s Cry to Heaven; Jane Smiley’s Greenlanders; Anything by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I loved Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series is a must read and definitely some of my all time favorites. I keep re-reading Armistad Maupin’s Tales of the City books. More recently, A Little Life is a masterpiece.
I would say that I’ve tried to model myself most closely to Mary Renault’s writing. She is a master and I’m no where near that talented, but she inspires me to tell stories about love that are different. Her use of language is exquisite – the architecture of her writing is so detailed and so fluid that it’s almost like poetry.
Thank you for the opportunity to answer these questions. I’ve very much enjoyed this conversation. Happy reading!
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Thanks for being with us at Late Last Night Books, RJ. I look forward to your next novel and to a novel about Grace if you write it. I also look forward to having that pint in Boston and talking more about Jamus and company.
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Ralph Josiah Bardsley is the author of A Careful Heart, The Photographer’s Truth, and Brothers, each published by Bold Strokes Books. Born into an Irish American family in a small town outside of Boston, he grew up as a Coast Guard brat, wandering around helicopter hangers in New Orleans, Cape Cod, coastal North Carolina, and Sitka, Alaska. He currently resides in San Francisco and Boston with his husband and partner of more than fourteen years, Dana Short.
He holds a bachelor’s degree from Greensboro College and a master’s in communication from Emerson College. He has a passion for good books, exciting travel, and long runs—where he happens to do most of his thinking. He is inspired by things that are different and believes that grace happens when and where we least expect it.
Photo credit: Sam Bardsley