Arts & Entertainment
3 min

Old-fashioned fag or avant-garde artiste?

Derek McCormack on gay lit, fashion and camp vulgarity

“There needed to be more ass eating and sequins,” laughs Derek McCormack about the musical adaptation of The Haunted Hillbilly, his 2003 novel about a gay vampire/couturier who turns Hank Williams into a sequin-studded hillbilly hottie. The musical was a surprise hit for Montreal’s Sidemart Theatrical Grocery in 2008 and will see a revival this coming December.

If you can’t get to Montreal, McCormack is bringing his own ass-eating sideshow to Transgress at the Ottawa International Writers Festival on Oct 23 — the latest adventure for a busy and multi-talented artist.

With The Haunted Hillbilly, McCormack made Best Book of the Year lists in both the Village Voice and The Globe and Mail, and he was nominated for a Lambda Award for best gay fiction. More recent projects include curating a mail-art series for the Art Gallery of York University and contributing the text for a sculpture project with Micah Lexier.

McCormack also writes a fashion column every second Saturday for the National Post. He says he’s obsessed with obscure minutia from the annals of fashion and with everything carnivalesque — a love of illusion he developed as a boy. In the pre-Walmart era, his parents ran a small department store near Peterborough; McCormack’s voice quickens as he reminisces about the window displays, gift shows and Halloween exhibits.  

“I love the sense that, in stores and at carnivals, you’re producing something really spectacular and seductive and you’re doing it with fishing wire and mannequins and a bunch of pins and some lights. It’s a threadbare production that, at least for me, can produce something overwhelmingly beautiful.”

McCormack also links his love of illusion to a camp sensibility grounded in the tradition of gay kids fighting back.
“When I was growing up, I considered myself monstrous,” he says, “because I was gay and because I was a feminist. The thing I always desired was for my monstrousness to become powerful. What I really wanted as a kid was not to be accepted or to accept myself but to somehow be able to actually cast spells or destroy cities. I didn’t want to be liked, I wanted to be feared. There’s something in that that’s a very old kind of fagginess, an old kind of gayness. There’s something in that [for] me that links up with the Kuchar brothers or Jack Smith — an old sense of camp.”

McCormack’s latest novel, The Show That Smells, lives up to that sensibility. It’s set in a funhouse and features a cast that includes mid-20th century fashion luminaries Elsa Schiaparelli and Coco Chanel, Hollywood horror hero Lon Chaney, country music legend Jimmie Rodgers and an assortment of vampires and sideshow freaks. But, true to the camp tradition, it’s not all play. The novel’s sinister undercurrent makes you question what exactly is lurking beneath the surface of his humour and ask yourself at what point you’re supposed to stop laughing.
While McCormack’s work may recall a bygone era in gay lit and film, his writing pushes contemporary boundaries of form. His compact style — stripped of many an adverb, adjective and article — packs dense meaning into accessible snippets. Laconic lines are laced with allusions and alliteration. In The Show That Smells, he uses repetition in concert with snapshot description to create a cinematic effect — fitting for a novel redolent with silver-screen nostalgia.

Even if you don’t think yourself an experimental reader, McCormack’s books are worth a try. At 12,000-odd words, the reader’s investment need only be an hour or two but could easily spiral into rereads — each richer than the last.

McCormack’s experimental writing doesn’t alienate the uninitiated; the reader enters on the level of his or her choosing. It will be interesting to see how his work comes off the page at a public reading like Transgress.

But, despite a history of critical support for his own books, McCormack worries about the place of gay writers today.
“For the last ten years, there has been a very wry and ironic and twee sense about art and literature that has dominated — which you can call a McSweeney’s kind of esthetic [after the American publisher and literary journal of that name].

“I just find that, for gay writers, it might as well be 1975 because that dominant esthetic doesn’t really have room for camp or vulgarity or a violent kind of sex or anything that becomes monstrous or clownish, which is so much what camp writing is and what gay writing still is.”

Dominant esthetic aside, McCormack is heartened by the presence of a vibrant US experimental writing scene, which thrives even in the absence of generous grants and government support for the arts.

He’s less sanguine about Canada’s scene but glad there are spaces like Transgress for people like him to perform.

“There are very few small presses left, and the big presses are middle brow to the point of brutal. It’s hard to get into big festivals, and it’s harder than ever to get onto the CBC and to have things reach people’s ears, so to have a festival this big in Ottawa, to have a night to allow the three of us to do whatever the hell we want — that’s incredible to me.”