Douglas Bell is a former magician, engineer, and debut author of the novel “Cakewalk,” a novel about a cisgender man in Texas who falls in love with a transgender woman. Douglas and I talked about his unusual spiritual path, how one book changed his life outlook, and how meditation and reading are both paths to empathy. Douglas joined me to talk about Tessa Hadley’s luminous novel “Free Love,” a piercing domestic drama set in London, 1967.
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Host: Julie Strauss
Discussed in this episode:
Free Love by Tessa Hadley
The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living by the Dalai Lama
The Houston Zen Center
Cakewalk by Douglas Bell
The National Black Book Festival
Save the Cat by Blake Snyder
The Enigma of Clarence Thomas by Corey Robin
Writers and Lovers by Lily King
Real Queer America: LGBT Stories from Red States by Samantha Allen
Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters
Married Love and Other Stories by Tessa Hadley
The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love by bell hooks
Side note from Julie: Here are two books about meditation that I’ve really enjoyed. These are both very much beginner books for those of us who don’t think we could possibly meditate because we have fidgety monkey brains:
10% Happier by Dan Harris
The Headspace Guide to Meditation and Mindfulness by Andy Puddicombe
(Note: Some of the above links are affiliate links. If you shop using my affiliate link on Bookshop, a portion of your purchase will go to me, at no extra expense to you. Thank you for supporting indie bookstores and for helping to keep the Best Book Ever Podcast in business!)
Julie Strauss: Hi Douglas, welcome to the Best Book Ever podcast.
Douglas Bell: Hi Julie. How are you? Thank you for having me.
JS: I am doing well, and I’m really excited to talk to you about this very interesting book. But we’re going to start with something I’m possibly more interested in, and that is your background, which is one of the most eclectic and interesting biographies I have ever read. Let’s start with, “Jesuit educated and now practicing Buddhist.” Will you share that journey with our listeners?
DB: Interesting. Yes. I I actually grew up in a Black Baptist church, but I attended Catholic private school during the week. So during the week you learned to do the stations of the cross and genuflecting, and you did everything you were supposed to do. But on Sundays we went to Black Baptist Church and, and we were in there singing and singing and having a good time. Yeah. So that went on all the way through high school.
JS: They are very different forms of expression too. Religious expression. I was raised Catholic and whenever I am around religious practices that are physical, I always go, why are we hugging?
JS: What is happening?
DB: Yes. Two very different experiences. One thing about Black Baptist Church is, you are gonna get a good song, and you’re gonna feel good and, and it’s gonna soothe a lot of those ailments that you have. Kind of like a good ointment, you know. But you know, it’s interesting though, life kind of picked up. I found myself in a really bad space. I found out that my wife was sleeping with the fish tank cleaner.
JS: Who knew? I had no idea those guys were so appealing.
DB: Thank you. And so now we’re getting divorced. She’s moved on with the fish tank cleaner. I have moved out, but I have the kids and we’re in separation. And my son says, daddy, I have two daddies. And I said, son, what are you talking about? [He said] I got two daddies. My first daddy, and you’re my second daddy. And I said, son, you have one daddy. That’s me. He’s like, no, I, no, seriously, I got two daddies, you and Darryl.
JS: Is Darryl the fish tank guy?
DB: No Darryl is a different man.
JS: Holy moly. The plot keeps thickening.
DB: Oh yes. And it was true. So Julie, I’m in this bad, bad space and at this point there is no amount of singing and dancing or genuflecting, signs of the cross or anything is going to help soothe this particular situation. And I was broke. I had probably never been so broke before in my life. Financially, emotionally, mentally, I’m just broke and broken somewhere or another. I went to Barnes and Nobles, got my little coffee, sat there and found a book by the Dalai Lama. The Art of Happiness. And I was like, happiness? What is that? Oh, you have got to be kidding me. I haven’t seen that in a long time. If happiness came and sat next to me, I wouldn’t know what to say to her. Yeah. I kept going back to Barnes Noble, and I kept reading and from the Dalai Lama about happiness. And that led me to meditation. And then from there, I then sought out a group of meditators here in Houston, which led me to about a group of about eight people who were meditating at a Unitarian church. And that turned out to be the beginnings of what is now the Houston Zen Center. I’m one of the founding members for the Houston Zen Center here in Houston, Texas. So now I’m actually a practicing Buddhist, but I like to laugh about it and say I’m a Zen Baptist.
JS: I love that.
DB: Yes. I’m still very attached to this Black Baptist tradition. I have not let that go. That is, that is very much still a part of me.
JS: Will you tell us about your debut novel, Cakewalk?
DB: Yes. It is contemporary fiction and it is based on my past experiences. It is about a successful man really struggling to openly date a trans woman.
JS: What was the reception to this in the various communities you belong to? I’m thinking specifically of the Baptist community. Was it well received?
DB: You know, I don’t, well, oh, this is so funny. Oh, yes, I have a good one for you. Okay, so…
JS: I love stories that start like this!
DB: So here in Houston last September, they had the National Black Book Festival. It was like eighty authors, and like four of us were men. And it was at a church. So the first person gets up and she says, y’all, I want to tell y’all, here I am from Florida, praise the Lord. I have made it here. My first book is about being a Black woman and doing what we need to do, blah, blah, blah. She’s has everybody going, yes, praise the Lord. Yes, I love it. So the next person stands up. It’s a book about children and how we need to educate our children and Black children, and such. And so this goes on probably about twenty or thirty people. All of a sudden, it’s my turn to stand up. And I say, Well, hi, I’m Douglas Bell. I’ve written my first novel, and it is about a successful Black man struggling to openly love his transgender girlfriend. And the place just goes quiet. And you could see everybody kind of leaning there, saying What did he just say? Did he just say what I, I think he said? And so I said, well, you all, you all must have got the gist of it because the room is very quiet. And this lady in the very back, she goes Yeah, okay, y’all let’s, y’all, let’s give him a hand. Yes, yes, let’s give him a hand. But here is the thing. The next day at the festival, probably about eight people quietly walked over and whispered, excuse me you’re the young man that wrote that book? I said Cakewalk? Yes. Can I buy this? And does he know that she is? I said, oh, yes, he’s, he is very aware of it. Okay. How, where can I get a copy? I said I got something out in the car, ma’am.
JS: So the need is out there.
DB: Yes. They’re just, I think there’s this fear. Apprehension. And I think that’s the whole point of this. All of us are human. There’s nothing to be terrified of. Nobody is going to hurt you or harm you. Everybody is trying to get up and go to work and be who they think they’re supposed to be. But that’s also a social construct as to why we can’t be interested in it, and that’s why people are whispering. For me, that’s really the whole point of Cakewalk, in a lot of ways, is to humanize these struggles and also to humanize a trans person, a trans woman’s journey just to be herself in all of this. The transphobia and the homophobia of the book is there. It has to be because the protagonist has to start somewhere in order to fully appreciate her. And she wants to be appreciated, seen, and perceived. She doesn’t want to be fetishized. But yet society does that, and he does it too, because he doesn’t know any better. He doesn’t have the courage to break bonds of that, of being tethered to that, to what society says he’s supposed to be. So he does eventually break those bonds and he does learn. And that’s what I said: he has to teach himself to love himself enough to love.
JS: Did you always know that you were going to write a book? Or did you have the personal experiences of your life, and then think I ought to write about this?
DB: I have an engineering degree from University of Texas and I started working as an engineer back in the late eighties. And around about the time that this divorce came along, I had started practicing magic. So I’m living in this house. I’m broke, I’m barely making it to work. At this point, I don’t think I’ve found out about my son yet. But the deck of cards was the only friend I had. So I just kept messing around with this deck of cards and playing around and just doing magic tricks. Cause it was the only thing I had that was worthwhile. And at some point, I don’t remember where I was at, Julie, but I met a guy and he said, would you like to come to a meeting of magicians? And I was kind like, Are you serious? He’s like, yes, I will call you and give you the actual address later. And it was really kind of like the – what’s the book that was real popular with the kids? With the magic? Can’t think of name of it. Harry Potter. So I went to this thing and it was all these magicians, and honestly, things were floating. Stuff was disappearing.
JS: You’re kidding me.
DB: No, I’m serious. So I’m just like a little kid, like, oh my goodness, look at all this. And so they let you stay for part of the meeting because you, at this point, you are not a registered magician, so they basically kick you out afterwards.
JS: Of course. That’s when they do the big tricks.
DB: Well, and they talk about all this magic business. And you know, it’s run by the older guys. They’re in charge of everything.
JS: My God, I love this
DB: So I became a magician and started performing. I eventually resigned from my engineering job and my boss just thought I was crazy. And my father passed away of colon cancer while I was doing this. So by the time I came back to Houston, I had to get a real job. I no longer could be an artist anymore. And so I got back working again and, but you know, once again, life starts doing what life does. It just, it just moves and grows where it’s supposed to grow to. But I write in a personal journal daily, and I have been doing that since 1992.
JS: Oh my gosh.
DB: And the writing was very cathartic in terms of being honest about who I was, how I felt, what I thought. And that actually turned into about 15,000 words on paper. And out of a curiosity, I just turned it into a short story contest. And someone wrote me back and said, why are you not making this a novel? I’m the type of guy, I am open to challenges. So when he kind of threw the mantle down, and said, you can do this, I was kinda like, you know, okay! So I ended up at Write Fest, a large writing conference here in Houston. And once again, it is nothing but women and just five guys. I sat down at this table and the ladies there were so friendly and open. The sense of community, the sense of wanting to share and be helpful. And everybody sitting at that table said, You have to read Save the Cat. They were like, we’re gonna help you. We’re gonna get you what you need. That same time is also when I met the editor of Cakewalk through a publishing company called Bloomsday Literary. It is a nonprofit, and I am actually the board chair of Bloomsday Literary now, and helping them produce literary fiction and poetry specifically by BIPOC and LGBTQ+ authors. It has been quite a journey to lead this nonprofit and work with them in this capacity from a business capacity, from a community standpoint. So in a lot of ways, it’s my way of giving back to them, because of how much they’ve given me. I’m not a writer and I really was not a reader, Julie, up until maybe 2018. Aside from reading spiritual nonfiction to feed my soul, to make me a better man, to make me a better person, I did not read for entertainment.
JS: So what switched that for you?
DB: Because I was writing about this relationship with this man and his trans girlfriend, I ended up picking up a James Baldwin book, and I enjoyed it. And I ended up telling my wife that I never would’ve thought I would’ve enjoyed reading just for the sake of reading. That totally caught me by surprise. Now my wife, she’s actually an English major. So she is a reader, but this got her reading more intentionally, now that I wanted to read. That really got us reading together. And so then it just kind of picked up. Next thing you know, I’m getting through a book a month, you know.
JS: Who chooses the books you read together?
DB: For the most part, we both get a say. I am now, I just recently read a book about Clarence Thomas and I am just so blown away. It is called The Enigma of Clarence Thomas. We both sat down and read this book because, especially as an African American, as a Black person, you struggle sometimes with some of the things you’re hearing. At least I do. And I would feel most Black people are struggling with some of the things that a person like Clarence Thomas says. And so I purchased this book hoping that it would give me some insight. And not necessarily opinion, but something based on some level of fact. And that’s what this guy did. He actually took Clarence Thomas’ writings and pared them out and said, look at this. Tell me what you think when you read this. Tell me what you see, because this is what I see when I read what he’s written from his own desk regarding race, regarding civil liberties, rights and these types of things. There is a desire to educate myself on that subject and also a responsibility to spend some time understanding some of these subjects on a much deeper level than just a CNN or Fox News. You’ve got to dig deeper if you are going to make yourself available to people, and articulate a possible reason as to why some things are the way they are. But also [you don’t want to be] off-putting,
We read Lily King’s Writers and Lovers, me and her. We really loved that. Then I also read Real Queer America, which was a very good non-fiction story about a trans woman who traveled the United States, giving her take on what she sees as she drives from one side of the country to the other. That was very informative in writing Cakewalk, along with the trans friends that I have in my own life, who sat with me, who I spend time with all the time. Also to one last book that I really wanted to mention was Detransition, Baby.
JS: Oh, I read that. Did you like it?
DB: I did. That was surprising. But that’s the thing. I guess I just kind of feel like, why do we have to have a problem with something just because it’s different? Why can’t it just be, Oh, oh, okay.
JS: .I love that you brought up Detransition Baby, because as soon as you said that, I realized I had the same reaction to that book as I did to Free Love.
JS: Both of those books forced me to go, I am uncomfortable with this. I don’t like the way these people are acting.
JS: That’s kind of an automatic response. I t’s unfamiliar to me and, and it’s making me feel judgey and I don’t like it when I feel judgey. And I have here in my notes that Free Love requires empathy, but also creates empathy, because you care about the characters in order to get through it. My thought through the whole book was, oh, this is not going to end well. This choice you are about to make is not going to end well. But I cared about them. So, I just stopped and thought, Let’s just pay attention to this story and see who we all are.
DB: Yes. And I think that’s what’s missing a lot of times is our ability just to just sit. I think there’s just a desire to do something with how you’re feeling. And I think that’s the beauty of meditation. With meditation, you are actually practicing how to just sit. When I was going through learning about my son, the Abbott Galen, made me just sit. We would sit for hours and she would say that a man’s inability to sit with himself is where the pain comes from. So I would just cry. But it was just the sitting. She would say there is action in sitting. Under a Buddhist text, it is the decoupling of feeling to bad or good. It’s just a feeling. But what makes it bad or good is because how it relates to something else. So this idea of bad or good really is only formed because of what you are attaching it to. So if you can decouple all of these things and just simply just let it be, as it is, without judging it or labeling it, I think you could actually get a much different, I’ll use the term response than reaction to what is unfolding before you.
JS: it occurs to me as you’re saying all of this, that meditation in a way is – you know, that notion that you say of just sit with your feeling, that freaks most of us out. Right? Those of us, and a lot of people today say, we’ve got the hamster wheel brains.
JS: And there’s also that lingering feeling of judgment of ourselves, of, I really should be doing something.
DB: Right. Right,
JS: And in a way, meditation is very much the art of just observing. The way we do with our books. Instead of sitting there going, you’re ruining everything, I don’t like you, I just kept reading to see what is going to happen. And that’s what you’re doing. You’re creating your own empathy for your own self through meditation, right? You’re just saying, let’s sit, let’s not be judgmental or angry or abusive towards ourselves. Let’s just sit with it and see what happens. The way I can sit with the book? I don’t do that to myself. And most people, I don’t think, can do that for themselves.
DB: Well, I want to challenge that by saying most people can’t because they haven’t thought about it. Meaning we are only as good as what we’re conscious of. Now, once you become conscious of something, you have a responsibility to either be better or worse from that zero point. I think in Free Love, as much as we could say she brought it on herself, at the same time, when everything was done and said she was still happy. That’s what I thought was interesting, because most people would be trying to fix it. She was content. Her life had completely changed, but she was content. I think some days women are forced to reinvent themselves continually in ways that men are not.
JS: Obviously we can’t talk about the twist. Did you see that coming?
DB: I did not.
JS: I did not either. And I always think I’m so clever.
DB: If you are always trying to figure it out, you’re not being present in the moment.
JS: You nailed me. You, you got me. Cause that’s exactly what happened.
DB: Me being such a new writer, I’m getting to know writing and I’m getting to know different authors. Who they are and what they do and what I do like and what I don’t like. With Tessa Hadley, I came across her in a series of short stories. Married Love and Other Stories, which I read back in maybe 2019 or something like that. So that’s what brought me to Free Love. But I am just always a present mind with her, and I’m not out searching for where it can go and what it might be. I’m just with her. Her writing is so eloquent. Her writing is so efficient. Her combination of words that creates a picture, you’re kinda like, oh, I wish I could have put those two words together like she just did.
JS: She is really just a master of those very, very tiny movements that indicate a lot that’s going on within a character. It was very unexpected. This book surprised me on every page. I didn’t know anything going in.
DB: I feel bad for asking this question, but was it that she left this marriage as it was more the timing?
JS: I’ll be interested to hear your answer to that question. For me, everyone has a right to be happy, and everyone has a right to be partnered happily.
JS: For me, what I felt was cruel was that she sacrificed her children for the sake of her happiness, and that I felt was extremely unfair. And it’s easy to say when you’re not in the situation. It’s easy to look at her in this book and think if you’re unhappy, get out of the marriage. But you do not abandon children like that. She literally walked away with her purse.
DB: Okay. So we are agreeing that it’s not that she did it. It’s really more about how she did it.
JS: Right. But again, oh, again, coming back to the empathy, which is the word I thought of through this whole thing, is that I have not been in that situation where she truly felt like she couldn’t breathe.
JS: I don’t know. Maybe if I were in that situation, would I just grab my purse and walk out of the house? Maybe. I don’t know. I don’t think so, but I don’t know.
DB: I don’t think so. Well, you know, hey, my first wife did it, so I mean, I know it happens.
JS: Right. That’s what I’m saying is you think you understand human nature until you get into a situation, or you get proximity to someone who is experiencing life differently than you. And it, it always forces me to think. I think I know the right answer to this situation, but I haven’t been in it. I don’t know.
DB: Right. But you know, something too about Free Love, which is why I’m so glad you were willing to look at this particular story: Her reinvention was extremely deep. And what I mean by that is, is that she comes across the Black person in this other part of town, who I think at one time that was just a person you saw on tv. They had no, life. They had no story. They were just a person you saw. And she got to meet and she finally recognized that there was a whole other world outside of whatever they had going on. So she was no longer that person. She all of a sudden realized that all these people were just people who were just being who they are. And living their lives. And they actually had lives, they actually had dreams. And I like the fact that Tessa kinda added, I won’t say social commentary, but there was an element there of awareness that I don’t think you find maybe in other books. And when you do find it in the books where there are diverse characters, that awareness is tied only to that one person. I think Tessa tied it to the entire community, whether that community is, is person of color or, or lower socio social economic level. That character opened up to all of those.
JS: Yes. And the nurse Barbara, the Black woman who is her next door neighbor, is sort of the thread that unravels all of it. Because her first interaction with Barbara, you can watch her progress and, and you can tell, she, she comes in with this attitude of this is my opinion of Black people in Britain. And then as she starts to get to know Barbara, she starts realizing, oh, Barbara’s actually a lot smarter than me. Barbara’s actually a lot more educated. Barbara actually has tremendous dreams and different desires than I have. And every realization, the, the proximity of knowing someone else opens her world over and over. And then by the time there’s this great passage where she brings her daughter into her new life and she kind of introduces her. Her daughter meets everyone, and she says, this is so and so, he’s an artist. This is so and so, he’s queer. This is so and so, she only likes women. And the daughter’s head just kind of explodes. These are my mom’s friends?
DB: Right, right.
JS: And it’s, it’s like this proximity just continually opens the world to her.
DB: But it was all done in very subtle ways. It wasn’t big, huge ways that like, that kind don’t sound reasonable. It was just very subtle. Yes. So I think I totally agree with you. I can understand why these people do this. Cause this is a deep, deep unhappiness. She made the statement, “If Nikki leaves me, I’ll die. No, not really. I just have to go home and cook a pot of mashed potatoes. And that’ll be even worse.”
JS: Such a sad sentence.
DB: That says a lot.
JS: I mean, and it’s a really middle-aged thing too. I’m 52. Wait, 53. I don’t know. It’s all blending. But I have noticed that it’s very common with people my age. This is the point where we look around and we go, I am actually not happy in this particular friendship, or job, or relationship. A lot of people, we hit the forties and fifties and think, oh, this actually isn’t working. And that’s exactly where we met her. I’m sure she thought it was tolerable until all of a sudden it was not tolerable.
DB: Correct. But I really think from my experiences with everybody, from my mother to other older women in my life, my experiences have been that these women have been talking during these marriages. They have not been just sitting there being quiet and meek, but they’ve been saying during these marriages, Hey, let’s go have some fun. Hey, let’s go to the movies. Hey, hold my hand. This whole thing of being vulnerable, it takes a, it takes a lot to be okay with being vulnerable. And I think for one of the first times in my life, I’m actually okay with being vulnerable. As a matter of fact, right now I am reading bell hook’s The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love.
JS: What is it? I don’t know anything about this.
DB: Okay. It is interesting to find her being so connected to masculinity in terms of how it works or why it is what it is. She is breaking down masculinity in terms of love, sex, sexuality, work. She has broken down masculinity in how it functions and how this kind of misogyny and toxic masculinity really has to come from, at a minimum, just as much from women revealing it as men themselves revealing it with one another. But probably more so the men within the male community revealing it with one another, because it is that relationship, in a lot of ways, that is allowing that level of toxic masculinity to continue. It has been an enriching book. I don’t know if you can see this, but I have all these tabs here.
JS: It’s full of post-it notes.
DB: Yeah. Cause it’s just, it’s just incredible. And it’s very slow reading because you are truly trying to digest it. Reading it fast is really unfair to the work itself. So yes, this is what’s got me right now. I think there’s things in there that, really, a lot of men need to read this. They need to read it with their women, with the woman that is with you, who cares for you. You need to be open to asking is some of that me? This will never be complete because you never know what life is gonna bring, and you never know how bad it’s really going to get. But I want to be prepared for it. And I think maybe I have a different approach to this because there has been some training on my part to sit. And a matter of fact, next month I’ll be going on a week’s retreat. Where we will be what is called ‘observing noble silence.’ So I will not talk for an entire week. I do it annually. Me and my wife, that’s one of the first things when we started dating. I told her, I said, this is a part of my life. I hope you can accept that. And so I’ve been doing that now for sixteen years. And she knows when that time comes that I’m going to be cloistered for a period of time. And so, basically, I will meditate from 4:30 in the morning till 10 at night. And so, so this training of sitting with yourself, I think helps with, I don’t wanna say worry, but worry about what’s gonna happen next. That is the catalyst for change because when you sit with yourself, especially for long periods of time – have you ever sat by yourself for long periods of time?
JS: Not for a long time. I do meditate. I use my little Headspace app. But I think the most I’ve ever done is an hour.
DB: Okay. For me, in my experience, when you hit about three days, it gets quiet. It gets real quiet. Like a scary kind of quiet. You hit kind of a zone kind of a thing. But then on the fourth day it ramps up again and all kinds of stuff from twenty-five years ago pop up. So then you just sitting there, like, oh, I can’t sit here anymore. I gotta get up, I wanna run, I gotta do something. I’ve been on longer retreats, and then when you hit about the eighth day, that slows down and then it gets really crazy.,
JS: Before we say goodbye, why don’t you share with our listeners where they can find you and your work online?
DB: All righty. I have my website, Instagram. On my social media, you’re going to find fashion. You’re gonna find cooking. I’m a pretty good cook. You’re going to find some art. And you’re also going to find a lot of topics on spirituality and social justice issues.
JS: Well, this has been such a wonderful talk and I am so delighted that I got to connect with you and talk to you about this book and everything else in the world, and I hope you’ll come back anytime you have another book you want to share with me.
DB: Oh, I would love to. This has been great. Yes, it has. Thank you so much, Julie.