Interview by Graham Skinner
This month's Athenæum Author is local writer Robert Fieseler. In May, he and I sat down to talk about his life, the Athenæum, and his book Tinderbox: The Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation (Released: June 5, 2018).
Q: Where were you born? Raised?
ROBERT FIESELER: I was born in Chicago and raised in Naperville, IL, a middle-class suburb located about thirty miles southwest of the city. Throughout the '80s and '90s, aka my childhood, Naperville was basically the heart of conservative Christendom—ten minutes from Wheaton College, a social incubator that gave the nation Billy Graham, Dennis Hastert and Michael Gerson (the Bush II speechwriter who coined the term "Axis of Evil"). Demographically, the town was about 90 percent white and overwhelmingly Republican, although it was going through a long and somewhat fraught process of diversification and "purple-ization." Naperville also boasted award-winning public libraries and enviable public schools, but I didn't know enough at the time to appreciate them or take advantage.
I was a defiant sort of B student with an attitude who resisted a lot of the middle-class myth-making and self-congratulation. A lot of my anger stemmed from being closeted gay in a place where there were no role models, and homosexuality was mostly lumped in with the rest of the moral vices, those unsayable behaviors that people engaged in privately but publicly condemned. In my public high school, we were encouraged by “motivational speakers,” a.k.a. Christian ministers holding forth at mandatory student assemblies, to take virginity pledges so that our future marriages wouldn’t fail because they were unsanctified in God’s eyes. Because I was closeted, and the idea of faking my way through heterosexual intercourse was terrifying to me, I gladly took the pledge, which bought me time and cloaked in morality my abstaining from a behavior that I never desired to begin with. In a prior generation, a scared boy like myself may have attempted to join the priesthood for the same purpose… I look back now and am grateful for my upbringing, but I also see how I was held back by it. All dreams worth having tended to be hedged and clipped in that environment into some sort of "backup plan."
The only way to make it out interesting is if you resisted the tendency towards homogenization, preparation for a white collar career, or agreed to be called a freak. Growing up, I didn't have the bravery to be a freak, so I walked a careful line of sneering at the system while meeting expectations in big gestures, like being the lead in the high school musical or a first chair trumpet in band. Yet, since you're only an artist when the entire world has told you that you are not, I think the way that I clashed with my hometown played some role in making me what I am.
Q: Invading your private life more, what is your educational and work experience?
RF: I was a public school kid from pre-K straight through undergrad. I had some of my best teachers when I was young, including a second-grade teacher named Mrs. Pederson who “published” my first book at Maplebrook Elementary (by published, I mean stapled together my construction paper drawings) and a fifth-grade teacher named Karen Randolph. Mrs. Randolph was the first person who ever told me that I should write a novel because she was sure I had something to say. I graduated decently but not impressively high from my class at Naperville Central High School in 1999 and went to the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, where I majored in English and studied a lot of history. In retrospect, a Big Ten school was the utterly wrong choice for me. I completely vanished among the crowd, but I was still living to satisfy other people’s expectations at that point.
Honestly, I don't remember a ton from my undergrad years, which were consumed by a painful “coming out” journey. I woke up every morning and put on the invisible mask of my heterosexual persona. It was exhausting in that nobody really knew me. My grades became lackluster, and some weeks I barely even made it to class. I tried to be as “bro” as I could. I joined a fraternity as a dare to myself. Eventually, I became vice president of that brotherhood, a really excellent group of guys, and kind of had a breakdown because I was lying to everyone and just couldn’t sustain the act. I remember my fraternity brothers being so sweet to me. They kept asking what was wrong. I’m sure they would have opened their arms to make room for me in their worlds and reaccepted me into the fold, but at the time I couldn’t even say the words “I’m gay” to myself. And I needed to move on or…well, move on or die inside a falsehood that was strangling me.
My third year at Michigan was lonely, but I did find the one program I got anything out of at that school: the New England Literature Program, called NELP for short. It’s a spring-term writing course at a camp on Lake Sebago in Maine. You temporarily live there among an intentional community of writers and read New England authors: Thoreau, Hawthorne, Emerson, Dickinson, etc. You also keep a journal and contemplate bigger life questions. The whole process isolates the mind and allows for introspection into who you are and what you really want. I came out of the closet at NELP. It saved my life. It started my life. It was as if from age 6 to age 21, I’d been imprisoned in a tower inside my brain by some sort of evil oppressor, and here I was returned to the control room of that six-year-old boy who once smiled so much in pictures. I had been such a happy little kid. I can only describe the experience as euphoric.
Q: What about grad school?
RF: After a long break from school and a corporate career, I changed gears and enrolled in the part-time program of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 2011. This was the first time I probably ever applied myself to my education, and it couldn’t have happened at a better time or in a better setting. My classmates were brilliant, and most are now incredibly successful. The value of such a network is incalculable. I also met my Dumbledore there, or if you prefer my Aristotle, my mentor professor, who I still speak to regularly.
I graduated pretty high in my class at Columbia in 2013. When you graduate with high honors at the Columbia J-School, you qualify for awards or to be valedictorian, which is what happened in my case. I graduated co-valedictorian that year, which I’m sure continues to serve as a bragging point for my Midwest parents at barbeques. I’m joking, but also not really. Following that incredible turn of events, which felt like a personal version of Gryffindor winning the House Cup in the first Harry Potter, I had a small but significant window where I could do something cool with what had just happened to me. A couple of opportunities developed, and one was a book project, which would involve writing about a gay rights tragedy down in New Orleans. It was for a publisher that was eager to explore the idea and an editor that would be amazing to work with, and so I left a corporate career to pursue the book.
Q: Tell me about Tinderbox.
RF: Tinderbox is a work of history about the Up Stairs Lounge fire, which was the largest mass murder of gay Americans in U.S. history until the 2016 massacre at Pulse in Orlando. After Pulse, actually, the Up Stairs Lounge became revived in national memory and cited as an historic antecedent, a past exemplar of violence striking the gay community that I believe helped the public grieve and process the shock of the Pulse murders in a way that was immediate. Somehow, photos and stories of the Up Stairs Lounge fire helped people recognize that an extraordinarily terrible event had occurred in Orlando, which needed to be memorialized nationwide. And was.
It’s interesting, because neither of those things happened after the Up Stairs Lounge fire in New Orleans—an intentional arson fire at a gay bar that claimed 32 lives on the night of June 24, 1973. The Up Stairs Lounge, in 1973, was neither treated as a significant event nor was it memorialized by a nation all too eager to move on. Move on, rather than acknowledge and mourn “gay deaths” at a time when homosexuality carried great stigma.
The book asks three primary questions:
Attempting to answer these questions has been the greatest honor of my life.
Q: Here we are at the Athenæum. How did you find out about us?
RF: My partner, come fiancé and now husband, was accepted to the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston with a scholarship in 2014. They really wanted him. At the time, we were living in Brooklyn, and of course I said we’re moving, you have to go for this. I was still in the midst of researching the book in New Orleans, and so my life became divided pretty distinctly along a new geography: New Orleans was devoted to interviewing and archival digging, and Boston was now devoted to writing and advancing what was then a book “proposal”—hopefully, to the stage where the publisher offered me a book contract.
First, I tried writing the proposal in my apartment and…cabin fever is real, man! As many walks as you take, the walls start creeping in. It can really get lonely and listless. For years in my twenties, I went to a corporate office every morning and absolutely despised the routine. When I left that world, I thought, “I'm never doing this again!” But then I started to see the benefits of exercising your mind in a place that's physically separate from where you eat dinner, laugh and sleep.
I tried the Boston Public Library. I liked it, but I couldn't have a coffee with me. That was a problem! Also, I couldn't bring my dog to work when I felt like it, and I'd find myself missing Chompers, my little terrier, throughout the day. The subject I was wrestling with every time I put on my mental armor to enter the arena and do battle with my book was quite serious. I was imagining my way into an arson. The Up Stairs Lounge fire was, in fact, a notoriously unsolved crime, and many of men killed within that bar existed in a deeply closeted society.
There was a range of injustices that my brain had to attempt to wrangle into narrative form, and...either as a psychological or spiritual relief, you just want to have nice things around you as consolation. Books, coffee, bright windows, smart people, dogs. You want to be in an environment that can support or sometimes counter your darkest interrogations. So, I did research involving cooperative workspaces. They all seemed very expensive and “tech bro” orientated. “Tech bros” tend to be very sweet. Many are strong LGBT+ allies, but I couldn't see myself engaging with them regularly on a literary level.
My proposal went to contract, meaning that the book received a green light from a publisher, around the time I heard about the Boston Athenæum. I initially bristled because the Athenæum is a private membership library, and I'm the nephew of a famous blue-collar historian in Pittsburgh. I thought the public library is good enough for me, if it’s good enough for the general public, but then I came here once. I was like, “Oh! I could bring my…oh it has such conducive energy.” Every little corner looks like the Restricted Section in Harry Potter, or a more intimate version of the Bodleian Library at Oxford, or the place at Trinity College where you can see the Book of Kells. The Athenæum is one of those great castles of the mind, those iconic structures. I felt I could get some work done in this building. So, I applied knowing full well I was probably going to write the book here, which I did.
Q: You already touched on this a bit, but what do you like about the Athenæum?
RF: You get to interact with brilliant people every day. Passionate writers, critical readers, deep thinkers. A certain cadre of ink-stained wretches, which of course I say lovingly. Most say hi or nod whenever you walk into a room. They’re happy to see you each morning. One member, whom I met while nervously scoping out spaces on the fifth floor, suggested I try a special corner of floor three, and she was right. That nook became my favorite place to create. And there are always other members working on fascinating projects. They're fun to talk with, whether it be someone who's super literary (seeming to read a book a day), or working on their master’s degree, or grooving on a new book proposal or an advertising campaign.
It's indescribably encouraging to hear about their research and, in turn, be able to share some progress of what I’m doing. I mean, I can only talk about my book so much to friends and family before they’re like, “ENOUGH!” A lot of writing occurs in isolation, and so you can feel a bit disconnected from daily life if you don’t find compatriots. Fortunately, I found a collective boost from working side by side like-minded folks at the Athenæum. It's beautiful here, a facility that not many other cities would be able to maintain. It’s one of those quirky institutions that you just couldn’t replicate, part of the lineage of what makes Boston so special and so important.
Q: What were the great struggles of working on Tinderbox?
RF: I mean, you’re not supposed to talk about this as a nonfiction writer or as a journalist, but I’ve decided I’m going to. It’s such a gift to be able to do what I do for a living, to be able to tell these vital stories. But there’s also a price to whatever story you tell in that you take on the consequences of what you learn. A former Columbia J-School professor of mine called it, “Collecting ghosts from your characters.” Those who do not face those ghosts, as writers and journalists, tend to fall off a mental cliff. They become alcoholics or have terrible divorces or worse. It’s important that the reality of “ancillary trauma” for writers, of the psychological transfer from subject to author, story to storyteller, be acknowledged in public so that writers and journalists can seek the appropriate help and speak more nakedly about this phenomenon.
When you’re interviewing people who’ve experienced severe trauma—in the case of my book, a sudden and catastrophic fire in close quarters that consumed human beings—there’s an incalculable amount of anxiety and pain. A lot of that pain remains unsettled or unacknowledged in present time. As a consequence, some may literally or proverbially slam the door in your face when you come asking questions. Some sources, you’ll go years dancing around with emails and texts before they’re ready to sit down and talk because they’re frightened of their memories. And when you’re writing nonfiction, it’s critical that you do get important voices to sit down and relate their experiences.
As a queer person working on this specific topic, I naturally empathized with the sources I met, gay men who had lived through the fire in the 1970s. Early on, I had to develop a sense of “inner check” against those natural sympathies, so that I did not end up writing a piece of activism when I set out to write a piece of history. So I did not imitate Michael Moore when I wished to be more like Errol Morris. It took a lot of restraint and balancing and rebalancing on the page to make sure that what I presented was fair and true to the context of a period in which something occurred. I had to frequently go back and ask myself, “Wait, what would be considered moral in this situation? What was common sense? Who would I likely be in this crowd?” Those are tough questions to answer honestly, as a gay man who remembers how the closet and homophobia functioned in his own life. But I also didn’t want to go too far and equivocate something that wouldn’t have actually been acceptable in, say, 1973.
Then, because the book is about a gruesome fire, I had to face this inevitable nightfall of imagining myself inside scenarios of gore and gruesomeness, cruelty and inaction, things a healthy brain avoids because it conflicts with one’s ability to smile in the mirror or kiss your husband as he leaves in the morning or have a happy day. At the end—and this surprised me—but even letting go of this story was very difficult. I got so used to living with the lightness and darkness of “homosexuality in the early 1970s” that handing over the final manuscript and walking away from the book involved tears.
Q: What were the great joys?
RF: There were many. The true privilege of this book, for me, was being able to enter a lost gay world, and not in a nostalgic way. I got to meet many of the men who had lived in a manner erased by time and capital-H History and the AIDS crisis, who lived hard lives even before a fire struck their favorite bar on the night of June 24, 1973. Open-eyed, through a wealth of primary source documentation, I got to see what early gay culture was like—when “gay” was a new word and the Gay Liberation movement was in its baby stage and much of homosexual culture celebrated its blue collar and hyper-masculine origins.
It was as if someone had sat me in a time machine and transported me to the beginnings of queer culture as it spilled into the open. I spent the first act of my book exploring these unique and idiosyncratic, nuanced and surprising lives, and I came to admire these men deeply because they made a choice to be themselves at a time when it really meant something, when no one celebrated their being different and being homosexual had vast consequences. I had so many beautiful interviews with something like fifty to eighty gay men that changed my life and reframed my default picture of human nature. I would never, ever take back those moments.
Q: Any projects on the horizon you're able to talk about here?
RF: Oh God, I'm supposed to be working on my second book proposal. But I’m what they call a “monotasker.” I don't know how anyone juggles a second project while launching another book. There will be four or five smaller stories about Up Stairs Lounge history that go along with Pride Month and the 45th anniversary of the fire, which occurs June 24, 2018.
I also have a novella-length nonfiction story that's not related to the Up Stairs Lounge, which was accepted a year and a half ago, and I have to finish. I can't talk precisely about the second book, but it relates to the diversification of the suburbs. I'm utterly consumed with the way that Northern segregation operated in middle-class white communities and the way that “nice” whites fought integration into the late 1960s. I also want to write about women's reproductive rights at some point, but I don't have a project yet.