Mark: First off, let my identify myself as a Causeway Crawler; a distinction that now defines me by a choice I made and a decision I am now quite comfortable with after having read your book! A few friends lived on South Beach, but most of my close friends and I knew that the temptations of living there would be more than we could bear. So we chose to stay grounded in reasonably good jobs, live in Sarasota and Tampa and party on South Beach. For ten years after Warsaw opened, South Beach was a monthly routine for us. The sound of my voice was enough to secure a couple of last minute rooms at the Kenmore.
I have to tell you, it was impossible for me to read Diary of a South Beach Party Girl, a book chock full of references to real people and places, and still believe that your book is a complete work of fiction. How much of this fiction is drawn from real experience?
Gwen: I think that when you write a novel—especially a novel set in a time and place you were a part of—it’s impossible not to draw on your own experiences to some extent. But, in the end, I have to say DIARY is a work of fiction.
Mark: You clearly did a lot of research. You know this could be quite scandalous if you’d just admit that it’s all fact and truth!
Gwen: Hey, I love a good scandal as much as the next party girl, but in a post-James Frey/A Million Little Pieces era, that would just be foolish. And when you write a novel, you don’t want to tell readers what to think—you just want to wrap them up in the believability of the story overall. [Editors note: James Frey is the author that conned Oprah into believing his memoir was nonfiction. Oprah featured it in her book club, making A Million Little Pieces a NYT best seller.]
Mark: Nevertheless, will you forgive me if a lot of this interview sounds like I believe you are indeed Rachel Baum (the narrator) and have in fact lived the life you describe with incredible detail?
Gwen: Mark, you never need to ask my forgiveness for anything!
Mark: Diary of a South Beach Party Girl is not the first book written about South Beach’s most recent heyday, but it is certainly the first book written through the eyes of what us Gay guys commonly refer to as a fruit fly or fag hag. How hard was it for you to get into this persona?
Gwen: Not hard at all…
I’ve found, over the years, that the overwhelming majority of my friends tend to be gay men. And becausethe gay and lesbian community played such a defining role in shaping the social and cultural energy of South Beach during the era described in the book, it seemed very natural that Rachel would also form most of her friendships among gay men. One of the things about DIARY I’m most proud of is that it doesn’t position its gay characters in any stereotypical fashion—where they show up just long enough to make a few bitchy wisecracks, and then take the heroine shopping for shoes or something. The denizens in DIARY are realistically drawn and very unique individuals, and aren’t positioned as simply Rachel’s sidekicks. If anything, you get the sense that they probably view Rachel as their sidekick.
Mark: For me your book is like Bright Lights, Big City meets Tales of the City. It’s a drug and liquor induced good time with great friends, momentary enemies and enough bad luck happening to the main character to keep you turning pages hoping it will all work out. It seems to me that you found a perfect equilibrium. How did you stay believable and not go overboard?
Gwen: I thank you for the very lovely compliment contained in your question! In terms of staying believable and interesting, I don’t think that’s something you can have a formula for as a writer. You can only craft the story in a way that feels right to you and hope you hit the mark.
I will add, though, that I was fortunate enough to get some great feedback during the writing process from my friendRichard Jay-Alexander. Richard’s a Broadway director/producer, and he just has this really spot-on, intuitive sense of what he always called, during dozens of midnight conversations, “dramaturgy.” Richard and I were living in the same building at the time, and there was a lot of back-and-forth about how the characters should enter and interact in the story.
Mark: Is it really possible for anyone to drink, do drugs and stay out half the night while working the rigorous jobs that Rachel had?
Gwen: Rachel works mostly for non-profit organizations and, quite honestly, those jobs tend to be 24/7. So my answer is, probably not for very long—which is something Rachel herself ends up learning the hard way. But Rachel is also a very self-aware character—she’s always observing herself and her own actions. So she’s always making a sincere effort to find that balance.
Mark: Is there anything that was edited out, anything you wish you had included (and can tell us about) that is not in the book?
Gwen: I was very lucky to be blessed with an absolute genius of an editor, and the two of us ended up deleting about 50 pages from the final draft. It’s always hard to let things go that you’ve become attached to, but I think everything we scrapped ended up being in the best interests of the book. And all of the really fun stuff is still in there!
Mark: I think we’ve all had an Amy in our lives at one time or another, and Rachel’s comment, “Funny. Having Amy as an enemy doesn’t feel any different than having her as a friend” sums up that relationship and a few personal ones I can think of quite succinctly. Amy’s character gets very little ink after the first section and yet your novel wouldn’t have been interesting and the story couldn’t have happened without her. Amy’s the catalyst that turned the good girl bad. Did you contemplate other ways to bring out Rachel’s bad girl side?
Gwen: The idea of a close friendship gone south really is universal, so it’s a very tempting storyline to explore as a writer. I can’t tell you how many people who’ve read the book have said to me, “I had that exact same experience!”
But I also think, in Rachel’s case specifically, that it has to be a friend who introduces her to the South Beach scene. Rachel isn’t quite ready to make a major lifestyle change all on her own at the beginning of the book. She’s looking for someone to launch her into this new life, but she’s also looking for a friend she can genuinely connect with. And then, eventually, she has that inevitable moment (which I think a lot of people can relate to) when she looks at this person she thought she was so close to and thinks, My God—this is who you really are?
So I never really thought about writing it differently. I think an essential part of Rachel’s arc is that, when DIARY begins, she’s at least partly looking for someone who will give her an opportunity to break out of a life she’s become dissatisfied with. Her friendship with Amy is what launches her into the next phase. By the end of the book, Rachel’s ready to create those opportunities on her own.
Mark: So is every good girl a bad girl waiting for her opportunity?
Gwen: Are you sure I’m the best person to answer that question?Clearly, I think everybody should embrace their inner bad girl!
Actually, to tell you the truth, I’m not sure if I believe in “good girls” and “bad girls.” I see all of Rachel’s adventures over the course of the novel as bringing her to the point where she can just be herself without having to label herself—even though she’s been through so much drama and chaos. I think perceiving yourself as strictly one type or another is the kind of thing that ultimately holds you back.
Mark: In one chapter John Hood makes a move in a public place and Rachel worries out loud that somebody might see them. Hood replies, “I want people to see us. I want people to see me fucking you.” There was a lot of not-so-private sex in South Beach back then; you mention bathrooms, bathhouses and the notorious Flamingo Park. On one occasion I saw cocaine being passed out in silver goblets on the dance floor at Glam Slam and you mention lines on tables and in restrooms at more than one club. A lot of that, if not all of that, has been cleaned up. It makes a sobering visit for people who expect the SoBe scene to be like what they read in books like yours. How much of Rachel Baum’s life should people be allowed to experience?
Gwen: I think it’s almost not worth talking about how much of this kind of scene people should be allowed to experience, because the reality is that scenes like this never last. It’s a cycle you see not just in South Beach, but in places like New York, Vegas, LA—things reach a sort of zenith of decadence, and then somebody goes too far and gets busted in a really high-profile way, which brings a lot of scrutiny from the press and authorities. And then, eventually, corporations capitalize on the notoriety by coming in to set up shop. But in order to protect their investments, they have to make sure everything stays very safe and sanitized.
So it’s not necessarily about whether people should be allowed to see and do all the things Rachel does in DIARY—whether or not they ever get to is mostly about being in all the wrong places at the right time, or maybe it’s all the right places at the wrong time. I kind of think both apply to this book!
Mark: You describe Rachel’s first experience with cocaine like this, “Cocaine just makes you… happy. It comes on you like a flash of sheer exhilaration that you somehow feel isn’t even related to the drug. You think to yourself that you simply didn’t realize how good you felt, how sexy and confident and how much you liked talking and laughing and dancing…” and another time like this, “I tried to slow the spread of perma-grin I could feel coming on…” Bad things tend to happen to people who use anything in excess. You romance cocaine without much ultimate consequence to the main character. How real is that?
Gwen: Me? Romance cocaine? Never!
I mean, yes, some people obviously go too far with their drug use and suffer pretty extreme consequences, as several of the characters in the novel ultimately do. And Rachel herself experiences various catastrophes along the way due to her drug use. But not everybody who uses drugs becomes an addict. I think that perception is unrealistic. Besides, if Rachel were an outright addict, DIARY would have lost much of its fun—and, to me at least, the book is really fun!
Mark: You mention Michael Tronn several times and in one case give him more than a page of ink. He threw fabulous parties and I am thrilled to have attended several. In recent years Mark’s List promoted a couple. I suspect there’s a great friendship there and I have a feeling that you are very close to many of the people you talk about.
Gwen:Michael Tronn is one of my favorite people in the whole world, and an absolutely loyal and committed friend. He’s extremely talented in a number of different directions, and the greatest thing about having a friend like him is that when you get up one morning and decide to do something completely wacky—like, say, write a novel—Michael doesn’t see any reason why you couldn’t do it!
Kevin Crawford is somebody else named in the novel who I love dearly in real life. And he’s also both extraordinarily multi-talented and an extraordinary friend. As the years go by, it’s been amazing and incredibly rewarding to see what a true friend he’s remained.
I think a lot of people have the perception that these kinds of club-life scenes—not just in South Beach, but anywhere—are utterly superficial and cutthroat. I probably did, too, at one time. What I think most people looking in from the outside don’t realize is how much genuine talent and friendship—on a level you might not find anywhere else—there is. Some of the greatest friends I have today are people I know from that part of my life.
Mark: So if I told you that I have theories about who the real life characters are would you confirm or deny them? How about we start with Ricky; he sounds a lot like Tony Miros to me.
Gwen: (laughs) Does he?
Mark: A comment is made on page 228 that indirectly disparages South Beach and yet seems appropriate to mention at the end of this interview, “New York is a place with history.” How does it feel to have written a book that very accurately portrays a period of time in South Beach and in a few years will be looked upon as defining history?
Gwen: Well, when you put it that way, it suddenly feels very exciting!
Seriously, though, the quote you’re talking about is something that a character from New York says in a way that’s intended to be disparaging to Miami—to imply that it isn’t a place with a real history. Which is, of course, absurd on any number of levels. In a purely personal sense, my family has been in and around Miami Beach for nearly seventy years, so I’ve always felt that the history of the Beach and the history of my family are very much intertwined. That’s why I tried, in the book, to give so much of the background and context that shows how the Beach grew into what it is today.
As for DIARY and the era it describes being “definitive,” all I really hope is that people will eventually look back on it as one of many eras portrayed, or novels written, about Miami Beach. We need to publish more novels, dammit!
Mark: Thanks for a great read that brought back a lot of fabulous memories. I have some ideas for your next book.
Gwen: My next book is in a very preliminary phase right now, so ideas and suggestions are gratefully accepted!