You've written about your own life before, yet My Lives [Reviews, Jan. 16] is your first straightforwardly autobiographical book. How did you write it, and how is it different?
Nobody believed me when I said my autobiographical novels were novels, but they were, and I thought the real story would be interesting to tell, especially if I found a new way of presenting it. I didn't quite know what the chapters would be and what order they would take, so I drew up endless lists. Then Granta asked me to contribute to their issue on mothers, and even before that to their issue on shrinks, so those pieces were completed. A couple of other sections went to the New Yorker and the Ontario Review. It grew in a gentle way over a three-year period, thematically rather than chronologically.
In A Boy's Own Story, how much of the boy is based on you?
I had made a strategic decision to make the boy a lot more representative of a young gay person than I was myself. I was precocious both intellectually and sexually and had had a lot of experience by the time I was 16, but I knew that would freak people out. So I made the boy a lot shyer—there's not much sex in the book at all. When you're a minority writer, you can't help being sensitive to how your book's going to be received by your core readers. You can say, "I'm not a political writer at all," but that's kind of disingenuous because you know from experience how every word you write is going to be hashed over.
Aside from the chapters on your parents, your friends and your experiences in writing biography, this new book, by contrast, seems heavy on sex. Why?
This genre of autobiography was really started by Rousseau—he talks about how when he was a teenager he was spanked regularly by his beautiful young nanny and since then that's all he can do sexually, be spanked. I figure that if he could write that in the 18th century, I can certainly write all my stuff now. It's one of the rare advantages of being a gay man—what's that line?—"freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose." I look at some of my straight male friends who are writing autobiography and I say, "Why didn't you talk about that?" and they say, "Well, my wife, my friends...!" There's a lot of positioning and posing that goes on in heterosexual male writing. I feel that I can be objective, that I can say everything.