An Interview with Sean Reynolds
By Sidney Brinkley
Sean Reynolds’ debut novel Dying For A Change (Suspect Thoughts Press) arrived to critical acclaim in 2009 and garnered a Lambda Literary Award nomination for the year’s Best Fiction. Though the novel did not win the “Lammy,” it was quite an accomplishment to be nominated the first time out.
I interviewed the budding author in the spring of 2010. We met in a café one morning in San Francisco’s Lower Haight neighborhood, before she reported to her day job as a social worker and counselor for women dealing with issues such as substance abuse, domestic violence, homelessness and incarceration.
Sean has a rich, confident speaking voice; her words delivered at a fair pace, as evidenced by the amount of ground covered in a relatively short period of time. As expected, we talked about her novel and which writers influenced her, but also her intriguing teenage years and how the Chicago native ended up in San Francisco. And despite the accolades and growing buzz among her peers, one well-known author told me Reynolds was “the next E. Lynn Harris,” she’s very down to earth—not a whiff of pretension.
Dying For A Change tells the story of a woman, Chan Parker, who looks like a man. Her best friend, Henrietta Wild Cherry, is a man who looks like a woman. They join forces to investigate the murder of another man, Miss Dove, who really wanted to be a woman. The action unfolds in Chicago a city she refers to as “the fourth character” in the book. How did she come up with the plot of the novel?
“I probably made the biggest mistake any writer can make when they’re writing fiction,” she said, “I didn’t have a plot. I really should have done an outline as a few people suggested. I had no idea how it would end. Things just came to me as I wrote. I knew there was going to be a murder. I didn’t know who was going to be killed, but then it just sort of evolved in my strange mind. As I got it going and everybody had their voice I said ‘Okay, I got this. I got this.’ And I loved it. I loved writing it. I laughed as I was writing it. I said ‘Child, you are crazy.’
If certain aspects of the book ring true to anyone familiar with Gay life in the big city, credit a Gay man with introducing the precocious and whip-smart 15-year-old to Chicago’s vibrant Black Gay life of the 1960s.
“It was 1965 and I was just beginning to come out,” she said. “Paul Keller, the Gay man I hung around with for quite a longtime, took me to this Lesbian’s house and it was the first time I ever spent any time with a real Lesbian. I was fascinated with her, with the life, with everything. I remember her telling me 'You probably don’t know what you are at this point.' and I thought that was quite astute, because I really didn’t. I hadn’t had sex, but I knew what I was attracted to, sort of.
“Paul’s drag name was ‘Pauline.’ We called him ‘Miss Pauline’—everybody was ‘Miss’ somebody back then—and he wasn’t transgender,” she states emphatically, “he was a drag queen. Pauline had a tremendous influence on my life. One of the smartest people I’ve ever known. He spoke several languages, came from a good background, and everybody in his family knew he was Gay. I was smart in a very intellectual way and I knew the streets, but I was new to ‘that’ scene.”
Sean became the “mascot” of a group of Black drag queens and was introduced to the Black Gay world of bars, house parties and social events.
“Pauline and the other drag queens made sure I had ID. The bartenders would make me a rum and Coke—with a half inch of rum. I was smoking L&Ms, don’t even ask me why; I didn’t know how to inhale. I was just hanging out with the Gay kids, and it was quite fun.”
Though new to the Gay bar scene she had been around Gay men and Lesbians for years, coming from a family that was rather open-minded for the times.
“I knew so many Gays and Lesbians when I was young,” she said. “My aunt Agnes had a Gay roommate, a man named Charles. I had a cousin who was a Lesbian for awhile, and I had friends who were Lesbians. When I was younger my brother and I had a good friend then, when I was around seventeen, we reconnected when he and his boyfriend moved right up the street from us. My mother would often use the boyfriend as a ‘beard’ to take her out all the time.”
Sean didn’t spend her teenage years only partying and hanging out in bars; she had a love of books and reading that began early.
“I didn’t read kid’s books when I was growing up. My Aunt Agnes was a big reader and she would always have something by James Baldwin. I discovered Another Country and found the language unbelievable. Just unbelievable.”
Soon the voracious reader was writing her own stories. “I used to write on the EL on my way to and from school,” she said. “I wrote a lot.” However, fond as she was of Chicago, her family and the city’s Black Gay scene, she made plans to leave it all for a warmer climate following a particularly brutal winter in the Windy City.
“The winter of 1978 had unusually heavy snow,” she said. “My roof collapsed from the weight of it. To make matters worse, my landlady was in Florida—on vacation. I said then, ‘I’m getting older by the minute here. I can’t take this.’ ”
In 1980 Sean landed in San Francisco, but her writing went on hiatus. “Life sort of takes over,” she said. “I was working. Going to school. Changing jobs. I was getting older and older, and I wasn’t too happy with that so I decided to get back into writing.”
Now, she maintains a rigorous writing schedule which begins at 5:30 in the morning —every morning—before she heads off to work. “I write everyday,” she said, “just to keep me fresh because I know how distracted I can get. I want to go to this movie. I want to go that party. I want to do this, that and the other.”
She credits late night TV for her love of the crime genre.
“I’m a big fan of film noir,” she said. “I stayed up late at night watching film noir movies on TV. That’s where my love of film noir came from. It’s a lot of fun. I like the clip of it. This is it! Bim. Bam. Boom. Without a lot of trivia. I love the Thin Man series. I love Dick Powell.”
Among the authors who specialize in the crime novel she names Walter Mosely as the one she most admires, but sees her own writing style closer to that of Chester Himes, author of Cotton Comes to Harlem.
"Look, any comparison between me and Walter Mosely would be unfair to him,” she said, “but he really crafts a novel very well. I would ‘hope’ to be like Walter Mosely. I think my writing is more like Himes in terms of the humor. He was very funny given he was such an angry man. I certainly have my edge of anger, sort of psychotic really, but I would compare myself to Himes rather than Mosely because it’s not so much about solving the crime; it’s the journey you take to get to the end that I like the best. My only hope was that people would understand the language, the language of the 60s, the language of African Americans and the language of Gays and Lesbians.”
As it turned out, however, everybody did not get the language and she received some criticism about her frequent use of the word “nigger” in her book, more so from Whites than Blacks.
“Some White people don’t get it,” she said. “They really don’t understand the language of African Americans. They don’t understand that there really was a world before Stonewall,”—referring to the 1969 New York Gay bar raid that spawned the modern Gay Rights movement—“and I really wanted to represent a world before Stonewall because there was. We tend to think that Stonewall was the jumping off point and it wasn’t.”
Sean is well into her second novel and expects to finish writing it this year, with publication in 2011. And while she acknowledges not having an outline was a mistake the first time, she’s working without an outline this time as well.
“I just changed the ending the other day,” she said. “It came to me. This is a continuation, definitely a part two. Everyone asks, ‘Is Chan going to have a love interest?’ No! She’s busy. But she does have a love interest, someone who was introduced in the first novel. I’m not going to tell you the title,” she teased, “but it’s another ‘Dying For.’ I’ve decided that all of this series will be ‘Dying For …’ something.”
One thing’s for sure, if the response to her first novel is any indication, Sean Reynolds’ growing fan base will be “dying” to read it.