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An Interview with Kevin Bentley
Author of Wild Animals I Have Known

D.O.C.: Lust LettersKevin Bentley's creative nonfiction has appeared in the James White Review, ZYZZYVA, Diseased Pariah News, on-line in www.belief.net, and in Flesh & the Word 4 and 5, His 2, and Bar Stories.

He wrote the text for The Naked Heartland: The Itinerant Photographs of Bruce of LA., and is the author of Sailor: Vintage Photos of a Masculine Icon and editor of Afterwords: Real Sex from Gay Men's Diaries.

How did this book come about?

I've kept a diary since I was 19. Last year I put together a book of gay men's diary entries for Alyson, Afterwords: Real Sex from Gay Men's Diaries, and in going through my own diaries and flagging passages to decide what entry of my own I wanted to use in the anthology, I realized how many good entries I had to choose from, and what a coherent, funny narrative they could make. So when I'd turned in the other book, I began selecting, typing in, and editing passages from the twenty composition books I've filled since moving to San Francisco in 1977 when I was 21, and about six months later, I had a manuscript to work with. In addition, as part of the searching I did for material for the anthology, I read the diaries of several gay men, now deceased, in the archives of the Gay Lesbian Transgender Historical Society in San Francisco—and I was struck by, frankly, how much better mine were. I also realized that it made more sense for me to edit them into an entertaining book myself than to vaguely imagine that some part of them might see print someday when I'm dead.

Why would the diaries of a non-celebrity be interesting to readers?

This is the same sort of material I've turned into shorter creative nonfiction pieces for Flesh and the Word anthologies and so on, and people have seemed to like those. Because they cover a memorable time and place—gay San Francisco in the late '70s and '80s—and are edited down to the most interesting narrative, leaving out the kind of tiresome personal soul-searching characteristic of young people's diaries, it's my hope that they succeed as a story. The book takes place in an era and a place of which you might say, "If you can remember it, you weren't there"—but I was there, to a degree, and I usually made notes the next day. The gay dream—any young person's dream—of fleeing your humdrum hometown and heading to SF, LA or New York is a perennially appealing story, I think. And then sex and drugs are always interesting to some people. One thread running through the book is a sort of Boyfriends from Hell theme—and everybody can relate to that.

 

Did the people you mention in your diary have any idea that you would ultimately write a book about them and your experiences?

There's a funny bit of recorded dialogue in the book where a departing boyfriend warns me, "You better not be writing all this down in your little diary." Obviously, he was right to worry. No gay man my age (46) will have any trouble understanding that many of the men I write about in Wild Animals are dead. Others have simply fallen off the radar. I've changed names and some details to avoid identifying anyone who might still be living. People put these kinds of relationships into their creative nonfiction all the time and just sort of fudge the story/memoir tag. This doesn't feel any different to me. It's true, but it's a kind of story now too. And then there are longtime friends who don't object to appearing under their own names.

Did everything you wrote about in Wild Animals I Have Known really happen?

Yes. And of course plenty more happened that I neglected to write down; that's always a disappointment, when you go back looking for a really great incident you remember, and there's no record of that day or week. But most of the time, I did write it down.

Don't you know the meaning of the word discretion?

No. I started keeping a diary when I began having sex with men at 18; I've always written about the sex I was having. And remember, this book began with a search for erotic passages for a specifically erotic anthology. I've long been a fan of those great Maurice Girodias Olympia Readers, with their frank, realistic, Beat Era sex memoirs; I aspire to that. Those writers used pseudonyms, but I didn't see how I could do that with my book and make the claim that these were real diaries.

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