|TOPMAN ¶ Online Writings by and about John Preston|
Lars Eighner is best known for his gay erotic writings and for his essay "On Dumpster Diving" (1991), which was published in Harper's and later in Travels with Lizbeth, his memoir on being homeless with his dog companion from 1988 to 1991.
In August 1986, when Eighner was living in Austin, Texas, John Preston wrote the introduction to Eighner's book, Lavender Blue: How to Write and Sell Gay Men's Erotica. Eighner tells here how he first came to correspond with Preston and what followed from that correspondence.
I never actually met Preston (who wasn't called by his first name by anyone I know). We had an extensive correspondence, but his letters to me have long since been lost, along with everything else I had, over several bouts with homelessness or close calls with it. For several years the correspondence was somewhat four-sided, with Steven Saylor and Tim Barrus being the other parties.
Steven had come to edit at some of the publications that Preston had worked with. As you may know, most of the soft core magazine titles are simply titles that were horse-traded and farmed out, mostly by Mavety, so there was not necessarily any editorial continuity to any of them. But Steven and Preston had worked with or for many of the same people, there being something of a revolving door among a small pool of talent. The economic necessities were that, to make even a pittance in the business, you had to contribute and work with just about everyone.
Barrus was something of a gadfly and dilettante who imagined himself in competition with Preston for the title Mr. Leather Writer at a time when Preston was not only the foremost writer in the several things generally grouped together under the term "leather," but was also the foremost gay writer in the country. I should say Barrus was very talented, and besides writing a pulp paperback in which the subject always seemed to be "Me and Mr. Preston," he also wrote an erotic novel about Vietnam which some serious publications thought was really a memoir of a gay soldier (and of course Barrus had never been near Vietnam or military service). Anyway, the other three had varying degrees of experience in the business and also had in common an interest in the stuff called "leather," while I was completely green and rather vanilla in my interests.
(Barrus also had a habit of telling anecdotes of himself that had actually happened to other people. He told me he had negotiated a book deal with someone who turned out to be an inmate of a lunatic asylum – a thing that had actually happened to Preston.)
As I recall, the correspondence began with Preston writing to me as a fan of Bayou Boy (the book)  or one of the stories that eventually went into it. Whether he had mentioned me to Steven beforehand or not, he almost certainly got my address from Steven.
Now, people who make any mark at all on literature almost always fall into one of two class: writers or storytellers. Hardly anyone manages to be exceptionally good at both. It is only to be expected that the writers admire and envy the talents of the storytellers and vice versa. There can also be a lot of snottiness involved, especially since the writers tend to write the reviews and commentary, and the storytellers tend to have much greater commercial success. Because of that, I approach the following with some trepidation. There are people who will read something into it that I don't intend.
Preston very much admired my abilities as a writer, just as, as a writer, I admired his talents as a storyteller. I wrote for the page, and Preston wrote for the campfire – as should be clear from his introduction to my book. There are advantages and disadvantages to both. Storyline was torture for me, involving something like twenty drafts of some of my simplest stories. As I gained some notice, I was invited to "appear" at things, sometimes "things" which involved other writers and I would have to read my work aloud at such things. My work was never intended to be read aloud and I could not get my mouth around some of the sentences I had written. What is more, public readings were the nearest approximation of hell I have ever experienced. On the other hand Preston was good at all of those things (I have heard – as I said we never met and I never was at any of his appearances). But Preston was always heavily edited. Of course, I am always grateful for good proof reading – sticking in the missing prepositions and tense endings and fixing up the careless spellings. But Preston's stuff, which would have been perfectly clear told at a campfire, needed major surgery – often at the paragraph level – to put into print. Preston was very well aware of this, which is why he admired writers so much.
Preston often told (wrote to) me that he needed a lot of editing. I thought he was being modest and took it with a grain of salt until I was given the task of editing the introduction, which was the first time I had ever seen his raw copy. Now, there are people who will take your head off if you alter one of their commas, and yet other people will live with some changes if you patiently explain the reasons for them. Preston wasn't like that at all. He'd done his job, which was to tell the story well, and he trusted you to do your job, which was to edit it for print. He wasn't interested in the details of how you did your job or why.
It is a shame, really, that we never collaborated. The problem with literary collaborations is that too often they combine the competing and mediocre talents of two writers instead of the complementary talents of two people who are pretty good at what they do.
Anyway, when I started writing for publication, Preston was the overpowering presence in all of gay erotica. My first story collection, Bayou Boy, came out from Gay Sunshine and was a critical success (which is to say, was a commercial disappointment). A local lawyer (Tom Doyal) had amassed savings of something like a quarter of a million dollars and had in mind opening a gay bookstore and publishing company (Alyson was for sale at the time, but they wanted more money than he had). He proposed to have an erotic line called Caliente and a not-so-erotic line call Liberty. He got a book from Troy Perry to be the flagship title of Liberty and asked me to do a book on erotic writing for the Caliente imprint. Preston was such a figure in gay writing at the time that I told Doyal I could not possibly do it without Preston's blessing, which we conspired to obtain by asking Preston for an introduction.
Well, there were a lot of things that did not work out with Doyal's enterprises. He had in mind that he could do the books on a Mac, but desktop publishing really wasn't good enough in those days. He stocked the bookstore with every title that had anything, however remote, to do with homosexuality, and a number of general titles as well, and as it turned out, that ate up his capital. The bookstore was supposed to support the publishing empire, but instead became a sinkhole for money. Fortunately he got Scott Winnett to both manage the store and generally edit for the publishing empire. Scott cut the inventory of the store down to the most essential, really gay titles and stopped the hemorrhaging long enough for the publishing empire to issue a few titles, including Lavender Blue and one or two of Preston's. I became homeless about this time, so I wasn't around for the gory details of the collapse.
Just before I became homeless, I completed Pawn to Queen Four and sent out a copy to a publisher – I forget which one. I sent it cold, which meant it went right into someone's slush pile. When I became homeless, I lost the original manuscript and all the other copies. Preston heard what I had done and was very pissed. He told me (wrote) in no uncertain terms, that business wasn't done that way. He prevailed on someone at the publishing house to go through the slush pile and rescue my manuscript – to at least be sure it was returned to me. But it was returned to my last address. So far as I knew, the manuscript was then lost for good.
A couple of years later, I was still on the street, but was hanging out in Sally's Apartment (the bar that eventually became my home when it was abandoned) to get out of the heat, when I overheard someone talking about this wonderful book, which sounded a little like Pawn to Queen Four to me. Whoever had moved into the house I had been evicted from had opened the manuscript when it was returned, and had bound the pages and it had been circulating underground ever since. And that is how my only novel survived to be published after Travels with Lizbeth, and it is all owing to Preston's taking the trouble to rescue it.
Topman's Timeline: A Documentary Biography of John Preston
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