Paul G. Bens, Jr. on ’Kelland’
With his novel Kelland, openly gay author Paul G. Bens, Jr. introduces a strange and exciting idea: the title character is not one individual, but a being with multiple manifestations spanning assorted ages, genders, and ethnicities.
To Melanie, the mother of a teenaged boy who has killed himself, Kelland is a kindly man of God who pulls her out of paralysis and sets her on a path of action--though to what, exactly, the reader only gradually starts to grasp.
To George, a young gay boy yearning to serve Christ and the church, Kelland appears as a child: an African American boy with an angelic voice.
To Minh, the straight brother of a gay Vietnamese immigrant, Kelland appears as a gorgeous young women who tempts him to adultery, and then torments him.
And to Minh’s brother, Richard, Kelland’s manifestation is as a lover whose shocking act of betrayal shatters Richard’s world.
In a sense, Kelland is dangerous for these people because of the places he takes them, the ideas he gives them, and the deeds he does to them. In another sense, Kelland is their salvation--but he’s only able to lead them where they need to go by meeting them wherever they are ready and able to engage with him.
"Kelland" is one of the most perplexing, and rewarding, novels you’re likely to read; it’s all the more satisfying that the book offers gay characters who are as fully realized as the straights that Bens depicts.
Bens talked with EDGE about the mysteries behind his book, which might best be described as a kind of karmic thriller.
EDGE: As an openly gay writer, it must be important to you to reflect the gay experience to some extent in your writings.
Paul G. Bens, Jr.: It is very important for my work to reflect the gay experience and the incredible diversity of our community.
When I was growing up (lo, those many years ago) there were no significant representations of gay people in the literature, television and movies I was exposed to; so I never had a sense of gay people beyond the horrible stereotypes that turned up in movies from time to time. The closest I could find was Sal Mineo’s character Plato in "Rebel Without a Cause," and he wasn’t explicitly gay or a particularly hopeful character for a young gay kid, given how tragic his storyline was. So for me, as I began to write, I needed to express the gay experience--the good and the bad.
EDGE: "Kelland" has both an adult and a child who are queer, and they both struggle with some serious issues of faith, for one character, and self-empowerment, for the other.
Paul G. Bens, Jr.: Two of the four gay characters in "Kelland" do indeed struggle with issues of faith and self-empowerment. I think that is somewhat reflective of my own experiences as a gay man, and hopefully it has some resonance for others in the gay community.
There is so much anti-gay sentiment in world religions that I think it is a very difficult conflict for many gay folks who grew up with a strong religious backgrounds to reconcile. You get these messages that gay is bad, and that is completely contradictory with what you were taught about God, that he loves all of his creations.
It has also always bothered me that some religious people view homosexuality as an abomination, a mistake, which impresses me rather as God’s creations saying, essentially, that God is a fuck-up. That, to me, is very dicey.
But back to faith. Given the anti-gay sentiment in many religions, that feeds directly into issues of self-worth which effects how we interact in the world. How we feel about ourselves, sometimes, is directly related to how others feel about and treat us.
And in a lot of cases, [it affects] how we let ourselves be treated. It can be a struggle. When you’ve grown up to see yourselves as "less than," sometimes you face the world as such.
But that is what is remarkable about the gay community. We rise beyond that, and find our own version of faith, just as we often find our own families. We learn to separate religion from faith, God from God’s creations, to get to the core of what God is. We move from the religious to the spiritual.
Also, one of the things that I wanted to do with these characters is examine faith from a personal perspective. Many of the characters in "Kelland" (gay and straight) put their faith in the wrong people, almost blindly in awe of terribly imperfect people. And some of them pay the price.
But what I hope their journey ends in is a realization that the person you must have faith in the most is yourself. Any other earthly god is a false god.
EDGE: Another thing you do with the book is look at the essence of "good" and "evil" in a different way, a way a little removed from our tendency to label as "good" anything that seems, superficially, to serve our wants and needs. Kelland, in his (her, its) various personae, does some very bad thing by that metric, but seemingly in pursuit of a higher (or more complete) justice.
Paul G. Bens, Jr.: Good and evil fascinate and frighten me because they are extremely malleable. What seems good can, many times, be the worst possible thing for you.
That is definitely something I wanted to play with in this novel. How many times have any of us believed we have found the love of our lives, only to discover later that they aren’t good for us? How often have we experienced an event that just devastates us--puts us through some of the toughest times in our lives, only to come out the other side and realize that it ended up being the best thing for us?
I don’t know about anyone else, but that happens to me all the time. And I never realize it when it is happening, but later the light bulb goes off over the head.
Kelland the character was the perfect way for me to explore this. As you say, he/she/it does some pretty horrible things in this novel, and when they happen, I hope the reader is horrified.
Equally, I hope that when the bigger picture is revealed that readers see the motivation, the greater good. After all, Kelland is a guide of sort, poking and prodding the characters to what they need, as painful as that can be.
For me, one of the lines of dialogue in the book sums up what I wanted to do. It is when Kelland says to [grieving mother] Melanie, "You will do a wondrous thing." It’s such a hopeful, almost beautiful, statement. Yet, when one realizes what Melanie is about to do, it turns very dark, and only when you get to the end of the novel do you understand what Kelland meant.
EDGE: Along those same lines, your characters are not all sweetness and light, either: they do some shocking things, and they have some very grave flaws. And yet, in the context of the book, that adds to their humanity.
Paul G. Bens, Jr.: Nothing bores me more in literature (or movies or television, for that matter) than cardboard characters, people who are defined by one overwhelming trait.
That goes for gay or straight fiction. What makes people fascinating to me in life and fiction is the inconsistencies in their personalities, their quirks or the aberrations in their character.
And I want to be surprised by characters. In "Kelland," I hope I accomplished that with my characters. I hope one minute you love Minh, for example, and then the next you are shaking your head at him, and then, after that, you understand a bit why he works the ways he does.
We all have flaws. It is part of the human condition. Yet, we find something to love or despise in everyone we meet in real life.
It should be the same in literature, because goodness or villainy is not clear-cut. And it important for me, especially with my gay characters, to make them as complex and as real as we are in life. We’ve been relegated to stereotypes for too long.
The world needs to see all of us, and that includes our less-than-shining moments. But--and this is where mainstream media often goes awry with depiction of gay people--it also includes our good moments.
EDGE: Would you say that human beings are just as fulfilled--or more apt to serve some greater design--through their shortcomings as through their virtues?
Paul G. Bens, Jr.: I think you hit on something [there] that I find very true. Sometimes, a person’s shortcomings end up being the absolute best thing about people.
Flaws tend to propel us forward, help us become better people and, yes, in some greater plan they can often lead to a greater good.
EDGE: Some people of faith like to say that gays are "sinners," but if one looks at human life and the larger context of human civilization and history, gays are surely part of the design that humanity follows. From that philosophical vantage, do you have a sense that gays are an indispensable and positive part of the larger human experience?
Paul G. Bens, Jr.: Unquestionably. I mean, look at all the remarkable gay people throughout history and the great contributions they’ve made to science and the arts and to spirituality. How much would the world lose if those "sinners" had never existed?
Part of their make-up, including their sexual orientation, spurred them on to do great things. Would Michelangelo’s David have been as beautiful if the artist himself didn’t find that male beauty appealing, even titillating? Would Wilde’s satiric wit have been as sharp and precise if he hadn’t needed to find a way to express his inner feelings?
It is funny--and a bit ironic--that even the Catholic Church is starting to revisit gay people, claiming Oscar Wilde as one of their own because of his remarkable contributions to the world. Of course, they’re still trying to distance him from his "homosexual sins," but they recognize--and now publicly want to hang out with him--because of his greatness.
It is undeniable even to the Holy See. Granted, I’m sure they’d never admit that Michelangelo--creator of some of the most iconic religious symbolism ever created--liked to play with guys, but neither are they rushing to paint over the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
And I still come back to [the belief that] God (in whatever form you find her or him) doesn’t make mistakes.
EDGE: In the same way that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, Kelland takes on different human guises for the different people who encounter him (her, it). Were you thinking privately of Kelland as some sort of ghost or angel, or a manifestation that transcends any of those notions of the supernatural?
Paul G. Bens, Jr.: I purposely did not want to explain who or what Kelland was, because Kelland is exactly what he needs to be at any given moment.
I think [Kelland himself] says it best: "We all exist in relation to others and we become what is needed in relation to them. I’m no different."
Is he an angel? Sure. Is she a mother or a lover? Yes. Is it the devil? At times.
For me, Kelland really represents a moment in time, that indefinable second or day or year when one realizes that their life can--must--change. But will that change be a good one or a very bad one? You never know for sure. All you know is that something has to change, that decisions must be made.
EDGE: So, Kelland in some sense is associated with personal crises, or personal watershed moments. He’s a signpost or a prompt from the universe.
Paul G. Bens, Jr.: Exactly--he’s a sign from the universe, or God, or whatever being is out there.
Kelland is a metaphorical crossroad, and that is what I love so much about what the cover artist did with the book. He didn’t create a literal crossroad; rather he captured the darkness and uncertainty that hovers around such possible changes, and with the silhouettes he took my characters and made them so that anyone can see themselves in those figures.
And that really captures the essence of Kelland for me. At some point in our lives, I think we’ve all met or will meet our own Kelland. He can be a person, or an event, or as simple as a realization.
I know I met mine. I didn’t realize it at the time, and it wasn’t pleasant, but in the end it changed my life, luckily for the better.
EDGE: What happened?
Paul G. Bens, Jr,:: My Kelland was in the form of a really emotionally destructive relationship. I thought I had found the love of my life, but it was a relationship that devastated my self esteem.
That led me into a very dark period of a lot of deep reflection about my past and why I tended to repeat this pattern of being a doormat when it came to lovers. That led to some realizations about events from my past.
It was a very, very dark period in my life, but I came out the other side with a profoundly different understanding of who I was. It was dark and scary, but it was something that I needed.
EDGE: "Kelland" is written from a variety of characters’ perspectives. The book also includes flashbacks. Both of those elements are difficult literary devices to do well. When you were first sketching out the story, was it obvious that you would have to make the book so complex to get your vision for the story across?
Paul G. Bens, Jr.: Because each of these characters had something in their lives that was broken, I knew pretty much from the beginning that the structure of the book would have to vary pretty widely from the traditional A to Z progression.
I really wanted to imbue the novel with an off-kilter feeling, that sense of something just not being "right," almost a foreboding. The characters go through emotional turmoil, find themselves unsure of why their lives feel strangely out of control, and I wanted the reader to be as uneasy with that as the characters were.
So, the end result is that the novel jumps from character to character, and sometimes back and forth in time, a choice I made so that the reader will feel jarred when they meet, for example, Richard at age 8 in the first chapter, and then see him again at age 29 five chapters later.
The lives in this novel are in pieces, and as the characters puts the puzzle pieces together, I wanted the reader to do the same.
I also made the choice because in life when we meet people, we learn them backward. We aren’t there from the beginning; so we can only know them as they reveal themselves to us. Sometimes what they reveal is wonderful, and sometimes what is revealed is terribly unattractive. By jumping back and forth in time, I tried to approximate that feeling.
Probably this is most in evidence with Minh, whom we, hopefully, come to like early on. Only when he has become our friend do we start to discover things about him that surprise us, perhaps make us re-think how we feel about him.
Not only was I telling the story in a non-traditional manner, but I was also, as you mention, telling 4 or 5 different stories, each with their own unique point-of-view. I knew I had to find a way to get the readers hooked on the characters as early as possible so that they would be willing to take this long, winding journey. My solution was to make the first 10 or so chapters as concise as possible, short and to the point. I hoped that if I did it right, the readers would be willing to go along with the complexity of the novel, because they have an investment in the characters.
EDGE: Standard definitions of genre may not really apply to "Kelland," but the book does possess identifiable genre elements: by turns, it’s a supernatural thriller, a mystery, a family drama.
Paul G. Bens, Jr.: It’s interesting that you should ask this because just the other day I was reading a review of a book and someone referred to that book as "psychological suspense." I rather liked the sound of that--[there is] a very Hitchcockian ring to it--and I think that applies somewhat to Kelland.
But genre was definitely one of the things about the novel that made it a bit of a tough sell. By nature, I think we human beings want to categorize things and the publishing industry is very much the same, probably more so as they are the ones who have to market the book, find a hook to sell it. Is it horror? Is it mystery? Is it literary fiction? It seems in the publishing world that anything that doesn’t fit neatly into a specific genre can be a bit of a tough sell.
And I faced that a bit with Kelland. Heck, even when I was trying to describe it to friends, I was hard pressed to find a phrase that fit it.
Luckily, I came across my publisher, Casperian Books, and my amazing editor Lily and she "got it" right away. The flexibility of the genre didn’t scare her at all, and she had great insight into the characters.
EDGE: It might be the case that family drama is the most applicable genre here, because even though the main characters are mostly strangers who don’t know one another, they still seem connected in a deep way not unlike that of family.
Paul G. Bens, Jr.: "Family drama" is definitely a label I’d be proud for Kelland to wear. At its heart, it is about family and honesty and love. It is about coming home, not only to your family, but to the family you’ve built for yourself, the friends and lovers who we sometimes push away out of fear and anxiety when we absolutely need them most.
And I think there’s a little bit of finding home within yourself, looking deep into who you are. That’s why each of the characters in each of the storylines has not only their biological family, but a post-nuclear one as well, the one they’ve assembled. Family isn’t always about the one we’re born into.
And that’s one thing I have always admired about the gay community. We find family. Wherever we go, we create it. Perhaps that’s because we need to.
As for all the divergent characters in the various storylines, they all do--thematically, anyway--form an odd sort of family. At first, that family is more like a club to which no one would want to belong, but as the novel concludes they become a more comforting family, one of survivors. Kelland’s family.
EDGE: There’s quite a brutal beating that one of your gay characters sustains in the novel. As a gay man yourself, and given the physical violence targeted at our community, did you have to debate with yourself about that scene?
Paul G. Bens, Jr.: I did mull it over for a bit, but what I ultimately came to is how important it is to realistically and graphically depict horrible acts like this so that the reader truly understands the profound impact that violence has on a victim’s life.
Too often I find that we’ll hear news reports of gay men beaten or women raped and have an almost detached intellectual reaction of, "God, that’s awful." But ten minutes later it is gone from our heads, and the very real people it happened to become nothing more than a statistic.
There’s a huge discussion about how so much violence in movies or video games desensitizes us to violence. I think the opposite is also true. Not being exposed to the very real horrors of it--feeling the human pain, seeing the collateral damage to lives--doesn’t allow the horror of it to sink in. There’s a detachment that occurs in real life that I find almost as disturbing as the violence itself.
Part of that is because these things happened/are happening to people we don’t know, to whom we have no emotional connection. I think that, as opposed to filmmakers or news reporters, fiction writers have an advantage in that if we do it right, we create characters that the reader becomes so deeply involved with emotionally that they feel like friends or family or lovers.
That movie or television screen isn’t between our characters and the audience because [writers are] able to go into the characters’ heads and place our readers directly in the character’s shoes. In some respects, the reader can become the character. And I think the impact of violence is most strongly felt and understood when it happens to someone we love and care about, someone important to us.
Hopefully, I’ve succeeded in making my character someone who the readers feel like is their best friend, so that when the violence happens to him they are as devastated as the character. Perhaps, then, the next time they hear a report of a gay bashing or a rape, it won’t wash over them the way it used to.
Also, I love traditional horror fiction: vampires and ghosts and all that. But what really frightens me as a person and as a reader is what man will do to man. Real-life violence and the terrible aftermath of it are far more terrifying to me than ghouls and goblins.
EDGE: There’s a lovely scene with the same character and a boyfriend set at a straight couple’s wedding. Later on, the gay couple breaks up. Was your point there that our community has trouble maintaining relationships in part because we have so little modeling for the durability of same-sex families, and indeed are in so many ways (legal, social) discouraged from forming and maintaining those ties?
Paul G. Bens, Jr.: Ah, Richard and Calvin. I should be the smart author and say, "Yes, that is exactly what I was going for" with their relationship, but I’d be taking credit for something I didn’t necessarily set out to do.
I definitely find that to be a valid (and very intriguing) interpretation of it, but for me that is probably more of a "happy accident" than any particular skill on my part.
There were several things I really wanted to accomplish with that relationship. First and foremost, I needed a way to establish Richard’s dynamic when it came to his choice of boyfriends. Calvin is his first love and, in many ways, every boyfriend that follows is some variation on Calvin, for better or for worse. Secondly, I very much wanted to convey how it is for young men who come from "small town America" where--at the time of the novel, anyway--you have almost no exposure to other gay people.
Suddenly, these characters are dropped in the middle of a metropolis where being gay isn’t the lonely, solitary thing it was back home. How do different people react to that?
For me, when I first moved to Los Angeles, it was overwhelming and a little scary, and I very much became a wallflower. For others, they become like a kid in a candy store. There they are, suddenly surrounded by hundreds of people of their own kind--and very attractive people at that--for the first time in their lives, and they want to taste everything this new exciting store has to offer. Sometimes that means they leave others behind, others who truly are the loves of their lives.
Finally, I wanted to capture how, in some respects, first loves never really leave you. They become part of you. And hopefully with Richard and Calvin, the reader feels that love never went away, even though they didn’t end up together.
EDGE: Though Calvin only appears in flashbacks, his presence is still felt throughout what, in the novel’s setting, is the present day, in Richard’s life.
Paul G. Bens, Jr.: Interestingly, Calvin was not originally going to appear in the novel. He was going to be an "absent character," one with whom the reader develops a bond even though they only experience them through the words of another person.
But as I worked on the novel, I realized that it never quite worked the way I’d envisioned it, and Calvin became a real person over a shared lunch and some Brussel Sprouts. After that first scene, he just kept popping up. I would write a chapter and look back at it and go, "What isn’t working here?" And Calvin would appear, and that seemed to fix whatever felt off.
It may sound pretentious to say, but it was as if he did not want to be ignored and was going to horn in wherever he could. Ultimately, he ended up becoming an integral part of the plot as well, which never occurred to me when I first created him.
EDGE: What new projects are you working on?
Paul G. Bens, Jr.: Well, I have two novels in the works, both rather dark but more traditional structure-wise than Kelland.
Dark Discoveries Magazine is publishing one of my extreme horror stories in January, and that’s got me looking at trying to putting together a collection of all of my short fiction.
I also dabble in the m/m romance/erotica genre and have a few ideas in my head there as well.