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Nisa Donnelly, 1995

A Talk with Nisa Donnelly

By Owen Keehnen

In 1990 Nisa Donnelly burst onto the gay and lesbian literary scene with The Bar Stories: A Novel After All, the winner of the Lambda Literary Award that year. Four years later, St. Martin's Press has released Ms. Donnelly's second novel, The Love Songs of Phoenix Bay, and it was well worth the wait. This is a deeply moving book about the chaotic life of Phoenix Bay, a thirty-something lesbian who, with her life in a shambles, moves in with her friend Rennie Johnson, a gay writer living with AIDS. Also included in this piecemeal household of wounded souls is Rennie's sister Cecelie, an archaeologist who has fled from a war in Peru and lost her daughter to illness as well. Within no time Cecelie and Phoenix become lovers, and along with Rennie these three create a true family and a home filled with love. Amidst trauma, fear, and hardship, these three wonderful characters not only endure, but also grow.

The Love Songs of Phoenix Bay is a simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming tale--at once perceptive, honest, and inspirational. There is an enormous amount of wisdom within these pages. It is a celebration of friendship and family among a group of solid lesbian and gay characters. It works wonderfully to bridge the often typical gap between gay and lesbian literature, and it is also one of the most touching books in recent memory.

Recently I had the delightful pleasure to speak with Ms. Donnelly about her writing, the book, and the wonderful families we often create to survive.

[Since this interview, Donnelly has edited Mom: Candid Memoirs by Lesbians about the First Woman in Their Life [1998], and contributed to a number of fiction and nonfiction anthologies.]

Keehnen: In my humble opinion, The Love Songs of Phoenix Bay is one of the best gay and lesbian novels of the year. Was your intent partially to erode those barriers?

Donnelly: Oh, absolutely. In 1989 I worked on the first Out Write conference, and I'll admit that before that I thought gay literature was pretty much confined to pornography and trash. But I found a lot of really terrific writers working on the conference, and they thought lesbian literature was for the most part reduced to political diatribe. We got to knowing each other and reading each other's literature and found out we were dealing with the same kinds of issues. When I started looking at gay men's literature, I was amazed that no one had talked about the relationships between lesbians and gay men--yet I've known from the get-go this was tremendously important, and I wanted to make a fictionalized statement of that.

Keehnen: I love hearing those conventions having that effect. Rennie's illness is so deeply explored. What was your method of research? Was it reading, interviews, or personal experience?

Donnelly: All of the above. In the acknowledgments I list some of the men who helped me. A lot of those guys were readers and looked at different versions; some wrote to me, I talked with some on the telephone. They were all extremely helpful when I'd ask tough questions about what it's like to be a writer with AIDS. What's it like to have that kind of time restraint? I got answers that ranged from Alan Barnett, who had just frozen because he didn't think there would be enough time to finish, to Paul Monette, who said it was like having Big Ben in the back of his head.

Keehnen: Your characters are really exquisite. You take the reader so deeply inside their psyches. What's your secret?

Donnelly: I was a newspaper journalist for a long time, and that teaches us how to look at people differently. I was a features writer. You learn to look at people in a new way and hear how they talk. Other than that, I let the characters pretty much lead me and develop their own way. Sometimes that sends us down rather long dead-end streets.

Keehnen: How certain are you of your instincts in situations like that?

Donnelly: I wish I were more certain. My editor wanted the novel trimmed, which I did, but we trotted off on a three-week dead end in the process. When I got to the dead end, I knew I was misguided, but all along that path I thought, "Boy are we moving!"

Keehnen: The power of created families dominates both The Bar Stories and The Love Songs of Phoenix Bay. What does that power represent to you?

Donnelly: In America most of us grow up in these really screwy dysfunctional families. As adults we have the option of creating families that are good to us, that help us, and that do all the things families are supposed to do. I don't have any siblings, but when I was in college I found a surrogate sibling. Over the years I've added others to this family circle. What we're doing is saying this screwed up way of the nuclear family that Americans love so much does not work for us--especially for many gays and lesbians, who are turned out by their biological families or are grossly misunderstood by them.

Keehnen: Another common theme in both novels is home. How do you define that?

Donnelly: A safe place where you don't have to be constantly on your guard against saying or doing the wrong thing. It's a place where you can surround yourself with the things and people you love. It's a place where you can reaffirm who you are and grow with the things around you. I like to keep a lot of plants around me, and I like to live with my friends. I'm not really great at lover relationships. I tend to be a much better date than I am a marriage partner.

Keehnen: There's a lot to be said for that.

Donnelly: It's true. "Yo, babe, we'll go out, but don't go bringing the moving van. This is where I live, and this is where you don't." I've worked really hard to make a place where it's peaceful and safe and we don't have to worry. We don't live with bars on the windows, and I won't live with emotional bars either. I lived like that for too many years.

Keehnen: The new book is so emotionally frank. Was there some part of writing it that was more difficult for you than any other?

Donnelly: The part where Phoenix goes home for her mother's funeral was probably the most personally difficult. I know so many people who live in that Southern Illinois world, farther south than Kentucky. I have the feeling I escaped, yet I know a whole bunch of people who didn't. Writing brought a lot of that back into focus.

Keehnen: What do you see as your greatest writing strength?

Donnelly: The realistic characters. It's what I've always worked the hardest for. I have to be honest to them. Over my desk I used to have a John Steinbeck quote which I'll paraphrase: "The entire focus of my creative work is that we might understand each other better." That's what I want and what I believe. I don't want to write about all the ugly things. I figure we can get enough of that by going outside every day.

Keehnen: Any secrets to making them work so well?

Donnelly: My characters tend to talk the most at 3:30 or 4:00 in the morning, so I've learned to keep notebooks and pencils by my bed to write. I keep notebooks with me all the time when I'm working on characters or stories.

Keehnen: Both your novels also contain fairly graphic sex scenes. Is the representation of lesbian sex a political or an artistic decision for you?

Donnelly: Both. I got really tired of lesbians turning their sex lives into a genre called erotica. I didn't see anybody else doing that. John Updike puts sex scenes in his novels and no one thinks anything about it. Gay men certainly do it, yet lesbians want it cordoned off in a special little section of a certain shelf called Lesbian Erotica . . . like cookbooks or something. I would like to see more lesbians work sex into their novels, however they choose to do it. If they choose not to, that's certainly their business, but I'm afraid many have chosen not to do it over the years because it was considered politically incorrect.

Keehnen: What are you working on now?

Donnelly: Jersey. It's a novel and the name of an apartment building, and it's about the lives of five or six characters that live there. I'm hoping to get it done in a year or a year and a half.

Keehnen: Who are your favorite gay and lesbian authors?

Donnelly: Jennifer Levin, Dorothy Allison--she's my buddy, Jewelle Gomez, Joan Nestle, Judy Grahn. I would have no career if it weren't for Judy Grahn. Alan Barnett, I think, would have been an extremely important writer if he had lived. Bo Huston, Paul Monette, Stephen McCauley . . . . There're so many terrific gay and lesbian writers.

Keehnen: Do you have a career theme?

Donnelly: Lesbian triumphs over adversity.

Keehnen: One of your characters comments, "Loving what I do has been my beacon." Is writing your first love?

Donnelly: Absolutely. My first sentence according to my mother was, "I want to write." Mother loves to tell people that. Writing is the only thing I've ever wanted to do.

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,
Related Pages

Novel: Lesbian

Interrelations of Gay and Lesbian Literature

Allison, Dorothy

Gomez, Jewelle

Grahn, Judy

Monette, Paul

Nestle, Joan



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