It’s been twelve years since the publication of Stephen McCauley’s 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, McCauley’s not holding his breath. He freely admits the movie changed his life, though — not because he’s 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 didn’t 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.”

It’s tempting to believe that McCauley’s 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 he’s “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 I’m working out at some times in my life, but I’d 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]. He’s 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 bachelor’s in English from UVM and a master’s 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 filmdom’s 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 don’t have to get involved in department politics,” he quips.

Working on his fourth novel, this writer admits it’s 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 that’s 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 didn’t try it,” McCauley concludes. “I started writing at age twenty-seven.”

The Object of My Affection was proof that late is better than never.

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 moved forward.”

But the ’70s slogan “the personal is political” is as true today as it was then, and in light of the other subject of McCauley’s 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. “It’s 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, he’s not crazy about public speaking at all, though he’s 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 can’t express verbally,” he says. Many a successful author has said as much — McCauley’s novels alone suggest how much literature owes to introverts.

It’s 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 didn’t work. Rents have gone up so much, my characters had to move.”