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Tuesday, April 30, 2013 - Page updated at 08:00 a.m.

Lit Life
‘Stories for Boys’: The challenging book all Seattle is reading

By Mary Ann Gwinn
Seattle Times book editor

Lit Life

Some books hold hard truths but offer a life ring of hope and even humor in an ocean of sadness. “Stories for Boys,” Gregory Martin’s memoir of his family’s coming to terms with the fact that his father is a closeted gay man, is such a book.

“Stories for Boys” (Hawthorne Books) is this year’s Seattle Reads book, chosen by a group of Seattle Public Library librarians and Library Foundation staff members as the book all Seattle should read together.

Martin is in town this week to discuss his book with library patrons. Chris Higashi, co-founder and project director, says Martin’s book was chosen because it’s “deeply personal and at the same time universal. ... It raises many questions in readers’ minds; it makes them think about family secrets. The program offers safe, neutral places — libraries — for readers to discuss difficult topics, to voice differences of opinion from the shared foundation of reading the same book.”

Martin’s father, who was sexually abused by his own father, kept his life as a gay man secret from his wife and children for 39 years of their marriage. The secrecy ended — as did the marriage — when the author’s father attempted suicide. Martin faced the challenge of learning to relate to his now-divorced parents in a different way, and how to fold this knowledge into his own roles as a husband and father.

Martin, a former Seattle resident who lives in Albuquerque with his wife and sons, teaches writing at the University of New Mexico. He answered questions last week about the book; here’s a condensed version of the conversation.

Q: This is painful material. Why did you decide to turn it into a book?

A: I initially did not want to write about it for exactly that reason — not so much for exposing the pain of what happened in my family to readers, but more that I just didn’t want to do it myself.

At the same time, I’m a writer, and writing is what I do. It could contribute to the conversation we’re all having about secret lives, about the difficulty of people like my father, especially people of his generation, in coming out of the closet.

Storytelling is about conflict. It is about suffering. There’s this great quote by the writer Charles Baxter: Heaven is not story-friendly. Hell is story-friendly.

Q: How did your parents take your decision to turn this into a book?

A: I had published an essay called “The Family Plot,” about wandering around a graveyard near my house. I had shown that to my dad. ... I concluded that the mystery of that graveyard was not the mystery I needed to be focusing on.

My dad was supportive — he sent back a draft with a lot of tiny details corrected. Nothing about the existential, challenging things.

My mom is incredibly supportive. With an early couple of drafts, she thought it was like ripping off the scab, and it was really painful for her to read. Not that she contested any aspect of it. I did a reading in Salt Lake in October, and she happened to be there. When one of the audience asked — what do your parents think? — my mom was sitting there. I said — ask her — and she got to speak to her experience in the book.

My mom is one of those folks who say, if you’re going to do it, go the whole distance.

Q: There’s not much about your father’s father in this book, beyond the fact that he was an alcoholic and abused his family physically, and in your dad’s case, sexually. Did you know more than you wrote about?

A: Every single thing I know about him is in that book. One of the things I love about my dad is how fierce he was in never talking to [his father], or allowing us to know anything about him. What he really wanted was to protect his family from pain. It didn’t work out that way for him. It’s heartbreaking. That’s what he would have wanted.

Q: Part of this book is about your wife’s and your dilemma over how much to tell your kids about the fact that your dad is gay, which led to their grandmother and grandfather splitting up. What are you going to tell them when they’re old enough to read this book?

A: They know that their grandfather is gay. But they don’t know anything about incest.

Certainly by high school ... we’ll have the conversation. [My older son’s] jaw is going to be set. He and I both have this kind of hanging-judge strain in us, where we initially see things very starkly. I think he’ll have a really hard time with it initially.

It will be one more thing that, as he moves into adulthood, he learns, that people are capable of all kinds of different things. People are capable of good, but the other, too.

The thing all of us have learned is how resilient people are. How much you can experience something as heartbreaking as what we’ve gone through, and to have some daily happiness, and not have such a hard, bitter heart.

Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or Gwinn appears every Tuesday on TVW's "Well Read."

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