Playing with Fire :: Daniel Allen Cox on ’Krakow Melt’
Radek is a young gay man living in post-communist Poland in Daniel Allen Cox’s new novel, Krakow Melt, slated for publication later this month from Arsenal Pulp Press (which also published Cox’s well-received first novel, Shuck, a 2009 Lambda Literary Award nominee).
But the freedom that the long-oppressed Poles have gained following the fall of the Soviet Union doesn’t necessarily extend to gays, who are stigmatized and even subjected to brutality; for Radek, freedom is still a dream to be pursued.
His chief avenue of chasing after liberation and self-expression? Fire. Radek creates miniature models of cities that have been destroyed by great historical fires, paying close attention to period-specific details of urban layout and architecture. He also rigs his models to burn in a manner that more or less approximates the historical conflagrations that destroyed those cities. To Radek, his fiery re-enactments are Art with a capital A: they provide catharsis and provocation.
Radek’s other art form is parkour, a kind of street athleticism with origins in France. Parkour practitioners leap over, under, and through barriers; they leap great chasms and plunge great distances, all at full tilt and without acute injury. If fire cleanses his rage, parkour embodies his yearning for freedom.
When Radek meets a kindred spirit in Dorota, a student who’s not afraid to match wits with him or explore a sexual connection with a gay man, sparks of another sort fly; slowly, their smoldering passion builds toward an inevitable combustion, even as the city around them starts to sizzle with hysterical grief due to the recent death of Pope John Paul II.
Daniel Allen Cox chatted with EDGE recently about his own brush with fire, as well as his earlier career as a male model (a stint that informed his first novel, Shuck) and his love of the Polish language--especially as it relates to food.
EDGE: Your new novel, Krakow Melt, takes on homophobia in Poland, but it’s also a love story between a gay man and a straight girl. What brought you to that particular mix?
Daniel Allen Cox: These types of transgressive relationships happen all the time, but they don’t get much cultural airplay. Radek and Dorota are quite comfortable straying from expected behavior vis-a-vis their sexual preferences. I think it’s cool that they’re not afraid to openly have a relationship that’s not wholly accepted, by straights and gays alike.
EDGE: So, are you saying that there’s a whole palette of sexual experience that awaits those who venture beyond labels? OR do you mean that bisexuality is more commonplace that either straights or gays like to give credence for?
Daniel Allen Cox: I believe both are true. Personally, I’ve found greater sexual freedom in describing myself as bisexual. I’m still gay, of course. These terms aren’t mutually exclusive. And as long as we don’t feel pressured to allot percentages to these attractions, there will be a greater variety of orgasms at our disposal.
One of the reasons why bisexual erasure happens is that some people are stuck on the impossibility of a precise 50/50 split, even though that split is hardly required for wanting sex with people of different genders. Our bodies are beautifully imprecise, and horribly unmathematical. At least mine is.
EDGE: Radek, your gay main character, is fascinated by fire, which is a great image for this book, given the way fire and gays are casually linked ("flaming" gays, for example). What other meanings does that element hold for the book, and for you personally?
Daniel Allen Cox: Interesting. I hadn’t thought about the "flaming" connection.
I never would have written Krakow Melt if my apartment building hadn’t burned down in 2007, while I was writing my previous novel, Shuck. The day of the fire, a building inspector gave us ten minutes to pack up our stuff and evacuate, because they found a crack in the brick wall and were worried about a collapse. Our friends turned out en masse to help. I didn’t know what physical belongings were important to me until I found myself throwing things in boxes. Among the few items I salvaged that day was a scrapbook of New York City, a city I love as much as Krakow.
My partner Mark and our roommate both woke up in the smoke and escaped. Mark was a hero and rescued our cat. It’s amazing to be homeless with your lover, especially when there are beautiful friends and family who come to your rescue, take you in, help you move and build a new life, and offer months of emotional and logistical support. I mean, really. It was definitely one of the best experiences of my life. Ever since that day, I haven’t been able to get the smell of smoke out of my nose.
On a different note, it was surreal for me to read about Warsaw Europride this year, the first time the parade has ever been held behind the former "Iron Curtain," especially since some protestors were launching fire rockets at the marchers.
EDGE: What led to that creative connection in your mind to link the themes of loss that your own experience with fire gave you familiarity with to a setting in Poland, where (if I’m not mistaken) you lived for a time?
Daniel Allen Cox: Yes, I lived in Poland for a year and traveled it extensively by train, getting to know Poznan, Krakow, Warsaw and Gdansk, the latter where I made excellent use of the nude beaches at the Baltic Sea.
After losing my home in 2007 as I explained a bit above--though more to smoke and firefighter damage than to actual fire--I began to discover fire’s regenerative power. It forces you to prioritize and reprioritize everything in your life, from physical objects to relationships. In this way, the fire helped me grow. The characters in Krakow Melt also feel that fire is regenerative; they use it to imagine the reconstruction of a system that they consider harmful to them. Fire’s just such a catalyst for change.