Gary Janetti on Charles Dickens and Becoming the Hero of His Own Story
In Conversation with Will Schwalbe on But That's Another Story
Will Schwalbe: Hi. I’m Will Schwalbe and you’re listening to But That’s Another Story. “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” These are the first lines of my favorite book: David Copperfield. And I’m not alone in this: Dickens himself said, “Of all my books I like this the best.” I’ll never forget the summer when I first read David Copperfield, as a teen, mostly outside, while my beloved but not easy grandmother drank chardonnay from her Barcalounger as she watched all-day golf. That summer, David Copperfield and Steerforth and Dora and Little Em’ly became my friends. I burst into tears when I turned the last page because I thought I would never see them again.
But, of course, I didn’t need to say goodbye to any of those characters. They live with me and I talk to them all the time. They are still my friends. Great friends. As is Charles Dickens himself. And recently I got to talking about Dickens—and trying to become the hero of your own life—with today’s guest.
Gary Janetti: I’m Gary Janetti and I’m a TV writer and I’ve just written my first book.
WS: Gary Janetti is a writer and producer whose credits include Family Guy and Will & Grace. He’s also the creator of the British television series Vicious, which stars Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi. Gary has a viral spoof Instagram account of memes from the mind of Prince George. Gary recently published his first book: Do You Mind If I Cancel? Things That Still Annoy Me.
GJ: I grew up in Queens in the 70s. My parents actually still live in the house where I grew up. It seemed to me like everybody lived in Queens, you know, I just accepted. It felt like, “Of course,”—that was the world.
WS: In his small corner of the world, Gary kept a big secret.
GJ: I was shy. I would think that I had anxiety. You know, as a kid I was lonely, a lonely kid, but it was mostly about, I knew I was gay from a really young age. My first memory is knowing I wasn’t like everybody else. You keep a secret long enough and it wears on you unless you’re a sociopath or something like that, you know? Which I’m not, but I think that factored into everything for me.
WS: Gary worried about his secret being discovered.
GJ: My name caused me great stress because I saw early on that if you removed the “R,” my name would spell out “gay.” And when I would see it on the blackboard, I would fixate on it and I was like, how long before somebody erases that “R”?
WS: He found himself retreating from social interactions.
GJ: I dealt with it in a way by being, like I said, by making myself invisible. But everything, my whole, everything was about protecting my secret. Everything I did, I wouldn’t even drink because of this fear that if I wasn’t in control for even a second, what might I say? I was able to kind of avoid the worst of it by disappearing, by not giving myself any kind of young life other than watching TV and reading.
WS: More than an escape, though, reading became a true source of joy.
GJ: We would get Scholastic books that would come in the mail to school and they’d give the kids a sheet where you would order the books. And my mom would let me order two books. And it was like three to four weeks for delivery for these books. It was a nightmare waiting. Everyday I would go to school and I couldn’t concentrate on another thought and sometimes they didn’t give you the books until the end of the day but I was useless for the day.We live still in a world where it’s controversial to talk about our history being taught so we are controversial.
WS: Books carried Gary through his school years and beyond.
GJ: When I graduated college, when I was 21 or 22, I kind of, I made a list and I wanted to read all of the books; I wanted to read all the classics.
WS: One of the titles he wrote down was David Copperfield by Charles Dickens.
GJ: I remember taking it with me on a trip through Europe, backpacking through Europe. And it had felt like it was written yesterday.
WS: The book tells the life story of David Copperfield who faces many kinds of adversity, starting with poverty.
GJ: I loved the genre of any working class British kid who’s taken in by an upper-class British family and then finds out they’re not actually accepted by the upper-class British family. It has, you know, that kind of . . . the Brits do that so well.
WS: And how did you feel about David and Steerforth?
GJ: Steerforth was like the hot straight friend. David always felt, I think David would be fluid in today’s parlance. David Copperfield in my mind is fluid. Because that’s how I read him.
WS: Gary began to visit gay bookstores to find himself and others like him.
GJ: For me it was a safe place. I mean that sounds a little corny, but it was! It was a place where I knew everybody in there was going to be gay and I could pick up the gay books and stand there reading the gay books, you know, and look at them and talk to somebody who’d read the authors. And if there was a cute boy there, I could smile at him and say, “I read that book,” you know, everything. It mixed my two favorite things, you know: reading and men. So it was kind of perfect. And it was also important because we don’t ever learn about our history. We live still in a world where it’s controversial to talk about our history being taught so we are controversial. As human beings, we, you remain controversial and that’s an upsetting place to be in on a daily basis. These stores, for me, were an oasis.
WS: They opened a world to Gary where he felt not only comfortable, but celebrated.
GJ: I was very, very hungry to read about my history, you know, to read about Harvey Milk and to read Randy Shilts, his book And the Band Played On, and so many other books of making history.
WS: He soon came across a set of stories that reminded him of David Copperfield, but that chronicled the lives of the people he saw all around him.
GJ: I was just very much drawn to Tales of the City. It was combining Dickens with it. It was basically, he was making a Dickensian novel in modern-day San Francisco, filled with gay, lesbian, transgender characters. I mean, he had a transgender heroine, which was really remarkable. Nothing was overly commented on. It was written with a sweetness and a charm.
WS: What made it Dickensian for you?
GJ: Good names—Marianne Singleton. That’s a really good name. Number one, the cast of characters, a huge cast of characters. Coincidences—people coming in and out of each other’s lives. People you thought you weren’t going to see. And then the reveal of who this person is; this couple gets together. All of that is really satisfying. I like writers who can give you what you want. I think it’s easy sometimes for people to—with something that is a little bit lighter and certainly more, more humorous—to kind of say that it maybe doesn’t have the same kind of heft as Michael Cunningham’s The Hours or something like that, which is obviously brilliant. But what Armistead does in those books I think is really brilliant. You know, it’s really special and whenever you can’t stop reading something, that’s my number one good sign. I don’t care. Whatever you say, if I cannot stop reading something, it’s good. I defy you to put those books down. Also, every chapter ends on a cliffhanger. He wrote them originally for the San Francisco Chronicle, which is how Dickens started writing. Also, you know, it was serialized for newspapers. So he obviously was doing his own riff on that.
WS: Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City took many of the aspects Gary loved about David Copperfield and brought them into modern times. And both books helped plant a seed.
GJ: There’s only one Dickens, you know, and nor should there be others. But you’re finding a way to tell a story in your own way today that’s based on your own life and your own experiences from your own point of view that’s obviously been influenced by what’s come before you. A good book I think always feels like a hand reaching out to you, you know, and you take it or not. And it felt like that to me and I guess it probably started to be the beginning of me feeling like it was going to be my path.
WS: When we come back from the break, a very Dickensian turn of events forces Gary to start taking control of his own life.
WS: In the early 1990s, Gary found himself in Manhattan, where he became aware of some of the city’s hottest hot spots, like the Paramount Hotel.
GJ: People buzzed about it. The Paramount, it was like, “Oh,”—it was so crazy when I look back on it. But it also felt to me like if somebody invited me for drinks at the Paramount Hotel, it would have been like, I would have died of shock. I would’ve been like Eliza Doolittle going to the races, like, “Get me ready for this! To sit in this hotel lobby!”
WS: He began to form a plan.
GJ: And in my twisted thinking, I thought everybody stays at the Paramount hotel. I knew Saturday Night Live, all their guests stayed there. I knew a lot of all the models stayed there. Like I knew it was the hotel for celebrities, writers—Jamaica Kincaid used to stay there. But it was all the idea of all these people that would be going in and out. Right. So it’s a grand hotel. I would be discovered now. I just thought if you put yourself in front of the right people, everything else will fall into place.
WS: Soon, an opportunity to work at the Paramount Hotel presented itself.
GJ: So the Village Voice put an ad in for like an open call. It was basically an open call audition as if I was trying out for a chorus line or something. And it went with the same kind of seriousness that would have been if I hadn’t going up for a chorus line. They looked at our faces, our bodies. We were picked over; we were talked about—how we looked. It was crazy. And I was literally, I didn’t have a job at the point. I had quit before I had had this job. And I had never done that before in my life and I had no window of not getting a job. So as indignant as I was, I wasn’t going anywhere. I was like, I’m not leaving this place until I got this job.
WS: His persistence paid off.
GJ: I got picked and it was literally like the end of a chorus line. Like I got it. But I was like, “What is my prize? This?” It was the shittiest prize you could possibly get for going through so much humiliation.
WS: Despite this bad start, the job had its upsides.
GJ: It was like a crazy kind of a shit show working there and people would come and go and at the beginning it was all quite wonderful. You know, I got free theater tickets, which was the first time I’d ever gotten free tickets in my life. A publicist—a lovely, older gay gentleman publicist—would stay at the hotel and the young, cute gay men that worked there, he’d give us theater tickets and it was nothing more than kindness. So I felt like life was happening because it was, you know. But, it curdled.
WS: After working at the Paramount for three years, Gary felt aimless and burnt out.
GJ: I did something that I was so ashamed of: I yelled at these guests. I was working as an overnight bellman. I didn’t know how to get out of this trap of the hotel. I was trying to write at this point, but I wasn’t really—I didn’t know what it meant. I was frustrated. I was unhappy. I had worked an overnight shift all night and it was six o’clock in the morning and I had to bring these two women from Spain to a taxi to take them to the airport. They had tons of luggage. I made no money on the overnight shift because it was slow, so I needed a tip. I was like, okay, this should be a good tip. I schmoozed them all the way down, even though I was, you know, I’d been sleeping behind the front desk, like an animal for the two hours previous. So I looked like a mess and I was like, “Did you see any Broadway shows? How did you like New York? I love Spain! I’ve been to Barcelona!” You know, all that. I get them in the car.
They are lovely, beautifully dressed. I can still see them. And they don’t give me a tip. Just closed the door and they don’t give me anything. And something snapped inside me. And I pounded my open palm on the back of the cab and he stopped and I did the roll down your window gesture. And she was so like, “What? What is it? Did we forget something?” And I said something like, ”It’s customary in this country to tip.” She looked at me and she reached into her pocket. She gave me a $20 bill and I took it. Oh, that’s so awful. And the cab pulled away and I was left there holding that $20 bill.
WS: In that moment, he experienced something straight out of a Dickens novel.
GJ: I saw my future. Do you know? I saw something. I was like, “What did I do? I was so ashamed. Oh, I felt so awful that that moment changed my life. From that moment, I was like, I quit. I was gone. I moved to LA a few months after that.
WS: He began to craft a new version of himself.
GJ: I started writing instantly. I, I started writing and I was focused like I had never been focused in my life. I went to the Writer’s Guild library. I decided I gonna to go to LA and write for TV. I found out that to write for sitcoms, there’s a format or way you have to do it. I started reading these scripts and they were well-written and well-crafted. I read Frasier, Mad About You, Friends, Ellen. I read all the scripts and I was like, “Oh.” I had always watched TV; I was obsessed with it and I thought, “I could do this.” And then I started writing and, and I didn’t stop. I started writing the scripts. I wrote one after another after another. I got an agent and then I got a job a few months after that.
WS: The coming of age lessons from both David Copperfield and Tales of the City taught Gary a valuable truth about making his own way in the world.
GJ: I couldn’t lie to myself about my reality any longer. I had to say, “You’re waiting for life to come to you. You’re waiting for people to come to you.” And it was also when I realized it, I was like, “What an idiot.” Like who the hell is going to walk up to me in a hotel? They are staying in a hotel. Nobody! They’re not concerned with my future, nor should they be. I should be concerned with it more than anybody else. But it was like something I had to learn, you know? And I think that weirdly it’s not an uncommon thing for people in their 20s to kind of go through versions of that.
But That’s Another Story is produced by Kristy Westgard. Thanks to Gary Janetti. If you’d like to learn more about the books we’ve mentioned in this week’s episode, you can find out more in our show notes. You can also find a transcript of this episode and past ones on Lit Hub. If you’ve been enjoying the show, please be sure to rate and review on iTunes—it really helps others discover the program. And subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you listen. If there’s a book that changed your life, we want to hear about it. Send us an email at email@example.com.