MY GREAT AMERICAN INFLUENCES
British erotic fiction writer, Jack Ladd reflects on the sexual and intellectual liberations of the USA that have guided his hand.
Brit-born writer of erotic fiction, Jack Ladd reflects on the sexual and intellectual liberations that have guided his hand.
It hurts my heart that when I think of America my first reaction is “guns and Trump”. wish that my thoughts weren’t immediately focussed on a culture conflicted; a proud, colourful superpower now tainted by wave after wave of tragic, avoidable gun death. Deaths exacerbated by a bored man on a mission to remind us that power is far from sacrosanct.
Then I give myself a figurative slap across the chops and force myself to look past the inflammatory headlines, past Donald’s haphazard mix of violent rhetoric and irresponsible hyperbole, past the pathetic pantomime that is global politics.
That’s when I remember the people, places and ideas from across the pond that have shaped my life and choices. In fact, the more I remind myself that behind the orange-faced frontman still stands a land of opportunity and innovation, the more I realise how influential the US has been in my journey through life.
After all (shaky metaphor alert) even the most raging ocean has a world of wonder below its tempestuous surface.
Some of the best advice given to me came from an American or, as he describes himself, a “citizen of the planet”. The wise, worldly friend and former colleague, known to others as the actor, writer and party animal, Jesse Archer [former Features Editor of this magazine], once told me, “the best writers are thieves”.
Not literally. He wasn’t implying that mugging old ladies got the creative juices flowing. Nor was he promoting plagiarism. What he meant was that the greatest tool anyone can have in their arsenal is the ability to be influenced. To have open ears, eyes and minds and the aptitude to take an idea that resonates and make it their own.
Because after all, he argued, what idea is truly original? What story, song or rhyme isn’t influenced by someone or something in some way? And while I’m not entirely sure there are a finite number of ideas in the world, I agree that learning from our peers is invaluable.
Other people aren’t simply competition in a rat race, they are teachers: their lessons are there for the taking.
It probably won’t surprise you then, as an erotic fiction writer, that a great deal of my inspiration comes from the sexual experiences I’ve had. I believe, to write something well, you must know how it feels and sounds and tastes and smells. But, at the end of the day, my book, Oscar Down Under: Part One, is also a work of fiction. And while I strive to create an original story, I can’t deny that my characters and their adventures have been influenced by all sorts.
One prominent source: the great Armistead Maupin, author of Tales Of The City, which follows protagonist Mary-Ann Singleton as she spontaneously moves to San Francisco to start a new life away from her conservative home town. Maupin is renowned for mining his own life for material. He was the first author I’d ever read who gave so much life to gay life. I couldn’t put him down. I’ll always be grateful to my mum for handing me a well-thumbed copy of his first book when I come out at 15.
While, at least in his earlier stories, there’s little explicit sexual description (the content alone was shocking enough for readers in the ’70s and ’80s: gay clubs, bath houses and hetero to homosexual infidelity), his openness and honesty sticks with me.
Sure, his style is rife with comedy, and some of his characters are loud, camp, colourful and, these days, considered cliched, but Maupin showed that gay men, like everyone else, are flawed. We can be arrogant and selfish and all the unappealing qualities that come with being
human. But most importantly, we are human.
It’s this passion for portraying multidimensional gay characters that helped push the boundaries of readers’ perceptions. It’s something I strive to emulate in my work because, at the end of the day, we still need reminding that sexuality is merely one ingredient in the making of mankind.
Like Maupin’s adulterous Beauchamp, for example, my character Oscar is selfish, arrogant and manipulative: far from the friendly, gentle stereotype that can still be found lingering in dull, modern storylines. In my prequel novels, I attempt to explain Oscar’s decline from a troubled teenager into the drug taking jaded boy he becomes before leaving for Australia. Most gay men have met or know someone like him: a fuck boy perpetuating his own stereotype. It was Maupin’s grasp of sometimes painful realities set amid vibrant locations that I fell in love with.
My teenage years were heavily influenced by the screen as well as the page, and one TV show still resonates like I discovered it yesterday, my jaw hanging, my heart thumping and my mind racing at a million miles an hour.
Queer As Folk.
Originally a gritty British TV drama by Russel T Davis following the lives of a group of gay men in Manchester, the US version is exactly what US versions are known for being: bigger, badder and brasher. Whether or not the US version is better, the jury is out, but there’s no denying writers Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman created something explicit, shocking and sexy as hell.
I was 16 when I first watched the American version. One night when I couldn’t sleep I crept downstairs to watch TV. As the set flashed into life, there were two men. One older with brown hair and the other younger and blond. Little did I know I’d tuned in moments before the now-infamous rimming scene. Back then, my mind, like Justin’s arse hole, was about to be thoroughly opened.
Watching the screen like my life depended on it, I was hooked. Other than grainy jpegs on the family dialup or the odd kiss in Six Feet Under, I’d never seen two men on TV doing things I’d fantasised about for years.
Then the scene changed, transporting me to a pounding nightclub, Babylon, filled with topless adonises, and the fantasises started over. I wondered, sitting alone in the dark, my erection thumping, not if but when I would find myself in a place like that.
Naturally, certain aspects and storylines were glamorised for TV, but as escapism goes, I’d found mine. From then on, I’d lie awake dreaming about being Justin or Bryan or Michael one day, being a gay man with gay friends and going to gay clubs a million miles removed from the small, English conservative town I grew up in.
It was only a couple of years until I found myself topless, sweaty and sandwiched on a dancefloor, but if it hadn’t been for Queer As Folk, I would never have had the confidence, inspired by years of compound curiosity, to go to the big cities and walk into the clubs with excitement rather than fear in my eyes.
I could even argue that if it weren’t for that fateful late-night viewing, maybe I would never have had the balls to buy myself a oneway ticket to Australia all those years ago. Perhaps, without my covert introduction to the hedonistic gay scene, I’d never have written my stories in the first place.
The inspiration behind my highly graphic sex scenes, however, might be surprising. Yes, I love me some Tom Of Finland and his American, lesser-known predecessor, George Quaintance: their powerful, homoerotic illustrations will always be iconic. And, yes, a million times, yes, I have watched my fair share of porn from amateur to high-end productions. But what cemented my resolve to focus on writing erotic literature was the fictional character, Jack Reacher.
Created by Lee Child, an English author now residing in New York, Jack Reacher is an American, hyper-masculine, six-foot-six, ex-military police officer and a beast of a man. Blond and blue-eyed, he has all the goods to inspire gay, erotic literature without doing much. But for me, it’s his popularity among readers of all ages that makes me wonder: how can a murderous vigilante who delivers violent retribution unto is enemies be so popular?
Why is a proclivity toward death, gore and torture perfectly acceptable traits in a bestselling, movie-inspiring character, while a bit of light heterosexual BDSM from 50 Shades sent millions spiralling [into moral panic]? Surely there’s room for gay, and straight, characters who love sex as much as Reacher loves breaking bones and shooting bad guys?
Now, I’m far from the first author to write sex scenes between two men. From the anonymously written, Teleny or The Reverse Of The Medal to Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain, the love between men has been a commonly explored theme. But I believe, right now, at least in Western culture, with so many Jack Reachers in the world of literature, surely there has never been a better, more accepting moment for characters to explicitly express their sexualities.
The time, as they say, is now.
Which brings me nicely to my all-time favourite American. Someone who is championing gay and trans rights in a way that is so innovative and new… the one and only RuPaul.
Ru has transformed the world of drag through his ongoing series RuPaul’s Drag Race and, while I’m a huge fan of the show, it’s his work ethic that lights the fire under my arse.
Black, gay and a pioneer of New York drag, RuPaul has not had it easy, and you’d be a moron to think otherwise. But every time I see his flawless looks on the runway, his constant support and pride in the LGBTIQ+ community and avant garde thinking, both commercially and personally, I smile.
It’s a smile of pride and a smile of outright envy, but a smile nonetheless. Especially when, at the end of each episode of Drag Race he delivers his now-world-famous line: “If you can’t love yourself, how the hell are you going to love somebody else?”
This is something I have always believed. But, perhaps, I just needed an American to re-package it with their undeniably potent brand of charisma, uniqueness, verve and talent.
Queer As Folk.
RuPaul and Drag Race.
Armistead Maupin, author of Tales Of The City.