Yesterday, we inaugurated our week-long literary special with a look Jean Genet, the French writer who may a career out of his explorations into the life and mind of the criminal. Today we take a look at a lesbian author whose career may not be as lauded, but also wrote about crime and deserves praise none-the-less: Marijane Meaker.
You may never have heard of Meaker, but chances are you’ve read one of her books. Starting her career in 1951 with a short-story under the pseudonym ME Kerr, Meaker’s written under myriad names: Mary James, ME Kerr, Ann Aldrich, and Vin Packer.
It is with this last nom de plume that we’re most interested. As Packer, Meaker published no less that sixteen books. Though she takes offense at the word pulp, it’s perhaps the most accessible term for an outsider to understand the subjects of these paper backs – referred to as “pulp” because of the paper on which they were printed. Exploring the underbelly of American society. Often ripping her narrative topics “straight from the headlines”, Meaker used the Packer name to write about revenge, murder, and, of course, sex.
One of her most famous books, The Evil Friendship, which she penned under the Packer name, explored a matricide case from Australia in which two young girls murdered the mother who planned to separate them. One of the young killers would grow up to become Anne Perry, the mystery writer. The story of the case, meanwhile, got adapted into the movie, Beautiful Creatures starring Rachel Weisz and Susan Lynch.
Though Meaker retired the Packer name in 1966 to go on to write dozens of other books, many of them for children, you don’t have to go digging through a dusty book bin, because mystery publisher, Stark House Press, has taken a few of the best and republished them for a whole new generation of crime loving homos.
Check Out Meaker’s website: M.E. Kerr
Then haul it over to Stark House Press to find out how you can get down with her older work: Stark House Press
QT: You were born in 1927, a time at which homosexuality was not commonly discussed and, when discussed, shadowed with disdain. As a lesbian, how did you reconcile your identity at that time?
MM: I dealt with it by playing the game: dating, going steady with a serviceman I really liked, but not “that way” and in general coping as we all had to do by behaving like everyone else. But I did ask to go to boarding school, because I’d read homosexuality thrived in such places. How right they were!
QT: I read that you were deeply touched by Carson McCullers’s The Member of The Wedding. What drew you to that particular title?
MM: I was drawn to all McCullers’s books. She was an underdog-lover as I am. She was also this sensitive, intelligent writer whose words were lovely. I felt she was a champion of everyone who felt out-of-step with the world. I still feel that way.
QT: Who do you feel are three of the most important gay writers in history?
MM: [Marcel] Proust, [Walt] Whitman, and [Andre] Gide.
QT: Your own writing career has varied more than any other I can imagine. You started as a fake literary agent, offering various titles you had written under pen names. Why the anonymity?
MM: I could not get a literary agent, so I became one by getting stationery printed and going out to see editors. I always talked up my many writers (all me), [which is] easier to do posing as an agent. I also needed only one mailbox that way.
QT: One of your most famous books is Spring Fire, which is largely credited as the first novels to contain lesbian themes. What was the impetus behind writing that book?
MM: No, it wasn’t at the first novel to contain a lesbian theme. It was the first mass-market paperback novel that took off. A book called Women’s Barracks had preceded it, but was not [as big a seller as] Spring Fire. I wrote the book as a result of my experience in boarding school. Editor wanted me to set the novel in college, [because] boarding school age [was] too risky.
QT: Obviously the plot had to be catered to the restrictions of the time, but the sexual undertones weren’t lost on anybody. Did you get a lot of flack from people when the book came out?
MM: When the book came out I got tons of mail from female readers who were so delighted to read a lesbian novel. [My publisher at the time,] Gold Medal had boxes of mail waiting for me when I went in one day. Of course, my family didn’t know about it. I would have gotten flack if they had.
QT: How did you feel seeing a book you had written under a pseudonym cause such a stir? At any point did you want to come out as the author, so to speak?
MM: I never wanted to claim I was the author. Not in those days. We used to have a saying, “Out of the closet and into the unemployment line.” My friends all knew and were very glad for me.
QT: What prompted you to final take off the mask and reveal yourself as the author of these books?
MM: I waited until I had a body of work I was not displeased with before I came out. Otherwise who’d care? As a WASP, always taught to keep your private life private, it wasn’t easy until I understood that your sexual orientation is never private. Heterosexuals wear wedding rings and have children. In the days before we did the same, some of us had to announce it, once we’d had our consciousness raised and got gay pride. Now there are many proud, open gays! Still, there are people struggling with it, and my heart goes out to them.
QT: Another famous book of yours, Whisper His Sin, tells the story of Ferris Sullivan, a wealthy boy whose tenuous friendship with Paul Lasher turns fatal when Lasher convinces Sullivan to murder his parents for the inheritance. Sullivan, whose homosexuality is evident throughout, ends up going insane. Based on the true story of Harlow Fraden and Dennis Wepman, on the surface it may seem as if the story is an indictment of homosexuality, when in fact you continually highlight the pressures and humiliation lobbed at gays at the time. Sullivan’s mother obsessively implores him to “act like a man.” Why did you include such descriptions that went against popular opinion of the time?
MM: I never supported the popular opinion of the time where homosexuality was concerned. I did have to have an unhappy ending with Spring Fire because of rigid postal restrictions, but by the time I wrote Whisper I could do what I wanted. Except this book was based on a real case. His mother did tell him to act like a man. Most of what I wrote was true to fact.
QT: I’m sure you’ve heard about the recent school shooting in Wisconsin. According to early reports, the shooter, a one Eric Hainstock, had been endlessly taunted by homosexual innuendo and insults by fellow students. A study released earlier this year maintains 75% of participating students had been taunted with pejorative remarks such as “faggot” and “dyke”. It would seem that our society hasn’t progressed all that much since the fictional Ferris’ day. In your opinion, what can be done about that?
MM: The only thing that keeps us forever victims of prejudice is the fact that the church/synagogue/mosque etc. all condemn homosexuality. The law very often continues to support the prejudice. I wouldn’t know what to do about that. Lambda Legal does what they can, but who can fight these rigidly embedded nonsimpatico institutions?
QT: Do you ever feel that your work helped perpetuate negative stereotypes of “the violent gay”?
MM: No, I don’t think my work has ever perpetuated the negative stereotype of the violent gay. I think more often I’ve shown why the violence happened. In both those true cases there [were] outside pressures. Fraden and Wepman were teased and ridiculed, and in Anne Perry’s case, the mother they murdered was planning to move away with her daughter, separating them permanently.
QT: At the same time, however, your books show a human side of homosexuality – even if their humanity involved murderous impulses. Was that intentional, particularly with regard to Whisper His Sin?
MM: Of course the sympathetic approach was intentional. I’m not self-hating. Later in my career as M.E. Kerr, I wrote the first hardcover novel about AIDS (contacted man-to-man, not by needles) called Night Kites. Also I did a sympathetic story of a gay man’s one experience as a bisexual, Hello, I Lied, and a most sympathetic lesbian novel called, Deliver Us From Evie. These are [all] books for kids.
I also wrote a comic novel for adults about a mother and son in love with the same girl. This was Shockproof Sydney Skate, under my own name. It received great reviews and now supposedly Fox is making a movie of it.