The Bottom Line Magazine
by Barbara Wisbey
When it comes to dating as a middle-aged man, Richard Alther was not prone to throw in the towel. In his case, the saga was coupled with his coming out as a gay father after many years in a solid marriage.
Although Alther has been writing professionally all his life, THE DECADE OF BLIND DATES is his debut as a novelist. The book is laced with a crazy-quilt of characters, which seem to collide with the tranquil scene where we tracked him down, his home in the Mojave Desert he shares with his partner, Ray Repp.
THE BOTTOM LINE, Barbara Wisbey:Many people have tried a few blind dates, but 10 years’ worth? Is your hero persistent or just picky?
RICHARD ALTHER:Peter is definitely picky. He was married to a great lady, and he found her a hard act to follow. Mostly, though, at first he makes several stupid choices. For example, if the guy wears wire-rims or horned-rimmed glasses, Peter presumes he’s smart. As for the decade, he’s only so available as a full-time dad. And basically he’s an optimist, refusing to give up hope of finding that "someone."
BW:The gay sex in your novel is explicit but funny. Do you think it will amuse or offend straight readers?
RA:I have to say women readers have loved the sex. Maybe it’s the first time they’ve read some of these details. At least women will admit they want to know everything that happens between two people about to couple. The sex is certainly not pornographic but it is graphic. Male readers – straight and gay – seem to identify with sticking their necks out in the dating game when the middle-aged body doesn’t always fit with the lust.
BW:This is before the Internet?
RA:Correct. Not just the gay publications but all of them featured personal ads. The Village Voice, the New York Review of Books, the Boston Phoenix, the local newspaper – high to low end. Also, for the generation I represent, divorce was really taking off for the first time. It was much less common for our parents. And so people of all persuasions were placing and answering ads, out there once again on the prowl, including married men and women wanting great sex with no plans to leave their relationship. Threesomes, fetishes, whatever. At the very least, everyone was reading the ads for entertainment. So many guys wrote to me: "Oh, I’ve never done this before, answered an ad, but…."
BW:Which did you do – place ads or answer them?
RA:Both. Initially it was just answering ads. It was like: am I really doing this, as a semi-sane grown-up? A father of a hormone-raging teenager? But soon it was clear that I was not alone in such an enterprise.
BW:What did you say about yourself? How much did you reveal?
RA:As little as possible. I felt almost invisible. The whole point was: who is this other person? Any chance whatsoever for a common thread, let alone a flying spark? And arrogantly, I’m afraid, I was focusing on their flaws and imperfections. Is he worthy of me? I had it all ass-backwards.
BW:Describe your ideal, as you pictured him.
RA:This is embarrassing: total narcissism. He had to be tall, like me, or at least stand eye to eye. Intelligent, of course. Simultaneously sweet and sarcastic. And no blubber! A total turn-off. So many men fibbed with their facts.
BW:What inspired you to write this book?
RA:I was in a men’s support group – remember those? I suppose they were a defensive or apologetic outgrowth of the women’s movement. Anyway, I was invited to join a gathering of gay male psychologists; they decided I could "talk their talk." This was concurrent to my answering and placing personal ads. My friends were amazed, often incredulous, at some of the responses I’d get. The self-portrait Polaroids, clothed and otherwise, were absolutely not erotic. Some stories were very funny, others pathetic, most of them fascinating. My friends said, Richard you’ve got to write about this.
BW:You have a few episodes in your novel, especially one, where Peter is marooned on a blind date in a snowstorm with a fatty. Did this ever happen to you?
RA:Repeatedly. And for my friends. The characters in my book are such an amalgam of so many adventures – my own and anecdotes I collected over the years – that I can honestly say each blind date in this book is a fabrication.
BW:Even today, online with photos on profiles, the image does not necessarily reflect reality when two people meet face-to-face. How did you handle this business?
RA:Some people would counsel me: make friends first. If I was serious about somebody, there had better be an instinctual gut reaction that this man was worth pursuing – from the first written words, sight-unseen. Then, if A led to B and so on, okay, get together. Other friends insisted: sex first! There’s got to be chemistry on that level, otherwise what’s the point? I tried both approaches, myself.
BW:You’ve said you met your partner of nine years online. Which approach ultimately worked?
RA:I’ll answer that indirectly if I may. After emailing back and forth via a gay website, we finally shared our personal email addresses, then phone numbers. We talked for about two months (between Vermont and Maryland) before we met, eventually talking every night for up to an hour. My daughter had put the fear of God in me about not doing something dumb like reveal my full name and contact details until I was sure of the character – that he wasn’t an ax murderer. So, I guess we did establish quite clearly, prior to meeting in the flesh, that this date would not really be blind. That said, he did (unlike me) have a photo of himself posted with his profile. And of course I was riveted by his build and smile and full head of hair.
BW:He never had a photo of you?
RA:Eventually. I learned to attach a photo. I thought it was pretty hot. I was in a tank-top and shorts on an island in Greece on a gay cruise. When we did meet he was surprised I wasn’t overweight; that in fact I was lean. Apparently a breeze had swept up and under the tank-top, billowing out to beer-belly proportions. So, even with photos and probably videos these days, people are still in for a shock in the dating game.
BW:You’re a painter and a writer. What else have you written?
RA:A few serious novels, a challenge to get published in today’s tough market. But this one, fortunately, is entertaining. Hopefully edifying, too, but it’s basically a fun read.
BW:At one point your hero has an affair with a woman. Does this in any way dilute the impact of gay-divorced-guy finally coming out?
RA:My intention was to reinforce Peter’s commitment to homosexuality. Although he adores women as peers and friends and even eye candy, the affair is a flop, and he emerges even more confident following his new path.
BW:Some of the escapades in your novel are not so funny. Even dangerous. Yet Peter plods on, despite his own bout with cancer.
RA:Half-way through the decade he starts making wiser choices. Beyond infatuation he even falls in love. His painting career is maturing, and he’s increasingly successful. But still: he has detours. I think dating in your 40s can be as crazy as for a teen. Peter becomes almost addicted to the hunt. Many gay men, coming out after marriage and rusty at the social arts, have a late start and can behave like a jerk.
BW:It makes sense, the guy Peter settles with as his soul mate, a totally solid and wonderful man. Without revealing the ending, how does this fit with all the shenanigans leading up to it?
The beginning of the decade, yes, he’s nearly naked with a tattooed punk teaching him the Texas Two-Step when his teenage son and his friends barge in. Next, his head is spinning with a gender-bending soap-opera star who can switch from Grace Kelly posh to Sean Connery butch in the blink of an eye. But as the years and dates progress, Peter does wise up. He’s smitten with a talented, handsome Maine woodsman; he falls for a very smart British aristocrat who declines further intimacy because of his AIDS. Hopefully, there’s logic to his winding up, after ten years, with a partner who’s perfect.