Men Haunting Men: A conversation with Richard Mirabella
As a gay reader (and gay writer, myself), I take special notice when I come across a deal announcement for a queer novel written by an openly queer person. There are few enough of these books that I often find myself reading books destinated to disappoint me—young adult coming out stories, romantic comedies, women in their twenties and thirties having their first queer experience while already married to a man. These books are all valuable, and are often quite good, but I’m not their best reader. I want the uncomfortable nuances of queer life we don’t often find in queer media—even media created by queer people—thanks at least in part to the parameters set by cisgender, heterosexual people. I want, as I eventually realized, exactly what Richard Mirabella delivers in his stunning debut, Brother & Sister Enter the Forest.
Mirabella, a civil servant in his forties who lives in upstate New York, is a brave writer. Adult literary debuts are no stranger to the “ambitious” descriptor, but Mirabella’s novel is quiet. His prose—which could be described as plain or simple by someone who doesn’t understand its power—is controlled. Mirabella’s sentences ache in their simplicity.
Why does this stylistic choice work so well? Mirabella’s novel could easily be high drama. We have a dual timeline story of siblings—Justin and Willa—whose adolescence in a quiet, wintery town is permanently marred by violence committed by Nick, Justin’s older boyfriend. Readers watch this origin story unfold juxtaposed against the siblings decades later as they try to navigate their relationship as well as new ones. Willa, a nurse, creates dioramas. Justin lives with addiction as best he can. Does the violence that haunts this family change it forever?
That’s not the question this text answers. It’s too simple. Mirabella delicately portrays the after effects of trauma, and one of those traumas is a disturbing act of violence that defines the plot. But Mirabella also goes to that brave place: He shows readers the trauma of a mother who is quiet, even patient, in her homophobia. Of classroom bullies who are still around today. Of building a chosen family that disappoints. Of remembering—and not.
I was lucky enough to chat on the phone with Mirabella about these themes and his craft. We spent a good hour talking about depictions of dating violence in queer media (and how our community responds to it), healing from homophobia experienced both inside and outside of the home, and how it feels to wrestle with these hurts while Republicans wage war against queer people from a new angle—one where the sort of relationship Mirabella writes could be misconstrued as evidence that all queer people are predatory monsters.
The Rumpus: Would you like to start us off by sharing what you think your book is about?
Richard Mirabella: I would say my novel is about siblings; in this case, Willa and Justin, and their relationship in youth and adulthood. That relationship has been affected by violence that the brother, Justin, experienced as a teenager. I also think it’s about the failure of a family to care for their queer child whose pain is inconvenient to them.
Rumpus: We have chosen families in this book who both heal and disappoint us.
Mirabella: Yeah, I’m actually glad you said disappointing. Nothing in life is perfect and Justin has found kind of a lovely little family but . . .
Mirabella: I’m gonna slow down a little bit and just say: I wanted to give them to him. It’s kind of a gift. [But] they’re not magical. They’re just people. There are lovely moments between all of them where they’re trying but failing.
Rumpus: Do you think straight people and queer people will have different reactions to these failures?
Mirabella: It really depends on the person. Justin’s gonna sink all of them—he’s taking them all down with him. Justin is a victim of heterosexist, homophobic abuse. The violence that happens to him is a direct reaction to that. He is failed by his chosen family too. I don’t know if straight people will get that. I want people to read it and get whatever they get from it, but I think queer people will immediately see and understand it.
Rumpus: Why do you think it works so well to have Nick [Justin’s older boyfriend] missing in the adult narrative?
Mirabella: I started writing this book and I thought, I’m gonna write like a Shirley Jackson novel. You know, the sort of literary novel that is haunted or has something unreal or supernatural about it. There were elements that I cut from it. But I think Nick is still a ghost and haunts the novel in a lot of ways. Maybe being haunted is just feeling something crooked nearby. In this book, that’s Nick. Justin doesn’t know what happened or where he is. To me, that’s so interesting, to have this spirit hovering over you.
Rumpus: Can you say more about your idea of it being a haunted literary novel?
Mirabella: I’m really fascinated by strange fiction, weird fiction. This novel was inspired by a Grimm’s fairytale, called “Brother and Sister” or “Little Brother and Little Sister,” where the brother is transformed into a fawn. And the sister vows to care for him.
It made me think a little bit about being transformed by something that happens to you, something that changes you in a way that is disruptive to you. Perhaps destructive even to other people in your life.
I think there are a few hauntings in this book. Nick is haunting Justin. Justin’s experiences of violence are haunting him. The feelings of fear. I think Willa is haunted by Justin in different ways—not knowing what to do or how to care for him. I think Justin is haunted by men in general. At one of my favorite moments in the book, Justin has this sort of surreal encounter in the middle of the night. That was a surprise when I wrote it, and it made me realize how haunted Justin is just by manhood.
Rumpus: Do you feel like men in this book are haunted by toxic masculinity?
Mirabella: I have to say yes because, I mean, we all are. We’re swimming in the ocean of patriarchy at all times. So yeah, absolutely.
Rumpus: Can you talk to me a little bit about your process of deciding to have dual timelines for adolescence and adulthood? Were you always hoping to use this method to show the aftermath of trauma?
Mirabella: That’s always what I wanted this book to be about, but I just didn’t know how it would play out. At first it was linear and then it sort of shattered and broke apart a little bit more. I wanted to write about a brother and sister, and so I started writing about them dealing with something in adulthood, but I wasn’t sure of what.
I’m really interested in what happens after something bad. So yeah, it was important for me to show the far reaching effects of trauma and of violence in people’s lives. I think it’s less interesting to me to just focus on one person. So I started writing about Willa and Justin coming back into her life. It kind of grew out of going back to their childhood to work towards whatever it was that happened to them.
Rumpus: What went into your decision to have this specific age gap in this book? Did their ages or the degree of the age gap ever change while writing?
Mirabella: My drafts are all hugely different from each other. So in earlier drafts, Nick was a side character associated with an older person that both Nick and Justin were sort of in a relationship with—like a friendship and a sexual relationship. And I just realized the other person wasn’t very interesting.
I liked Nick more. I thought Nick was more interesting, and I also thought he was frightening, a little bit. In then the next draft he became the focus rather than this other character, who eventually just went away.
Rumpus: Why do you think it’s valuable or interesting to write a character that’s a little scary to the writer?
Mirabella: It’s more interesting to write about that. Nick represents something that I’ve always struggled with, which is masculinity. You know, he’s toxic. And you know, he’s a gay person. He won’t accept that about himself. When I think about him I think of somebody who cannot accept himself. He also criticizes what he sees as signals of Justin’s queerness; the way he holds himself, the music he chooses when they go to the CD store. He’s always telling Justin: The world’s gonna eat you up, basically.
I’ve tried writing Nick for a long time. The muscle dude I would have avoided in my youth, who may have approached me in my youth, and who I was attracted to, but terrified of. I think my early fear of men comes out in writing Nick.
Rumpus: When I think about Justin’s teenage years, I think about him being bullied by his peers, and I think about him on the internet. A lot of readers today will relate to both the bullying and going online—including meeting people online—as the escape. What made you include the internet in this way? Do you feel the presence of the internet establishes readers in a very contemporary sort of narrative?
Mirabella: You know, the internet was pretty new when I when I was a teenager. But at this point, in the book? It’s not much later on. And I was thinking about how even if at that point I knew someone else was gay in my high school, we couldn’t speak to each other about it. That would have been dangerous.
I haven’t been in high school in an extremely long time, so I don’t know what it’s like now. I feel it’s probably a lot more open. But I wanted to include a situation where Justin had seen Nick in school, knew who he was, but they never spoke to each other. What created the opportunity for them to speak to each other was the internet. Here was this website where Justin could see: Oh, this person is gay. I didn’t know that! And could reach out to him.
Rumpus: That’s so interesting. It feels notable to me that while there isn’t a significant age difference between Justin and Nick, their lives feel so different because Nick is out of high school.
Mirabella: Nick has the freedom that Justin doesn’t yet possess. Nick sort of gives Justin a hard time about that too: Oh, why do you have to listen to your mother? They’re only a couple of years apart in age and I like the idea that Nick has a freedom that Justin doesn’t.
Rumpus: Do you feel the story would be very different if Justin and Nick had met when they were the same age? Or if their age difference was larger, as tends to be how age gap couples are portrayed in media?
Mirabella: In an earlier draft, Nick was older. What worried me was that the book would become about that topic; a young queer person being [in a relationship with] an older queer person. But the book is not really about that.
I have to say, I struggled with that for a little while. Honestly, when I started writing more about Nick, I liked his sort of youthful toughness. Justin is kind of a punk kid, but he’s also very soft.
Rumpus: Justin faces violence and harm from a number of people in this book, including, eventually, Nick. What went into the decision to have Justin’s partner be the one to ultimately hurt him, versus, say, a stranger or even a hate crime?
Mirabella: It’s very bleak, isn’t it? I think because it broke my heart, I had to write it. It wasn’t an intellectual choice. It was more about somebody feeling like they could trust a person and then slowly realizing they actually don’t have what they thought they had. They don’t have protection.
Maybe it’s trying to say we have ourselves and we have to find strength in ourselves. We have to do the best we can to love ourselves. I think, in youth, especially at Justin’s age—sixteen, seventeen—it’s very hard to feel that self-love. I think especially as a queer teen, it was hard for me to find that love inside for myself. I absolutely was looking for it outside.
Rumpus: Did you ever have concerns that queer people would read the depictions of same-sex abuse and violence in this book and see it as hurting the “cause” or ruin some sanitized version of queer people?
Mirabella: I lost sleep over that honestly. I think what’s important to me as a writer is to tell the truth about the world as best as I can. And that includes allowing queer people to be imperfect, like all other human beings. You know, writing shining examples of queerness is not gonna change the minds of people who already hate us. I think the realities of our lives don’t matter at all to those people who want to erase and criminalize us.
As far as other queer people, I understand that some queer people may be angry if they read something like this, about a queer person enacting violence on another queer person. But that just goes back to what I said. It’s a reality of our world. And I think there are other more nurturing relationships in the novel. So I think it shows a spectrum, but it is a worry of mine, of course.
Rumpus: Justin and Willa’s mother Grace embodies a sort of quiet homophobia we don’t often see portrayed in media. Do you think some readers, who might see themselves as accepting or even as allies, might recognize themselves in Grace? Like “Oh, I’m not actually as supportive or understanding as I thought I was?”
Mirabella: You know, I didn’t set out to write this novel with that in mind, but while I was writing the novel, I read the book Ties That Bind: Familial Homophobia and its Consequences by Sarah Schulman. It affected me so deeply (as does most of her work) and it really helped me shape the novel in a lot of ways.
In retrospect, I would hope somebody who perhaps has a queer child and doesn’t necessarily know how to handle that would read this and see the character of Grace—who I think is just unsure about Justin, she doesn’t understand him, doesn’t know what to do with him—and understand that perhaps if she showed some understanding, things would have gone differently for him.
Grace feels she has to do something, where [instead] she could just love and accept him. His troubles in his teen years were brought on by a society that doesn’t accept who Justin is, even though he accepts himself.
Rumpus: Grace fails Justin (and Willa) both when they’re adolescents and when they’re adults, though in different ways. Do you feel that if she was a more accepting or more nurturing parent, the whole plot of the book would be different?
Mirabella: To be honest, no, because it’s not just Grace. It’s the world. I hate to be so black and white about it, but . . . Obviously Grace is homophobic. But I don’t think she is nakedly homophobic. I think it’s a matter of ignorance on her part. What Justin faces in life, and even in school is a lot more intense and naked on the surface. And I think that is a catalyst for what happens later in the novel. I think even aside from Grace, he would be on that path.
Rumpus: We know book bans and censorship are bad. Why do you think it’s important that all young people have access to books by and about queer people?
Mirabella: We’re part of humanity, number one. I think it’s important, not just for queer children to read about themselves, but for other children to read about the spectrum of experience. It’s a part of life. And we want children to understand the world. That’s why they’re in school.
Rumpus: What do you think about the ongoing Republican rallying cries trying to paint queer people as predatory, manipulative, or somehow inherently obscene or inappropriate?
Mirabella: Republicans are always talking about personal freedom. And yet. You know, if they really believed in that freedom, they would allow people’s families to make these decisions. If a family is like, No, I don’t want you to read this, you’re too young, then that’s that family. They can do that (and I believe they’re stifling their children).
I grew up in a house where [the thinking was], You want to read this? Okay, go ahead, read it and we’ll talk about it. Parents don’t want to talk to their children, they’re uncomfortable talking to their children about the realities of the world. They wanna ban books so that other people can’t read them. It’s infuriating. I think a lot of it is that they have a particular vision of the world—which I think is largely white cis and hetero—and so anything that doesn’t fit into that mold is dangerous. Period.
Author photo by Danielle Stephens