Today, Juanita Watson, Assistant Editor of Reader Views talks with author Nick Poff about his sophomore novel “The Handyman’s Reality. ”
Nick Poff is a life-long Hoosier. He was born and raised in Bluffton, a small Indiana town not unlike Porterfield, the setting for his two books, “The Handyman's Dream” and “The Handyman's Reality. ” Although his college major was English, Poff has worked the past twenty-nine years in the radio industry as a disc jockey, production manager, music director, program director, and copywriter. His writing aspirations began at age six, when he confidently informed his parents he was going to grow up and write books. Forty years later he is finally making good on that promise.
Juanita: Welcome to Reader Views Nick, and thanks for the opportunity to talk with you about your new novel “The Handyman’s Reality. ” Now this book actually continues the storyline from your first book, “The Handyman’s Dream. ” Would you catch us up with what happened in “The Handyman’s Dream”?
Nick: Sure. In the first book, which began in the autumn of 1980, handyman Ed Stephens and mailman Rick Benton met, began to date, and fell in love in the small northeast Indiana town of Porterfield. The first book was the story of their courtship, which ends with them making a marriage-like commitment to each other.
Juanita: Was it your original plan to continue this storyline into a second book?
Nick: Yes. My intention was to tell the story from the moment they first became aware of each other and continue it through the first year of their relationship. The Handyman’s Reality actually begins the morning after they agree to move in together. As the titles allude, the first book was all about the starry-eyed joy of finding the right mate and all that grand romance and passion that comes with it, and the second book is about the day-to-day realties of making a relationship work.
Juanita: What happens in “The Handyman’s Reality”?
Nick: Ed, who has never been in a serious relationship, learns what it is like to be part of a couple, and that even a guy who seems to be as perfect as Rick does has his little flaws. Their good friend and mentor, Mrs. Penfield, rocks their world with an unexpected proposition early in the story, and suddenly the long term goals they had set for themselves in the first book, which include Rick obtaining a license to sell real estate and Ed using his woodworking skill to create furniture, become a bigger immediate priority. Ed still has his worries about living with another man in a small town, and as time goes by he receives several different reactions from Porterfield’s citizens about the changes in his life. And as in the first book, their families and friends are there for support, and to contribute an occasional complication or two.
It’s not at all grim, though. This is a feel-good story, and an easy, relaxing read. The guys have some nice romantic interludes, and the comic relief of the first book carries into this one as well, thanks in no small part to Ed’s mom, Norma. There are a few moments though, that I believe will leave the reader with something to ponder.
Juanita: Nick, would you tell us about your main characters, Ed and Rick?
Nick: Ed Stephens, the handyman, is exactly the sort of guy I’ve wanted to write about for years in the fact that he doesn’t seem to fit any of the typical gay stereotypes. Oh, he sucked at sports as kid, loves Diana Ross, and cries over old movies, but that’s about it. He does, however, live in a small midwestern town; he’s not particularly effeminate, and he has a job not usually associated with gay men. In the first book I noted how the clothes he routinely wore for his handyman job gave him the San Francisco gay clone of the early eighties, and how he’d get embarrassed going to a gay bar dressed that way because he thought it made him look like a guy who was trying to hard.
Ed is very much an average Joe kind of guy who just happens to be gay. He’s twenty-eight years old as the story begins, so he’s old enough to have acquired some wisdom from age and experience, but willing to admit he still has a lot to learn about people and life in general. Ed has a healthy dose of practicality and pragmatism, which has enabled him to make sound decisions regarding his life. He’s rather shy, but immensely likeable for many reasons. He’s quite kind, and although he might complain to himself about it, he’s always ready to go the extra mile to help the senior citizens who make up the bulk of his handyman client list, or help out Rick with his nieces and nephew. What I especially like about Ed is his wistful romanticism. In that respect he is like almost every gay man I’ve ever known, but it’s not something you see portrayed very often in mainstream books, movies, and TV shows.
Rick, who turned thirty in the first book, really blows away a gay stereotype in that he left a big city (Indianapolis) to move to a small town. Of course he moved to Porterfield to be of assistance to his sister, Claire, and her children, but as we learn in The Handyman’s Reality, another motive of his move was to break away from the aspects of urban gay society that bothered him. Rick came of age and came out during the heady gay *** freedom years of the 1970’s, and unlike so many other gay men, turned his back on promiscuity in the hopes of achieving a solid love-based relationship with a good man. He dropped out of college to become a full-time postal worker, which horrified his parents, who are both teachers. Rick has, in his own way, struggled quite a bit with finding his place in the world, and has a tendency to sneer at conformity. He’s very intelligent, and for the most part, just as kind as Ed is. However, where Ed isn’t a particularly complicated personality, Rick is a bit darker, and given to occasional brooding. Now that his own dreams of a relationship with another man have come true, he’s very eager to move forward and create the best life possible for both of them. That determination can temporary blind him occasionally, and can make him slightly obnoxious in some situations.
Juanita: How do your supporting characters influence “The Handyman’s Reality”?
Nick: Well, in the sense that they support Ed and Rick in the truest sense of the word. If these two men didn’t have the support of their families, this story would be very different. I think my decision to create a supportive family environment for Ed and Rick was very much in reaction to the 2004 elections, when Karl Rove and the Republicans used homophobia as a way to scare voters, and as a smokescreen for their own greedy agendas. Too, I wanted Ed and Rick to have more traditional parent/child conflicts with their folks instead of everything being about their *** orientation. Norma, Ed’s widowed mother, isn’t at all shy about sharing her thoughts on any given situation, and I love the comic relief she brings to the story. Although she’s still not quite sure how she feels about her son being with another man, she supports him, which is a pretty strong message to the less tolerant. John and Vera, Rick’s parents, accept Rick as a gay man and have welcomed Ed into their family, but have the usual parental concerns about how their children are running their lives.
Rick is, for all intents and purposes, a stand-in dad for his sister’s children, and takes that role quite seriously. Ed is close to his sister, Laurie, and her life experience enables her to give much needed counsel to her brother on occasion. Mrs. Penfield, the retired English teacher, acts as friend, mentor, and benefactress for the men. Given the small town setting, Ed and Rick don’t have many gay friends, but Gordy Smith, Rick’s co-worker at the post office who revealed his homosexuality to them, has become close to both men, and is also a wonderful source of comic relief. One of the joys of writing this book was being able to give Gordy a larger role within the story, and some romantic complications of his own. Gordy’s situation gives Ed a chance to reflect occasionally upon his own. I think it’s just a reality that we often gage our own lives by what our friends are doing.
Juanita: How does the small town setting factor into this story?
Nick: I would say the bulk of gay fiction takes place in urban settings, and as a gay man who grew up and lived in a small town most of his life, I wanted to show a positive portrayal of gay life in a small town. The standard thinking is that once a man realizes he is gay, he begins mentally packing his bags so he can move to a more open, tolerant place. It’s no secret that life can be really tough for gay men in small towns. However, I think a lot of people would be surprised to know just how many gay men live peaceful lives in small towns, and are accepted as part of the communities in which they live. True, it can be lonely in that it’s difficult to meet a wide variety of other gay men, but I’ve always fought against the idea that gay men have to leave their homes in order to make good lives and livings. It’s very doable, and in the age of the Internet, these men are a lot less isolated than they used to be. By the way, that’s one of the reasons Ed’s story is set in the past. I wanted to convey that old isolation, and how amazing it was that Ed and Rick found each other.
Juanita: Is Ed Stephen’s journey specific to the gay experience, or are your themes realistic to a crossover audience?
Nick: Anyone who has ever had a dream about finding the perfect mate can relate to Ed’s story. Ed just happens to be looking for that in another man, as opposed to a woman. It’s true that I wrote these books with a gay audience in mind, but I’ve been very pleased at the number of straight folks – men and women – who have told me they enjoyed the first book. Although *** orientation and the conflicts that arise from it play a necessary part in these books, the major themes are universal: love, commitment, friendship, and family.
Juanita: Readers of your first book have waited a long time to find out what Mrs. Penfield is planning on giving Ed and Rick. Will they find out?
Nick: (Laughs) Yes.
Juanita: Without revealing too much of your plot, what can you tell us about the problems Ed and Rick have regarding their expectations of this relationship?
Nick: Finding each other was a dream come true for both Ed and Rick. Someone once said, “be careful what you wish for. You just might get it. ” That’s become a cliché of sorts because it is true. All realized dreams come with unexpected complications. Specifically for Ed, as this is his story, he comes to learn that Rick doesn’t necessarily react and respond to life in the same ways he does. All couples butt heads on some things, and a good deal of this story is about the compromising people do as a way to make a relationship work.
Juanita: How does your love of music come up in these two books?
Nick: I always refer to Dick Clark’s comments on how popular music is the soundtrack of our lives. It’s true, especially for me. I’ve been a huge pop music fan my whole life, and it’s been a great source of joy and comfort for me. As a reader, I’ve always enjoyed the authors who use music to add description to a scene, whether it’s a piece by Bach or a song from Bruce Springsteen. As a writer, I simply can’t conceive of a story without music of some kind. Music really is a constant running soundtrack through our lives, and I love to use it as a way to enrich a scene in a story, kind of like a good frame enhances the beauty of a fine painting. As a disc jockey, I know how any given song will bring back specific memories for an individual, and since this book takes place in 1981 it was fun to recreate the radio soundtrack from that year as a way to take readers back to that era. For example, when Ed has the radio on in his truck he’s listening to Loverboy, Kim Carnes, and Blondie. If the story took place in the spring of 2007 he’d be listening to, say, Nickelback, Nelly Furtado, and The Fray. Music is a huge part of my emotional past and present, and it is for my characters as well.
Juanita: Nick, would you comment on the romance theme of your book. Was it a conscious decision to spotlight your characters romantic relationship and stay away from an erotic element, which is found quite often in this genre?
Nick: Definitely. I think oftentimes man-to-man love is portrayed as a good deal more *** than emotional. Now, I could go on and on about this, and how it’s a cultural thing, and how men aren’t encouraged to show their feelings, blah, blah, blah. In fact, Rick comments on that very thing in the book. I’m amazed at how so many gay men buy into that nonsense in that they are willing to engage in sex with another man, but not affection. I was more interested in showing Ed and Rick being very demonstrative and affectionate with one another, and openly declaring their love for each other as opposed to concentrating on them naked in bed getting it on. Frankly, in gay fiction terms, the fact that these guys are so deeply in love and talking about it a lot is more shocking than a blatantly erotic story. Also, I think imagination is the most powerful sex organ, and I liked the idea of leaving Ed and Rick’s *** encounters up to the reader’s imagination.
Juanita: Nick, I understand that being a writer has been a life long dream of yours. Why has this become the perfect time to pursue your dream? And, why debut in this genre?
Nick: Well, I always say I finally began writing as a solution to a mid-life crisis, and that is true to a certain extent. I’ve always been something of a late bloomer, and though I hate to admit it, I think I was a bit too callow to write really good, insightful fiction at an earlier age. I admire writers who can do that at a young age. When I look back at stuff I wrote in my teens and twenties I think, yeah, it’s good enough to entertain friends, but not good enough to be published for a wider audience. I think the experience and wisdom that comes with age was very necessary in giving me the proper seasoning to be a good writer. Some people might moan about starting late, and why weren’t they doing this earlier, but for me this feels very right.
As for this genre, I had a lot of years to think about what I wanted to write. For so long I was disappointed in how seldom I ever saw men with my kind of background and lifestyle represented in gay fiction. I finally decided it was up to me to write stories about us average gay Joes in America’s heartland. I felt I had something to add to the genre that was missing.
Juanita: You are actually on the fringe of the gay/lesbian genre by portraying gay men in an average midwestern setting. What else can you tell us about this decision? Why don’t we see more books mirroring this reality?
Nick: Again, I was hoping to fill in some of the blank spaces in the gay genre with these stories, and with other stories I’ve written that are yet to be published. Also, I’ve been around long enough to know that part of being a good artist is being a good businessman. You look for what’s missing, and then fulfill the need, so to speak. Happily, not too many other folks were really doing the sort of thing I had in mind, so I had a good shot at coming up with something that would stand out. The wonderful response to the first book has proven to me I’m on the right track with the stories I enjoy writing.
As for why there aren’t more gay novels outside of the urban mainstream, I couldn’t really tell you, but I think as acceptance of gay folks continues to grow, we’ll see more out and proud gay men and women outside of urban areas, and hopefully their stories will begin to make more of an impact upon the genre, and in fiction in general.
Juanita: How did you own life experience influence these two books?
Nick: That’s tough to answer. I used to say my own experience had nothing to do with these characters and the story, but several people close to me have picked up on things that I consciously or unconsciously took from my own life and inserted in the story. Certainly the setting, and my own small town experiences played a part in creating these books. And like Ed, I spent a lot of time when I was younger dreaming about some perfect guy coming along and the two of us embarking on an exciting, romantic journey.
Juanita: How can readers find out about you and your work?
Nick: I have a website, www.nickpoff.com, and also have information posted on a site I share with two other writers, www.writermen.com. As for the books, they can be purchased online through my publisher’s website, www.authorhouse.com, as well as through all of the major online booksellers throughout the world, including www.amazon.com and www.barnesandnoble.com. I was thrilled that so many independent gay and lesbian bookstores in the U. S. and Canada chose to carry the first book, and I’m hoping the same with happen with The Handyman’s Reality when it becomes available for brick and mortar stores in June, 2007. As for the big bookstore chains, well, they may not stock it, but they’ll happily special order Nick Poff books for anyone who asks.
Juanita: Nick, it has been great talking with you today. Thanks for the enlightening interview, and much success to you with “The Handyman’s Reality. ” We encourage readers to look for your books at local and online bookstores. Before we depart, do you have any final thoughts you’d like to share?
Nick: Yeah, I’d really like to say “thanks” to all of the people around the world that have let me know via email how much they enjoyed the first book, and are looking forward to this one. The feedback has been incredible, and I have a lot of gratitude in knowing I achieve my writing goals with this story. Also, I want to thank them for their insight, especially the gay men who have shared their own stories with me. Being gay in a straight society is a never-ending struggle, and I really do believe it makes us all rather jaded and cynical, and occasionally bitter as well. Still, I believe that under the cynicism we all seem to cultivate are optimistic, romantic men that, despite the struggles and disappointments, haven’t completely given up on acceptance, love, and happy endings. As so many men have said or written to me: “You’ve given me hope. ” And a little hope goes along way toward fueling every personal journey.