Written by Graeme Aitken
The germ of the idea for VANITY FIERCE came about when I attended a Queer Lit seminar in Sydney back in the early 1990s. In a forum, someone made the observation that Sydney was this major mecca for gay men from all over the world, yet there weren’t any major novels that documented this gay scene and lifestyle. There was no novel like Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance, set in New York, or Alan Hollinghurst’s THE SWIMMING POOL LIBRARY, set in London. As my full-time job was as a bookseller, I knew this to be true. There was a mere shelf of Australian gay literature in the bookshop where I worked. I recognised this deficiency as an opportunity and I decided that my next book would be a big, fat, juicy ‘Oxford Street novel’.
I was obliged to get serious about this idea by my UK publisher, Geraldine Cooke of Headline Review. When she decided to buy my first book, 50 WAYS OF SAYING FABULOUS, Headline wanted to sign me to a two-book deal. So my vague idea of writing an Oxford Street novel had to become a lot more definitive and I had to provide an outline. But having this contract and deadline proved to be great. It obliged me to clarify my thoughts and get to work.
I got this deal in London on my own, without an agent, which is quite rare – though I did have some distinguished help. I met the British novelist Paul Bailey when I organised a book signing for him in Sydney. He very kindly agreed to read my novel, 50 WAYS OF SAYING FABULOUS, with a view to passing it to his London agent. But he ended up suggesting I send it directly to his good friend Geraldine Cooke, who was developing a new list at Headline. In a moment of pure happenstance, she took my unsolicited manuscript home to read one night merely because the Random House proof fitted in her handbag!
I’m one of those writers who prefer to write what I know and the main setting for VANITY FIERCE was an apartment building where I lived for several years – 167 William Street, Kings Cross. It was a colourful locale at that time, back in the mid-1990s. Transsexual prostitutes spruiked for custom outside the building’s entrance. My apartment overlooked St Peter’s Lane, which was also busy with prostitutes who sought a more discrete or less well-lit environment. Today the building sports a plaque at its front entrance stating that it was the setting forVANITY FIERCE. I feel touched and honoured by this tribute.
I think one of the most distinctive things about VANITY FIERCE is its cover, featuring the smirking, shirtless blond hunk. Certainly, it was a phenomenal selling point for the book, but it is also a cover image that has endured for fifteen years, which isn’t that common. Usually when a book is around for that long, it gets a new cover at some point. I had considerable input into the cover, perhaps due to the fact that I worked in a bookshop and knew the gay market well. My publisher at Random House, Jane Palfreyman, agreed to my cover concept of a shirtless ‘Stephen’ looking into a mirror. Though it was Jane who daringly suggested that the back cover of the book could show a rear view of the model, with bare buttocks! Ultimately, this didn’t happen – having the model bare his butt proved to be too expensive – but I did love the concept. The Random House cover designer hired a model who was recommended via the Australian gay magazine Blue, and arranged a photo shoot. The first cover I was shown was in black and white and strongly reminiscent of a Calvin Klein advertisement. I didn’t like it that much and asked to see the other photographs from the shoot. Only a handful of photographs were taken in colour, but amongst the few I found the image of ‘Stephen’, with a look on the model’s face that simply epitomised the character. So the designer re-did a new colour cover. And that’s why the back cover of the book has a black and white rear image of the model (in underwear), as no rear view colour photographs were taken. However, even without bare buttocks, the Random House cover was far too racy for the Brits. They commissioned their own cover.
I actually re-read VANITY FIERCE several years ago when I was working on a sequel to it. I suppose what struck me most about it, was that it was such a slice of Sydney gay history at that time. The novel is littered with references to popular culture of the time, but also to specific Sydney places, especially cafes and restaurants, gay bars and venues – many of which no longer exist. Re-reading the book was an exercise in nostalgic for me but I also think it is an authentic narrative of Sydney at that particular time. And I suspect that some readers can find something meaningful or interesting in that, fifteen years later.
I want to end this blog by discussing the ending to VANITY FIERCE. It was something some critics remarked on – that it was surprising or even unrealistic – but I had my reasons. VANITY FIERCE is set during the years when HIV/AIDS stole away so many lives prematurely, and that is an important theme in the book. Many gay men were grief stricken and/or dealing with emotionally devastating issues on a day-to-day basis. Customers used to come into the bookshop where I worked and would ask constantly for a book with a happy ending.
It seemed like the very least I could do – to write a happy ending.
Graeme Aitken is a Sydney-based author, reviewer and bookseller.
This blog post was commissioned by Random House Australia to mark the 15th anniversary of the publication of Vanity Fierce.