Johnny Diaz on "Boston Boys Club"

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Tuesday April 24, 2007

Tommy is the career-minded, OCD romantic who faces tough romantic challenges. Kyle is the celebrity pretty boy whose life revolves around keeping the ember of his fame alive. Rico wrestles with debt and tends to treat his dates as mere playthings. And Tommy's boyfriend Mikey is the sweetest guy in the world - until he starts drinking.

These are the characters from Johnny Diaz's debut novel, "Boston Boys Club," and their adventures - told in their own distinctive voices - weave in and out of one anothers' lives to create a mosaic of Beantown's gay scene.

But that's just the first, shiny level of the novel. Underneath, Diaz observes how hope and pain drive his characters, and their mixed ethnicities, while never an overriding point, provides a major part of the book's mood and tone. Part gay soap opera (think of a less dramatically overextended, generally happier version of "Queer As Folk," minus the lesbians, and you've got an approximation of "Boston Boys Club") and part cleverly downplayed commentary on life as it is for today's gay twenty-somethings, "Boston Boys Club" enjoys praise from William J. Mann, whose novels - starting with "The Men from the Boys" - brought a new level of depth and relevance to gay literature in the mid-1990s. Like an imprimatur, Mann's blurb appears on the back cover: "Make way for the boys of summer!"

And a summery novel it is, despite the opening chapters taking place in the icy grip of a New England winter. Structured as a year in the life of three central characters, all young gay guys, "Boston Boys Club" is a bright and highly readable book that welcomes the reader in and then pulls him by the hand to the final page. Like its author, the novel is easy-going and smart, a mix of light-heartedness and canny discernment.

Johnny Diaz met up with EDGE for a chat at a local hangout; somehow, despite bouts of joking and laughter, and interview resulted.

EDGE: You're a journalist for The Boston Globe, as well as now being a published novelist. Many novelists got their start as journalists - Paul Gallico, for example, and Ernest Hemingway. Are you thinking this will be a door into a whole new career?

Johnny Diaz: I like writing news stories and features for the Globe. I think I'm always going to be a journalist, because I like writing about other people and telling their stories. The fiction is something I did on the side, as a labor of live. It was a release from daily reporting at the paper, so if anything I think I'm going to be doing both - hopefully, for a long time to come.

EDGE: It sounds like writing "Boston Boys Club" was a bit of a lark. The typical story you hear is one of stacks of rejection notices, but that's not so much true in your case. Were you surprised when you submitted your manuscript and it was accepted?

Johnny Diaz: I had a good feeling about the book, because I know there's not a lot of gay fiction out there with a main character who's Hispanic. That's one of the reasons I wanted to write the book - because I didn't see myself or my friends reflected in mainstream gay fiction. My five readers who I shared it with told me that they couldn't put it down, so I took that as a positive feedback. So I figured, what the heck - let me just send it out there and what's the worst that can happen? I can just get a rejection letter, but I'll still have my full time job. And it worked! I was actually very surprised. It was a nice surprise.

EDGE: You didn't have to send it to twenty different publishers.

Johnny Diaz: No. I was trying to get an agent first, and I sent a couple of letters, and some [agents] were interested, some weren't; I also sent some letters to some publishers, and my publisher contacted me right away. And two other publishers were also interested, [but] I went with [Kensington Books].

EDGE: That doesn't happen very often!

Johnny Diaz: No - like I said, it was a nice surprise.

EDGE: What was it about the Boston scene that led you to set the novel in Boston rather than in Miami, where you're from?

Johnny Diaz: I think it's more of an interesting story of a Hispanic being in Boston, rather than a Hispanic in Miami, because that story's been told countless times. And one of the inspirations of the book is, whenever someone [around Boston] asks me, "What are you? Are you Italian? Are you Greek?" and I tell them, "No, I'm Cuban," they look at me like I'm an alien from another planet, like, "What the hell are you doing in Boston?" That's come up every time I've done an interview - "Where are you from?" And, "Diaz - what is that name? What's the connection between you and Boston?" I thought it would be a different kind of story. Not just a Hispanic in Boston, but a gay Hispanic in Boston. I mean, it's very rare that you find all three of those elements together.

EDGE: You were the boyfriend of a gay character on MTV's "The Real World." In "Boston Boys Club," one of the characters, Kyle, has been a character on a similar reality TV show, and whenever the subject of his ex from when he was on the show comes up, the story doesn't treat the ex very kindly. What's up there? Are you kind of making fun of yourself?

Johnny Diaz: Oh, Kyle's boyfriend José? I've heard from other reality TV people that a lot of times people have dated them because they are on a reality show, and once they're off the show, their boyfriend or girlfriend loses interest. I thought that was another way of getting into this character, because he's all about his celebrity and his fame [that he's trying to hold on to]. This is another layer of his background - he was in love with this guy, and he thought the guy was in live with him, but it wasn't the case. It was just part of this whole celeb-reality [scene]. I'm not José, but I am making fun of that whole thing.

EDGE: One striking feature of the book is how all the characters talk in terms of popular culture - that's their main referent: "So and so looks like the guy off of such and such show," or "So and so looks like such and such movie actor." This is their cultural currency, and their means of communicating.

Johnny Diaz: I think a lot of young people communicate like that now - everything revolves around what they downloaded on their iPod, or what the saw last night on TV, or what they read on the Internet. It's all referenced to something familiar in mainstream culture.

My friends tell me that I tend to name the date when I mention the title of a movie or a song; I'm a little bit OCD that way. That's why [Tommy] does that, too. But also, when you make a reference to something from pop culture, people immediately get it: "He's like Simon Cowel," or "That song is so 1982."

"My aim was to try to capture this decade, like William Mann captured the '90s with his first book."

EDGE: You steer clear of certain complications that might be too obvious, or that other books might make a point of jumping into, like when Tommy realizes that his best friend Rico is hot, but then he shies away from that thought. The realization is there, and it tells us something about Tommy and Rico and their friendship, but you don't allow the story to throw the two of them into bed together.

Johnny Diaz: In a lot of gay books that I've read, usually the gay men who are friends are intimate, too - they're "friends with benefits." I wanted to depict a friendship that was completely platonic. A lot of gay men [who are buddies] tend to hook up with each other. I think that cheapens the friendship to a degree, because you don't cuddle with your friends; you may find them attractive, but I think there's a certain line, a friendship boundary that you don't want to cross in order to maintain the integrity of the friendship. So, with Tommy and Rico, there's an attraction there, but they realize that they'll have [more] longevity as friends. You can genuinely love someone as a friend and not be romantically involved. Hooking up complicates a friendship, and there should be somebody you can count on.

EDGE: Actually, Tommy has an intimate relationship with Mikey, but as it turns out, he can't count on Mikey because he has an alcohol problem. Why alcohol, by the way, as opposed to the more stereotypical crystal meth?

Johnny Diaz: If [the book were set in] Miami, it would have been crystal meth! [Laughter] But one thing I've learned from living in Boston is, alcohol is part of the culture and the nightlife, maybe because there are so many college students here. Whenever I would go out, I saw that a lot of the men were sloshed, completely drunk, and I saw that as a bigger problem in this setting as opposed to Miami, where you have your alphabet of drugs. I didn't really see a lot of heavy drinking in Miami, like I do here.

I think a lot of guys will relate to Mikey, whether they realize it or not. Mikey is the typical blue-eyed boy in Boston who is drunk every weekend. It would break my heart when I would see that.

EDGE: All of your characters are fun-loving twenty-somethings, and this book is a "year in the life" story that follows them. You give all of them something to wrestle with, something that anchors them underneath the partying and pop culture stuff they get into. Aside from alcoholism and debt - which is a huge problem for a lot of young people now - you also include an HIV storyline. What guided you in that decision?

Johnny Diaz: Not to give anything away, but with the HIV storyline I was halfway through writing the book when something that happened to that character happened in real life to someone I am very close to. I believe that the universe helps you along when you need a creative muse; it guides you and sends you these little gifts [of inspiration]. The HIV experience in this book just came out of the blue, and I felt that it gave me another angle, and another opportunity, to give this character more depth, to show him changing and transforming. Especially in this day and age, young men in their 20s have grown up with HIV prevention and safe sex awareness, but it's also this distant reality: Like, "Oh, I don't know anybody with HIV," or, "It's not going to happen to me." There's this [attitude of] invincibility that they think that they have. I decided to go with that storyline with that particular character to kind of shake people up a little bit.

EDGE: There's a real light-heartedness about this book, despite the various problems the characters have to deal with. Was that a conscious choice on your part, or is that simply a result of you being you?

Johnny Diaz: That's me. I think you've probably picked up on that - I'm very lighthearted, I'm very fun, very social. I wanted the book to be a fun, social read, not too heavy, although it has some serious moments. Part of [why I wrote it] was just to make reading fun, and to let people see a reflection of what it's like being young and gay in the new millennium. My aim was to try to capture this decade, like William Mann did with his first book. He captured the '90s. I'm trying to capture the generation after.

EDGE: The character I found most fascinating was Rico, because at first he seemed kind of cheap and self-centered, but as the book goes on you start to show us that there's more going on with him. He's a genuinely compassionate friend, and he's also got a certain level of pain and distrust from past events that account for the traits that make him seem a little shallow.

Johnny Diaz: I don't think I [wrote him that way] consciously. When I came up with the characters, I needed tow other characters that were going to be the complete opposite of Tommy, who is a lot like me - a Cuban-American, new to Boston, writes for the city's newspaper. The opposite of Tommy would be someone who tells it like it is, a little bit rough, commitment-phobic, emotionally detached - he's a little bit closed. He's complicated. He's the most complicated character.

I think, looking back, that Tommy sees a lot of who he'd like to be in Rico - and vice versa; Rico sees a lot of the person he'd like to be in Tommy. And that's why they are such good friends.

EDGE: Hearkening back to William Mann: his first book, "The Men from the Boys," has two sequels, "Where the Boys Are" and, just published a month or so ago, "Men Who Love Men." Do you have some thought of making "Boston Boys' Club" into a trilogy?

Johnny Diaz: There could definitely be another [book]. There's a lot to work with, with those three major characters - I could do that down the road, if there's a demand.

But just to disconnect from "Boston Boys Club," I started working on another book, which was accepted and will be published next year. This one's a lot like "Boston Boys Club," but it's three different guys in Miami looking for Mr. Right.

EDGE: "Miami Boys Club?"

Johnny Diaz:"Miami Manhunt."

EDGE: There you go! I like that alliteration.

Johnny Diaz: Yeah, my editor liked that title too. It's three different guys, with three different stories. The characters meet up at Score, which is a big Miami gay bar. It's kind of like "Sex in the City," because they meet up once a week and they dish. That's the template I feel comfortable using, because that's how you get these guys in one room, talking and opening up.

I'd love to do a sequel to "Boston Boys Club," but I need to let these characters be for a time. There are a lot of layers to being a Latino in the U.S., especially a gay Latino, so there are a lot stories to be told. In the new book, two characters are Cuban, and there's a love interest who's Puerto Rican, and then there's another character who's Portuguese. I'm hoping everybody [who reads my novels] will feel like they know [these characters], and feel that they can relate to them to some degree.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.