It’s easy to compare author Isaac Oliver to the greats that preceded him – Augusten Burroughs, David Sedaris, David Rakoff, to name a few. His writing, like theirs, is gripping in its specificity to the unique, yet shared life experiences so many of us gay men experience.
Related: Post-Gay, Post-Husky, Post-Adjective: Justin Sayre Challenges Young Readers Not to Limit Themselves
There’s also a great catharsis that comes from reading his newest book, Intimacy Idiot, and seeing Oliver lean into his sexuality, accepting and elevating it as an important part of who he is, the acceptance of which has shaped who he is farther beyond simply an attraction to the same sex.
Below, we chat with Oliver ahead of his latest show at Joe’s Pub, about his book, coming out and a whole lot of other gay gay gay schtuff.
How much do you see this as a gay book?
I see it as a very gay book. I think there’s a troubling trend of people leaping towards being post-gay… the language around a lot of the public coming outs we’re having are like, ’Oh I don’t like labels, I’m so much more than my sexuality,” and I understand the impetus behind saying that, but I don’t personally agree with that.
My sexuality is a huge part of who I am. It’s a huge part of my writing and my perspective. The book is about me as a gay man navigating the world.
The people who came before us didn’t fight so hard for us to be post-gay, they fought for our right to be gay. I have no qualms identifying that way, and luckily my publisher didn’t either. They embraced the content and the tone; they stood behind it. I’m very lucky that they did because a lot of publishers who rejected the book did say it’s ’too gay’ or ’too specific’.
Were there specific criticisms or things that stung when certain publishers rejected the book?
That people couldn’t relate to it because it was ’too specific’ which I disagree with 100%. Specificity is what makes something relatable. A story feels authentic because of its hues and specific tones. That really irked me.
What gave you the confidence to know your story was worth telling?
It’s funny because when we were putting the book together, my publisher was using the category of memoir, which was one I was uncomfortable with. I kept saying, ’I don’t have a memoir worthy life,’ that’s not what compelled me to write a book.
It’s not that I was sure an audience wanted to hear them, but you have to tell yourself that in order to write, or you never will, because the other voice is there as well saying, ’Oh no one wants to read that, give up.’
I find writing and telling these stories healing; there is something wonderful in telling stories about being in New York and being single and getting older and trying to work on your relationship with yourself in this city which is so large and huge and isolating, and when you hear people laugh with you, there’s a bonding that happens.
I had a writing teacher who said, ’There are no new stories. But everyone tells those stories differently.’ and that’s what is valuable about it. We all have crazy hookup stories and stories from the subway. They’re not unique, but the way we tell them and see the world is.
What is – if there is – the ’ideal’ way to come out right now?
There isn’t a right or wrong way to come out. But if I were to take a stab at an ideal way to come out, I would say as simply as possible. I think there’s a lot of anticipating people’s reactions and dancing around it and apologizing for it ahead of time. I think as simple and as concrete as we can make it, the less of a conversation it will need to be.
You mentioned how important your sexuality is to who you are. What are some of the ways your sexuality impacts non-sexual aspects of life?
The inherent outsider perspective of growing up gay, and sensing you’re different from everyone else, thinking ’I’m alone in this’ as a kid is something that influenced my voice and ideas as a writer, and as a person. It’s something I’m grateful for actually. The ability to step back and look at the larger scene or event, and remove yourself from it and observe and really listen… You see things that you wouldn’t if you were wholly included.
Is there a celebrity that helped shape your acceptance of yourself?
I loved Julie Andrews… I did a lot of twirling around to the opening of The Sound of Music, that helped me find my power.
Which LGBT celebrity do you think is doing the most for changing preconceptions of our community?
Certainly Laverne Cox. I would also say Neil Patrick Harris… he’s a bridge figure in the sense that he’s embraced by my extended family in the midwest; they find him charming and delightful, but he’s not neutered either. He is openly married to a man and talks about their sex life.
Why do you think there’s no mainstream gay stand-up and a lack of gay men in comedy as a whole?
It does seem like a boys club, at least in the stand up world. There’s a straight male ethos there that’s hard to permeate.
It takes a very specific kind of voice and energy to weave into that tapestry. I think about the times I’ve gone to see stand up nights, and people are still making gay jokes. And not terribly offensive gay jokes, but there is still an energy there that takes someone seriously brave and bold and specific to get in there and shake it up.
It’s not that I think audiences can’t handle it. I think audiences are really smart, but it’s more, ’Is room being made for them?’ I don’t know, I really don’t know. I certainly think John Early is leading the charge. He brings the room together and he’s not neutered. He makes jokes about shitting on half of Brooklyn’s dicks and people respond to that.
I think we’re at a time now where we can be bolder. Seeing Amy Schumer’s special and hearing her joke about ’leaving a snail trail of cum,’ jokes like that we can also start to tell. I think we’re ready for it.
My book, the sexual content, is what mixed audiences talk to me the most about. Girls come up to me afterwards and tell me, ’Oh my god I hooked up with a guy with a smelly dick too!’ and things that I think would be alienating are actually uniting.
Do you have any thoughts on the Gus Kenworthy Halloween costume controversy?
I think people assume that because we’re gay, we can’t be racist or sexist, but those things exist heavily in our community. You see it on Grindr every night with the, “Whites only please. Sorry that’s just my taste,” or things like that people so casually spout off.
If someone tells you that they’re offended, you have to listen to what they’re saying. I think it’s good to be more aware of those things and more sensitive of cultures and experiences that are different than ours.
I do, however, question if it’s the best use of our time, because there are lawmakers and legislators who are doing heaps more actual damage than Gus Kenworthy. It’s not that I think this energy is bad, I just think it would be better spent invested in our government officials than in Instagram people.”
Oliver will read from his book “Intimacy Idiot,” as well as share a few new stories, at Joe’s Pub this Thursday, November 5 at 7pm ($20). Copies of the book will be available for sale and signing after. Tickets and more information can be found here.