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David B. Feinberg, 1991, 1992


David B. Feinberg
 

By Owen Keehnen

 
I interviewed activist/writer David B. Feinberg twice. The first time we hung out for an evening, and it was fun. Something he did which I found specifically enchanting was that at the start of his book signing, he took a couple of pictures of his audience to "make you guys feel sort of weird as well." That was when he was in Chicago on the book tour in November 1991 for Spontaneous Combustion, his second thinly veiled fictional work featuring his alter ego B.J. Rosenthal.

David was a lot like his protagonist. He could be a handful--he was neurotic, very opinionated, living with AIDS, and frantic with energy. Being around him could be draining, mainly because he was ever aware that AIDS had given him a need to do it now and to do it quickly. Time was a luxury he didn't have. I think writing through/as B.J. gave him the ability to write about his disease and HIV-frustrations, heartbreaks and horrors (personal, political, and social) in a somewhat contained manner. It was always my impression that if he wrote about it as himself he would simply explode. David's first novel featuring B.J. was the phenomenally successful, Eighty-Sixed, which won the American Library Association Gay/Lesbian Book Award for Fiction and was also the very first fiction novel to win the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Men's Fiction.

The second time I interviewed David, it was over the phone during his lunch hour while he was at work. He was an amazing man, a difficult man, but amazing nonetheless. Sadly, David's knowledge that he was "racing with the clock" proved accurate, and he never did achieve one of his goals--to reach the age of 40. He died of complications from AIDS in early November 1994 at the way-too-young age of 37.

An additional book by Feinberg, Queer and Loathing: Rants and Raves of a Raging AIDS Clone, was published shortly before his death. He was another great voice gone in the wake of the pandemic. I was grateful to know him, if only peripherally. The man was definitely a force of nature...
 

The 1991 Interview:

Keehnen: Are you a believer in physiological effects of laughter?

Feinberg: Somewhat. Humor releases the stress that can build and build and build. I'm not a big believer in homeopathy. I believe in drugs and things like that. I'm hardcore science. I went to MIT and majored in math, so you can imagine. When people even mention astrology, I run from the room screaming.

Keehnen: What have you learned from your involvement with ACT UP?

Feinberg: That the system can be beaten and we can win. There was one demonstration on Wall Street, and two days later the cost of AZT goes down 20%. But when you go to a demonstration, you have no idea whether it will be effective or not or when. Sometimes the effect is felt two years later.

Keehnen: How truthful is B.J.'s arrest scene at St. Patrick's Cathedral in Spontaneous Combustion?

Feinberg: It's pretty autobiographical, with some minor changes.

Keehnen: What got you to the point when you were able to be arrested?

Feinberg: My first arrest, I'd been with ACT UP about a year and I was at the FDA, and I was completely in agreement with everything ACT UP was for. It was such a simple argument. It seemed so clear who was right and who was wrong. It was an easy arrest. Friends die and you want to do something.

Keehnen: In a recent Genre interview you said that 97% of Eighty-Sixed and Spontaneous Combustion were autobiographical. Are your friends paranoid? Does your use of the fictional protagonist B.J. Rosenthal allow you to be more honest?

Feinberg: I was lying in that interview. It's not 97%. Well, some of my friends don't speak to me and haven't for a couple years, and others are angry that they're not in the book, and some worry about what they did or didn't do. Though I incorporated large elements of my life into Eighty-Sixed and Spontaneous Combustion, I also exaggerated things and took them as far as they could go. I do try for some sort of truth, not literal truth, more like emotional truth. In a sense, it's difficult because you have little distance from the character, and in another sense it's easier because you know the character so well.

Keehnen: Are you part of a writing group?

Feinberg: Yes, in fact I'm in a fairly tragic writers group. There were five of us when I was working on Eighty-Sixed, and two have died--John Sturman and Glenn Person. I dedicated my first book to Glenn. Also in the group is Stan Leventhal, who's written a slew of books like Mountain Climbing in Sheridan Square and Candy Holidays. And also Charles F. Borgman, who wrote River Road. At the first Lambda Book Awards, I was presenting the award for best debut gay novel, and Stan and Charles were both up for it.

Keehnen: Hey, speaking of that, what was the first thing that flashed through your mind when you won that award yourself?

Feinberg: I'm really good friends with John Weir, and he was nominated for best debut novel too, but he wasn't nominated for best novel, and I was nominated for both. So we decided that he would win best debut and I would win best novel, and that's what happened. So when I won I thought, "Wow, it worked."

Keehnen: Did you realize when you were working on Eighty-Sixed that it was that good?

Feinberg: When I was working on it, I was hoping it would just get published. Then I read part of it as a work in progress at a James White Review reading, and I got a really good response. So then I thought, "Okay, I have the feeling this is good enough to be published." Then Freeman Gunner, my editor at Mandate, where I did the "Hell's Kitchenette" column, introduced me to Ed Iwanakee at Viking. Viking doesn't take stuff over the transom, and I didn't have an agent, but Ed liked my stuff, so Freeman told me to write a book and Ed would publish it. That's what I did. I was shocked. Viking published Thomas Pynchon and Stephen King and James Joyce. Then the book came out and The New York Times gave it a rave, a review my mother would write . . . if she had read my book.

Keehnen: Was she shocked?

Feinberg: We don't really talk about it.

Keehnen: Tell me about your current work-in-progress.

Feinberg: It's called 12" Remix, and I'm going to include lots of fun sex.

Keehnen: You gotta love that! What was your inspiration?

Feinberg: While I was on a Darvon-induced haze in December, I kept playing the Pet Shop Boys "Behavior" over and over, and I decided that this was going to be my structure.

Keehnen: That sounds like Darvon all right.

Feinberg: Yep. It's going to have ten chapters and each is going to be named after a song. The first song/chapter is "Being Boring"; it's actually an AIDS memorial song. I have the zero draft, the draft before the first draft, of the first three chapters done.

Keehnen: Seriously? Are you kidding me, David? That wasn't the inspiration I expected. So how did Spontaneous Combustion come to be?

Feinberg: No, it's true. Originally in Spontaneous Combustion, I had stories that didn't deal with B.J. at all. But my editor said, "Drop this and this and this and this; stick with B.J." So I thought up a few additional situations for him, like having an affair with someone who is HIV-.

Keehnen: You cover every conceivable aspect of being HIV+ in both Eighty-Sixed and Spontaneous Combustion.

Feinberg: Yeah, I am sort of finished with B.J. for now. I might go back to him sometime. Joe Keenan told me the only thing left for B.J. was a long-term relationship.

Keehnen: Is your completed draft of your manuscript usually longer or shorter after your rewrites?

Feinberg: I work a lot from notes. With Eighty-Sixed I spent a month plotting out each chapter. Then I expanded the chapters and I cut things. I start with notes, I expand, and then I condense.

Keehnen: You've been compared to Woody Allen on several occasions. Do you find that comparison accurate?

Feinberg: We planted that.

Keehnen: Really?

Feinberg: My editor did. It was in the press release for the first book, "The gay Woody Allen, the gay Philip Roth, the Franz Kafka who isn't totally afraid of sex." Something like that.

Keehnen: So planted or not, do you think the Woody Allen thing is accurate?

Feinberg: We have some elements in common, but he is in a long-term relationship.

Keehnen: What writers have influenced you?

Feinberg: Philip Roth is a major influence. I love some of Edmund White's early stuff, beautiful sentences. I love Andrew Holleran. His book of AIDS essays, Ground Zero, is so excellent. I would like to be compared to him. Sarah Schulman's After Delores is a great comic novel. I love John Fox's book The Boys on the Rock. I love Joe Keenan's work. John Weir is a great writer; even if he weren't my best friend, I'd say that. Michael Nava too.

Keehnen: Michael Nava has an excellent piece in John Preston's Hometowns.

Feinberg: Hometowns is wonderful. I'd like to squelch the rumor that I blurbed that book because John Preston blurbed mine.

Keehnen: Logrolling in our times. You know everyone; tell me a story involving yourself and another gay writer.

Feinberg: Last time I was arrested with ACT UP, on September 30th at the White House, we chained ourselves to the fence, and I was six links away from Michael Cunningham, whose novel A Home at the End of the World was wonderful.

Keehnen: So what's the story with you and Dennis Cooper?

Feinberg: They keep calling him the bad boy of gay lit, but isn't he really the gay boy of bad lit? That's all.

Keehnen: Would you like to continue writing fiction?

Feinberg: I wrote an essay recently entitled "Queer and Loathing at the FDA"; it was in Tribe magazine. I'd like to see that in book form, so of course that means more essays.

Keehnen: Have you set a personal goal for the future?

Feinberg: I want to go to Italy. In regards to writing, I'd like to get five books under my belt. Also I'm trying to be the PWLTC Poster Boy.

Keehnen: PWLTC?

Feinberg: Person With Lousy T-Cells. My T-cells dipped below the 10 line recently, but all I've really felt are the drug side effects and fatigue. I'm paralyzed about long term plans. Another big goal would be quitting my job of 10 years--I write memos, mismanage people, and make personal phone calls.

Keehnen: Does writing get easier with each book?

Feinberg: 12" Remix is flowing. I know what I want to do, and hopefully I'm getting better. In Eighty-Sixed I was trying to do 101 things; and in Spontaneous Combustion I was just trying to do one thing, show what it's like to be HIV+ in America so other people could pick it up and say, "Oh, I've felt that way."

Keehnen: Hey, David, thanks.

The 1992 Interview:

Keehnen: Hey, David, how was your tour?

Feinberg: Wow, we're talking ancient history. The tour was fine.

Keehnen: Well, let's start in the past and work our way forward. Did you make any New Year's resolutions?

Feinberg: Yes, to spend more time at the computer than I do at the Chelsea Gym.

Keehnen: How are things with ACT UP New York?

Feinberg: Fairly dismal. There's one major thing happening around the presidential primaries. I went to a demo in New Hampshire and that was sort of . . . uninspiring.

Keehnen: So you're still active with them despite some disillusionment?

Feinberg: Yes, there were three demos last week, and I went to two of them. One was about TB in jail cells. There is a TB epidemic in this country and, especially, in New York. The holding pens they put people in for 8 to16 hours before they process them are poorly ventilated and all around breeding grounds for TB. The other demo was about Blue Cross/Blue Shield and the fact that they are always raising rates.

Keehnen: Do you have any predictions for the future of HIV and gay and lesbian activism?

Feinberg: I'm sure ACT UP will limp along for a couple of more years. There's a new group, TAG, Treatment Activist Guerillas, and they will be doing stuff, and Queer Nation will be doing things. There's a big Cracker Barrel demo planned for the end of March.

Keehnen: Your essay, "Queer and Loathing at the FDA," I think, earns you a title of one of the most important chroniclers of the activist movement. How do you feel about that? Is chronicler even a word? One who chronicles . . . .

Feinberg: I'm one of many. No movement has just one . . . chronicler . . . now you've got me saying it.

Keehnen: Anyway, since you said you plan on spending more time at the computer, why don't you discuss your writing process a bit?

Feinberg: Generally, I have an idea and I start writing notes of anything I can possibly use. I brainstorm. Afterwards I arrange the notes in some order, chronological or semantic, or whatever. Then I start writing, and when I'm done, I have a zero draft, which is before the first draft. Then I let that sit for a while and then start working on the first draft. I think I enjoy rewriting more than writing. Writing is so much more difficult than rewriting. Once you have something on paper, it is much easier.

Keehnen: How is your work on 12" Remix coming?

Feinberg: Well, right now I am working on a play, so I've sort of put 12" Remix aside.

Keehnen: Tell me about your play.

Feinberg: The tentative title is The Pathological Flirt, and it is sort of a cross between La Ronde and No Exit. La Ronde is the story where a woman sleeps with a man who sleeps with a woman who sleeps with a man who sleeps with a woman . . . it's like a circle, la ronde--a sexual circle. And No Exit is basically a straight man in love with a lesbian who's in love with a woman who's in love with this man. In my story I have a narcissistic bodybuilding director who is in love with this straight failed playwright, and he's in love with . . . . Oh my gosh, here's your connection, Owen.

Keehnen: My connection?

Feinberg: He's in love with this woman who is a lesbian in her 40s, and when she was in her 20s she was a Broadway star, and when she was a star in her 30s she was the star of a TV sitcom not unlike The Brady Bunch.

Keehnen: That's my connection all right . . . you realize that Florence Henderson must star in your play.

Feinberg: In the show she kept marrying these widowers who would die on her two weeks later, basically giving her a brood of like 50 kids. But now she's in her 40s and does Depends ads. Anyway, this lesbian is in love with her make-up artist, and the make-up artist is in love with the gay bodybuilding director. Your basic foursome of frustrated desires.

Keehnen: Given the nature of B.J. Rosenthal in Eighty-Sixed and Spontaneous Combustion, frustrated desire seems to be a common theme of yours.

Feinberg: But of course it isn't in real life.

Keehnen: Are you able to be objective about your own work?

Feinberg: Somewhat. Not completely. I can see the reasons why people wouldn't like it. I can see the structural flaws and things like that.

Keehnen: When you write something, are you the best judge as to whether it's good or not?

Feinberg: I'm at a point where I probably am the best judge. I started out in a writers group that was very supportive and very good. For the play I am going to be relying heavily on the guy who will be directing it because I don't really know plays. The Pathological Flirt is in the stage where it's basically a series of monologues, and I have a feeling that plays involve a little more interaction.

Keehnen: What inspired you to write a play?

Feinberg: People kept saying, "Write a play. Write a play. Write a play." Plus, I like to write dialogue.

Keehnen: So it was mainly peer pressure?

Feinberg: Oh, definitely.

Keehnen: What contemporary playwright do you admire?

Feinberg: There's a play, Kennedy's Children, by Robert Patrick, a very prominent gay playwright. The play is excellent. It broke all the rules: nothing but monologues. There are five characters in a bar and they just talk to the audience. It was wonderful. Robert Patrick has written many plays, but I think that might be the only one that got to Broadway.

Keehnen: Any advice to the novice writer?

Feinberg: Write. Don't keep talking about writing--just keep writing. The only way to learn how to be a writer is to write.

Keehnen: Does it get easier?

Feinberg: It does get easier.

Keehnen: Did the monumental success of Eighty-Sixed shock you?

Feinberg: Yes, it was everything I wanted . . . everything I wanted to have happen with it did happen. I didn't expect that. I also didn't expect that many people to have the same reaction. I didn't realize it hit that particular chord. I thought I was speaking to fewer people.

Keehnen: I think you put the spotlight on something that gay men have been forced to discover, and that is that humor is essential for survival.

Feinberg: If you can see the humor in it, all is not lost.

Keehnen: Were you pleased with the reception of Spontaneous Combustion?

Feinberg: Pretty happy. It's been doing well.

Keehnen: It all goes back to being a chronicler of the times. If people want to learn about our reality, one of the best inroads is through literature.

Feinberg: That's it.

Keehnen: Do you feel an obligation as an artist?

Feinberg: I feel an obligation to write the truth.

Keehnen: Are you satisfied with the presentation of truth in your books?

Feinberg: Yes, I think I conveyed a very true reality.

Keehnen: Any longtime personal goals?

Feinberg: Well, we've talked about this first part before. I still have that goal of getting five books done. I'd also like to reach 40 and meet that dream man.

Keehnen: Who is a non-writer whom you truly admire?

Feinberg: Difficult question . . . hmmmm . . . Jodie Foster because she has done such amazing things with her life.

Keehnen: You mentioned before that Phillip Roth/Woody Allen/Franz Kafka influence. What do you think you've gotten from each one?

Feinberg: Phillip Roth--an obsession about sex. Woody Allen--an obsession about death. And Franz Kafka--an obsession about humor . . . no, not humor. Franz Kafka gave me my light side.

Keehnen: Are you going to OutWrite '92?

Feinberg: Yeah, I am going to be on the AIDS and Humor panel.

Keehnen: Is that one panel?

Feinberg: Yeah. There's also a separate humor panel. Joe Keenan is going to be on that. John Weir is probably going to be with me on the AIDS and Humor panel.

Keehnen: I hate to whine, but I wish I could go.

Feinberg: I was at the other two, and the best thing about OutWrite is just walking into that room for the opening session and seeing 2,000 lesbian and gay writers and journalists and novelists and poets. It's amazing.

Keehnen: Thanks again, David. I'll talk to you soon.

 
About Owen Keehnen
 
Owen Keehnen has worked as a journalist, book reviewer, and interviewer for a number of years. Currently, the Chicago based author is completing a trilogy of interview books on gay XXX stars, finishing a horror novel, and supporting himself as a massage therapist. He is also launching a website which celebrates independent horror films, www.racksandrazors.com.
 
Related Pages
 

Feinberg, David B.

American Literature: Gay Male, Post-Stonewall

AIDS Literature

ACT UP

Comedy of Manners

Humor

Queer Nation

Cunningham, Michael

Holleran, Andrew

Patrick, Robert

Pet Shop Boys

Preston, John

Schulman, Sarah

White, Edmund

 

 
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