A Visit with Michael Rowe
Interview by Jeffrey Luscombe
On a snowy winter day, Canadian author Michael Rowe opened up his home in Toronto to discuss his new book, Wild Fell, a novel Lambda Literary described as “the highest order of literary ghost story, easily on par with Peter Straub’s seminal Ghost Story.” Over the course of the afternoon, our conversation touched upon subjects such as family, being a gay writer, choosing to work in horror fiction as well as Rowe’s own personal ghosts.
With no hint of the sinister about him and looking serene in his easy chair with Becket, his black lab, by his side, Rowe, may not initially strike one as the new Canadian King of Horror, he is fast becoming.
Born in Ottawa, Rowe was a seasoned traveller (having lived in Europe and the Middle East) even before being sent to St. John’s Cathedral Boy’s School, a strict Anglican boarding school in the wilds of Manitoba as a boy. It was here that Rowe would find early inspiration as writer. “For me, boarding school was a time of being lonely. I was a skinny little femmy boy, but loneliness provides introspection essential for a literary mind. It was also the landscape of Enter Night. St. John’s was a very rugged, purely masculine landscape one to which I was probably singularly ill suited. But it also provided me with an incredible gift of beauty—the prairies, the snow, the rugged northern Ontario bush as experienced during nine hundred-mile canoe trips from Thunder Bay to Lake Winnipeg.”
At this time Rowe was published for the first time, a piece of poetry entitled “A Taste of Hurt,” about the pain of loneliness, in Teen Magazine. “I was definitely a burgeoning queer teenager, but not really aware of it,” says Rowe. “I believed I was the only person like me in the world. And society was just starting to look at gays and gay liberation then. But the media was showing the most unflattering image of us possible. It was rough. It leaves indelible impressions.”
After a stint as a male model in Paris, Rowe returned to Canada. “It was at The University of Toronto where I began writing in earnest,” Rowe says. “I was writing mostly poetry at U of T and I was published in my first year at university in Canadian Runner, a running magazine. It was a rush. And it gave me a sense of what could be.”
Soon after, Rowe began writing for the Body Politic, a gay liberation magazine in Toronto. “I just called them up and told them I wanted to write the article,” Rowe said. His first piece was on the parole of Dan White, the man who assassinated Harvey Milk, from jail in 1984. For the article, Rowe interviewed Randy Shilts, author of The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk and The Band Played On (in 2008 Rowe would thank Shilts posthumously when he won the Randy Shilts Award for his book of essays, Other Men’s Sons). “The Body Politic was put together by a very special group of queer people—fantastic Canadian gay and lesbian writers and artists—with a dynamic that has never since been replicated. It was passionate, committed, old-school queer liberation. There was no cynical slickness you find now. I am honored to have been a part of it.”
After writing five or six cover stories for The Advocate, Rowe chose to go on hiatus from journalism to try his hand at fiction. And his genre of choice was horror. “I wanted to tell my own stories,” says Rowe. “And horror is a great love of mine; it was what I grew up with. And horror is a wonderful way to tell stories. There are none of the constraints or boundaries of realism. Now I still love realism, but I also love the liberation I have with horror.”
Having edited the Queer Fear anologies, Rowe’s first foray into writing horror was the novella In October, published in the Triptych of Terror: Chilling Tales from the Masters of Gay Horror. Next was his critically-acclaimed Canadian vampire novel, Enter Night, published in 2011. “With Enter Night,” Rowe explained. “I wanted to tell the story about a gay man and his sister-in-law returning to northern town to face their past. All the themes of Enter Night, religious colonialism, residential schools, rape of environment, all of these were all forms of vampirism. The fact that the actual vampire was a resurrected Jesuit priest made sense.”
Though, Enter Night was not the kind of vampire story that was hot or popular at the time it Rowe was successful finding a publisher. “There was no twinkly stuff,” says Rowe. “It was scary. It was about the effects of depravation.”
However, the terror found in Enter Night was not exclusively from vampires. “I wanted to write about 1970s and homophobia,” Rowe says. “I wanted to write about what it was like in 1972 to be sent away for gay aversion therapy. I researched it. What happened to Jeremy in Enter Night was taken from an actual case file. This was a different kind of vampire. They take away what we are and replace it with what they are.”
For his new novel, Wild Fell, Rowe turned to ghosts. “The genesis of Wild Fell occurred one winter afternoon. We were living in an old Victorian house in the small town of Milton, Ontario.” Rowe recalls. “I had a very, very bad flu and a fever. I was alone in the house, in bed. I woke up hearing someone call my name. I got up and walked through the house but no one was there. The house was completely empty, but I distinctly heard my name, not like you do in a dream, but like you do when someone whispers it in your ear. I thought about that night for twenty years before writing Wild Fell. Among other things, it’s a ghost story about memory. Not only the power of memory but also the enduring power of the removal of memory. The past never dies.”
In both Enter Night and Wild Fell, Rowe explores the dynamics of family. “I am obsessed with families,” says Rowe. “Mine wasn’t unique. We did not always get along. I don’t think there is any such thing as a perfect family. Families not set up to produce perfection. Though I am fascinated when I am taken into those families that seem perfect. It’s euphoric being around them. It’s like listening to perfectly spoken Arabic or a beautiful piece of music. When you’ve had a past like mine, you tend to always feel like a bit of an outsider in the company of families like that.”
And each novel has a differing interpretation of motherhood, another theme in Rowe’s writing. “My mother wasn’t cold and distant like Jamie’s in Wild Fell or devouring like Jamie’s mother in Enter Night. My mother was a complex woman,” Rowe says. “And I loved her very much. We often had a hard time communicating but she was a great support with my writing. It was my mother who gave me my first typewriter--the one she had in college. I found her poetry after she died, some of it written while she was at Bread Loaf studying with Robert Frost. It was quite beautiful. I think she could have been a gifted writer if she’d wanted to pursue it as a career, but like a lot of women of her generation, she subsumed that into making a family and home life.”
However Wild Fell obscures more than the lines demarking life and death, gender is also malleable in the novel. “Jamie is not a masculine man,” Rowe says. “And his best friend, Hank, is a masculine woman who may be transgender. I could have went deeper into Hank’s story but I didn’t want too much of the story to be on Hank.”
Still, Rowe does not consider himself a ‘gay writer.’ “It’s cliché to say I’m not a gay writer, I’m writer who is gay,” Rowe says. “But I actually prefer the term ‘queer writer.’ My sexual identity is complex so I find the term “gay man” too constraining for me personally at this stage in my life. My work filters through my life experience. It has a queer sensibility. So what we’re doing is telling stories. And just like we don’t choose where are books are shelved in the bookstore, under LGBT or horror or whatever, it’s ultimately up to readers to decide if we are queer writers, or gay and lesbian writers, or trans writers, or just writers. I mean to say, we are what we are, but readers will also make up their own minds about what we are, or rather what our books are.”
But Rowe does see some difference between fans of gay literature and horror fiction fans. “What’s interesting is my new horror readers just accepted gay content,” says Rowe. “They never said this book is too gay for me. Many gay readers tend to expect gay characters doing gay things. But most of best gay writing includes interaction with non-gay people and doing non-gay things. Horror readers tend to just expect scary shit but the run the spectrum. Some are satisfied with blood and guts and there are writers that do that. Then there are readers that want something more complex and like the stuff I do, where stories evolve from the characters.”
And if Rowe still has ghosts, they are phantoms of the past. “My ghosts are my memories growing up,” says Rowe. “The reason I set two books in the 1970s was to make sense of what life was like; that sense of loneliness when there was nobody else like me. That is the theme of Wild Fell, the terror of being alone. It is those moments in your childhood when you are by yourself and your parents seem miles away, even though they may be just outside the borders of your bedroom. It’s then everything become misty and indistinct. It feels as if no one is there to protect you. That’s the origin of monster in closet, it waits until your parent are asleep.”
Today, Rowe is lonely no more. “I have been married thirty years,” he says. “I have lots of friends, and my husband and I have had a total of six dogs over years.”
However, Rowe does think that ghosts still may be close by. “I think this house is haunted,” he says. “I had an experience when we first moved in. I came out of bedroom one evening, and I had a sudden impression of deep menace. I was at the top of the stairs and the entire downstairs was pitch black. It was night, and there were no lights on. But this feeling…I’d not felt anything like that before. And our dog, Harper, who was then just a puppy, looked as if he’d seen something horrific. I tried to shake it but I just could not lose that chill. Finally, I called up the husband and asked him to come home.”
However, Michael Rowe has found a way to placate any lingering specters he may have had in his home. “I painted the living room pink and I’ve felt nothing like that since,” he says. “If there are ghosts here now, they’re happy ghosts.”
Michael Rowe was born in Ottawa in 1962 and has lived in Beirut, Havana, Geneva, and Paris. An award-winning journalist, and literary nonfiction writer, he is the author of Writing Below the Belt, a critically-acclaimed study of censorship, erotica and popular culture, as well as the essay collections Looking for Brothers and Other Men's Sons. His essays, articles, and reviews have appeared in the Globe & Mail, National Post, The Advocate, and The Huffington Post, as well as CFQ, The Scream Factory, All-Hallows, among many others. For 17 years he was the first-tier Canadian correspondent for Fangoria. He has won the Lambda Literary Award, the Randy Shilts Award, and the Spectrum Award, and has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award, the Associated Church Press Award, and the International Horror Guild Award. As the creator and editor of the critically acclaimed horror anthologies Queer Fear and Queer Fear 2, he was hailed by Clive Barker in 2002 as having "changed forever the shape of horror fiction." He is married and lives in Toronto. Enter, Night was his first novel. His second, Wild Fell, was published in December 2013 by ChiZine Publications.
For more information on Michael Rowe, visit his Web site at www.michaelrowefiction.com.
Born in Hamilton, Ontario Canada, Jeffrey Luscombe is the author of the novel Shirts and Skins. He holds a BA and MA in English from the University of Toronto. He attended The Humber College School for Writers where he was mentored by writers Nino Ricci and Lauren B. Davis. He has had fiction published in Chelsea Station, Tupperware Sandpiper, Zeugma Literary Journal, and filling Station Magazine, and nonfiction published in Xtra and Pink Play. In 2010 he was shortlisted for the Prism International Fiction Prize and in 2013 was a finalist for the The Kerry Schooley Award sponsored by Hamilton Arts Council. He lives in Toronto with his husband Sean.
For more information on Jeffrey Luscombe, visit his Web site at www.jeffreyluscombe.com.