Neil Plakcy | August 05, 2008
Changing Tides, by Michael Thomas Ford. Kensington.
Humorist and novelist Michael Thomas Fordís latest book, Changing Tides, recently came out in paperback. To celebrate, he agreed to answer a few questions from Neil Plakcy.
Neil Plakcy: Why do you think your main character, marine biologist Ben Ransome, doesnít realize his same-sex desires until his forties?
Michael Thomas Ford: I have several friends who came out later in life, some after being married and having families. I used to think, "How could they not know?" But the more I talked to men in this situation the more interested I became in how we are capable of turning off or ignoring our feelings because they frighten us or because they threaten others' expectations of us.
NP: Thereís a heavy John Steinbeck influence in Changing Tides. Have you always been a fan of his writing?
MTF: I read The Pearl and Of Mice and Men in high school and didn't relate to them at all, so I avoided Steinbeck for many years. It wasn't until I read Cannery Row five or six years ago that I discovered what's so special about Steinbeck, which is his ability to see the beauty in people and places that others might think are unremarkable.
NP: What sparked the idea that there might have been a relationship between Steinbeck & Ed Ricketts?
MTF: If you read any biographical material about Steinbeck you can't help but run into Ed Ricketts. The two were integral parts of one another's lives. Ricketts appeared as the character of "Doc" in several of Steinbeck's books, and the two men traveled extensively together studying the marine biology of the Sea of Cortez. There was obviously a love between them; the question is whether that love ever became romantic. I donít think it's important, really, but it's an interesting possibility to consider.
NP: Was that relationship the spur to write a book in which marine biology plays such a big part?
MTF: Initially I wanted to write a novel about a man spending the summer with his estranged daughter and coming to realize that he's gay. The Steinbeck/Ricketts idea came later. As often happens, things fell together naturally when I finally started writing.
NP: How did you draw in these disparate parts?
MTF: Changing Tides really came together when I decided to set the novel in Monterey, where I spend quite a bit of time. Steinbeck wrote about Monterey's Cannery Row and lived in nearby Salinas. Around that time I happened to be talking to a friend of mine who is also a Steinbeck and Ricketts fan about how unusually close the two men were. I realized that making Hudson a grad student working on what might be an undiscovered Steinbeck manuscript would be an interesting way to tie all of these things together.
NP: Thereís a significant age difference between Ben and Hudson.
MTF: I didn't consciously think about it when I started planning the book. But Hudson materialized as a younger man, and I realized that having him be younger made sense for a lot of reasons. I wanted someone who was between Ben and his daughter Caddie in age and I wanted someone whose intellectual outlook was the opposite of Ben's. Hudson and Ben complement each other in that each has traits the other lacks.
NP: Hudson has a history of attraction to older men, to men who are or have been married.
MTF: It fits who he is, which is (at least for most of his life) someone who looks for approval from men he thinks of as being more experienced than himself. This has its roots in his relationship with his own father and in his early sexual encounters. Hudson is in many ways more experienced than Ben, but at the same time he has a lot of his own issues. He has to learn that his self worth is not dependent on the man he's with.
NP: Are you a diver? You convey the diving scenes very well.
MTF: I started diving when I moved to the West Coast. I figured if I was spending so much time near the ocean I might as well see what was in it. I was immediately hooked. I taught diving for a couple of years, but now I just dive for fun. The sites Ben dives are all ones I dive regularly, and his fascination with nudibranchs is one I share.
NP: Iím fascinated by Benís scientific analysis of his feelings when it comes to his sexuality.
MTF: The only way Ben knows how to view the world is as a researcher using the scientific method of observation. He honestly believes that everything can be understood solely from facts. His emotions are so deeply buried that he can't factor them into his own actions, which is what makes everything frustrating for him. He likes to understand things, and humans are a mystery because they don't follow the rules and aren't reliably predictable.
NP: Whatís in the future?
MTF: I wrote 20 books for young readers before I wrote my first book for adults. Suicide Notes, which comes out in October, is my 28th novel for young adults but the first that will have my name on it. At the beginning of my career editors said they wouldn't or couldn't publish fiction under my name because people would associate it with "the gay guy" and it would hurt sales. Now, almost 20 years later, being "the gay guy" is apparently a selling point. My publisher (HarperCollins) has been incredibly supportive and enthusiastic about this book. It just shows how much things have changed.
My next gay-themed novel for adults comes out in early 2009. It's called What We Remember, and it's about a family who discover that the father they believe committed suicide seven years earlier was actually murdered. Right now I'm working on my next YA novel, and I recently signed a deal with Random House to write a series of novels featuring Jane Austen as a vampire, which I think will be really fun. – Issued by Gay Link Content
Neil Plakcy is the Lambda-finalist author of Mahu, Mahu Surfer and Mahu Fire, and the editor of Paws and Reflect and Hard Hats.
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