The first time I heard about the Up Stairs Lounge fire was during a gay tour of New Orleans in 2015. The first stop was the bronze memorial plaque embedded in the sidewalk near where the Up Stairs Lounge had been. The tour guide, understandably, became emotional as he described how an arsonist had set fire in 1973 to the Up Stairs Lounge, a gay club, killing 32 gay men. It was the largest mass murder of queer people until the Pulse massacre. He not only bore the grief of the fire, but also the weight of the homophobia that conspired to try to repress the memory of the fire and those who died in it. No one was ever charged with the arson or the murders because the New Orleans Police Department dropped the investigation. The Up Stairs Lounge fire was a ghost that followed us for the rest of the tour.
As Robert Fieseler says in the Preface to his book about that fire, Tinderbox: The Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation, “The Story of the Up Stairs Lounge…disappeared willfully, hushed by a nation not ready to look.” Fieseler’s book reclaims the Up Stairs Lounge’s place in history and in the larger American Civil Rights Movement by breathtakingly reconstructing the lives of the queer men who frequented the Up Stairs Lounge and those who died in the tragedy.
Fieseler visited Chicago on October 9, 2018 for a conversation with Owen Keehnen at Unabridged Bookstore. The conversation centered around what daily life was like for gay men in New Orleans in 1973–a time and place where being gay was considered a crime. For most of the men who died in the Up Stairs Lounge fire and for most of the gay men in New Orleans, life was defined by the closet. Fieseler spoke with passion and compassion about the story and the men who died in the fire. This is evident on the page, but hearing him speak about it in person was all the more moving. One of the most moving stories he told was about the memorial service that took place this past June for the fire’s 45th anniversary. “I never thought I’d see this happen,” Fieseler said. The mayor of New Orleans, Latoya Cantrell, not only attended the service, but spoke during it to claim the tragedy as part of New Orleans history. This was the first time in 45 years a mayor of New Orleans had done so. She also announced the creation of a task force to address the needs of the LGBTQ community in New Orleans. Fieseler’s book and Mayor Cantrell’s actions show the importance of not forgetting queer history and the necessity of caring for our queer present as well as our future. Fieseler’s book tour continues. Dates are available here.
I had the pleasure to speak to Fieseler via email prior to the event at Unabridged about what moved him to tell the story of The Up Stairs Lounge fire and his process of writing Tinderbox, among other things.
What inspired you to write about the Up Stairs Lounge fire?
As a queer American, as a gay man, I’d yearned for a number of years to find some story about queer life that would stoke my natural obsession for tumbling down rabbit holes, which maybe could surprise me and others by burrowing into a place where/when homosexuality was a secret urban subculture.
I also think you have to have a personal stake in a story this expansive, and the fact is I’d lost someone in the past. My family lost someone not in 1973 New Orleans but in another tragic episode. When I was 13 years old, in 1995, my uncle Ken Tinkle – a man I’d been taught to call uncle at family gatherings, though he was only the brother of an aunt by marriage – died of AIDS. I was just starting to get a glimmer of what I desired.
I had no role models. I hadn’t known Kenny was homosexual until he lay there in the casket, and so I became somewhat obsessed with collecting clues to the foundation of Kenny’s life, with carefully posing questions that I’d never get to ask him. Of course, my family still grieved Kenny deeply and weren’t forthcoming with many answers. Still, Kenny was the only other person I knew like me, and he died young, and so I believed myself to be the last of our rare species.
I gained the sense that, in researching the Up Stairs Lounge fire, I might meet survivors of that calamity who were of the same generation as Kenny, that in some way I might get to speak to men who were like my uncle. To ask them what I never got to ask him. And I actually did.
The book details the lives of the men that frequented the Up Stairs Lounge. There were times when you described moments so intimately that I gasped and said to myself, “how could he know that?” Can you talk a little bit about your research process and how you turned that into the rich characterization that we see on the page?
Once I caught the scent of the Up Stairs Lounge fire, I sought material on the tragedy greedily: police reports, insurance maps, fire marshal documents, newspaper microfiche, personal letters, fliers, oral histories, in-person interviews, the body language of an interviewee, the well-meaning lie someone asked me to believe, etc.
I moved to New Orleans and slept in on a guest bed in the wisteria-scented sunroom of the only two friends I had in town. I became a library mole-man, not getting enough sun, in local archives like The Historic New Orleans Collection until I built up the confidence to approach living witnesses and survivors and those bereaved family members impacted by the fire. Through interview, cross-referenced with archival documents, I was able to get a sense of habits, lifestyles and even (as far as I could glean) interior lives of important figures who would later appear in the book. Some survivors couldn’t keep reliving that trauma by being interviewed and wished me well, such as Up Stairs Lounge survivor Francis Dufrene. Some couldn’t talk enough, as bearing witness had become part of their healing process; for example, I spoke to Up Stairs Lounge survivor Ricky Everett more than ten times. Some don’t talk now but had talked to someone years ago, and I unearthed their testimony. Some, like Up Stairs Lounge patron Steven Duplantis, played an email/text message dance with me for three years before sitting down to unburden revelations.
The whole book is moving towards the fire. You rendered the characters so beautifully that it makes reading the fire all that more devastating (I cried through the whole section). The section is so cinematic that I pictured it happening in slow motion, but the fire happened very quickly, just a few minutes in real time. How did it feel for you to write that section? And what advice might you have for other writers who might have to write such a horrific scene?
You pay a toll to become a vessel for a story like the Up Stairs Lounge tragedy, and that toll is your happiness for a span. You submit your imagination as a crucible for mental anguish because you know that, in the end, it will all be in your head. You will picture burned bodies in a room, every inch of that room, but you yourself will not burn to death. Which isn’t to say that you should feel sorry for a writer in my position at all; I chose this. I chose it every day. I look back and wouldn’t want to do anything else.
I’m sharing this because I think that nonfiction writers need to be more honest with each other about what portraying trauma is like, so that we don’t try to hide behind machismo or pretend compartmentalization is a viable option. I don’t want someone else in my position to feel alone, as I felt when I saw some muscled-up warzone reporter swagger through a question like this.
The truth is I sobbed and threw up and agonized my way through writing the fire section of the book, which took me several months in the initial draft, then more months in the edits. It was the hardest section to write, technically and emotionally; the scene required a near second-by-second reconstruction. And it didn’t feel right to portray that scope of death – the snuffing out of 32 lives – unless I fully processed the grief and gore myself; some might have avoided this and put up a wall. But I didn’t. I thought the book would suffer. Dread built in me as I approached the calamity, ratcheting tension as I wrote Act I of the book by making myself, and hopefully readers, fall in love with the historic personae. Then, at the end of Act I, I reached the unavoidable. I had placed all the important people in the vital place at the crucial hour, and even then I asked myself “What if I let these people out of the room?”
But I couldn’t. This isn’t fiction.
I was bound to document what happened, and every word of it would feel a bit like killing them, like I was doing it to them. My nightmares were unspeakable. My body manifested a bizarre range of stress-related ailments. Mentally, I felt like a wounded old lion, and I had a tendency to lash out or lose patience in the face of everyday situations. I became so angry that these men had died this was way, and my brain became angry with me in that I kept forcing myself back into that burning room.
Finally, I had to rein the storm of those feelings back and put them on their shelf. Because I was a gay man writing about murdered gay men, I had to ruthlessly examine the obvious bias in my relating to people I wrote about. And then that chapter was over. I had written it.
Afterwards, as I wrote forward into the plot, I groveled to my fiancé cum husband for everything I had just put him through. And I started seeing a grief counselor, Over time, I corrected behavior I’d been using as coping mechanisms and set down a pain that I’d taken on from the fire itself. Because it wasn’t really mine. It was residual pain of those who’d died and those in immediate grief; my imagination had simply latched onto it. When Tinderbox finally published, I imagined releasing the physical book like a boat into the ocean. The book would now live as its own being—out there, no longer a part of me. That’s what it was like to write about the fire.
Now that Tinderbox is out on the ocean, what do you hope readers take away from it?
Firstly, I hope people speak the names of the Up Stairs Lounge dead. These remarkable citizens, who served honorably in wars and raised children and contributed to churches and workplaces, mattered. Their violent deaths, their officially unsolved murders, resulted in unfathomable losses. That we continue to speak their names honors their legacies and the world they yearned for, a vision found in the chorus to the anthem of the Up Stairs Lounge: “United we stand, divided we fall.”
Secondly, I hope people close the book believing the Up Stairs Lounge to be part of the American story, with much to reveal about our national mindset and our wild experiment in self-governance. Understanding the brutality directed towards queer Americans in the past, a past that abused the rule of law to strip nonviolent citizens of rights, it becomes difficult to view the twentieth century – the “post-war years,” the “white picket fence,” etc. – with the sort of nostalgia that creates a toxic fairytale.
Lastly, I wonder if readers might walk away with a feeling that I had when I turned in the final manuscript of the book…the notion that there’s something off with the way our world assigns winners and losers based on who holds power and who is out of power, who gets heard, who has worth. I think the way we commonly assign loss misunderstands what motivates people towards action. It’s astounding that such a loss as the Up Stairs Lounge fire and its aftermath, a tragedy that exposed a hidden vein of society and therefore was suppressed, has reached across the decades and become a potent subject.
Tinderbox: The Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation
By Robert Fieseler
Published June 5, 2018
Robert W. Fieseler is a recipient of the Pulitzer Traveling Fellowship and the Lynton Fellowship in Book Writing. His writing has appeared in Buzzfeed, Narratively, and elsewhere. He currently resides in New Orleans.