I picked up Nick Comilla’s Candyass at the Strand largely by happenstance. I was headed to Colorado for the winter-break and the book sounded hot. This was probably a month before I heard the name “Covid 19” and the last blissfully anxiety free travel experience I would have before everything became much more fraught. Candyass is essentially a coming-of-age novel, but Comilla’s prose is so much more playful than the typical gay novel. Sex is treated as something joyful; the main character has a ton of it, and he captured the fleeting time in people’s youth where they are able to sort of crash through the world fearlessly. I began to message Comilla on Instagram during the quarantine, a time when a lot of us upped our already significant social-media usage, and we started to talk with each other about what we were seeing going on around us in the NYC metro-area. He was one of several artists and writers I spent a lot of time messaging with on Instagram during the long, dreary days of lockdown. I wanted to bring some of his words to Aptly, because he talks about a lot of topics that I think were once taboo for anyone on the broadly defined “left.” It was refreshing to have conversations that were honest, where the party line wasn’t constantly toed, where there was still a space for debate. Below is our conversation about sex, art, and politics.
1.) What do you think is the state of gay male sexuality in 2020? With PREP it seems far less sanitized than it was when we were younger, but with gay marriage/adoption it possibly seems less radical than ever.
I think a few different things factor into it, for sure there’s a suburbanization aspect going on. Even things that were initially intended to facilitate real-life interactions have, I think, unintentionally become ways for people to just ‘browse’ other people and the notion of ‘trading pics’ and sexting in general has become a very boring way for people to get off behind their screens, treating everyone as some kind of personal porn star. I came of age right when the apps were new and exciting and just used as a tool to find people, and now it seems like the medium on which you met tries to define the message – like oh, it was just this random hookup, therefore it can’t be intimate, or romantic, or whatever it might actually be. It seems fatalistic. But then, on the other hand, you have younger guys who only came up with that fast-food approach to sex, and maybe never have had the fun of organically approaching someone in a club, reading body language and facial expressions and cues, and seeing where the night takes you, which is admittedly a lot more exciting. I’ve noticed a rise in public play which I think is a response to that formulaic approach, people want to be able to interact with an environment; to have an experience. And even with gay marriage, strict monogamy seems pretty unfavorable – it just seems like a lot of paradigms are collapsing. Someone could look really normative and be wild and vice versa.
2.) You identify as working class and I know you come from a working class background but you’re the kind of hot that in the gay-male community is associated with an upper-class income/behavior if that makes sense. How does that make you feel? How does it affect who you desire and the kind of men who desire you?
So, I don’t really think of working class as being an identity rather than an experience, and as much as you traverse through income brackets, if you grew up in a working class environment certain attributes tend to stick with you. I cannot stand how WASPy country club type of people communicate, for example – it drives me insane, the passive aggression and shying away from any sort of conflict, framing any kind of conflict as aggression, it’s ridiculous. Navigating that in personal relationships, especially after my mid 20’s, yeah, that’s been confusing as hell, I think a lot of people who grew up in the rust belt feel that way if they move to the coasts. People who have never experienced any kind of economic anxiety move through life with a kind of chill attitude that is alienating. It definitely complicates desire or being desired, creating a rupture between the physical and personal, what you think you want and what you actually want – especially in New York. Being perceived as upwardly mobile, formally educated, but then discovering this vast background gap as you get to know people… it doesn’t surprise me anymore, but it surprises the other, I think because they’re not used to meeting people from different socioeconomic backgrounds. It makes me see my own desire for people as a kind of façade, I think, which is nice – it keeps me in check, like I’ll think someone is totally hot but then realize we’re not compatible at all. Also, aesthetics aside, slumming is a very real thing – people with a really hollow internal landscape want to sleep with artists to get inside their world. It’s a bad idea.
3.) Candyass was written from the perspective of a young gay boy who recently moved to Montreal. How do you view that character now through the lens of a gay man well into adulthood?
I think he’s admirably naïve, ridiculous at times, vulnerable and open without realizing the pitfalls of it… he’s a Romantic, in the classical sense. He’s not a role model, but I still view characters like that in a positive light – in real life, lots of people are either living at home with their parents longer, or they follow a really rigid college-to-career path, and that lack of autonomy stunts personality development, I think. You have to be free to fuck up, over and over again.
4.) Your work reminds me a lot of Dennis Cooper’s work as well as Slava Mogutin’s art and Edmund White’s writing. Do you consider them influences? How do you see Candyass in conversation with their work?
Yeah, I read D.C. in college (Closer, Frisk, The Sluts) and I loved how he could capture things that were both seedy and sexy at the same time, it was a big influence, but specifically I remember having a really visceral reaction to the nihilism of those novels, how the transgression of the body had to mean the eventual destruction of it, and I wanted to write scenes that bordered on that but could then also break through into lightness, playfulness, brightness, and back and forth, continuously. Getting up to the edge of the destructive part of Dionysian impulses, but then suspending them, floating. I don’t think I was familiar with Slava’s work until I was finishing the book, but I did see his photo book Lost Boys at BGSQD and it definitely struck a chord with me, the images being so charged and erotic, desolate, but intimate and somehow angelic at times, too. I think there are similar sensibilities there. I need to read more Edmund White, but I’ve definitely been influenced by numerous coming-of-age styles, autofiction.
5.) You and I have talked a lot about risk during the pandemic and how the lockdown itself is very reactionary. What is your relationship to risk? Do you think gay men have an inherently different relationship to risk?
I don’t think it’s a gay/straight thing so much as it is how you were raised, and maybe a biological thing as well. I see a parallel between people who are overly risk-adverse and people who grew up in really soft environments: coddled, pampered, protected. When you live your life like that, a minor scratch is going to feel like a gash because you’ve never actually experienced discomfort before. That’s a dangerous type of personality for society to cater to. Any type of life worth living comes with a certain amount of risk, and if we have an entire generation of people who are so sheltered that they view any transgression as an affront, that’s an issue. I’m in favor of harm reduction over safetyism.
As for gay men and the relationship to risk, I wonder if maybe that is true in a historical and generational context and becoming less so. I think a lot of cultural influences right now are trying to neuter sex and sexuality, trying to turn something that is so primal into something neat, nice and packaged. I take after Camille Paglia on a lot of those issues… understanding the interplay between different impulses, oftentimes sadomasochistic ones, helps put risk into context. I think gay culture can be very hypocritical in that sense, like, deriding or having contempt for masculinity but then also totally desiring it, or being turned on by rough and kinky sex and then running from the implications of that once you climax. Risk is part of what makes things hot.
6.) Are you fucking during Corona? What type of guy is your ideal fuck?
I wasn’t at first, but that’s because people were literally afraid to come near each other.
Hmm. I like mischievous people, as a quality. I like people who are a bit more reserved than I am, you know, someone perplexing, even if they piss me off a little. I like wrestler type of energy, too. I have met so many bisexual guys in the past year or so, we get on well. People who give themselves the freedom to explore really turn me on, which is funny because all too often when I catch feelings I’ll instantly think exclusiveness is an ideal or goal, when in reality it directly contradicts the things I liked about someone in the first place. I still like twinks but I’m more cognizant of the difference between youth and beauty now.
7.) Where do you think queer art/writing is going? What do you see in the next ten years? Any writers/artists to watch out for?
Culturally, sometimes I wonder if what we’re witnessing is a collapse of typical identity categories. It’s a contentious subject, but a lot of the gender ideology, social constructionist, politically correct stuff is antithetical to sex culture. Straight, bi and gay exist because of the biological sex binary. So, on the one hand, I see this more sex-oriented culture that is based around sex as a verb, and all that comes with it, lust, power play, taste, distinction, seduction, eroticism, style. That’s all practice – the other stuff is all in theory, and I don’t think it’s very hot, it’s political and solipsistic, it’s not erotic at all. I see a lot of artists that have very ‘queer’ personas online but you know they don’t have much sex. So sometimes I think about that, like if there’s a split happening between sexual liberation culture of the late 60’s variety and ‘LGBT’ culture. I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding there. An uptick in bisexual impulses, ‘DL’/discrete/anon play, situational sex – all related. It’s intellectually lazy and dishonest to assume that all of that is just an extension or result of homophobia, that’s so boring.
I look into the past more than into the future! So, a few recommendations: Dans ma Chambre (In my Room) by Guillaume Dustan, Girls by Nic Kelman, Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller, The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera and The Gentrification of the Mind by Sarah Schulman.
8.) What were you early creative experiences like? What led you from the rust belt, to Montreal, to NYC (and were there some in between places there)?
Early creative experiences centered around music and writing lyrics, I think I maybe would have become a musician but I never learned any instruments growing up. When I was in middle school, my parents got me an electric guitar, but it was a right-handed one and I’m left handed, so that never panned out, so I just kept writing.
The rust belt… I’ll defend the character of the kind of people you meet there, for sure, but just the total and complete lack of opportunity of any kind gave me an ambition to get out from early high school. My friends and I used to drive hours just to go see bands in nearby cities, so we’d drive to Buffalo, which was closest, but also to Pittsburgh and Cleveland a lot. We were sixteen, we printed off directions using MapQuest, we’d drive 3 hours to go see a band and drive back in the dead of night. I did live in Pittsburgh briefly with some college friends the summer before my last year of high school. I went to Montreal because a friend in a nearby town that I’d drive to see bands with got accepted to McGill, so I looked into the creative writing program at Concordia, a big public university there, and the international tuition was on par with what I’d have to borrow for in-state tuition in the US except it was in a much bigger and more exciting place, so I went. It was largely by happenstance, sort of unthinkable at the time if you didn’t come from money, which is what I find troubling about the rust belt, but also the US educational system, trying to lock people into certain states, limit them, limit their own idea of where they could go. I started to visit NYC after a few years in Montreal, I’d take the Greyhound bus down with a friend, staying at hostels. I applied to an MFA program here, which is primarily where I took the time to write Candyass.
9.) What would your ideal growth as a writer look like/what are you working on now?
I think I’m experiencing that growth now, still growing into it. I’ve started publishing cultural essays which I didn’t think I’d get into before. I have a second novel started, but still need a lot of time with it, so I’m going to be working on that, some similar thematic range but less frivolous in tone and voice. I’d love to adapt Candyass into a series or film, and I have a few screenplay ideas I want to flesh out eventually, but I really prefer writing in prose, so I’m still figuring that out.