Deborah Valentine reveals the true story of prostitution, art, San Francisco and death that inspired A Collector of Photographs.
Once upon a time I knew a rent boy. A very beautiful rent boy. Blond curls. A body that could seduce Narcissus from his reflection. Sweet but screwed up, lovable to many but not to himself. A fair demon with the camera. And so the idea for a twisted crime noir fairy tale took root: the boy who thought he’d found his fairy godmother, the one who would make his life all better with the wave of her paintbrush, only for that paintbrush to become the instrument of his destruction.
I spend a lot of time staring into space, dying cigarette in hand. As I’m a writer, I call it ‘working’. And to be fair, I am thinking. My thoughts while conceiving A Collector of Photographs turned to prostitution and what it meant.
For Taylor, the rent boy-cum-artist’s model in the story, a stylish chancer par excellence sans permanent home, it meant selling his body; something that shamed him. For the artist Roxanne – a name carefully chosen from the song by The Police – perched high in her solid Pacific Heights mansion, it meant something similar yet not the same. And her sense of shame? Somewhat limited.
Between the two of them I thought it boiled down to what each one wanted and what they were willing to sacrifice for it. Taylor, in his way, was as much an artist as Roxanne, creating a fantasy world documenting a life he wished he had by taking photos. Roxanne, on the other hand, brutally expressed her own life by painting it as she saw it. In a conflict of perceptions comparable to Monet with his flowers and Toulouse Lautrec with the Moulin Rouge, I could see where their tragedy would lie.
San Francisco in the 1980s was a fabulous place. I was lucky. I was there. As sunlight swept across its architecture it had a gold-rush-made-good elegance. Cultured yet gritty, it was a political hotbed. AIDS was just hammering itself into the public consciousness, at that time a scary, unstoppable disease. As San Francisco is renowned for its gay community, well, all you have to do is look back at the headlines to know that it was an issue not fated to put its tail between its legs and slink away.
I don’t tell political stories, I tell personal ones. But in my research I walked the streets that would have been Taylor’s and the tumult seeped into the characters and the lives they led. Fear and shame, pride and anger – it’s all there because tragedy doesn’t confine itself to the main protagonists.
Artists tell the truth as they see it. Both Taylor and Roxanne do. And the beautiful rent boy I once knew? Last I heard he had become a respectable lorry driver.
Writers also tell the truth. Just not the way it actually happened.
Read Deborah Valentine’s novels published by The Murder Room here.