Gay writer James Magruder lets us in on his sexy new novel

By Gregg Shapiro 

James Magruder is a busy man. In addition to teaching at Swarthmore College, Magruder’s 21st century output has included his 2009 debut novel Sugarless and the 2014 linked short story collection Let Me See It.

His incredibly sexy and funny new novel, Love Slaves of Helen Hadley Hall, takes readers back to 1983 on the campus of Yale University. The titular Hadley Hall is the dormitory site of a series of escapades, sexual and social, hilarious and heartbreaking, and all observed and reported by none other than the ghost of Helen Hadley herself.

 A playwright whose works have been performed on and off-Broadway and around the globe, Magruder lets us in on how Love Slaves of Helen Hadley Hall fits into his life and his own literary canon.   

Your first novel, 2009’s Sugarless had a stick of gum on the cover. Now Love Slaves has a plate of donuts. Oral fixation?

Good call, Gregg [laughs]. Both books are saturated with sex, although Love Slaves covers more bases and more orientations. The stick of gum in Sugarless was metaphorical, while the doughnuts are a major plot point in Love Slaves.

The book utilizes a narration device called “ectoplasmic emanation.” Why did you choose to tell the story that way?

This book took seventeen years to write, nearly one third of my life. I started it in 1996 before I had any business writing fiction. Over the years, I tried several different narrators. Trouble was, no single love slave – and there are five of them in the novel – could possibly be able to narrate all these concurrent plot lines, so eventually I had to rule out first person. On the other hand, an unbiased “historical” third person perspective ran counter to my incurable need to employ as broad a lexicon as possible.  

Fifteen years in, I had a “Eureka!” moment. What if Helen Hadley herself, 121 years young, who had been on page one all along, in a full-length portrait, told the story? 

In 1983, your character Carolann hadn’t knowingly met any queer folks. How have times have changed?

Unthinkable today. The more time I spent on this book, the more historical it became. There was no Internet, next to no cable TV, Madonna was a brand-new artist. AIDS, which is discovered to be caused by a virus in the second half of the book, and the activism it unleashed, made gays and lesbians permanently visible.

Religion also figures into the novel.

It was fun to have Becky Engelking, a full-gospel Baptist from Iowa, really examine the pros and cons of her faith. Randall Flinn’s steadfast Catholic faith creates his greatest obstacle, yet becomes his greatest solace. Everyone else just wants to get laid.

Does writing about theater majors, as a theater person yourself, work in your favor or against it?

The ego, self-delusion and bravery required to be a stage artist in this country is perpetual comic gold. I was happy to strip-mine my time at the Yale School of Drama, both my three years as a student in harness, and my eleven years as a professor of translation and adaptation, for Love Slaves.

Love Slaves of Helen Hadley Hall is available on Chelsea Station Editions, 2016/2017. chelseastationeditions.com