Matthew Gallaway used to be a big publishing success story. In the early aughts, Gallaway landed a high-profile agent on a blind pitch. That agent, Bill Clegg, sold Gallaway’s first novel, The Metropolis Case, to Crown, a subsidiary of Random House, for six figures. And that novel debuted in 2010 with a glowing review from the New York Times. But that’s where the “ever after” fell short of happily. After his editor left Crown, Gallaway’s second novel was stuck in writing purgatory. He went back and forth on edits with Crown for eighteen months. Finally, he had enough. Writing for The Awl about his experience, Gallaway noted:
I finally admitted that I needed to escape. Knowing my agent’s hands were tied by Crown’s refusal to commit/not commit, and not wanting to “sneak around” with other agents, I left him. I went through the motions of querying a few others, but it quickly became apparent that my days in the Green Zone were over. As one agent put it to me, “You’re not even a debut novelist anymore.”
Gallaway dropped his agent, left his publisher, and sent the book to a friend who was starting an independent press. That friend just happened to be Brian Hurley, Rumpus former Books Editor for and founder of Fiction Advocate. Gallaway made the decision to publish his sophomore novel, #gods, with the Fiction Advocate. And now, Gallaway is an independent publishing success story.
#gods begins with Gus, a detective, who’s sister went missing over forty years ago. While on a case, Gus discovers that his sister is still alive and that ancient gods roam the earth hidden from mortal eyes. The result is an expansive novel about religion, sexuality, corporate jobs, and gardening. Gallway’s writing is a cross between Jonathan Ferris, Neil Gaiman, and well, nothing else you’ve ever read. It’s funny, heartbreaking, weird, and wild. In equal measure, #gods takes on ancient myths and Leslie Knope, sex and opera, plants and office life, religion and heresy.
You can read an exclusive excerpt from #gods here, and below, I spoke with Gallaway about his journey to publishing the novel, the importance of writing gay sex, and his own personal religious beliefs.
The Rumpus: Okay, so why go from Random House to an indie press?
Matthew Gallaway: My experience with Crown was great, and it was kind of a Cinderella story to the extent that I didn’t have any experience in publishing when I got started. I just happened to land a big all-star agent through a blind email query. He turned out to be an amazing editor. Then, he sold the book for a lot of money.
Working with big publishing was kind of stressful. I just felt a lot of pressure to always be accommodating to whatever the editor wanted to do. At times, I felt like maybe I should have pushed back a little bit, but it’s all water under the bridge.
When I started writing my second book, there was a regime change at Crown. It was clear that they were not going to buy my second book, no matter what. Publishing is a tiny little world and I knew the other publishing houses would be like, “Oh, well, why didn’t Crown want to buy it?”
So I felt almost like I had a scarlet letter on my back. Then, I was just kind of like, “Well, what am I supposed to do now?” Meanwhile, I had been following Brian Hurley’s work at Fiction Advocate. I bought The Diary of a Perestroika Kid, which I thought was really charming. Then, I read The Black Cat. I thought that one was really good, too. I just kept it in the back of my mind. I was like, “Maybe I could talk to Brian at some point.” When I decided to leave Crown, I sent Brian my manuscript and it just all kind of fell together. Working with Fiction Advocate was a collegial experience. The editors are in it because they love books and they love storytelling and they’re readers and writers, and they just have a lot of integrity.
Rumpus: Would you tell a writer looking for advice to go with a large publisher or an independent press?
Gallaway: If I were advising somebody who had the opportunity to publish with Random House or a similarly big publisher, I would say, “Take it and just go in with your eyes open, and know that there will be certain challenges to that experience.” But it’s all a process. A lot of what I’ve learned from the first novel I brought to the table with this second one, and it’s certainly a different experience than publishing a debut novel on a tiny press. I’m really glad I’d had that Random House experience on my resume; I had some nice reviews and as a result, I have a little bit of a fan base, and every little bit helps.
I don’t think there’s a right or a wrong answer it always depends on the circumstances. Plus, getting paid a big chunk of money for something you wrote is always gratifying.
Rumpus: Okay, let’s talk money. You are the rare writer to have a day job. You have a real-life actual job that offers you money and health insurance, which sounds so nice.
Gallaway: It is really nice, and I think that was one of the reasons I was probably a little bit more standoffish with Crown than I might have otherwise been, because I have a job that’s not reliant in any way on my fiction. It gives me the opportunity to say, which I did to Random House and my agent, I was just like, “You know what? This isn’t working for me. Goodbye.”
Rumpus: Do you think having that day job gave you the stability to take risks in your writing?
Gallaway: Yes. But I don’t want to make it sound like I was completely grounded—When I was going through the process with Crown on my second novel, where they were asking me to do rewrites but I wasn’t under contract, they would take three or four months to respond to my emails, and my agent was not responding. I did feel like I was having a nervous breakdown at times, because I was so invested in the process.
But from my perspective now, I’m very happy to not be dependent on writing for my livelihood. I would definitely tell a writer, “Have a source of income outside of your writing career, just because the industry is very precarious, and you can find yourself on the outside for reasons that have nothing to do with your writing, the quality of your writing, or how hard you work.”
Rumpus: I love that advice: “Get that day job and be bold in your writing.”
Gallaway: I think any artistic career, you can take more risks with your life when you’re younger, in your twenties and maybe mid-thirties, because you can find temp work, or you can scrape by. But as you get older, in my experience, it’s nicer to have a little bit of stability—own your house, have those kinds of things that, for better or for worse in our culture, I think only come with having some sort of career.
Rumpus: Like nice bread or good shoes or insurance…
Gallaway: All those little things that when you’re eighteen or twenty-two you can get by without. But, you know what, if you’re thirty-two and it’s like, “You know what? I do want to splurge. I’m going to spend $150 on these shoes.”
Rumpus: I’ve been thinking about that a lot because I want to say that I’ve shucked off the chains of capitalism. But, you know what? I really don’t want to buy $5 wine. I want to buy the better bottle, and I want better pillows.
Gallaway: Probably ten years ago, I was at a musical that was being put on by these guys that were friends with Michael Cunningham. Somebody afterward said to Cunningham something to the effect of, “Oh, it must be nice to be a rich writer now.” And he kind of laughed and he was like, “No, basically it means I can now buy a nice pair of shoes for my lover.” Even someone like Michael Cunningham, like, I’m sure he’s doing fine, but it’s not like he’s rolling in it. I thought that was just kind of illuminating.
Rumpus: You’ve described your writing as an avocation. And the idea of vocation or avocation is actually kind of a spiritual one. Because there’s so much religion in your book, when I read that I kind of was like, Hmm, I wonder what he means by that. Is there a spiritual connection to that, to your writing?
Gallaway: I think the short answer is yes. In the book I was sort of attempting to elucidate my own definition or interpretation of faith. For me, personally, a large part of that, is being gay. One of the things that I think is really awesome about being gay is that it gives you a vehicle, or it certainly gave me a vehicle, through which to create and dabble. Often, the word is dilettante, and it’s kind of used in a dismissive and pejorative way. Whereas, I think being a dilettante is awesome. You can flit from whatever you want. It’s like, get into gardening for a year, really obsessively, and then quit and maybe pick up violin, or learn a language, and then who knows what. Maybe do a super deep dive on 1960s folk music or something.
To me, the world has so much awesome stuff in it, and my understanding of creation is also being in the audience for that creation. That, I think, is the spiritual—you create and you also take it in. And in a way, I think the purest forms of creation are often separated from money and capitalism, as much as possible.
It’s so great to do something just because you’re doing it. I think there’s a lot of pressure in our country to make money. You have to have that Internet start-up, or that application that’s going to set the world on fire, and you’re going to get VC funding, or whatever. To me, I think it’s nice to reject that. Maybe not wholesale, but at least carve out some space in your life where you don’t buy into that message, and that, for me, has been writing.
Rumpus: In your novel, the characters are looking for something to believe in, but what they reach out to is not what a person would typically think of as religion. Like, there’s no real Christianity in here. Are you kind of creating a manifesto of faith?
Gallaway: Yes. I wanted to create a manifesto in a way that is entirely personal because it’s my own vision of faith. I think what I wanted to do in the book was almost give it a little bit of a political spin, that I think is important in our culture right now because so many of us who are not, let’s just say, rich white male heterosexual Trump supporters, are being marginalized in a lot of ways.
I think that there’s an element of resisting that transcends the political stories that we read all the time, and gets really to the core of who we are as people and how we define ourselves. I think that a lot of great authors are doing this kind of stuff right now.
Rumpus: With the search for faith also comes a struggle of representation, especially when three of the characters attempt to write a myth about another character. There is a moment when they ask themselves if they can tell the story of a black lesbian. Were those conversations you were having with yourself, too?
Gallaway: They were totally conversations I was having with myself. It’s a conversation we’re having as a culture right now. And I felt like the best way I could do it was to a) just do it, and then, b) kind of get meta about it.
I wrote those scenes because I wanted to be transparent about my struggle.
As a gay writer, a gay male writer, it’s interesting to me because a lot of books over the past two decades about gay men have been written by authors who are not gay men. Sometimes I’m like, “Oh, this is okay.” But sometimes I’m like, “I’m not really buying it.”
I don’t think I’ve ever read anything where the author was questioning what was happening in a meta way, so I was hoping that that would be kind of an original extra layer to put in there, because it’s nerve-racking, too.
Another thing I drew on was my experience living in New York. Sometimes as I walk around, I am very conscious of being a white guy. I think it’s a good experience that everyone in our country should have. I doubt that someone like Donald Trump has ever walked around in a minority neighborhood and understood that you need to be self-aware and not a jerk.
Rumpus: Space is also a concern of this novel—physical space and metaphorical. I was wondering if that connected to the themes of identity, and even religion, because religion is very concerned with carving out physical space for spiritual senses. I wondered if those were themes that you were grappling with in the novel?
Gallaway: I think it was certainly one of those unconscious motifs. I’m a gay man who is almost fifty years old. A lot of attention is focused on the generation a little bit older than I am in terms of AIDS, but I think the impact of AIDS still trickles down to my generation—in terms of both numbers of people lost, but also just kind of this shadow that has been cast as a result of AIDS. I don’t think that it has been acknowledged in a very sustained, serious manner by anyone.
Choire Sicha wrote a book, and it’s called Very Recent History, and I think he captured this sort of sense in a very visceral way—like you are a shadow as you move through life as a result of what has transpired before us.
Rumpus: Okay, let’s talk about sex. There is a lot of sex in this book. And often sex in fiction is really bad. Did you struggle with depicting sex on the page? How did you approach it?
Gallaway: Writing sex is never easy, because I think we’re just not good about talking about it anywhere in our culture. In my case, I wanted it to be graphic enough that you understood what was happening, but not like porn—not that there’s anything wrong with porn, but I didn’t want it to be overly graphic.
One of the most difficult things to write were the scenes between the coach and the teenager. I tried very hard to get that tone trying to get that tone exactly right. I didn’t want it to be like a lascivious gay male fantasy, but I did want it to be an event that was from the kid’s perspective, something that not only empowered him, but also, in a way, radicalized him.
Because I think there’s a narrative in our culture around these episodes of, you know, whether it’s the clergy, or the coaches, and it’s always… I feel like there’s often a real homophobic undercurrent. In no way would I ever endorse a fifty-year-old having sex with a fourteen-year-old, but there is the message: “Oh, if you had a sexual encounter at the age of fifteen, a gay sexual encounter, your life is wrecked.” That’s what I wanted to challenge. It’s not an easy thing to talk about, or even to write about, and that’s certainly a big risk, but I wanted to kind of take it on.
Rumpus: Well, and you aren’t just writing heterosexual sex. You are writing gay sex.
Gallaway: This goes back to the idea that gay sex is a political act. In the book, I talk about how gay sex threatens men in particular. And by gay sex I mean anal fucking. Men are raised in this country to detest it and think that it’s just the worst thing possible, and I wanted to challenge that in a very explicit way and talk about how there is a correlation between physical penetration and psychological penetration. That, I think, it’s kind of an awesome thing, and I think that’s, again, something that makes obviously sense to probably every single woman on the planet. Maybe not so much to, men.