by Zak Salih

What Does It Mean to Be a Gay Man Today?

It’s just weeks after the historic Supreme Court marriage equality ruling, and all Sebastian Mote wants is to settle down. A high school art history teacher, newly single and desperately lonely, he envies his queer students their freedom to live openly the youth he lost to fear and shame.

So when he runs into his childhood friend Oscar Burnham at a wedding in Washington, D.C., he can’t help but see it as a second chance. Now thirty-five, the men haven’t seen each other in a decade. But Oscar has no interest in their shared history. Instead, he’s outraged by what he sees as the death of gay culture: bars overrun with bachelorette parties; friends getting married, having babies.

While Oscar and Sebastian struggle to find their place in a rapidly changing world, each is drawn into a cross-generational friendship that treads the line between envy and obsession: Sebastian with one of his students and Oscar with an older icon of the AIDS era. And as they collide again and again, both men must come reckon not just with one another, but with themselves.

Rich with sharply drawn characters and contemporary detail, provocative, and emotionally profound, Let’s Get Back to the Party is sure to appeal to readers of Garth Greenwell, Alan Hollinghurst, Claire Messud, and Rebecca Makkai.

Interview with the Author Zak Salih!

Zak Salih (c) Emily Poland
Patrick Munnelly: What was your inspiration for writing this story?

Zak Salih: The novel was a way for me to process, or at least explore, the experience of being a gay man of a particular generation: one with no lived experience of the AIDS plague and also no lived experience of the increased visibility and acceptance for queer kids in many parts of the country. I wasn’t interested in writing about coming out as a gay man so much as about coming into a larger community with a past and future, and trying to capture the struggle to understand one’s place within that continuity.

PM: How do you view your work fitting into the larger LGBTQ world as a whole?

ZS: Literature isn’t a competition, it’s a conversation—so I see this novel (and my writing in general) as just one more voice among many in terms of LGBTQ voices and stories. The idea is to have a tapestry of different experiences and characters: some pleasant, some unpleasant; some humorous, some serious; some realistic, some fantastical. Every LGBTQ writer does their small part to add to this collective.

PM: Where and when do you dedicate time to writing?

ZS: I share a row home with my partner that used to be two apartments, so my office is in what was originally the upstairs kitchen. I’ve got my computer, my books, art on the walls—everything I need to feel somewhat hermetically sealed during the two hours every morning I dedicate to writing fiction (I share my time with the marketing writing I do to pay the bills). I tend not to write on weekends, reserving that time instead for thinking and drumming up some sort of excitement for going back to my desk on Monday.
Congratulations to the winners of the four ARC copies of the book provided by Algonquin!
PM: What does LGBTQ representation mean to you?

ZS: The goal of LGBTQ representation, it seems to me, is about empowering people to live their own lives and authentic truths. It’s about LGBTQ people not as spit-shined statues to set up in a public square but as human beings in all their beauty and ugliness, their heroism and villainy. As the brilliant Carmen Maria Machado, writes in her memoir, In the Dream House, “Bring on the queer villains, the queer heroes, the queer sidekicks and secondary characters and protagonists and extras. They can be a complete cast unto themselves.”

PM: What are some of your current favorite authors and books?

ZS: Too many to give you any sort of definitive list, so I’ll just say that at the current moment, as my brain is telling my fingers what to type, some favorite authors include Maggie Nelson, Jenny Erpenbeck, Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Toni Morrison, Marlon James, Susan Sontag, John Berger, Don DeLillo, Jericho Brown, and James Merrill. The last book I read that I still cannot get over is Catherine Lacey’s Pew.

PM: In the story, your characters are very inspired by Obergefell v. Hodges. How did that impact you?

ZS: I deliberately chose to situate the journeys of Sebastian and Oscar in the year between the Obergefell v. Hodges ruling and the Pulse nightclub shooting because they were two historical events I “experienced” as a member of the LGBTQ community—meaning I was fully conscious of myself as a gay man, and as part of a larger culture, when these two events occurred. I could relate to both moments—one of public celebration, one of public mourning—on an extremely visceral level.

PM: What’s your favorite TV show or movie featuring LGBTQ characters?

ZS: If you’ll indulge me and let me focus on the Q, I’ll say two favorite movies of mine are Ingman Bergman’s Persona and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. Both movies are about these very intense psycho-sexual relationships between women. Do they want to sleep with each other? Do they want to be each other? They’re incredibly surreal, sometimes downright bizarre films, as my favorite movies (LGBTQ or otherwise) tend to be.

PM: Your story shows a less glamorous style of gay life than often portrayed. What did it mean to you to show this more realistically?

ZS: I tried not to get too hung up on the idea of “likeability” when it came to Sebastian and Oscar—their attitudes, the choices they make throughout the novel. To create characters who are realistic, you have to make them messy (which ties in with your earlier question about representation). I suppose the lack of “glamor” comes from the fact that I, myself, don’t live any sort of glamorous life; I’m a sweatpants-at-8-on-a-Saturday-night gay, and damn proud of it.
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