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 Interview: The Q and A

(Interview conducted in 2005.)

Interviewer: When we last met, you had just finished READING LIPS. How long after that did you begin JEB & DASH?

Michael Conley: Actually, I began writing JEB & DASH first.

Q: Then, that's where we should begin. When did you first encounter the book?

A: A Different Light Bookstore, Los Angeles, Summer of 1999.

Q: You remember it that clearly?

A: Absolutely. I've always been interested in history and biography. This combined both and was a story that was important to me personally.

Q: You mean the gay aspect?

A: Not just that. How do we tell the stories of our forebears? In every culture, someone came before us and broke new ground. In the case of Jeb and Dash, these people were gay at a time when people could -- and did -- lose their jobs, their families and even go to jail. Although they lived 75 years ago in a city I have only visited, when I read the book, I felt that I understood their hopes and fears, their frustrations. I always believed it had themes that would appeal to a non-gay audience.

Q: Such as?

A: The love story between Jeb and Dash, of course, serves as the spine for the book and the play. But there's something even more basic: the need everyone has to belong, to be part of a family. This becomes a central theme running throughout the play.

Q: How did Ina Russell come to write the book?

A: Ina is Jeb's niece and he left the diaries to her when he died in 1965. After reading through a few of the entries, she put the volumes away while she raised her family. By the time she returned to them in the 1980s, people were ready to hear Jeb's story.

The sheer volume of Jeb's output is staggering. Like many diary entries, much of it is quite ordinary: whom he ate with, whether he walked or took the trolley to work, how much he hated his job. But throughout, there is also poetry. For example, about the first time he saw Dash, he writes: "...[Dash] waved to me, his eyes pale green and beautiful, his face full of life. He, a young god on his throne -- and I, in dumb adoration and abasement, dreaming dreams of ourselves…" He writes about school, the suicide of a classmate, Washington, D.C. in the 1920s and 30s. Jeb was even an eyewitness to history: he was traveling in Europe in when World War II broke out, and was stranded for a month, trying to find passage home.

It fell to Ina to weave these entries and people into a narrative that would hold the reader's attention. Out of necessity, she created some composite characters, but she did so with faithfulness to who they were and what happened in their lives. If you read distillations of other diaries, you realize what a masterful job she did.

The book has gone on to have a life of its own far beyond what Ina ever expected, and certainly beyond what Jeb himself would have dared dream. Readers have written from across the country and Europe to tell Ina how the book has affected them personally. A man in England wrote to say it forced him to face his own lack of discipline -- he finished a novel he had been working on, which has since been published in the UK and the US.

Q: What happened to the people in the book?

A: When Ina was writing the book, she had no way of knowing the fates of anyone except her uncle and Dash (whom she met briefly). After publication, a librarian at the Library of Congress offered to track down the others through obituaries and computer searches, and some of that is included in the dénouement of the play where the audience learns what became of the characters.

Probably the most moving revelation is a man in Charleston, SC, who came forward to say that he recognized parts of his life in one of the characters. I've visited John, now in his 90s, several times and his insights have been invaluable in helping me write the play. He came to the Equity reading in Philadelphia.

Q: So you immediately thought it would make a play?

A: My immediate reaction was, "This is a terrific story!" Everything was there: love, conflict and memorable characters. Even promise unfulfilled. But since it takes place over many years and in many locations, I thought of it as a TV miniseries. I always hoped it would reach the widest possible audience.

Q: A "gay" miniseries.

A: It's not a gay story. People everywhere will care about these characters. Many of the choices they make are the same ones we encounter today.

Q: What kind of research did you do? How does one go about studying a topic that was closeted and illegal?

A: Many indirect methods. To understand Washington, I read the WPA Guide to Washington, written in the 1930s. Books that documented gay life in New York were helpful. Published diaries written by gay men from that period reconfirmed some details and provided more background.

Aside from the diaries themselves, Jeb left his personal papers to Washington & Lee University (Lexington, VA) and I spent time sifting through those. John in Charleston was invaluable: not only did he know many of these people, but he lived directly below Jeb and was witness to his pack-rat tendencies and lovable nature, and also to his drinking and late night carousing.

Q: What's going to happen to the diaries?

A: No one besides Jeb has read all the entries -- not even Ina. Not only are there 50 volumes, each with detailed entries for almost every day, but his handwriting, particularly in later years, is devilishly difficult to decipher. I've seen the originals: it is a magnificent collection to behold, but transcribing them would be an impossible undertaking for one person.

After the book was published and began receiving attention, Ina was contacted by the Library of Congress, which asked to take possession of them, and she intends to bequeath them. That would have delighted Jeb no end: he held the Library of Congress in extremely high regard and often stopped there to read. To learn that his diaries ended up there would please him enormously.

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