Andrew W. M. Beierle’s new novel First Person Plural (Kensington), takes the unique complexities of being a twin a step further—much further. His main characters, handsome brothers Owen and Porter Jamison, are dicephalus twins (one body, two heads) with a serious dilemma. One is straight and the other is gay. This is certainly something to ponder, especially for those who claim to have frustrating sex lives of their own.
Thoroughly researched and well-written, Beierle successfully avoids the tabloid pitfalls of such subject matter by exploring the humanity of these intriguing men as truly separate emotional beings with distinct personalities beyond their sexual preferences.
Beierle, the award-winning author of The Winter of Our Discotheque (Kensington), speaks candidly with ChicagoPride.com about his fascinating new work.
PJ: This is such an interesting story and completely different from your first novel. What inspired you to write it?
AB: I’ve had only two good short story ideas in my life. One was about an Internet mogul who brought a young man home from a bar and the next day the boy refused to leave. That became my short story “Gravity,” which took second place in the first annual Richard Hall memorial short story contest in 2000, sponsored by the Lambda Literary Foundation. A second story idea, initially simply the concept “conjoined twins—one gay,” began to take off when I learned about Abigail and Brittney Hensel, actual conjoined twins of the type dicephalus, alive today in the Midwest. I entered a short story based on that idea, “La Vie Sexuelle des Monstres,” to the same contest the same year, and it was one of ten finalists (I was the only author to place stories among both the three winners and ten finalists). Afterward, judge Felice Picano told me the reason “La Vie Sexuelle des Monstres” did not do better was that it wasn’t a short story; it was a novella, at least, perhaps a novel. It ultimately became First Person Plural.
PJ: What is your experience with twins in your life?
AB: Twins have never played much of a role in my life, really. I grew up next door to a pair of twins, and that seemed cool and fun at the time. I realized as I wrote First Person Plural that we always referred to those twins as Scott and Jeff, never just Scott or just Jeff. And that gave me the idea of calling Owen and Porter Owenandporter or Porterandowen when they were growing up. Beyond that, my fascination with twins is no greater than that of anyone else. But it does seem to be a strong societal interest or curiosity, generally.
You are able to give the brothers two distinct voices. Was that the toughest part of writing the book?
AB: I am pleased you feel I succeeded at that. Throughout the process, I was afraid I was giving Porter short shrift—that he was less three-dimensional than Owen, less real. I tried to make Porter—in word and deed—cool, confident, and cocky. In terms of dialogue, this manifested itself in him saying “dude” and “bro” a lot. I don’t think Owen ever says “dude,” and the one time he says “bro,” it is sarcastic.
That was an important part of the book, but probably not the most difficult. To be honest, the most difficult part was figuring out where to take the narrative once I had completed the “set up,” roughly the first fifty or sixty manuscript pages. The author Alice McDermott read it at that point (at the 2001 Sewanee Writers Conference) and said, “Okay, this is good, but where do you go from here?” (Or words to that effect.) I told her I thought I was going to give Porter a brain tumor and while it wouldn’t kill him or spread to Owen’s half of the body, it would disable him to an extent, maybe just mentally, and allow Owen to become the dominant twin for a change. She said: Absolutely not! “You’ve imposed enough on these characters by putting them in one body. You’ve got to find the story within that framework.” That was the most valuable advice I received in the course of writing the book. It forced me inside the characters instead of looking at them from outside, as their “creator,” who could impose my will on them. That is when they truly became alive for me.
PJ: Because the brothers’ romantic lives were important to their story, please explain how you approached writing such a uniquely shared experience.
AB: I worked very hard to get into Owen and Porter’s heads. I thought that each would have a different way of coping with intimacy issues. Porter tended to go into a sort of “denial.” He’d listen to music through headphones, smoke a joint, watch TV, or whatever, while Owen was having sex. Owen, being the more sensitive one, used less intrusive methods (going into his own head by reciting the state capitals or the Periodic Table of Elements to himself), but also, especially with Faith, did his best to make the female partner comfortable and supported (learning how to hug Faith with the right pressure so it felt like a two-armed hug instead of a lopsided one). Later, Porter’s “involvement” in a sexual act with Griffin, however unavoidable, leads to disaster.
The key to resolving this issue, indeed the key to successfully creating/portraying these characters, is the ability to literally inhabit them, to put yourself in their shoes.
PJ: In the book, you reference famous conjoined twins in recent history like the Hilton sisters (the inspiration for the 1997 Broadway musical Side Show). What did you discover most interesting in your research?
AB: My research was, in fact, quite extensive, covering not only queer theory but also disability studies and freak studies (which is, in fact, a recognized discipline). I learned many interesting new facts and “met” some remarkable people. I particularly identified with Daisy and Violet Hilton and their romantic hopes and disappointments. (I love the soundtrack to Side Show, especially the track “You Should Be Loved.”)
But my most significant insight had nothing to do with any particular anomaly, disease, or person/people. What was most interesting and enlightening to me was the kinship gay people share with people who are considered “other,” whether because of race, gender, religious belief, nationality, disability, or whatever. Mainstream people today, that is, rationale people with even a minimum of education and sophistication, would never consider using the “n-word” in public discourse, or any of the epithets for Asians, Latinos, people of the Jewish faith, or of German, Italian, or Polish descent, that were common as few as fifty years ago. But somehow the words queer, fag, faggot, or homo are not censured in the same way. Most people don’t use them, but a surprising number still do. We are the last minority. Interracial marriages, once banned, are now legal. (And remember, it was as recently as 1967 that a movie, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, dealt with this as a “controversial” topic.)
And yet many people favor a constitutional amendment, if not nationally then state by state, to ban equal marriage rights for LGBT people. In the novel, one of several reasons I had Chase fall in love with Owen was to have Owen have a romantic relationship that paralleled Porter’s as closely as possible. It was “okay” for their shared body to have sex with Faith, and for that relationship to not only be accepted but solemnized. But it was not okay for the same thing to happen between Owen and Chase, Faith’s brother.
Finally, the last insight was about the sort of cosmic “luck of the draw.” Physiognomy—our anatomy, the color of our skin, our perceived “attractiveness,” our physical abilities or congenital disabilities or deformities—is destiny. Incredibly beautiful people become movie stars and models and are rewarded with fame and fortune. So called “disabled” or “deformed” people are shunned, degraded, institutionalized. (That’s one of the reasons I made Owen and Porter gorgeous within the framework of being freaks; it provided a great contrast.) And yet inside each of us, black or white, handsome or deformed, single or conjoined, is a person with feelings, hopes, and dreams. I hope First Person Plural conveys that, to at least some degree.
PJ: Here’s a loaded question for you…what makes great fiction?
AB: I love to be fully engaged in a novel—not to just to feel as if I had entered its world but to enter it, completely, if you can understand the difference. To be transported while reading it, to forget I am turning pages and to see and feel what the protagonist is seeing and feeling. Few books do that for me, and while I can and do enjoy other books as well, you asked about great fiction. Two relatively recent examples for me are Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, and The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint by Brady Udall. I wrote my first and only fan letters to those two authors upon finishing their books. (Ms. Patchett wrote back! I never found an address for Mr. Udall.) When I am writing, I am fully engaged in my story and characters. I think about them all the time. I try to “inhabit” their lives. When I find myself doing that with another author’s book, I know I am in literary Nirvana.
Barring that kind of magic—and it is indeed magic—I’d say the author’s love of language and facility with it are paramount to me. Unexpected-yet-precise metaphors. (My favorite “classic” author is F. Scott Fitzgerald for precisely those reasons.) Cadence. (Despite her obvious gifts, I can’t read Joyce Carol Oates. Her cadence is dissonant to my “ear”—but apparently only mine!) Character, of course. And a good story. One notch down from those novels by Patchett and Udall are such books as Atonement, by Ian McEwan, for example, and many others.