The City of Lovely Brothers by Anel Viz

Anel Viz, whom I was lucky enough to meet and spend some time with in New Orleans for GayRomLit, joins me today. He shares a fascinating look not only at one of his favorite books, but at the creative process. Learn how he writes from the middle out, which you should not try at home (trust me)!  But it works for him. This is a complex, layered book, one you can really sink your teeth into. 

The City of Lovely Brothers, my second published novel, came out two and a half years ago in e-book and print format.  It received many superlative 5-stars reviews.  Sales, on the other hand, have been disappointing, perhaps because its almost 600-page length frightens readers away.  Yet it contains some of the most vivid and varied character portraits I’ve written, lots of playful sex scenes, and a momentum propelled by a clash of personalities toward a conclusion all hope to avoid.  Those who have the courage to start the book find it hard to put down.

Now Silver Publishing is getting ready to release it as an audiobook, and I think the time has come to promote it again, to remind the fans of m/m romance who do most of their reading visually that the book is out there waiting to be discovered and enjoyed.  So I’ll say a few words about the book and the experience of writing it and then provide an excerpt.

First, the blurb:

The City of Lovely Brothers is a family saga, the history of Caladelphia Ranch, jointly owned by four brothers, Calvin, Caleb, Calhoun and Caliban Caldwell – how it grew and prospered, and how rivalry between the brothers led to its breaking up and decline.  As the story evolves, it focuses on the love affair between the youngest brother, Caliban, who is lame, and Nick, one of their ranch hands, and how their relationship set the stage for the already open feud to explode and ultimately caused the demise of the ranch.


Believe it or not, the starting point of my novel was not the title.  I had already written about 1/6 of it before everything fell into place.  I set out to write a short story set in the American West before WWI about hard feelings among four brothers, one of whom was gay, and the hard feelings would focus on his sexuality.  An ironic aside about “brotherly love” gave me the idea for the title, and I changed the names of the Caldwell brothers so they’d all begin with “Cal” (Greek for beautiful).  It was easy to come up with Calvin, Calhoun and Caleb, but even the baby name lists didn’t help, so I opted for Caliban from Shakespeare’s Tempest, not a name for the beautiful man in my story (he had to be the youngest – what other reason to name a kid Caliban except having run out of Cal names?), so I made him a cripple.  Also, Caladelphia is obviously a name for a city, so I put a 21st century city on the site of the defunct ranch and wrote a prologue to the story.

Fortunately, I don’t write my books from beginning to end.  I start somewhere in the middle with the situation which was the germ of my inspiration, and I build out from there.  If I didn’t work that way, I would have had to trash everything I’d written so far.  As it was, I could keep what I had with new names and minimal revisions.  By then I knew I had a novel, not a short story, on my hands.  I started in on the backstory, found it was too much story for a backstory, decided the novel would be a biography of Caliban from birth to death (1875-1931).  I was wrong, too many characters took over, the conflict became a feud, and the main character became the ranch and future city.  The prologue became a running commentary on the story, an amateur historian researching the founding of the city where he grew up and interpreting what he discovered in such a way that his historical narrative became a fiction.  I succeeded in making the “documentation” the historian narrator presents so true to life that my editor at first insisted I change the names of my invented characters and location to avoid a lawsuit by their descendants!  It struck me then that the subtext of my novel was historical fiction brings history to life and that it is the language of narration that creates truth.  In the end, historical fact is just a story, and however accurate those facts, how the historian presents them is fiction.

I finished the first draft less than two months after beginning what I thought would be a short story and two weeks at most revising it after my beta sent it back to me.  Finding a publisher took nearly a year. Wonderful but too long, was the general consensus.  Perhaps it is, but what’s done is done.  Read it for yourselves and decide.

[buylink print]  [buy link e-book] [myGLBT Bookshelf page]


Read an Excerpt:

[The introduction to Part III is a good example of how I couch the story as fictionalized history.]


By my calculations, they must have built the public lavatory in Victory Park more or less on the site of the stable where Caliban and Nick made love for the first time.  There is a kind of poetic justice here, because when I returned to Caladelphia to research this history it did not take me long to see that it had become a gay cruising ground.  I did not cruise it myself.  I could tell by the graffiti (‘for good head be here at…’ etc.) and cum stains on walls of the stalls, and also the glory hole.  I am quite certain the lavatory was not used for sex when I lived there.  I left Caladelphia so I could live openly as a gay man.


The city had changed in other ways, too.  There were more houses, the apartment complexes were new, there was a new shopping mall and a new elementary school, and the number of fast-food places had doubled.  They even had a Chinese take-out.  But it was recognizable as the the same town, and the city limits were exactly the same.


Beyond the story of how the city got its name, which gets a paragraph in that Chamber of Commerce brochure no one ever reads, I did not find much useful information in Caladelphia.  I found out twice as much by writing the courthouse in Helena, including a map of the ranch some dozen years before it became a town, and ten times more in the Montana State University archives in Bozeman.  The archive is where I found the photographs of Caliban, of Calvin and Darcie, and of Julia with her boys, and also the microfilm of the Rosebud County Record with Caleb’s obituary.  I also came across floor plans of the Johnson house (there is even an exterior photograph of it, which I did not need since it is still standing) and of the old Caldwell ranch house with the additions they proposed to make.  I based my description of the house on them, assuming they followed those plans.  For Caliban’s house I used the sketches Nick made in his diary of the floor plan and layout of the grounds.  As for the book with Calhoun’s photo, it was called to my attention by a curator of the Museum of the American West in Griffith Park, Los Angeles, who had learned of my interest in the Caldwell family from a colleague, a history professor at Bozeman whom he met at a conference.


The bulk of my information comes from Nick’s diary, which I came by serendipitously.  One of my old lovers, who has remained a friend, collects memorabilia, which he picks up from junk vendors in the cities he visits on vacation and at estate sales.  He bought an old steamer trunk full of old letters, mementos, knickknacks, personal papers, and the like.  In it were the eight thick notebooks in which Nick kept his diary.  At least one notebook is missing, perhaps more, as the eighth may not have been the last.  He sent it to me to ask if it was publishable, and stuck post-it notes to the pages with the more explicit passages, which he thought I would enjoy and would have been a reason for publishers to refuse the manuscript.


I had read nearly all of them, in random order, and several other passages as well, before I realized that the Cal of the diary was the Caliban Caldwell who was supposedly one of the founding fathers of the city where I had been born.  (I say ‘supposedly’ because the diary makes abundantly clear he was not.)  I immediately proceeded to read the entire diary from beginning to end.  Then I phoned my friend and told him that in my opinion Nick’s diary told a run-of-the-mill love story.  “He says so himself,” I said, and read him this sentence: “I fell in love with a cripple and lived happily ever after.”  Instead I proposed using it to reconstruct Caliban’s life and the history of the ranch, which I felt would make a better book.  (My friend thought I was talking about Shakespeare’s Tempest until I explained that Cal was Caliban.)  I asked if I could keep the notebooks while I was working on the project.  He made me a present of them.

I asked if he had found anything else in the trunk that might have some bearing on the diary.  He said there was an old photograph and hundreds of letters.


“What’s in the photo?”


“It’s a photo of a middle-aged man.  Very good looking, too.  A real hunk.  He looks older than what I generally go for, but I wouldn’t mind—”


“But you can’t.  He’s been dead three-quarters of a century, so you’d have to find out where he’s buried and dig him up, which you go for even less.  Just send me the photo, and go through the letters and send me all that are addressed to Caliban or signed by him.  I’ll read the rest when I come to visit and see if there are any others that mention him.”


The man in the photo more or less matched the description of Caliban in Nick’s diary, but more than that, he was so stunning I was sure he had to be him, and I was right.  It was another copy of the photo I found in the archives at Bozeman a few months later.


My friend forwarded me hundreds of letters, and a small jeweler’s box with a lock of a man’s hair inside – iron grey with black stands, and tied with a piece of orange yarn.  The letters he sent apparently include all the letters Nick and Caliban sent each other during Caliban’s two years in Laramie.  I had thought the trunk would contain only Caliban’s letters to Nick.  There are others, too, among them some of his correspondence with Caleb.  He must have taken Caleb’s letters with him when he left the ranch, and those he had written to Caleb Amanda may have sent after Caleb’s death.  We also have Jake’s letters to Caliban after Caliban moved east, but none from before, and three letters from Darcie.  To make sense of the letters, though, one has to read the diary.



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2 Responses to “The City of Lovely Brothers by Anel Viz”

  1. that all sounds very intriguing. I’m not sure about writing from the middle-out – but I confess I’ve written just about every way possible – I am sure, however, that if Anel Viz wrote it, it’s good reading.

  2. Anel Viz says:

    Well, Victor, I don’t start dead center and work out from there in an orderly fashion; I jump around as situations occur to me. The important point is that I start with characters in a situation and the plot grows out of that. The plot is among the last elements of the story to come into being. Also, the characters grow as I get to know them, and earlier incidents occur to me as they flesh out. So each book is an experiment.
    To use something you read as an example, “The Memoirs of Colonel Gérard Vreilhac” began with Gérard helping Julien escape the Terror. I knew it wasn’t the beginning — there would be story leading up to it. But I thought it would end with a reunion when Julien returns at the beginning of the Restoration (not a few years into it). I couldn’t have Gérard moping monklike until then — he just wasn’t that kind of guy. As his relationships multiplied, I realized that the typical back-together-again HEA romance ending would be a lie. The book is still HEA, but not the HEA most readers expect or want. Many readers don’t like Gérard; they find him too calculating. Perhaps, but he survives because of it, and he’s always as honest as he can be given he has to hide his sexuality, and he never takes advantage of people.
    I think you in particular will find much to like in “Lovely Brothers” because of your interest in the writer’s craft above and beyond the good telling of a good story.

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