Here’s the situation… I guess you really can’t judge a book by its cover. Looking at the Black man gracing the front of the novel Star Bryan and the basketball displayed on the back, one would assume that there was another Black man behind the scenes giving life to this individual as well as his plight.
That couldn’t be any farther from the truth as the author of this novel is Jerry Rabushka—a white male who is telling an insider’s story from the outside looking in.
We caught up with Jerry to find out more about the man and the message behind his debut novel, Star Bryan.
Michelle: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us, Jerry. Tell us a little about yourself.
Jerry: Thanks for the opportunity and for taking time to read the book! I am 52 (born 1960), live in St. Louis, MO. In “real life” I’m a magazine editor for a paint industry magazine. I’m also a playwright; I play piano and a bit of trumpet, I write music, have a band, and have toured the country with both music and acting. I have a partner of 5 ½ years, who is African-American and who I met by chance in New Orleans as I was touring a show and he was playing buckets by the river. I like hanging out in diners and coffee houses. Through my job I’ve been able to visit 49 states (Hawaii anyone?) and a lot of Canada, so I’ve been fortunate to see a lot of America.
Michelle: Your novel, Star Bryan, explores several controversial topics. Please tell us what the book is about.
Jerry: It’s always tough to sum up a novel in a couple sentences! Star Bryan is the name of the title character, and at age 30 he’s trying to “reclaim himself” after a bad five-year relationship. He winds up, instead, focusing on his new romantic relationships to his own detriment, plus getting co-opted into starting a citywide basketball league. All this triggers some big-time family conflict, some of which has been unresolved since 1832.
To elaborate a bit: His family thinks his new boyfriend is “too ghetto.” His defense of the new boyfriend creates conflict in the family as well as jealousy among some others who’d rather have Star for themselves. How he deals with all this is more or less “the book.”
Perhaps the most controversial topic could be that the Bryan family is former slave owners, and while that legacy follows them around and isolates them, it also gives them a sense of history and a strong knowledge of who they are and where they come from. Plus it makes Fawn Bryan, who lived before the Civil War, a pretty important influence in their present day affairs, and poses the question of “what would you do?” – I believe history matters, because what happened in the past is why things are how they are in the present, and this is what the Bryans grapple with every day, in every generation.
Michelle: Is Star Bryan semi-autobiographical or is it strictly a work of fiction?
Jerry: I would say it’s fictional, in that what happens to him didn’t happen to me, but Star’s issues are often my own, like how he tries to “rescue people” or gives so much to someone else that he loses himself in the process and in the end nobody wins. A lot of the characters in the book do things that I’ve done: John Taylor is destructively obsessed in love, Darrock Ndlele feels outcast because he likes highbrow art, etc, so there’s a lot of “me” in there, and perhaps it’s a way to exorcise things that I needed to move past.
Michelle: Some may take your interpretation of dated stereotypes and derogatory language as a blow to the African-American/Black race as opposed to your just wanting to tell an interesting story from a different point of you. What do you say to that?
Jerry: I’ve often written about race, prejudice, etc, in ways people might see as controversial… Sometimes I like to just “call it as I see it” in trying to show people on both sides of an issue as they are… in other words sometimes people say and do things that might be considered offensive, and in literature we always wait for them to be “punished” for it, but in real life, that doesn’t always happen.
So I would say that whether it’s politically correct or not, the words and ideas are what the characters thought and said at the time, and if I censored them, then you as a reader don’t get as into their heads as you should. I like to think the characters explode the stereotypes and language by making fun of them. If people have a problem with Lucinda Trampp, for example, there are people like that all over YouTube and the comic stage these days with that same kind of humor, so it’s not coming out of nowhere. I did have a debate with myself over some of the language, but in the end I figured: that’s what’s goin’ down, and I should say it as they say it and see it as they see it. It’s not couched in “right or wrong” so much as “this is what it is.”
Michelle: Why did you decide to write Star Bryan from a black perspective instead of giving voice to Brad–the white character?
Jerry: The decision was made for me, in a way… It’s Star’s story; Brad, who is Star’s ex from page one, is a thorn in his side in constantly trying to win Star back; it wouldn’t be the book it was if Brad was the major point of view. I didn’t set out to “write a black novel,” so much as a book about this particular character.
Michelle: What was your purpose for creating the very outspoken, sister-girl, Lucinda Trampp?
Jerry: Well, it was fun, for one! “Lucinda” is kind of the “Sasha Fierce” of Star’s sister Arielle… it allows her to cast off her own inhibitions by turning herself into a sassy ghetto character who isn’t afraid to confront her family on issues that she herself is afraid to bring up. Plus it really irritates her family, which makes it even more of a triumph for her.
People who read the book usually tell me that both Arielle and her alter ego Lucinda are one of their favorite characters. Over the course of the book, Arielle realizes that a lot of their upbringing was designed to teach the kids NOT to think for themselves but to follow the family line, so “Lucinda” steps up and says what needs to be said.
Michelle: Where did you get the idea for this story?
Jerry: It was a whim, actually… I thought up a character one day, he was a tall handsome bald goatee’d black guy, and the next day I started writing a story about him, pretty much just like that. I didn’t get a lot of work done for a while because I just wrote, and I got the first third of the book done in a week. I think that made the book what it is, because it just “went where it went” and I wasn’t thinking about who would read it or how people might feel about any of the issues. Sometimes you can have a book planned out from start to finish, and sometimes you just let the characters interact and take you where they go, and that second way is what happened here.
Michelle: What qualifies you to speak on the behalf of the Bryans?
Jerry: I know them better than anyone else. They’re my characters. From a personal standpoint, like the Bryans, I’ve often felt marginalized and like I am operating on the edge of society, never “at home” in whatever group I’m supposed to be part of. A lot of my life has been trying to be accepted by this or that person or people or subculture, and then I’ve realized it was a mistake to put so much effort into that. That’s much of what their experience is, trying to be accepted by people both black and white who will never accept them, and how they cope, good or bad, is that makes this family tick. I never got into a clique, so I watch, look at how they behave, and report back.
I know there’s a question of “why did a white guy write a story about black folks and what does he know about it?” But if you go with the idea that “I have no business doing that,” then perhaps I shouldn’t write about women, or straight people, or Asians, or anything other than “what I am.” My play publisher says I have a great ability to think like a teenage girl. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not. J
While the book is definitely “gay,” I think the family dynamics are one of the best things about it. I came to really like the Bryans and feel for what they are going through, and because of how I wrote it, I found out things about them as the book came together, so it was a cool discovery for me.
Michelle: How important is self-identification when it comes to homosexuality? Do you think that it’s the same across the races?
Jerry: As in identifying yourself as gay, bi, or etc? I think it’s important to know and accept what you are, rather than denying it. I’ve heard often, and my partner will attest to it, that the black community, particularly in respect to religion, is not accepting of homosexuality. But whatever anyone believes sexual orientation not a choice. You can say, “I think it’s a choice” but I can say “when did you choose to be straight?” I can say “I think the moon is made of green cheese” but whether I think it is or not has no bearing on what it’s made of.
It’s cool that being gay isn’t the big issue it used to be in some places… but in others it still is. It might not be so much race as it is culture.
Michelle: Are you working on a follow-up to Star Bryan, or do you believe you’ve already told that story fully?
Jerry: I’m not seeing a sequel, and when someone finishes the book they’ll see why. If I brought Star back, he’d probably be operating in a largely different cast of characters. But I think the story I set out to tell got told. When I write a story, a question I ask myself is “is everyone’s individual story tied up at the end?” and I think I tied up the stories of the characters that needed it. But, I did leave myself an opening to continue if I want to use it!
Michelle: Will you be writing more novels in the future?
Jerry: Probably I will be… I tend to write more plays than fiction, because I have a play publisher who is very supportive of my giving him new material. But lately I’ve been writing short stories; I even won a national contest in 2012. I recently dug up my first novel, that I wrote when I was 17, and I’m planning to re-write it because I’m a better writer now, and I think it’s a good story that needs help. The trick is, my main character is still 16 and 17, and now I’m older than his dad, so I have a whole different perspective on everything.
Michelle: In this day and age, do you believe that homosexuality plays a part in ones advancement in the entertainment industry?
Jerry: There was a time when it played a big part, in that you couldn’t get anywhere if you were openly gay. Seems less of an issue these days, but it’s still big news when this or that person is gay. I think it’s bizarre that suddenly people in sports and music are coming out and everyone’s getting all like “are they going to play ball with a gay player?” “Are they going to sing with a gay country or hip hop singer?” Really? I know our baseball Cardinals didn’t want to take play ball with Jackie Robinson. This isn’t 1947 anymore; we could grow up just a bit.
Michelle: Of all the various fields you’ve worked in–music, theatre, writing, etc, which has been the most fulfilling for you and why?
Jerry: I go through phases. For a while I was doing a lot of theater and less music. Star Bryan took awhile to finish because I was involved in writing and producing plays. Now I’m playing more music, and honestly it’s more “instant gratification” in that I can record a song, put it up online, and get instant love! Lately I’ve been learning to play ragtime piano, and with my band we’ve revived a lot of rare songs from that era including a lot of black composers. I’ve always wanted to have a novel published, so that was a big deal to me personally, particularly since it was a book I wrote “for myself.” Like “from the heart” rather than for hire or for a specific reason. That’s the most fulfilling of any art I do, I think, is that kind of acceptance.
Michelle: If you could press rewind and do anything different from a business standpoint, what would it be?
Jerry: When I was younger, I wish I had some folks “in the biz” who might have helped and advised me along the way. And perhaps I should have sought it out… it’s easier now with the internet to make connections. Back in the 80s I was a welfare caseworker and in my down time I’d write letters to people, trying to push my music or theatre. Perhaps I wish I were more educated on how to market myself. I was talking to a friend who and we both agreed we hoped we’d be a lot farther along in life than we are now, artistically, but in the end, there will always be the challenge, and that’s what keeps us going.
Michelle: What advice would you give to other authors toiling with the idea of releasing a book some may deem controversial?
Jerry: If we don’t talk about controversial topics, they will always be controversial. I’ve had people walk out on my plays, while other people would say they are glad they saw it because it made them think of something in a different way, or even feel better about themselves after watching.
When people say “why don’t you just write what everyone else is writing” I like to respond “well, everyone else is already writing it.” You have to accept the fact that everyone isn’t going to like or appreciate your work, especially if you risk upsetting or irritating people. If I write a story about “a lawyer tries to put his life back together after an unfulfilling relationship” you’ll be like… OK, seen it… but if that same story is “sexy black lawyer/hoops-player gets it on with ex-con street thug while his family deals with its slave-owning past and its political present,” you’re probably more apt to buy and turn pages.
Plus, as I like to say: well-adjusted people do not make good drama.
Michelle: When it’s all said and done, what do you want people to remember and/or admire about Jerry Rabushka and his works?
Jerry: I think we all like to feel like we made a difference to people. In everything I create, I hope that it can make that difference; maybe you will see or understand something in a way you hadn’t before. And of course, that you enjoy the read!
Star Bryan, 30, handsome, lonely, lost for years in a bad romance. Newly on his own, his quest for identity takes him on a journey through his mind and his past—carved spirits in the gift department at T.J. Maxx, an old crate in his father’s attic, a long-hidden diary that casts his family on the wrong side of slavery. And the far-off glitter of a pro basketball career that never happened. He falls in love with the wrong man, then the wrong man falls for him. They’re not the same man. Both are jealous—one is dangerous.
Born into a high-profile political family, Star finds himself in a web of racial bickering in turn of the 21st Century St. Louis, where both black and white society often balk at those who can move easily between the two—and where being aggressively out of the closet can land him in trouble.
Star’s imposing body, looks and raw sexual glamour cast him in the eyes of many as a man who can get whatever he wants out of life. Taking it for himself becomes much harder than it seems.
Jerry Rabushka is well-known as a playwright for Brooklyn Publishers and Heuer Publishing, with dozens of scripts on the market and performances across the USA and internationally. As an actor and director, he’s produced his own work on many stages. Also a composer and songwriter, he’s produced several CDs of original music and was nominated for an Outmusic (LGBT artists) award. He’s won several writing awards and is a two-time winner of contests sponsored by the Saints and Sinners Literary Festival: for fiction with “Wasted Courage” in 2012, and for playwriting with Brushup Ten in 2010.
You can follow Jerry on Facebook at:
Click the following links to hear samples of his music:
Find his plays online at brookpub.com
Email at [email protected]
Author Photo Credit to Isaac Cherry