Boys Comes First author Aaron Foley, shares black queer stories

Photo Courtesy of Aaron Foley

Aaron Foley is a writer and journalist from Detroit and resides in Brooklyn. Foley is the founding director of the Black Media Initiative at the Center for Community Media at the Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY. The author and veteran journalist has contributed to publications such as This American Life, The Atlantic, Columbia Journalism Review, Belt Magazine, Detroit Free Press, and more. He served two and a half years as the first chief storyteller for the mayor’s office. Today, he’s a senior digital editor at “PBS NewsHour.”

His debut novel, “Boys Come First” (Belt, 2022), follows three Black gay millennial men looking for love, friendship, and professional success in the Motor City. In a recent interview with PrideIndex, Foley shared why he became a writer, what he wants readers to take away, and the importance of supporting black gay authors.    

PrideIndex (PI): I thank you for agreeing to do this interview with me. Introduce yourself and talk about your journey thus far as a writer.

Aaron Foley (AF): My name is Aaron Foley. I am a journalist and writer from Detroit based in Brooklyn. My journey began when I was little. My mother was a journalist, and I wanted to be like her when I grew up. So, I started writing short stories and things on the computer and in journals. I became a journalist right out of college. I always wanted to write fiction. You can either get a journalism degree or an English one; I like the writing but not the reading part that an English degree requires. After having a journalism career, I still had this idea for the novel I wrote for some time. I sat down and wrote it, fulfilling a lifelong dream.

PI: I had a chance to look at your background, and I see you’ve worked for several news organizations.

AF: Yes, that’s correct. I’ve worked in digital, automotive media, higher education, and city government. Right now, I’m at the PBS NewsHour.

PI: Wow, that’s fascinating. I have watched the PBS NewsHour since its “MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour,” days. 

AF: Oh, wow. 

PI: Which form of journalism do you enjoy most? Broadcast journalism, print, or working in the educational sector? 

AF: I would say where I’m at right now. I do a hybrid of digital and broadcast on PBS NewsHour. There’s a whole digital side; everybody has to have a website. The original reporting comes from the website, and I help the reporters develop their story ideas. And that’s what I like best, bringing these very important stories about race, class, the economy, and stuff like that to a larger audience.

PI: Is there ever a chance we could see Mr. Aaron Foley on camera?

AF: I like being behind the scenes. It takes a lot of skill and know how to pull something together. That being said, I have seen people do it going from writing to production to on-air. The podcasts and radio show that people are doing go back and forth. It’s not something I want to do tomorrow.

PI: Let’s talk about your book and your writing process.

AF: The writing process for this book took me, quite honestly, years to complete from start to finish. I have always had a full-time job and something going on personally, like spending time with family. I have three nieces, a nephew, a whole bunch of siblings, my parents, friends, social life, and dating. I don’t have a solitary writer’s life where I can say I’m going to sit down for three weeks and knock it all out. I’m busy, right, so? But it was a story I wanted to tell. It was getting to a point where it had been in my head for too long. And I need to get this thing out; it’s eating away at me. I would work from nine to five. And when I clocked out, I would start writing a little bit every night, and then a lot more on weekends when I could.

PI: Where did the idea for your first novel come from? 

AF: The idea came from talking about our lives with other black gay men. The novel came from conversations on boys’ trips, listening to my friends, and the guys I had dated. I’m fascinated by the discussions and camaraderie we have amongst ourselves. When I talked with my straight friends or among my non-black gay friends, I did not always hear the same concerns. I need to write this down or chronicle it. I was joking with one of my best and oldest friends. Our moms were in their 20s and 30s when they first met, and Waiting to Exhale, the book and movie, came out. My friend and I were smaller kids at the time. Now we’re in our 30s, the same age they were, and yet, we are still going through the same stuff with dating, relationships, and things like that. And I thought, what if I came up with a gay Waiting to Exhale? It is where I started the novel.

PI: Who are your writing or artistic influences?

AF: I would say Terry McMillan in how she chronicled contemporary African American life. I like E. Lynn Harris and James Baldwin. Those always come to mind when you talk about examining the world through a black and queer lens, both simultaneously. I also love newer writers, like Angela Flournoy, who just announced she has a new book. She came out with one a couple of years called The Turner House that I love. And I like those messy writers that write drama like Kevin Kwan. He wrote Crazy Rich Asians; the book was so good. And it’s a whole series now.

PI: I see we have a mutual social media friend named Rasheed Newson

AF: Yes, I just finished his book. It’s fantastic; I love and admire everything he’s doing. He’s been writing some essays lately that I’ve been really into.

PI: Is there a possibility that you might do a collaborative project sometime in the future?

AF: I don’t know. I will welcome that. I’ve always written alone. And that’s not to say that I would never work with anybody. If that door opens, and I’m open to it.

PI: What’s the takeaway from your book that you would like people to take away from the writing or your experience?

AF: I always tell people that, gay, black men, queer black men, we have stories that need to be said. We exist in this world that’s different than our straight white peers. And so the takeaway I want people to understand is our identities are complicated; they’re complex. We can’t approach things, whether it’s our relationships with our parents, our relationships with the world around us, all that sort of stuff, the same way the majority can. What does that mean when we try to pursue our ambitions, wants, needs, desires, and things like that? It may be a fictional story, but it’s rooted in the real-life experiences of all the gay black men around us.

PI: What are you working on right now?

AF: I’ve just started to talk with the folks closest to me about doing the second book. I’m very interested in just writing more about like queer millennials, especially black ones. I had an idea that I’m still kind of fleshing out but just looking at multiracial friend groups and interracial relationships through the blacks. The first book was all black, with lovers, boyfriends, hookups, and the jump-off. I wanted to do a sequel to it, but then my other one was like, no, let me try something. What does it mean my first book was about, like existing as the black gay man within other black spaces? I want to write about a black gay man in some of these more gray spaces, their college friends, work friends, and stuff like that. I want to see if there are some more fitting in and adjusting, and then simulations peel away and explore some of that. 

PI: What else would you like to tell us about yourself? Or anything else you want to share? 

AF: Something about myself? I cannot say anything. I will say that more black gay stories should be told; I want to read all of them. You mentioned our mutual friend Rasheed Newson, he pointed out, and a few others have pointed out that several black gay authors are coming out this year and next year. We must support them; we must help Carrie Allen Johnson, James Hanahan, Brian Washington, and who else? I know, I forget someone. It feels like there’s so much percolating with movies, not just in books, but representation in film and TV and stuff like that. If we want to see the stories and make our voices heard, all the readers and viewers or whoever listens to stories, then we can make something shake. It starts with supporting creators across every media.

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Aaron Foley is a featured panelist in Artists in the Afternoon 4: Writing For Our Lives. The event will be held on Saturday, August 31, at 250 Williams Street Northwest Atlanta, GA 30303, from 1 PM to 5 PM. Join us for an afternoon highlighting written and spoken word, music, art, and more. This event is free; RSVP here.