We are very happy to welcome the talented Brad Boney to the Smoocher’s Voice blog today. Brad’s most recent novel, The Eskimo Slugger, is available from Dreamspinner Press. Although The Eskimo Slugger can be read as a standalone, it is a prequel to Brad’s other novels, The Nothingness of Ben and The Return. Don't forget to go to the bottom of the post and leave a comment and enter to win a copy of The Eskimo Slugger from Brad.
Brad Boney lives in Austin, Texas, the seventh gayest city in America. He grew up in the Midwest and went to school at NYU. He lived in Washington, DC, and Houston before settling in Austin. He blames his background in the theater for his writing style, which he calls “dialogue and stage directions.” His first book was named a Lambda Literary Award finalist. He believes the greatest romantic comedy of all time is 50 First Dates. His favorite gay film of the last ten years is Strapped. And he has never met a boy band he didn’t like.
Connect with Brad:
Jodi: Thank you, Brad, for taking the time to answer some questions for our readers. I am a big fan of your writing and books.
Brad: Thanks for having me on the blog, Jodi. We’ve been chatting for a couple of years on Twitter, so this is groovy.
Jodi: Let’s jump right in, shall we? On your website, you wrote the following statement:
Brad: I had a contract for The Return before The Nothingness of Ben ever saw the light of day. In my mind, it was never the follow-up to Ben, but rather the main event. I thought of Ben as a concerto for string quintet and The Return as a Mahler symphony. When I started getting some attention for Ben, it seemed like people were hungry for a second book. I didn’t have to face the pressure of writing a follow-up, because it was already written.
Jodi: The three books you have published are all related. Although readers can read them as standalones, the stories are intricately woven together. Which book did you actually write first?
Brad: I wrote the books in the order they were published, so The Nothingness of Ben came first, then The Return, then The Eskimo Slugger. But from the beginning, I had an outline in my head of all three books and how they would relate to each other. There are things I set up in The Nothingness of Ben that don’t pay off until The Eskimo Slugger.
Jodi: The Eskimo Slugger, the most recently published book, is the beginning of the tale. It is written with a bit of a mythological/origin style. Should readers not familiar with your work read this book first?
Brad: That’s a good question. For the last year, whenever I’ve seen someone on social media recommend The Return, they’ve always followed it up with, “Read The Nothingness of Ben first.” And personally, I’ve never felt that way. I’ve heard from many people who read The Return first and then went back and read Ben, and I know that works too. No matter what I say, people are going to read the books in different orders, so I wrote them with that in mind. There is no right answer, but those who read The Eskimo Slugger first, and then go back and read Ben and The Return, will have a different experience than those who read them in the order they were written. Not a lesser experience, mind you—just a different one. And to me, that’s a beautiful thing.
Jodi: Tell us about Trent Days. He is living a bit of a fantasy life when readers meet him, but meeting Brendan changes everything. Why does Trent risk everything for Brendan in the first place?
Brad: Trent is a rookie phenomenon in Major League Baseball. America loves an overnight sensation, and that’s where Trent is when we meet him. As a baseball player, he is based on Mike Trout, who just finished his third season with the Los Angeles Angels (except Trent is a catcher and Trout plays center field). Many sports writers are saying Trout may be the greatest player that ever lived. That’s the same kind of hyperbole that surrounds Trent. But he also has a secret. He’s gay, and when he meets Brendan and finds himself falling in love for the first time, that creates a crisis in his life. Why does Trent risk everything for Brendan in the first place? For love, Jodi. For love. J
Jodi: Brendan works in a record store and is going to school to become a lawyer. Tell us a bit about his character and what makes him tick.
Brad: Brendan is the average Joe of the story, but whereas Trent is famous and would rather not be, Brendan isn’t famous and wishes he was. Or at least he wishes he was great at something. He wants to be the best lawyer in the country. He, too, is gay but not yet out of the closet. He’s never been in love either, so he and Trent stumble through their first romance together. They’re on equal footing when it comes to their inexperience.
Jodi: You describe the books in musical terms, and music plays an important part for these books. The soundtrack creates its own theme. Why did you choose to intertwine the series with music?
Brad: Because music is universal and transcends language barriers. Rhythm is fundamental to human beings, and for this story specifically, I was looking for a way that memory could be transferred from one person to another. At one point in The Return, Hutch says, “Everything that I was and ever hoped to be, I stored it all in the music.” Memory and music are both pure energy, so I could imagine a person embedding their knowledge in a melody. From there, I used my personal relationship with music to add detail and nuance to the characters. I admit, it ballooned beyond what I originally intended, but people have really responded to that element, and I’ve introduced a lot of readers to some great songs they’d never heard before. The Return has a playlist on both Spotify and YouTube.
Jodi: Did you have to do research for the connections between the music and the time periods?
Brad: I chose time periods that I had lived through and used my own personal knowledge in most cases. Half of The Return is set in New York City between 1981 and 1985, and that’s when I was going to school at NYU. When I was a freshman, someone turned me onto Bruce Springsteen by playing “Thunder Road” for me. I occasionally Googled the Billboard charts from certain years to remind myself what was popular in a certain year, but I only referred to music I had a personal connection to. Like Stanton, I think Toni Basil’s “Mickey” is a slice of pure pop heaven, “Bridge over Troubled Water” is the greatest song of all time, and “Billy, Don’t Be a Hero” is so bad it’s good. I was a big New Order fan back in the ‘80s, and their song “Blue Monday” is what brings Trent and Brendan together. And also, like Stanton, I learned everything I know about music from my friends. I’m like a sponge around people who are smarter than me.
Jodi: Music is symbolic in the series, but the main metaphor in The Eskimo Slugger is baseball, a game of subtext. Why did you choose baseball?
Brad: I stole the setup for The Eskimo Slugger from Notting Hill, one of my favorite romantic comedies. Can the most famous movie star in the world fall for an ordinary guy? From there, I needed to change it up. I didn’t want Trent to be a movie star, and I felt my two other options were sports star or politician. When I decided on sports, I went straight to baseball because of its elegant and spiritual nature (think Field of Dreams). Instead of walking into a bookstore, Trent walks into a record store. That was an obvious change because of the role music plays in the overall story. And after the setup, The Eskimo Slugger goes in a completely different direction.
Jodi: Speaking of time periods …. The three books in the series span a few decades. The Eskimo Slugger takes place in 1983. The Nothingness of Ben begins in the year 2010, and The Return takes place during both of these time frames. How did you keep track of all of the details?
Brad: Flow charts! Well, actually, I only used a flow chart for the second half of The Return. The rest I kept in my head. I don’t find that part difficult, but maybe I just have one of those brains. It’s easier than it looks when you’re the one telling the story. Sometimes I write a payoff first and then go back and insert the setup. I rely on my beta reader to catch hanging plot points, and he’s really good at that.
Jodi: You tackle some serious issues in these books, especially the concept of homophobia in society and the AIDS epidemic. These are important points for the grounding the stories, but your tackling of the AIDS epidemic is more than that. Was that an important inspiration for the concept of series?
Brad: I never set out to write about the AIDS epidemic. If you think about how old Topher is, and count back to when he was born, it leads you right to the ‘80s. AIDS plays no role in The Nothingness of Ben or The Eskimo Slugger, but it’s a major plot engine in The Return. And once I figured out how it would all fit together, I knew I had to do it justice. But I lived through the ‘80s as a gay man in New York City and Washington, DC, so I remember those days. I didn’t make up the Haitian joke Michael tells in The Return. I remember the confusion, denial, and lack of information. People got sick and died within a matter of days or weeks. Thirty years later, I thought of a fictional way to restore everything that was lost, and that became The Return. I believe in the power of love to do the impossible, and that drives every story I tell.
Jodi: The Eskimo Slugger takes place over a short period of time, and yet the events in the story change so many people’s lives. Why did you choose for this story to move so quickly and dramatically?
Brad: After The Return, which is told on a large canvas, I wanted to go in the other direction. In your quote above, I describe The Nothingness of Ben as a concerto and The Return as a symphony. The Eskimo Slugger is a pop song, and I love pop songs! A great one can change your life. There’s something about the short time period of The Eskimo Slugger that I find very seductive. Trent and Brendan are only twenty-three years old. When I was that age, I fell in love hard and fast. The most memorable romance of my life only lasted five days.
Jodi: The characters in The Eskimo Slugger are intriguing and intense. Tell us about your inspiration for Quincy.
Brad: Intriguing and intense. I like that. Quincy runs a café called Les Amis, which was a real place in Austin during the ‘80s, but no longer exists. The same is true of Inner Sanctum Records. Many scenes in The Eskimo Slugger take place at Les Amis. I used to go there with my friend Eric all the time and loved their lasagna. There was a guy who ran the place, and a burned-out cook, but I never met either one. Quincy’s my own invention, but as for the inspiration? Follow the Q…
Jodi: What was your inspiration for Kieran? Was his reaction to his best friend’s announcement typical of the time frame or professional sports?
Brad: Much of the conflict in The Eskimo Slugger is an internal struggle within Trent, so I needed a character who would externalize some of that. But Kieran’s negative reaction was absolutely typical. In Going the Other Way, Billy Bean’s autobiography about his time in baseball as a closeted gay man, he tells the story about making his boyfriend hide in the garage for several hours when some of his teammates drop by their house unannounced. Yes, they lived together. His boyfriend had to hide in his own house! So that tells you something about the lengths closeted professional athletes had to go to keep their secrets hidden.
Jodi: Tell us about Barrow and Dime Box. Why did you choose these locations that are so opposite in location and climate?
Brad: I love contrasts. Texas and Alaska are two massive land states with polar opposite climates. There’s something magical about Alaska and its untouched beauty. I chose Barrow because it’s the northernmost city in the U.S., and when Travis runs away to Barrow, I wanted him to run away to the edge of the world. I chose Dime Box by looking on a map and picking it at random, simply because I loved the name and it was the perfect size (population of about 370, depending on whether anyone was born or died on that day).
Jodi: Stanton and Hutch play a minor yet important role in The Eskimo Slugger. The scene where they come to visit though solidifies the connection between the three books. Why does Brenden call Stanton while he is freaking out?
Brad: Several people have asked me why I skipped over the weekend when Stanton and Hutch visit Austin in The Return. I saved that for The Eskimo Slugger, where their weekend is fully realized. There are several scenes in The Eskimo Slugger that really belong in The Return, and there are two scenes in The Return that really belong in The Eskimo Slugger. That’s the way I like to tell stories. Everything is connected. Brendan calls Stanton because he’s reaching for straws. He doesn’t know any other gay people, so it was either Stanton or the gay crisis hotline.
Jodi: Will there be more books in this series?
Brad: I’m done with this story, but not the characters. The next book coming out in the spring, called Yes, reboots my world and introduces a slew of new characters. But everyone from The Nothingness of Ben and The Return are still around and play supporting roles. Topher shows up in an important and unexpected way. I’m resistant to the idea of a formal series. I prefer stories that take place in the same world, but still stand alone. I guess you could call it the Bradverse.
Jodi: What is your next project?
Brad: Yes is finished and coming out in March or April of next year. It’s about a guy who takes a nap after his 40th birthday and wakes up twenty years younger. It’s like that Tom Hank’s movie Big—only gay and in reverse. I’m currently working on a book about two characters I introduced in Yes, Sam and Jeremy. I don’t want to say too much about it, because it’s still in its infancy.
It was wonderful to learn more about the Bradverse. The following responses do have some spoilers included for those who have not read the books yet.
Jodi: Trent tells Brendan he will find him in his next life. Hutch tells Stanton that the Bruce Springsteen concert is where they will meet again if they ever separate. Let’s talk about the concept of reincarnation. What is the premise for this part of the story?
Brad: Anyone who read The Return already knows that Brendan and Trent are the previous incarnation of Ben and Travis. They also know how The Eskimo Slugger ends (or at least they think they do). I was attracted to reincarnation because it allows me to tell a story about a love that can triumph over anything—even death. To me, there’s nothing more romantic than that. And I can imagine someone passing their soul from one body to another using music. Both the soul and music are energy, not matter, so my mind can make that stretch. The key for me was grounding it in an otherwise realistic world. Both Hutch and Trent believe they will see their boyfriends in the next life, and it’s their faith that makes it happen. There are readers who insist The Return should have been classified as paranormal, but I think that’s a product of their Judeo-Christian worldview. To the people of Tibet and India, reincarnation is a spiritual fact, and they would take exception to someone calling their beliefs paranormal. Do Christians classify their belief that Jesus rose from the dead as paranormal? They don’t, and I fail to see the difference.
Jodi: Did you do research on the Dalai Lama and Buddhism for this series?
Brad: After I left the Catholic Church, I did a lot of soul searching. I was attracted to Buddhism because it’s the only major religion with no deity. It’s not about heaven or hell, but how to live a compassionate life. Unlike Christianity and Islam, I’ve never heard anyone use the Buddha to justify violence. A great Buddhism primer is the movie Little Buddha. It’s very accessible for an American or European audience.
Jodi: In The Return, the official “reincarnation test” is with the three objects, but the first test takes place in the record room inside the W Hotel. Is that the first time Stanton is alerted to what is happening?
Brad: No, I don’t think so. Stanton starts to suspect from the moment Topher opens his mouth, because he sounds just like Hutch. And when Topher says, “the devil is in the details” in the first chapter, Stanton stops on the sidewalk. And certainly the kiss during “Thunder Road” gets his head spinning. But yes, when he sees the title of the third album in the record room, and flashes back to what Hutch said to him twenty-six years earlier, you know he’s heading to his hotel room and waking Marvin up.
Jodi: I am curious if you think traditional romance readers will be upset that The Eskimo Slugger is not a traditional HEA? Although technically it is the Ultimate HEA.
Brad: I'm not really concerned about it. Every writer looks for a way to break the rules. It’s in our blood. Besides, I already gave the ending away in The Return, so there's no way readers who loved the first two books are going to be upset. Plus, I gave everyone fair warning with the Orson Welles quote at the beginning. And like you said, technically it's THE HEA. For Travis to find his way back to that very block says everything about love I have to say. I don't define romance by an HEA. I define it by a moment when one character lays himself down for another, like a bridge over troubled water. I think Trent does that for Brendan in a spectacular way at the end.
Jodi: I have to ask … why does Christopher (Hutch) use a cell phone to communicate to Topher?
Brad: Cell phones have become an extension of who we are, and I thought it was a very contemporary way to dramatize the moment when the two story threads collide. The alternative was to somehow “embody” Chris, and that felt weird to me. It also leaves open the possibility that Topher is just having a conversation with himself.
Jodi: “There is only one of us” is such a succinct, yet powerful, point. Does this statement apply to all of the characters in the three books?
Brad: Awesome question. I would say it applies to everyone—fictional and non-fictional alike. I’m an atheist who went looking for a spiritual philosophy with some logic to it. Physics tells us 13 billion years ago, there was literally only one of us. It makes sense to me that physically, the universe began to expand and separate, but metaphysically there has only been, and only ever will be, one of us. We’re all connected.
Jodi: So, is Quincy the previous incarnation of Quentin Walsh?
The Eskimo Slugger
It’s the summer of 1983, and Trent Days is Major League Baseball’s rookie sensation. Born in Alaska to an Inupiat mother, the press have dubbed him the Eskimo Slugger, but a midseason collision at home plate temporarily halts his meteoric rise to the top.
Sent back to Austin to recuperate, Trent visits his favorite record store, Inner Sanctum, where he meets amiable law student Brendan Baxter. A skip in the vinyl of New Order’s “Blue Monday” drives Trent back to Brendan, and their romance takes them into uncharted territory.
As Trent’s feelings move from casual to serious, he’s faced with an impossible dilemma. Does he abandon any hope of a future with Brendan and return to the shadows and secrets of professional sports? Or does he embrace the possibility of real love and leave baseball behind him forever? As he struggles with his decision, Trent embarks on a journey of self-discovery—to figure out who he really is and what matters most.
Music. Topher Manning rarely thinks about anything else, but his day job as a mechanic doesn't exactly mesh with his rock star ambitions. Unless he can find a way to unlock all the songs in his head, his band will soon be on the fast track to obscurity.
Then the South by Southwest music festival and a broken-down car drop New York critic Stanton Porter into his life. Stanton offers Topher a ticket to the Bruce Springsteen concert, where a hesitant kiss and phantom vibrations from Topher's cell phone kick off a love story that promises to transcend ordinary possibility.
The Nothingness of Ben
Ben Walsh is well on his way to becoming one of Manhattan's top litigators, with a gorgeous boyfriend and friends on the A-list. His life is perfect until he gets a phone call that brings it all crashing down: a car accident takes his parents, and now he must return to Austin to raise three teenage brothers he barely knows.
During the funeral, Ben meets Travis Atwood, the redneck neighbor with a huge heart. Their relationship initially runs hot and cold, from contentious to flirtatious, but when the weight of responsibility starts wearing on Ben, he turns to Travis, and the pressure shapes their friendship into something that feels a lot like love. Ben thinks he's found a way to have his old life, his new life, and Travis too, but love isn't always easy. Will he learn to recognize that sometimes the worst thing imaginable can lead him to the place he was meant to be?