I was born in Rahway, NJ, a town famous in New Jersey because it has a major prison in it, though contrary to popular belief, inside the prison is not where I was born.† Ethnically, I am Newark Italian, as that is where my grandfather had settled initially after immigrating here.† I would have had a very Sopranos type existence because of this save for eventually being raised in Freehold, Monmouth County, New Jersey, along the Jersey Shore.† Itís where Bruce Springsteen is from and is memorialized in his song, ďMy Hometown.Ē† It does not get more Americana than that.
What was it that first got you into writing and when did you start writing?
Ever since I was little, I imagined I would be a writer.† I remember that when the 1976 Bicentennial happened, I was about 8 years old, and writing patriotic plays we neighborhood kids could in our backyards for our parents.† By 12 or 13 though is when it really became solidified and clear to me, and I think to my teachers, that I would become a writer.† Even then, I wrote in racy terms, and this was not encouraged by my parents at all.† I used to go to bed very early, waking up when everyone else had gone to sleep, and then quickly catching an hour nap before the school day.† All so my writing could be private.† This writing pattern still persists for me, but not for privacy reasons.† I do my best work in the dark, when the city, I live in New York, has shut down and there is no one but me and my thoughts, undistracted.
Many different writers.† Recently, I would say that some other gay writers as diverse as Robert Rodi, who writes wonderfully on urban settings is an influence, along with Larry Kramer.† Heís better known for his activism, but the book Faggots was a wonderfully Jewish-gay-neurotic piece full of humor and angst and I believe that has influenced me a bit as well.† I would also list Edmund White, Felice Picano, Jaime Manrique and Andrew Holleran who have also all directly mentored me, as influences on my work.
I am best known as a travel writer, but I challenge myself with difficult environments like war zones and post-dictatorships, rather than the usual sun and sand writing people think of when travel writing is mentioned.† I have written extensively for instance on travel in post-Taliban Afghanistan, as well as other areas of the Muslim world.† My New York Times business travel piece in 2003 was the first time a major American newspaper covered post-war Afghanistan from a tourism perspective, for instance.† I write the Frommerís Buenos Aires guidebook, as well as other material on Argentina, one of my favorite countries.† I am also well known for erotica, or literotica, some of which is travel oriented.† I edit a gay and lesbian travel book series for Haworth Press called Out in the World.† Some of the material produced is erotica, but thoughtful erotica.† Others are deep and cutting anthologies.† In all cases, when people review these anthologies, the general feedback is on the sense of connection to the places, all from a gay perspective, which is unique.† My new novel with Alyson Books, called The Voyeur, is about a sex researcher in the Giuliani era.† Itís a dark comedy set in New Yorkís gay sexual underground, or the one that existed before Giuliani came to power.† So my writing really runs to everything.† I like to say from academia to erotica.
I just finished the second edition of Between the Palms, a gay travel erotica collection for Haworth.† I am also finishing up the second edition of the Frommerís Buenos Aires book, for which I was living in Argentina earlier this year.† In terms of articles Ė some HIV and travel pieces, women in Paraguay and a gay travel map of the Middle East.
What is your writing day like?
Each day is different.† The hard part is discipline, and finding time.† The types of writing that I do Ė specifically travel journalism, donít lend well to an organized writing day.† If I am trying to get an article done and collect quotes Ė even if I am not traveling, it can be crazy with calls coming in, speaking to someone who refers you to someone, revisions from editors during the process.† If I am out and actually running around, well then it is even worse.† Collecting, taking notes, no sleep, hoping to be able to get back to my computer and get stuff down, sometimes in different languages, make progress no matter what.
If I am doing essays or creative work, itís another story.† Then I try to sit with blocks of time at my desk.† I block out as many distractions as I can.† That means shutting off the phone, making sure I have no appointments, turning off the internet.† I also write at night, which is when I think most clearly, turning off most of the lights save for a low-level desk light and a candle behind my computer.† All of this helps me to focus, to concentrate on the work at hand that I need to do.† But it also means a certain guilt eating away at me because I have to tell friends, sorry canít see you, must do my work.
There are so many things that are exciting Ė one of those is coming up with ideas, self-brainstorming, which gives me an incredible rush.† When the ideas flow from mind to fingertips to computer screen, itís exciting.† I also love the sense of satisfaction, completion, and catharsis, that comes from writing something and finishing.† The other thing is the journey Ė where all this takes me Ė I have met people I would never have met and been places I would never have been were it not for writing.† I mean, I have met royalty around the world, other famous writers and actors and actresses, witnessed events of our time, all because I am a writer.† Plus some pretty interesting things happen that maybe itís best not to put on paper, at least at the moment!
I just had to talk about this at the Small Press New York Writers Conference.† Getting my novel The Voyeur into print was particularly frustrating.† I think the thing about writing is you never know what is going to work, what is going to get into print, what is going to be the break so to speak.† It took me 8 years to get The Voyeur, a controversial novel about a gay sex researcher working in New Yorkís Giuliani era, into print.† But along the way, what a journey.† It forced me to work harder, network more, write more, get better and better credits and bylines.† If you had told me 8 years ago I would eventually write articles for the New York Times on Afghanistan I would have thought you were crazy, but that was all part of the frustrating journey that got The Voyeur published.
Beyond that, the balance of time and writing, and keeping mind and schedule clear.† I often have to be all over, email all over, and just know a lot, in particular to cover the challenging destinations I do.† Thatís frustrating and rewarding all the same.† I would also add another source of frustration is that writing does not pay well.† Many people looking to become writers think itís all glamour and money but itís not.
Whatís the best piece of feedback that youíve had from your audience?
The best feedback I have gotten has come based on my Middle Eastern and Muslim work.† Afghan-Americans have told me that no writer they know of conveys an understanding of their country and culture like I do.† That in particular has real meaning for me.† In addition, many gay men who have been ex-pats in other countries, particularly in the Middle East, also feel that no one has explained their thoughts and feelings as I have.† Itís for things like this that I enjoy what I do.
Do you write for a particular audience, or is your first priority to satisfy your own creativity?
I have many different audiences for the work that I do.† I have gay men who travel as an audience as an example.† I also have many highly educated working women with children as an audience since I write for Womens E-News (www.womensenews.com) and used to also write for MAMM, a now defunct womenís cancer treatment magazine.† Since I do business travel for the New York Times and Bloomberg News, I also have that as well with a very different audience.† But my creative writing, like The Voyeur, my fiction and my travel anthologies, they are aimed primarily at gay men who love literature.
Do you have a homepage? Do you have any short stories or poems published online? (If so, please provide the URLs):†
My homepage is www.michaelluongo.com and it has links to my work as well as a lot of my travel photography.† I also would suggest people visiting www.misterbuenosaires.com my Argentina writing website and www.thevoyeurnovel.com which I set up for my controversial sex research themed novel The Voyeur, just published by Alyson Books in April 2007.
Thanks, itís been great being here.