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Six Novels, 'Six Neckties' :: Johnny Diaz on A Gay Journey's End (for Now)

Wednesday Jul 19, 2017

Journalist Johnny Diaz has had a few adventures. He was part of the Miami Herald reporting team that took a Pulitzer for their coverage of the Elian Gonzalez drama back in 2000. That story centered around a young Cuban boy who was living with family members in Miami when he was taken into custody by federal agents and sent back to his father in Cuba -- a controversial move that was met with outcries of protest.

In another twist of fate, Diaz was mistaken for Andrew Cunanan, the serial killer who gunned down Gianni Versace, and found himself surrounded by weapon-pointing police officers.

Then there was the time he dated a "Real World" contestant and found himself appearing in a few episodes of the landmark MTV series.

If Diaz leads the kind of life you think should be recorded in books, then you should read the novels he actually has written: Zesty adventures about life as we know it, with friendship, hard choices, disappointment, and resurgent hopes taking center stage.

A Cuban-American himself, Diaz became a novelist when he turned his pen to the task of writing about the gay Latinx experience. His first novel, "Boston Boys Club," was published in 2007, when he was a reporter with the Boston Globe. That debut novel followed three friends over the course of a year and was set in Boston.

Five more novels followed. Diaz set "Miami Manhunt" (2008) in his hometown, then returned to Boston for "Beantown Cubans" (2009). The publication of "Take the Lead" (2011), also set in Boston, was accompanied by a Spanish language edition. "Looking for Providence" followed in 2014. The books don't all follow the same characters, but the characters he's created have tendency to jump from one title into another, as when Tommy Perez -- one of the trio of friends from "Boston Boy's Club" -- surfaces as a guide and love interest for the protagonist of "Beantown Cubans."

It's to Tommy Perez that Diaz returns for his sixth novel, "Six Neckties." Though Diaz' books are not overtly political -- focusing rather on fun stuff like clubs and romance -- neither do they take place in a vacuum. Hence the real-world consequences of the economic crash in "Looking for Providence," or the all too common issue of balancing one's own life while tending to an ailing parent, a major plot point in "Take the Lead."

In "Six Neckties," it's marriage equality that serves as backdrop and driving force. Now that same-sex couples are free to wed from sea to shining sea, Tommy Perez finds that he's racking an awful lot of weddings. It seems that everyone is tying the knot -- including his best friends Rico and Carlos. Why can't Tommy seem to find Mr. Right? Perhaps to find happiness, Tommy first needs to find closure with his ex-lover, Mikey, whose substance abuse issues drove them apart long ago.

But into the relationship void step two eligible men. One is the handsome, hurting Danny, who's own life partner died a few ago; the other is Ignacio, a warm-hearted and lovable hunk whose tenure in Tommy's new town of Ogunquit, Maine, might not be permanent. What's a guy to do?

EDGE had a chance to reconnect with Diaz recently, chat about "Six Neckties," and hear the author's thoughts on love, marriage, and all those gay-friendly towns where he's set his half-dozen novels.

EDGE: When you started these books, back with "Boston Boys Club," did you have a sense that you'd end up writing multiple novels?

Johnny Diaz: I had no idea that "Boston Boys Club" would spawn five other books. When I wrote "BBC," my goal was to tell the stories of young gay men in Boston as they looked for love and themselves. When I finished that novel, I thought, "That's it. I accomplished my goal." But then the idea for "Miami Manhunt" began to form and I just kept going, writing like the Energizer Bunny. It was like being in a creative trance. I wrote "BBC," "Miami Manhunt" and the third book, "Beantown Cubans," back to back. I took longer with the following three.

EDGE: I have not had the chance to read all six novels but I do have the sense that they all tie together. How did that happen? Was it an organic process? Did the characters just kind of jump into each others' stories?

Johnny Diaz: I started with the original trio: Tommy, Rico and Kyle from "BBC." But I came up with new characters along the way and new stories. But somehow as I wrote the books, previous characters would pop up in my head for scenes. So I incorporated them in the new books. I always enjoyed TV show characters who made cameo appearances on another sister show ("Happy Days," "Laverne and Shirley") or the characters that crossed between "The Young and the Restless" and "The Bold the Beautiful" on CBS daytime). It was a treat for me as the viewer. And as a writer, it was fun for me to do in the books with my characters. So they do come and go in the stories making their own cameo appearances.

EDGE: Your books let gay readers experience life in Boston's South End, Miami, Providence, and now Ogunquit. Why those locales in particular?

Johnny Diaz: Those are my favorite cities, starting with Boston, Providence, Miami and now Ogunquit. I lived and breathed Boston (Dorchester, the South End) when I lived there for 10 years. And the city remains in my heart even from 1,600 miles away. And Providence was always a fun weekend escape for me, a smaller version of Boston. I was born and raised in Miami so I had to set at least one book there. Ogunquit was also a summer escape for me and my wingman. It's so picturesque and magical in its own way that I was inspired to set a book there. In fact, all these cities have had a positive effect on me and I wanted to share my love for them through my characters and stories.

EDGE: "Six Neckties" is meant to be the last book in this series. Why bring it to an end, rather than letting the series continue?

Johnny Diaz: It's the last book for now. I've published six books in 10 years. I'm creatively exhausted, at least writing wise. I don't feel that I have any new stories to tell at this moment. I need to live a little and recharge my creative juices. If an idea comes to me and I fall into another creative trance then I'll continue with the series. But for now, I need a break. Me tired.

EDGE: "Six Neckties" reintroduces us to Tommy Perez and his friends, while also completing Tommy's romantic journey. Did you come back to Tommy as a protagonist because you planned this to be the last book and wanted closure for him?

Johnny Diaz: Yes, I came back to Tommy because it all started with him. I left him hanging (story wise and romantically) in "Beantown Cubans." I wanted to complete his journey and that of his friends Rico and Carlos. And what better way than with weddings! Who doesn't love a wedding or two? Tommy was also the character that seemed to resonate the most with my readers so I wanted to bring him back for them.

EDGE: Will other characters from you various novels show up in future books? Or are you done with writing fiction, at least for a while?
Johnny Diaz: My characters could use a break too. So I'm done writing fiction for now.

EDGE: "Six Neckties" addresses the issue of marriage equality head on - not from a political vantage, but from the point of view of Tommy, who feels like he's missing out. He's always a best man, never a bride! Why make marriage such a touchstone for this book?

Johnny Diaz: I was living in Boston when same-sex marriage was legalized in 2004 and I remember the celebrations and outpouring of love and support. That always stayed with me. But when I moved to Miami, same-sex marriage wasn't legal in Florida. There were several news articles about couples from Key West and Miami fighting for their right to marry. Their stories also stayed with me. And once gay marriage was legalized nationally, I kept seeing couples posting their engagements and wedding celebrations on Facebook. And I thought, how would it feel to be that guy who goes to all his friends' weddings but hasn't found his groom? I also found myself attending a lot of weddings in the past three years and they inspired me to write the book too. I took a lot of notes on napkins.

EDGE: While younger gay men seem to be thinking along the lines of marriage and family, some older gay men still express doubt and skepticism and even disappointment that the younger set are buying into the whole marriage and white picket fence thing. Is that something you thought about addressing at all?

Johnny Diaz: I haven't encountered that, the doubt and skepticism among older gay men. The ones I do know have gotten hitched after years of dating or being unofficially married. I think for guys like myself who never thought about getting married because it wasn't an option until recently, there may be some hesitation of embracing something that has always been associated with our parents and heterosexual relatives and friends. I think the more same-sex marriages there are, the more accepting they become for younger generations as well as the skeptical set.

EDGE: There's a real fear that the current administration will work to undo our progress. We already see this happening to some extent. If the government tries to erase our marriages and our families, will Tommy Perez be back, in the streets protesting maybe?

Johnny Diaz: If that happens, I'd be willing to bring back Tommy Perez and his friends to protest in the streets. They may even throw certain gay romance books at the opposition.

EDGE: Under President Obama, the United States and Cuba began to normalize relations to some extent. How did you feel about this? Are you hopeful that the current administration will continue to work with Cuba rather than reverting to a hostile and punitive stance?

Johnny Diaz: "So when are you going to Cuba?" It's a question that friends, coworkers and people I've met in my daily travels have asked me time and time again but more so since the diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba began to thaw under former President Obama. My answer is usually something like, "Some day," or "I don't know." It's the most honest answer I can give.

Although Cuba was where my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles and my first cousins were born, it's been something of a complicated enigma for me. I can point to the country on a map. I can tell you its capital as well as where my parents grew up. I know Cuba is 90 miles from Key West. I've stood next to the big red buoy that represents the southern most point in the U.S. But I've never had this tugging, this longing of belonging to Cuba that many of my fellow Cuban-American friends have. My American side is more dominant than my Cuban side (even though I am currently wearing a T-shirt that says "CUBA" from Old Navy and I can dance pretty well to Celia Cruz and Gloria Estefan music). Still, I'm all for the normalized relations between the two countries especially if it helps enrich the freedoms of the Cuban people. I still have second cousins on the island nation.

EDGE: What can we do as individuals, and as a community to hold on to the gains we're made and "to secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and posterity?"

Johnny Diaz: The best thing we can do is to be proud, show our love and respect for one another in our daily lives. I show my gay pride through my books and by being open in my career and socially. The more out we are, the less of an issue it becomes for others. We're already seeing it when celebrities publicly come out. It's not front page news anymore, and I think that's a good thing. I've seen the most macho members of my family soften because they know I'm gay and love me. It only takes one person to change one's perceptions about being gay.

"Six Neckties" is available now. For more information about Johnny Diaz and his novels, go to http://beantowncubanito.blogspot.com


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