Please join me in welcoming author Christian Baines to The Novel Approach today to chat about his new novel from Bold Strokes Books, Puppet Boy. There’s also an excerpt from the book as well as the change to win an e-copy of Puppet Boy, so don’t forget to click on the Rafflecopter widget to enter.
“I had no problem with people knowing I was bisexual. But I had no inclination to hold any banners nor be a representative of any group of people.” – David Bowie
Anyone who reads Puppet Boy’s blurb will see that high school senior Eric has a lot on his plate. But when an attractive budding actor named Julien transfers to his class, Eric’s initial scepticism soon turns to fascination. Could Julian in fact be his muse? Even his first boyfriend? That could be problematic. Eric and his girlfriend Mary have been inseparable since they were twelve. But Mary is more complicated than she seems, and for that matter, so is Julien.
Puppet Boy’s characters are a diverse spread. Some are gay, some are straight, some are bi, most aren’t putting labels on it, and no-one is particularly in crisis over their sexuality. They have far more interesting problems. The main plot surrounds the arts clique of an elite Christian high school in Sydney, meaning there are plenty of insecurities to go around. I tend to describe the novel as ‘What if Glee was instead the brainchild of Bret Easton Ellis and Gregg Araki?’ They were certainly big influences on it. But I feel those stories also have something in terms of LGBT acceptance that’s kind of faded in the last twenty years – a casual, but unmistakeable sense of bi visibility, usually without ever putting the label out there.
So where did those stories go? As gay culture has gone so mainstream, and our embrace of gay themes has become more earnest, bi characters have been increasingly shuffled off under broad ‘gay’ or ‘straight’ labels depending on who they’re with at the time. Or their bisexuality is depicted as a character flaw. It’s almost as if it isn’t ‘gay-positive’ enough if a character is bi, or it’s seen as a compromise or half-way point. ‘Oh, Willow can’t be bi. She’s with a woman, so she’s obviously gay now.’ So how does an author try to avoid that?
The tricky thing about tackling bi erasure is that sometimes, erasing labels is exactly the point. Unlike monosexuality which is demonstrated through the gender of our partners, bisexuality is rarely obvious unless the person tells you. As for all those great stories that came out in the 80’s and 90’s featuring sexual fluidity, they were, like Bowie, never out to represent bisexuals in earnest. They just played those characters truthfully and if you didn’t like it or it scared you, then, too bad. You obviously didn’t get it. In that vein, there’s no attempt in Puppet Boy to represent.
The novel’s job is to tell a story, not wave a flag, and unless someone is waving that flag or is in a polyamorous relationship, their bisexuality isn’t really overt. That makes it no less present or real than another person’s homo or heterosexuality, yet for whatever reason, our culture frames it as a tool or weapon rather than a sexual identity, insisting that someone who switches from a male partner to female or vice versa is ‘coming out,’ ‘going gay for you,’ or ‘ending a phase.’
While our pro-LGBT rights world is perfectly comfortable with the idea of bisexuality, our culture struggles to understand or accept the actuality. Glee, for all its supposed pro-gay milestones, introduced female bisexuality couched in titillation clichés, establishing its only major bisexual character as a relatively safe, cutesy, ditsy white girl. Then there’s its disastrous ‘Blame It on the Alcohol’ episode, which pays lip service to acknowledging bi-phobia before safely returning Blaine to the land of gay. Compare that with Skyfall, in which Daniel Craig’s Bond casually hints there might be male lovers in 007’s past. That single, quiet moment, in a mainstream action movie – a Bond movie, no less – was huge. It didn’t out the character as bi. It simply reminded us all that that wasn’t so far-fetched. Bisexuals could be heroes, villains, out and proud, quiet and reserved, in relationships, single, monogamous, poly, promiscuous, selective, chaste, more into men, more into women…everywhere and everything was within reach, right up to being James freakin’ Bond.
I don’t think there’s any trick to writing bisexual characters, so much as keeping in mind the way people treat bisexuality. Many won’t realise or acknowledge it, even if they themselves are bi. Or sometimes they’ll come out as gay because they feel it’s easier. We live in a culture that’s currently obsessed with sexual labels, and so do the characters of Puppet Boy. Deep down, they know they might be selling themselves and each other short, but they still find the idea of a fully fledged bisexual identity threatening, particularly for a man, or within themselves, so they retreat to fallacies like ‘gay for you.’ That might frustrate a few readers, and it does make them unreliable narrators in a sense, but it’s true to how I felt a seventeen or eighteen year old might realistically think or talk in a culture that still tends to dismiss sexual fluidity.
Of course it’s never just a matter of liking women or men or both. Countless factors determine attraction and comfort with intimacy. So I tried to focus on the feelings, not the gender of the characters and love interests in Puppet Boy. Characters might be into one person and not another, and not know exactly why. They can want sex and nothing else, or be totally in love with little or no sexual attraction. They can be messy, selfish, and screwed up, and to me, that’s interesting. That’s more reflective of what we’re like as people.
Puppet Boy isn’t a romance, MMF, MM, or otherwise. It’s also not some kind of bi manifesto, and its characters certainly aren’t role models. I do think more bi role models in fiction would be a great thing, but character came before sexuality in Puppet Boy, and to be honest, I find morally dubious characters more fun. So this was never going to be a book about role models or heroes. Instead, it’s a dark coming of age story that simply embraces the characters’ sexual fluidity as part of who they are. Eric’s primary goal never changes. His sexual exploration travels in tandem with it. When exactly he accepts his sexual identity doesn’t matter. He’s not going to look back in twenty years and think ‘Wasn’t I a good/bad bisexual?’ He’s going to remember the people he cared about, and the people who hurt him. In Puppet Boy, he finds plenty of both.
Blurb: A school in turmoil over its senior play, a sly career as a teenage gigolo, an unpredictable girlfriend with damage of her own, and a dangerous housebreaker tied up downstairs. Any of these would make a great plot for budding filmmaker Eric’s first movie.
Unfortunately, they’re his real life.
When Julien, a handsome wannabe actor, transfers to Eric’s class, he’s a distraction, a rival, and one complication too many. Yet Eric can’t stop thinking about him. Helped by Eric’s girlfriend, Mary, they embark on a project that dangerously crosses the line between filmmaking and reality. As the boys become close, Eric soon wants to cross other lines entirely. Does Julien feel the same way, or is Eric being used on the gleefully twisted path to fame?
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Excerpt: “Eric, where are we going?” Mary giggled as she ran to keep up with him.
“Harley said we could rehearse where we wanted, and the script says ‘another part of the forest.’ Come on!” He took her hand as they jumped over rocks and fallen branches, heading deeper into the wild parkland that backed onto Christian Fellowship’s grounds.
“Have you been back here before?” she asked.
“We could get in a shitload of trouble.”
“For taking a walk?” Eric pulled Mary close to him and clasped her hands in his, bearing down on her with an evil grin. “The trouble starts when I cut thy tongue and ravish thee!”
“Jules? Come on! You’re missing the fun!”
“Oh yeah.” Julien almost tripped over a rock as he staggered towards them. “Because I don’t want to miss the tongue cutting. That shit’s ace.”
“Fine, you cut the tongue, and I’ll ravish.” Eric knew Jules hadn’t been thrilled with the change of part or the lost opportunity to play Felicity Turner’s lover, but nobody had forced it on him. Eric was happy to do it for Mary. Who’d twisted Julien’s arm?
“Come on! Get with the ravishing already!” Mary snapped playfully, pulling down her blouse to show off three inches of modest cleavage.
“You mean you actually have breasts? Oh sweet and terrible temptation,” Eric mocked, taking out the script and flipping pages. He skimmed the text as she pulled down her blouse some more. “You know, when Shakespeare was around, they’d have tossed you out as a whore for doing that.”
“When Shakespeare was around, they’d have Jules playing Lavinia.”
“Huh?” Julien frowned.
“They usually didn’t let girls on stage.” Eric enlightened him. “Relax. She’s stirring you up.” After their encounter with Andy, Eric wasn’t prepared to cast further doubts on Julien’s masculinity. At least, not yet.
“Yeah, I know all about that. You know that’s where the word ‘drag’ comes from, right? Boy enters ‘DRessed As Girl?’”
“So, is that what you want your dad to think?” Julien asked Mary.
Eric gritted his teeth, wishing Julien would shut up. But the stupid jock wasn’t looking at him.
“What?” Mary asked.
“That you’re a whore?”
Mary smirked at him, and Eric relaxed, unable to resist a smile of his own. Everyone needed a goal. Topping Mary’s father’s shit list was more satisfying than most within their immediate reach.
“Okay.” He found the page they needed. “So if we skip the bit where Tamora’s sons kill Bassianus—”
“Who?” Julien asked.
“Lavinia’s husband. Saturninus’s brother.”
“The young, new emperor…” Eric offered, seeing his friend’s clueless face. “Look, let’s not get into the rest of it just yet. One scene at a time, okay?”
“Cool,” Julien approved.
“Yes, Mister Director?”
“What?” Eric looked up from the script, his eyes fixing on her. “What do you mean?”
“You’re totally directing us.”
“I am not.”
“It’s what you want to do, isn’t it? This play was your idea, so we’re all yours.”
“I don’t want it to be like that,” he grumbled. “Not with you.”
Half truth, and they knew it. Something about taking the play and making it his own appealed to him. Didn’t he have the right to some creative control? Hadn’t it been his crazy suggestion to do this play, and hadn’t he somehow convinced the entire class to go for it? Didn’t he get Harley to go against the state curriculum for them? And fuck it, if he could control Joe, he could control a bunch of high school actors. All his idea. All his.
“Do you want Chiron or Demetrius?” he asked Julien.
“Huh? The brothers, you mean?”
“Yeah, which one do you want? Harley wants us to decide.” He looked to Mary for an opinion, but the girl was silent.
“What’s the diff’?”
“Demetrius gets more lines, just. Chiron’s younger, a bit more out there and fun. I think Chiron would suit you better.”
“So, act two, scene four?” Mary pulled the sleeves of her blouse down over her hands, covering them in the makeshift ‘stumps’ of her cuffs.
“That’s the first scene where it’s just the three of us, so I guess. Wait, you’ve got it memorised already?”
Mary shrugged away his disbelief. “Actually, it’s not the three of us. It’s just you two. I don’t have a tongue by this point, remember?”
“Oh yeah, right.”
“You just cut them off.”
“Yes, I remember. Thanks.”
“Ymoa’re mbelcumb,” the girl mumbled, her tongue folded back inside her mouth to simulate its removal.
“What was that?”
“Oh! You’re welcome. Shouldn’t talk with your mouth full, darling.”
“Or empty, in this case.”
“Phuck yiew, ‘itch!”
Eric flashed a grin and went back to the script. “So, now go tell, an’ if thy tongue can speak, who ‘twas that cut they tongue and ravish’d thee.” He pulled her close, his arms tight around her waist.
Mary screamed, an empty, muted sound, from behind her folded tongue as she turned her face away in feigned disgust. Eric wasn’t sure how a tongue-less mouth muted its sound, but they could work that out later. The two of them stood in silence, waiting for the next line.
“Jules?” Eric asked. “Jules?”
“Y’ul’en!” Mary shouted.
“Huh? Oh, it’s me?”
“Where’s your script?”
“Oh shit. I left it in class. Distracted. Sorry!”
Eric shook his head, throwing Julien his copy. “Page fifty-one.”
“Right.” He fumbled awkwardly until he found the right page. “Ah… Write down thy mind, bewray thy meaning so, An if thy stumps…”
Eric had to admit Julien’s cold reading was spot on for a guy who hadn’t read the script. “See, how with signs and tokens she can scrowl.”
“Go home,” Julien answered. “Call for sweet water, wash thy hands.”
An anguished cry pierced the air as Mary threw herself to the ground, beating at it with her cuff-enclosed fists, screaming the same muffled screams as she pounded the rocks and grass.
“Shit! Are you okay?” Julien asked.
She looked up at him with furious, mad eyes, a trail of spittle bubbling over her lower lip and down her chin before she spat it to the ground. Julien fell back as Mary’s vengeful screams levelled on him. She threw herself at him with unhindered fury.
“What’re you…? Hey!” he yelled as she beat her fists against his chest and clawed at his arms with clenched fingers. “What the…? Eric! Arrgh!” A searing pain ripped down his forearm. He whipped it back, catching Mary across the jaw with a loud crack.
The girl screamed as she clutched her stinging face. For an instant, the temptation seized Eric to throw himself at Julien, to wrestle him to the ground and start bashing his head. But it had been an accident. Nobody’s fault. He hoped his friends would see it the same way.
Julien finally tore his eyes away from the blood that was trickling over his arm, in time to see Mary’s eyes, the hatred that had filled them before, now intensified. “Shit! I’m sorry! Are you o— Hey!” He stumbled back again as she spat in his face.
Eric stepped forward, grabbed her hair from behind and yanked it back. Mary screamed in agony, twisting her head around as though he’d pulled it with all his strength. “She hath no tongue to call nor hands to wash,” he recited, suddenly releasing the hair and launching her head forward. More spittle. More anguished moans. “So let’s leave her to her silent walks.”
Mary scrambled across the ground, grabbing Julien’s trouser legs in her ‘stumps’ as she wrapped herself around, imploring him.
“Okay, stop. What the fuck are you doing?” Julien stammered, wiping his face clean.
Another low scream came from Mary as she pressed her head against Julien’s thigh, clutching him tight in her faux dismembered arms. Eric frowned, too intrigued to stop her now. “Keep going.”
“Uh…an…an t’were my case, I should go hang myself.”
“If thou hadst hands to help thee knit the cord.”
Mary let out another scream, then buried her face in Julien’s crotch. Eric had just opened his mouth to ask why, when…
“What on Earth is going on back here?”
About the Author: Born in Toowoomba, Queensland, Christian Baines has since lived in Brisbane, Sydney, and Toronto, earning an MA in creative writing at University of Technology, Sydney along the way. His musings on travel, theatre, and gay life have appeared in numerous publications in both Australia and Canada.
Dual passions for travel and mythology have sent him across the world in search of dark and entertaining stories. His first novel, The Beast Without, was released in 2013, followed by an erotic short story, The Prince and the Practitioner.
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