This is an interview with Todd Alexander, by Cameron Colwell
I met Todd Alexander at the Newcastle Writer's Festival. I’d seen him speak at his panel, Boys To Men, having read his first novel, Tom Houghton, earlier in the year. I was drawn to it because of the promise of exploring a narrative I had not seen before in fiction: That of being a gay man in suburban Sydney. The novel follows the preteen Tom in the end of his primary school days, while the alternative chapters show the adult Tom: Alcoholic, lonely, and haunted by the bullying in his traumatising past.
When he agreed to be interviewed, I began by asking what the initial drive behind writing a novel was. As Alexander had only previously written business non-fiction, I was curious to know what drove him to write the book. Alexander told me that a novel was something he had wanted to do since 2006, but he was constantly side-tracked with writing the “corporate stuff.” As for the idea itself, he tells me: “Um, it was really bland, actually. I was looking out the window, doing the washing, and thinking about Katherine Hepburn's brother, Tom Houghton.” The real-life Tom Houghton, whose early death haunted his famous sister for the rest of the life, plays a pivotal role in the book: The protagonist, Tom, has a burning fascination with the golden age of Hollywood, and begins to believe there might be a connection between him and his idolised actress, that a golden destiny fated for him.
Alexander was 'haunted' by the photographs of the doomed youth, every since he found out about how the effect it had on Katherine. He gained a fascination with a boy who believed himself the reincarnation of his namesake, along with the ideas of “Fantasy over fact...Absorbing identity into another reality.”
Alexander's fascination with old movies came from his mother, who would watch Golden Age Hollywood films with him. After discovering her in The Golden Pond, he became interested in theories about her and her brother, and her personal life. As it happens, once Alexander begun research, he discovered he was a (very) distant cousin of Katherine Hepburn. He assured me however, that he does not believe in reincarnation.
Masculinity is a key theme in the book: set in western Sydney suburb of Seven Hills in the 80's, one of the young Tom's primary challenges is knowing that his theatrical self does not belong where he lives. Alexander tells me that Young Tom's story is largely about his response to sorting out his masculinity in the face of puberty, and his challenge is largely based on the fact he has no solid male role models:
“He has a distant grandfather, his mother has a constant stream of gentlemen callers, so he only sees men as sexual beings. Men in his life have purely sexual, physical attraction. There's no role model for him to forge his own identity on. [So] he tries to find his own identity through the Golden Age of Hollywood."
After asking him about the book's unusual, alternating structure, Alexander tells me that the initial idea was to have the years between Tom's childhood and adulthood explored, but it “Left too many unresolved questions...I wanted to see how his childhood would impact his adulthood, whether a man would be able to get over it.”
I was curious about the book's interested in depicting male body image, as it's quite a rare issue in recent fiction. He tells me he “Once had an argument about men and heir bodies...About the feeling that the kind of working class male in the Western Suburbs don't have an outward concern with bodies. Back then, men and their bodies was a non-existent issue, they'd walk around without shirts, it just had absolutely no impact on their social status.” I bring up the point that Young Tom frequently is jealous of the carefree relationship other men have with their bodies, and he tells me that it's:
“Horrific for young gay kids. This is something I feel so strongly about...Kids need to know that the world is full of people, no matter what you look like, who are just the same as you are. The gay scene is niche, it's a very big community, but the need to be muscly is there.”
As a gay man myself, I was interested in knowing what kind of demographics the book has touched. “It's interesting...It's largely gay men, over 45, but it's almost universal in that we've all met people like Tom. We've dismissed him. You don't want to be caught at the bar with a man like him, he's desperate. What's redeeming about him is the features from his high school years.
Did he set out to write a 'Gay Book?' “I think, I just write the book to write the book I want. I never set out to write the gay book. I just care if it's a story that grips me. Mainstream readers found the typically gay evolution of Tom hard to stomach, I think...The publishing industry is very into the mainstream reader, but I think there's a danger in trying to conform to an idea of a homogenous book. I don't think about that when I write. I don't tailor submissions for certain publishers.”
We discuss why Young Tom's years had to be set in the 80's, in Seven Hills – I had an interest in the setting, as it's the same place where my mother was raised. He tells me he wanted to show:
“Suburbia, uncensored. Well, it's a cold reality. The kids that I was around called it like it was. There's something almost oppressive about simple suburbia, really. You know, it's quite difficult when you're in suburbia. When you're there it's hard to keep ambition. I know people who just moved out in the same suburb and stayed their all their lives, like, Oh my God."
The people I knew were happy to leave school in Year Ten and get on with their lot in life, in that suburban existence. Tom has ambition when he's young, to be an actor, which is a problem for him, being in suburbia, but it's also the golden ticket which gets him out.”
To finish, I asked him what his next project is – Does he plan to return to non-fiction? He emphatically says no. His next plan is another novel, very loosely based on a possibly schizophrenic great-uncle of Alexander's. “His antics were legendary, and the diagnosis, to this day is unknown. That's the basis. But it has similar theme: Social acceptance, and conformity, and society being quick to judge anyone who's different.”
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Cameron Colwell is a writer, critic, and poet from Sydney, Australia. He has appeared on a panel at National Young Writers Festival, has had work published in The Writer's Quarterly, Heaps Gay, and The Star Observer, and was the 2013 winner of the Mavis Thorpe Clark award for a collection of short stories. His Twitter is @cameron___c and his work can be found at www.neonslicked.wordpress.com