What Love Means To You People: A Novel

by NancyKay Shapiro

A powerful debut novel in the tradition of Ann Patchett and Michael Cunningham, about a young man whose denial of his past nearly destroys the new life he seeks.

Once safely out of Nebraska, Seth McKenna does everything he can to erase his oppressive hometown and abusive childhood, leaving his sister Cassie behind to fend for herself. Seth is making a new life for himself as an artist in New York when he falls hard for an alluring older man who is astonished to find in Seth the second love of his life. The couple's relationship is complicated by Cassie's unexpected arrival with significant secrets and plans of her own. Now Seth must confront his past and the consequences of the lies he's told to move forward in his life.

A gorgeous whirlwind of a family drama and an emotional, sexy love story, What Love Means To You People is rich with the atmosphere of New York and a cast of irresistible characters.

Some questions and answers for NancyKay Shapiro about What Love Means To You People: A Novel

Though WHAT LOVE MEANS TO YOU PEOPLE is firmly grounded in New York, both geographically and culturally, the emotional territory of the book is accessible to almost anyone—male or female, young or old, gay or straight. How did you balance the story's New York roots with the larger society, perhaps exemplified here in Nebraska, to create such a human appeal?

Shapiro: As a New Yorker, I'm constantly aware that almost everyone I meet here comes from somewhere else. While I was developing the character of Seth McKenna, one of the most important things about him was his migration—his actual migration from rural Nebraska to college in Massachusetts and then to New York City, but also the many other migrations he makes—from childhood to adulthood, from ignorance to education, from personal powerlessness to self-possession, from one social class to another, from trying to pass for straight to being out, etc. It seemed to me that these sorts of transformations are universal—almost everyone experiences life, the drama of life, as passages from one state to another. Though Seth is a young gay man, and an artist, it seemed to me that almost any sort of reader could identify and sympathize with his struggle to find his way to a higher ground and a life more suitable to the urges of his personality, talents, and spirit.

On that same note, you live in New York City's Greenwich Village, a place quite literally thriving with culture. In this sense, how did your own life, experiences, and even location influence your work?

Shapiro: I feel so fortunate to live where I do! I love New York City, and identify with it deeply, and with no neighborhood more than the one where I'm privileged to make my home. Just as I always intended to be a Manhattanite, I always intended to set my fiction primarily in New York City, to try to capture a small slice of what it can be like to live there at a particular time, in a particular manner.

I set some scenes, those in and around Clyde and Billy's house, quite near my own, drawing inspiration from the beautiful streetscape, my imaginings of the human stories going on behind the facades of the buildings, and my visceral experiences of the extremes of summer heat and winter cold that can have such a profound effect on one's mood. I thought a lot about what it's like to walk around in the Village feeling shut out from those stately 19th century houses—and conversely, what it feels like to have ingress to one of the best of them. Seth and Cassie are both outsiders who very much feel their exclusion, and that sense of barriers, which both hold and give way, is very strong for me in the West Village; I wanted to try to capture some of the emotional resonance of being a walker in New Yorker, getting tantalizing glimpses into homes one will likely never enter.

Jim's apartment, though not in the West Village, was also drawn from life—I happened to be apartment-sitting for an acquaintance at the time that I was getting the novel underway, and found myself working her loft, with its direct view into the loft across the street, into the story. Had I not had that opportunity, Jim's dwelling might have been different!

What was your inspiration behind WHAT LOVE MEANS TO YOU PEOPLE?

Shapiro: I wanted, as I said above, to write a New York City story. New York has always felt to me like a place for re-invention, transformation, a place to come to be who you really are, the self you might not have been able to be in the place you grew up, in your family of origin. When I started, it was going to be Cassie's story, of a young woman from the Midwest who comes to New York to escape stifling circumstances at home. There was also some overlap with characters and situations from the novel I'd written prior to beginning What Love Means To You People, which eventually had to fall away before I could really find what I was doing. In the early stages of the work, I delved extensively into Cassie's character, generating a lot of material about who she was, and her early experience of the city. Seth and Jim, the brother Cassie comes to stay with, who lives with his older boyfriend, were shadowy background figures. I worked with a wonderful writers' group during most of the novel's generation, who were all students of Regina McBride, whose workshop called Inner Lives is a huge influence on my writing process. After a while, the group began asking me for details about who Seth and Jim were, and what it was like for them to suddenly have a na‘ve young girl join their household. I decided to write just a little about them, to answers these questions for myself and the group, thinking I'd focus on them for a couple of weeks, enough to do a chapter—and they took over the novel! When he began to fill the foreground of my imagination in leaps and bounds, it quickly became apparent to me that it was Seth's story I wanted to tell, and that Cassie was a part of his story, not the other way around.

You write very explicitly about the relationship between homosexual men, how did you so fantastically get the "logistics," if you will, of this worked out?

Shapiro: I believe in writing what you know, or more precisely, what you feel to be true and real, and in writing what you'd like to know, or feel you know without having actually experienced. I am thinking of the emotional and the inner life when I use the word 'know' here. People are people, and therefore what goes on between people is at once beautifully mysterious (which is why novels are so alluring in the first place) and openly deducible, imaginable, knowable. Gay men aren't any more enigmatic than men or women of any stripe, as people to make stories about.

As for my understanding of the "logistics," as with anything else, a writer can learn much by reading ... and looking at pictures.

The character of Cassie is the quintessential moralist of the story but eventually her opinions of homosexuality are altered. She almost seems to transform the most out of all the characters. How do you feel about her transformation?

Shapiro: I didn't see Cassie as a moralist in particular, but as someone who has never been confronted in the flesh with the kinds of things she's read about in books (as a devotee of Colette, in particular, she's got "book sophistication" that far exceeds her life experiences). She clings hard to the verities she absorbed at home until she gains the courage to let go and swim in the new waters she finds herself in.

Of course, Cassie has more to object to when she arrives in her brother's household than the mere fact of his homosexuality. Cassie's initial mistaken impression that her brother is a "kept boy"—an idea she's derived from her reading, which is reinforced by what she initially sees in Jim's apartment—is a separate issue from her reaction to her brother's sexuality. Class and cultural unease are big components of Cassie's initial difficulties with Seth and Jim. Unease with her brother's falsehoods, and the necessity to be complicit in them, provides another layer of moral difficulty for her to overcome ... and that she does work with that points to her being a survivalist more than she's a moralist.

Finally, Cassie is the classic case of the person who thinks gay (or substitute any other type of "minority") people are a certain way until she actually meets some. Once she has specifics, she lets go of her generalities—affection and familiarity overcome her knee-jerk objections, and her fears. She comes to respect and love Jim (as well as her brother) once she spends some time with him, and sees what kind of person he is beyond the mere fact of his same-sex orientation. I like to think most people would be the same way in similar circumstances.

Your novel is about many things, love being one of them; however, there is also a strong sense of passion and escapism to it. What are your own life passions and how do you escape from the world?

Shapiro: Great narratives are a passion of mine. While I read and love plenty of fiction that isn't about romantic relationships (or portrays them as sad, squalid, or dull), I do enjoy a story that provides a some escapism and fantasy, in the form of a slightly exaggerated largeness of emotional resonance, even as it's grounded in reality. I always seek good love stories in literary fiction, from the novels of Trollope, Austen, Charlotte Bronte and other nineteenth century greats, to those of Laurie Colwin, Mary Wesley, Shirley Hazzard, Michael Chabon. In recent years I've found satisfaction for my narrative passions in series television, especially Buffy The Vampire Slayer and its spin-off Angel, which are almost operatic in their emotional opulence. Other escapes include an iPod full of indie rock tracks, long walks in Manhattan, and trips to London to visit beloved paintings at the National Gallery, favorite bookshops, and the handbags at Selfridge's.

On why I wrote What Love Means To You People: A Novel

In the years I worked on WHAT Love MEANS TO YOU PEOPLE, I was occasionally asked why I, a straight woman, was writing about gay men. Of course, I'm far from the first woman writer to do so—off the top of my head, I can think of novels and stories that wonderfully plumb the inner lives of gay men, by Annie Proulx, Lorrie Moore, Iris Murdoch, Pat Barker, among others—and I've always wished there were more female writers exploring this milieu.

There is an aspect of fiction writing that I don't see talked about when I read interviews with published novelists, but which is often discussed among the striving writers I've come to know in recent years (a disparity that makes me wonder whether it's some sort of secret I shouldn't divulge to the public!). It's what we wryly call 'A Bulletproof Kink,' which is a shorthand designation for the kind of narrative, situation, characters, setting, theme that's irresistibly compelling, that makes a story idea go for the writer—and hopefully, the reader too. It's the kind of story you're drawn to, that you want to be immersed in, as writer or reader.

Like many women, I am fascinated by and admiring of the way gay men, in order to be more fully themselves, must resist society's expectations about what sexuality ought to be. Narratives about the lives and loves of gay men are one of my Bulletproof Kinks. Their vibrant courage in the face of the otherness—indeed their often enthusiastic embrace of otherness—is inspirational, even as I feel a deep personal resonance between the gay experience of that outsider status, and my own. And as gay people now seem to be at an historically unique point in a kind of bumpy continuum between transgression and normalization—a progression that not all queers see as a positive or natural one—it's especially interesting to me to write about characters who are finding where they are on that continuum.

Given my strong gravitation towards this particular sort of story, and my sense that many other female readers are also drawn to it, when they could find it, it's no surprise I found myself writing one. (I've always been the kind of writer who writes what she wants to read). I want to live in a world where stories, including love stories about gay people are as common and unremarkable as any.

It's important to remember, though, that fiction isn't about groups or types—it's about individuals, the inner lives of particular people. So it seems to make more sense to me to turn the question around: Instead of: why did I write a novel about gay men? I ask why not write a novel about a specific young man who comes east after high school in order that he might become his true self—a painter, a New Yorker, and a man who loves men? Though I thought when I started that I was writing a novel about a girl who transplants herself from Nebraska to New York, it turned out that the characters I'd relegated to background positions in my original notion of the book—her brother and his partner—were in fact the real focus. Once I gave Seth and Jim my full attention, the whole project sprang to life. Seth's brave struggle to reject his own victimization and define himself on his own terms, to attain the sort of things we all want—to feel safe, to use his talents, to cherish and be cherished by one special person-—was poignant and immediate to me.

I never set out to write this novel with a social message in mind—fiction that puts ideas ahead of characters usually leaves me cold. WHAT Love MEANS TO YOU PEOPLE is a story of particular people who are not meant to represent in toto the groups they belong to—gays, Jews, males, midwesterners, or what-have-you. I hope they represent themselves the best way I could make them, and that their struggles and attainments move readers the way they moved me.

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