Title: Better Angels
Author: Wayne Goodman
Release Date: June 4th 2017
Genre: Gay Fiction, Retelling, Historical
Joseph Asten, a handsome, 23-year-old farmer living in the Allegheny River Valley shortly after the Civil War, secretly longed for intimacy and love with other men. He devised a misguided plan to marry a woman who knew of his “dual nature” then his life took some unexpected, fateful turns.
Bayard Taylor’s Joseph and His Friend: A Pennsylvania Story is considered the first American Gay novel. Originally published in 1869 as a serial in The Atlantic, the author could not relate the story openly and had to use suggestive ways to describe his characters’ activities and motivations. In Better Angels, Goodman retells the tale frankly and candidly, free from antiquated 19th Century cultural restraints. This is the author’s second book revivifying forgotten, historically-significant Queer stories. Previously, in Vanya Says, “Go!,” Goodman updated the first Russian-language Gay novel Wings, by Silver-Age poet Mikhail Kuzmin.
Find Better Angels on Goodreads
Available on Kindle Unlimited
Wayne Goodman talks about “Better Angels,” his latest work
Thank you for allowing me to be a guest blogger! Authors always need ways to spread the word about their works, and this is a wonderful opportunity to reach out to the very people who would be most interested.
“Better Angels” is a retelling of the first American Gay novel, “Joseph and His Friend: A Pennsylvania Story,” written by Bayard Taylor in 1869. Because of the time period, Taylor could not be very open about the characters and their desires, although when you look at the original work, if you read between the lines, so to speak, you can see the same-sex nature of the story.
My goal in writing “Better Angels” was to take this work and modernize it for 21st Century readers. The original had been first introduced as a serial in “The Atlantic” and then compiled into a novel, much the way Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle introduced their books to the public.
As a gay man, I believe it is important to have literature that includes LGBTQ people. Readers want to learn about characters who share some of their traits but also differ from them as well. A romance is a romance, whether the people involved are men or women, or any combination thereof, and I want the world to recognize that same-sex couples experience much of the same distress, longing, anxiety, anticipation, dread, joy, love, and companionship as the heteronormative world. This is part of my motivation to find historically-significant works that have been overlooked or forgotten and bring them back into the public sphere.
However, much of the writing of previous centuries does not translate well to 21st Century standards. In the past, readers wanted books of great length and intimate details they could take days, weeks, or even months, to finish. Today’s audience wants books that read like movies. Long passages of intricate details or long-winded speeches by stentorian characters tend to be off-putting. Earlier authors included more thought processes and presented their stories from an omnipotent view that allowed for being inside many of the characters’ heads. Today, readers tend to prefer first-person or third-person narrators who don’t lecture them or expound on every feeling or anticipated outcome.
Part of what I see my task is to take works from over 100 years ago and re-examine their essence, retell the stories with a more modern style, but still maintain the sensibility and the sensations of the time period. For the most part, I try to keep the original dialogue intact, as that is where most of the characterization lies. The way people speak, their word choices, the way they mispronounce or misuse words, is very important for being true to the author’s ideas. One of the difficulties I face is when I have to add scenes and attempt to keep the style consistent, making for a seamless transition between the author’s words and mine.
Characters also need to remain consistent within themselves. You can’t have the shy, retiring grandparent burst out into a high-stepping showtune in the middle of Piccadilly Circus. One of the tools I have learned to use over the years is a personality system called the Enneagram. In it, people are grouped into 9 different personality types, based on how their minds handles thoughts, feelings, and actions. Unlike other systems, the Enneagram is dynamic, so that if a person is stressed or elated, their behavior can change to resemble something that of another personality type. Assigning one of the Enneagram types to a character gives you guidelines on how the person might react to a new and unfamiliar situation. It creates consistency and feels more organic. The shy, retiring grandparent at Piccadilly Circus might just observe the others in the area and feel alone thinking about how everyone else is having a much better time,.
In “Better Angels,” the main character is Joseph Asten, a 23-year-old whose parents died when he was young and left him with a maiden aunt. Together, they run a prosperous farm in the Allegheny River Valley of Pennsylvania, soon after the U.S. Civil War. Joseph knows his feelings toward men are different from the other guys, but he wants to maintain the semblance of normalcy. He meets a woman whom he believes understands his secrets, and he proposes to her and they marry. Joseph also meets Philip Held, a man who also prefers men, and starts to have feelings for him. I have made a bold choice to have the love interest be African-American. My belief was that it only adds to the tension of the story, and it is conceivable for the place and time. I have a friend who is a professor of African-American Literature, and I got some advice and feedback on this subject before completing the book to make sure that the words I used were accurate but not insulting to modern readers. I also brought some of the same-sex women’s story more into the open as well.
Taylor’s original book did not fare well; reviewers did not care for the characters or some of the situations. I believe the basis of the story is good and sound, and I have attempted faithfully to tell his story (which was written as an homage to a recently-deceased poet friend who was homosexual). It is a romance. There are love triangles. There are secret meetings and hidden agendas. Hopes built and hopes dashed. It is a story that most everyone can relate to even though it takes place long ago and in unfamiliar territory.
I just hope you enjoy reading “Better Angels” as much as I enjoyed writing it!
Joseph felt the hum from the multitudinous spirits of life in every nerve and vein, marching triumphantly in a procession through secret passages and summoning the phantoms of sense to their completed chambers. He imagined his mind and soul balanced above a strong pinion as he rode farther and farther from his home.
At once, the great joy of human life filled and thrilled him. All possibilities of action and pleasure and emotion swam before his eyes. He envisioned many of the individual careers he had ever read about in all ages, climates, and conditions of humanity–dazzling pictures of the myriad-sided Earth. All this could be his if he but dared to seize the freedom waiting for his grasp.
He finally accepted that he did feel love for his longtime friend, Elwood Withers, as he himself had described it on their ride to the first gathering at the Warriners. Joseph would rather touch Elwood’s hand, or shirt, more than kissing anyone else. Miss Blessing and Lucy Henderson may have stirred a mild passion in him, but nothing like his constant craving for male companionship. Even with all the buffoonery and loud talk, Elwood had captured Joseph’s heart. Elwood embodied all the things Joseph aspired to be–outgoing, confident, worldly–and it made his brain run to his heels whenever Elwood came into view. However, Elwood professed to be interested in the young women, particularly Miss Elizabeth Henderson. Joseph understood his feelings could not be reciprocated, and he had to accept that his feelings differed from the others. His love for another man made him feel like a lone stalk of corn in a field of waving wheat.
GIVEAWAY: Win a SIGNED copy of Better Angels and 2x ebook copies
Wayne Goodman has lived in the San Francisco Bay Area most of his life (with too many cats). When not writing, he enjoys playing Gilded Age parlor music on the piano, with an emphasis on women, gay, and Black composers.