Paul Burston: Interview
Time Out talks to Paul Burston about Hollywood, celebrity and gay identity
Paul Burston is one of the country’s leading commentators on gay life. Not just in his pages here – he edits Time Out’s Gay & Lesbian section – but also in his books. His first novel, ‘Shameless’, was published five years ago. The outrageous, salacious and hilarious story of a bunch of gay Londoners, it was translated into four languages, shortlisted for awards, and hovered for a while just outside the paperback charts.
‘Shameless’ was also a hit in America, and was even optioned for TV adaptation by a subsidiary of HBO. Now Burston’s second novel ‘Star People’ is about to hit the shops. It lifts the shirt on Hollywood with an exotic parade of egos, hustlers and gym bunnies. ‘It’s a different milieu,’ he explains. ‘I wanted to write something that was more ambitious. ‘Shameless’ is quite a straightforward story, really. One sequence follows another, and there were lots of easy laughs. I wanted to write something where the characters weren’t so immediately likeable, where there was more of a structural challenge involved in the writing of it.’
The result is a stylish, hard-hitting story about a world-weary hack, a closeted megastar and his personal manager, who makes Genghis Khan look like a wimp. And although the laughs aren’t cheap, they’re still plentiful. Unlike ‘Shameless’, there’s also room for a mystery, a murder and a stabbing. ‘I think it’s a harsher book – that’s a reflection of where I was at the time. I think it does overlap with ‘Shameless’ – I’m interested in these dysfunctional gay characters who, for whatever reason, aren’t quite living the life they’d like to lead, or that they think they’re living.’
It also comes out of his fascination with celebrity and his love of movies and their clichés. ‘It’s a send-up of that. You know, there’s always the hooker with the heart of gold, or a psycho killer queen who’s a killer just because he’s gay, there’s no other motivation given. At the start it was a case of taking these Hollywood archetypes and trying to find something else in them. The challenge is to present these characters who at first glance aren’t particularly likeable, and may be vaguely familiar, and then try and hoodwink the reader so they think they know this person but gradually, as the story develops, they find their relationship with the character changes.’
So we learn a lot about Billy as the book develops. Like his job. ‘I very deliberately set out to make the hustler the hero of the story. He represents the moral gauge for everybody else, because all the characters are hustlers in different ways. He’s actually the most honest of them. The journalist’s a hustler, the movie star’s completely a hustler.’ The closeted movie star is one of the triumphs of the book, exposed little by little, with every character talking about him but not revealing the man himself until late on. ‘You don’t do the money shot until the end.
The whole book and everyone in it travel towards him. It would have been easy to have him the villain of the piece. I wanted to set up the expectation that he was a bad person because he’s made these choices, but when you meet him I hope you realise there’s more to him than that. He’s present but not present until the journalist walks through that door at the end – which is our relationship with celebrity.’
Celebrity, Burston admits, is the centre of the novel. ‘What interests me about celebrity is that very gay thing of what is public and private – most gay people are very conscious of that, whether they think of it in those terms or not. What’s acceptable is fed into you from a very young age. Private desires and public identity are big issues for gay people and where better to play that out than in the case of someone who’s hugely famous and hugely closeted. The obsession with celebrity will always be there – I think the relationship between celebrity and sexuality hasn’t been played out yet. Certainly in terms of Hollywood it is still very much an issue, that gap between the personal and the public.’
It’s a compelling read, with an intriguing plot, an attractively cynical view of how Los Angeles works and a dark sense of humour. And fans will be pleased to know that they won’t have to wait so long for Burston’s next book. ‘Lovers and Losers’ is due out next year and takes him closer to his Welsh roots. ‘It’s set in Bridgend and London, and is about an ’80s Welsh pop duo. It’s about celebrity as well, like ‘Star People’. It’s a very modern obsession – we’re obsessed with knowing everything about people – following celebrities in their cars, going through their trash, that didn’t happen 20-30 years ago.’
‘Star People’ is published by Time Warner at £10.99.
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