Doug Rose - Interview
What was the first book you fell in love with?
It’s funny. I can’t remember ever not loving books. If my recollection is correct, it probably was a “Little Golden Book” of nursery rhymes. Either that, or a book by Dr. Seuss. In both cases, I loved the books because I could “read” them long before I could actually read. My parents and other family members read to me so often that I would memorize the poems. By looking at the pictures in those books, I would know which poem to recite. It made me feel very grown up, like a big boy.
What is your favorite word?
Based purely on aesthetics, I’d have to say “lugubrious.” Or “unctuous.” These are words that I hardly ever use, but I like them because they are multi-syllabic and complex. There aren’t many words that have so many “u” sounds, and speaking these words is kind of like giving your mouth a short ride on a verbal rollercoaster. They are fun. My favorite functional words, though, tend to extend from “light” as the root. “Delight” and “delighted,” “enlightened” or simply “lit,” I use these words a lot because they invoke luminous imagery. And now that I think of it, I should probably include “luminous” up there with “lugubrious” and “unctuous,” right? The thought of saying those loopy “u” words just makes my tongue squeal with delight.
What was it like to hear your name called as the Sophie Kerr Winner?
At commencement, hearing my name called was a matter of course. In those days, the winners were notified the day before graduation, mostly so that the combination of hot sun and surprise wouldn’t cause us to pass out in the middle of the ceremony. In my case, I had been working in Miller Library the day before graduation. It was late afternoon, and I had just locked the doors. I was heading across the library terrace when Professor Bob Day came riding up on his bicycle. “Mr. Rose,” he said, as I recall. “I have a message for you. You are the winner of the Sophie Kerr Award.” I think my response was something like “Stop that, Bob Day! Don’t you know it’s not nice to tease?!” Bob Day just chuckled and said, “Good luck tomorrow. And congratulations.” I stood there, speechless, as he waved and rode his bicycle off into the sunset. From there, I rushed to Reid Hall, where my parents were staying for the weekend, and breathlessly told them the news. Then I immediately set back out onto the campus to find my friend Suzanne Niemeyer. I knew she’d been up all night wondering whether she had won, and honestly, I thought that she was going to get it. When I broke the news to her, she thanked me and congratulated me, and then went off to get some sleep. To this day, I still think she’s a better writer than I am, and I am so very glad—and a little bit jealous—that she has had such a wonderful and successful publishing career.
What did you do after graduation?
In the fall after graduation, I went to Belgium on a Fulbright grant to study theater. Then I did a couple of years in grad school at the University of Massachusetts and an internship at the National Theatre of Great Britain in London. I eventually went to New York to try to find work in theater, but ended up very happily working in publishing. I had a wonderful opportunity helping to direct the publishing program at the American Council for the Arts, and then went on to work in the Library Reference division of Macmillan Publishing as a marketing manager. Unfortunately, my professional career only lasted seven years, and then I got derailed in 1997 by an HIV infection that had progressed to AIDS. For the last 15 years, most of my energy has been focused on surviving AIDS and other health issues. As my health has allowed, I’ve been providing volunteer support to nonprofit HIV/AIDS and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender service and advocacy organizations. It’s amazing how much work a writer can get when he’s willing to work for free. I think of myself as an impoverished philanthropist, which isn’t so bad, really. Sometimes, though, I think I’d like to return to work, if I could find a job that wouldn’t kill me.
Your room on campus use to be Kate Bursick’s office, could you tell us what it was like to live in the Lit House?
And I’ve heard a rumor that that room is currently being painted some version of lavender, which I consider excellent news! Living in Lit House was great fun. We were such an unlikely mix of students, but we really got on well together, for the most part. There were battles over cleaning the bathroom sometimes, or doing the dishes, or something like that. But most of us were Type A high-achievers, so the hours we kept for studying—and playing—were insane. And because the house was a public space as well as living quarters, we never knew who we might find coming out of a bathroom… or a bedroom… or almost any room in the house. While I was busy completing work for Drama and French majors, as well as building the Kerr portfolio, I would occasionally invite friends into my room for a private ”literary” reading of fantasies from gay porn magazines that I’d purchased. Those were great fun! And I can think of at least one time when the other residents had to help me fend off the advances of a middle-aged woman artist from town who had become obsessed with me. She would come by the house at all hours to leave strange love notes on paperback dust jackets or grim portraits she’d painted at the front door. Oh! And I used one of the main floor offices to break up with a man from town that I’d been dating. And of course we edited and published student literary magazines, served massive amounts of wine and cheese, and hosted visiting authors and student readings in the house, too. I have a wonderful photograph of Suzanne Niemeyer, Paul Henderson, and me with the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, taken in the room that was Bob Day’s office. But honestly, compared to the personal fun and games we all experienced in that house, the official events were somewhat less memorable experiences.
What was the Lit House like as a hang out when you were a student? What was the bottomless coffee pot?
Personally, I knew less about the bottom of the coffee pot than I did about the top. I had to be an early riser in order to get my homework done, so I’d often be up at 5 am to make the first pot of coffee. By the time the others were awake, I’d already had several cups and was off to work or to class. I’d usually come home and crash for a while in the afternoon while everyone else was out, then I’d get up for dinner before heading to the theater for rehearsals. We were always in rehearsal for something in the Drama department. Post-rehearsal usually meant winding down with a few beers in the “Coffee House,” which was the campus bar, located in those days beneath the dining hall, or in “Phebe’s,” in the basement of the fine arts building, where we often kept a keg on tap in the refrigerator. By the time I got back to the house, the coffee pot was empty and cold. And I had just enough time to get a few hours of sleep before that crazy pace—and a fresh pot of high-octane brew—would start all over again.
Do you have any advice to new and future Sophie Kerr winners?
Ouf! I don’t know. I guess I’d recommend that they not spend all that money on booze and drugs. Several of us have gotten into trouble doing that. And they be prepared, because the rest of their lives, folks will ask them, “So what are you writing now? Have you published anything I can read?” The reality is that the publishing record for Sophie’s Curse… oops! I mean Sophie Kerr winners is a little spotty. But don’t worry about that too much. Strong writers seem always to be in demand in this world, and our gifts rarely go unapplied or unappreciated. And if you spend all that money on booze and drugs, try to have a really good time doing it—and don’t get caught! And please, please, please, whether you win the prize or not, whether you are gay or straight or somewhere in-between, please always practice safe sex. That might be the most important decision you make as far as your future career as a writer is concerned.