Dennis Milam Bensie grew up in Robinson, Illinois where his interest in the arts began in high school participating in various community theatre productions. Bensie’s first book, Shorn: Toys to Men was nominated for the Stonewall Book Award, sponsored by the American Library Association. It was also a pick in the International gay magazine The Advocate as “One of the Best Overlooked Books of 2011″. The author’s short stories have been published by Bay Laurel, Everyday Fiction, and This Zine Will Change Your Lifeand he has also been a feature contributor for The Good Men Project. One Gay Americanis his second book with Coffeetown Press and it was chosen as a finalist in the Next Generation Indie Book Awards and the Indie Excellence Book Awards. He was a presenter at the 2013 Saints and Sinners Literary Festival in New Orleans. Dennis lives in Seattle with his three dogs.
VS: Dennis, I want to thank you for being my guest here on The Writing Mama today. What do you do to help balance your writing life with your family life?
Dennis: I am single and do not have a family. I would love to have a family and hope to find a LTR someday. I balance my writing life with dating and the pursuit of finding that life partner. That is what my book, ONE GAY AMERICAN, is all about.
VS: It is a great book too, but before we get into you recent memoir, how long have you been writing?
Dennis: I have always written. I have journaled my whole life. My high school newspaper was the News N’ Everything. I wrote a poem called Eight Ball for extra credit my freshman year of high school, only it wasn’t structured as a poem--it was a very personal essay about suicide. My English teacher showed the poem to the faculty advisor of the school paper, who rearranged it as a poem and asked for permission to publish it. I agreed on the condition that they not print my name with it. It was a mystery to many who the student poet responsible for Eight Ball was. I later submitted the poem to a national high school poetry contest (with my name) and it was re-published in a anthology. I published the poem again in my first book SHORN: TOYS TO MEN. That was my start.
VS: It looks like real life has been at the root of your writing from the beginning. What inspired you to write your memoirs?
Dennis: I had so many secrets in the first forty years of my life. It is hard to maintain secrets, at least for me it was. The secrets were sort of supporting a lot of guilt and shame. I got to a place where I just wanted to let all my baggage go. I was accused by one reviewer of being “too honest”. Another calls my book, “a confession and a gift”. I don’t think he meant that as a compliment, but I took it that way. I figure if I write it, no matter how ugly it felt, then it is out there and it becomes history and I can move forward. There is nothing left for me to hide. Hopefully others resonate with the experiences I write about and can let go of their pain, too.
VS: You know, the world might be a better place if we were all a bit more honest and heartfelt in our dealing with each other like you are Dennis. Okay, to switch topics for a second...what is a typical writing day like for you?
Dennis: I write at home mostly. Some days it’s torture to get something accomplished and other days things just fall out of my head like a rainstorm. The best writing days are when I lose track of time. I get what I call “Howard Hughes-ey”. I lose track of everything and shut myself inside my tiny condo for days. I forget to eat. I don’t bathe. I don’t talk on the phone. Sometime I will tape my writing pages all over my walls so I cam organize them. I will leave all kinds of things taped all over my place for days, even when I take a break
from writing. I can get rather obsessed with what I am writing.
VS: That's okay. I tend to talk to my characters aloud so my kids think I have multiple personalities. I think what ever works for you to get the writing out is what really matters. Is your family supportive of your writing?
Dennis: My parents are gone and I don’t have any siblings. My family is my close group of friends that I have had in my life for years. They are supportive, but I think they get tired of me asking them to beta-read for me. I have given them a lot of my stuff to read; much of it in it’s infancy and pretty bad.
VS: Yes, you do talk about losing your parents in your memoir, One Gay American. However, I am glad you have surrounded yourself with a family of friends and they are helpful with your writing. I think it is hard for those outside the writing world to understand us sometimes. With that, can you share with us a little about your current memoir, OGA?
Dennis: ONE GAY AMERICAN is a coming of age story of my life as a gay man. I was born in 1965 and I have been lucky enough to see the rise of gay culture in American after the Stonewall riots. I grew up as America grew more aware of the LGBT community. Each chapter of the book begins with a few words about where America was with gay tolerance at the time of that chapter of my life.
VS: You know as I read your book, it brought back many memories of my own childhood and I remembered many of the events you talk about. It was so moving to see the same world through anothers eyes and different lifestyle than my own. I was deeply moved and I found myself wondering what did you find to be the most challenging part of writing your memoirs?
Dennise: My books are very raw and personal. I had to get real and get honest with myself before
I could honestly say the things I wanted to say.
VS: Well from an outsider's perspective, you did it. What part of your memoir(s) do you feel really stands out to you personally?
Dennis: There are two parts of ONE GAY AMERICAN that really stand out as my favorite. The chapters “I Was His Heir” and “Fried Egg Sandwich” both deal with my relationship with my father. I recently did a reading and signing for the book in Seattle and read these two chapters. It was hard. It’s one thing to read or write the story, but these two chapters in particular are overwhelming to speak and present at the gathering. Very Emotional stuff.
VS: What event do you feel was the turning point for you?
Dennis: The turning point in ONE GAY AMERICAN was realizing I was gay and needed to live my life as a gay man. I was 21 years old and married to a woman at the time. That was back in 1986 and I was in rural Illinois. I had wanted the American Dream of a family--a wife and kids. I realized that I wouldn’t be authentic if I stayed in the marriage and tried to live my life in that box. Divorcing and addressing my homosexuality was a big deal.
This was years before WILL AND GRACE. The AIDS epidemic was just starting. There was a whole list of reasons to stay married and conform ...but I couldn’t do that.
VS: Very true and I admire your bravery for taking that step. Do you have any other works in progress? Can you share a little about them?
Dennis: My third book is about my secret adoption. In 1981, my best friend from high school told me I was adopted. It turns out everyone in my small hometown knew I was adopted except for me. My adoptive parents were unable to have children and adopted me from my adoptive father’s fifteen year old niece. I grew up not knowing that my cousin was my birth mother. I grew up with lots of lies and family secrets. The book digs deep into the shame that used to surround adoption in the era my parents adopted me. I hope to
finish writing it by the end of 2013.
VS: Sounds like another wonderful memoir and one I'll be very interested to read. When sitting down to write, what do you feel are the basic ingredients of a good book?
Dennis: My publisher at Coffeetown Press once told me that my memoirs read like fiction. Not that they were untruthful, but it was good storytelling. I think you have to have a good story and tell it well, with language and style.
VS: I think that is very true. Have you received any awards for your writing?
Dennis: My first book, SHORN: TOYS TO MEN was nominated for the Stonewall Book Award sponsored by American Library Association. It was also named by the International gay magazine The Advocate as “One of the Best Overlooked Books of 2011” in their December 2011 issue.
VS: Where can the readers of The Writing Mama find out more about and your
Dennis: They can visit my author blog at: http://dennismilambensie.com
VS: Thank you again Dennis for being my guest today and you can find out more about Dennis Milam Bensie, his memoirs and World of Ink Virtual Tour at http://tinyurl.com/lhtvxyt