Ockham's Razor: An Interview with Alan Michael Williams
Alan Michael Williams
"What I try to do in the story is reframe the question of what is natural/unnatural to a question of the basics of relationship-building”
Alan Michael Williams's Ockham's Razor is a bittersweet love story. Fresh and original, fast-paced and full of humor, it ends on an optimistic note. It was written by a young gay man who, not unlike the novel's narrator, left the church at age 15. Alan Michael Williams has an M.A. in Cultural Studies from the University of Washington, Bothell, lives in Seattle, and last year attended his first Affirmation conference. Reviews of Ockham's Razor have been posted on Main Street Plaza, A Motley Vision, and other websites. To read the first chapter and purchase a copy, visit www.amwilliams.com/ockhamsrazor.html.
I think part of the charm of your novel is that in Brendan you created a character who is enigmatic and unpredictable, yet sympathetically viewed through the eyes of Micah, who is in love with him. Is Brendan based on a relationship you had?
Yes, but not exclusively.
Micah asks himself, "What if the main reason gay Mormons have to choose a path is because they almost never find each other?" (p. 9). What value do you see in organizations such as Affirmation, or in the Internet, as means to help gay Mormons find each other?
The Internet allows gay Mormons to find each other easily and Affirmation often comes up first in a search. The catch is that one must be interested in both identifiers: "gay" and "Mormon." In my novel, Micah wasn't looking for Mormons because he was moving away from the Church. Brendan wasn't looking for gay people because he's fearful about what it means to be gay in the context of being Mormon. The characters happen upon one another.
Micah's question comes out of a kind of romantic idealism. If Mormon culture regarded same-sex intimacy like it does opposite-sex intimacy, then gay Mormons would find each other in the Church, be friends and/or fall in love, instead of having to worry about choosing a path in terms of their church status. In such a world, Affirmation may not need to exist.
Your novel includes many sensual references to smells and tastes, and near the end a very steamy sex scene. Do you think that scene will prevent the novel from reaching a larger Mormon audience? How does that scene function in the structure of the novel?
A larger Mormon audience won't pick up anything gay-themed, whether or not sex is depicted. A smaller Mormon audience is open to being "gently educated" about homosexuality, which was not the story I wanted to write. Still, I wasn't sure how forward I wanted to be with sexual intimacy because I see value in keeping sex hidden from public view.
Ultimately, sexual intimacy means different things for the characters. For Micah, it is a way to show affection and celebrate the relationship. For Brendan, it's about this, but also represents a movement away from the Church that is deeply troubling for him (not to mention he's a virgin, so sex is a big unknown for him, which brings in the usual trust issues). Depicting actual sex and its consequences for these characters seemed integral for the story.
Would it be fair to say what threatens the relationship between Micah and Brendan is not that one is out and the other is not, but rather that Micah understands his gayness as a natural part of his identity while Brendan hesitates to do so?
The biggest threat to their relationship is probably that they're young, as young people can be quite selfish, insecure, possessive, etc.
Yes, self-acceptance is vital to any relationship, but what I try to do in the story is reframe the question of what is natural/unnatural to a question of the basics of relationship-building. While the characters often talk about what it means to be gay and Mormon, or gay and not Mormon, as these definitional boundaries are important to them, this never seems to get at the heart of the matter. Once a loving relationship is established and people want to share their lives together, framings of homosexuality in terms of "natural versus unnatural" or "identity versus behavior" are kind of beside the point. So, the threat is not really self-acceptance so much as relationship-readiness (although the former can help facilitate the latter.)
Without giving away too much of the ending, do you think Brendan ends up making a bad choice? Is he old enough to even know what a bad choice is?
His choice makes sense for now, but it might not add up later. He's young enough that his future is uncertain.
At different times the novel questions the allegedly fixed nature of racial identity, religious identity, and even sexual orientation. For instance, at one point Micah says, "I'm not gay because my genes say I am. I'm not straight because the Church says my soul is" (p. 130). Can you comment on that line?
To finish the quote, Micah says: "I love who I love because I love. And I love Brendan."
I would agree with psychologists like Lisa Diamond who ask: "What exactly does sexual orientation orient?" Are human beings oriented toward genders or toward people? Both sexual orientation and the LDS notion of "eternal gender" suggest that we are fundamentally oriented toward genders. Neither are very stable concepts, in my opinion. All Micah is saying is that he doesn't want to be pigeonholed this way.
Ockham's Razor includes reflections on the LDS notion that homosexuality is an addiction. How has your real-life work at a detox clinic informed your views on that issue?
I've worked with homeless and vulnerable adults for many years now, and treating illicit drug use as a public health issue is more useful than simply treating it as a criminal offense. In the novel, the characters of Nadine and Elizabeth who are both detox nurses serve to illustrate the theme of the relationship between one's experience with "evil" and one's tolerance for it. Nadine who has been a detox nurse for years subscribes to the principle of Harm Reduction, whereas Elizabeth who is new to the field is uncomfortable with the principle because she feels it merely assists people in their addictions (that is, she worries that too much tolerance equals acceptance). Micah is the newest addition to the clinic, and as a nurse's aide he tries to make sense of himself within this complex world.
I view the idea of "same-gender attraction" to be a concession the Church has made after its experiences with homosexuality over the last several decades. It's a movement from regarding homosexuality as evil (as seen in the writings of someone like Spencer W. Kimball) to now regarding "homosexual feelings" as temptations toward evil. The realization was that calling homosexuality "evil" was more about moral approbation than actual people, and there has to be a balance. Still, gay couples and same-sex parented families are not welcome in the Church because if they were, it might lead to a situation of "too much tolerance equals acceptance." What this says to me is the Church still has trouble balancing moral approbation with actual people. Maybe it needs to be a "detox nurse" for a little bit longer!
Why does Brendan end up having sex with Micah? To quench his curiosity? To feed an otherwise starving relationship? Some other reason?
The motivations for wanting and having sex are often complex. =) This is another reason why being forward with sexuality seemed appropriate.
The final scene shows Micah in the family car with his mother and brother. Despite being somewhat conventional (perhaps along the lines of Dorothy's punch line, "There's no place like home"), I think the scene works very well. Did you struggle to find that ending, or did you have it figured out from the beginning?
I wanted the book to end positively, but I wasn't exactly sure how to do this until I was writing the last chapter. Micah's family needed more screen time, so everything came together in the end.
Tell me something about the projects that currently occupy you. Anything related to queer studies, Mormonism, or both at once?
I'm working on an essay that frames the evolving position of the Church on the question of homosexuality over the last several decades. It's new in the sense that it incorporates queer theory to think more critically about gender and sexuality. "Sexual orientation" and "eternal gender" and are obviously at odds with one another, but thankfully they're not the only tools we have.