Kellogg's David Jay Collins Discusses the Process Behind His Debut Novel Gaybash

Chicago is known as a center of creativity, and we are lucky to have fantastic, original authors who write about real issues and raw emotions. I had the pleasure of talking with one such author, David Jay Collins, program manager at Kellogg Executive Education at Northwestern University. We discussed the process of writing his first novel, Gaybash, and the social implications of searching for one’s self in an uncertain world.

I sat down with Collins over coffee at Soho House Chicago in the West Loop, one of my favorite creative spaces. In addition to discussing Gaybash, he gave a few hints about Summerdale, his second novel due October 2018.

I asked how he approached writing Gaybash, an emotionally revealing novel. Collins said it took him years to finish because the writing process created a comfortable space where he could explore the deep emotions of his characters without releasing them into the world. This gave Collins the time to develop his voice as a writer and create dialogue about what he observed in his own life, both good and bad. Eventually, though, he became frustrated that he’d never finish.

Collins finally threw off what he called the “comfortable, warm blanket” of perpetual writing and editing and in 2014 stepped out into the cold with a finished novel. “It felt exhilarating to be done,” he said. He compared completing his novel to being “in the zone” and experiencing an adrenaline rush much like an athlete. “It is a moment of peace that you are fully prepared for, and you do what you need to do to finish.”

Rejection letters from publishers didn’t stop Collins from bringing his novel to readers. Since he loves the freedom of DIY, he chose to self-publish Gaybash in both e-book and paperback formats.

Free of external deadlines, Collins allowed Gaybash’s characters to develop over time. “Matt is largely based on me, and I left him in a great place at the end of the book.” He says he is not planning to write a sequel, but continues to think about his characters and what their futures may hold. “To me, there’s a logical place to pick up the story in the near future and explore the successes and challenges that a newly confident Matt would face. His star rises in Chicago, I’m certain of that.”

Gaybash is grounded firmly in reality. “I wanted the reader to feel like the story was happening to real people,” said Collins. “Nothing supernatural, nothing metaphysical, no deus ex machina.” That focus on reality extended to Matt’s courtyard building (which actually exists), the location of a very public confrontation at Halsted and Roscoe Streets, and scenes set at the popular Boystown destinations Sidetrack and Roscoe’s.

The novel opens in a fitness class, where Matt shows up his best friend and secret love interest Greg, the more athletic and ego-driven of the two. “These are ordinary characters with ordinary lives doing ordinary things. But then something extraordinary happens, and Matt and Greg find their lives turned upside down.”

After a pivotal event early in the story, Greg garners so much attention that his ego is pumped up even more. Matt finds this repulsive, yet attractive, and he becomes jealous. Matt wants to be like Greg and prove that he is worthy of Greg’s love. This is a great example of ego feeding on itself: being in love with someone who doesn’t see it and refusing to express your own love.

Yet this isn’t a story just about men. Collins deliberately wrote strong female characters into Gaybash. “I didn’t want them to be fun friends going shopping, but real characters on par with the men. They love and nurture and challenge Matt in very different ways,” Collins said. Of the three main female characters, many readers have raved about Mara, a high-spirited co-worker who has Matt’s back. “Hopefully everyone has someone like Mara in their corner. I’d hate to go up against her,” Collins joked.

Women who read Gaybash have responded positively to the dialogue and complex relationships among characters, and men have responded to the unequal friendship between Matt and Greg, Collins said. “Matt and Greg are exactly like me and my older brother, or Matt and Greg are just like me and my best friend—I’ve heard that a lot, and the hurt that goes along with it.”

Some readers have told Collins that they often feel like Matt. The sentence, “Matt said nothing; Matt always said nothing,” was used in key places when he remained quiet instead of taking a risk.

When I asked why, Collins opened up about his own childhood. “Matt holds back, and I have too. It’s a carryover from growing up closeted, where standing out or sharing my feelings openly would have brought more bullying and worse. Compliant and quiet was my defense mechanism. In the story, I broke Matt out of that and by helping Matt, I also helped myself.”

Others are still dealing with the effects of growing up closeted and bullied, however. Collins said that, almost immediately, he began receiving Facebook messages from readers about long-buried memories of bullying, beatings, and sexual abuse. “It breaks my heart. How some of these men got through their childhoods I’ll never know. Matt’s on an emotional journey, and the book has helped some readers release some of their pain. As an author, that feels amazing.”

One final issue I wanted to raise with Collins was the sense of isolation that social media can foster, particularly with people who feel that they don’t fit in. YouTube and Facebook play prominent roles in Gaybash. For example, YouTube is the catalyst for Greg’s rise to fame, and Matt resents that his Facebook feed is filled with pictures from the in-crowd’s parties, dinners, and vacations that he’s never invited to join. Greg, at the very top of the A-List, keeps Matt at a distance, pulling him out of storage only when he’s needed for serious things, such as dealing with the death of Greg’s mother.

Collins understands this completely. “A social life has a social budget, and if you can’t afford to fly to Mexico with your friends for a week or drop $60 on brunch and drinks every weekend, you find yourself excluded. So there’s this feeling that you’re not good enough and everyone has more money and free time than you do. But that’s also called jealousy,” Collins observed. But he has a remedy—check your jealousy and follow your own path. “A lot of what I observed in the community, I wrote into Matt and Greg. Matt worked through his jealousy of others, and so did I. If you look at my social media, it’s filled with a novel and artwork and photography and a book fan page—creative and tangible things I’ve done and am doing. That never would have happened if I was out every weekend just following the crowd.” In other words, use your time wisely and use social media to attract people to you.

What’s next? Summerdale is Collins’s next novel, and his first try at horror. It’s a supernatural story but one grounded in reality. A Kickstarter campaign will be launched soon. “This story has some dark voices. It’s a meditation on addiction—four gay men, four addictions. Summerdale examines how addiction develops and the menacing ways that Mr. McGreevy, a very friendly-seeming landlord, enables self-destruction.” Collins said. And then, with a deep laugh, he added: “Mr. McGreevy is not your friend.”

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