It’s 1941, and Alice “Al” Huffman and her three childhood friends come from the potato fields of Long Island to make it on the Broadway stage. Al quickly learns that she has no talent. She meets Juliana, the glamorous, perpetually-on-the-brink-of stardom nightclub singer whose voice sounds to her like “warm milk slipping down the whole of my body.”
Juliana, a sexual risk-taker with a secret, easily reels in a mesmerized Al who has never felt a love like this before. Al is determined to hang onto Juliana no matter what she has to sacrifice. The only obstacle is that Juliana is more a woman of her times than Al could ever have expected.
Through Juliana, Al enters a secret world that includes men who wear frilly bathrobes and grass skirts and women who smoke cigars and wear pants with the zippers in the front. Cameo appearances are made by Liberace, Tallulah Bankheard and other 1940s celebrities.
I wrote my first novel when I was fourteen and I continued to write long fiction throughout high school and college. Then I stopped writing all together for too long a time. These were the dark years. When I returned to writing I wrote a play. I continued on as a playwright for many years. As a playwright I won a number of awards such as an Edward Albee Fellowship, First Place in Celebration Theater’s Best New LGBT Play Contest and First Place in Pride Screen and Stage’s Women’s Contest. One of my plays was a finalist for the National Lambda Literary Award. Recently my play, The Forgetting Curve, was optioned by Theatricum Mundi and had its world premiere at The Boston Arts Center in September, 2014.
I have also published short fiction and non-fiction in literary journals such as PRAIRIE SCHOONER, PENTIMENTO and THE OUTRIDER REVIEW.
Why I Chose to Write Juliana
About four years ago I felt compelled to write a novel about the hidden lives of gays and lesbians in the 1940s. With the onset of the extremely new freedoms I had found that young gays and straights were completely unaware of what gays in the past had sacrificed so that these changes could take place. They did not know that there was a time you could be arrested for merely entering a gay bar or that you could be committed to a mental institution indefinitely for the crime/disease of homosexuality. I felt that not knowing about the rights that gays and lesbians had been denied in our country for decades was as serious as not knowing about the impact of the Jim Crow Laws for African Americans. Just as there are African Americans living today who were seriously harmed by that system and other discriminatory practices there are many gays and Lesbians alive now who were damaged by what went on back then.
It’s important to note, however, that this is not a sad, angst-ridden book. It is filled with humor and lightness because no matter which decade we talk about it has always been fun to be gay.
Why the 1940s
The 1940s was a time when gays were just beginning to have a sense of their identity as ‘homosexuals.’ This was the first decade in which jams also more clearly held a distinct sense of being heterosexual, something different and better than homosexual. These definitions first began to take shape in the 1930s, but by the 1940s these categories were more firmly established.
The 1940s also foreshadows the beginning of the worst decades for hatred and discrimination toward gays: the 1950’s and 1960’s.
Characters Real or Fictional
My characters are fictional, but real people make cameo appearances throughout the book. For instance, Angela Lansbury and Lauren Bacall, who were volunteers at the Stage Door Canteen before they were famous have, bit parts in my novel. Liberace is shown briefly in a nightclub where he actually worked early in his career. He played the piano, wore a traditional tuxedo, and was known as Walter.
What kind of research was involved in the writing of this novel?
Researching early 1940s in Greenwich Village was the most difficult research I’ve ever done because nothing happened. People often think of this time in the Village as an artsy time, but here’s a quote from the New York City Market Analysis, done in 1943: “Greenwich Village is not a neighborhood of artists and writers, although many of them still live in its old brick and brownstone houses.”
Greenwich Village earned its reputation as an enclave for artists and writers in the 1920s and 30’s and it would become so again in the mid 1950’s. Early 1940s Greenwich Village, however, was mostly a working class neighborhood where a great many people lived in rooming houses and “overflowing tenement houses.”
Artists actually did live in Greenwich Village at that time, but they were unknown. James Baldwin, Tennessee Williams and Marlon Brando often met for breakfast at the Life Cafeteria, which catered to gay boys and girls. Jackson Pollack struggled to find his own style in his rundown apartment at 46 East 8th Street.
Research specific to gays in the 1940s was much easier because of the many wonderful LGBT historians who have devoted themselves to gathering our stories.
To get the flavor of the times and to learn about the more specific elements I read numerous contemporary magazines such as Vogue and Cue; I read novels and memoirs written during that time. I also read books that tried to explain homosexuality to laypeople such as The Problem of Homosexuality and Female Homosexuality, in which we learn that Lesbians are prone toward crimes such as murder.
Creative License with Historical Facts?
Playwrights often bend the facts when they are writing a play based on history. Frequently, you are criticized by fellow playwrights in development groups if you are not willing to do this. Shakespeare’s Richard II is often cited as an example of historical facts being less important than “art.” That may be true, but I feel a responsibility to tell the true history of the LGBT people. It does not need embellishment; the historical facts are dramatic enough. I am not merely telling some story. I am telling the history of a group of people who overcame adversity. I must stick to the facts if I am going to tell this story. The “art” comes from how the individual characters in their unique ways cope with these historical facts.
My background as a playwright has led to a novel with a significant amount of dialogue. The only writers’ feedback group that I had during the writing process was the Oracles, my playwriting group. Since there was a great deal of dialogue in the novel and I had no other way of getting peer feedback I cast the chapters with actors as I would have done with a play I was working on and presented it to my playwriting group for feedback.
The group became so fascinated with the characters and the subtleties of the history that they encouraged me to take my novel to a public venue to be performed like a mini-series, a few chapters each month.
This past December the first installment of JULIANA was presented at the Stonewall Inn in New York City to an enthusiastic audience. We were invited back in January and as of February we will be performing further chapters of the book every first Tuesday of the month, 7pm. Everyone is welcome. Come to the upstairs room.
Juliana is not yet published, but I’m hoping these public readings will lead to that. I often get requests for the book.
I have begun work on Volume 2 of JULIANA (1945-1956). This time period begins one of the most difficult in gay history. Similar to August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle in which he wrote a play for each decade spanning from 1900 to 1990 exploring a different aspect of African American history, I plan to write a series of novels exploring LGBT history using the same characters.
Now I would like to introduce a wonderful historical writer, Eleanor Park Sapia.
Eleanor Parker Sapia, a Puerto Rican-born novelist, was raised in the US, Europe and the colonial city of Ponce, Puerto Rico where she got the idea for her debut novel, A Decent Woman. She has lived in France, Greece, Austria and in Brussels, Belgium, where she spent 13 years. Ellie has degrees from Marymount University in Virginia and Philippi Trust Counseling and Training Center, Blackpool, UK. She makes her home in West Virginia.
Her debut novel, A Decent Woman, will be published with Booktrope in Spring 2015. She is currently writing her second novel, Finding Gracia, inspired by her journey on the medieval pilgrimage walk of El Camino in Spain. She focuses on writing stories that introduce the reader to Latin American and Spanish characters. You can find out more about her work on her blog, https://l.facebook.com/l/VAQHt0Yz5AQELierK8gmkNy45ZR4W5DnQKRoyxa5LM48u9g/https%3A%2F%2Felliesbookz.wordpress.com%2F