A Sydney story called Paris Nights

The Albury Hotel float in the 1983 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade. Photo by William Yang. Published with the kind permission of William Yang.

DM Crawford has attracted acclaim for his autobiographical novel Paris Nights, which explores 1980s gay Sydney through the prism of his first relationship with another man, ‘Matt Paris’. In this piece for the Sentinel, the author describes the background and motivations behind the story. 

Paris Nights is a biographical novel, inspired by my journey and experiences as a young man on Oxford Street, Sydney in the mid-late 1980s. 

Coming from Wollongong and being closeted, I recall wanting to expand my horizons in discovering who and what I was. 

The discovery of Oxford Street and the allure of the famed nightclub Patchs allowed for that and fuelled a desire to be part of a world I could truly belong to. 

It was dark, gritty and sexy, and so was the music of the day which became so much a part of my life, and which features heavily in the book.

It was an interesting and often difficult time for many young gay men around those years. In particular, the onset of the AIDS crisis and how one dealt with that situation while exploring one’s sexuality was challenging.

Homosexuality had been considered a crime just a few short years earlier, and mistrust of the police, and the prevalence of gay bashers made it a troubling time for young guys coming out and celebrating their sexuality. 

One of the reasons I wrote this book is that there are very few novels centred on gay life in Sydney. I wanted to write a novel using some of my own experiences as background.

However, it became apparent over time that there was much more depth to the story than I had realised, and despite a rough draft of the original story being nearly completed, it was left to languish for several years.

Feedback and discussions with acquaintances led to various changes and a semi-rewrite of the biography began. 

One obstacle that remained in my mind was the question: ‘Who would read a story from someone who wasn’t in the public eye?’

The answer to this, I subsequently realised, is that the novel is unique in featuring a first-hand experience of the famed strip during the 1980s. The experiences and the time made for an interesting story and, in a sense, an historical document of (in)famous Golden Mile. 

Writing the biography was challenging, often relying on memories of certain events pieced together from over 30 years ago. There were also ethical issues. For example, how to handle conversations that took place and include them in the story? 

I decided to tackle this by not using real names that may identify people – especially those who are no longer in contact or who would not want to be recognised – so some details were altered. Hence the word ’semi’ in the book’s subtitle: ‘A semi-biographical story of sex, drugs and clubbing in mid-’80s Sydney’.

But I also wanted to assure readers that the experiences depicted in the story did occur, hence ‘biographical’.

One issue that popped up frequently was settling on a title. Much discussion took place around wanting something uniquely Australian, identifying Oxford Street in the name. 

However, the story centred on my weekend escapades and affair with a man named Matt Paris, with whom I formed a complicated bond.

In essence, the story became a journey of that formative relationship, and I wanted to acknowledge the man I had met, which is how I came to the title Paris Nights

Ultimately, Paris Nights is a story of two men and their complicated relationship – with Sydney in the 1980s also playing a leading role as one of the book’s main characters. 

Paris Nights – a review by Sydney Sentinel editor Peter Hackney

The mid-late 1980s was a special time in Sydney, a city brimming with a new confidence.  

In the previous decade, one of the world’s most famous buildings – the Sydney Opera House – had opened, putting the city on the world stage. In 1988, the city was playing a starring role in Australia’s mammoth bicentennial celebrations – a problematic event considering Sydney’s Indigenous history but one which would, nevertheless, shine an international spotlight on the city.

Sydney was a whirlpool of events, parties, music and culture, brimming with new scenes and experiences. Nowhere was this truer than on the golden mile of Oxford Street, which boasted endless gay bars, pubs, nightclubs, parties, saunas, and even cafes and restaurants for gay clientele.

Homosexuality had only just been decriminalised and the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras was still relatively new. Sadly, AIDS was making inroads but it had yet to reach its devastating apogee and the party was still in full swing.

This is the heady world explored by Paris Nights. As an historical document alone, it’s a worthy addition to the annals of LGBT literature.

But Paris Nights isn’t just an historical document, it’s also a novel – and a compelling one, too. 

At its heart, it’s the story of two young men growing up, coming to terms with being gay, and fumbling their way through a complicated relationship.

That relationship, conduced mainly on weekends in and around Oxford Street, is impacted by homophobia (both internalised and external), an endless array of drugs and sexual partners on tap, the eponymous character’s unconventional work life, and the looming spectre of a terrifying new disease. 

It’s not surprising, then, that the journey of these two men is tumultuous.

As they experience joy, sadness, anger, jealousy and love, so too is the reader taken along for the ride, experiencing a rollercoaster of emotions.

Towards the end, one of those emotions is utter devastation – and this reader, for one, went around with an ache in his heart for a few days after putting the book down. 

Paris Nights is rough and raw at times. Unpolished. Upfront. Searingly honest and heartfelt. The story is engaging and you find yourself caring a great deal about the characters.  

Some interesting literary devices are used in the book: for example, each chapter relates to the title of a song, especially Hi-NRG disco tracks that were so popular in Oxford Street clubs at the time.

It’s not a particularly long book and in some ways it’s an easy read (it’s very much a page-turner) despite the sometimes challenging subject matter.

It’s certainly never dull and it’s ultimately a rewarding read.

Paris Nights is a unique book and comes highly recommended to any fan of LGBT fiction – or anyone who’d enjoy an interesting tale set in our multilayered city.

Paris Nights by DM Crawford is available from The Bookshop Darlinghurst, 207 Oxford Street, Darlinghurst, and online at www.thebookshop.com.au.

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