Patricia Nell Warren: An Interview
Daniel M. Jaffe
I don’t tend toward sentimental hero worship, but the author I’m profiling this February—Patricia Nell Warren—holds a special place in my Valentine’s Day heart. And, as I witnessed at the West Hollywood Book Fair this past October, I’m not alone. While sitting beside Patricia at her autograph table, I saw men repeatedly start passing by, halt, do a double-take, and exclaim, “You’re her!” or “Oh my God, I love your novels!” or “You made me realize that love was possible.” or “You changed my life.” Indeed, Patricia Nell Warren’s first novel, The Front Runner, reassured gay men around the world that we could find love.
Today, the notion seems obvious. But this was not obvious back in 1974 when the medical establishment labeled us mentally ill, and when the prevailing cultural myth was that gay men lacked the capacity to feel love. Patricia’s novel about a romance between two credible and endearing men—an ex-marine track coach and an Olympic-bound athlete—encouraged us to seek the love we hoped to find.
It’s no surprise that the New York Times heralded The Front Runner as “the most moving, monumental love story ever written about gay life,” or that the novel sold an estimated 10 million copies in 20 editions. No wonder readers have clamored for Patricia’s additional seven novels, as well as her new nonfiction title, The Lavender Locker Room. No wonder she and her work have garnered such acclaim as a nomination for the American Library Association’s Stonewall Award, an Editors’ Choice Lambda Literary Award, the Barry Goldwater Human Rights Award from the Arizona Human Rights Fund, and many other recognitions. No wonder she’s been inducted into two different Gay & Lesbian Halls of Fame.
How did Patricia come to write The Front Runner? “In the late 1960s,” she explained, “I got involved in long distance running. It was a time when females were first breaking into high-stress sports, and women who wanted to run long distance were locked in a battle with the Amateur Athletics Union (AAU) over the distances they were permitted to run. By 1969, when I ran unofficially in the Boston Marathon for the first time, women were still limited to 2 1/2 miles in sanctioned events, and we were demanding that the bar be raised to 50 miles, same as for men.
“I was one of the women activists who pushed for AAU change. The experience taught me a great deal about how the sports establishment strikes back when some new thing threatens what they viewed as ‘sacred tradition.’ And often ‘tradition’ got confused with ‘scientific fact,’ as many people in authority in the AAU would bring up really ridiculous and unscientific health arguments against women’s distance, when the real problem was their outdated attitude that certain sports were ‘unladylike and harmful’ for women. What I learned from the women’s battle was very applicable to the upcoming battle faced by closeted gay people in sports.
“During my running and women’s activism, I was meeting other people in the sport who were clearly in the same closet as I—both women and men. But the prevailing beliefs among officials and fans were based on stereotypes. There was the ‘all gay men are powderpuffs and wusses who are not interested in or capable of any rugged sport.’ There was also the ‘all women athletes are dykes, especially those who want to compete in unladylike sports like distance running.’ I found myself being called a ‘dyke’ by hostile fans even before I came out!
“From there to thinking of a novel about closeted gay people in sports, and their fight to get out of that closet, was just a step. It had never been done, and I thought it was a great idea!
“You can imagine the fun I had in creating track coach Harlan Brown, a rugged, gnarly, conservative Republican ex-Marine athlete struggling with his sexuality—everything that a gay man wasn’t deemed to be in the 1970s. That title, The Front Runner, came to me right away. Front runners are the perfect symbol for any person who challenges the establishment in sports.”
While writing that novel, did Patricia have any inkling that it would become an international best-seller and cultural phenomenon? “Naturally every author hopes against hope that his or her book will be a big success,” she replied. “I was no different. My publisher, William Morrow, trusted that the book would make a splash, and was willing to do major promotion. But none of us, least of all myself, had any idea The Front Runner would take on a life of its own.
“To date it has been translated into ten languages, the most recent being Italian—right under the Pope’s nose—by a big publisher in Rome. When the USSR was still in existence, I would get reports of how the book was being circulated underground there. Now the frontier is Asia. Right now I’m learning that my books are circulating in the Republic of China. Most young people who encounter the story today don’t find it dated at all, because of the intensity of anti-gay prejudice that they encounter themselves.”
I wondered whether Patricia’s writing process has changed over time, and how she decided when it was time to write her sequels. “I’ve been writing fiction since the 1960s,” said Patricia, “so my process has grown and matured over the years. The source of inspiration can vary. But usually there’s a moment when a character materializes powerfully in my imagination, and becomes the ‘voice’ who tells the story. My most successful novels are the ones where there is a single first-person viewpoint. Whether it’s the tired bullfighter Antonio Escudero in The Wild Man or the teen ranch girl who dreams of being a town girl in my forthcoming novel, Wrong Side of the Tracks, it’s always about the character.
“With The Front Runner, there was a time-line issue that made me wait a long time before I wrote the sequel. At the end of the book, a baby is born in the year 1977. He was to be a central character in the sequels. But he wouldn’t be a teenager till the 1990s. I actually attempted to write the first sequel in the late 1970s, and had a contract with William Morrow to do Billy’s Boy. But I realized I was writing science fiction. Who knew what the future 1990s would be like? So I waited till I was living in the 1990s before I finally wrote the sequels, Harlan’s Race and Billy’s Boy. And I’m very glad I did.”
The Lavender Locker Room, Patricia’s recent nonfiction book of historical essays about lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) athletes, grew out of a lifelong fascination with sports. As a youngster, Patricia’s initial interest, she recalled, was “with equestrian sports. I grew up on a ranch and competed in high school rodeo and barrel racing. Novels are great, but there are a lot of wonderful stories about real-life figures who struggled with gender and sexuality issues.
“For example, as a teen I idolized Babe Didrikson, then at her peak as a pro golfer. Many years later, when some sportswriters were finally willing to mention that she was a lesbian, I wasn’t surprised.
“When Outsports.com launched as a publication, I went to them with my idea of a series about ‘LGBT sports greats through history.’ They loved it. So I’ve been covering a variety of sports for them, from football to figure skating. The Lavender Locker Room is an anthology of the first 19 Outsports pieces. Incidentally, this book has won more awards than The Front Runner ever did. The series is still ongoing, with new additions.”
Another interesting facet of Patricia’s life involves time spent living and working in Spain. Patricia commented on the influence of those years: “When I was a Reader’s Digest editor, I spent several years between 1964-1971 in fascist Spain, working with the Reader’s Digest Spanish edition there. It gave me a lot of insight into a traditionalist society where state religion has hard-wired people’s emotions and attitudes for 500 years. But Spain also has her powerful liberal freedom-loving persona, and that part of her national character and aspiration was already straining at the limits of General Franco’s dictatorship in 1969. This was a watershed year in Spanish history, which is why I picked it for my novel The Wild Man.
“It was in Spain that I also realized I’d have to stop cowering in my own closet and come out . . . which I did a few years later.”
Given her broad historical perspective on LGBT publishing and bookselling, which changes has Patricia observed over the years? “You hear a lot of talk,” Patricia said, “about how ‘independent gay bookstores are going out of business.’ This is true, but the bad guy isn’t necessarily the Barnes & Noble down the street. The fact is, the major gay media, and many of our regional publications, aren’t very interested in what authors and publishers do any more. They are obsessed with television, movies, entertainment, politics and tabloid celebrity . . . but they don’t review many books, and they don’t interview many authors and put them on magazine covers. Generally most of the gay media have gone the same Paris Hilton red-carpet route as the mainstream media.
“Today the LGBT book fans and book buyers have almost nowhere to go if they want to find out what’s new and current in our books. The downturn in book sales has pushed the closure of many community bookstores. We face other problems as well, tracing to major shakeups and changes in the mainstream book industry itself. But the erosion of LGBT community support for authors and publishing, is probably the most serious problem we face. It cuts at the very roots of the LGBT printed word that we’ve built slowly and painfully grown since the 1950s.”
Nowadays, Patricia co-manages a small press, Wildcat International. Although demanding, the press does not take time from her writing. “If I were a fish,” she commnted, “writing would be the ocean I live in! So not writing would leave me gasping for air. Over the years I’ve built good work habits, and always find time to write—usually very early in the morning before the phone starts to ring. Right now I’m working on a novel and a nonfiction book. Plus I write columns for four different magazines, and blog at Outsports and Bilerico Project.”
In addition to all this, Patricia also devotes a great deal of time to mentoring young people. In particular, Patricia has worked on the Gay and Lesbian Education Commission of the Los Angeles Unified School District. This involvement began, she explained, “when I did volunteer teaching at EAGLES Center, which was a program for LGBT drop-out students. Then I served on the Gay and Lesbian Commission 1996-98, and on the district’s Human Relations Commission 1998-99. As such, I was involved directly with students and their struggles, and helped advise the Board of Education on LGBT student issues. You’d be interested to know that LAUSD was the first school district in the country to establish a stated policy that LGBT students have a right to an education and right to be safe at school.
“The day-to-day contact with our young people, and the close-up I got on that searing hostility that they face daily in many schools, was a real eye-opener for me. Many older people in the community have the attitude that young people today ‘have it easier than they did.’ This is not true. Gay people of my generation faced some daunting and dangerous challenges. The challenges of today are no less daunting and dangerous, and they’re fueled by the fact that gay controversies are now in the headlines daily.”
Readers interested in learning more about the remarkable Patricia Nell Warren, can enjoy her website.
Dan is the author of The Limits of Pleasure, a rather controversial novel nominated by some for awards and by others for public burning (well, almost). A former corporate lawyer, he shed his suits to become a rebel with a cause—creative freedom in life and art. Dan frequently publishes short stories and personal essays in literary journals and newspapers such as The Forward, Green Mountains Review and The Florida Review. He compiled and edited With Signs and Wonders: An International Anthology of Jewish Fabulist Fiction, and translated Here Comes the Messiah!, a Russian-Israeli novel by Dina Rubina. He also teaches fiction writing for UCLA Extension. Dan can be reached at
, and his web site is here.