September 2006

Wayne Yang

by Susan Henderson on September 30, 2006

Combining Photography and Writing

Wayne Yang is a talented photographer and writer who has written for The Christian Science Monitor, The Asian Review of Books, The San Francisco Chronicle, and The Free Press, among others. He and I worked together as editors of Night Train literary magazine, and he is a suberb and geeky human being. (You don’t mind that I called you geeky, do you, Wayne? You know it’s my ultimate compliment.) You’ll see what I mean if you check out Eight Diagrams, his blog devoted mostly to photography and writing, but also artificial intelligence, film, finance, and other Rennaisance-Man interests.

Tell me about Wayne Yang growing up. What were you surrounded by? What was the family style and your role in it? What did you dream of as a boy?

Not much more than the typical adolescent angst, where boy meets girl, girl spins boy’s head and heart around sort of thing. I have very happy memories of growing up otherwise: traipsing through bogs, tasting the salt of the Southeast in raw oysters, watching southern football. Eudora Welty taught us that you don’t need to have been a sopping drunk or a depressive heart to write well. I grew up in the Carolinas, which means that I was weaned on writers like Faulkner and O’Connor and McCullers, taught that literature was one of the highest callings you could have.

I did, however, grow up feeling a bit of an outsider, since I was a first generation American Southerner, rather than one whose family had spent hundreds of years in the region. I grew up in an immigrant family. We didn’t have tintypes of our ancestors in Civil War uniforms. Unlike most of my friends, I didn’t get a shotgun when I reached my 12th birthday. One of my best friends had a grandfather who had been a Granddragon in the Ku Klux Klan, but I remember often riding shotgun in his car while he played Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech or L.L. Cool J tunes. Two thirds of the people in my high school European history class, men and women, ultimately had some kind of military training after college. The South is like that: full of contradictions and anachronisms.

My mom was trained to sing opera at the National Taiwan Academy for the Arts, but she focused on the visual arts as I grew up. She’s one of the most creative people I know. My father is a doctor, a brilliant academic–back in his day, you needed to be one of the top 30 students in the country if you wanted to be a medical student at National Taiwan University, so he was deeply puzzled why I was always such an abysmal student, nor could he fathom why I wanted to be a writer. I was an incorrigible student, a typical daydreamer. My teachers were encouraging despite everything. I could have been a fourth generation doctor–two generations on my mother’s side, her father was a surgeon–while for generations nearly every male member of my father’s family had been a doctor or a Presbyterian minister. My father helped push me towards journalism when he realized he couldn’t make me give up my typewriters. I suppose wanting to be a writer is not light years from wanting to stand at the pulpit, though.

Describe a day with you and a camera.

It really varies. Today I spent most of the day traipsing around Harpers Ferry, one of my wife’s childhood hometowns. Back in New York, I will wander around different neighborhoods, depending on my mood. Or I will get the occasional assignment to shoot a sporting or celebrity event.

What subjects or themes interest you most? Is there a particular story you’re trying to tell ”“ something specific you’re trying to capture or document?

I wish I could shoot a lot more performance art. Man or woman in motion. Dance and theater, both which I consider among the purist art forms, because–can you get a lot closer to primal beauty than a man or woman expressing himself or herself through the movement of his or her own body? Is there anything more amazing than the culmination of hours of practice and discipline, that razor separation between control, discipline and unfettered expression? Or theater”¦or literary reading, where a man or woman tells a story largely or solely through just his or her voice–or through a gesture? I admire Martine Franck’s images in Fables. Curtis Carter has a good introduction on the dance photographer Barbara Morgan. Degas’ ballerina paintings are inspirational.

My street photography is quite different, much more urban. There, I’m much more caught up with how we are swallowed up by our surroundings and circumstances. Writers like Jack London focused on how man could be overcome by nature. While Hurricane Katrina showed us that we are still more than vulnerable to those forces, these days we are just as susceptible to the forces of steel and commerce and financial circumstance. I remember coming on Walker Evans’ signs project again recently, and it hit me how some of my own work was beginning to parallel his. Signs, those icons of commerce, have become part of the urban landscape. We are ourselves often become lost in that landscape.

In both my writing and photography, I’ve long been curious about how people combat events and circumstances that swirl outside of their control. My skill level and my level of personal audacity have not taken me there, but the work of the Farm Security Administration photographers like Evans and Dorothea Lange resonate with me. Steinbeck and Dreiser resonate with me. Tolstoy and those write about how war overcomes us and waylays the best-laid plans, they resonate with me. In terms of collaboration between writers and photographers on this front, I’m fascinated by the collaboration between Walker Evans and James Agee and that between Margaret Bourke-White and Erskine Caldwell.

What kinds of emotions do you experience on your side of the camera?

I hope I’m being largely detached. You want to be able to relate to what people are doing and feeling, but you don’t want to be caught up. You should really be seeing, not feeling.

Do you find your presence changes the shot you get? Are you somehow inside the photo as well?

Yes, which is why it’s very educational when you learn that even a master photographer like Evans was known to use a right-angle lens in his street photography. He also hid a Contax rangefinder in his coat to put together his famous series of photographs taken on the New York subways. I’m now experimenting more with smaller cameras and cameras with waist level viewfinders in my street photography. Of course, people become very conscious of the camera, which is why I think it is unbelievable how a crisis photographer like James Nachtwey seems to have this ability to become almost invisible. He is often capturing people at their most vulnerable, or at their deepest moments of grief, and while his subjects seem aware of him, they also seem to let him melt into the background. They want him there. Some photographers are renowned for this ability to blend into the woodwork. Collaborations can also be helpful. Evans had the gregarious Agee with him when they put together their Let Us Now Praise Famous Men project.

When did you think to combine your photography and writing? And can you show me an example of how they work together?

I was trained as a print journalist, but I also had some training in photojournalism. My interest in photography was rekindled when I got the rather obvious idea of using images to help sell my written journalism. The sinic traditions have a long history of blending text, poetry and art; the great calligraphers were supposed to be as accomplished at writing poetry as they were at controlling a brush. There’s a long Western tradition as well. Early biblical work was as much art as text. William Blake is best known as a poet, but he was an accomplished engraver as well. His combination of the two he called “illuminated manuscripts.” A designer I know recently introduced me to the work of Dorothea Tanning, who was a nexus for the dada and surrealist movements. She was a very accomplished painter, who was also well recognized as a poet. Do you know the piece by Charles Demuth called “The Figure Five in Gold?” It’s based on a poem by William Carlos Williams. I’ve already mentioned the collaboration between Evans and Agee, and Bourke-White and Caldwell. And did you know that Emile-Zola was an avid photographer? I would like to experiment more with combining poetry and photography.

Let’s say you have a stack of amazing photos. Then what? Do you shop them around? Use them to get commissioned work? Compile them into a book?

Hard for me to say, because what little commercial work I’ve done so far has been on the news and event photography side, and my photographs are sold through the two photo agencies that represent me. I’ve sold articles that I’ve illustrated with my photography. It’s only recently that I’ve begun going through images that I hope might be viable for the fine arts market. I’m teaching myself more about high-end digital printing. I have some book projects that I want to put together, but there’s a lot of long term work that needs to go into them.

What’s your day job?

I’m glad you asked, because many biographers do us a great disservice when they convince us that artists arrive on the scene fully formed. How many biographers tell you how the writer or photographer slaved away in a conventional job before he or she was able to fully support himself or herself through her artistic work? Granted, the most brilliant artists are the ones who make us think it’s easy: McCullers wrote The Heart is a Lonely Hunter when she was in her 20s. Hemingway was in his 20s when he wrote The Sun Also Rises. But they also had incredible discipline, almost to the point of obsessiveness. And, of course, they were also simply brilliant. It comes harder for many of us. I would like to live a more bohemian lifestyle, but you can’t feed a family on air.

Though I started life in publishing and journalism, I fell into finance when one of the Swiss banks one day asked me to move to Zurich. They thought my writing abilities might be useful to them. I used to live on one of the same streets where James Joyce kept an apartment. Now I’ve been in finance since the dawn of man. One of my cousins, who is a successful journalist, told another friend that he thought I would never leave the profession. On the flip side, a week before I left for Switzerland, a friend, bless her, clipped a newspaper article for me about financial professionals who later went on to become great writers–notably T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens. I still have that clipping. It’s probably more than coincidence that many of my favorite writers and photographers were financial professionals before they became full-time artists: Evans, Stevens, Eliot and Andre Kertesz. Sebastiao Salgado and Hart Crane also come to mind. The blessing and bane? When time is more precious than money, you begin to think in terms of longer term projects.

Your thoughts on this quote from photographer Jon Anderson:

I am not so interested in striking visual imagery for its own sake, and I don’t care for controlled studio work much either. I favor a kind of photography where the shooter has little control over the scene and the accidents of life play a large role. I like surprises, and I very much like the fact that my intentions don’t count for much when I tangle with the object world. I like photographs that give me an almost novelistic view of society in all its registers: the comic, the tragic, the burlesque, the epic.

I’m a great admirer of Jon’s photography, but I’m equally admiring of his writing, and I hope he does more work in the future to combine the two. Jon has done a lot of street photography, and these days, he’s doing a lot of social documentary work in the Caribbean. I appreciate a sense of serendipity too, but I don’t always disdain artifice. Dance and theater, for instance, are examples of where artifice can be made beautiful, and finding ways to document and portray that kind of accomplishment can also be important. I even like the high artifice of fashion photography. Writing and photography do not always have to be gritty and dirty. But Evans once said that the best photography was essentially literary, and I think that’s the sentiment that Jon was sharing.

Who are some photographers and writers who have influenced you?

On the photography side? Evans is dear to my heart. Though he was a brilliant photographer, he was a failed writer, and that has, unfortunately, some resonance with me. He was accomplished at writing film reviews, though. Henri Cartier-Bresson taught us all about the “decisive moment.” Andreas Feininger for his precision and New York cityscapes. Alfred Sieglitz and Georgia O’Keefe, because they taught me that you could create visual art just by peeking out your apartment window. Kertesz, whose Washington Square photos are brilliant; they teach you to take in the whole scene. He was also always experimenting. I would like to think the Farm Security Administration photographers like Dorothea Lange have had some influence, but my work has not taken me in that direction. Eugene Smith, whose photo essays were without parallel. I also like a lot of the great portraitists–like Arnold Newman–and fashion photographers. I’m greatly admiring of the National Geographic photographers who write well.

As far as writers? Hemingway, whose straightforward sentences taught me a lot about both literature and journalism. Graham Greene, who taught me that fine writing could also be thrilling. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whose work is simply magic. Milan Kundera, who taught me that novels could be theatrical and philosophic. Joyce for his short stories. The Russians for the sweep of their novels. D.H. Lawrence and Thomas Hardy, who were brilliant as both novelists and poets. The poetry essays of Seamus Heaney. Speaking of poets, Dylan Thomas, Yeats, Eliot, Neruda and Frost. The literary journalism of John McPhee, Joan Didion, Annie Dillard and Tom Wolfe. The travel writing of Paul Theroux. Can I say Shakespeare? I remember reading an article about Shakespeare Behind Bars, where an inmate marveled at how passage after passage of the writing was written in meter and rhyme. I marvel at that too.

What’s your wish for your career?

To put together a book or two that someone will find absorbing.


Weekly Wrap: Pummeling Ourselves

by Susan Henderson on September 29, 2006

Quick interruption: I’m interviewed here. And the dangers of pretending you’re deaf are here. Now back to the weekly wrap.

Every Friday, the Hendersons go to Chinese school. Some of my homework:

Mandarin is something I really suck at and I’m not afraid to admit it. It doesn’t hurt my feelings to know I will probably suck at it forever. Same with taking pictures. They’re always blurry because when I press the button, I inevitably jar the whole camera. I suck. Oh well.

The books I write are another matter entirely. The slightest sense of failure in my writing absolutely devastates me.

This week struck me hard. I was very moved by your responses to the Question of the Week and the pain so many of you expressed that comes from being a writer or artist (rejection, self-doubt, and perhaps that pain that drove us to be artists in the first place). I am so very moved by Tommy Kane, not just his interview answers, but the whole person and the art he creates. And this week, also, was a week of unexpected deaths. If you follow Neil Gaiman’s blog, you can’t help but feel the shock of grief. And my friend, the writer Girija Tropp, who won this year’s $10,000 Josephine Ulrick Literature Prize, came to New York (her first time in this country) as a celebration of sorts – a splurge to see what’s next for her career. And while traveling, her mother passed away, and it’s become a different journey altogether. She’s staying the weekend with me, by the way.

Behind every painting and manuscript and song is a person. I think that’s what I want to talk about today. Art is not a product; it’s a relationship the artist is offering you. I think one reason why artists bond so fiercely with each other is because connecting with both an artist and their art calls for immeasurable intimacy, vulnerability, and risk. And I think that’s why rejection in this business…an editor with a dismissive “I think I’ll pass on this”…can be so very debilitating.

Maybe, for me anyway, self-doubt is a survival instinct. I want so badly to protect myself from rejection that I attack my work before I even think to send it out.


A year ago, maybe two now, I had a really lovely lunch with an editor at a big time publishing house who loved my novel and recited lines from it over and over without looking at a cheat sheet. I felt like a rock star. She was already seeing sequels and asked me to indulge her by writing an extra chapter featuring her favorite character.

Time went by, she couldn’t push the book through the committee, and that was the end of our contact. Whatever had made her run across town in her pajamas to print out the second half of my book was not enough to seal a thing. And in the end, you’re just there with your rejection slip and no book. Just like before. Wondering why you keep writing.

After that, I wrote a second book, a memoir, but was afraid to show it to my agent. I still liked it and wasn’t ready to be crushed. So I blogged about it instead. An editor at an absolutely huge magazine contacted me that day and asked me to email her the entire manuscript. She called me the next day saying she just finished it and loved it, especially the ending scene where Mr. Henderson is peeing and eating an ice cream cone at the same time. “We’d like to excerpt it! I want to blurb it! Who’s publishing the book?” “Well, nobody is.”

Now, with two books on my hard drive, I contemplate starting a third and just can’t do it. Why? Because it feels stupid. Because each person knows how much rejection they can take, and I’ve reached my limit.

Instead, I decided to put up a little corner for writers and artists that didn’t suck the life out of them. That would be LitPark. I get notes sometimes from people saying they think I’m nice, and I appreciate those notes, but to be honest, LitPark is my f-you to the publishing business. It’s my way of saying, “Enough already! There’s more of us than you so treat us with some respect, damn it!” I write here and there, but I stay where the love is.


Thank you to those of you who responded this week: Mikel K, who had an epiphany one drunken night when he was throwing crumpled beer cans at a lead singer, and that epiphany: he is a writer despite what others say, and his feelings about his talent swing from great doubt to cockiness; Julie, who wonders, when she tinkers with her work-in-progress and cuts even the passages she loves, if it will ever be right; Frank, who knows one negative comment can override all the good, but sometimes the resulting anger gets him to forge ahead; Kasper, who’s learned that art will be judged in completely subjective and unpredictable ways, so he tries to make art that’s significant to himself; Greg, who will believe the criticism over his own opinions and talks about how he judges himself by how much gets published; PD, who believes self-doubt sharpens his work; Sarah, who doesn’t mind a little self-doubt but can be paralyzed by outside criticism; Grant, who seconds the idea that self-doubt alternates between moments he’s sure he is brilliant; Gail, who thirds that idea (I’ll go ahead and fourth it here) and assures Greg that publication only alleviates doubt for a second; Lori, who believes anything is possible when she has supportive friends; Jordan, who she doesn’t doubt her abilities so much as she doubts she’ll ever break into the impossible world of publishing; Ric, who says it can be crippling to go long periods without positive feedback, but that’s where coffee and cigarettes step in; Joe, who says the stories themselves seem to get lonely when there’s no audience, and who uses the unforgettable phrase “horsey of hope” when he reveals his fear is that he’s destined for mediocrity; Dennis, who describes the self-doubt when he reads someone who blows him away but bets that even his idols have these same voices in their heads; Amy, who talks about doubt born from the disconnect between her instincts about a piece and the way it’s perceived by others; Myfanwy, who says doubt fires her up to prove herself wrong; Lauren who seesaws between elation and doubt even on publication day (Congratulations on VERTIGO‘s release this week!); Betsy, who likes Myf’s reminder of what’s really important: health, family, friends; Patry, who has become impervious to rejection because a rejected story at one magazine may win a prize at another; Thea, who says self-doubt creeps in like a cockroach in the dark, so she keeps the light on; Kathy, whose second-guessing can get such a hold of her that she over-edits; and Lance, who I continue to call my twin because his answers are always the same as mine, and that is, he skips right over self-doubt and goes straight to self-loathing. Thanks for being candid and for being here for each other. And thank you to Tommy, who is beautiful, inside and out.


Tommorow, see through the eyes of a New York photographer . . .

Have a good weekend! (Steelers have a bye week, thank God.)


Tommy Kane

by Susan Henderson on September 27, 2006

Tommy Kane, the Advertiser Who’d Rather Sketch

Who is Tommy Kane?

My name is Tommy Kane. I was born. Went to catholic school for 12 years. Quickly learned I was going to hell. Attended art school in Buffalo. Got hired to be an illustrator for the Buffalo Evening News. Moved to New York. Got hired in one day to work in advertising. I had a dream to make a living as an illustrator. It was harder than I expected. Thought advertising was cool. Became an art director. Started to make lots of dough. Hung out with celebrities and supermodels. Somewhere along the line I forgot about my dream of being an illustrator. Made more money. Had a life changing experience and now I am getting back onto my original path of wanting to be an illustrator.

You’ve made a name for yourself in advertising. Talk to me about the difference (emotionally, artistically, etc.) between that artwork and the illustrating, sculpting and sketching you do.

Basically in advertising, the work passes through many hands. Clients, clients’ bosses, then their bosses until fifty people have had their say. And they always say the same thing: “I don’t like it” or “can’t you make it look like that Dunkin Donuts ad I saw.” When I am home doing my own work, no one has a say but me. I’m the client. I draw, paint and sculpt so I don’t get too bored or into a rut doing one kind of art. The sketch books I can take anywhere so there is never an excuse not to be doing art everyday. I also do big paintings, so sometimes it’s hard to set up and work in my 800 square foot apartment. Same with my 3-D work. I force myself to do it because I need to. No other reason than that.

If I flipped through your portfolio and your sketch journals, what would I see?

I’m very anal compulsive so I have different types of sketch books. One is just for my travels around the world. Another is just portraits of my family and friends, another just for political drawings, another for watercolors, another for large drawings of architecture done in black ink and colored pencils. I did one that was a true comic book of my life as a 5 year-old. I consider each of them a perfectly executed theme book. When people come to my apartment and flip through one, they always say, “man you should do a book” and I say, “I did. You’re holding it in your hand.”

Describe what you love about making art. Which part of the process is most fulfilling to you?

I can’t say I would use the word, love. It’s more I need to make art. To me, making art is a blue collar job. You have to roll up your sleeves each day and be prepared to get dirty, along with the aches and pains. It’s physical. If I draw or paint for a few hours, I’m exhausted. Doing my journals on the street is a constant struggle with discomfort. There’s the heat and rain, tons of people looking over my shoulder, cars parking right in front of my view when I’m only half done. The most fulfilling part is when I am finished with something and then for a fleeting moment, there is joy.

How do you know when you’re in your zone? And do you have any tricks for reaching that state?

How does a blue collar worker know when he is in a zone? He doesn’t. He gets up each day to do his work. Sometimes with a hangover, sometimes sick, sometimes feeling amazing. The trick for me is to keep going, especially on those days when I don’t want to get out of bed, or when painting or drawing something is the last thing I want to do. As long as I am physically doing art, something will happen. Change for an artist is a slow process. Day in and day out, it’s hard for me to see if I am getting any better or evolving or if I’m in some sort of zone. But when I look back at a year’s work, I see that I did progress and evolve. So to answer your question, I must have been in some kind of zone the whole time, I’m just totally unaware of it.

Talk to me about the drawing you can’t seem to get right, self-doubt, and other frustrations of trying to create art.

This question touches on the nemesis of my life. I’m a little emotional just answering this question. Something happened to me to fill my life with nothing but self-doubt. About 15 years ago, I ever so slowly started to have panic attacks. I began to have trouble being in meetings at work. I stopped going to parties. I fluffed them off as just being an isolated incident here and there, but they grew stronger and more frequent. I got call waiting at home. I was always checking who was calling, but I never answered the phone. I panicked on trains, in restaurants, on the street. It then began to happen every day, eventually dominating my life. This all took years to happen. Soon no one was calling. For five years, I never left my apartment except to go to work from Monday to Friday. While locked in my own hell, I began to paint. Before that, I only drew. My painting skills grew while I was in this terrible isolation. It’s the only thing that helped me keep my sanity. The attacks became so severe that there were times I couldn’t enter the building I worked in. Sometimes it took me hours to get up the courage to make it to my office. It was a scary time. So back to your question, self-doubt was my constant companion. No one really saw my artwork. Only me. I didn’t think any of it was any good at all. Don’t get me wrong, I liked it but I felt compared with other artists, I was terrible. I had self-doubt every time I picked up a pen or brush. I eventually got help, and haven’t had any attacks in many years now. I even got married recently. Getting all my work together to publish my own website has been a major step in my overcoming all the self-doubt with which I had lived. The great feedback I’ve received has been the best medicine of all.

How do you work through that?

I just had to keep going. Deep, deep down below the self-doubt, there was a voice that said “but maybe you really are good.” My wife said I had a fear of success. Now when I draw or paint, I feel like I have great skills. For example, when I do my moleskine drawings, I don’t use a pencil to sketch anything out first. I just whip out a pen and start drawing. My drawings are always a series of mistakes that I am trying to correct. In the end, it always looks like I wanted it to turn out that way, but the mental process is a bit rough. Working that way has given me great confidence. Now I feel like Superman.

Tell me about your travels where you’ve gone and what you learn by going away.

I travelled quite a bit for my job in advertising. I’ve done commercials and photo shoots in Ireland, France, New Zealand, Africa (went on a safari twice), and Australia. I’ve travelled personally to England, Holland, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Hong Kong, Mexico, Austria, and the Czech Republic. When I would travel for my job, you instantly have friends in these places. It is not like being a tourist. I go to people’s homes, party with their friends and go to the places off the beaten path to really see what’s going on. That has been a privilege. I’ve learned that the world is filled with a lot of nice people. I’ve learned that the world is full of super talented individuals who have built amazing cities, painted amazing paintings, sculpted amazing sculptures, came up with ingenious recipes. I’ve learned there is a lot more to the world than Starbucks and KFC. I’ve never had a bad experience overseas.

I know you have opinions about the state of the world and the US’s involvement in it. Would you be willing to draw something about that that I can show on my blog?

I included one.

What would you like to do (artistically or otherwise) that you’ve never done before?

I would love to star opposite Angelina Jolie. I would love to model underwear for Calvin Klein. I would love to play drums for The Who. I would love to win the 2008 Democratic primary. I could go on and on.

Could you share 3 pieces of advice to other artists?

1. Draw. Because of the computer, it is becoming a lost art. Drawing everyday is a great exercise — it’s like going to the gym. Also you don’t really have to be very good to do it. It’s about the art of seeing things. We all loved to draw as little kids, but then somewhere along the way, we told ourselves to stop doing this fun activity.

2.Check out all the great websites online that showcase artists: Illustration Mundo, Art Dorks, Drawn, Wooster Collective, Juxtapoz, These sites update every single day letting you discover the best artists in the world.

3. Marry someone extremely wealthy.


Did I already say how much I adore this man?

If you’re on MySpace, make Tommy your friend and send him a nice note. And also leave your comments for him here.

I’ll see you Friday.


Question of the Week: Self-Doubt

by Susan Henderson on September 25, 2006

Rejection is a large part of the business for writers and other artists, but what about those of you who crumple up your efforts, judge yourself harsher than any editor, or are so afraid of failure you freeze up? Talk to me about self-doubt.


Wednesday I’ll share with you the interview that made me cry. For those of you who watch TV or read glossy magazines, you have probably seen Tommy Kane‘s work in advertising.


Sometimes there are heavy costs to losing creative control over your art. On Wednesday, Tommy and I talk about self-doubt, art driven by the soul, and the need to create even when the process is not at all enjoyable.

I adore this man, and I hope you’ll be back to get to know him.


Reynald’s Rap: Lance Reynald, Shawn Decker

by Susan Henderson on September 23, 2006

Lance Reynald and MY PET VIRUS author, Shawn Decker

My Monday morning started like it does for most aspiring writers; let the dogs out, put on a pot of coffee and check my RSS reader. LitPark is always the first thing I read in the morning, it’s where us writers come to play. (Not greasing the boss here, it’s the truth.)

This week we’ve been talking about the truth here in the park. I love truth in literature. I think that great writing whether fact or fiction always has essential human truth in it. I fall into the Hunter S. Thompson school of thinking the writer’s truth is in all writing (this may in fact be a fiction that I attribute to HST, but it sounds so right to me).

I still dig JT LeRoy, even though he’s not a transsexual runaway but a forty-something year old mother. I’d still get James Frey’s back in a bar fight, I felt I was there when he wrote of his troubles.

Human truth, it’s in the writing.

Then we come to the Memoirist. We’ve so many of them to choose from these days. Some great stories out there. Brave. Visceral. Heartfelt. True life experiences that make us writers feel that the “truth to tell” gene we all got stuck with has a place in the world. My money is always on the courageous raconteurs that tell the hardest stories and put it all on the line. Stripped bare in the town square kind of writing. Add to that kind of story a sense of humor and I’m going to force everyone I know to read the book.

My chat today is with such a writer. I’m not going to go into the whole synopsis you can read in any of the reviews he’s gotten. But I will say this; there is a hell of a lot of buzz and chatter. He deserves it. A most courageous writer, willing to talk to the world about his life and its complications; and a desire to live that life to the fullest.

Without me being tempted to go all off in a hundred different directions and losing all of you I should get to the guest. It’s my privilege to introduce Shawn Decker, writer of MY PET VIRUS: THE TRUE STORY OF A REBEL WITHOUT A CURE.


Lance: Wow, you’ve got a busy tour ahead of you. Thanks so much for taking the time to do this. For starters I’m going to gush a bit.

Shawn: Gush away!

Lance: What I’ve seen of your book so far is brilliant. Your candor is amazing. I sat and read through your excerpt on and was amazed by how open you are about your positoid life. Tears streaming down my cheeks and a smile at the same time. I found myself happy that you found the voice and strength to write your story. Have you found this to be the normal reaction to your words or have I just lost my mind?

Shawn: I’m not going to say you shouldn’t talk to your doctor about your reaction to the book, but I do hope others react with your enthusiasm. One of the things that inspired me to get the whole story down was the reaction Gwenn and I have gotten through our speaking engagements.

Lance: Yes, you and your wife-partner, Gwenn, travel the country as AIDS educators speaking at universities. Are the students out there coming to your presentations well informed about HIV and AIDS?

Shawn: It varies, depending on who is sponsoring the event. Sometimes we speak to peer educators who, on occasion, have educated us about some of the late-breaking news on HIV medications and other nerdy facts. But even with all the technical facts, it’s our personal story the resonates on an entirely different level than bland statistics. Sure, we’ll get young people who didn’t realize that you could share a water bottle with someone who is HIV positive before our talk, but afterwards they are coming up for a handshake or a hug. And that’s when I realize that I am doing my job.

Lance: You’re pretty open on your blog and in the excerpt on about managing your meds and having times where it is hard to be compliant and creative at the same time. I know that plenty of positoids struggle with this themselves. Do you find it hard to balance the energy you need to deliver your message with the demands of treatment? Or, is Gwenn pretty strict when she thinks you’re taking a risk?

Shawn: Gwenn has been cool about my far-out ideas, like going Week On/Week Off with my HIV drug regimen, because she’s the only person on the planet who sees what these medications do to me. Everyone else, I’m good at hiding that from. Still, I got burned last year when I was finishing my book and went off meds for two months: I ended up in the hospital for 3 days with ITP. (ITP, idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura, also known as immune thrombocytopenic purpura, is classified as an autoimmune disease. In an autoimmune disease the body mounts an attack toward one or more otherwise normal organ systems. In ITP, platelets are the target. They are marked as foreign by the immune system and eliminated in the spleen, or sometimes the liver.)

A lot of authors say that finishing their book nearly killed them, but I can say it for real!

Lance: What’s life as a positoid celebrity like? You defy a lot of stereotypes about HIV and AIDS, do you think people are more willing to listen to your information because of that?

Shawn: People who don’t care about HIV open up to what I say a lot more, mainly because of the use of humor. And the fact that I’m banging a chick? Sure, that might help some get over their preconceived notions as well, and knowing that mentality is out there is why I pepper my message with how the gay community helped nurture me as an educator.

Some say, “You have it so easy being a kid who was diagnosed!” But that cushy little niche changed when Gwenn came into the public picture. I wasn’t someone who was beating the odds anymore, I was someone with HIV who was, gasp, having sex! Ryan White with… a boner!

Lance: the tour kicks off this week and runs through the beginning of October, any shout-outs or words to tempt readers to come out and see you in the flesh??

Shawn: I’m trying to topple the biggest author in my hometown of Charlottesville, which happens to be John Grisham. I really need the support at these book events to make that happen! Grisham does a lot of things for the community, but young rappers have had success calling out stars like Eminem and 50 Cent on their debuts, so I figured I’d adapt that methodology and introduce it to the literary world.

Some say it’s an impossible dream for an upstart author, but for someone who was given two years to live in 1987 it doesn’t seem like that far of a stretch. No matter how that turns out, I’m very proud of the book, and I hope people pick it up and I’d love to see you all on the road!
Positively Yours,

Lance: Awesome! Thanks for taking the time to chat about MY PET VIRUS. I can’t wait to pick up a few copies on the 25th at the B&N event. Safe travels on the tour and best wishes for a positively stellar turnout!

(Who is this John Grisham fellow? His name just keeps coming up, did he have something to do with the DaVinci Code?)

See ya’ll in NYC!

Xo- LR



When not playing a zombie in the band Bella Morte’s video for “Earth Angel”, Shawn Decker can be found writing a column for POZ magazine, a blog at, traveling and lecturing with his wife, Gwenn, at Universities across America, Featured on the BBC, PBS and HBO…AND, he just happened to find time to write MY PET VIRUS: THE TRUE STORY OF A REBEL WITHOUT A CURE. Find Shawn and his tour schedule at

Promo Video for MPV on youtube:

When not locked in the pantry evading anxiety attacks and sacrificing large quantities of peanut butter cups and Stewart’s Root Beer to the most recent copy of Writer’s Market, Lance Reynald can be found doing what most un-agented writers do all day; practicing signing his name with a Sharpie on 5X7 cards in hope that creative visualization will pay off in a book deal. Once the Sharpie huffing wears off he settles in to finishing up a shopable draft of POP SALVATION, the story of a boy who wanted to be Andy Warhol. He also distracts himself plenty with his blog at Myspace.