Michael Lowenthal will read and sign books along with “Monstress” author Lysley Tenero at 2 p.m. on Sat., Nov. 10, at Boswell Books, 2559 N. Downer Ave., in Milwaukee. At 8 p.m. on Sat., Nov. 10, Lowenthal will read and sign books as part of the Wisconsin Book Festival at the Wisconsin Studio in the Overture Center, 201 State St., in Madison. -PHOTO: John Gransky
Gaybies are popping up all over. Not only do we have our own TV show, but this fall we were lucky to have a new novel from Michael Lowenthal exploring gay male parenting and surrogacy “The Paternity Test.” Amid the familiar stereotypes and slapstick comedy of NBC’s hit series “The New Normal,” Lowenthal’s new novel is a thrilling, funny, sexy and psychologically complex look at a gay male couple and their efforts to have a baby to meet their deep yearning for a child and, perhaps, as a way to recommit to their relationship.
Pat is a wavering romantic, and 10 years into his relationship with Stu he fears they are losing one another in their open relationship. They find a surrogate: Debora, a charismatic Brazilian immigrant, married to Danny, an American carpenter and sparks begin to fly in the most surprising ways. “The Paternity Test” explores how our drive to create new families can complicate the ones we already have.
“The Paternity Test” achieves a generous and capacious take on human hearts, hopes and the many ways we can give birth. I caught up with Michael Lowenthal to talk about my favorite subjects: semen, gay love and What Comes Next!
Tim Miller: Michael, you are truly hooked up to the Fall 2012 Zeitgeist of the Gayby Boom and surrogacy on primetime TV! What led you to this subject matter?
Michael Lowenthall: I have to say, it feels so odd to be in synch with the zeitgeist. All my life till now, I’ve had my finger right on the pulse of “unpop culture.” I’ve consoled myself with the idea that my work was not really unpopular, it was just … let’s say unconventional. But how much more conventional can you get than having an NBC primetime sitcom with the same basic set-up as your novel?
I was drawn the to subject of surrogacy partly from personal experience – seeing friends of mine go through the process, and watching the intense, tricky relationships involved – and partly from a desire to tackle some larger questions about the shifts in gay culture. The gay culture into which I came out was rooted in radical politics; it was about rethinking societal norms, questioning the status quo. And so I’ve been astonished to see how quickly the gay world has shifted its focus to the most quintessentially mainstream issues, like fighting in the military and getting married, having kids.
Of course I support people’s right to do those things, and it enrages me that our government still so flagrantly discriminates against gay people. But I’m interested in how gay men, especially, make the transition. If you’ve been socialized into a gay world that’s about open relationships and no-strings-attached sex, about being defiant outsiders, how does that affect you when you suddenly feel pressure – both internal and external – to settle down and conform to some version of “family values”?
One of the strongest things in the novel is how deeply you explore the varied calls to parenting that the characters feel. How has parenting moved your own life and relationship?
I come from a small family. I have one sister (who doesn’t have kids) and only two first cousins. My boyfriend is also from a small family where nobody’s been procreating. So till quite recently I was never around children, and it didn’t occur to me to think about being a parent. It just wasn’t on my radar screen – not even when I started writing the novel, to be honest.
The first draft of the book was somewhat shallow and bitter, I think, because I didn’t take the desire to be a parent seriously enough. Then I started spending more time with my peers’ kids, and I also suddenly started getting parental pangs myself. Call it a midlife crisis? And so when I rewrote the novel, I think I was able to imbue it with much more genuine emotion about the desire to be a parent.
There are so many surprises in “The Paternity Test,” so many ways it is opposite from the primetime stereotyping gay minstrelsy of a certain television sitcom. This is especially true in the novel's really charged exploration of sex. There have been very few novels exploring this. Did you feel pressure to be a LGBT parenting advocate?
“Primetime stereotyping gay minstrelsy” — oh, I love that! I’m going to get that printed on a T-shirt. But no, I most definitely did not feel pressure to be an advocate for LGBT parents, or for anyone. If folks are looking for advocacy or affirmation, they can go to support groups or read Aesop’s fables or . . . well, they can tune in to stereotyping gay minstrelsy. But I don’t see that as the role of novels.
In a strange way, I felt beautifully "tested" myself at the end of the novel to acknowledge my own material around parenting. What do you hope readers will take away from “The Paternity Test”?
Tim, I hereby anoint you My Ideal Reader, because your response is exactly what I hoped for. Wherever on the spectrum a reader is with regard to questions of parenting, especially gay parenting, I hope to prod that reader into testing his or her position. If you’re a defiantly childless gay liberationist who is annoyed by all the conservative-seeming recent emphasis on gay marriage and gay families, I hope you might be led to empathize more with people who’ve made the choice to start families. If you’re a parent who thinks that we’d all be better off if everyone in the gay movement “grew up” and settled down and showed that we’re “just like straight folks,” I hope you might think more deeply about the genuine differences among people and about what may be lost in this cultural shift. To be honest, what I hope for most is that a reader be left at the end of the novel asking his or her own questions, not mine.
Tim Miller is a solo performer and the author of the books “Shirts & Skin,” “Body Blows” and “1001” Beds. Contact him at www.TimMillerPerformer.com
On the Web: www.MichaelLowenthal.com.
On the shelf
“The Paternity Test”
By Michael Lowenthal
Publisher: Terrace Books/University of Wisconsin Press