Back when some people were blue…
by Neil Ellis Orts
About once a month, I email Blase DiStefano at the OutSmart offices and ask what books he might have in need of reviewing. Blue Jesus by Tom Edwards sounded interesting, but I have to admit I wasn’t expecting much out of the ordinary.
Those expectations were shattered. If you’re here on the web because of the review in the print edition of OutSmart, you know I think the book is funny, but it’s so much more than that. Read it for the laughs, but note that the humor comes from the characters, who may not even realize they’re being funny. This isn’t sitcom set-up-punch-line humor. It comes from unexpected turns of phrase and will just as often break your heart even as you’re laughing.
Furthermore, this book isn’t at all a “coming out” story. The only thing the main character, Buddy Dean, comes to accept is that he’s a sissy. Nothing else ever gets named, but it’s all there. I believe anyone who ever grew up being called a sissy or knew someone who was will recognize the force of that word as Buddy experiences it.
I hope the review, and this interview with its author, will make you seek it out.
Neil Ellis Orts: This is your first novel, but you’ve done a lot of work in theater and television and film.
Tom Edwards: I started out as a performer. I was a chorus boy for a long time. And then there was a theater here in Atlanta that needed a play and I went, well, I’ll write it. And it turned very successful. It was a review called Tan Shoes and Pink Shoelaces. And then I followed that up with another play called Della’s Diner. It was a spoof of country music and soap operas. And, gosh, that was very popular, and Warner Bros. bought it and moved me to Los Angeles. Oh, they produced the play at the Manhattan Theater Club in New York, and then they moved me to Los Angeles to work in television. And, gosh, I did that for a long time.
What kind of television did you do?
I wrote for episodic stuff, and then I went into development where you just sort of sit in a room and spit out ideas and think up sitcoms. I did that for a long time. Then I started to get into documentary film work with Turner Broadcasting. Like if you look at [search results for] Seven Brides for Seven Brothers or Music Man or Casablanca, there’s always a “making of” documentary on there? I did those.
And how did all this prepare you for writing your first novel?
Well, gosh, you know—okay this sounds kind of stupid I know, but when I was 13, I told a guidance counselor at my school that I wanted to write a book about what it means to grow up a sissy, because I was beaten senseless. I was the nelliest queen on two feet. I look back on it now and, like, no wonder they beat me up. And then I moved to Atlanta—gosh, a long time ago, and read this story about the blue people. Neil, don’t you think that’s fascinating?
I was going to ask you about that. When I was first given the book to read, I thought, Okay, some sort of magical realism thing, but it’s based somewhat in fact?
The blue people really did exist!
In your book, they come off as a whole separate race.
They didn’t want people to stare at them. They’re just Caucasians with blue features. As civilization moved into the mountains, they just kept moving further and further away. Which, of course, meant they were inbred and meant more and more blue people. I just found that fascinating. I could never find out anything about them, and then one day I just Googled “blue people” and boom, all these websites came up. I just started to do my research.
Did you ever read that Stephen King book called On Writing?
I did, a long time ago.
Gosh, I love that book. When I do documentaries or plays, I always write strictly from an outline. You know, I’m as anal as a queen can be, I just line everything up, dot the I’s cross the T’s. And with this thing I just sort of let it go. It pretty much wrote itself.
The voice of Buddy is so strong. I was wondering how much of Tom Edwards is in Buddy Dean.
Pretty much about 100 percent, I think. You know, it’s my first novel and I don’t make any illusions it’s not me.
But you did not know blue people growing up, apparently.
No, I didn’t. I grew up in northern Michigan. I’m a Yankee boy. But you know, small town, big town, when you’re picked on and you’re different, you tend to isolate yourself, and I think that’s why I identify with the blue people so much. If I get out of the way, they’re not going to beat me to death.
Yes, that’s a long-term survival tactic.
That, and humor.
Well, this blue people phenomenon, it appears to be something that was cured by modern science.
About 1967, ’68, they found this little pill, and they take the pill and they get pink in almost a matter of minutes. Rumor has it that there’s still some around, but I think that’s more like folklore. And the town of Comfort Corners really is a fictional place because in the South, I don’t think there was a place where blacks, whites, and blues went to school together. It was very segregated.
I don’t see an actual date when the book is taking place, but I gather from the cultural references, around 1960-ish?
Before Kennedy was killed.
Because the Tony Dow references, which I thought were priceless—
Oh, I love Tony Dow [Wally on the ’50s TV show Leave It to Beaver ]! He was my big crush. Either him or Race Bannon on Johnny Quest. The story of the book sort of dictates the time period. I couldn’t get past ’64 or ’65 because that’s when they started to be cured.
Speaking of Tony Dow, one of things that I think is truly wonderful about this book is that you have this self-proclaimed sissy boy who has this obvious crush on Tony Dow, but he doesn’t name it.
I think that’s funny, too. We’ll go and be best friends, and we’ll swim in his pool after dark—and the wedding ceremony.
Yes! He plays out this ceremony that’s clearly a wedding ceremony, but he still talks about it as, “Well, except boys don’t get married, so it’s like a best friend ceremony.” I thought that was wonderfully innocent and true to a lot of our experiences, when we can’t name what is going on.
Oh sure. I was finding myself looking at the underwear ads in Sears & Roebuck catalog and not knowing why. But I had a huge crush on Tony Dow.
Well, he was very cute.
He was! Wally could do no wrong.
Another thing that you weave in that I think is nicely done is the lesbian couple in town.
Don’t you love them?
They are delightful.
You know, we had a county nurse where I grew up named Dusty, so I named Dusty after her. In small towns, they just become strange old people, you know, characters. And no one really names it as a pair of dykes.
Those two old spinster women who are living together.
I think it’s more acceptable with women than it is with men.
I think so too, and I think it was also very true to the period that the only adult models for this boy almost had to be women.
Oh yeah, and Buddy and his aunts and Grandma. The thing between sons and fathers—I mean, when you’re a sissy growing up and you can see your father looking at you with almost a look of disgust. My parents weren’t sophisticated, so it was very hard for my father to—well, I don’t think he ever did accept me as a gay man, but it’s just out of their realm of reckoning, I think.
Yes, those scenes all felt very true to the setting. And Buddy’s ambivalence—
I think after time and time and time again, it’s like, I’m going to give up, I’ve tried before.
Okay, Neil, how much did you love Miss Pink?
[Laughing] Oh, Miss Pink. She was one of the harder characters for me to get a grip on. She was all over the place. I grew up a farm boy in Texas and later went to college to be a theater major.
I did the same thing.
I was working in a small-town community theater during the summer, and the theater expert in town is the person who did a lot of theater in high school and they were in high school 25 years ago. So that Miss Pink was the expert on theatricals because she’d been to New York City and seen the Rockettes, that struck me as very true. But she could go from being so mean and hateful to having these little sparks of tenderness.
And I’ll you, Neil, that surprised me, too. But the whole book surprised me. When I was writing it, I didn’t know where it was going to go. Honey, let me tell you, when I found out that Buddy was going to [plot point deleted so as not to ruin it for the reader!], that freaked me out so bad! I had to get out of my office and pace for a bit!
I was very worried for him at that moment.
Oh God, I know!
And of course all of Early’s predictions— In the writing of it, I assume you almost have to go backwards with some of that.
You know, I didn’t. Like I said, I almost always write things out from an outline, but Stephen King’s advice… I thought, well, shit, he sells books, let’s give this a whirl, and I just let it write itself. I did go in and tinker a bit, once I got the thing done, but no, when I first started, I had no idea what was going to happen to that slip, that Buddy watches his father cry and— it just happened. [Early in the story, Buddy recounts seeing is father crying while holding Buddy’s deceased mother’s slip. The slip makes recurring and significant appearances.]
I’ve noticed other gay artists of late working with the idea that being sensitive and a sissy is a particular gift. The perceived weakness is the character’s strength. Was any of this sort of thing going on in your head as you wrote it?
I knew I didn’t want Buddy to be a victim. Because—and I know this is not going to happen, but in my wildest dreams, I want other 12-, 13-, 14 year-old boys to read this book and see that they could stand up for themselves, that it’s not the end of the world. This whole thing with these little boys killing themselves—In Georgia we had a little 11-year-old boy that hung himself because the kids were calling him faggot in school and, God almighty, that just breaks my heart. And back when I was 13, I told you I wanted to write a book about what it means to be a sissy. But the sad thing is parents won’t buy this book for their kids, because they don’t want to admit that their kid is a sissy. They’ll torture him first.
Well, at the very least, I’d like to push this toward some parents. We’ve talked a lot about Buddy, but not much about Early, the title character. He’s portrayed as being somewhat socially awkward, somewhat slow of brain. He doesn’t like being in crowds of people. Yet, when the crowds of people start to show up at his daddy’s back porch, looking for a miracle from the Blue Jesus, he steps up. He handles the situation.
I think at that point, he’s just drawing strength from the Lord. He tells us he’s not Jesus, but Jesus works through him. I love why he does it, though. He wants to make sure that people know that he’s not Jesus. His father is out there spreading the word that he’s like Jesus come back to earth, and so he goes because he has a gift, and plus he wants people to know that if they came looking for Jesus, they need to look elsewhere.
Clearly, I think this is a fine book and I think this has a good chance among a non-gay readership. I hope it finds an audience because it certainly deserves one.
Well, from your mouth to God’s ear. Thank you so much.