Masculinity, Collectibles and a Surprisingly Real Town: An Interview with Philip William Stover
Though I've already reviewed Philip William Stover's two m/m romances with Carina Press, The Hideaway Inn and The Beautiful Things Shoppe, I had a lot of questions for the author and wanted to learn more about the process of creating the community and characters I loved so much. It was a great pleasure to interview him for this piece and I hope you enjoy our conversation as much as I did.
LiP: In The Beautiful Things Shoppe, Danny and Prescott are opposites and they have this immediate dislike of each other that's almost palpable. Enemies--to-lovers romances have to walk a fine line so that there's enough tension without the characters resorting to outright cruelty. What made The Beautiful Things Shoppe such a hug of a book despite all that amusing-as-heck bickering is that they dislike each other but they still respect each other. What inspired the whole cookie jar thing? That felt like a turning point in their relationship.
Stover: That’s super easy. My favorite porcelain floral chintz mug. Pictured below. Early on in our relationship, my husband and I were having an argument as I was doing the dishes. (Please note the fact that I am the one doing the dishes in this memory. As has been said, “Recollections may vary.”) In the heat of the argument I had too much soap on the mug and I dropped it in the sink and it broke. I was devastated. I loved that mug. I grew up with it in my mom’s kitchen and I thought it was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen. About a month later my husband, then boyfriend, found a copy on ebay and I thought it was one of the nicest things anyone could do. Like so much of my fiction, it’s barely fiction.
When it comes to objects, are you more of a Danny or a Prescott? Did you research old pop culture memorabilia or fine art to write about their collections?
I had to research the 19th century. I am a professor and while my area of interest has very little to do with history I am surrounded by folk who could sooner tell you what Queen Victoria was wearing on any given day more quickly than what shirt they put on that morning. I love that exuberant expertise about specific moments in history. With Danny’s merchandise, I come by the expertise honestly. Let’s just say I am no stranger to Muppet collectibles.
The Hideaway Inn tackles a subject a lot of m/m steers clear of: toxic masculinity in the gay community. I've heard a pretty wide range of opinions from my reader friend group on Vince in particular. For me, all of it felt real - he was rejected as a kid and then rejected the place he grew up in return, he was mocked for being skinny and effeminate so he reinvented himself to be the opposite, and he was largely rewarded for it both within and without the queer community. I believed and valued his character arc, but I know it was a risk for you as an author to write such an "unlikable" character. Can you talk a bit about why you chose to make Vince such an ass?
It's been very interesting to hear from readers about Vince. I think anyone who has been tormented as a kid understands the desire to create a personality that cannot be messed with. At the end of the book Vince realizes that he has more in common with the impenetrable suits of armor at The Met than he does with the painterly portrait of a young boy he admires at MoMA. He realizes he has been protecting himself from the world by being an ass but that it’s only really kept him from being a part of the world.
I was teased mercilessly as a kid for being effeminate and I worked so hard to erase those parts of myself so that I would be safe. The problem was I never knew what I was doing that was so effete. I was just being me. At the time I thought if I could just act “like a man” then I would be safe. As it turns out I wasn’t very good at “traditional masculinity” so instead I figured out a way to be comfortable in my skin. Vince figures out how to “fit in” with dominant straight culture by performing a hyper-masculine identity. He sees it as a means to protect himself. The castle walls prevent certain forces from entering but they also imprison those inside.
Gay men often have a very vexed relationship with masculinity and I’m so encouraged by younger generations and seeing them calling all that out. But I wanted to imagine a gay man who could pass, who could become a man in the way he thought the world wanted him to be. Wouldn’t that siren’s call be incredibly hard to resist if you thought it would keep you safe? There isn’t a scene in the book where Vince doesn’t have an interior monologue doubting himself. Some readers have been so astute picking up on the fact that his alpha outside is in sharp contrast to his inner reality. I love when readers get that part of him. That said, he may not be your typical mm romance hero but I may not be your typical gay romance writer so maybe that’s the connection. This is the one topic where I consistently get messages from gay men telling me how important it was to see a character like Vince who grapples with masculinity. In the end I know he is a character based on my lived experience as a gay man.
Your stories are very character-driven and one of the things that's stood out to me in both books is the way your characters approach sex in relationships. A lot of romance is so focused on penetrative sex as the end goal that I think we end up with a dearth of characters and experiences outside of that one trajectory. Both of your New Hope books take a different approach and it's one of the things I talk about when I recommend them to people. Vince and Tack have a much more physical relationship, but it's like they got to a place of intimacy where they felt comfortable and then waited to make sure everything else was solidly in place before pushing further. And Prescott is demi (unless I read him wrong) but had been pressured and taken advantage of in the past so Danny being not just understanding but welcoming was just... It was so good. How do you go about building your characters' approaches to physical intimacy independent of their romantic intimacy?
I think sex and sexual orientation sometimes get conflated. As a gay man who enjoys sex it worries me to see it define a community or a genre. I have nothing against shirtless men. I love them and I’ve been one. I also know they can sell a book. I’ve even bought some of those books and loved them but I’m also aware of the way sexualized images of muscular perfection create impossible standards for gay bodies. I grew up hating my body, then I spent years developing a weight training regime that would give me a body that I thought would help me fit in. I want to write stories that are sexual, dirty and wholesome. I want to have the freedom to write about sex but I also want the freedom to not be defined by it.
I think sex is an important part of many romantic gay relationships but I wanted to write from my authentic experience. Some readers may have an expectation of penetrative sex and I wanted to write books that avoided that expectation and showed two men who get each other off in a variety of ways and where the sex brings them closer. So many of the derogatory descriptions of gay men make reference to penetrative intercourse. There are many gay men who think of penetrative sex as the ultimate sex act and there are many who find their kicks down other avenues. I know that romantic fiction isn’t reality but I’m drawn to stories that emphasize authenticity along with other elements.
2020 was an intense year. A lot of the news was about these massive issues, deeply entrenched horrible things that no one person can change on their own. One of the plot points in The Beautiful Things Shoppe is the demolition of two buildings in town--one modern and one historical--and Danny and Prescott want to save different ones. Beyond the fact that their efforts to save one building vs the other mirror their own antagonistic relationship inside the Shoppe, the eventual resolution was really satisfying. Sometimes you want the good guys to win, even if it's fictional. What made you decide to add this subplot and what was your inspiration for this particular kind of community protest?
Both of those building are real! You can see them in this photograph. I would walk by these buildings in New Hope and think about what a strange couple they were. In some ways the characters are based on the buildings rather than the other way around. One is a Jetsons-like mid-century bank with beautiful stonework and the other is a nineteenth century structure. Currently, New Hope is deep in a controversy over a new parking deck but I promise I was well into writing this book before I became aware of that curious coincidence.
How much does a house in New Hope cost and can I move there? Okay okay... Did you base any of the town on a real place?
New Hope, Pennsylvania is a very real place and not so different from the one in the book. I mostly kept the landmarks in town intact and changed the retail spaces in the book. I did a book club discussing the series with “New Hope Celebrates,” the local Pride organization, and it was wonderful to see how much they recognized in the spirit of the town. New Hope is a vibrant, historic and inclusive community. I consider it one of the “gay ancestral lands.” We make our own families and the family members that came before us helped pave the way, as ancestors tend to do. Oscar Hammerstein wrote many of his musicals not far from The Beautiful Things Shoppe and Dorothy Parker wrote many of her zingers just a few miles upriver from The Hideaway Inn. In the late 60’s, Joseph “Josie” Cavallucci, who had previously served in the US Army, hosted “mock gay weddings” alongside the canal. The LGBTQ roots go deep in New Hope.
If you haven’t visited New Hope and Bucks County, please consider visiting. It’s a wonderful weekend destination. The culinary treats in The Hideaway Inn are based on the delicious food at The Aaron Burr House and The Beautiful Things Shoppe looks quite a bit like Love Saves the Day and The Village Toy Shoppe. PM me and I’ll make sure to give you all the insider tips!
[Editor's Note: IT IS A REAL PLACE OMG]
What have you read (and loved) lately?
My two favorite writers happen to each have books out this season. I adore every word Fannie Flagg has ever written. She often narrates her own audiobooks and her voice is a warm Southern hug. The Wonder Boy of Whistle Stop is her latest. I also love Kazuo Ishiguro. Never Let Me Go was such a disturbing meditation on what it means to be human and his latest, Klara and the Sun continues in that vein. Coming up, Jeff Adams has a YA series coming out in June that I have already pre-ordered. I know that will be fabulous.
About the Author:
Philip William Stover splits his time between Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and New York City. He has an MPS in Interactive Telecommunications and an MFA in writing. He is a clinical professor at New York University. As a freelance journalist, his essays and reviews have appeared in Newsday, The Forward, the Tony Awards, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Houston Chronicle, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and other national publications. For many years he ghosted with an international best-selling women’s fiction author. He has published multiple middle-grade novels for Simon & Schuster and was the American Theater critic for About.com.
He grew up tearing the covers off the romance novels he devoured so he wouldn’t get teased at school. Now he enjoys traveling the world with his husband of over twenty years as much as sitting on the couch with their beloved Ba-shar (Bassett Hound/Shar-Pei mix). He would never consider defacing any of the books he loves.
Where to find Philip William Stover: