Acclaimed novelist David Leavitt read from an unpublished work to an audience of 150 people last night at the Graduate School of Education, in the opening event of Bisexual, Gay and Lesbian Awareness Days.
Leavitt, a Yale graduate, opened the reading with a plea for leniency. "It's always a bit risky and scary reading from a work in progress, so be gentle," he said.
The work, a historical novel titled While England Sleeps, represents a "big departure from anything I've ever done before," Leavitt told the audience.
"I felt I couldn't not write about politics anymore," Leavitt said. "[But] I couldn't get the proper distance to get a perspective on the AIDS war so I started looking backward."
The new novel is set in two distinct time periods, the mid-1930s and the late 1970s, and deals with the events of the Spanish Civil War, Leavitt said.
Leavitt said he chose the subject because he wanted a "moment when politics weren't a choice but an obligation."
The writer read from a section of the book in which a frustrated British writer decides to join the fight against the fascists in Spain. "Soldiers, not writers, determine the fate of the world," the character decides.
Leavitt later apologized for any "glaring historical inaccuracies" in the novel
Issues of family and gay identity have featured extensively in Leavitt's work. "His concern with family, both those we are raised in and those we create, runs through his work," said Warren Goldfarb '69, director of Open Gate, one of the event's sponsors.
In a question-and-answer session after the reading, Leavitt discussed his fiction, admitting that "beginnings and endings are usually easier for me than middles."
When one audience member asked how much of Leavitt's work is autobiographical, the author replied, smiling, "Some. That's as specific as I'm going to get."
Leavitt, who has published two books of short stories, said that he considers the short story "a wonderful form."
"The art of writing a short story is an art of compression. The best short stories suggest novels--the characters linger in your mind," he said.
He also talked about being a role model for the gay community. "It's scary," he said. "Writing is so solitary, and then you go out in the community and you're suddenly a role model."
Penguin Books, Leavitt's publishers, has asked him to edit a book of gay short fiction to be published along with a book of lesbian stories edited by Jeanette Winterson.
"I'm not limiting it to work by gay writers. I want to include a lot of work people won't be expecting," Leavitt said.