Jack Parlett on the Sentient Allure of Fire Island
This Week on the Book Dreams Podcast
In this episode, Book Dreams producer and guest host Gianfranco Lentini takes us on a journey to a real-life literary paradise—a thin barrier island just 50 miles east of New York City—that has been a haven for authors, especially queer authors, for more than a century. Author and scholar Jack Parlett joins Gianfranco to discuss the subject of Jack’s latest book, Fire Island: A Century in the Life of an American Paradise.
They talk about the significance of creating and maintaining queer spaces as havens, and they examine the cultural context that led many writers—including Noël Coward, W. H. Auden, Walt Whitman, Tennessee Williams, and James Baldwin—to spend summers on Fire Island, experiencing personal freedom that was denied to them everywhere else. They also explore the effect that those earlier writers, as well as Fire Island itself, had on the authors who make the island their second home today. Says Jack, “The [Fire Island] landscape itself knows something, feels something, about the people who were there. It’s a repository of their legacies.”
From the episode:
Gianfranco Lentini: The way that you describe the island in your book is … “The island feels sentient, attracting illustrious visitors as if it always knew something of the fate it was headed for.” Do you think there is a magic to the island that is also part of that allure? It’s not just that it’s coastal, it’s not just that it’s remote. Is there a muse of Fire Island that sometimes calls to us?
Jack Parlett: You know, I feel like I’ve had that experience whenever I’ve been to Fire Island, and it’s there in so much of the literature—the sense that the landscape itself knows something, feels something about the people who are there. That it’s a repository of their legacies. And, you know, allure is always a tricky one, right? Because to be lured in is also to risk something, to be proximate to danger. And I think that’s similarly a part of Fire Island’s story. But I absolutely think that there is a magical quality, and it is atmospheric, and it’s the kind of thing that you can feel the moment you step off the ferry.
Jack Parlett is a writer, poet, and scholar. He is the author of three books: Fire Island: A Century in the Life of an American Paradise; The Poetics of Cruising: Queer Visual Culture from Whitman to Grindr; and Same Blue, Different You, a poetry pamphlet. Fire Island was named an Editor’s Pick by The New York Times and One of the Best Books of 2022 by The New Yorker and BBC Culture. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Boston Review, Granta, Literary Hub, BBC Culture, Poetry London, and elsewhere. Jack currently holds a junior research fellowship at University College Oxford, where he also teaches. His research focuses on 20th and 21st century American literature and culture with an emphasis on queer writing and questions of gender, sexuality, and race.
Book Dreams uses books to explore topics we can’t stop thinking about. Hosted by Julie Sternberg and Eve Yohalem, Book Dreams releases new episodes every Thursday. Visit our website for more about the show, find us on Twitter (@bookdreamspod) and Instagram (@bookdreamspodcast), or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.