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In new novel 'All the World Beside,' two men fall in love in Puritan New England

The left side of the image is the cover art for the book "All the World Beside" and the right image is a headshot of Garrard Conley, the author.
Courtesy
/
Penguin Random House
"All the World Beside" is Garrard Conley's debut fiction novel. He took inspiration for the novel about two men who fall in love in Puritan New England, from Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter."

In his 2016 best-selling memoir, “Boy Erased,” Garrard Conley wrote about how he survived conversion therapy as the gay, teenage son of a Baptist preacher in Arkansas. The book was turned into a film starring Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman.

Now in his debut fiction novel, “All the World Beside,” Conley tells the story of two men, a preacher and a physician, who fall in love in 1700s Puritan New England.

He spoke with NHPR’s Morning Edition host Rick Ganley about his research into 18th century queer history, and how he found comparisons between his upbringing and Puritan society.

Transcript

Garrard, your first book is a memoir about your conservative, religious upbringing in the South. Why did you decide to set your first fiction novel in Puritan New England?

Well, it is a very different atmosphere in some ways. When I started to really look into the history of the area a bit more and do more archival research, I just kept encountering so many similarities to the kind of restricted, repressive environment that I grew up in as a child in a fundamentalist Baptist setting with my father being a preacher. And then as often happens when you start to get curious, I started thinking, 'Well, where did my dad's ideas come from?' They seem so absurd sometimes. Why can't we drink wine since there's lots of wine in the Bible? Why is it okay to eat shrimp and and not have gay sex? And I think I just started becoming interested in how did some of these early colonial practices and thoughts inform the world that even I in Arkansas experienced with such recognition?

And I was writing this new book before 'Boy Erased' was ever banned in public libraries across the country and before all of this anti-trans legislation. And so it's really interesting to think how this new novel, which deals so much with repression and with a dark moment in queer history, really hits people differently now.

There are parallels in the book to Nathaniel Hawthorne's 'Scarlet Letter.' Can you tell us more about the characters in this book and what they're wrestling with in their way?

Yes, I took a lot of inspiration from 'The Scarlet Letter,' which is one of my favorite novels of all time. I felt like he understood what it was like to be marked by something, and how that mark could become an object of beauty, and how all of that really had to do with art. It had to do with taking any shame or fear or that lack of playfulness we develop as we're taught by the world that we shouldn't do this or that. Hester Prynne in 'The Scarlet Letter,' she turns all of that into beauty, such beauty that the magistrates of the town want her designs on all their clothes. And maybe they won't speak to her in the street, but they want her art. Which, if you're a gay man, that's very poignant stuff, and so I drew so much inspiration from that.

And I love how Hawthorne let the affair between Dimmesdale and Hester just exist before the novel starts. And that's how I have my two lovers in this book, Nathaniel and Arthur, who fall madly in love with each other and have this sort of complicated push and pull the same way Hester and Dimmesdale did. And I don't want to give anything away about the ending, but there is sort of a moment of reclamation that happens for Dimmesdale when he finally reveals the truth, which is that his family is Hester and Pearl. And even though he's ruined, he has this triumph of, here he's been keeping this secret, and it's torturing his soul and it's ruining him. And I thought that that felt so much an echo of queer experience as well.

You did a lot of research for this book about queer people's experiences at the time in history. What did you find?

I found so much. I was so interested in finding letters written between men in the 18th century and searching those letters for any moments that felt coded to me or felt like possibility. And I did actually find these sets of letters between two men that were pretty shocking at the time. I won't exactly repeat some of the words that were used because they're shockingly modern and things we don't say on the radio. But at one point one man says something so shocking it could be on, you know, like a grindr profile today, like a dating app that you would find where men were hooking up. And I thought, 'Wow, I guess there really is nothing new under the sun,' like the Bible says. And it gave me permission really to write the rest of the book.

And we've learned so much from police records. It's kind of a dark way to learn about an identity because the way that queer people are being described in these times is really derogatory. And there was no identity that we could latch on to and say, ‘Okay, here's a gay person, here's a bisexual person, here's the word queer to cover all of it.’ So it's a bit of a detective work to read between the lines and find the dignity there, sort of reading against the archive trying to see what's hidden there.

The other challenge that I faced in doing my research [was] there were a lot of historians who were straight who would say things like, ‘Well, it was just a literary convention to say these things to another man.’ And some of the things that these men said to each other – that's a very interesting literary convention, in my opinion, very surprisingly intimate and physical. And so I just thought, ‘Why do I have to read it that way?’ Just because that person was in Cambridge or something. And so I think we should be pushing against things and saying, 'Well, what if this had happened?’

Jackie Harris is the Morning Edition Producer at NHPR. She first joined NHPR in 2021 as the Morning Edition Fellow.

For many radio listeners throughout New Hampshire, Rick Ganley is the first voice they hear each weekday morning, bringing them up to speed on news developments overnight and starting their day off with the latest information.
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