I vow, henceforth, to live by cock alone.
This is certainly the most among many memorable lines from Let’s Get Back to the Party, the debut novel from late-thirtysomething Washington, D.C.–based writer Zak Salih. Gossipy and full of the energy of contemporary, pre-COVID urban gay life (hookup app foreplay, same-sex weddings, and sometimes awkward cocktail outings), the novel is underscored with themes of loneliness, shame, and longing. Its story bounces between Sebastian and Oscar, two middle-class thirtysomething gay men who’ve become estranged after an intense childhood friendship. Sebastian, a brooding high school art-history teacher of half-Arab descent, becomes obsessed with his openly gay student, while white Oscar, an embittered, hookup-crazy marketing writer, attaches himself to an Edmund White–like older gay literary writer whose books recount the hedonism of the 1970s followed by the misery of AIDS. (The “cock alone” line, from one of his novels, becomes Oscar’s new raison d’être.) Dynamics between all four gay men become ever more knotty, culminating in a rather startling final scene in midsummer 2016, right after the Pulse massacre and a few months before Trump’s shocking electoral upset.
Salih chatted with TheBody about the joys and challenges of writing a novel about a gay late-millennial generation that came of age after the full horrors of AIDS but before the liberation of PrEP and the new freedoms enjoyed by the relatively privileged teen and twentysomething gays of the book’s milieu. Let’s Get Back to the Party (Algonquin, $25.95) can be bought via Amazon, IndieBound, and other vendors.
Tim Murphy: Hey there, Zak! Thanks for talking, and congrats on the publication of Let’s Get Back to the Party. So, like your characters, you live in D.C., yes?
Zak Salih: Yes, I’ve been here almost my entire life and grew up right outside the city. My full-time day job is in marketing and advertising. I write fiction four hours in the morning, depending on my work flow.
Murphy: How do the two kinds of writing connect, or not?
Salih: As a copywriter, I’m still writing, working those muscles, but it’s a different pattern of thinking. I didn’t do an MFA program. I feel like working as a writer in corporate America has given me a lot of skills that translated over to my [creative] writing, like meeting a deadline. Also, in corporate, every vice president is making their two cents on your writing, so you have to learn how to quickly digest feedback and use it to your advantage. I learned a lot about the revision process. I actually take more enjoyment in rewriting than getting that first draft out of my head onto paper, which I find the hardest part.
Murphy: So how did this debut novel of yours come to be?
Salih: I’d told myself that when I finished paying off my student loans, I would quote-unquote do something, so when that happened, I left my full-time job. I’d given up on fiction writing when I got to college. The thought of having other writers read and critique my work was too daunting. But there was always a part of me that felt I was avoiding what I wanted to be doing. So I decided to go freelance and devote six months to telling this story that I wanted to tell.
Murphy: Where did this story come from, and how did it evolve?
Salih: It’s not autobiographical. My life is not as interesting or dramatic as the lives of these characters. I wanted to capture feelings I had about being part of this in-between generation of gay men where it was less about the rigors of coming out and more about having to find your way in a community of like-minded individuals. I’ll be 39 this summer. I didn’t come out until 2005, when I was 23. I was too young to experience the brunt of the AIDS plague; I was aware of it but never felt it was happening to people who were like me. And on the opposite end, we live now very fortunately in a time [for younger queer people] of increased visibility, which is not to say everything is perfect now. But people are taking same-sex dates to the prom and there are queer student organizations. So what is it like being in my generation, in that gap surrounded by these two very powerful and potent experiences but not being able to lay claim to either of them? That to me was the spirit of the story.
Murphy: The story is told between the voices of Sebastian and Oscar. How and why did you come up with that structure?
Salih: I wanted to give them voices that were incredibly different in terms of what it meant to live authentically, so different as to be almost in competition with each other, so that the reader would ask, “How can these two characters ever reconcile themselves?” Sebastian’s sections are these giant blocks of text, very confining, someone trapped in his own head. And Oscar’s sections are very spiky and surface-level, what you’d expect from someone who doesn’t want to think about the past and dwell on human relationships. I wanted everything the reader understood about older and younger gay men to be filtered through the experiences of these two men in their 30s.
Murphy: So I know that fiction writers, including myself, hate questions like this, but we all know there is a grain of truth in them: How much of you is Sebastian and how much is Oscar?
Salih: Well, as you would expect from a writer, I do live in my head a lot—like Sebastian. I identify with him more. With Oscar, writing in his voice and about his life was an experiment in analyzing an alternative self. I had the great good fortune of, when I came out, I was accepted by family and friends. With Oscar, I wanted to envision what kind of person I would be if I’d come out to my parents and they’d basically said [as Oscar’s parents do], we’ll pay for your college and then we don’t ever want to see you again. I think I’d be filled with resentment and loathing, including self-loathing, living encased in an armor that keeps you safe from people who would do you harm but doesn’t allow you to let in the people you should, like your peers and community.
Murphy: And then we have the strange relationship between Oscar and Sean, the older gay writer who’s a survivor of the AIDS era and has written many memoir novels about the hedonistic 1970s and also the plague. For me, he’s very evocative of both Edmund White and Andrew Holleran. And without spoiling too much, Sean ends up being rather mean to Oscar, which bothered me. Why?
Salih: I think what Sean eventually finds so repellent about Oscar is his lack of respect for the past, and for other people. To me, the story is about how people cope with the passage of time and the changes it brings. Oscar is obsessed with Sean and his writing and that kind of rebellious experience that he’s lived, but he romanticizes it. Sean tells him that he considers his book on losing friends and lovers his most important work, and Oscar basically brushes it off, saying, “There’s too much death and not enough sex.”
Murphy: Mm, OK. Oscar also decides to live by a line he finds in one of Sean’s books, which is “to live by cock alone.” What’s that about?
Salih: It’s about the political force of sexuality. For Oscar, it’s a battle cry while living in a time of more conformity, acceptance, and allegiance to heteronormative ways of being. To him, it’s a counter-slogan to an advertisement he sees for gay wedding rings that reads, “Make him yours forever.”
Murphy: Do you think Oscar’s rejection by his family plays a part in his decision to live only for sex, not intimacy or connection?
Salih: I do. Don’t get me wrong, sex is amazing and wonderful, but it’s not the only intimacy that two gay men can share. But Oscar is the kind of person who thinks that sex is the easiest and least burdensome form.
Murphy: Right. Also, your story takes place in the age of PrEP. Has PrEP changed you in any way?
Salih: Honestly no, for the simple reason that I’ve been in a monogamous relationship the whole time it’s been out. I’ve had no reason to take it. Were I still single, I absolutely would. But I do think about earlier generations who wished they could take a pill and not worry about [AIDS]. There’s an envy that comes from seeing how much easier people seem to have it decades later.
Murphy: As a half-Arab myself, I like that Sebastian mentions that he’s half-Arab but that it hasn’t really figured in his life much. That feels true to the experience of many people I know, including myself at times.
Salih: I’m only a quarter Arab. My father is Sudanese and my mother is [white and] from Indiana. On my first date with my partner at an Indian restaurant, the server thought I was Indian. But with Sebastian, his Arab heritage is on the side of his mother, who emigrated to America and really wanted to divorce her son from any allegiance to one particular identity. While I certainly embrace the Arab side of myself, it’s as much a part of me as the other side. I’m a mutt. Also, I didn’t feel like I could give equal weight to the gay and racial aspects of the book. But at the same time, I didn’t feel the need to whitewash Sebastian. Why does white have to be the default skin color just because you’re not structuring the story around race?
Murphy: D.C. itself is kind of a character in your book, as it is in Andrew Holleran’s novel Grief. Do you think it functions that way?
Salih: In the same way any city functions in a gay novel. There’s something about queer people and cities. It’s promising that we’re starting to see more queer narratives taking place outside of places like New York and San Francisco. A brilliant book I read recently takes place entirely in Appalachian Ohio, Carter Sickels’ The Prettiest Star.
Murphy: Also, a lot of your book is about middle-class gay men enjoying the privileges or at least the choice of assimilation, and D.C., as a center of power, certainly has its share of those.
Salih: There’s definitely a historical weight here with all the monuments and the classical style. I wanted there to be an undercurrent of dread throughout the novel, the reader knowing what will happen in the months after the novel ends and what D.C. would become politically.
Murphy: Yes, it’s very much set on the eve of the Trump era, including the Pulse tragedy. How much did you want real-life events to relate to the story?
Salih: A very shocking revelation I had when starting to plot this book was realizing that Obergefell [the Supreme Court case that federally recognized gay marriage] and the Pulse massacre are almost exactly a year apart. I used that as a kind of framework to think about how gay men live their lives. I have a more intimate relationship to those moments that I can’t say I share with the AIDS plague.
Murphy: What queer writers have influenced you?
Salih: I think all gay male writers write in the shadow of Garth Greenwell, who is a warm, welcoming, and beautiful writer and a wonderful literary citizen. Otherwise, Holleran, White—all the icons. I came to them as a very young boy looking for sex, just like Oscar, not for sentence structure or tone. It was only later, once I came out, that I read those works as historical documents. But now we have so many wonderful gay and queer writers working today, like Ocean Vuong, Maria Machado, Maggie Nelson—all these different expressions of what it means to be queer.
Murphy: So I don’t want to spoil, but I must say that that ending was very startling—gasp-worthy, even! What does that ending mean to you?
Salih: There are multiple meanings. For one, it’s an homage to the ending of one of my favorite novels by a Sudanese writer named Tayeb Salih [the rest of this sentence is redacted so as not to hint at the ending]. The other is, with the weight of what’s coming in the story with the Trump administration, I wanted to end with both Oscar and Sebastian surrounded by their peers. For someone like Oscar, even though he may loathe how they choose to live their lives, having him need their resources was a love letter to how we’re all in this together. I wanted to ask: Can one live on their own, or does one need the help of their community?