Reading List: I am not Raymond Wallace
The debut novel from Sam Kenyon is I am not Raymond Wallace.
With this story, Kenyon takes us Manhattan in 1963. Fresh-faced Raymond Wallace lands in the New York Times newsroom on a three-month bursary from Cambridge University. He soon discovers his elusive boss, Bukowski, is being covertly blackmailed by an estranged wife, and that he himself is to assist the straight-laced Doty on an article about the ‘explosion of overt homosexuality’ in the city. Like so many men of his time and of his kind, Raymond faces a choice between conformity, courage and compartmentalisation.
I caught up with Sam Kenyon to talk about the novel.
You’re drawing on a real-life story for this narrative – how did you initially encounter the story that became your inspiration?
It was an older – apparently straight – family friend who I’d known for many years. In response to my coming out to him, he told me his own tale of queer love and loss in the early 1960s in Manhattan. It was a pure gift in so many ways and senses. He told it to me to encourage me to follow my heart – little did he know that it would also inspire a novel.
You wrote this story and then sat on it for 20 years – what pushed you to dust it off and revisit its potential?
I experienced a lot of rejection and disappointment – as well as some praise and excitement – with my prose writing in the early 00s, and decided to cut my losses. I then developed – and was given the opportunity to develop – other creative directions for myself, in the theatre world.
Then, when lockdown hit, my theatre and teaching work completely dried up. I saw a tweet from Inkandescent asking for submissions, and figured I might just give my novels another shot.
I include the email from Justin, my publisher, written when he first read the full manuscript, at the back of the book, because his enthusiasm and honesty is so rare and precious. It’s so exciting to be working with a queer publisher and editor.
This is your debut novel, but had you written about or previously explored this time period? Did you have to do much research to create the world in which these characters were operating?
My musical, MISS LITTLEWOOD, does cover this era as well, though not specifically from a queer perspective. ‘The Gay Metropolis’ by Charles Kaiser introduced me to the New York Times article Raymond works on.
I did piecemeal research in the editing sequence – also asking older friends for tips, opinions and memories. As I did so, I realised I could be pretty free with my imagination – getting certain key historical moments in place, but then letting the characters develop themselves in interactions.
For the location of Papà and Joey’s Brooklyn apartment, for example, I used Google maps, found a definitively modern building, and chose that as the location – working on the principle that ‘their’ apartment had been torn down in the intervening years. I found a gorgeous location using that same facility for Gianna’s restaurant, which is now a clothing store – the mutability of urban planning gave me great freedom.
Then there’s the sex. I’ve read loads of LGBTQ+ books from different eras, and been frustrated and disappointed by how often shame and toxicity so often surround the sex scenes. And I’ve never really seen the sexual identity of a young man be presented as anything other than wildly confident. So I wanted to flip the narrative on intimacy and arousal in this period, and show how our sense of self – and self-confidence – can be positively influenced by hot, consensual sex with a kind lover.
I also really enjoyed playing with the idea of one or more characters getting off on the writings of another – that was a fun thing to discover as I went along.
Who are some of your queer literary heroes or inspirations?
Jeanette Winterson is a long-term favourite of mine. I’m also a massive fan of Neil Bartlett, and wrote my dissertation at university on his debut novel – I was delighted to meet him via our mutual publisher.
I first read Baldwin’s ‘Another Country’ in lockdown, which blew me away, and then I discovered the writings of Bruce Nugent.
Then there’s Janis Ian, whose song ‘When Angels Cry’ – about the AIDS crisis – I include in my book. And Steve Sondheim, who is the one who inadvertently nudged me towards the radio broadcast announcing the assassination of JFK in ‘63 – his lyrics balance wit, character and philosophy with tremendous style and poise.
Now that you’ve brought this story to publication, do you have more writing in the pipeline?
Well, I did submit three manuscripts to Inkandescent, from which they selected I AM NOT RAYMOND WALLACE, so we’ll see whether either of the others grab them!
Alongside two theatre pieces I’m developing, I also have a long-term idea for another novel. I have it pretty much planned out, but just need to read all the books I’ve bought as research material.
What do you hope that people feel when reading “I am not Raymond Wallace”?
On a micro level, I hope they’ll feel the emotions that my characters feel at any given point. But, of course, each reader will have their own relationship to the circumstances and dynamics in the novel – relationships with co-workers, parents, lovers, for example – and so I hope I give people opportunities to reflect on those differently.
Some straight readers have found it educational, which is intriguing, others have been terribly moved by certain relationships.
I love hearing how readers respond in ways I couldn’t have anticipated – those are the most exciting response I could possibly hope for.
I am not Raymond Wallace is published by Inkandescent and is now available