q@a: sky gilbert
sky gilbert talks philosophy, sex and love with his latest book Wit in Love
published: outwords inc., issue #153, 2008
Sky Gilbert is one of Canada’s leading gay male writers. He is an accomplished playwright, novelist, poet, director and on top of all that, he is also a drag queen extraordinaire. Co-founding Buddies in Bad Times Theatre in Toronto in 1979, Gilbert was Artistic Director for the company for eighteen years. He currently holds a University Research Chair in Creative Writing and Theatre Studies at the University of Guelph where he teaches. Since his debut novel Guilty (1999) he has written six other critically acclaimed books and received the ReLit Award for 2004’s An English Gentlemen.
Sky’s latest release is the novella Wit in Love, a story about a philosopher who falls in love. Loosely based on the life of Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, Wit’s lead character must do everything he can to get out of his head in order to experience reality and truly know love. Written in a journal form, Sky seamlessly delves into Wittgenstein’s mind as he chronicles his thoughts, relationships, and actions on paper. What results is a compelling story of a man’s struggle to let go of what he knows best in order to let go of, and find love.
Outwords Inc: Why Wittgenstein? What aspects of his life, in the time period before World War II, appealed to you to loosely base your main character on him?
Sky: I consider myself to be an amateur philosopher [and] when it comes to philosophy it interests me… A lot of queer theory is philosophically based and Wittgenstein is kind of the class gay philosopher… even though he didn’t write about homosexuality in his philosophy per say… When you have someone like [him] who is primarily known not for being homosexual, it’s hard to find descriptions of his sex life… but he did seem to have this seduction for [an older] student which I found very touching.
He was very much concerned with how we perceive reality and how language shapes our sort of view of the world… I love it when I can begin to understand these different ways of looking at the world and consciousness has always interested me… I was really drawn to the fact that those big issues are Wittgenstein issues.
And that his life was very kind of sad in the sense that one of his dearest lovers died, as I remember early on, and then he had these other associations which seemed kind of sad, attempts at romance that seemed to fail or at least were briefly there.
Outwords Inc: In the novella, Wittgenstein’s homosexuality is not an issue for his character. Insofar as his struggle in the book is concerned, his sexuality is taken for granted. Do you think that his sexuality informs the novel in other respects that are not primarily physical?
Sky: I do think there is such a thing as a nut somewhere of people who doesn’t think there’s a gay sensibility or doesn’t think there’s a gay culture… Yes there is the physical [but] the other aspect of it has to do with the fact in my view, not …with something essential. As soon as you talk about gay culture, gay lifestyle… [some] people get all crazy and go … “I have the physical activities but I’m not gay in any other way.” Well that’s basically bullshit, but the reason why its bullshit isn’t because there’s an essential gay quality, it’s because being gay is, there’s homophobia. So what we do, there’s always a reaction from the world as soon as it comes out…. If you’re not visibly queer and you don’t tell people you are, you won’t get any reaction. But if you are a) effeminate or b) talk about it extensively, or it comes out when you talk to people, it will be an issue. People will have reactions [and] those reactions shape gay culture… because of how we are othered so that’s my way of approaching gay culture and sensibility.
I wrote this novel which is a gay novel but its not … [and I think] it will have a different radical-ness to it… I still have a political feeling about what I have written… as much as I loved writing it, I think its important to write work with gay subject matter, and I can only write what I’m in the mood to write, but it’s a bit of a shame to me in a way that this novella is a bit more conventional.
Outwords Inc: Do you share any personal interests with Wittgenstein, as far as your portrayal of his character in the novella is concerned?
Sky: I am a professor, I realize one thing good about being a professor, is that is true to my own nature. I do a lot of thinking and writing and so I am in my head… and
I’ve had to work very hard on getting out of my own head because in a sense it’s a bad place for me to be, which is precisely what [Wittgenstein’s] problem is in the book, he can’t realize what language is there. So I mean I think that’s why being gay and being promiscuous has been very good for me, because its reality… When you have sex it’s basically reality, and I’ve never been very good at reality, that doesn’t mean I’m not very good at sex… It’s something which is very good for me that I have sex in my life; I think it really got me out of my head… and just as he’s awakened in the novel, I was completely awakened by coming out.
Outwords Inc: In his journey for love, Ludwig’s character must let go out of the reality he knows and actively change how he chooses to see the world. Do you think this is possible in real life – the active decision to change how one sees reality?
Sky: Absolutely, that’s a psychological trick I learned that he discovers. I mean to me, it’s a bit of a zen idea… but its also a Wittgensteinian idea… you create your own reality, it’s a Bhuddist idea in a sense, by how you think… and you can just get out of what you’re in. To me… falling in love with [my partner] was all about the kind of thing that happens in the book, it was all about changing my reality. I made a lot of big changes and I was trying to write about that, and it was very difficult to write it, about the possibility of life switching… When you’re really screwed up, feeling like you don’t really know where to go, you can jump out of it; it’s within your power to [switch] out of it, no matter how bad it’s going. Well it’s really tough when things are going really bad, but it is possible to do…I would recommend it.
Outwords Inc: You have been writing novels now for just under ten years: Guilty was first published in 1999. How do you think you have changed as a writer since then? How or rather where does Wit in Love fit in to your life’s work?
Sky: I think one of the biggest issues for me mainly has to do with being true to myself but at the same time reinventing myself as an artist … on the one hand I really want to do work close to me but I can’t write the same thing all the time…. I’m a professor, so there’s going to be part of me like Robertson Davies that wants to write about professor-types… I’m still very much a part of gay life, I still go to bars and bathhouses and I still sort of love that world (love/hate it)but it’s apart of my life so it’s important to me that, that be a part of what I write about, and I have to write about what I know… [Why] I love writing novels so much is because I know that some of them will be in a library somewhere one day, where, unless all libraries are burned, they will be there… So we’ll see… what comes out of those two things, on the one hand being true to myself but on the other hand not writing the same thing again.
Wit in Love. Quattro Books. $16.95