Books: Out in the Ordinary

Iowa didn’t mean anything to gay rights six years ago when novelist Nick Burd was in New York writing The Vast Fields of Ordinary. The presidential candidates vetted here didn’t tend to favor expanding gay rights. And while most of the state’s bigger towns were generally tolerant–for the Midwest, at least–same-sex unions seemed destined to be secluded to the coasts. It wasn’t the kind of place likely to attract famed Hollywood producer and gay rights activist Bruce Cohen to take his first shot at directing.

Now the game has changed. Iowa shocked the country almost two years ago when it started marrying same-sex couples. The state has one of the strongest anti-bullying laws in the country–one that specifically protects LGBT students–and Iowa City is among the most gay-friendly cities in the country. And famed Hollywood producer and gay rights activist Bruce Cohen is looking here to take his first shot at directing.

Cohen is working on securing funding to make a movie based on Burd’s novel about a young gay man’s “last real summer”–the one between high school and college–in a fictional Midwest town.

“My two great loves are making movies and being gay. They’re kind of coming together in this film project we’re trying to do,” said Cohen, who earned producing credits on Milk, Big Fish, and 1999 Academy Awards Best Picture American Beauty.

Cohen, Burd and a screenwriter spent time in Iowa City and Cedar Rapids earlier this year scouting locations and talking to high school students to get ideas for the script. Cohen said he wants to make The Vast Fields of Ordinary an authentic portrait of high school life, pointing to Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Dazed and Confused as films that got it mostly right.

“Hopefully it will be something that speaks to everyone–if you’re gay or if you’re just an outsider or weird or special,” Cohen said.

Burd grew up in Cedar Rapids and lived in Iowa City while earning his English degree from The University of Iowa. In 2004, he enrolled in the Master of Fine Arts program at The New School in New York. That’s where he started work on The Vast Fields of Ordinary, which started out as a short story but eventually turned into his master’s thesis. He finished and polished the piece after graduation and a friend at a publishing company helped him land a young adult fiction deal.

The Iowa-native is a relatively young writer–he still has to work a day job in New York while he works on his second novel in his spare time–but he’s already apparently aware of the realities of pursuing a career in the arts and reciprocally grateful for his break.

“It could have just as easily gone the other way where 2,000 people read the book and you never hear about it again,” Burd said. “I was lucky enough to be reviewed in The New York Times and I got a really nice review.”

The Times named Burd’s debut one of fewer than a dozen “Notable Children’s Books of 2009.” Reviewer Ned Vizzini wrote, “The Vast Fields of Ordinary reads like the best kind of first novel–it’s packed with insights that might have been carried around for years, just waiting to come out.”

The review caught Cohen’s attention as he browsed the newspaper on a flight between New York and Los Angeles.

“I ordered it on my iPad and I started reading and from the first page it was so beautiful,” Cohen said. “I fell in love on the plane. I finished it right on that flight and something told me this was the movie I wanted to do.”

Shortly thereafter, Burd sold the rights to the movie and Cohen began the process of seeking funding and commissioning a screenplay.

As far as gay rights are concerned, Iowa today is ostensibly much different from the Iowa Burd grew up in and wrote about. The state has earned a reputation as the lone Midwestern state to offer same-sex couples the same civil rights as opposite-sex ones. It’s now a destination, attracting hundreds of couples from neighboring states to come get married in courthouses here.

Despite the apparent polarization brought about by gay marriage, Burd said Iowa has something unique to contribute to the LGBT discussion.

“We have almost this Libertarian point of view: Let me do what I want to do and I’ll stay away from yours,” he said, also pointing out Iowa’s historical record on interracial marriage and women’s rights. “I think that’s much different than what you would find in other states. There’s something about the mind-frame here that encourages a variety of different trains of thought.”

However, just as quickly as Iowa’s gay-friendly reputation has materialized, so too has opposition thereof. Social conservatives have poured time and money into stopping gay marriage and punishing those who cleared the way for its legalization. Iowa voters have already ousted three of the state Supreme Court justices who ruled in favor of gay marriage and some Republican lawmakers are targeting the other four as well as pushing to amend the constitution to outlaw gay marriage once again.

But even with the politics of the issue muddied, The Vast Fields of Ordinary–which the author calls “personal but not autobiographical”–insists that the experience of a fictional gay teenager in this part of the country has something to offer.

“There are gay people everywhere but, growing up here, you don’t quite have the same access to that culture. If it was in New York or L.A., it would be a lot easier to go out in the Village to go to a drag show or find a night club,” said Burd. “I wanted it to be about feeling lonely and isolated when growing up and that’s something that a lot of people everywhere feel but it’s kind of emphasized in the Midwest.”

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