Incunabula recently published Travis Michael Holder’s quasi-autobiographical novel ‘Waiting For Walk’, a beautifully written account of a young man growing up in the artistic and performing community. Dave Mitchell of Incunabula conducted this conversation with him.
DM: How much stuff had your written before this book?
TMH: I’ve been writing all my life, the first being a ghost-written autobiography of our family dog when I was about age 6 called ‘My Life with the Uprights.’ Since that auspicious debut, I’ve had six plays produced nationally and my first, ‘Surprise Surprise,’ another thinly-veiled autobiographical confessional, became a feature film released in 2010 for which I co-wrote the screenplay. And then there’s the nuts-and-bolts writing. I’ve been a theatre writer and critic in Los Angeles since 1987, along the way for Back Stage and Entertainment Today, among others, and for my own website since 2017. I was told when I started reviewing theatre it would kill my acting career, but I’ve proven the naysayers wrong. I’ve been doing both for 36 years now and… gee, now that I think about it, maybe they were right after all.
DM: You’ve approached publishers with it before? What was the reaction?
TMH: Well, yes and no. See, to my embarrassment, I wrote ‘Waiting for Walk’ in 2005 during many hours of free time while out with a play. I had two publishers interested back then, but when it was completed, the first told me his partner thought there were already too many books out there written by us self-obsessed actors and the second told me she’d take it on if I could start her off with a $2,800 consultation fee. As someone good at marketing everybody but myself, I basically stuffed it a drawer and spent all these years kicking myself for being a dysfunctional shithead and not pursuing publishing it.
DM: Aside from the main character (obviously) the most memorable person in the book for me is Geraldine. Can you tell me a bit more about her?
TMH: Well, clearly she’s based on my own mother, who also died of cancer when I was 18, the same age as Morgan is when he loses his mother. And… well, here’s where the first thoughts of fictionalizing my own story began. Geri is all based on my mother until what I always call the Dreaded Chapter Five. The rape. My mother, who had always been very liberal in what she taught me about people and accepting of everyone, suddenly changed drastically — I think because she blamed herself, as Geri does in my book, for being so freewheeling with the freedom she allowed me and how she let me live my life. It was the worst period in my life. Because my father basically could no longer even look at me and my mother did nothing to stand up to him, at age fourteen I left their home and stayed with someone I thought of as my second mother, a well-known actress and Chicago philanthropist who had played my mother in a play. Geri is an amalgam of her and of my own mom from before the time she so drastically turned on me because of my possible sexual ‘awakening.’ Let me say though in defense of my mother, after that incident she spent the next — and the last — four years of her life apologizing to me for her reaction and asking for my forgiveness. I tried to convince her that I forgave her but our relationship was never the same. Even after all these years, her first reaction haunts me.
DM: The book deals with quite a few themes, including ‘coming of age’ and ‘the quest for identity’. What was your chief focus when writing this?
TMH: Ha! Truthfully I had no thought of writing an in-depth coming of age story when I started. I’ve always been a rather prolific storyteller and I had so many people along the way tell me that I should write my theatrical stories down and turn them into a memoir. I had no idea, no plan whatsoever about the direction it swept me in — but as the more personal stuff started to spill out, the book took me along with it. And I’m glad it did. For my entire life, I thought the Dreaded Chapter Five — which I would never have imagined I’d ever consider writing about — was my fault. I had convinced myself that my curiosity, my teasing him was the blame. Writing about it, especially in the third person, was revelatory to me. Incredibly cathartic. I realized then, in my friggin’ late fifties, that I was the innocent party. I cannot tell you the weight that lifted off my shoulders. Marley’s chains had nothing on me.
DM: The book has obvious significance to people belonging to the LGBTQ communities, but I believe its appeal crosses all boundaries of social inclusion/exclusion. What was your approach to that aspect when writing?
TMH: Well, I’ve been in theatre and surrounded by artistic and freethinking people all my life. I’m not sure there was really any “approach” I took when working on this. I’ve always been outspoken and unashamed, something that has gotten me in trouble more times in my life than I can tell you. See, like Morgan, the first time I was confronted by a same sex couple, I was told by my mom (the ‘before’ mom) that they were just two people in love. I had some of the same conflicts as Morgan when I was discovering who I was but honestly, my angst was far less because I had never seen such behavior as anything but normal. That aspect of the book — and moments like the encounter with the guy in the overalls on the subway, for instance — are completely my own truths.
DM: How do you feel society’s attitudes have changed (if at all) since the period when the book was set?
TMH: Oh, my god. Night and day. Or at least I thought so until 2016 when our nightmare former president gave permission for every racist and homophobic troglodyte to crawl out from under their rocks. Basically, most of what I knew about rural America was from Steinbeck novels and looking out the window from an airplane some 36,000 feet above sea level. I was rather protected from the Morlocks, always surrounded by open, creative people, so there was nothing about my life I thought I needed to keep to myself — except what happened to me in Chapter Five. Still I was raised in the 1950s when gay bars were raided and guys caught had their whole lives and careers destroyed when their names and addresses were printed in the newspaper. No, we’ve come a long, long way thanks to gay rights pioneers like Morris Kite, not to mention as a society in general thanks to Dr. King and John Lewis and Diane Nash, someone who’d became a great inspiration to me when I was active in SNCC as a young’un. Yes, lots of changes, which is what makes me desperately sad as I watch so many of the things we fought for being systematically demolished by the Trogs.
DM: Was it that device of blending your two ‘mothers’ that prompted your decision to write the book in the third person?
TMH: No, really, that was just a result, not an intention. As I said, I’ve never known when to keep my mouth shut. But that doesn’t imply that I don’t keep confidences and private matters of others to myself when I know that would be what they would want — especially people no longer around to speak for themselves. This is actually the reason I never listened when people told me I should write a book of my travels and experiences. I once said this to an amazing director named David Galligan, who was directing me in a play. I told him I simply didn’t feel comfortable writing things down that dealt with people who’d tried so hard to keep their private lives private. He said, “Write it in the third person and call it a novel.” It was right then I started “Waiting for Walk.” So many who’ve read it along the way have wanted to know the true identities of some of the characters. I say to use their own imaginations and usually they guess correctly, though I never admit to that. And also, making it a novel gave me freedom not only to tell wonderful stories but to make them a bit more entertaining than real life. You know, it’s funny. Having written it in 2005, I had to read through again after many years and I had almost forgotten some of it. Flipping through, I suddenly came across a name even I didn’t recognize. It took me well into the chapter to suddenly remember who the character represented.
TMH: Well, you know I paint. I’ve been obsessed with New Orleans and painting it for several years now and I had a gallery on Royal Street in the Quarter begin featuring my New Orleans canvases and portraits of Tennessee Williams and his homes and haunts about a year before the pandemic. The lockdown closed the place for good, so I’m trying to put together a book of my art accompanied by stories of the places, of their history or sometimes my own history with them. Also, people are still telling me I must write about my years in the music business and the legendary careers I helped jumpstart, so that’s on my plate as well. This time not in the third person. I plan to take no prisoners. It’s to be called “Guest List” and there’s a great story connected with that too. I’ll have to share it with you sometime.