Author Alan Semrow gives Booknista the lowdown on his new collection of short stories Briefs and tells us how he got here.
[Gal Pal]: Let’s start with a toast to Briefs. Beer or wine or mixed drinks or other?
[Alan Semrow]: Well, if you asked any of my friends, they’d tell you I wasn’t much of a drinker. Just kidding. I’m all over a good glass or three of Sauvignon Blanc or a nice Cab. My go-to is vodka soda. I also enjoy a nice IPA.
Tell us a bit about yourself. How did you get started writing?
Storytelling was important to me pretty early on. I just always felt very compelled to put stories down on paper.
I started writing screenplays, short stories, novels, and songs in high school. By the time I hit college, I started discovering more of my voice as an author and that’s when I started writing stuff that had a pretty specific point of view.
What inspires you?
I’m drawn to dark comedy. Taking darker subject matter and giving it a comedic twist, that’s fun. I also like to write about gay relationships and, I guess, the gay community in general—what I’m observing and such. I came out early on in college and the way I dealt with it was to study the gay literary canon—Edmund White, Michael Cunningham, Larry Kramer, Andrew Holleran, Dennis Cooper, everyone. I was so invested in learning. This all informed where my work would go.
I started writing about gay characters, and this was mostly done in an effort to figure out my place, what my life would be like now that I was out of the closet, to deal with what I was going through. Once I became more comfortable, the works started taking a very specific point of view. I wanted to write about things that no one else I was reading was writing about. I wanted to write about sex in the modern era, love in the modern era, gay relationships. What I didn’t want was for people to read my stuff and feel like they could sit down with a cup of tea and feel soothed. I wanted to push buttons, I wanted to get people out of their comfort zone.
If you could have any actor play you in an epic film about your life, who would it be?
Oh my. Maybe if Liz Phair was a gay man who acted? There’s something about her music and her vibe that I relate with on a very strong level and I feel like she and I could be really good friends.
Tell us a bit about Briefs.
I’ll start by saying that the collection was started a long time ago, so I’m pretty far removed from that period in my life, but it was a very specific time for me. Once Lethe Press and I started working on proofing the book and putting it all together, I was forced to look back on these stories that I had written so long ago, and it was interesting because I don’t actually know if I could ever again tap into the vibe of these stories, tap into the place I was at when I wrote these stories, because it happened at such a precise time.
The first story I wrote for Briefs was written right as I was about to graduate from college. This was “Beach House,” the last (and longest) story in the collection. It’s this very Nip/Tuck-ish, epic, tumultuous gay…love story (?). Once it was completed, I felt like I’d started to find my artistic voice. I knew I was at least onto something, and I knew I had a point of view.
From there, I graduated college, entered a relationship, got my first big boy job, got my first apartment, got a new job, moved in with the boyfriend, left what was ultimately a pretty toxic relationship. It was a lot for me, so I took it out in my writing. Once I wrote “The Next Great America Novel Sinks to the Bottom of the River,” the other 50+ stories followed very quickly. It was just an uneasy time for me, but that informed the work and it’s definitely interwoven into these stories.
All of these characters are struggling in some way, and they’re either dealing with it by leaving a situation that makes them unhappy or entering a situation that they feel might make them happier. These stories ended up encompassing, in a very masked way, my past, my present, and my outlook on the future. And that’s the reason why it would be very difficult for me to pop in right now and write another story that resembles any of these.
Are the stories autobiographical then?
I wouldn’t say that these stories are necessarily autobiographical. A lot of these characters were inspired by very minute things that I had observed or been inspired by. So these stories are really me sitting in the shoes of someone else and going from there. The characters don’t necessarily share my morals or values, they’re just interesting to me and I felt like exploring them. However, there are definitely parts of me that are woven into the stories, but I think only my closest friends could pinpoint where.
Do you have a favorite story in Briefs?
I’m really happy with “The Next Great American Novel Sinks to the Bottom of the River.” I think it’s hilarious and absolutely devastating at the same time. “Beach House” is also a story that I’ll always keep close to my heart.
What are your favorite books?
So I’ve been chain-reading Mary-Louise Parker’s Dear, Mr. You. It was just released this year and, if I was forced to read only that book for the rest of my life, I’d be okay with that. Catcher in the Rye is my favorite—Salinger, in general—I’ve been re-reading the book recently as motivation for book two, currently underway. Chuck Palahniuk has been a huge influence on my work, as have folks like Katherine Dunn, Amy Hempel, and Denis Johnson. But there are so many names I could name.
Do you have any advice for aspiring LGBT writers?
I just think it’s important to be honest, to tell the truth. That’s what’s going to set you apart. You don’t have to, you know, sit down and write your life story—for me, doing such a thing sounds super boring.
Step outside of yourself and let your mind wander. From there, little bits of you start to come out in your writing. You start to make more sense of your situation through what you’re doing with these characters. That’s where the catharsis is at, that’s where the honest stories come from.
Another piece of advice I would give is to be patient. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to write a great chapter every night after work. Once you start to see writing as a chore, you’re not going to want to do it anymore.
Also, keep submitting your stuff. Rejection comes with what it means to be a writer. Be at ease with that, but keep submitting. If you keep being rejected, you’ll be able to look at what you’re doing and assess. If you get accepted, there’s your boost of confidence. Roll with it.
And don’t stop reading! The more you read, the better the writer you are.
Oh, and write in public! At coffee shops, churches, bars—whatever suits your fancy.
Alan Semrow’s Briefs is out now and available below. Check out our review of Briefs here!