Christopher Gioia interviewed Robert W. Fieseler for Public Seminar about his newly minted book chronicling a heinous act of arson that resulted in the death of thirty-one men and one woman on June 24, 1973, at The Up Stairs Lounge — a gay bar in New Orleans. By turns sedulous and creative, Fieseler’s narrative conjures the institutional and interpersonal anti-gay prejudice that dominated the city’s response to the tragedy at the time — a city disregarding of survivors needs, families of the dead too ashamed to claim and publicly mourn their lost ones, and the Catholic church denying proper burial rights to the victims represent some of the acts of prejudice that arose out of the aftermath of the mass murder. While Fieseler bravely faces the dark dimensions of humanity, his narrative also celebrates the impassioned activism that followed the fire, which was so essential to the emergence of a fledgling gay movement.
Christopher Gioia [CG]: As a journalist, there are so many important stories you could choose to write about. Why did you decide to write Tinderbox?
Robert W. Fieseler [RF]: I usually engage in a prolonged intellectual courtship with a story theme before “getting in bed” with a specific project. And sure, the Up Stairs Lounge fire checked all my intellectual boxes. It was a historically significant event — the murder of 32 individuals, forsaken and underplayed within days. The fire occurred in a historically significant setting — the seamy gay underworld of 1970s New Orleans. And it was an unjustly ignored milestone in a historically significant movement — Gay Liberation, which morphed and grew into what we now know as the LGBT+ rights crusade. But none of this explains, at least to me, why I responded to the Up Stairs Lounge fire so instinctually and so immediately. It was as if my brain had been a farmer’s plot awaiting a mustard seed.
The tragedy of the Up Stairs Lounge called to me — on an almost primordial level — from the nanosecond I first heard of it. Imagine a lightning bolt in the mind or something like an angel awakening you in your sleep. I was changed, obsessed and already moving. By that, I mean there was no choice but to tell the story once I got the slightest whiff. Opportunities and energies aligned, and my part, as a once-closeted gay person, in weaving together the narrative of the fire and closeted gay citizens seemed akin to destiny… none of which I believed in before this book (fate, being “called,” everything I’m saying right now that must sound like complete horseshit). Besides meeting my husband, nothing has ever happened to me like Tinderbox, before or since.
[CG]: How did the project evolve over time? Did your original idea go through many stages and changes? Can you describe this evolution?
The project began as a book focusing exclusively on the historic tragedy and the question of its legacy. At least, that was what I pitched to my publisher. Then, the gyre spun widely when I saw how interlaced the Up Stairs Lounge fire was with the early stages of the Gay Liberation movement and the non-relationship between the Civil Rights and Women’s Rights movements of the era and our nation’s gay radicals. I mean, oppressed groups can be so easily Balkanized and split from each other, divided and conquered by elites, and so they were in the 1970s. I felt that these overtones blended uncannily well with the chords of my narrative; the lyrics to the anthemic song of the Up Stairs Lounge even went, “United we stand, divided we fall.”
My book idea exploded and then bloated, resulting in my first manuscript being about 180,000 words — the size of Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Catch-22. It was a mammoth undertaking to write and a taxing read. My husband jokingly called this version of Tinderbox “Gay War & Peace” or “Gaylord of the Rings.” About the time I owed the final manuscript to my editor, I realized that there were, in fact, two books I could distill out of the mess I’d created: 1. Some attempt at “Gay War & Peace,” which would take me ten more years to polish and likely stretch my abilities as a first-time writer beyond their apex and fail of its own ambitiousness OR 2. A faster-flowing narrative about the fire, and its place in a broader historical context, with an internal motor spinning similar to the way the Mississippi River functions in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, always moving the action ahead.
I decided to write the second narrative. My editor gave me more time, and I cut more than half of the original book, eliminating whole characters and chapters and interludes. I think the final manuscript I turned in was around 95,000 words. The cuts were brutal, but I’d make them again.
[CG]: You made the move to New Orleans to immerse yourself in this project. Tell us about any challenges and rewards that decision entailed.
[RF]: I’d never been to New Orleans before Tinderbox, though I’d long wanted to go. I can’t tell you what kept me, but when the Up Stairs Lounge took its predominant place in my life, it quickly became clear that there was no such thing as an arm’s-length understanding of that city. So, I left my then-boyfriend (cum husband) Ryan with our dog in Brooklyn and hopped a plane south and stayed for months on the guest bed in the wisteria-scented sunroom of my two close friends. I knew no one else in town but them. Being there, at first, was honestly quite lonely and estranging, as has been my experience of moving to any new city in my adult life.
New Orleans is liberated, sexually and otherwise, and that can be shocking to a gay Catholic prude, as I happen to be. I had to keep reminding myself why I was there. Professionally, this was my first book, and the subject was grave, and I didn’t know if I’d be able to actually deliver on the promises I’d made to my publisher. This will sound cliché, but I’ve found it to be true to my process, so I’ll say it: you can’t write about New Orleans without being extremely drunk in that city for an extended period of time. And so, I jettisoned my anxieties and fell in love with that place. New Orleans has an amazing tradition of welcoming the stranger, and it indeed greeted me with open arms. I had adventures and misadventures. I discovered a cocktail called the Sazerac, which I highly recommend.
I must also confess that I gained and lost 20 lbs., conservatively, pushing it very hard with the po-boys and whiskey, which was actually dangerous for me as alcoholism runs deep in my family. I remember when I got back to Brooklyn and first took my shirt off, Ryan barely recognized what he saw. I’d never gained significant weight before IN MY LIFE, which did hurt my sense of vanity: the whole gay “body fascism” thing. Some of the change was from self-medicating, due to the pain of what I was learning about the Up Stairs Lounge — the gruesome and gory nature of what happened. My writer’s imagination was settling in a terrible new groove, and it would have to stay there for years if my book was to succeed. I’m not proud of it, but I floated my brain in a sea of alcohol to dull my own sense of grief about 32 burning deaths. I’d call it sad and risky behavior now, and I try to warn other writers about it. I’m lucky that I escaped that cycle without a lifelong affliction.
BUT….but…the rest of my bodily change materialized from the revelry of embracing a truly magical setting, so much so that New Orleans became one of the biggest characters in my book. New Orleans is such a city of contradictions, a place of great tragedy and great joy. Often simultaneously.
[CG]: There is a relationship drawn between the Pulse Nightclub massacre and the Up Stairs arson in your introduction. Describe how you see the response to Pulse in contrast to the Up Stairs. Are there any similarities? What has or hasn’t changed?
The Pulse nightclub shooting and the Up Stairs Lounge fire bear a strange and, for me, surprising emotional relationship. The most obvious connection is that they are the deadliest event and the second deadliest event to strike to the American homosexual community. Furthermore, the public reactions to these two tragedies — nonchalance for the Up Stairs Lounge, sorrow and outrage for Pulse — provides a profound contrast that speaks to the journey of homosexual Americans towards visible citizenship and the attainment of civil rights between 1973 and 2016.
In the immediacy of Pulse, the Up Stairs Lounge fire provided vital context for the sort of lone-wolf wrath that birthed an unimaginable field of slaughter in Orlando. And following both incidents, eerily, conservative constituencies worked hard to steal the narrative of these tragedies away from queer Americans, so that they might lose their potency as symbols. Pulse has become exclusively a “terrorist attack” for alt-righters in comment boxes, and the Up Stairs Lounge morphed into a “fire code” discussion between and among various Louisiana bureaucracies. I don’t buy either diversion. They gaslight those who suffer. It’s a strange thing to have to argue, “My tragedy is my own.”
The factual parallels start to fray from there. For example, Pulse was arguably a “hate crime,” whereas the Up Stairs Lounge fire was most likely a horrific example of gay-on-gay violence. The Pulse killings represented murder in its most brutal shape, while the Up Stairs Lounge killings (though no less pitiless) were most likely negligent homicides — sprung from the rage of a deranged man only intending to scare a rival clique. Lastly, we know Omar Mateen as the Pulse killer, beyond a doubt, but the Up Stairs Lounge fire remains officially unsolved.
One event is clearly a contemporary massacre, while the other is more a mystery that continues to unspool throughout the decades. What’s unique about the relationship to these two tragedies is the way that they contribute to a powerful mutual understanding and ongoing scholarship, on both ends. Through Pulse and the Up Stairs Lounge, the public insists upon knowing and bearing witness to queer oppression. Both histories have momentum, in this regard.
One wonders whether this type of interest would spring at all, or if the reaction to an event like Pulse would be as forthcoming, from the current political climate. I’ve asked myself, would federal flags fly at half-mast today for several dozen queer deaths, as they did for Pulse? Or would it be more like the Up Stairs Lounge again, back to silence and indifference? Unquestionably, the wave of LGBT+ rights expansions has halted and backslid. Queer Americans are, again, profoundly at the mercy of the powerful straight constituencies. Everyone knows why and can mark the date.
[CG]: What other enigmatic historic events interest you? Any other projects in the works you would like to share?
I’m planning to take a break from gay rights storytelling because the book affected my queer psyche so profoundly. After Tinderbox finally went to the printer, I had to seek out a grief counselor for help in setting down the pain and squaring what I learned about human nature with a world that I could face each morning. We writers live with the ghosts of our stories and face the consequences of what we see and hear. And I must admit that there are still horrific parts of the Up Stairs Lounge story that harm my ability to smile when I meet a new person.
If at all possible, I don’t want to carry that darkness with me as an uncle and a future father. Or as a husband, who made a vow to bring happiness to my beloved. I fear my nieces, or my future children, noticing and emulating that retraction of trust too early in their lives. I guess I’m recognizing that the brain is not an imperishable battering ram, and it takes time to heal.
But…I’ve recently become fascinated by the topic of Northern Segregation and how middle-class whites, steeped in the racial ethos that founded American suburbia, resisted the integration of their neighborhoods into the late 1960s. Town to town, “nice” neighbors fought each other virulently over the question of whether to accept black children into their public schools, black parents into their subdivisions. People very rarely think of how the civil rights movement worked north of the Mason-Dixon line. My reportorial spidey-sense tells me that this is fertile storytelling terrain.
Tinderbox: The Untold Story of The Up Stairs Lounge Fire And The Rise of Gay Liberation is available for purchase on Amazon here. Find an excerpt from Tinderbox here. To read a review of Tinderbox by Christopher Gioia please click here.
Robert W. Fieseler is a recipient of the Pulitzer Traveling Fellowship and the Lynton Fellowship in Book Writing. A writer for The Big Roundtable, Narratively, and elsewhere, he lives in Boston.
Christopher Gioia is a public historian focusing on LGBTQ history. Click here to view further research.