MICHAEL STIPE TURNED INSIDE-OUT
In ‘Outline of My Lover,’ novelist Douglas A. Martin fictionalizes his 6-year romance with R.E.M. frontman
BY DANIEL KUSNER
In 1991, when Douglas A. Martin was a senior in high school, he was so captivated by R.E.M.’s homoerotically charged video “Losing My Religion” that he told his sister, “I’m going to marry Michael Stipe.”
This, of course, was before he had even met the enigmatic, sometimes-queer singer of one of America’s most respected rock bands.
“When I saw the video, I didn’t fall in love with Michael Stipe. I fell in love with what I thought was Michael Stipe. I fell in love with the image that a director helped create,” Martin explains.
After high school, the obsessed adolescent went to study theater at the University of Georgia in Athens — the relatively small college town where R.E.M. hail and still maintain residence as Athens’ multi-millionaire heroes. In “Outline of My Lover” (Soft Skull Press, $12, May, 2000), Martin, 26, writes in first person about a teenager who moves to Athens and seeks out a relationship with a luminous rock star.
“The individual in the book is based very strongly on my life and my relationship with Michael Stipe. But it’s not a kiss-and-tell. I’ve been keeping a journal since 1992. I have over 100 journals — each one is over 200 pages. If this was a kiss-and-tell, it would be a much thicker book,” Martin promises.
“Outline of My Lover” details a young man’s complete immersion into an unbalanced and almost destructive relationship that ultimately must end for the sake of both partners.
Martin, who recently won an MFA scholarship at the New School University in New York, says he was heavily influenced by the late French writer Marguerite Duras’ passionate novel “The Lover.”
“I wanted to write the way Marguerite Duras wrote a book about a young girl who was completely in control and, at the same time, devastated by a relationship with a much older man,” Martin says. “I wanted to explore issues of power, authority and celebrity, and how the media is constantly feeding us misleading issues. I also wanted to explore a complicated relationship rather than boil it down to good person/bad person.”
Stipe has always maintained a secretive personal life (before he became famous, the eccentric singer supposedly spent an entire year without speaking to anyone), which has helped foster his image as The Mysterious Rock Star. To fictionally disclose intimate details about his relationship with Stipe has been courageous on Martin’s part.
“I know that the local press in Athens is already up in arms about my book because they think they own Michael Stipe,” Martin huffs. “I never proceeded with fear. And that’s a big part of being a gay man. At a certain point you decide, ‘I’m going to own my actions.’”
Martin creates a mood of self-inflicted misery in “Outline of My Lover,” but he’s not as despondent as his novel’s protagonist. He also says it’s laughable to act like he has amnesia about his relationship with Stipe.
“For me to pretend that those years never happened — and I’m never going to talk about it or reference it any way — is just ludicrous. It’s my right to reference that. That’s my history. And my personal history is something that I take very seriously,” he says. “I considered agonizing about [being afraid to publish the book] for two seconds. But I realized that to make this decision based on him is to just put power back where I’m trying to wrestle it from.”
Throughout his career, Stipe has been a prominent spokesperson for historical preservation and environmental concerns. However, when it comes to defining labels, the ambiguous activist hasn’t been the brave champion of gays.
“When I think about the cover story Michael did for Out magazine, he tried very hard to explore his sexuality very complexly. But I also think it’s splitting hairs when, in 10 years, you’ve only had male lovers,” Martin says dryly. “Michael is someone who has chosen to be courageous about things that I don’t think are really ‘going out on a limb.’ People like Michael, like Kevin Spacey, like whomever, know that in order to have a slew of people behind them — in order to rule the court, basically — they have to present an image.”
Although they shared something like a sugardaddy/kept-boy romance, Martin and Stipe’s relationship isn’t all sour grapes. During their time together, they co-authored a book of haiku, and Stipe shot the photography for Martin’s earlier poetry book, “Servicing the Salamander.”
“In my relationship with Michael, I got to see someone who lived their life as an artist. I got to learn from that. I also was able to buy a lot of time, which is a very important thing for an artist. It’s unfortunate that our society isn’t set up anymore like the Greeks where a young boy could be mentored and become an artist,” Martin says.
“Outline of My Lover” lyrically weaves the story of a failed relationship, but Martin insists that it isn’t a memoir.
In the novella, the protagonist never fully recovers from the sorrowful breakup. The parallels of the book and Martin’s relationship with Stipe leaves readers wondering if the author is still in love with the wealthy singer. Does he wish things could have worked out differently?
“There’s some heartache. But there’s always heartache in life,” Martin admits. “I think I had a lesson to learn and I think that this is my lesson.”
Martin says that Stipe is aware of the book, but he hasn’t heard anything from the R.E.M. camp. Meanwhile, it seems Martin has gotten on with his life. He says he’s in love again, with a poet, and that they recently celebrated their first anniversary.
“He’s completely there for me on every level. We talk about my writing, we talk about this book, we talk about his writing,” Martin says.
Many might question Martin’s license to fictionalize his romance with Stipe, thereby exposing the private life of a celebrity. However, according to Martin, Stipe has already exposed their relationship in his lyrics.
“Yes, he has. I won’t tell you specifically [what the lyric is]. I will in my next book,” Martin laughs. “But ‘Up’ is the album that happened after our breakup, if that tells you anything.”
DALLAS VOICE | 06.21.00