|Its been twelve years since the publication of Stephen McCauleys
first book, The Object of My Affection, but less than two since
the engaging story of a pregnant woman and her gay male roommate
appeared as a mainstream movie. And though the celluloid version,
with a screenplay by playwright Wendy Wasserstein, takes many
liberties with the text, McCauley was pleased with the honesty
with which Hollywood presented a gay character in a starring role:
a gay man who did not lurk in dark alleys, was not any more maladjusted
than the rest of us, and who did not die tragically by the end
of the film. In the years before McCauley graduated from UVM in
1978, such a role was inconceivable.
Now 43, he has two more books to his name The Easy Way Out and
The Man of the House. Both have been optioned for film projects,
but, knowing the vagaries of the business, McCauleys not holding
his breath. He freely admits the movie changed his life, though
not because hes a household name, but simply because it got
him out of peddling plane tickets.
Eleven years ago when the book [Object] came out, I was working
at a travel agency and was bad at it, and had decided I didnt
even like traveling, he says. I think I got paid $7,500 for
the book, but when it was optioned four months later to 20th Century
Fox, I got enough money to leave the agency, concentrate on my
next novel, and launch a second career as a teacher.
Its tempting to believe that McCauleys books all written in
first person are more than slightly autobiographical. Each of
his protagonists is a gay man, and two out of three live in Cambridge,
as he does. Each has a self-deprecating sense of humor, if not
low self-esteem, is unhappy with his career, or lack thereof,
and is ambivalent at best about relationships. Each is floundering,
but, in his own odd way, is perennially hopeful, often wickedly
funny, and rather sweet.
McCauley admits that hes been there a claim supported by
the insightful way he writes about emotional turmoil and indecision
but demurs that his characters are him, exactly. They have
some of my attitudes and sort of emotional crises Im working
out at some times in my life, but Id like to think I am a little
bit more self-aware than my narrators, maybe a little more together,
he says. Especially more than Clyde [in The Man of the House].
Hes incapable of getting out of bed in the morning. I have a
job, a fairly successful career, and a relationship.
Many wannabe authors spend years getting a book published, never
mind three, but McCauley is characteristically modest about his
fairly successful career. Even with a bachelors in English
from UVM and a masters in creative writing from Columbia, he
insists it was getting published that helped him land teaching
jobs. And rather than exploiting his tenuous ties with filmdoms
glitterati, McCauley prefers his pretty quiet existence in Cambridge,
writing books and articles, and teaching fiction and screenwriting
at Brandeis University. His posts there, and at the University
of Massachusetts, Wellesley College, and Harvard, all have been
temporary appointments. McCauley likes it that way. You dont
have to get involved in department politics, he quips.
Working on his fourth novel, this writer admits its still hard.
But maybe not as hard as it was in college: I took a writing
class every semester, then dropped every single one, he confesses.
I found the whole process so intimidating. I have a tremendous
amount of respect for my students courage.
McCauley had dreamed of writing since childhood. I wanted to
do it so badly that I was weighed down by fear of failure, he
says. I think thats what makes me a slow writer still.
But a lifetime of avid reading in a household where no one
else read for pleasure, he notes led inexorably to McCauley
putting his own words to paper. A few years of restless casting
about after college was enough to overturn the fear. I decided
I was never going to commit to anything if I didnt try it, McCauley
concludes. I started writing at age twenty-seven.
The Object of My Affection was proof that late is better than
Last fall at his alma mater, when he was the invited speaker for
National Coming Out Week, McCauley reminisced with both humor
and wonderment about being a gay student in the 70s. Then the
office of the Gay Student Union which also welcomed members
from the rest of the community was a single desk on the balcony
of Billings. For a while I was treasurer a job everyone wanted
because there was no money, he joked.
If acknowledgment of gay life was token at the university one
big event was only allowed the oblique title, On Becoming-A Weekend
things were scarcely more overt off-campus. There were far
fewer cultural role models then, McCauley reminded his young
audience. No Ellen, no k.d. lang. He summarized his own coming
out as difficult and complicated, especially for his suburban
Boston family including two heterosexual brothers at the
other end of the political spectrum. At the same time, in the
70s, talking about gay subjects felt very fresh and radical,
he noted. There was a lot of optimism back then as gay liberation
But the 70s slogan the personal is political is as true today
as it was then, and in light of the other subject of McCauleys
talk the murder of 21-year-old Matthew Shepard, a gay student
at the University of Wyoming it seemed as if a quarter-century
had seen little change in society at all. Homophobia, like racism,
is learned behavior, McCauley said. Its hard to view the killers
in Wyoming as anything but especially good students of the system.
McCauley is not enamored of delivering such grim speeches; in
fact, other than teaching, hes not crazy about public speaking
at all, though hes got a standard speech I give about being
a writer. One of the reasons he writes is because in person
I have always been fairly shy and inarticulate. Writing gives
me an outlet for what I cant express verbally, he says. Many
a successful author has said as much McCauleys novels alone
suggest how much literature owes to introverts.
Its his love of books not just the mountain views that brings
McCauley back to Burlington every summer, still. He and his partner,
Sebastian Stuart, also a novelist, rent an isolated cabin on the
New York side of Lake Champlain and make regular pilgrimages across
the lake to rifle through bookstores.
I came to UVM as a student because I wanted to live in a more rural setting than the one in which I grew up, says McCauley. Now I come to Burlington for an infusion of big-city energy bookstores, restaurants, theaters. I tried to set a section of my new novel there, but it didnt work. Rents have gone up so much, my characters had to move.