Antennae rise out of Felice Picano’s head. I blink and they are gone. Maybe I just thought I saw antennae. Reading about all those people who are convinced that “aliens walk among us disguised as humans” probably wasn’t a good idea before this interview. According to new research, however, alien-like forms have been found in pre-historic cave drawings. In fact, highly acclaimed scientists/astronomers such as Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking believe in the probability of extraterrestrial life. Even the United States government, during a brief lapse in denying any knowledge of UFO crashes or alien autopsies, funded the SETI Institute (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence). And what about the huge stone faces on Easter Island, the mystery of Stonehenge, and the beauty of crop circles?
Perhaps it is not only to us Earthlings that Felice Picano is known as a popular cultural icon. I can’t help but wonder if other beings in other galaxies also know him as one of the famed Violet Quill Club — a group of the most important post-Stonewall queer writers that included Andrew Holleran and Edmund White. After all, cyberspace keeps proving that anything is possible. So Felice Picano may very well be recognized intergalactically as an award winning author of 21 books, including the best-selling novels Like People in History and The Lure — not to mention his founding SeaHorse Press, the premier gay publishing house in New York City, as well as co-founding the Gay Presses of New York, being involved with many early gay publications, including The Advocate, Christopher Street and The New York Native, co-authoring The New Joy of Gay Sex with Charles Silverstein in 1992, and all he’s done to create the gay literary genre.
Yes, Felice Picano’s authored some of the best-known novels of the past three decades, and his Tales: From a Distant Planet (French Connection Press), continues to be widely acclaimed for offering the “best time story novella since H.G. Wells” along with six powerful tales — all in his literate, ironic, accessible brand of gay-friendly mystery, science fiction, fantasy, supernatural, romance, crime, and psychological genres. But I can’t help thinking that the Felice Picano we know and the real Felice Picano are not of the same world.
Ayres: Are you from a distant planet?
Picano: When I was in the sixties’ drug-and-free-love communes, my name was “Oh-Fel-You’re-So-Far-Out.” So I always just assumed I was from a distant planet, although none was ever specified. And I always pretty much felt I was from another place because I had a clearer vision into what was going on around me. So I don’t think the distant planet that I’m from has yet been discovered. You know, we’re still discovering planets beyond Pluto. Pluto, I thought, was interesting. But it might be beyond Pluto.
Ayres: Is it true that Ingoldsby in Tales: From a Distant Planet nearly drove the typesetter to suicide?
Picano: The typesetter. The poor typesetter. Yes. Ingoldsby is an interesting story — it’s a short novel — that I think is the newest twist on time travel stories. I don’t think anybody has written anything quite like it since the original time travel story of H. G. Wells. But it’s told all in documents. Completely in documents. There’s not one word of non-documented narration in it. Newspaper stories, letters, depositions to the police, more letters, bank accounts, journals. And naturally each one of these had to look authentic and as close to the original as possible. Thus the problem of the poor typesetter who struggled mightily — but successfully! — to get it to work. And who did a wonderful job eventually. And I’m sure the state will be paying for his mental care for many years.
Ayres: What gave you the idea to write a novella using such a variety of documents and fonts?
Picano: On the face of it it’s an incredible story. So I wanted to make it as credible as possible. And the best way for making something credible is to produce documents. So that, for example — if you had just lied about something — if you could produce three documents showing you’re true — that you didn’t lie — people are going to believe you. So that was the idea. This was a story that had been with me for about ten years. I tried it originally as a screenplay, and it was kind of a lousy screenplay. I then tried it as a stage play, where it worked a little better. One reason being you have people right in front of you and they were more believable. But it still didn’t work. And I thought and I thought and I said, “How should I do this?” And then I hit on that idea. I’m very happy with it.
Ayres: And Ingoldsby is more than a time travel story. It’s more far reaching. It’s also political in many ways. Would you say it’s a story of gay liberation?
Picano: Well, on the face of it it’s the story of a horny twenty-two-year-old graduate student — straight graduate student — who in the course of straightening out his life, by bending it very badly in time, manages to achieve a large portion of gay liberation for somebody who never even knew that gay liberation was around. Who never knew that it existed, because it was before its time. So I think of it as a very sort of sly little dig at politics. At politics and our past history — how wonderful, you know, there are all these people who say, “Oh, the olden days used to be so wonderful.” But for many people they were not. If you were black, if you were extremely working class — for many women, children, and especially gays — that was a bad, very bad spot.
Ayres: In addition to your novella Ingoldsby, Tales: From a Distant Planet includes seven short stories of very different genres. You have a mystery. You have a thriller in there.
Picano: Mystery, thriller, Sci-Fi stories — several Sci-Fi stories. I write in all kinds of genres. And I pretty much write stories for myself. Most of these are not written for magazines. Very seldom will a magazine or a newspaper or a —every once in a while an anthology will call me up and say, “Oh, we need a story on so and so.” But I pretty much write all my stories by myself for myself. And then they sit around waiting for somebody to be interested in them.
Ayres: Where do the ideas for them come from?
Picano: They just come from out of nowhere. Completely out of nowhere. A dream. A couple of them came from dreams. I’ll have a dream. The next morning I’ll wake up and I’ll say, “Oh, that was weird. I wonder if that’s a short story.” And then I’ll write a short story.
Ayres: Did any of Tales: From a Distant Planet come from dreams?
Picano: Yes. “The Lesson Begins” came from a dream. Definitely. I woke up and I said, “Oh, I feel like I’m a conscious mechanism sitting on the planet Mars. Something’s happening to me and I don’t know what it is.” One of the tales was published years ago. In a collection called Contemporary Terrors that Ramsey Campbell put together. It was published in England. And the others, really, I never sent out to anybody or had anybody look at them. Partly because I was too busy writing novels and memoirs and non-fiction and other things. Like I said, with me my stories — I’ve been writing books now for maybe thirty-five years — and I’ve written about thirty-two stories. So it’s like one story per year. And among all of my works, they are the most private of my writing. Because, like I say, I write them just for me. Just to put it down on paper.
Ayres: How did the first story, “The Perfect Setting,” in Distant Planet come about?
Picano: “The Perfect Setting” came about because of a good friend of mine. A painter named Jay Weiss. We were young starving artists together. When he started getting some success and, moreover, when I started getting some success screwed me over a painting. And this was my little revenge against him.
Ayres: Would you say writing for you is cathartic?
Picano: Yes. Sometimes. Yes.
Ayres: Was “One Way Out”? That story’s a mindblower.
Picano: “One Way Out” was another dream. It was one of these dream situations where you’re in a dream . . . and then you find out the dream is not a dream. That it’s instead a life situation, and then you actually kind of have the choice of what to do. Whether to deal with it as a dream or not. So I was sort of playing with that. The ability of the mind to do various things. To choose madness, for example. I mean, everybody thinks that if you choose sanity, that’s the right thing to do. And I say sometimes sanity is so insane that you have to choose insanity.
Ayres: Why insanity?
Picano: Well, to find happiness.
Ayres: Ah. Which is more important than sanity.
Picano: Which is much more important because sanity is, you know, a concept — just a social concept — whereas happiness is completely personal.
Ayres: How did “Food For Thought” come about?
Picano: I envisaged a ship full of people in the future — who are explorers — arriving on a planet and when they got there, the only life form was one of them hearing in his mind “giggle-giggle.” People giggling. Something giggling.
Ayres: You have a vivid imagination. [Felice laughs] Do you just sit down in front of the keyboard and you see things, you hear things in your mind and you just go with it? Or, how do you work, usually?
Picano: No, usually the idea is there first. And then I try to follow the idea. I try to follow through. But I really don’t know where the ideas are coming from.
Ayres: What about “The Guest in the Little Brick House”?
Picano: That actually came because of a place — the place that I describe, which was a little brick house. I used to visit friends who I know used to live in the west Village of New York and, in fact, that little brick house — which was a tiny little cottage, a one-and-a-half or two-room cottage — set in the backyard of a double tenement on, I think it was, West Twelfth Street. I always wondered what was going on there. One day I asked one of my hosts. I could see it from their back window. One of my hosts said, “You come here tomorrow afternoon at such and such a time. You’ll see that the actors Jason Robards, Jr. and Lauren Bacall are going in there and having an affair.”
Ayres: But it’s a ghost story.
Picano: I know, well, the story developed differently than theirs. Theirs was interesting but boring, you know.
Ayres: Next in Distant Planet comes “The Lesson Begins,” which really is out of this world.
Picano: “The Lesson Begins” is a science fiction story told by a machine that gains consciousness during the course of the story. It learns. The machine learns and becomes conscious. And then, at the end of the story, it teaches you. It was written around the same time that Stanley Kubrick was writing the original script for A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. At the end of the film — which I think is one of his and Spielberg’s best movies — there are no people left. And the one thing that has lasted is this little boy mechanism — this little boy computer-generated figure — who contains within himself all the best things of mankind.
Ayres: There’s something depressing about that.
Picano: There’s something depressing but there’s also something exhilarating about it, too.
Ayres: What’s exhilarating about it? Mankind didn’t survive.
Picano: Maybe mankind shouldn’t survive. [we laugh] But the best thing about mankind was presented in this little boy who was loyal and loving and devoted and cute. And the very superior creatures who meet him realize that he represents something very, very pure in the universe. And they treat him as well as he can be treated. And he was a creation of mankind. So, in a way, what I and Kubrick and Spielberg are saying is that man may be very flawed but our creations can be a lot better than we are. They can outlast us. Of course, our ego’s at work. [laughs]
Ayres: Well, they can outlast us as long as Earth lasts.
Picano: No, even longer. This one even outlasts Earth. He’s over on Mars, in my story.
Ayres: How did “Secrets of the Abandoned Monument” come about?
Picano: I wrote a big, epic, science fiction novel called Dryland’s End — which was first published in 1995 in the U.S. at the same time as a major book of mine called Like People in History — so it didn’t get much attention. It came out literally in the same month by a small press. Like People in History blew it out of the water. But it did have its fans. And, in 2003, I was approached by another company to republish it. And this time I was given a chance to write an introduction, do a glossary, and do the artwork and everything. And I did. I was very happy with the result. And that book has gotten a lot of attention. It’s gone into gay book clubs and things like that. In fact, this past summer I stared writing — and have finished writing — a two-hour television pilot for a TV series for Dryland’s End. And have producers interested in it. And that world spawned other stories. Some of which I’ve written. Not all of which I’ve completed. Well, it was for a sequel or two, too. But one of the stories that it spawned was “Secrets of the Abandoned Monument.” Because my idea was that we can be around pretty much the way we are — although speaking differently and with different social and community concepts — so far in the future that we don’t remember where we came from. So the basis of this particular story is that there is a group of people called “The Originists” who are looking for the origin of humankind. Which, in the story, has been lost at this point. Six thousand years in the future. And they find a planet in the area, which is odd. And which is sending out a beam to them, and they’re thinking this is maybe the place to go to. So an archeological team, consisting of two groups of people — one group of these Originists who are determined to find the original root, and a group of just regular scientists — go there to see what’s going on. And they find a remarkable place that has its own mystery and story that ends up being connected with early mankind.
Ayres: What’s behind their discovery that the civilization had been wiped out by a virus?
Picano: No comment. [laughs] I don’t give plot points. All I know is that a great civilization was wiped out. Greater than we’ve ever had.
Ayres: Since Ingoldsby is the finalé of Tales: From a Distant Planet, I’ve got to ask: What inspired it?
Picano: The origin of Ingoldsby was reading books on Frank Lloyd Wright. Frank Lloyd Wright, when he first started designing homes, did go in the area where he grew up and had his first commissions and everything, and there were big prairie school rambling houses, his first original ideas were sort of from the areas around Madison, Wisconsin. Which is a sort of dairy land, conventional, blue state area that has all this fabulous architecture. And I kept on thinking about a particular house that had been built up and the people were in it and that was the basis of the story. In that case, the house itself was the core of the story.
Ayres: Are you working on anything now?
Picano: I’m working on a memoir. I’ve been working on memoir of which I’ve half written about being a small press publisher during the ’70s and ’80s in New York City.
Ayres: That’s right. You were a small press publisher.
Picano: Yes. I’ve published a lot of important writers. Dennis Cooper and Robert Glück and Harvey Fierstein and all these people. So I have all these tales — some of which are just —
Ayres: Did you publish Torch Song Trilogy?
Picano: I published Torch Song Trilogy. Yes. Yes. Well, it wasn’t even a trilogy. It was just two plays. He was writing the third. But, anyway, I have a lot of stories. Some good and some just horrible stories about people — authors. Good trash stories about authors who are going to be eating their hearts out when the memoir’s published. [laughs] I’m telling dirt on people! I’m really telling dirt on people. It’s writers and publishers who screw around with me too badly that generally get it. Sometimes it takes twenty years but I generally get them.
Ayres: What kind of things have they done? Nasty things? Backstabbing things?
Picano: Astounding backstabbing things. For what reasons, I don’t know. In the memoir I present sometimes a choice of reasons but, the point is, I don’t know why people do these things.
Ayres: Why was Distant Planet published in Europe first?
Picano: Because the publisher’s in Europe. No, I’m teasing you. It’s also available in the United States. But a French translation of it’s going to be released in the Spring. And it’ll be translated into Italian, too.
Ayres: Do you have other books in other languages?
Picano: Yes. Thirteen languages. Including Swahili, Japanese, and Hebrew. The New Joy of Gay Sex in Hebrew.
Ayres: Do you do book tours in those countries?
Picano: I’ve done book tours in Japan and in Germany. Which were successful and a lot of fun, too. And I like that. I just really think that the European market is overlooked by American publishers and American authors. I mean, every once in a while we’ll get like a — I think Paul Auster is living here and Bruce Benderson is living here — but very few authors aside from — that I know of — aside from Edmund White come here. And I think that’s ridiculous. You know, I really do think that it’s an international community and we should be out and around. I happen to like traveling. I happen to like going around to places. And I also like meeting my readers. Which is one reason why I do book tours. I want to hear what my readers have to say. Sometimes they’ll tell you things absolutely directly that are startling. So meeting my readers is very good. I’m one of the few of several gay writers who write mainstream along with gay writing. And I write in different genres. I’m not afraid to write a love story. I’m not afraid to write a western, science fiction, mysteries, ghost stories, gothics. You know, all of it is part of it.
Ayres: Tales: From a Distant Planet brings together many of your different genres.
Picano: It brings together a lot of what I write. Yes. But a lot of the publishers — in the United States, especially, and in England to some extent, too — just really like to categorize you as one kind of writer so that their marketing people can easily market you.
Ayres: How do they market you?
Picano: It’s interesting because my big publisher in England — which is Little Brown/Abacus — they published Like People in History and The Book of Lies, which they published very large and very successfully — and then when my third book in the series came along called Onyx it was so utterly different from the other two that they wouldn’t publish it. So that book was never published in England. And in the United States it’s considered my best novel. So it’s not even published in England. Because it didn’t fit their marketing program’s version of Felice Picano.
Ayres: Do you feel that presses limit themselves by such marketing programs?
Picano: Absolutely. They limit me, too. They should pay less attention to their marketing departments, or their sales departments, and look at the work itself. Right now, in many ways, the tail is wagging the dog in publishing companies. But word of mouth still sells books, and movies, and plays, faster and better than any review, any advertisement, anything like that. It still does.
Ayres: Do you feel Tales: From a Distant Planet will especially appeal to the Sci-Fi community? Or will it have a broader appeal?
Picano: I hope it has a broader appeal. It’s not just Sci-Fi. Any group that picks it up first is good, though. But I think Distant Planet will get under everyone’s skin. It’s the type of book that’ll get under your skin.