In his debut novel, The Trials of Christopher Mann, University of Montana professor Casey Charles explores the 1978 assassinations of San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milkthe first openly gay person ever elected to public officeand San Francisco Mayor George Moscone. Charles' novel focuses on Christopher Mann, a first-year law student and San Francisco native, who, along with his study group peers, wrestles with the implications of the assassinations and the complicated trial of Supervisor Dan White, who confessed to the killings. Charles chatted with the Indy over the weekend.
I once vowed never to ask a novelist how autobiographical his/her novel was. However, when I sent you a message saying I'd begun reading your novel, your response said: "You'll get through it in a night. It's not Clarissa. It's 'Fifty Shades of Casey.'"
So, um, how autobiographical is your novel?
Casey Charles: The impetus was quite personal. San Francisco in the '70s, and to some extent earlier, became a gay oasis for men and women who grew up in places like Manhattan, Montana and West Texas. They were able to flee their hetero-mandatory hometowns to settle in the Castro [neighborhood] with relative anonymity, while those of us who grew up in the gay capital of the world faced a different set of social challenges around coming out. I wanted to narrate that strange conflict: being in the closet in a city known as "coming out central." The Harvey Milk story emerged as a way to dramatize how the political evolution of the gay community could influence the personal life of a way-too-curious bisexual law student.
The book is not entirely a true story, though. After the first chapter, which is quite confessional, I realized I had to take Dorothy into Oz. These are Christopher Mann's trialsromantic, political, emotional, sexual. Which is not to say Casey doesn't keep popping up in Christopherthe classroom scenes, the scenes with Christopher's family, the interior ruminations.
Like Christopher Mann, you studied law. Years later, you broke up with the law to study literature, which you've taught at UM for 20 years. How did both backgrounds inform this novel?
CC: My autobiography might best be explained by changing the name of Somerset Maugham's parable, "An Appointment in Samarra," to something like "An Appointment in Lawsville." In other words, I ran away from the very area of study I eventually came to embrace. I graduated from Hastings in the late '70s and practiced in the Bay Area for around six years. I got tired of chasing ambulances, so I shuffled off to SUNY Buffalo and got a PhD.
Problem was all the interviewers for college jobs wanted to know why a lawyer would want to be an English teacher, that kind of cut in pay unthinkable. They kept asking me questions about Othello's monologue before he murders Desdemona: "It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul." Of course the Othello case becomes central to the dénouement of my novel, but at any rate the shadow of my law degree kept hounding me through my teaching career, so I ended up incorporating the law into my work. I started teaching gay and lesbian studies at a university that doesn't really cotton to queer pursuits, to say the least. I started writing about queers and the law, which led to my first two booksThe Sharon Kowalski Case and Critical Queer Studies: Law, Film, and Fiction.
In the meantime, I was writing a novelof course, aren't we all?so I decided to incorporate my research concerning San Francisco and queer culture into this historical fiction. I realize we have all recently been saturated with Milk retellings, but I thought I could add another rock to the cairn.
What is the legacy of Harvey Milk today?
CC: Curiously, the Milk legacy of liberation has come under considerable scrutiny. Harvey championed coming out as a kind of panacea for many of the discriminatory practices of heteronormative and sometimes hetero-hegemonic society. Obviously the consequences of coming out are geographically, ethnically, economically and even gender-wise incommensurate. Can you come out in Nigeria or Iran? Is it easier to come out in West Hollywood than Shelby? And from Chris Mann's perspective, is it easier to come out if you move to San Francisco from Kansas than if you grew up in this rather parochial city? And of course, Harvey himself never came out to his parents, ironically enough.
The other legacies of Milk, now ignored by the Human Rights Campaign, are his political and sexual predilections. Milk championed sexual freedom; he was not monogamous, nor was he particularly interested in gay marriage. This is not exactly the legacy the plaintiffs in the same-sex marriage cases wish to owneven if they want to continue to worship at the Holy Harvey shrine. Yet, Harvey's legacy as a gay man continues as an inspiration for gays and straights alike.
I think that's one of my favorite aspects of your novel: You neither simplify nor romanticize the major players in the drama, including Milk. I was born the same year of the assassinations and my first exposure to Harvey Milk was through Gus Van Sant's film, which glorified Milk and demonized Dan White in a way that seemed simplistic.
CC: And that's part of what I wanted to do and why I spent a lot of time in the novel focusing on White's trial. Christopher Mann and his friends all react differently to it. The differences come from their experiences and their interpretations of the law. Dan White's legal team argued that White's depression prior to the killings forced him to act with "diminished capacity." They were successful. White was convicted of voluntary manslaughter, for which he served only five years. As a result, "diminished capacity" as a form of legal defense is no longer allowed in California.
But, at least one of your characters shows some compassion for Dan White. Do you have any compassion for him?
CC: No, I don't have any compassion for Dan White. But I do have some understanding for his lawyers' defense. White had no previous criminal record. And, while he did take his gun to City Hall with the intent of killing, the murders were not premeditated in the manner of Leopold and Loeb or Charles Manson; there was a degree of heat of passion. Chris' mother, at one point in the novel, describes White as having had "a bad day." I'm not sure that's totally wrong. He should have gotten second-degree murder with life in prison.
Why focus on this group of young people who are either completely uninvolved in the case or, at best, marginally involved?
CC: This is a great question in large part because I have no answer. I am not sure the characters do either; they keep wondering why the Dan White case consumes them. Basically these people are on the periphery. They are a periphery sucked into the vortex of the political storm in San Francisco, the town I left behind in 1986 and now admire from afar. In many ways the novel is an homage to and parody of the cool gray city of love.
Casey Charles reads from The Trials of Christopher Mann and his new book of poetry Blood Work at Shakespeare & Co. Tue., June 11, at 7 PM. Free.