Writing Gay History: an interview with Garrick Jones

Garrick Jones is a prolific writer. From Australia he writes books packed with gay history: from Victorian London to 1950s Sydney. I have been privileged to work with Garrick on some of his latest works and I count myself lucky to be among the first people to read a new Garrick Jones book.

As February is LGBTQ+ History Month (in the UK), I spoke to Garrick about his passion for writing LGBTQ+ history novels, the challenges and the joys that it brings.

As February is LGBTQ+ history month, can you tell us a little about your history?

I’m a boomer, bought up between outback Australia and cosmopolitan Sydney.

Born not long after the end of the Second World War, the product of a union between two very different people who married for different reasons. My mother, because she’d already given birth to an illegitimate child and had a “reputation” to salvage, and my father who brought his war home with him and everyone around him suffered as a consequence. They divorced when I was two and my mother became an alcoholic, setting up with an abusive ex-navy quartermaster who thought I was his punching bag.

My sports master at high school noticed how bruised I always was, and together with the headmaster arranged for me to go to Canada on an exchange program at the age of 15. It changed my life. I wanted to become a concert pianist, but after a broken elbow, courtesy of my charming stepfather, I lost a lot of facility in my right hand because of nerve damage. I still play well, but not at the standard I’d like to have.

My Canadian hosts gave me two things: the encouragement to keep believing in music and continue to play the piano, despite the results of my injury, and French as a second language. (After having lived for 30 years in Europe, I’m also fluent in Italian, and speak good German and Hungarian). I left home at 17, the moment I returned to Australia.

Not being able to play the piano to the standard I wished to, my old teacher suggested I learn to sing. I knew nothing about it before I started so had no preconceptions about how hard it was. Seven years later, I found myself standing on a stage in London performing a leading role, after having won a scholarship to go there to study. From then on it was onwards and upwards, right up until 1998 when I was involved in a serious car accident that ended my performing career. I’d sung all over the world both on the stage and on the concert platform at some of the most important opera houses and music venues. I had a very satisfying and successful career.

After my car accident, I took up an academic position at a university in the tropics in Queensland, from which I retired after 14 years of lecturing in history, history of the arts, music theory, and singing. Since my retirement, I’m slowly learning to live with my PTSD and OCD. It’s been a lifelong struggle ever since I left home to go to Canada in 1963 and much of my performing career and after has been spent trying to manage my obsessive nature and struggles with the results of the terrible years of my childhood.

Now, I write. I should always have done it. It’s the best therapy in the world.

I love it.

How did you get started writing?

I grew up in an age before electronics. We had no television in this country until the Olympic Games in Melbourne in 1956. Our night time amusement was what was then called the “wireless” or the radio as it’s known these days. Telephone calls were infrequent, and all long-distance calls had to be booked in advance and paid for by the minute. Writing letters was our form of communication.

I’d always done well at English at school (although my editor may have a differing opinion 😊) Composition was my favourite topic and I always won writing prizes, both in Australia and in Canada. While performing, I completed two university degrees, a Bachelor of Music and a Master of Creative Arts, both by distance education. It was then that I discovered that I really liked to write and fell into the sticky black hole of research, which became a passion, especially when I became a university lecturer and was obliged to write submissions for publications, book chapters, and Conference presentations.

During the time I was working on my degrees, I wrote assignments and studied in my dressing rooms in the theatre, on train journeys between cities for performances, and on airplanes flying between countries. The OCD part of me lapped it up. I could study my roles, write essays, or research whenever I whenever I wasn’t actually on the stage, and it filled the time when I’d otherwise be trying to cope with my ever-fragile state of mind.

In my last years of lecturing, one of the professors who taught a course in contemporary Australian literature asked me if I knew of any LGBTQ+ themed short stories. I was surprised that I didn’t and when I told her, she suggested I write one, gave me a subject and said “four weeks, please”. When I handed back my short story, her response and that of the class was enough to make me think that it was something I’d like to try. I started writing my first book two weeks after I closed my office door at the university and moved into the life of retirement.

You are known for writing gay history. What motivates you to write these tales?

There’s a vast amount of gay romance on the market. It’s not a genre that interests me, so when I started writing I began to explore the areas in the literature that did not appear to be well served. Of course there’s a lot of historical romance (Barbara Cartland for example: studly noblemen and quivering bosoms), but at the time I couldn’t find anything that dealt with men whose sexuality didn’t define them, but which was just part of their own normalcy.

There was also a great dearth of gay historical fiction set in my own country, or which featured Australian men. Of course, now I’ve become acquainted with a few other writers, I see that there is a small, and growing, collection of such works.

Our culture, although perceived to be British-inherited, became infinitely more diverse after the First World War, a struggle in which our nation realised that our part in the global conflict was to supply bodies for German and Turkish machine guns. Decisions made by British generals led to the sacrifice of the “flower of our youth” (as it did with lads from the UK, NZ and Canada too), but it made us open our eyes to our position in the Commonwealth. From Gallipoli onward, we began to strengthen our own local culture and become our own people—a nation with ties to Britain, but not owned by it as it had been during the previous century.

Our culture is as interesting as any other in the world. I want to write about it. We aren’t just Brits with better weather and the best cricketers in the world (ducks).

Are there any periods of time that really interest you? Why?

My big fascination is for the 1950s, a decade that I entered as a two year old and exited teetering on the edge of becoming a teenager.

Many of us who were born not long after WW2 have a feeling of having “missed out” on something enormous, something world-changing. We grew up with men who’d returned from active service who were struggling with memories of what they’d been through. Veterans of the Great War returned to a different society, one in which men were ordered to clam up about their feelings. (My great-uncle Jack, who served in the Light Horse, fought at Gallipoli, Beersheba, and ended his war as a reconnaissance pilot over the Western front, never spoke about his war until the year he died). It wasn’t much different after the second world war except that the atrocities that many men who’d served witnessed were far different than trench warfare, as gruesome as that was.

My father’s generation had the hideousness of the Nazi regime to cope with and the brutality and disregard for life of the Japanese forces in the Pacific. The Japanese had no officer POW camps or special treatment for prisoners. No Geneva Convention – they hadn’t signed it. Men were brutally tortured, worked to death, or killed no matter what their rank for sometimes no reason at all. For them there was no honour among soldiers.

Growing up, our house was always full of angry young men, shouting incoherently in their sleep, or getting legless then brawling. Most of the men in my immediate family and their male friends served in New Guinea, Borneo, or were captured in the fall of Singapore, spending their days in atrocious camps or working on projects for the Japanese, such as the Burma railway.

I write about the 1950s because I’m fascinated with the coping mechanism of men in that period, ostensibly trying to live the “new, modern, post-war age”, pretending as if nothing had happened to them in relatively recent years, while carrying around the most awful of memories. Like me, most of them would have been diagnosed with PTSD in those days. However, they were told to man up and shut up. I grew up with ruined men all around me. Not one of them, until the day they died, would buy a product made in Japan, such was their hate. Neither would my mother, the father of the illegitimate child she gave away before she married, tortured to death in Sandakan.

My Clyde Smith Mystery series deals with a returned serviceman, captured by the Italians in North Africa and incarcerated in a POW camp near Macerata, in Italy, later administered by the Germans. Writing about Clyde has given me not only a great deal of understanding of the minds of my father, my uncles and their friends, and also has given me an opportunity to try to find some of the brighter moments of my life as a child during that period and write about them. Giving Clyde and his mates some post-war joy, despite what they went through, has been a way of salvaging some happiness from my own past.

Are there any periods of history that you still want to write about?

Are there ever! The Mussolini era of Italy of the 1930s and perhaps another book set in the Edwardian period (I loved writing Australia’s Son). If it didn’t require so much research, even though I have a passion for the period, a novel set in Rome, just as Christianity was making its mark. A story about the cult of Mithras, the soldier religion.

Other than that, I have notes for a series set in the late 1700s when Sydney had just become a colony, moving forward into the 1830s, when my great-great-grandfather was deported from Cornwall for stealing a sheep.

Your fiction is packed full of fact. Can you tell us how you go about researching? How difficult is it to get your LGBTQ+ research right?

It was tremendously difficult when I first started because I had no contacts and didn’t know how to go about finding primary sources, many of which were not electronically catalogued nine years ago when I first started writing.

However, I remembered having been given good advice when researching my PhD topic: don’t be afraid to go straight to the source, they can only say no. So I did. Over the years, I have contacts with curators at major museum and historical archives all over the world. It’s no great surprise that many of them are passionate about their specialities and areas of interest. They love to answer genuine queries that are well-formulated and not too general. The Royal Collection, Sotheby’s, The Imperial War Museum, to name but a few have been very generous.

I can spend months researching a new book before I write a word and what I’ve found is that many areas of history are more valued than others. I often quote the example that it was easier to discover the tram timetable for the Circular Quay to Glebe service in Sydney in 1902 than it was to discover what was playing in the theatres at the same time.

There can be some wonderfully generous surprises too. When I was writing X for Extortion, the second book in my WW2 series, I wanted to know more about the interior of the house in which I had my heroes living. I looked up the address and discovered that a firm of architects occupied part of the building. I emailed them, explaining what I was doing, and not only did they reply, but also sent me the architectural plans of the building, the historical research they had to submit to Marylebone council for renovations on a listed building, and, to top it all, photographs of the stairway, the room divisions and the entrances and exits. It helped make the daily lives and activities of my characters in 14 Manchester Square more real to me, therefore hopefully also to my readers.

Are there challenges researching gay history? How do you overcome those barriers?

For two of my books, I’ve interviewed gay men, or straight men who “stray” from time to time. It was incredibly difficult to not only gain their trust, but also to set up some sort of system that guaranteed them anonymity. Both of these books contained very difficult subjects and oddly enough, even though the books are diverse, some of the subject matter overlapped.

Wheelchair – the story of a man who suffers from OCD and PTSD (sound familiar?) but who is into humiliation play. He finds sexual intimacy almost impossible unless there’s punishment as part of the activity. He’s strong, a boxer (and an academic) and can become very violent, surrendering at the last moment, allowing his opponent to punch him into submission, after which he plays the victim in a rehearsed sexual roleplay which involves humiliation (this last part is definitely NOT me). I scoured gay boxing and wrestling groups (yes, they do exist), set up private chat rooms, and a few video chats with some brave men. What I learned was staggering. I had no idea that there were so many men (several of whom identified as being straight except on these occasions) who were into violence. Cage-fighting, boxing, wrestling, naked man-hunting in rural areas (yes, it goes on), the culmination of which results in either one-on-one or group sexual activity.

The Gilded Madonna – book two of my Clyde Smith Mystery series, a 1950s detective story about a twisted killer who murders men in public lavatories (based on the story of William Macdonald, named the “Mutilation Murderer”, whose crimes were committed at the time when I was a teenager – one of his victims found in a toilet block adjacent to the high school I was attending at the time). I’d already interviewed two men who’d told me about their lives in “boys homes” – a euphemism at the time for orphanages where young men and women were ritually abused by staff who used them sexually. There have been enormous scandals in recent years as this historical abuse has been uncovered. The two men I’d previous interviewed agreed to be interviewed again and led me to two of their friends who also contributed. It was very sobering stuff.

In general, there’s still a generation or two who were taught that private things should be kept just that – private. They won’t talk about their past. And there are still anti-LGBTQ+ organisations, gay haters, and obstructionist who’ll do everything they can to keep information from researchers. There’s no way around that. But with a professional, apparently neutral demeanour, without demonstrating any apparent agenda, you can find not only what you were looking for, but also learn about the struggles that the LGBTQ+ society still faces. Bigots are happy to divulge things if they think that you will somehow collude with their mindset.

I’d say the biggest challenge is dealing with the years before the mid-60s when homosexuality was illegal in most countries. Men tended not to diarise or write intimate letters (unless they were very brave). There are few primary sources written by veterans of the First World War for example. Those of WW2 have been braver. But as for Victorian times and before, the primary source material is scarce and not easy to find.

What can you tell us about some of your up-coming projects?

By the time this interview has been released, my next book will be in production with the publisher. Servants of the Crown (subtitle The Turkish Pretender) is a spy-thriller set in London in 1855 during the last years of the Crimean War. It’s been my first full editing experience with Nick Taylor and I’ve enjoyed every moment of the journey with him.

Later in the year, the third book in the Clyde Smith Mystery series, The Killing at Candal Creek, will be published. It too, will be another collaboration with Nick.

Perhaps late in the year, or early in 2023, the third book in The Seventh of December series, Farewell, My Boy, will see the light of day. I’m currently (January) writing the last few chapters and it’s due to go to my other editor, Linda McQueen, who’s worked on the first two books in the series.

I have a rewrite of the fourth Seventh of December book, The Perfume of War, ready to work on when I get around to it, sketches for the fourth Clyde Smith book, Bridge at the Beach, are done, and extensive notes for a sci-fi novel set in Venice (where I lived for many years) in 1934, based on the abilities of the Bene Gesserit, the order of women created by Frank Herbert in his Dune series. The working title is The Alchemist.

That should keep me busy for the next few years. Ready for some more editing, Nick? 😊

Nick (he/him) is an editor and proofreader, specialising in LGBTQ+ writing. He is an Intermediate Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading and a member of PEN, the Professional Editors Network.

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Published by Nick Taylor | Editor & Proofreader

Editor and proofreader specialising in LGBTQ+ writing, both fiction and non-fiction.

4 thoughts on “Writing Gay History: an interview with Garrick Jones

  1. What a fascinating interview. So much research, but Garrick loves doing what he’s doing. Gay history is something I’d love to know more about, especially during Victorian times.

      1. I’ve been writing some from the 1970s and 1980s based on my own experiences. But I can’t imagine what it must have been like 150 years ago or in the early 20th century. I’m guessing it was all done underground, and I recall picking up on some of it back in the late 1970s, where you had to knock on a door to gain entry into a club. You could never just walk in off the street.

        Thanks, Nick.

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